Monday, September 29, 2014

7 Reasons Why Shopping at Aldi Isn't So Bad

If you've never checked out Aldi before, it's a discount supermarket chain where about 90% of the products are its own store brand.  It's very no-frills -- most items are displayed in boxes, you bag your own groceries, you bring your own bags or buy some of theirs, and you pay a quarter deposit to use a shopping cart, which you get back once you've returned it to the cart corral and connected it back to the other carts.  They also don't take credit cards -- it's cash or debit only.  They do all of this to help keep their costs low.

I don't have any issue with store brands.  I love shopping at Trader Joe's, which is a similar experience. (Side note: Many people will tell you that Trader Joe's and Aldi are owned by the same parent company, but that's not quite true.  There are two "Aldi" brands run by different parts of the same family.  Trader Joe's is run by a trust of the other Aldi brand.)

But I'm going to be honest; for the longest time, I did not want to step foot in Aldi.  My mom fell in love from the moment one was built in my hometown, but I was not impressed by the things she brought home.  Overly processed junk, I thought.  Full of chemicals and additives and nasty things that, while I grew up on and came out completely fine, I just didn't like putting in my body anymore.  I wrote it off as a case of "you get what you pay for."

That is, until my family was left without any income other than my husband's unemployment checks, which didn't even cover our bills.  When my new goal became "feed our family for as few dollars as humanly possible," I evaluated all of my options, Aldi being one of them.

The result?  It's not nearly as bad as I thought.  Here's why:
  1. They have the cheapest prices in town on basic staples.  Need milk, bread, butter or eggs?  Unless your supermarket's having an awesome sale, Aldi's prices are always lower.  Sometimes, the price beats even the best sale.  I'm pretty sure these items are loss leaders for them, ways to get you in the door so you'll hopefully buy more products.  My Aldi has signs saying they have the right to impose a limit of 5 items for bread, milk and eggs, though I've seen people coming out of the store with a cart literally full of milk or bread.  Don't ask me what they do with it all, but clearly they know the best place to shop.

  2. They have a good deal of natural food options for cheap.  In addition to those basic staples, Aldi has a growing natural foods line, including some organic products, at great prices.  I love their fruit pouches for my daughter -- they have nothing but fruit in them, and are only $1.99 for a 4-pack.  They also have nitrate-free deli meat, organic milk and soymilk, 100% juices, and all-natural almond butter, among other things.  They've even had grass-fed beef on occasion as a special buy.  This is a fairly new development in the world of Aldi, but a welcome one!

  3. Their produce section is small, but can't be beat.  You're not going to find exotic fruits and vegetables here, but for your most common produce items, particularly the ones in season, you can get great deals.  They have the cheapest banana prices anywhere, which is great for my Yonanas frozen fruit habit.  I usually buy romaine hearts here too -- they're super-easy to cut up real quick to create a green salad instead of spending more on the pre-cut stuff (which they also have, if you're looking for convenience).  They've also started carrying a few organic options.

  4. Their private brand is often another brand in disguise.  This is common among private labels, but sometimes you're buying the same product you'd get somewhere else, just with a different brand slapped on top of it.  Sometimes it's hard to find this information, because the brands don't want you to know, but one cool thing I learned is that you can look up the dairy code on a gallon of milk to figure out where it was produced.  The milk at my Aldi is from a local dairy, whose milk costs significantly more as a branded name in my regular supermarket.  (And happily, it's rBST-free!)  I've also noticed that Aldi carries several products that Trader Joe's also sells, but for less.  The nitrate-free deli meat is in a nearly identical package and tastes the same.  They also have one of my major Trader Joe's addictions during the fall as a seasonal item -- maple leaf cookies -- and they're even cheaper than the completely reasonable price at Trader Joe's.
  5. Their selection is constantly changing, and what's leaving can often be scored at a great deal.  Food-wise, Aldi tends to have a variety of seasonal products, occasional things they get from a name brand at a good deal, or things they're just trying out.  If the store needs to get rid of an item to make room for something new, the deals get even better.  I usually walk around my store whenever I go, looking for red price labels.  Red means it's marked down as clearance.  One time I got a package of hamburger buns for $0.25 because they just had too many, and then got my $.25 back as a rebate using Checkout 51.  And it's not just food -- Aldi also has a section of seasonal home goods.  For the past couple of weeks, they've had this Fisher-Price Infant to Toddler Swing on clearance for $4.99, because summer's over and they have to go.  It's $25 on Amazon.  If I was into reselling, I could make myself a good profit!

  6. You can get in and out quickly.  The store is on the smaller side and is easy to navigate.  Once you've been there a couple of times you know where everything is.  While they usually only have one or two cashiers operating at a time, they're speedy.  The products have barcodes all over them to help facilitate quicker scanning, and because you're doing the bagging, all they have to do is set it all in a cart for you.  All in all, it's way faster than a trip to my regular supermarket.  Time is money!

  7. Aldi pays its workers well.  Personally, I love supporting businesses that pay their employees reasonable wages.  That often doesn't happen with a discount chain (ahem, Walmart), but Aldi pays its employees well above minimum wage.  They do have to work for it -- with a small crew, employees have more responsibilities -- but at least they make a reasonable income.  I've noticed fairly low turnover at my store as well, so they must be doing something right!
With my husband's commute and work schedule, and my busy day working and chasing a toddler, I don't have as much time as I once did for carefully planning out my shopping list with coupons.  I'm finding that Aldi is doing a great job of helping me continue to keep my costs fairly low without quite as much effort.  I coupon for what I can, but rely on Aldi to help me save on many of the things my family needs every day without the clipping.  Plus, I can use Aldi's stable, low prices to determine whether or not a deal elsewhere is good or not worth the effort.

Are you an avid Aldi shopper or just thinking about giving it a go?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sensibly Earning -- and a life update

The past two months have been a complete whirlwind for my family and me, so I had to take an unexpected break from blogging.

My husband got two job offers in August, and after much stress and an almost relocation, he accepted a position with a company an hour and a half commute from home.

After the job offer situation was settled, we spent nearly two weeks traveling as a family, enjoying the last bits of summer.

And this month, we've been all about getting settled into our new weekday routine.  My husband started work after Labor Day and things are well, but him being gone 12 hours (or more) a day has been a major adjustment for our family!

Adding to the chaos, I also accepted a great opportunity in late July.  I now work from home, part-time, making my own hours.  Can it get any better?  I'm all about sensibly earning just as much as I am saving, so I wanted to share this with you!

Now, I know what you're thinking.  Am I selling something?  Because honestly, in my experience, it seems that about 90% of work-at-home moms are doing direct sales for some sort of product.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it's just not my thing.  I'm not a sales girl.  But I am a tech girl, and that's why I jumped on the opportunity to get involved with search engine evaluation.

Ever wonder how search engines can have such good results?  A lot of it is a smart algorithm, but some things just need human context.  That's where raters come in.  Personally I'm an ads assessor -- I review the pages that come up when you click on one of the sponsored links you see at the top of the results.  I look at what you searched for and determine how relevant that content is to what you wanted.

I work for Lionbridge, who contracts me out to one of the major search engines.  I'm an independent contractor, so I am responsible for withholding my own taxes.  But I can work whenever I'd like, in the range of 10-20 hours a week, so I can work when my daughter is napping or sleeping.  The pay is decent too -- far better than minimum wage.

The process to get the position is a little different than your typical job.  There is no interview.  Once they accept your online application, they provide you with access to a portal where you get the rating guidelines manual and some additional material to help you learn what you'd be doing.  After working through a series of 100 practice questions, you take a final exam using examples very similar to what you'd be judging.  It's open book, so you can look at your guidelines as much as you'd like.  So long as you pass, you're invited to begin work.

To remain in the program, there are some quality metrics that you have to maintain.  There's a target rate of judgments per hour, but it's totally attainable, especially once you get used to it.  There are random audits to help evaluate you, but there is a lot of feedback and plenty of opportunity to improve.  They also have weekly webinars you can attend where they talk about common areas of confusion.

Payment is a little different than your typical job as well, as it's only once a month.  It could be as long as 60 days before you see your first payment, depending on when you start, thanks to processing.  Payment is done via an international wire transfer into your bank account.  I know "international wire transfer" sounds like some crazy scam, but I assure you it's not -- Lionbridge's headquarters is just outside of the US, and it's basically like getting a direct deposit.  You'll just want to check into whether or not your bank may charge any fees.  Mine does not.

After doing this for nearly two months, I'm so thankful to have found such a perfect opportunity.  I'm providing some extra income for our family while also getting to stay home with my daughter.  If you factor in the amount we'd be paying for daycare if I was working a more traditional job, I'm really bringing in a lot!  It is sometimes a bit stressful for me because nearly all of my downtime is spent working, but it's worth the effort.  The job itself is fairly easy, and I love that there is zero work stress.

If you're interested in looking into it more, you can check out Lionbridge's job posting for Ads Assessor.  They also have other opportunities you can look into.

There are also other companies that conduct similar work.  I obviously don't have any personal experience with them, but you can find a lot of info with some Google searching.  So if Lionbridge doesn't work out for you, you could also search for opportunities from ZeroChaos, Appen Butler Hill, and iSoftStone.