Personal Finance

My Dad’s Original Supermarket Game Saves Me Over $1,000 a Year on Food

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  • While my mother was in the hospital, my father took care of the groceries.
  • He taught my brother and I to shop carefully by playing a game where we raced through the aisles.
  • We took whatever we wanted and then sorted it to see what was really worth buying.

When I was a child, my mother had to spend a month in the hospital after her appendix burst. During this time, my dad became the family grocery store, and he took the opportunity to teach my older brother and me (aged 12 and 9) how to spend wisely.

Every week my dad would take us to the grocery store, grab a shopping cart and start running down the aisles. He literally ran around, circling around other customers, cart wheels clattering, and whatever my brother and I could successfully throw into the cart, within reason, we could have.

During the race, my brother and I would run past our dad to confirm that our premium chips were in stock. If they were, we’d make sure they got in the cart in time, and if they weren’t, we’d regroup and grab our second pick, then run ahead to beat it to the next aisle. It was a lot of fun, like participating in “Supermarket Sweep”.

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My dad’s run to the supermarket taught us to shop wisely at the grocery store

Realistically, my brother and I could pick one item from each of the non-essential aisles and then hope that item gets approved. My father exercised a veto to protect the budget, so imported British chocolate returned to the shelf, and we learned to make sensible selections. And no purchases were allowed in the checkout aisle, where we had to linger in line and look at three different flavors of Skittles.

My dad’s goal was to make us think more about the products that make up an important part of the store: candies, snacks, sodas and other bric-a-brac. This was partly to keep us healthy, but also to keep the bill down. Per serving, oatmeal was cheaper than Cocoa Krispies, even if you added honey or brown sugar to it.

It was the 90s, so in our local HEB there was an entire aisle dedicated to generic products in simple, black and white packaging, and my dad urged us to read the ingredient list to determine if it there was a difference in quality between the generic and the brand name. To date, I estimate that running to my dad’s supermarket saves me around $1,200 a year on non-essential groceries alone.

My father also encouraged us to plan our meals. We had a say in what Night Hawk frozen dinners we brought home and whether we had peanut butter sandwiches every day for lunch or turkey every other day.

There was also a significant non-monetary benefit to this game: my father managed to distract his children from the frightening reality that their mother was in the hospital with a life-threatening illness.

He started teaching us how to manage money many years ago

My dad started teaching us about personal finance long before our run to the supermarket. I was about 7 years old when he introduced me to his mantra that “debt is slavery”, which has added meaning considering that my brother and I are half black and live in Texas, where literal slavery was prevalent.

My dad had debt, but he wanted us to have as little of it as possible, and for him, spending wisely was a stepping stone to financial freedom. We had countless discussions about the difference between wants and needs, my dad saying yes to the new shoes when our Payless sneakers were fraying, but no to Des’ree’s latest album because listening to the radio was free.

In high school, my after-school job was tutoring younger students, and due to my father’s early influence, I budgeted every penny of that income with my ledger and pencil n #2. Before going out with my friends, I figured out if I had enough money for pizza and bowling, or maybe just one of those things.

To this day, I rarely make impulse purchases, at the grocery store or elsewhere. I’ve taken out student loans and more recently a mortgage, but otherwise my consumer debt is virtually non-existent.

That’s not to say that as a family we haven’t spent money on fun things. My dad used to take us to the movies regularly, he just wouldn’t allow us to buy refreshments there, and instead we slipped Ziploc bags of tortilla chips into the theater. Once, he bought our tickets with change, insisting, “It’s legal tender!” while my brother and I pretended not to know him. But his financial lessons lasted far longer than my embarrassment.

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