Saving Money Can Be Expensive

Colored_pencils My family purchased most of our back-to-school supplies today. First, we inventoried the leftovers from last year, at least the ones that we could find (having just PCSed made that job a little harder.) In true geek fashion, I used the school’s required supply list, Sunday’s newspaper advertisements and the internet to create a spreadsheet listing how many of each item we needed and the various prices available at each of the nearby stores. Then we loaded up the van and headed to the big box stores that often seem to have the best prices on school supplies. This was the first year that I’ve let my children help with this project. Usually I sneak out after bedtime or get a babysitter when I do my school shopping. Bringing them with me added a new and interesting dimension to the shopping.

I had someone to run items to the price scanner for me, and I could ask a child to put “12 of those” into the cart while I turned to the next item on my list. Of course, we did end up with a few impulse purchases: I was (easily) convinced that the 20 cent plastic folders were superior to the one cent paper ones, and I splurged for the view style binders that allow you to insert your own cover page. However, the most interesting part for me was the discussions about how much of each item we should buy.

As you probably know, there are some great bargains to be found this time of year. Composition books that might cost $2.00 the rest of year can be easily found for $.50. Glue sticks are two for $.20 instead of nearly a dollar. As a result of the great sales, I like to buy enough to last through the year. I love knowing that I have a box full of school supplies ready to refill pencil pouches without late night trips to buy overpriced colored pencils at the 24 hour pharmacy. But how do you figure out how many pink erasers you will need to get four elementary schoolers through the year, and when have your savings stopped being a bargain?

While counting our existing stash, my daughter had noted how much glue we owned. Safely stored in (expensive) zip-top bags for storage and moving, we had about 25 bottles of regular white glue. On the plus side, we don’t have to buy glue this year. However, we’ve moved that glue twice in the last 12 months, and it has taken up valuable storage space in between moves. It is possible that we’ve grown past the glue stage of school, or that the glue has dried out or otherwise gone bad. And I’m not even going to think about the possible disaster if that glue had somehow leaked into our household goods while they were being moved. Sure, I got a good deal on that glue, but is that good deal still a good deal if it dries out before we use it or it ruins my new sofa the next time we PCS? Even if it does go to school, are my children more careless or wasteful if they know that there are two dozen more bottles of glue waiting at home?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m going to keep searching. I’ve finally learned that buying a case of pasta at the case lot sale isn’t a good value if we have to give half of it away because we’re moving overseas before we can eat it all. How do you decide if four extra pair of scissors are too many, not enough, or just right? Can you put a value on being well equipped, or can you put a price on the expense of having too much stuff in your closets?

There is also the idea “opportunity cost.”  Sure, the $.50 composition book is less expensive than the same book at $2.00. However, the savings becomes blurry if I the $.50 I use to buy a book that I won’t need until March could be used to pay towards a debt or save for retirement. The case gets even more complicated if you pay for your purchases with a credit card. Also importantly, what if that $.50 composition book is never actually needed or gets damaged before it can be used? In that case, you haven’t saved $1.50, you’ve wasted $.50.

I’m trying to find the balance between stocking up in appropriate amounts on things that we will use before our next move and overbuying on items that are unnecessary or won’t store well. What kinds of things do you stockpile? Do you think that it saves you time and money or does it make your life more difficult and expensive? Where do you draw the line?

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.