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Errands, online shopping, and the family budget

Well, baby #5 has decided that I apparently do not need sleep and she isn't even born yet. I thought I would put these wee hours of the morning to use and write a blog post while I sipped my lemon ginger tea in a quiet, still sleeping house.

With 4 children and another on the way, I am not always eager to drag all the children to the store for small errands. Throw in having a husband on submarines, 2 asthmatic children, twin preschoolers, and the roughest pregnancy yet and you can bet running errands is my least favorite thing to do (well, changing pee sheets is probably actually my least favorite thing to do). When our twins were newborns, I really started utilizing the convenience of online shopping. Now I have honed that skill to level expert.

Here are my tips on making online shopping work for you and avoiding small errands:

1. Buy in bulk

The first step to successful online shopping: go to Costco. We plan our Costco trips every 1-2 weeks. Our twins are in preschool, our oldest is in first grade, my husband is in the Navy... when I'm not packing lunches, I'm packing snack day for preschool. We eat most of our meals at home. Buying in bulk allows me to plan for these contingencies without making a mad dash to the store. Almost all of our grocery shopping is done at Costco. I personally prefer Costco over Sam's Club due to the meat and produce departments, but we've lived in duty stations where we had to make do with what we lived near. BJ's is an awesome wholesale store, especially for smaller families because they do have more variety of single/smaller portioned items, plus they have an all-star coupon policy. Buying in bulk requires planning. You must be able to store the items and you must also be able to use the items that you buy in bulk before they spoil. It took us a little while to figure out what things we really needed in bulk and what things we don't. It also helps if you are able to approach your grocery shopping creatively. For instance, I buy the huge bags of fresh spinach from Costco. However, I rarely make it through the whole bag before it starts to spoil. The price of the Costco bag of spinach is so much less than the grocery store that I always buy our fresh spinach from Costco. When the bag starts to spoil, I freeze it. I use frozen spinach in a lot of my recipes and so this works out perfectly for us. Another example, our children (and my husband) are fickle about tomatoes. If a flat of tomatoes starts going bad, I use the tomatoes to make a sauce (supplementing missing tomatoes with canned tomatoes). I freeze the sauce in portioned bags for future use. For us, bulk shopping not only keeps our grocery budget manageable, but it also is the only way for us to eliminate mid-week grocery runs. A box of Cliff bars from the grocery store would last us one day if we all ate one!

2. Online grocery shop

The world of online grocery shopping... ah, it is such an amazing thing the first time your groceries are delivered to your house and set on your kitchen table, all while you are still in your pajamas and there is a child throwing up in one bathroom and another crying on your hip. I almost hugged the grocery guy, "I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you. I mean, look at this fresh food! And I didn't leave the house!" There are several online grocery shopping options that I have found and some just didn't work at various places we have lived. Here's what I've found:
  • Curbside pick up: While this is not a grocery delivery service, it still is far more convenient than dragging all the children through the store. This usually has a flat fee, like $5. I have found some stores offer seasonal promotions, such as free curbside pick up all summer long or a holiday time promo code. I have also seen stores that allow you to pay a certain amount each month for unlimited curbside pick up. My advice: if you do not have a grocery delivery service available and the curbside pick up is in a convenient location to you, go for it. If you have unlimited curbside pick up for an entire month, use that to buy those single items when you are out doing other things. I used to schedule a curbside pick up order on my way home from preschool pick-up with my oldest. One embarrassing trip, I picked up feminine products and butter. Hey, I didn't have to unload a preschooler and toddler twins to run in the store for those things, so I consider that a win!
  • Tiered grocery delivery: This can be very expensive and when I usually skip online grocery shopping. However, I do keep it in mind, because if my husband was deployed and I had vomiting children in the midst of an asthma flare up, no way would I be making a trip to the grocery store! The way this works is grocery orders under $100 cost X-amount of money, grocery orders between $100-$150 dollars cost X-amount of money, and so on. One of the stores, the base fee for grocery delivery was $20. I would have to save a lot of money on my grocery trip for that to balance out! But, as I said, sometimes paying for sanity is a good option.
  • Free over a certain amount + purchasing certain items: This sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through for grocery delivery, but it actually isn't hard with a large family. Our current grocery delivery option offers this way. Basically, we have to spend over $150 and by 6 items from their special list and we get free grocery delivery. The last time I ordered groceries from them was around Thanksgiving and canned pumpkin was on the list at a sale price. I bought 6 cans of canned pumpkin and my grocery delivery was free. The only thing I don't love about this option is that since my husband has been home more often, I'm able to have him pop into the store around the corner to pick up the 1 or 2 items I need and so hitting the $150 mark takes a bit more planning or storing up on our grocery list.
  • Grocery delivery services: Then there are 3rd party grocery delivery services. A lot of places have local services that will go to the store and pick up your groceries for you. Some places you can find independent people (which I have never used) and some offer services, like Peapod. Pricing for these can vary, just like the above options when ordering from a grocery store. I cannot vouch for any of them, as I've never used a 3rd party grocery service, but I can say I've heard spectacular things about Peapod.
  • Promotions: Another thing to keep in mind is that often times, once you start using grocery delivery, you will receive promotions. I can testify that this is true. I get promo codes in my email for free delivery, discounted delivery, great sales... so if grocery delivery is something you want to do, at least register for the places that you would order from and see if they send you anything. Also, a lot of times they run great specials on first time users! This is something to keep in mind if you happen to live near a lot of different online grocery shopping options. Lastly, most chain grocery stores do not accept tips so even if you end up paying a grocery delivery fee, there is no other cost!
 3. Write a list

This seems very basic, but if the goal is to eliminate unnecessary trips to the store, making sure you are buying everything you need for the next 1-2 weeks is imperative. We keep a magnetic list hanging on the side of our refrigerator that we jot down anything we need. And, no, telling your spouse, "Hey, don't forget I need body wash," right before you fall asleep does not count as writing it on the list.

4. Know your sizes

I do the bulk of our clothing and shoe shopping for our children online. I have found that knowing how various stores/brands run helps a lot when making purchases. For instance, at Target, I always buy the "up" size (if the children are wearing 18-24 months and there is only an 18 month or 2T option, I would buy the 2T). If I'm shopping at Crazy 8, I would buy them the down size. If I was ordering at Gymboree, I would most likely buy them the size smaller than what they currently wear elsewhere. In general, I know how the stores and brands I purchase from fit our kids. One way to figure this out is to actually take them in to the store to try the clothes on. Another way is to make a small purchase and see how the clothes fit before placing the large purchase or the "I-must-have-this-before-family-pictures" purchase. If you are unsure about sizing, reading reviews does help give a little guidance. (Although, in general, I hate reviews, "The quality of this shirt was horrible," one person says regarding a $3 shirt...) I also like the size charts provided by the companies. If you order clothing or shoes from somewhere like Amazon, make sure that the size chart you are using is specific for that company/brand and not just provided by Amazon. If you cannot locate a specific size chart for the product you are ordering (from Googling their site or whatever), use Amazon's size chart only as a guide. Size charts work best if you are able to measure your children. You will need some sort of tailor measuring tape and I highly recommend the Squatchi shoe sizer. These two things have saved me a lot of hassle when making online clothing and shoe purchases for the children.

5. Know the return policy

Of course mistakes happen. The last time I ordered our children's shoes-- I have no idea what got into me-- I ordered our preschoolers' shoes 2 sizes too large-- for no reason. I just ordered the wrong size. On the same order, our 1st grader's shoes arrived and were nowhere near the color they looked online. Out of the 4 pairs of shoes I ordered, I had to return 3. One thing I love about ordering from Amazon (not vendors on Amazon, but Amazon themselves) is that returning items is so easy. I print off the label and drop off at the UPS store, most of the time using the original packaging-- no scrounging for boxes. A major pet peeve of mine is having to pay for return postage on online purchases so I make sure to never order from sites that I will have to pay to make a return. With Amazon, not only are returns free, but my card is refunded as soon as the package is scanned at the store. With this last shoe debacle, by the time I had driven home from the UPS store, my card had been refunded and I placed my order for the correct shoe sizes, which arrived 2 days later (Amazon Prime for the win!).

6. Amazon, Amazon, Amazon, and... why, yes... Amazon

Guess what? I love Amazon. I've got the app on my phone. I have it saved on my computer. I. Love. Amazon. Why? We have Amazon Prime and I can order just about anything from there and it will be at my door in 1-2 days. I order everything from cat food to baby supplies to dishwasher soap to office supplies to clothing and shoes to, well, everything... it has everything. I love their return policy. I love how easy the app is to use. Now, that doesn't mean everything is cheapest on Amazon. I have splurged on kitchen spices, once paying $1 more just to avoid a grocery run. I even once considered an outrageously priced flat of Lysol Disinfectant because I was tired of our kids being sick and I had run out. If I don't know how much an item should cost, I usually do a quick Google search before placing my order. However, I love that I can mail birthday and holiday gifts directly to people's house with free shipping and no Post Office trip. Sometimes splurging a little is worth avoiding an outing, but, in general, their prices are competitive.

7. Consolidate errands

I do all of those things and every once in awhile I still end up having to make a grocery run. If this happens, I check my list. If I have to make a trip to the store for fresh basil, I make sure there is nothing else I will have to have before my next Costco run (our one true store trip). I would rather pay a little bit more for a bottle of antacids at the grocery store than make an additional trip to Costco during the week (of course there are exceptions). What I mean is, if there is a much needed item on your list, buy something to tide you over until the next Costco run or online order. I really try to make the most out of our store runs. This even applies to the products that we buy. I would rather buy something that I can buy at a place where I already shop or is convenient to me instead of having to make a special trip just for one item. For instance, whenever I take the dog to the groomer, I buy a bag of pet food, whether we need it or not.

8. Shop around

With a family of 6 (soon to be 7) the grocery budget can feel astronomical. Throw in seasons changing and wardrobes for 4 children and shoes and on and on and on... The household budget is crazy. One thing that I keep in mind is that sticking to the list and shopping online really do help keep us on budget. I make better purchases when I'm not stressed at the store wrangling children. Here are a few tips I have for finding the deals:
  • Watch the sales. Plan to buy when items you need are on sale. For instance, I'm waiting on buying our boys' back to school wardrobes until the Anniversary Sale, though I've already started adding a few pieces I know will work at the start of the school year (shorts for our soon-to-be kindergartners).
  • Buy in advance. This only applies to *some* things. There are big calendar events that you can plan for, like holidays or back to school shopping or birthdays. Being prepared helps eliminate the "oh, crap, we have to buy something" purchases and helps you purchase the "this is the right item at the right price."
  • ...but not too far in advance. You cannot predict how your children's feet will grow, so unless you live somewhere where it is warm all year round, stocking up at the Croc sale probably won't end up saving you money. You also cannot predict your child's style. While you may find your child's love of sea turtles adorable and have thus stocked up on a wardrobe for next year heavy with a sea turtle theme... your child may only like Batman next year and refuse anything sea themed. Being a military family, it is also tempting to buy for "the next duty station," except when that means buying all warm weather items only to find out you are heading to the Northeast instead. It is better to purchase items that are guaranteed to fit/be the right style/season than to stock up on things you can't use.
  • Stock up. When sales happen, stock up. When Costco runs instant rebates, we buy 2 of the items we regular use, like dish soap or washing detergent or paper towels. Buying diapers and wipes in advance-- when you know the return policy-- is a great way to save money. You can exchange boxes for the next size up if one size doesn't fit (of course, not at the original sale price). I also did this over the past school year with our oldest whenever I found uniform pants that fit him on sale. I bought a pair, even if his current pair worked, because, hey, it is only a matter of time before the knees have holes.
  • Cut corners. I do this all the time with our boys. I look up the designers and name brands and find similar items at more affordable stores, like H&M, Gap, Osh Kosh, Gymboree, and Target. Recently I added Crazy 8 to our stores I shop at. I love finding coordinating pieces for our boys. I also love when they look like they didn't get dressed in the dark. I get on the stores' email lists and also Google coupon codes before I place my order. I also keep a close eye on stores and brands I love for sales. This is how I shoe shop for the kids. Whenever the seasons start changing, I start keeping a close eye out for shoe sales and finding deals for our 4 children.
  • Buy quality. There are a lot of things that I have discovered don't matter how much I invest in. Jeans, for instance. I bought our oldest only designer jeans for a long time until I realized that he will tear holes in Sevens just as much as Target brand. Now our kids pretty much hang in Levis, second hand if I can find them on consignment. Store brand grocery products are just as great as the name brand grocery products. But, for us, every day children's shoes are always something I invest in. I would rather pay more and have the shoes last through the season. (Fancy shoes or church shoes, I will buy off brands because they don't play in them.) I'd also rather buy a versatile shoe than a single purpose shoe (flip flops over swim shoes, for instance). Our oldest has finally reached the age where winter jackets need to be a bit more durable, as last year he tore holes through the inexpensive one I bought him, but his sturdy jacket this year survived unscathed. Living in the Northwest, I love when the children's jackets have layers and so I can make it a fall jacket and a winter jacket. These are the type of items that will vary family by family and child by child. While one kid may be really hard on shoes, another may only be hard on shirts (anyone have a sleeve chewing kid?). When you figure out what the items are that you should splurge on and what you should save on, it helps take the pressure off on your budget.
9. Run the errands you want to run!

This post sounds like I never leave the house. (Lately, that is true.) But I do enjoy taking the kids out. I enjoy shopping at local stores and I enjoy making bakery trips and going to local coffee shops. I have more energy and more time for these things when the obligatory errands are out of the way. Having a busy family gets us out of the house everyday whether we plan to or not.

What are your tips for running errands with a large family? Do you have any great online shopping tips? What do you do to stay in budget?


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