Reader Jennifer Gwennifer raises a timely question:
When I can, I try to support small, family-operated businesses instead of “big box” stores like Walmart. However, I live in a coastal area of New England that is overrun with tourists in the summer, which means I end up paying slightly higher “tourist” prices for some things in the summer months. Some hotels and businesses shut down completely from November to April, so my range of choices also varies throughout the year.
But, like many people, I'm on a budget, and there are lean times when I don't have a choice — I have to go with the lowest price. I was always taught that supporting local businesses helps your community stay vibrant and attract commerce, and you help other people support their families.
But when aspiring to be frugal, the general advice is usually to do that project yourself, or stay at home instead of going out. Where does this leave the carpenters, hairdressers, and ice-cream scoopers? Do you try to support local businesses even if the prices are higher? How much more would you spend before you can't justify the cost? Ten percent? Twenty? Are you more likely to pay extra for goods or for services?
Like most things in personal finance, the decision is not limited to the strict cost comparison between two sellers. Every individual will assign a different value to small, local businesses — making it impossible to draw the same line in the sand for everyone.
Given that the economy is still in recovery mode, everyone is begging for your business, and the decision of who gets your hard-earned dollars can be a difficult one. Yes, Walmart may have an item $2 cheaper than your local mom-and-pop mart, but that's not the only thing to consider. Do you have to drive across town to score the cheapest price? If so, then factor in gas and your time as well.
On the other hand, many local stores simply don't have the variety of products to accommodate an efficient shopping trip. Many people find themselves having to run to various locations for the same inventory one could find at a box store.
But while there is a dollars-and-cents comparison to be made, that's not the only reason you might willingly pay a higher price for an item or service. I'm willing to pay the higher price for better service, better knowledge and/or a better experience.
I could get some cheaper groceries at the megamart, but I hate fighting the crowds, disorganized aisles and the lengthy checkout lines. Here in Florida, we are lucky to be able to shop at Publix, an employee-owned grocery store that consistently lands on “Best Places to Work” lists. Even though it is the fourth-largest grocery chain in the U.S., the employers are friendly and helpful and they still have baggers who walk your bags out to your card. Their prices may be slightly higher than Walmart's, but the experience is worth it.
But this is not always the case. A colleague related that she recently needed to buy a baby shower gift and went to the trendy boutique where the parents had registered. The store was adorable, and the woman behind the counter was pleasant and offered her help if she needed it. But when she started checking prices, she suffered some sticker shock. She just couldn't justify spending over 20 percent more for the same items she'd seen at box stores and online. She went home, ordered the same item online (cheaper and with free shipping) and called the store to have the item marked off the registry.
As she told me, “I made the decision to support my budget instead of the boutique. And if others follow suit, that boutique may not be there next time I drive by.”
It does go beyond finance, though. Consider how would you feel if you drove by that independent book store, that home-grown boutique, or the artisan coffee shop and saw that it was closed? Are you sad — angry that nothing in the neighborhood makes it? Apathetic because you never went there? Or are you glad to see it go and replaced by a Papa John's?
So tell us if and where you draw the line between being a local supporter and a budget minder.
Author: Ellen Cannon
Ellen Cannon was the editorial director of the financial services sites at QuinStreet from 2010-2015. She has covered personal finance for magazines and websites for more than 20 years, including five years as managing editor of Bankrate.com. She lives in South Florida with her kitty and sunshine.