Compare Unit Prices – Especially When Buying Steam Whistle Beer

When people fill up their cars with gas, they try to get the best price. All the gas stations list their price for a litre of gas (gallon for Americans), which makes it very easy to compare unit prices.  One litre of gas at gas station A is exactly the same as a litre of gas at gas station B.

For most other items, it’s not that simple. Grocery stores (or more accurately the food manufacturers that supply them) are the worst. They will shrink your favourite product, so you don’t even think to compare unit prices. They also like to put out an “economy size” which has a higher unit price.

Smart consumers cut through all the bull and compare the unit prices, so they know exactly how much they are paying.

Four pack of large cans - $11.00

I can’t claim to be the smartest consumer, but I did feel duped the other day after buying some Steam Whistle, which is my favourite beer.

They used to just offer regular bottles (341 ml) and large cans (500 ml). It was obvious to me that the cans represented a much better deal. In fact, the cost for the bottled beer was $0.66 for 100 ml which is 25% more than the $0.53 for 100 ml of canned beer. A significant difference, I’d say.

Recently, I paid a visit to the local store and one of the clerks told me about a new six pack of cans from Steam Whistle. The case of six cans was $3.50 more than the cost of buying four separate cans, but she made it sound like the six pack was made up of the large cans. After buying the six pack, I realized that the cans were in fact, not large (500 ml), but disappointingly normal in size (355 ml) and I knew I’d been had.

Sure enough, the pricing for the small cans was $0.65/100 ml, which is just a bit less than the bottled price, but a whopping 23% more than the unit price of the large cans.


Don’t ever assume anything from anyone. If you want the best deal for an item, you have to understand the pricing and the sizes involved.
Steam Whistle is already one of the more expensive beers on the market – don’t make the same mistake I did and over pay for it!

Please note that I have subtracted the cost of the deposit, before calculating the unit beer costs.


Scanner Price Accuracy Code – Get A Discount If Items Scanned Incorrectly

Have you ever bought something and the price at the cashier was different than the sticker or shelf price?  If so, you might be able to score a discount on that item.

The Scanner Price Accuracy Code is a voluntary code of practice which seems to be pretty common in larger stores and chains.

The way it works is that if an item is scanned incorrectly, the customer is entitled to up to a $10 discount on that item.  If the item price is less than $10, then it is free.

The discount can be applied to multiple unique items.  If you buy three cans of Campbell’s chicken soup and the price is wrong, you only get the discount on the first can.  If you buy three different types of soup and they are all incorrectly priced, the discount will apply to each unique product.

I’ve had two occasions to use this code, both times at Canadian Tire. The first time was when I bought some light bulbs on sale at 50% off, but the scanned price was the regular price.  I paid for the items and then went to customer service to get my $7.38 refunded. Given that I spent about 10 minutes of my lunch hour getting that money, it wasn’t really worth it, but I wanted to check out the process. That time I had no problem getting my money back.

Recently however, I bought some camping items at Canadian Tire and there were two scanning errors. Unfortunately, I had my kids with me and by the time we got to the cash, I didn’t pay any attention to the scanned prices, since I just wanted to get the hell out of there. The bill ended up being more than I thought, so when I got home I checked the receipt and there were two items with the incorrect prices.

A cooler I bought was on sale for $24.95, but I was charged the regular price of $44.95. I also bought two small propane tanks which were supposed to be $3.89 each, but I was charged $10.98 each.  After checking the website, I realized that these tanks were also sold in 3-packs which cost $10.98.

I went back to Canadian Tire the next day and asked for price corrections which they did without complaint.  However, when I mentioned the Scanner Price Accuracy Code, she wouldn’t give it to me on either item.

For the cooler, she said that the sale had ended when I bought it, but she would honour the posted sale price. She also added that she couldn’t verify that the sale price had been posted on the shelf when I made my purchase.
As for the propane tanks, she said that the tanks I bought had been part of a 3-pack and had probably been broken up by another customer (I doubt it). She said there was no error because the price reflected the 3-pack price.

I disagreed – in both cases the items were on their proper shelf and had the prices below them. The fact that there were reasonable explanations for price differences and that it might have not been the fault of Canadian Tire, doesn’t change the fact that the prices I was charged were different than the posted prices and as far as I’m concerned, they should have given me the discount.

Tips for getting the scanning discount

  • Look for a posted sign at the cashier station to see if the store adheres to this practice.
  • Watch the prices as the scanning occurs.  It’s a lot easier to prove an error at that time, rather than later on.
  • Make sure you ask about the Scanner Price Accuracy Code if applicable. It’s very unlikely the cashier will mention it unprompted.
  • Don’t shop with your kids.

What do you think?  Should I have gotten a scanning error discount? Have you ever gotten a discount (or been refused) using this code?




Camping With Young Kids – Frugal Folly?

My wife & I have two young kids, age three and four. One family activity we’d like to get into is camping. As in sleeping in a tent, campfire, cook your own food on a Coleman camping stove. Of course, not everyone likes camping, but I think it’s a lot of fun.

Camping is much more affordable than staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. That said, camping isn’t necessarily all that cheap. We were fortunate to get most of our camping gear as hand-me-downs, but we are still buying a few items. If you have to buy all the equipment new, it would be fairly expensive. Camping site fees are not that cheap either.

Last fall, we went camping one night at Darlington (a bit east of Toronto) as an “experiment” just to see what it would be like with the kids. It was close enough that if things went too far downhill, we could easily bail and go home. As it turns out, it was a lot of fun.

So far this year, we camped one night at Glen Rouge, which is right inside Toronto (Kingston Road at the border of Scarborough and Pickering) and will be doing a weekend trip to Awenda (two hours from Toronto) in August. I wasn’t that impressed by Glen Rouge and would rather drive the extra 20 minutes to Darlington in the future.

I had hoped to go camping more frequently this summer, but after the Glen Rouge trip, it was apparent that maybe we aren’t ready for regular camping trips.

The kids had fun, but just because they are having fun doesn’t mean they were well behaved. 🙂 Camping is a lot of work – you have to bring the shelter, food, cooking utensils and doing everything yourself. Having everyone in close quarters can take a bit of getting used to. Add a couple of young kids to the mixture and it can be quite a challenge.

I’m hopeful that as the kids get a bit older, it will be a bit easier to do a proper camping trip and we can go more often.

In the meantime, one option is to just do day trips to local parks. This doesn’t work that well for Toronto, but we were recently in Northern Ontario and spent part of a day at Fairbanks Provincial Park . It is a beautiful park and has a great beach which is perfect for swimming. There are canoes you can borrow and a few trails to explore. We checked out the campsites and there are a lot of nice private sites.

If you can do a day trip to a park, then you get enjoy some of the good things about camping, but there is a lot less hassle.

Have you tried camping with young kids? Was it fun or a disaster?  Got any tips for me?


Clutter And The Curse Of The Pack Rat

Some time ago there were a string of posts on various blogs about clearing out “stuff” from your life. At around the same time, my favourite essayist Paul Graham posted an aptly titled essay “Stuff” on his site. Taken together, the general consensus seems to be that we are all struggling to deal with an abundance of material possessions, and the sad reality is that these possessions aren’t worth anywhere near what we feel they are.

When I was younger I was an avid role-player (Dungeons and Dragons in my earlier days, White Wolf towards the end). There was a seemingly infinite number of rule books, all hardbound with gorgeous illustrations (some of bare-breasted monsters such as harpies that were quite titillating, pardon the pun, to a 7 year old boy). They cost $20 each when I started playing, but a number of them sold for $30 when I was in high school (when I look at them occasionally now, they seem to be going for $40 or $50). Occasionally you’d come across some used role playing game (RPG) books at a garage sale or used book store and you’d feel like you’d discovered gold when they were going for $5 or $10 per book.

The sad thing is, I’m still sitting on about 70 lbs of RPG material that I haven’t looked at in years, and I can’t bear to give it up (because I know its old, new version have been released, and I’d basically have to give it away). This is nuts.

My brother and I were comic collectors, and we loved to buy a copy of “Wizard” (which gave all the values for comics) and “appraise” our collections. Each month we’d happily cackle over how much we’d earned as savvy comic book collectors. The sad day hits the first time you try to sell a comic and you realize that the only person selling in town in the comic book store, no one will pay Wizard prices for your comics.

Paul Graham makes the case that a spartan living environment has more value then the crap we surround ourselves with. Since my move, I’m living in a much smaller living space, which is pretty well like a warehouse (I need to climb over boxes to get in and out of my room). I fantasize about living in a sparse environment with all my worldly goods fitting in a bag or two that I can carry myself.

Sadly, a little demon in my mind keeps whispering that sometime, somehow all this stuff will suddenly be worth serious money and I need to keep it.


Fun And Frugal Activities With Your Kids – Riverdale Farm

Every parent of young children is continually looking for new activities to do with their kids.  Preferably activities that are inexpensive or even free.

One option I have is to take my kids to Riverdale Farm which is located near the downtown core here in Toronto.  Of course this particular activity isn’t available to everyone reading this but perhaps there is something similar near where you live.  If you do live within a reasonable drive of Riverdale Farm (it is near the Don Valley and Gerrard) then I strongly suggest you check it out if you have little ones you need to entertain.  The farm is free, has free parking, open all year and even has special activities once in a while.

There are quite a few different animals there – cows, sheep, goats, horses, pigs to name a few.  Recently there were a number of baby animals – the piglets were the cutest by far.  The setting is quite scenic – it is fairly hilly and there is a path down to the Don Valley as well as a pedestrian walkway which spans the Don Valley river and parkway and ends up in Riverdale park.

My kids like the animals but their favourite activities are running around and rolling down the grass hills.

Most of these photos are from last November and a couple are from late February – you don’t need to wait until summer to enjoy the farm.

All pictures taken with my Canon 200sx.

Does your area have any free farms or petting zoos available?

Mmmmm....future bacon.
Feeding the goats (which is not allowed by the way!).
Unfriendly stare
Rasta Sheep.

The Trouble With Being Cheap

Quite a few people have been expressing their admiration for my frugality to me, so I thought it was time to rein in the enthusiasm and talk a bit about the downsides of frugal living.

1. The most obvious downside, and what I don’t actually consider a downside, is frugality makes you question your buying decisions. We live in a society that wants to sell us stuff all the time, and it’s easy to just immerse yourself in this, buy buy buy. It’s harder to resist this and decide for yourself what is of importance and value.

2. Meager living spaces are a downside which would bother a lot of people. Small space without amenities definitely leads to a different lifestyle compared to mansions with indoor pools. When I was a kid growing up, like everyone, I thought about living in a big house as an adult. The reality of having to maintain so much space makes it utterly unappealing at this point in life (I doubt I’d have a mansion if I was the richest man on Earth). My brother dreams of a house on the water and being able to do outdoor activities all year round. My father wanted to buy a house with a big lot. All these things cost money, and if you’re serious about being cheap you may have to give some of them up.

3. It’s hard to be cheap. There’s constant social pressure to just drop coin like it doesn’t matter to you. Evaluating buying decisions certainly doesn’t make you a lot of friends. My ex was debating a limit of what she should spend for a wedding gift for a co-worker, and her mother told her “don’t be so cheap”. This can hurt sometimes.

4. Family and romance can be tough. If you really want to live cheap, you’re going to have to lose the kids. As a guy, you’re going to have a tough time dating if you’re trying not to pay for dinner and a movie too often (“come on baby, I’ll take you for a walk in the park followed by free samples out at Costco!”). I’m not too sure if being cheap would make romance harder for a woman, since the ultimate seduction hardly costs anything at all (show up naked with a sandwich). In all seriousness, I wouldn’t try to live the way I do now if a wife and/or child was involved.

5.  Eating cheap food can be bad for your health.  Try to remember that health is VERY valuable, if you find yourself grappling with food expense decisions (my beloved cheap, chicken hot dogs are delicious, but deadly!).

So there you have it, the only cost of being cheap is you’ll have trouble making decisions, be lonely (no friends or family), live in a hovel and slowly sickening of malnutrition. Any dangers I’ve missed?


Things You Irrationally *HATE* to Spend Money On

Three years ago Ramit Sethi wrote a post that made me laugh and think of my parents (it also looks like it might have subconsciously been influencing my post last week).  In it he talks about how his parents are very generous with him, but they (and, according to Ramit, all Indians) HATE to pay for dry cleaning or shipping.  He claims that reluctance to spend on dry cleaning somewhat makes sense to him (same clothes, just cleaner), but he can’t understand the shipping reluctance.  To me it’s very similar (it’s the same object, it’s just in a different location).

It made me laugh because my parents live in fear of long distance phone calls and taxicabs.  When I was a kid a couple of times I wanted to order something or call somewhere long distance, and my mother made a *HUGE* deal of it saying I could make the call, but when the bill came in, I was responsible for the charges!!!  I made the call and ended up paying $0.63 or something.  Whee.  The only way I can make sense of their fear is that long distance cost FAR more when they were growing up (and maybe they haven’t internalized that it’s actually pretty cheap now).  I’m not sure what the problem is with taxis (sure public transit is cheaper and should be taken if possible, but it isn’t the end of the world to take a cab a few times a year).

My mother was once going to visit my brother when he was in England, and it happened that it was quite tough to get where he was living.  He gave her directions which involved flying to Heathrow, taking mass transit into the city, then taking a taxi to avoid a 50 minute walk to get to his place.  My mom said she’d just walk the last leg.  With her luggage.  After having just been traveling for well over 10 hours.

I suspect we all have a couple of things that it really bugs us to pay for.  There are a number of things that it kills me to pay for, but the biggest are probably:

Easily Prepared Foods at Restaurants

I find it VERY hard to order steak or lobster at a restaurant.  Not because of the price (I’ll have expensive meals out on occasion), but just because you pay such a premium and they’re *SO* easy to make at home!  It doesn’t take much to grill a steak to perfection, and the hardest part of cooking a lobster is not feeling guilty when you pop him in the boiling water.

It kills me to buy booze in a restaurant too: I can open a bottle of beer at home for half the price, thanks.

I *LOVE* getting Pad Thai, eggs Benedict, butter chicken and other, more difficult to make, dishes at restaurants.  If I can easily make it for myself at home, I’ll do so.

The flip side of this is, if a steak is what you feel like, get it.  If you’ll enjoy having a beer with your meal, who cares if it costs more than at home (your goal when enjoying a nice meal out should be to enjoy it, dammit!)

Expensive Rentals

In many ways renting a DVD is an incredibly cheap way to spend a night with friends:  for $5 you sit around in someone’s living room and watch a movie (compared to $12 per person to go out to the theater).  When you can BUY DVDs for less than $20, it kills me to give Blockbuster 1/4 of the price to borrow it for a day (as crazy as it is, I’d almost rather buy it and just watch it once, then give it to a friend).  I keep waiting for the $1 / day DVD rental kiosks to take off.

Intellectual Property

It’s bizarre, since almost any way I’d make money involves intellectual property or selling information (programming, publishing, teaching, etc) but I find it really hard to place a value on non-tangible goods.  What I’ve read suggests I’m not alone.  From music to television to movies to books to software it really kills me to pay for content when there’s an alternative way (such as lending libraries or black markets) to get it free (or so cheap that it’s next to free).

What do you find it (irrationally) hard to spend money on?


2011 Last Minute Cheap Christmas Gift Guide

Unfortunately, the economy is still down, and this year the pressure is still on to find cheap gifts for loved ones.  The previous edition of the Last minute cheap Christmas gift guide is still relevant for gift giving, but if you need more modern ideas for what to give on a budget, we’ve got you covered.

  • hugA hug:  The classic way t0 let someone know “I’m broke, but I care” a hug is perfect for all ages and both genders!  As it’s most acceptable with older relatives, you can also push your luck and give this to siblings and friends.  Add a kiss or other affectionate act and you can cross that “special someone” off of your list.  Not recommended in work environments (especially with your boss).
  • cdsBurnt CDs / DVDs:  Let people know that when you steal for them, you steal the best!  Whether it be bootleg music, tv shows, movies, or even computer software this is the gift that says “I thought about something that would be perfect for you, then downloaded it off of the Internet and burnt it on a $0.10 bit of plastic instead of wasting money getting it at the store.”  Edgy and “counter-culture” this tells everyone involved in the gift giving festivities that you’re a good looking rebel who plays by his (or her) own rules!
  • soapsHome Made “Spa” Gift Basket:  If you travel regularly (perhaps for business), collect the toiletries they give out free where you stay and make your own “Bed Bath and Beyond” style gift basket.  These will be name brand products (just hotel chain names instead of cosmetic companies) at a fraction of the cost!  If you don’t travel, perhaps you can ask a friend who does to collect these for you, then you’ll be well stocked for giving indulgence on a shoestring next year.
  • couponsHome Made “Savings Book”:  Fund raisers will often sell a book of coupons for samples and discounts at local businesses.  If people will buy such a thing, it probably has value and can be given as a gift.  And why buy it when you can make it yourself?  Search through junk mail and store flyers to find as many coupons as you can.  For each recipient, put coupons for things they use at the front (and bury expired coupons and things like “$0.10 off Bengay” near the middle where the recipient probably won’t notice them after receiving the book).
  • backrunGive Services You Already Provide: Every family has a natural “division of labour” where different members specialize in different jobs.  Mom does the laundry, dad shovels snow and cuts the lawn, Johnny sets the timer on the VCR and provides tech support and Suzy makes baked treats.  Instead of selflessly and freely giving these services to loved one, give them coupons to receive these services a set number of times in the coming year.  This helps them appreciate what you do for them, prevents them from being too demanding, and makes them a little worried what will happen once the coupons are gone (“What Johnny, you don’t have any more ‘home cooked meal’ coupons?  Guess you’ll be living off of microwave popcorn until next Christmas.”)

Whether you’re shopping for someone who is starved for affection, a music geek, a woman who appreciates relaxation and luxury, someone frugal or someone who doesn’t appreciate you, with a little creativity you can find a spot-on gift that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg!