Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Green Peppers and Gasoline

This obsession that some people have with gas price fluctuations is getting way out of hand. People seem to think that gasoline is the only commodity whose price moves up and down on a weekly, or even daily basis, and that loads of money can be saved by shopping around. Truth be told, gas prices really aren't too volatile, especially compared to some other regularly purchased items.

When I get home from grocery shopping, I take my receipt upstairs to the office and go over it in detail. I do this for two reasons. First, I want to make sure that what I paid was correct, and that I wasn't charged something way out of line for toilet paper or ground sirloin. Second, I want to generate some illustrative data.

"Wait, did he just say 'generate illustrative data'?"

Yes, I did. Remember, I'm a data man. Things like this should no longer surprise you.

The prices that I paid for regularly purchased items (bread, milk, chicken breasts, green peppers, etc.) are logged in a spreadsheet (surprise!) and I track them over time, generating trend curves for their prices. For example, I can tell you what the low price I've paid for chicken breasts has been for the last six months, and I can tell you the average price I've paid. This way, before I head over to our Giant Eagle grocery store, I can see what I've been paying historically, and make a decision as to whether I should buy something now (because the price is below my average), or if I should wait until next trip. That said, my grocery-shopping methods and adventures should probably be another post. Back to how this relates to gasoline...

What I'm getting at is this: produce and meat prices fluctuate far, far more than gas prices ever have. Even when you throw out sale price ups and downs, they're still far more volatile. And, you can save more money driving across town for cheap vegetables than you can by driving across town for cheap gas.

Example: The last time I went to the grocery store for green peppers, they were priced at an outrageous $2.19 each at Giant Eagle. So, of course, I didn't buy them. However, I still needed them for a recipe, so I went to Kroger instead. They had them for $1.39 each. I bought two and saved $1.60.

Compare this to gas prices. I personally know people that will drive well out of their way to save a measly five cents a gallon on gasoline. But, by buying just two green peppers at Kroger instead of Giant Eagle I saved more money than buying thirty-two gallons of gas (more than two fill-ups) priced at a nickel cheaper. How absurd is that?

Furthermore, I use coupons at Giant Eagle and regularly save around 7-10% because of it. On a typical $250 a month food budget, I save $20 to $25 just by cutting out a few slips of paper from the newspaper. In order to save the same amount of money on 5-cent discounted gasoline in a month, I'd have to drive over twelve-thousand miles in only thirty days! That's almost as much as I drive in a year! I save far, far, far more money by clipping coupons than nearly anyone ever will by changing their habits about gasoline.

There are a ton of places you can readily yield more savings if given the same amount of effort that many people do trying to penny-pinch at the pump; green peppers and coupon clipping are just a couple. Yet, lots of people moan and groan about the fluctuations of gas prices and drive well out of their way for five or ten-cent discounted gas, yet completely neglect to clip coupons or merely price shop for other items. It simply doesn't make sense.

So why do we have this undeserved obsession with gas price ups and downs? I think it's simply because gas prices are constantly in your face around town and constantly pounded into your mind by the media. When was the last time you heard Katie Couric say "Kraft Cheese Singles hit their highest price in six weeks, today..."?

In fact, most prices look outrageous when you put them on tall signs in big numbers. If you see huge numbers displaying the price of gas every single day, you can't help but notice and track them, and of course, I still do. But, I certainly won't go out of my way to find the cheapest place to purchase gasoline.

Green peppers, though, is another matter entirely.


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