While I work with families to raise healthy kids, I also try to help families hack their retail experience to keep their finances healthy. During office visits, I guide parents and teens to make wiser purchases, teaching them to read nutrition labels and active ingredient lists, rather than judging quality by labels that just look pretty and promising. Here’s an inside look on what I discuss plus some extra tips that I don’t have time to mention in the office. If you would like a quick summary to reference while searching on Amazon or browsing through Target, then sign up for email notifications and I’ll send a pdf with highlights from this post. For those who already follow the blog (thanks!), I’ll send an email out containing the pdf so you don’t have to re-subscribe.
Save money by looking for generics
Have you been drawn to colorful packaging and promises of solving your problems on brand name boxes? Look to the left and right of the product to see if there is a plain store brand version. Put that one in your shopping cart and start saving! For pain medications/fever reducers, the major brands are Motrin, Advil, and Tylenol. Motrin and Advil both contain ibuprofen. Tylenol contains acetaminophen (unless it’s for a cold, headache, sinus, flu, cough, then it might contain other things – read the active ingredients, see the section below). Little Remedies and Pediacare are also brand names that sell acetaminophen syrup for kids. Cute fancy names right? Comes at a premium price especially if you consider how many bottles you might need for those 10-12 colds per year that a normal infant and toddlerin daycare get. Choose generic and watch your savings stack up.
This applies to many other products such as allergy medications, eczema and fungal creams, and even infant formula. I even use the Costco Kirkland version of Dove soap! Sometimes the brand name will have a label that sounds very effective and powerful like “maximum strength relief” or “proven to act fast” but really they are just words. Just words. It might take some practice to look for generics since they don’t really stand out. If you find a product you want, you can always ask the pharmacist or store staff to help you find the generic equivalent. Once you realize that you get more product for a lesser price, choosing generic just becomes a habit.
Save money by reading the ingredients label
Reading the active ingredient labels can also help you save money because it helps you compare products by content rather than the cover and allows you to choose the less expensive option. I always say that hydrocortisone 1% that costs $5 is the same as hydrocortisone 1% that costs $1. Often this leads you to a generic brand, back to the step above. Sometimes, however, a generic is not available, so reading the ingredients label will help narrow down which product to purchase.
For example, on my Acne Attack Plan post, I share the evidence-based ingredients that fight acne. One of them is benzoyl peroxide – 2.5% of it is just as effective as 10% at cleaning acne and maybe a little cheaper. Further more, benzoyl peroxide by any price is still… wait for it… … … benzoyl peroxide. Reading the active ingredient labels might help teens and parents save money by choosing the least expensive benzoyl peroxide product such as this AcneFree cleanser, my favorite, a huge bottle from a company that doesn’t waste money on advertising so us consumers can save – win/win.
Even in the office, I am often looking up a medication on google to check the active ingredients so that I have a more accurate list of what my patient has already tried and to be able to comment on whether or not they should continue taking it. Bonus points for the parents who take photos of their child’s medication or the active ingredients list to save me time! Otherwise, it’s a google lineup of all the Mucinex boxes – does your box look like this purple one, the orange one, or the blue one?
Well, enough about saving me time, here are the numbers on how paying attention to the active ingreidents can save you money. Upon taking down the medication list from one teen having problems sleeping, I learned about ZzzQuil. Never heard of it. Quick online search. Active ingredient: diphenhydramine. Commonly known as Benadryl. Let’s compare. One tablet of ZzzQuil: 25¢. One tablet of Benadryl: 12¢. One tablet of Costco generic equivalent: 1¢. Math was never my best subject, but I’m pretty sure which choice leads to savings.
Another example of this is demonstrated in the quest to quench thirst. When trying to find a healthy drink to hydrate, check out the ingredients. Are you paying a premium for expensive water (and expensive urine as most vitamins just get peed out anyway) or a premium for a heavily sugared drink despite “all natural” packaging. Some teens will respond to my query about fruits and veggies in their diet by excitedly sharing that they consume Naked drinks at school. Look at the nutrition label, they range from 10-23 gram of sugar, no fiber. Or you can avoid having to read drink labels by just turning on the tap.
In conclusion, read the labels, and drink more water.
Save money by ignoring “baby” and “infant”
Many products labeled “baby” are basically the same product but much more expensive. A mom who works in pharmaceuticals told me that a lot more testing (and money) is required to “baby” on the label, so fair enough that the companies would want a return on the investment and charge more. While they earned that label, here’s how to choose products before you dish out your hard-earned money. Or, don’t choose anything at all. Many remedies to fix baby problems are not safe and not necessary. Baby teething tablets and gels are a choking hazard (FDA link) and many generations of babies have done well without them. See the 6th month Q&A post on what you can safely do for teething discomfort (scroll down to the last question). Baby mucus and cold medications sold at the store also have absolutely zilch evidence for effectiveness (post from Dr. Kristen Stuppy on what does work), and in fact, might mask symptoms or delay care for a seriously sick child (post from Dr. Jaime Friedman on when to worry when your child has “just a virus”).
Let’s talk switch gears and talk about seriously dry skin. The “baby” lotions are expensive and come in small tiny quantities, which are not very useful because dry skin often requires multiple applications. In fact, if the babies have dry skin, their parents probably also have genetically pre-disposed dry skin and need a coating of cream themselves. A small several ounce size baby lotion will not fit the needs of a parched skin family at all, so skip the baby aisle of moisturizers. Rather, head over to the regular health aisle (or Amazon) for a large tub of Aquaphor (part of my kids’ routine between bath and books) or economy size Aveeno, Cetaphil, or Cerave lotions/creams. Or, in a pinch, head over to the kitchen for a wad of coconut oil or drizzle of Crisco oil. Yes, that simple stuff works.
Dreft is another common stumbling block for new parents and well meaning baby shower gift givers. Why pay for more than 2x the price for a laundry detergent with a baby on the packaging when you can save money with “free and clear” (of dyes and fragrance) laundry detergent of any other brand? Furthermore, consider this. Wash the baby’s clothes in Dreft. And then what about the shirts adults are wearing that the baby is laying on? Wash everything in with Dreft? No way, right? Then it starts making sense to just wash the whole family’s clothes and sheets with the same, less expensive free and clear detergent. (Also, I save money by using a homemade softener of water, vinegar, and hair conditioner – back story, I ran out Downy one day and of course being a busy resident physician working 80+ hours per week and not having time to go to the store to restock, I googled a quick alternative and have never restocked since then).
I also talk to my patients about buying children’s ibuprofen and children’s acetaminophen instead of the infant’s. If you calculate price per fluid ounce, the children’s is less expensive every single time. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but I’m a big believer that small differences add up, and if you think of all the aches and uncomfortable fevers you will be treating from from back to back viral illnesses in a germ/daycare-exposed child, this requires many many bottles of medicine. Furthermore, the infant’s ibuprofen is a more concentrated formulation, which means that the dosing is not as common and may lead to confusion and error. Stick with children’s and your money will stick with you.
Save money by teaching your kids to be media savvy
Sometimes I talk about financial choices with my teen patients when they ask me about certain products or when the parents rat on their spending choices. I point out that the advertisers and product merchants are not looking out for their best interest, so read the fine print or ignore completely. Those athletes didn’t get amazing strength and agility by drinking sports drinks. They got it by hard work, proper rest and diet, and water. Those young adults looking cool surrounded by beautiful people, what a lie that glamour comes with smoking and alcohol like it advertises. Rather that stuff leads to wrinkles skin, bad breath, and making bad decisions – looking really uncool.
Being media savvy also fits in nicely with my discussion with families on decreasing screen time and obesity. There is a well established link between being sedentary in front of a digital device and obesity. This is partly because kids who watch more TV, and therefore exposed to more ads, are more influenced to buy more unhealthy foods. Decrease screen time and decrease spending on the junk. Check out some tips on decreasing screen time here.
It’s also important to teach kids to be discerning with marketing messages. Asking the food industry to regulate itself has not worked – young kids still see about 3 food ads per day, regulations by age groups don’t work because younger kids will watch programming made for older kids, and the target keeps moving with new technologies to regulate now including shows on YouTube and streaming services. Where government regulations and food industry good will have failed, parents have an opportunity to succeed. Watching TV and YouTube and their ads together will give parents teachable moments to talk to their kids about how the advertisements can be misleading and how to poke holes in their enticing imagery and catchy tunes.
Grocery shopping together is another opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about spending wisely and not falling prey to sly packaging as many studies show that kids’ purchasing choices are influenced by the cartoons on the packaging. I love a quote from this study that “parents bring home the bacon, but it’s probably the kids that pick the brand.” Dietary habits and brand loyalty start even before 6 years old, so if the advertisers don’t think your kids too young to pick up on food packaging designs, then they are not too young to start a conversation about marketing and reading labels.
It’s easy to teach your kids to be media-savvy, but it requires parents to be aware and intentional about passing along those messages to their kids. Like any important lessons in life, talk early and often with your kids. Since media is so pervasive in our lives, these conversations about spending wisely & viewing ads wisely can lead to many other practical lessons on anything from nutrition to screen time limits, to substance use and abuse. More practical tips here.
Save money through subscriptions and memberships
I am often asked by parents about which formula is best for their kids, so I share the story of how I racked up savings by using a Similac and Enfamil coupons to buy the allotted number of cans (usually just one coupon and one tub container limit for each brand) and then buy enough cans of Target formula to reach the amount needed to earn a gift card (Usually $5-25 per $50-150 spent). Furthermore, with a Target credit or debit card, I save 5% more on all purchases. In a way, this is my Target “membership”.
I don’t have time to talk about other memberships at well visits, in between discussions about healthy eating, home and car safety, and developmental screenings, but I do mention them during pre-natal classes where I recommend joining Costco, Sam’s Club, or BJ. I have a Costco membership which has served me well with saving money on gas, kid’s jackets, wipes, food, and a cordless Dyson vacuum that has been a workhorse for picking up kitchen crumbs. I found that pull-ups and diapers are cheaper when purchased on sale and with coupons at Target or Amazon.
That brings me to my next favorite retail shop, Amazon. I finally decided to join Amazon Prime in 2016 and it has been a good relationship so far. Since I don’t have cable or Netflix, I have also taken advantage of the Amazon Prime videos (Dinosaur Train, Daniel Tiger, Lumowell cardio and core strengthening videos) and music when my kids occasionally get to watch (see here on my rules for screen time) or when they ask to dance to the Trollz soundtrack (available on the app for free now while Moana is not, but better than paying $9.99 per month for Apple music in my humble opinion).
With regards to Amazon and Target, being a member also lowers or eliminates the minimum purchase needed for free shipping. This also saves money AND time (which is money too!) because I no longer have to search for a product that I don’t really need to reach the $25 or $35 threshold to qualify for free shipping. With a minimum purchase requirement, I usually end up buying something I don’t need, spend more than the threshold, waste a couple hours trying to search for that perfect item to qualify for free shipping. That’s a couple precious hours I could have used to finish notes, play with my kids, or work on a blog post. But worry not with Target, I pick the flour or shirt I need, complete my purchase, and move on with life.
Save money (and the world) by teaching your kids to save
Here are my last thought for this blog on saving money. Growing up, my mom said “no” to a lot of things I wanted. She emphasized that she bought me what I needed and only some things I wanted. It helped that my family wasn’t big on gift giving during the holidays or birthdays, so I didn’t grow up expecting presents at every occasion. Even though I saw my friends get showered with toys and even cars, I never felt any less loved but I did feel like I was missing out sometimes. Now, however, I have grown to look for what I – Joannie – need, and not what I should have to keep up with the Joneses. E.g. I only have one TV in the house that’s now more than 10 years old, my nails are rarely manicured (3 times as of this date actually), and we have only one $5 garage sale American Girl doll that my kids often fight over (the compromise they’ve worked out is that she belongs to my 5 year old but the 2.5 year old gets to babysit while her older sister and mommy play a board game or work out uninterrupted). Also, less buying stuff for my kids ultimately means less trash on earth – post coming soon how how I told my kids we stopped buying disposable straws to save the animals.
I hope saying “no” to my kids at the grocery and toy stores will help them as adults to walk away empty handed if they don’t find what they need. I hope to teach them lessons on why we are saving – for a better future for ourselves and for others. While I don’t often buy gifts for my kids, I love helping my kids pick out a gift for their friend’s birthday and retrieving canned and boxed goods to donate. I plan to start giving them an allowance soon (probably just a quarter per week, not tied to chores) and will have them split their money into 3 jars: spend, save, and give (future posts coming soon on allowances and chores). Maybe it’s a bit lofty, but I do think that lessons on money can blend into lessons on kindness and making a difference in the world.