Money Mirages: 6 Money-Saving Ideas That Are Anything But

Flickr Photo Credit: Michael Gwyther-Jones

Yesterday I was at the gas station and I observed a soccer mom topping off the tank of her bright yellow Hummer.

And when I say “topping off,” I mean really topping it off. She must have squeezed that hose handle a dozen times — and each time she did, the gas pump reacted with one of those obnoxious attention-getting retorts warning her that the tank was full. You know … Thunk. Thunk, thunk. Thunk. Thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk.

Oh, brother.

Now, maybe I’m being a bit snooty, but I find that kind of behavior to be extremely annoying, not to mention just a wee bit ignorant. Don’t you?

I mean, come on. How much extra fuel did that nice lady think she was going to put into the neck of her gas tank anyway? I’m not a car mechanic, but I’m guessing it was less than a quarter gallon.

Perhaps she thought those final few precious drops of fuel would allow her to drive for an extra day or two before having to return for her next fill-up of premium gasoline.

In reality, all of the commotion probably earned her little more than a measly mile of extended driving range — assuming she runs her tank bone dry.

True, an extra mile or two might prove critical if she were traversing the Sahara Desert. However, I’m fairly certain this lady lives in Southern California. There’s a gas station on every corner here.

There’s no getting around it; occasionally, a lot of folks will unwittingly make misguided decisions based upon well-intentioned beliefs.

Here are a few common money mistakes people make in the name of saving a few bucks:

1. Going to a restaurant and ordering the “daily special.” When a waiter comes up to your table and tells you all about the chef’s special, don’t ever assume that just because it’s a “special” it comes with a special low price too. Quite often, it’s the exact opposite; sometimes the chef’s special comes with a price that would ruin the appetite of even the most famished of diners.

2. Blindly sacrificing quality in favor of lower prices. There is a time and place for everything. To be sure, sometimes it makes absolutely no sense to pay extra for quality. Then again, sometimes it does. For example, it is not unreasonable to pay extra cash for high-quality clothing that can be worn many times over several years, as opposed to buying cheaper alternatives that will only fall apart after only a couple of washings.

3. Buying items in bulk that are better off being bought in smaller quantities. Buying things in bulk can often result in significant money savings but, the truth is, there are also plenty of items that are usually better off being bought in smaller quantities. For example, brown rice has a short shelf life due its oil content; mayonnaise too. If an item you purchased in bulk goes bad before you can use all of it, then the odds are you probably could have saved more money by buying it in a smaller quantity.

4. Always assuming larger-sized packages are cheaper. Nowadays, it’s no longer a given that products in bigger packages are always the best buy. When trying to choose between getting the smaller- or larger-sized item, always be sure to calculate the unit price of both packages first.

5. Thinking in terms of monthly payments when getting a car loan. Car dealers love to steer price negotiations toward how much money you can afford to pay on a monthly basis. After all, when it comes to negotiating car prices, dealers can usually work out the financing such that you can afford just about any vehicle your heart desires. By increasing the loan repayment period, dealers can offer a monthly payment to fit most any budget. Of course, the flip side to that means you will also pay more interest over the life of the loan.

6. Driving out of your way to save a few cents on the price of gasoline. Uh huh. Driving even a couple miles out of your way to save a few cents per gallon is usually a losing proposition. In fact, unless the price differential is significant, you’ll actually save money by buying your gasoline at a nearby station with the higher price — regardless of whether or not you’re the type that likes to top off your tank. Thunk.

Photo Credit: Michael Gwyther-Jones

(This is an updated version of an article that was originally posted on December 8, 2010.)

45 comments to Money Mirages: 6 Money-Saving Ideas That Are Anything But

  • Good observations. I like your comment about the daily special, which seems to be nothing more than personalized menu marketing. Stop the server halfway through the recitation and ask for the price of the entree in question. Chances are the price of the special is higher than 90 percent of the other items on the menu. “Caramelized sprout sauce”, indeed.

  • I have also found that often times, the larger package is actually MORE expensive per ounce than the smaller one. Grocers have learned that people assume the larger package is the better deal, so they have been turning the tables. (At least where I live.)

    When the waitress comes up to talk about the daily special, I just want to tell them I am not interested right in the beginning almost like a solicitor calling me during a nap!

  • Your post shows clearly that there are no hard rules for anything. It all depends. We should all be flip-floppers and change our minds depending on the circumstances. It’s too bad flip-flopping got such a bad reputation these days :-)

  • I saw a thunk-er at the station just last week and had the EXACT same thoughts. :)

  • Agree with everything! Although I like daily specials from time to time because they are often different from the rest of the menu and make me discover something new. If the special is a spaghetti or a fish I already tasted then I tend to skip it.
    I would add: doing groceries at 5 different places to save an dollar here and there… I mean, your time is worth something and driving to all those places also. Most of the times it is not worth it.

  • Not only that but topping off is illegal in some states (like mine). Is bad for your car (since the gasoline vapors have no where to go) and for the environment (your car pumped out more CO2) to create space for the vapors.

  • I must admit that I am occasionally the person that continues after the gas pump has shut off, although I have gotten a gallon (or more) in after the shutoff happens. I agree with do not wait as well – Shopping multiple stores (for food and other things) often results in nothing more than time wasted & a headache.

  • Olivia

    I had to smile about the “topper offer”. My normally easy going husband is compulsive about even dollar amounts at the pump. Because when he notes the purchase in the budget book he doesn’t have to subtract cents.

    To piggyback on the “smaller may be cheaper” comment. If you have a coupon and it can be used on a smaller size, the savings can be significant.

  • @Andrew: Ewww. Caramelized sprout sauce? Good tip, by the way.
    @Everyday: I feel the same way, Kris. Sometimes those “special of the day” speeches really get on my nerves. I often stop them in mid-sentence too to spare both of us the agony. (I notice oftentimes the servers hate giving the speech as much as I hate listening to it.)
    @Ctriet: I never *ever* flip-flop. Wait; sometimes I do.
    @Wojo: I’m sorry you had to witness that. Was she driving a bright yellow Hummer?
    @DNW: Great tip about not driving to multiple places to get the lowest price at each. That should def be number 7!
    @Jenna: I didn’t know any of that. Wow. Now I have even more reasons to be annoyed with those “toppers.” ;-)
    @Jeff: And I am sure that you will never top your tank off again after reading my article and Jenna’s comments, right? Jeff? Don’t leave me hanging!
    @Olivia: If your hubby is OC about getting the total to “zero out” there may be no hope of getting him to stop. LOL That is a great tip on using the coupon on the smaller size. Thanks for that!

  • @Len – No, but it was driving me nuts, since it was producing kick-back on my own pump. Grrr.

  • The first thing I thought of when I read your article was “How about getting a car that gets more than 8 miles per gallon..that would save a whole lot more than what you’re squeezing out of that hose.”

    It’s amazing how many people skimp nickles and dimes but then completely ignore that logic with the big ticket purchases like cars and homes. I can credit my cushy standard of living to my affordable house and paid for cars. Yeah the small stuff adds up too (especially food) but it’s harder to make a dent with those.

    Yesterday I posted a Babci’s rules of finance and she has a rule about your #2 comment. It’s better to buy 1 quality thing and pay more than to buy cheap things that don’t last.

  • BMIA

    Mistaken assumption on the topping-up aspect – perhaps not in the circumstance you experienced, but would definitely be mistaken if it were me you were observing. The reason for “topping up” as you so blatantly ascribe, is not to top up my gas tank but to bring the gallons pumped into my tank to an easily workable number for which to calculate rate of consumption. Perhaps you don’t like to calculate rate of consumption on a regular basis – but I do. I can do the math a lot easier with round numbers or easily functioning fractions. The odd times that I have to use difficult fractions is when someone else fills up the car (not self serve) then I either have to do it longhand on paper or dig out a calculator. So as condescending as you want to be to we “thunkers” realize some of us do it for an entirely reasonable purpose.

    • What the…?
      “I can do the math a lot easier with round numbers or easily functioning fractions.”

      Come on. So you’ll divide 239.1 miles into 17 gallons, rather than divide it into 16.912 gallons? You need to either use a calculator or do it longhand either way. Unless your car happens to have a tank with exactly 20 gallons or some other easy divisor, which presumably you would have mentioned.
      Furthermore, you’re missing the most important point. If you want to determine your miles per gallon throughout the life of your vehicle, you have to be consistent with your fueling strategy – either always topping off to the last possible drop, or always going the other way and just letting the pump shut off – otherwise you’ll be comparing apples to oranges. Remember that you’re calculating the fuel economy of the full tank you just spent the last few days emptying, not the new fill-up you just bought.

      If you’re manipulating each fill-up to always be a “round (number) or easily functioning fraction”, then you’re leaving a different amount of empty space in your tank every time and thus your fuel economy calculations won’t be consistent.

      If you’re serious about this, you do need to either “dig out a calculator” or use the one that I thought came with pretty much every phone these days.

  • One comment on the price vs. quality question. Don’t be fooled into thinking high price means it’s high quality or vice-versa. A lot of stuff, especially electronics, quickly becomes a commodity and you end up paying more for the name on the packaging than the actual contents!

  • Peter

    I am another one that tops up his vehicle – not to get noticed but to decrease the amount of pocket change I get back

  • Mindimoo

    Another point about daily specials – when I worked in a restaurant long ago the “specials” were always what the owner wanted to get rid of most, that is, the stuff that hadn’t sold well that week.

  • My husband is like Olivia’s husband – he has to get to the next even dollar amount. For what it’s worth, I even understand that and it annoys the crud out of me…

  • WB

    BMIA: Thank you. I have a very gas efficient compact. I try to fill to the same point each time to provide consistent mpg calculations. I’m not trying to squeeze an extra mile because I rarely allow my gauge to get below 1/3 of a tank.

    Len, really enjoy your blog.

  • Michelle

    From Oregon Toxics Alliance: “Each time a car is topped off, the space at the top of the tank that contains harmful fumes is filled with gasoline and the fumes are pushed into the air. Those fumes contain benzene, which has been linked to cancer and more specifically leukemia. There is no evidence that a safe level of exposure to benzene is possible. Any exposure is a danger!”

    • Any exposure is a danger!”

      Well, good thing they used that exclamation point to get our attention with a logically unsound warning. “Any” exposure? That would include one benzene molecule per every 10 23 air molecules, then. I’d gladly breathe a mixture of that and feed it to my children.

      The Oregon Toxics Alliance board consists of peace activists and attorneys. There isn’t a chemical engineer or a toxicologist anywhere to be found.

      And aren’t Oregonians forbidden from pumping their own gas anyway?

      • OTA gets a lot of its data from the Environmental Protection Agency and other resources.

        According to the Division of Occupational Health and Safety and the National Institutes of Health, the permissible exposure limit is 1ppm as an 8-hour time-weighted average; the short-term exposure limit is 5 ppm average over any 15 minute period. The current threshold limit value for benzene is 10 ppm. Furthermore, the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists official exposure limits imposed by various countries.

        According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Benzene emissions were the largest individual contributor to cancer risk in Oregon, and accounted for 28% of the additional cancer risk. Note that this is true for the U.S. as well (benzene accounts for 30% of the additional cancer risk in the nation).

        And in Oregon, toping off gas tanks are now banned in Oregon.

        If anybody needs more information, feel free to contacts us through our website.

  • @FirstGen: I agree with everything you said. It’s pretzel logic to be sure.
    @BMIA: Oh, I calculate my gas mileage after every fill-up. What I do is round the gallons used to the nearest round number. There are so many variables between tankfuls (e.g., unless you drive the exact same number of city to highway miles, under the exact same traffic conditions, and fill up only after driving the exact same number of miles every time) that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to worry about calculating exact numbers.
    @Schultzer: Great point. The same can be said for cars.
    @Peter: That is a very reasonable explanation for “thunking” that I overlooked.
    @Mindimoo: Another reason for me to pass on those “specials.” I thought they liked to put the previous night’s leftovers in the “Soup of the Day.” Is that true?
    @BIFS: Yep. I can see that line of thinking.
    @WB: Trust me, you don’t have to go to all that trouble (for the reasons I explained to BMIA) to get your mpg numbers. Unless you do a tightly controlled scientific experiment, rounding is good enough. And I’m glad you enjoy the blog! :-)

  • I don’t play the thunk game. One time I had a wonky gas pump not shut off and dump gas on my shoes. Now I look crosseyed at them when I’ve been filling for a while. Of course, I get better gas mileage than a Hummer. :)

    I really wish I could buy higher quality clothes that last for a while because I hate shopping (no, really). Nowadays I can buy 2 items from the same maker and have 1 fall apart within a few wearings, and the other look new a year later. Who can tell?

    I noticed the trick of charging a higher unit price for large packages a while ago. Dirty rats!

  • I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and the bigger package means cheaper mentality from the US did not hold up there. People don’t have the room to store all of that extra stuff so things that were bigger were simply just bigger. And, sometimes it even cost more! Buying what you need when you need it may lead to a more sane way of life. And, as far as clothing goes, we buy used but quality items and that has been insurance for our budget. It takes time to find nice things but it’s worth it.

  • No lie – my dad used to drive 30 miles out of the way to save 10 cents per gallon. I never ran the numbers, but even as a teenager, I knew the numbers couldn’t possibly work out. Plus, I didn’t like wasting an hour unnecessarily!!

  • David C.

    I saw a pretty lady thunker fueling her huge SUV a while back. When she finished topping off the tank, she proceeded to get in the vehicle, start it and begin pulling away with the nozzle still in the fuel filler tube! I noticed what was going on and had to wave her off before she jerked the hose loose.

    She had a bewildered look on her face. However, the horrified, emabarrased looks on the faces of her teenaged daughters was priceless.

  • These are all good Len, but I particularly like #5 but would expand it. Sellers off big ticket items have all adopted the same strategy: “How large a monthly payment can you afford?” Sorry, but that is not the right way to decide whether anything is affordable–though it sure helps line the pockets of the seller!

  • Rezdent

    I used to be in the restaurant industry and the special where I worked was usually a way to push overstock or something the chef got on sale (the vendor’s overstock).
    That’s not always bad – but use judgment.

    I always stay away from anything on special labeled “seafood” (as in “seafood gumbo”). “Seafood” seemed to be the euphemism for last week’s assorted leftover fish, squid, etc.

  • The point about driving a few extra miles for gasoline apply to someone I happen to know. They say it’s worth the better mileage that particular gas station offers and yes, they refuse to listen to the possibility that the benefit is mitigated by the extra miles you have to drive.

  • I made the buying poor quality items to save money before. When I bought my first house, I bought cheap rugs for my bathroom at a discount retailer that rhymes with FalMart. After washing them twice, they basically were in shreds. I ended up buying more expensive rugs and they have lasted me now over 6 years with regular washings.

    • Len Penzo

      Hmm. FalMart … FalMart. (Thinking a little more …)

      Nope. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t figure out which retailer you could be talking about, Jon.

  • SassyMamaw

    Lol. Maybe the lady at the station was trying to get the price to come out even. Thunk, $10.02, thunk, $10.06, thunk, $10.11…

  • I’d never even thought of how lowering monthly loan rates on a car would extend the length of the loan – and thus the interest… which is really stupid, now that I DO think about it (thankfully, I’ve just paid cash for both of my cars). I bet that does catch a lot of other people.

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