1 WWYD: Shopping Across the Border | The Billfold

WWYD: Shopping Across the Border

Today in “WWYD,” are you destroying your country if you shop across the border?

I noticed today, in my western Canadian hometown, that butter is $6.10/lb—I notice because for the last three years my husband and I have almost exclusively done our grocery shopping in the U.S. We’re part of a huge number of border-adjacent Canadians that travel frequently to the US to get groceries, household goods, and just basically everything. In recent months we’ve become the subject of much media focus, as Canadian businesses draw attention to the $5.2 billion that we’re leaving in the U.S. annually.

Commentators on these stories often say that this practice is basically destroying our country. Because my hubs and I take these American spending weekends every six weeks or so, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. We save thousands of dollars a year, and are able to identify ways to cut back on our consumption—it’s easy to decide to never buy paper towels again when you live without them between trips—yet I do feel guilty. I love being Canadian, but I also love being able to afford butter.

And yes, we do save thousands even when we account for gas, the use of our cars, and the time it takes. We’ve had many lovely weekends in the Pacific Northwest (but always Target adjacent!) For the record, when we do buy in Canada, I make a big effort to shop local. What would you do? — A.

A., thank you for your business! Our economy thanks you. Please continue to spend your money here—think of it as contributing to the global economy.

Okay, seriously though, I’d like people to chime in on this one. I have never considered crossing the border to save money on goods by buying them in another country. I’m also the sort of person who will occasionally do my grocery shopping at the expensive specialty food store near my apartment because it saves me time and the energy of having to walk with heavy bags for several blocks from the more affordable store, or having to protect my groceries from being trampled if I’m taking a crowded subway (though I still choose to walk to the more affordable store to do most of my grocery shopping).

I try to be a conscious consumer. I shop at the farmer’s market, and dine in local restaurants. I don’t check the tags on my clothes to see where they are made, but I try to stay away from fast fashion and buy things I know will last. This doesn’t mean I don’t eat at chain restaurants—I do sometimes. And I’m sure if I looked through my tags, I will discover that a lot of the things I own aren’t produced in the U.S. It’s a balancing act: farmer’s market one day, Chipotle burrito another day.

And it sounds to me like it’s also a balancing act for you: Saving thousands by buying goods across the border, and using some of that money you saved by shopping local. Making that effort counts for a lot. I don’t think it makes you a bad Canadian. Here’s something from the Calgary Herald I just read regarding Canada’s weak economic growth: “The Bank of Canada has counted on exports and business investment to take up the slack, but that will depend on foreign markets, particularly the U.S., becoming stronger economically.” Maybe we’re all in this together.


Email me your WWYD experiences to me with “WWYD” in the subject line. See previous installments.



55 Comments / Post A Comment

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

I do the same thing, and feel no guilt. Yes, it’s more expensive to do business in Canada due to geography, economies of scale, and language laws, but when a bottle of wine that costs $20 in Canada is $6 in the US the government-run Canadian liquor store can go to hell. Canadian businesses charge more above the extra costs of doing business in Canada because they can, because Canadian consumers put up with it.

megsy (#1,565)

@Worker Parasite It’s interesting because some of the wine prices in the LCBO are on par with U.S. prices. I find that’s the case when it comes to better wines that you would get through Vintages or private ordering. A lot of the mass produced, bulk crap you buy on the General List, however, is horrendously overpriced.

loren smith (#2,300)

@megsy I know the Veuve Clicquot Rose I like is $85 at a BCL, and about $40 at Target – I know that’s a mass produced wine, but is the difference really smaller with more interesting wines? I have to admit when I lived in Ontario, I mainly drank Labatt 50, so it could be a provincial thing.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@megsy I’m in BC, and I’m no wine connoisseur, so I’m usually buying the mass produced, bulk crap, but at less than half of the price! I don’t know what the variances between the BCL and LCBO are, but I find that price gap holds true for most alcohol (eg – 60 oz of decent vodka is ~$70 in BC, but ~$30 in Washington state).

I always get a kick out of seeing people with BC plates in the Bellingham, WA Costco parking lot filling their trunk with Canadian-made beer.

megsy (#1,565)

@loren smith It is! A California Chardonnay I picked from the Vintages website at the LCBO is $67, $55 at the winery. So that’s nowhere near as crazy an effect as the Veuve Cliquot Rose in your example.

megsy (#1,565)

@Worker Parasite I’m finishing up a sommelier program (among other things), so I don’t buy the mass produced, bulk crap because it’s too… accessible? I don’t like wine that is made to appeal to everyone by either adding sugar or smoothing out the fruit. I’m enough of a wine snob that I like to see character in what I’m drinking – like a particularly memorable smoky, meaty red from the Rhône… things like that.
I don’t feel as cheated buying from the LCBO now that I’ve seen the difference!
ALSO – we buy beer in Quebec where it’s about $24 for 24. Considerably cheaper than Ontario.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@megsy I’m glad to hear that some inaccessible products aren’t absurdly overpriced – I would have assumed that those would be the ones with the most ridiculous markup based on my experiences in buying hard-to-find parts for my Jaguar on both sides of the border.

uggggghhhhhhh (#3,460)

@megsy congratulations, how wonderful for you.

megsy (#1,565)

@Worker Parasite they’re easy to get through Vintages… it’s just that a lot of people want the same wines, so they can make more money. It’s like buying pinot grigio at a restaurant – sommeliers/restauranteurs hate it but they know how profitable it can be for people to buy. So the markup on a low priced pinot grigio is often noticeably higher than on the other wines.

A prof brought this up in class today (though speaking of Ireland and Northern Ireland): the govt wants corporations to come take advantage of a better economic climate, but doesn’t want its citizens to go elsewhere for their own benefit. So basically he was saying you do you (or ye do ye, as it would sound with his accent). I would not feel bad about going elsewhere for a better deal.

Blondsak (#2,299)

I personally don’t see an ethical dilemma with shopping in the US, but as someone who survived on tips in North Dakota for some time and dealt with border-hopping Canadians on a regular basis, I do ask that you TIP YOUR WAITERS, WAITRESSES AND BARTENDERS. That may not be how it’s done in Canada, but here in the US those who survive on tips literally cannot afford things like rent, food and clothing if the people we provide service to do not adequately tip us for good service. Please try to tip at least 15 percent of your final bill (and if the service was less than stellar don’t tip nothing – just tip less, like 10 percent). PLEASE CANADIANS I BEG OF YOU.

loren smith (#2,300)

@Blondsak Wow – do Canadians really not tip you? I’m Canadian, and always assumed that tipping was a shared cultural point. I always tip extra in the States because everything is so cheap!

highjump (#39)

@Blondsak A friend worked at a chain restaurant in Grand Forks during college and complained of this constantly.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@Blondsak I think this one goes both ways. I worked as a server in a Canadian border town back when the US dollar was worth about $1.50 Canadian – which meant a lot of Americans doing cross-border shopping to save money (Canadian prices are higher, but not 50% higher, usually), and we always dreaded the “cheap Americans” who wouldn’t tip. I wonder if lousy tippers from another area stick out more in our minds, because when I think of it with the benefit of time and distance, plenty of Americans tipped me really well, and plenty of Canadians stiffed me. It was just the Americans that came in with eleventy billion bags of purchases who didn’t tip that stick out in my mind because they were unusual and I was bitter that they had spent hundreds of dollars but left me a single $1 bill on a $50 order.

But as @loren smith wrote, tipping expectations in both countries seem to be identical.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@Worker Parasite Also, we’re turning a discussion about cross-border shopping into a discussion about tipping?! thebillfold.com? More like theletscomplainaboutlousytippersatthedropofahat.com, amirite?

megsy (#1,565)

@Worker Parasite I was in a small town in Quebec (Tadoussac) that is popular for whale watching. They felt it necessary to inform us about tipping in a few restaurants – which was driving me nuts, by the way, because they were obnoxious about it – and when I asked them why they said they couldn’t figure out if we were Canadian or American from our accents. So I think the “bad tipping” goes both ways… maybe Americans think they don’t have to tip up here?

Blondsak (#2,299)

@everyone It wasn’t just lousy tipping, it was ZERO tipping, from about 30% of my customers every weekend, almost all of whom I knew were Canadians because 1) when you live that close to the border, you know the difference in accents readily, 2) I could see their license plates from the restaurant windows, and 3) the worst: some of them would leave Canadian money. I didn’t know anyone who shopped in Canada, so cannot say how they tipped.

I wonder now if Canadians and Americans just don’t know the practices of the other country, and both assume that the other country’s servers are paid fair wages?

Blondsak (#2,299)

@Worker Parasite I didn’t complain, I implored.

uggggghhhhhhh (#3,460)

@Blondsak as a canadian who has worked in an american-dominated tourist economy, i can sure think of some things i could implore tourists to do…
sadly, i doubt any of my annoying customers read the billfold, just as i’m sure that you’re preaching to the choir about tipping. if you want to reach out to people, maybe try writing letters to the editor of the cross-border towns that are closest to you?

Blondsak (#2,299)

When it comes to the comment sections of any blogs, one can always make the argument that there are better places we could be writing our opinions and experiences on any subject. As this is a website focused on managing and handling money and more specifically a post about Canadians crossing the Canadian-American border to shop, I don’t think my comments are out of context. Moreover, I was sharing my personal experiences on this exact topic, experiences which directly affected my income at the time (I no longer live in that area of the country and now work in a different industry).

If you want to implore American tourists here, by all means, go ahead. As long as it relates to the main purpose of the blog and is not obscene, I don’t see any problem with that. As I have never been to Canada (despite living very close), I would be interested to hear what you have to say.

Blondsak (#2,299)

I do like your idea of writing to the editors of towns nearby. I will definitely share that with some of my old friends who still work up there.

ugggggghhhhhhh (#3,462)

@Blondsak As a Canadian, I was pretty offended by your comment, but que sara sara.

I, personally, would love it if Americans would realize that Canada is a sovereign and separate nation state. We have our own currency! It is often now worth more than the greenback. Please don’t come across the border and act surprised or rude when I won’t give you change in American dollars. That is illegal. Please don’t ask where my igloo is (not even kidding) or if I eat seal blubber. Just think slightly about what you are saying – surely you have an education system down there that people attend?
Anyhoo, service industry is the worst, eh?

Winfield (#3,368)

@ugggggghhhhhhh As an American who has spent alot of time in Canada I would ask that you lighten up, Francis…at least about the jokes. I’ve heard you guys say far worse about Americans for no reason.

megsy (#1,565)

I have no problems with it. Canadians are regularly gouged. Seeing as how Loblaws owns grocery stores under many different names, regularly “competing” with itself… they could probably help to keep butter down at a more reasonable level. I buy mine at the super walmart, which costs about $2.99/lb.
We also have a number of ways in which prices are manipulated contrary to the free market. Dairy boards, maple syrup cartels, etc. I’m way too lazy to buy groceries in the States – and as a single female, the savings aren’t really worth it for me (if I had a big family, though, the waits at borders and general hassles of the system could make it tempting) since I buy one bag of milk every 2-3 weeks, make food that lasts for centuries, etc.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@megsy 1. ‘bag of milk’ love it
2. Loblaws? Is that a chain? Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog??

megsy (#1,565)

@bgprincipessa don’t mock the bag of milk! “Loblaws Companies Limited” is a huge grocery chain (over 1000 stores), publicly traded, etc. They use 20 or so different names for stores… and the company that runs it and have a controlling interest are insanely wealthy.

falconet (#1,675)

@megsy Let us not even talk about the price of books – the dollar has been at or around parity for a long time, and books are still marked up like mad. My local independent bookstore actually adjusts their prices down when the dollar is doing well, and because of this I will shop there forever.

missvancity (#146)

@falconet I’m glad you’ll shop at your local indie forever, that’s awesome! But there are a lot of non-price gouging reasons that books are more expensive in Canada. Also, it’s not across the board. Some publishers *cough*Random House*cough* are way worse than others!

megsy (#1,565)

@falconet oh I know! I hate to buy from Chapters/Indigo… and I used to work there. Indie bookstores are the BEST!

shan@twitter (#2,836)

I’m American, but go to school in Canada, and wait to buy things like razor blades/shampoo/etc in the US over breaks if possible. But I also spend my (mostly American-earned) money living here — not to mention thousands and thousands in tuition dollars — so I think Canada still gets the better end of the deal.

EM (#1,012)

Maybe if all the Canadians go to America to buy booze, Canada will stop gouging us for liquor prices and cut it out with the ridiculous liquor laws.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@Michelle I wish! More likely they’d just jack up the prices to try to compensate for lower sales.

I will say the most ridiculous liquor laws I’ve ever encountered were actually in America, but it was Utah, so that’s not surprising.

loren smith (#2,300)

@Michelle I envision like, a really amazing march, followed by the biggest, most hungover north bound border lines the CBSA has seen!

dirndl (#3,459)

I’m Canadian/American, but I live on the Swiss/German border (technically in Germany, but only by about 150 metres). I buy certain things in Switzerland when they’re cheaper (Italian coffee, British tea, gas, and random IKEA products) and I have no qualms about it, because the Swiss are all up in our shops, clogging the check-out lines with their VAT refund forms. I might feel differently if I had a greater stake in one of the two countries, but I think they’re both getting some benefit.

I’m from a small town in northern Canada (no cross-border shopping for me!) but I have the same issue with buying local vs. driving to the next city or going to a chain store to get it cheaper. I try to buy as much as I can from local stores, even though it means my wardrobe is much much smaller, and I have to get creative with my food to save money and find yet another use for cabbage and root vegetables.

It’s worth it to me because it’s not an abstract “support the local economy” thing, I know the people I’m handing my money to, and I’d rather give my money to my friends and neighbours than a multinational corporation. I think you should follow Mike’s advice and buy some things from locally-owned shops and farmers in between the trips south.

But I’ve gotta say, where are you buying your $6/lb butter?! I’m almost literally in the middle of nowhere and it’s $4/lb at Safeway.

loren smith (#2,300)

@MilesofMountains breaking the forth wall! The downtown supermarket by my office. Small, independent grocer, not a luxury store at all – lots of processed foods, cheap produce.
I do get the majority of our perishable food at farm markets and this place.

missvancity (#146)

@MilesofMountains I live in a city, but I still do my best to shop locally, because I like feeling as though my money is keeping local people in jobs, keeping local businesses afloat, and keeping more tax money in the country. So it costs me a bit more than it would if I shopped in the US, and maybe I can’t go on a fancy vacation this year (or next year…), but it’s important to me. My job indirectly involves retail, and I like to do my part by keeping the businesses I work with around. So it’s a bit selfish, too, I guess!

Pariah Carey (#2,378)

Food, especially dairy, is cheaper in the United States because we subsidize it. Our tax dollars go into those coffers which pay for those subsidies which, in turn, keep costs artificially low. I was initially going to yell at the Canadian letter-writer (not really!) for taking advantage of something mostly meant for our citizens, but then again, Canadians DO pay sales tax on what they buy here. I guess it could be said that the benefits aren’t for American citizens, but for our consumers, no matter their nationality.

inspector_tiger (#2,651)

@Pariah Carey I think the benefits for consumers buying subsidized milk are a byproduct, but not the main goal, of US agricultural policy, so I guess it doesn’t matter which nationality the consumers have…

EM (#1,012)

Just also gonna add that American breakfast cereal selection is way better. HELLO, Cookie Crisp!

I live on an island (New Zealand) but you can bet if I had this option, I would be cross-border shopping like a boss. Sorry local economy, I’m more concerned about my personal finances and making my dollar go further.

Alas, we have to put up with high and unsubsidised prices. I comfort myself whenever I see crazy low prices on everything in the States that at least I don’t have to pay for health insurance.

How much are you actually saving though when you take into consideration your gas and time spent driving to another city/waiting at the border?

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

@Deb of last year@twitter I’ve crunched the numbers for my family, and in 2012 it averaged just over $500 per trip when costs such as gas and hotels were factored in. We try to avoid going during peak border times and have never had to wait more than 45 minutes in a border lineup.

loren smith (#2,300)

@Deb of last year@twitter Still thousands, like I mentioned in the letter. It’s not a far drive, and with a fuel efficient car and using some border sense, those costs are nbd.

Winfield (#3,368)

@Deb of last year@twitter You’ve obviously never done the cross-border shopping experience.

zimm (#2,228)

When I was in Canada this past summer, a Canadian told me that he loves going to the US and crosses the border to shop because “we have so many freedoms” such as soda flavors that they don’t have in Canada.

@Nicole Zimmerman@twitter And the transformation from Citizen to Consumer was thus completed…

Kzinti (#1,805)

I don’t personally have any problem with cross-border shopping, but I have to bring up the fact that, when it comes to employee benefits, everyone wants to point out the fact that Canada is superior to the US in that regard. However, no one wants to own up to the fact that such benefits as a year’s worth of maternity leave actually costs money, which must be made up in the prices charged to consumers for goods and services.

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@Kzinti Ummm, except the jointly employer-employee funded Employment Insurance program pays for maternity/paternity benefits, sometimes with a top up from the employer in some unionized environments. So we can talk about tax regimes in different districts, as we can talk about wages, unionization rates, agricultural subsidies and marketing boards, etc., but it’s a big and complicated picture.

awk (#840)

How times have changed! Maybe I’m remembering this incorrectly, but my friends and I used to make US-to-Canada trips and do shopping there because we could get some good deals. But this was back when a Canadian buck was only worth $.65 US. We would spend a couple hundred bucks and then get some tax refund form. The Canadian government would send us a check for the sales tax — written in US dollars! What a deal. Love those Canadians.

Canadians can buy our butter, and we can buy their medicines. David Ricardo would be proud.

(Also, presumably those selfsame Canadian firms have no problem importing the products they sell from whatever country makes them cheaply, nor are they upset about the sale of Canadian oil & gas abroad, so it’s a little weak for them to appeal to patriotism only when it comes to their OWN competition…)

JitterBug (#1,972)

But isn’t part of the reason the the US prices are so cheap is because a lot of the workers who contribute to those goods don’t get paid a living wage and all of the other political stuff that comes with a country where so many people live in poverty? Like it’s great to save a buck on butter or whatever, but if that dollar translates into the farmer, distributer and supermarket employee earning enough money to not be on food stamps and knowing that the taxes that the sale generates (sales tax, employee tax, etc) mean that my country has affordable accessible healthcare for all not just those who can afford it, .just pay the buck extra already.

Comments are closed!