The high cost of being lazy

Katherine Boyle
Reporter March 16, 2012

Being lazy is costing you thousands of dollars a year. Really.

That sandwich you buy at the ubiquitous corner chain costs $7. Does it really taste that much better than something you could make at home? Sure, sometimes it’s a luxury to have an extra 15 minutes in the morning. But do the math: A $7 sandwich every work day adds up to about $1,700 a year. Is it more delicious than a summer vacation? We won’t go into the $4-a-day latte fix, but compounding that with other bad habits, including paying for cut-up fruit or crumbled feta cheese at the grocery store, gives new meaning to the term “convenience fee.” Sue Perry, deputy editor of ShopSmart magazine, says grocery stores rake in big profits from lazy shoppers. “On average, there’s a price markup of between 50 and 63 percent. Just so someone can cut your food for you,” she says. “You’re paying money unnecessarily.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.

If you’re guilty of any of these peccadillos, here’s your Average Cost of Laziness.

The rule of five: Consumer Reports and ShopSmart have a strict rule: “We always say follow the five-minute rule: If you can peel, make or shred it in five minutes, it’s not worth a premium price,” Perry says. That means you should never purchase pre-grated garlic or vegetables that carry a markup for convenience. Perry also says the premium for salad dressing or tea falls under the DIY rule. “You can whip up your own salad dressing in less than five minutes. And iced tea costs you pennies to make. Why buy it when every office has a microwave for you to make tea?” The numbers are surprising. Buying a $2.50 cup of tea at Starbucks every work day costs about $600 a year. You can expect to save between 50 to 75 percent by buying a box of Tazo Tea, the same brand Starbucks sells, from Amazon.com or other Web sites.

Dry-cleaning: Let’s say you’re only getting a few shirts and suits cleaned each month. Is $50 a conservative estimate for a monthly dry-cleaning bill? Your dry cleaner might not be worth $600 each year if you’re only using it for starched shirts and minor stains. “There are some fabrics you have to get dry-cleaned, but get your own stains out of your shirts and ties,” Perry says. Tide to Go or CVS instant stain-remover sticks, $2 to $4, cost a fraction of a dry-cleaning bill.

Comparison shopping: Grocery shopping without a list is one of the easiest ways to overspend. “Not only will you forget the things you need, but you’ll splurge and buy things that you’ll end up throwing out,” Perry warns. Making a list also ensures that you’ve planned meals for the week. Perry also says most people forget to compare prices at the supermarket. Check the number of ounces in a bag before comparing products.

Bring your lunch: How much do you spend on lunch? If you spend $10 each work day, you’re spending $2,400 annually. “People know they spend a lot of money on lunches, and bringing your lunch even half of the time can save you hundreds of dollars. But vending machines are even worse. You’re paying a huge markup for a snack pack,” Perry says. A dollar for snacks each day adds up to $240 a year.

Happy hour: Washington is a happy-hour town, and $5 drinks sound cheap. Two bar stops each week, with two drinks and tip, run you $1,200 a year, no food included. Now might be the time to revive the BYOB dinner party.

Keep the receipt: Consumer Reports’ advocacy division found in a recent study that eight out of 10 hospital bills contain pricing mistakes. “Imagine what you’re missing if you’re not checking receipts and credit card statements regularly,” Perry says. The art of balancing checkbooks might be lost in an auto-pay world, but looking over credit card statements and receipts could save you the high costs of someone else’s error.

Plan errands: With the price of gas inching higher, Perry recommends planning errands for the week, lumping them in as you head to work or pick up the kids from soccer practice. “It’s expensive to drive one place and zip back across town,” Perry says. “So many people don’t plan their errands around location or rush hour, and they end up burning gallons of gas.”

The small things: If you use another bank’s ATM once a month, that’s a $30 annual convenience fee. Use CVS as an emergency ATM by buying a pack of gum to get cash back. Take three $1 coupons to Safeway each week to save about $150 each year. “We don’t think these little things matter. . . . But it’s so easy to keep an envelope of coupons for products you always use in your purse or car,” Perry says. “It adds up and can save you hundreds.”

THE BOTTOM LINE: You’re not going to correct all of your bad spending habits, but targeting just a few areas could mean four-figure savings. Pack a lunch, cut down on coffee, spot clean your shirts or cut your fruit.

ON SALE THIS WEEK

Design Within Reach’s semiannual sale ends Tuesday. Until then, save 15 percent on select coffee tables, stools, benches, dining chairs, floor lamps and outdoor furnishings. The Lighthouse Outdoor Torch, which uses standard lamp oil or citronella, is a modern alternative to the tiki torch. The small size (9.5 inches) is $76.50, reduced from $90. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sunday. 4828 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda, 301-215-7200 and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-6 p.m. Sunday. 3306 M St. NW; 202-339-9480. www.designwithinreach.com.

Mosey along Vienna’s Maple Avenue to Beekman Place, where the spoils include a selection of secondhand furniture from the global travels of military and diplomatic families. Samurai sword, anyone? The price is $800. A 1890 Hopi drum is $3,000, while a solid walnut table from the 1950s is $195. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday. 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. 126 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-938-8646.

Get your garden ready to bloom at American Plant’s Welcome Spring Weekend Sale. Save 20 percent on flowering plants, trees, shrubs, garden supplies and decor Saturday-March 25 at the nursery’s two Bethesda locations. A six-inch pot of pansies (at least three plants per container) will be $4.79, down from $5.99. Check www.americanplant.net for hours and addresses.— Janet Bennett Kelly

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