My fiancee and I go grocery shopping weekly. We trade off weeks on paying. We usually spend around $100 for the week, which pays for essentially all of our meals and household goods. (We'll eat out one dinner, on average, per week - and that usually means either something like Baja Fresh [less than $20 for the two of us] or ordering Chinese or pizza [around $30-$40 for the two of us, with plenty of leftovers]. We also buy some of our cleaners and whatnot at Target, where they tend to be cheaper, but that's a less than monthly occurrence and rarely involves spending much money.) This routine is the way to ensure that we always have plenty of food and don't have to worry about what to eat when we get home from a long day. We go through phases - sometimes we're more careful and premeditated about planning our meals for the week, while other times we just buy the standards and improvise.
In general I'd say we're pretty organized about it. We keep a list of stuff we need on the refrigerator. Rarely do we write all the standards down, but we do use the list to keep track of the stuff we run out of periodically (e.g., bleach, salt, lightbulbs, toothpaste) that we might forget to buy, or whatever special items we might need for the week (to cook something we don't usually cook, for example). We don't clip coupons but we do look at the coupons from the previous week's receipt to see if there's anything we can use, and we will sometimes (not always, but sometimes) change brands if something's on sale. If there's a great sale but the item is out of stock, we don't go to the extent of getting a rain check from the store.
We go to the store enough to know which items periodically go on sale. When we used to buy soda each week, we'd buy Coke products one week and Pepsi products the next because that was the way the sales went (not our preference, which I think for both of us would have been Coke products every week). Chicken breasts go on sale every third week or so, so we stock up then and don't buy in the intervening weeks. Our current long-standing struggle is the wait for Extra Gum to go on sale. It used to go on sale occasionally for 2-for-1, and we would totally stock up. But now I feel like we've been waiting for months and months for it to go on sale again. We grudgingly buy one 8-pack and hope the next week brings the sale - it never does.
There are occasional exceptions - if we really want to make something special one week and we're low on chicken breasts, for example, we'd buy some regardless of whether they're on sale. There's a food co-op near our apartment, and we get some of our vegetables there because, although more expensive, they are notably tastier than their supermarket equivalents.
All this is to say that we're cost-conscious, but not excessively so.
We like to go grocery shopping at off times, so as to avoid the crowds. Since we'll rarely take a weeknight to go, this means we most often go either early in the morning or in the evening on Saturday or Sunday. Different times have their own advantages and disadvantages. We don't always go to the same store, either (depending on what we need and what other stores we need to go to) and different stores, we've noticed, are popular at different times. But I think both of us are of the mind that the less crowded the roads and stores are, the better.
I for one get irritated while shopping extraordinarily quickly. And I don't think either of us particularly enjoy grocery shopping. We don't hate it, but it is a chore. So sometimes we put it off and wind up going Sunday night. The big drawback on Sunday night is that the store usually looks like it got hit by a tornado from the hordes of shoppers that were there earlier in the day. It's not uncommon to find that several things we want are totally sold out.
This past Sunday, it had already started to snow by the time we got motivated enough to get in the car and head to the store in the evening. The store wasn't that crowded, though more crowded than I think we would have liked. (Saturday night is the best: no crowds, the shelves are stocked...the only problem is, it's Saturday night.)
We were wheeling our cart down one of the aisles when a woman walking front of me, going through her wallet as she walked, dropped a $20 bill. I expected her to see it and pick it up immediately, but she didn't - she kept walking. I then expected one of the other people in the aisle to see it and pick it up, but everyone was too transfixed by choosing a salad dressing or cooking wine. So I went over and picked it up, again expecting that someone would notice and give me a dirty look. No one did.
The $20 was mine.
To my surprise, I immediately found myself chasing down the woman who dropped it and giving it back. She was thankful and, obviously, it was a little ego boost for me. But I also found myself analyzing the situation and especially my response.
Part of the issue was the value: I thought that it was "only" $20 (never mind that it would have more than paid for our dinner at Baja Fresh). When I was a kid, I thought $1 was a lot of money. This reminds me of a story. My dad really liked spending Saturdays going bargain hunting at garage sales. He would look up garage sales in the paper and drive around for hours from one to another. He even had a verb for it: he called it "garage sale-ing", which I always thought connoted something far too dynamic. Anyway, I never really minded going to garage sales when I was a kid, though after a while it certainly got tedious. Some of them had toys and - later - books. And my dad was looking for particular types of things, and was very good at spotting them, so sometimes he would just do a "drive-by" without stopping. This was sometimes good and sometimes bad. Anyway, the point (and I really do have what Stephen King calls "verbal diarrhea" today, don't I?) was that, probably in part to purchase our cooperation, my dad came up with what he called an "allowance" for us. It was 25 cents, and you would get it if: a) you were at a garage sale with him; b) you saw something you wanted that was 25 cents or less (this part is not so terribly unreasonable as it might sound, though even back then it was fairly restrictive); c) he approved of your getting it (this part is unnecessarily controlling, but then again, who are we talking about here?); and d) he wasn't pissed off at you for something (this part was more restrictive than it sounds). Even back then, though, I thought the annoying part of the whole business (and this tells you something about me, and why I chafed so much under his yoke) was the way he would refer to this 25 cents, both at the garage sales and in entirely different contexts, and frequently in front of other people, as "your allowance". You know, as though it was a real allowance and he was a big soft indulgent dad who spoiled his kids...not a paltry sum of money given only under the most restrictive of conditions in exchange for hours of patience. I would have gladly given the quarters back - or whatever crap I managed to get with them - to not have to listen to that sort of talk.
Anyway, back to the grocery store, where it occurred to me that even a couple of years ago I never would have thought that was "only" $20. (Note: that doesn't mean I wouldn't have given it back, just that I would have respected it a lot more.) Once when I was in 4th grade I found a $10 bill near a classmate's house. That was amazing. This kid was a jerk, and grumbled about his mom losing a $10 bill, but even back then I wasn't so naive as to part with it. (A few years ago, I found one of those old $10 bills inside a used book I'd purchased for far less than $10. That was neat, too, though not rising to the realm of amazing.) When I was a postdoc, I was having troubles with my car, and I brought it to the local Firestone, and instead of doing a visual inspection (the problem wound up being a hole in the exhaust system) they did a diagnostic that cost around $90. I was utterly furious, wrote them a letter, and never brought my car back there again. $90 was crazy money to me then.
All this is to say, my attitudes towards money are evidently evolving in closely coordinated fashion with my income. The corresponding thought I had, as I picked up the bill, was that the woman who dropped it probably needed it more than me. Now, I'd barely seen her, but she wasn't obviously homeless, she wasn't wearing rags, she was walking through the grocery store just like me. I don't know why I made that assumption, but chances are that had the same incident occurred four years ago, my assumption would have been precisely the opposite. (Again, not to say that had this happened when I was a poor poor postdoc I wouldn't have returned the money. I might have. I don't know. It's not really the point, either way.)
So the question is: what if it had been $100? $1000? $100 is borderline for me at this point (though it would have paid for the groceries) but $1000 is still a lot of money to me. It shouldn't matter, but it does. And what if the woman was a millionaire and wouldn't even miss $1000? (What if I was a millionaire and really didn't need the money, be it $20 or $1000? Maybe I wouldn't be at the grocery store then...though, knowing me, yeah I would.) I guess where all this comes from is I was trying to calculate my good karma and finding it was not a simple calculation.
The clincher, though, was that I'd seen her drop it. If I'd just found it I would have looked around and, seeing no immediate takers, pocketed it. That'd go for $1 or $10,000. There's always the chance it was stolen, but with regular old cash? (I'd like to think I would return a wallet with $5,000 in it, cash intact. That's good karma and clearly the right thing to do. But $5,000 in a paper bag on the street with nothing else? That's mine, baby.)
So I don't really know why this very simple incident (which took around 10 seconds in total) led me to write this long post. To sum it up, I guess I'd say: 1) I'm still coming to terms with making a decent income; 2) fuck academia for not paying me a decent income; 3) karma is complicated; 4) values (not ethics, but numerical values) can be relative (I mean, maybe ethics can too: that's a different issue); 4) my dad was cheap when I was growing up, but being controlling was far worse; and 5) I may overthink everything, but I still felt good - in the most uncomplicated way - for giving that woman her $20 back. And even better that I did it before all this overanalysis kicked in.