Tips to Outsmart Retailers’ Clever Tricks

I blame my suspicious nature on my neighborhood grocery store. The store used to be a logically arranged market with bright lights and clean floors—a basic, friendly, functional place to shop. Then the bulldozers morphed it into a big fancy supermarket complete with mood lighting and cushy chairs.

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I have nothing against beautiful spaces and modern conveniences, but I’m no fool. I knew all of this effort was to one end: to get me to spend more of my hard-earned money. Take the “Three for $6!” special of the week. Why not just say $2 each and drop the exclamation mark? I muttered to myself as I placed one jar of spaghetti sauce in the cart. Before I could wheel away I had my answer: I saw several customers dutifully place three jars in their carts. Not two, not four, but three jars.

That response was no accident. In fact, that’s a simple example of how retailers use tricks to persuade consumers to buy more. Retailers hire experts like Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy, and his company, Envirosell, to follow thousands of shoppers a year in person and on video, observing their every move. Using this information, the stores find ways to get people to shop longer, spend more and return often. Underhill and his crew are so good at what they do, they can tell retailers what will entice people to enter the store, which way they’ll look once they’re inside, and more.

Hotel Rooms that Make Stuff Disappear

I am embarrassed to admit how many personal items I’ve left behind in hotel rooms over the years. I’m talking about phone chargers, flash drives, hair products, power toothbrushes—and even clothes left hanging in the closet. What’s wrong with me? I left my must-have travel pillow—not once, but twice.

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My recovery rate is lousy, too. I got my pillow back the first time, but then managed a repeat and alas, it was never to be seen again.

Several months ago I put today’s first tip into action on my travels. This simple routine has made all the difference for me. It keeps all of my things organized and easily accounted for. And I’m happy to report, I’ve now arrived home with all of my possessions intact for six trips in a row—a new personal best.

Three Tricks to Resist Emotional Spending

I discovered money was a great antidepressant years ago I spent to change my mood, to reward myself and to make myself feel better after a stressful week.

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I spent money when I felt sad and when I felt glad. I spent to get approval, to make my kids more popular, to impress people I didn’t even know. The list goes on and on.

Who hasn’t indulged in retail therapy? Case in point: the 48 pairs of shoes in your closet, of which only three pairs are comfortable enough to actually wear. But emotional spending is nearly always a mistake. The adrenaline rush lasts about as long as it takes to walk to the car. The feelings of guilt and remorse set in soon, sending your emotions on yet another wild ride. “Retail therapy” isn’t too soothing in the long run.

Making money decisions based on how you’re feeling at any given moment is a financially dangerous way to live. It took me a long time to understand how to manage money in ways that didn’t change with the wind. Once I got this through my head, I stopped assigning money the job of making me happy.

Of Fitness Bars and Baby Formula

I want to thank all of you who’ve taken up writing to me. I love to hear from you and I get a real charge out of the tips, questions and other fun stuff you send. Even though I cannot respond personally, believe me when I tell you that nothing goes unread.

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In an effort to respond to so many of you who’ve written asking for alternatives to high-priced protein bars and infant formula, I’ve come up with some cheaper alternatives for your frugal consideration.

First the infant formula. Without a doubt you will never find a more nutritional or economical formula for a newborn than mother’s milk. When that is not an option, commercial formulas should be your second choice, because they are highly regulated as to nutritional value for a baby’s developmental needs. Having said that, here is a recipe that goes back many years that may be appropriate as a replacement for commercial formula once Junior graduates to solid food.

Baby Formula
(as a supplement to solid food)

Place all ingredients in a very clean glass or stainless steel container and mix well. Pour into bottles that have been thoroughly sterilized. Store in the refrigerator. Yield: 9 six-ounce bottles.

Car Mats, Wastebaskets, Baseball Caps: Yes … Gold-Trimmed Glassware: No!

Dear Mary: Twenty years ago I was lucky enough to receive a five-piece, service for 12, Spode Christmas Tree China (green band) from my mother. Since then I have filled out the set with many accessory pieces. When washing the china in the dishwasher I have been very careful to use the gentle/china cycle and cool dry. There has been no fading of the green band around the plates, cups, bake ware, etc., but the gold band around some of the glasses I bought only six years ago has washed away.  A friend said it wasn’t the cycle, but I needed to use a gentle dishwasher soap. However, no one knew or could agree on what was a gentle detergent. I’m hoping you can give me some help. Thank you. Susan.

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Dear Susan: First, let me say that I am so jealous. That is an amazing set—a wonderful treasure. The problem for any china, glassware or crystal that has gold, silver or platinum trim is the hot water. It will actually flake that fine metal trim away. And once it is gone, there’s nothing you can do to bring it back. That’s why I want to strongly suggest that from now on you hand wash these beautiful items  in mild soap and warm water. And I’m not alone in this. Spode recommends that any of its ware (china, imperialware, vitreous) not marked as dishwasher safe, be hand washed only. It’s an investment of your time that will come back to bless you with many years of enjoyment.

Dear Mary: I enjoy your daily emails a lot. Can you let me know what bedroom humidifier you recommend? Thank you. Maria

Sometimes You Just Gotta’ Be Sneaky

They don’t call me the Queen of Costco for nothing. Truth be told, I love the place. And I buy large quantities of many items, but only because I’m also quite sneaky. I bring stuff home but then hide all but the minimal amount we need to get through the week, to create an atmosphere of scarcity.

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Human nature is such that in the face of an abundance of anything, we use it up quickly and with abandon.

Do you know that feeling of dread when you’re halfway through the laundry and discover you have about 3 ounces of detergent left? You kinda’ go easy, right? Same goes for anything that appears to be getting down to the end.

My favorite place to stash non-perishables is under the beds. Out of sight, out of mind. Even my mind! That’s why I’ve learned the value of keeping a secret inventory list, too.

Get Paid to Donate Your Stuff

If you itemize your tax return, you probably know that you are allowed to deduct the fair market value of items you donate to charity. But what’s the fair market value of say a pair of shoes or a lamp? More than you might think.

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The law does not allow the charity to determine the value of an item you donate. The charitable organization gives you a receipt saying that you made the donation. You, the donor, must determine its value. And that’s the problem.

If you overstate the value you risk an audit, penalties and interest. If you underestimate you’ll pay more taxes than you should.

In the process of paring down and purging in anticipation of our big move to Colorado in the spring, my husband and I donated an antique pump organ to a church where it will be used in services and enjoyed by many.

The organ is more than a hundred years old so looking up the new price and depreciating it appropriately was not possible. Our accountant suggested we locate similar antiques that have sold in say the past year and then adjust accordingly for our specific situation. Right. Like there’s a brisk market for antique reed organs down at the mall.

But then I got to thinking …. hmmm … eBay! Sure enough, several pump organs have sold in the past year. I printed the documentation and will attach that to our next tax return to back up the deductible value we assigned to the donation.

What Do You Need to Be Happy?

When a University of Michigan survey asked people what they believed would improve their quality of life the answer given most often was, “More money.”

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In their book The Day America Told the Truth, James Patterson and Peter Kim asked, “If you could change one thing about your life what would it be?” The number one response at 64 percent was, “Greater wealth.”

A University of Southern California study found that greater wealth didn’t translate into greater happiness for many of the 1,500 people surveyed annually over three decades. USC economist Richard Easterlin said, “Many people are under the illusion that the more money we make, the happier we’ll be,” but, according to the study, that isn’t true.

We know from other well-respected studies that fewer Americans are “very happy” today than in the 1950s despite having far more money, bigger homes and more stuff. In 1950 there were 3,000 shopping malls in this country, by 2000 there were 45,025. We have more money, we have more stuff but clearly, greater affluence has not translated to greater happiness.