I opened the week’s grocery ads with hope. There were large red splotches announcing super deals at almost every store. I grabbed my pad of paper and pen, poured a large cup of coffee, and settled in at the kitchen table to see which stores offered the best sales and promotions. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, once the caffeine seeped into my brain enough for my eyes to focus, I started noticing the fine print. Here are a few pitfalls you may want to watch out for:

(1) “The more you buy, the lower your price.” This type of sale is always a bit tricky. In the same ad there were 2 different offers of this type, both with the potential for significant savings if you pay careful attention to the details. But both offers also have the potential to cost you more if you aren’t careful. Here’s what I mean:

Scaled Prices. This just means that the price per item decreases as you buy more of the item. Take a recent deal for Lean Cuisine as a good example. The regular price for each entrée is $3.49. The sales price decreases like so: buy one entrée for $2.49; buy five entrees for $1.99 each; and buy 6 entrees for $1.67 each. Buried way down in the ad in very small font is a fine print note that you will pay full price for every item past the 6th.

First, the good news about this deal: $2.49 for one equates to 29% off the regular price; 5 for $1.99 each equals a 43% savings; and 6 for $1.67 each provides a savings of 52%. Clearly, the buy 6 for $1.67 each is very good deal, even without additional coupon savings.

So how could a person make a mistake with this deal? Decide to stock up on Lean Cuisine in a single shopping trip and fail to notice the fine print warning at the bottom of the ad. It’s a common mistake: one that I have made more than once over the years.

To put the problem in concrete financial terms, consider this very real scenario: A recent Lean Cuisine coupon provides a $1 discount if you buy 3 entrees. Let’s say you have 3 of these coupons and decide to buy 9 entrees in one shopping trip. Unfortunately you fail to notice the fine print warning. In the back of your mind you naturally assume that the 7th, 8th and 9th entrée will be priced at a discount, say $1.67, $1.99 or $2.49 each. You do the math and figure that your cost for the 9 entrees should be $12.03, $12.99, or $14.49 pre-sales tax (with the coupon savings factored in). You expect your savings to fall in the range of 54% to 62% compared to buying the 9 entrees at the regular price of $3.49 each.

Like most of us, you have a cart full of stuff and are distracted enough that you do not see the price charged for each entrée at checkout. Much later you realize that your pre-tax cost for the 9 entrees was actually $20.49 because you paid $3.49 each for the 7th, 8th and 9th entrée. This still works out to a savings of 35%, but it is nowhere near what you hoped to achieve. If you are like me, this is doubly painful because by getting hold of just one more $1 off 3 coupon and making two shopping trips to buy 6 entrees with two $1 off coupons, you could end up with 12 entrees for a total price of only $16.04 pre-tax, which is $4.45 less than you would spend buying 9 entrees in one trip. And the savings for the 12 entrees would be 62%. This is a very real case where reading the fine print makes all the difference in the world.

“Buy 10” deal. The other “buy in bulk” deal advertised was a common one: buy 10 items for $10 dollars. In this case it was a “mix and match” deal where you could select ten items from a very broad spectrum of products. Once again, however, buried in the fine print at the bottom of the ad was a warning that the discount applies to 10 items only once per shopping trip and any item beyond the 10th will be charged at the regular price. Miss this one detail and you might show up at the checkout counter with 20 of the “mix and match” items expecting to get the sales price of $10 for each batch of ten items. If you get distracted during checkout this time, you end up paying full price for ten of the 20 items and very likely wipe out any savings you might have racked up on the first ten items. Even if you have good coupons for the 20 items, paying full price for ten of them takes a big bite out of your savings. In my experience, this is an insufferably painful mistake to make, so read the fine print whenever you run across one of these deals.

(2) “Shop More, Save More”. A classic marketing tool, this deal offers a percentage discount off a future checkout purchase based on how much you spend in one month. In a current ad, the highest level discount on a future purchase is 30% off. At first blush this sounds great, however, down in the fine print is the requirement that you must spend $900 in a specific 30 day window of time to get the discount. I don’t know about you, but $900 is much more than I spend over a period of many months.

For the sake of argument though, let’s say I go hog wild and spend $900 in one month and get my 30% off discount on one future shopping trip. Now for more bad news from the fine print: That next shopping trip has to fall in a two week window of time that begins right after the one month shopping period I just spent the $900 in. Another curious point from the fine print: The limit on the 30% savings is $500. Apparently the management and marketing folks at the supermarket think I may want to buy an additional $1,667 of groceries to save $500. So, in a period of 6 weeks, I would spend $2,067 to save $500. On a percentage basis I would end up saving only 24%. Now, if I suddenly found out that I had to cater a modest size wedding, this deal might make some sense; otherwise, I just can’t see how it ever works to my advantage or yours. In this case, understanding the fine print and using your common sense can save you a lot of money and buyers remorse.

(3) “The Hidden Coupon” Some stores like to advertise rock bottom prices in giant numbers in their ads – this is especially helpful for those of us who are bit nearsighted after years of reading the tiny fonts used in print sales ads. But way down in the fine print in extra small font is the disclaimer that the sales price only applies when you clip and provide to the cashier a specific coupon invariably buried on a different page of the circular. Fail to deliver this coupon at checkout time and you will end up paying the regular price for the item – sometimes you may even be charged a price a bit above the regular price.

The other tricky way this deal works is that the ad is provided mid-week in your newspaper with the claim that a manufacturer’s coupon will be provided in an insert in your Sunday paper. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Other times the value and terms of the coupon differ significantly from what the ad indicates. Occasionally, the particular store you shop at isn’t participating in the deal at all, and that fact is nowhere to be found before you arrive at the checkout counter. And finally, sometimes when Sunday rolls around, we completely forget about the coupon and its importance to our shopping plans. For this type of deal, you have to be able to keep track of the details over 4 or 5 days in order to remember to take action when the coupon arrives on you doorstep. If you live a busy and hectic life, this may be difficult to implement consistently, so pay particular attention to the details if you decide to go forward with it.

These are just a few examples of deals where reading and understanding the fine print is essential to achieving meaningful savings at the grocery store. So before you shop, check the fine print.

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