For those who know me well, the fact that I am attempting to write a post about living frugally is laughable. But its because I have been forced into frugality that I think I can offer some good advice to those for which frugality does not come second nature.
While I don’t think I ever lived extravagantly, I tended to not watch the little things and details that can fritter away your money. We lived beyond our means.
I’ve tried advice from several blogs and books, and tweaked the ones that seem to work most effectively for me. I firmly believe that cost must also be balanced with the energy, time, hassle involved, as well as looking at quality and environmental/social factors (such as fair trade, buying local, etc.)
Here are my findings thus far, your mileage may vary.
1. Grocery shopping
A. I don’t use coupons. I find it overly time-consuming to cut coupons, and keep them all organized while I am grocery shopping. I end up with lots of little pieces of paper, and they generally are for things that I wasn’t planning on buying. Instead, I shop by the fliers and specials (Kroger is my usual stop) and store brands.
B. Plan ahead. My time is a valuable asset, and I don’t like spending it running to the store for items. So, I shop about every 1 1/2 weeks, and carefully list out the items that I need.
C. Shop alone, and well nourished and rested. I find I forget things, add more items to the cart that are not on the list when I am distracted by my kids, hunger or fatigue. While, of course, I can say “no” to my kids, it just takes longer to shop with them there, and it wears me out quicker. I consider the time I spend grocery shopping by myself to be a cost savings, so even if I had to pay a sitter, I would.
Avoiding extra trips saves time, gas, and likely money. If you run to the store for eggs, you end up picking up a few more things. Doing that 2 or 3 times a week adds up quickly.
D. Stock up in moderation.Costco: friend or foe? Buying in bulk certainly has its appeal: you often save money over the long-term, and you have a bunch of something. But the problem for me is, you have a bunch of something around your house. When my pantry, fridge or freezer are too full, I often forget what I have because I can’t see it, and then I end up re-purchasing things. For things like snacks, which are oh-so-tempting at Costco, if I buy large quantities, we end up eating more of it. When I have stocked up on frozen food, we have quickly grown tired of an item before we have a chance to finish it or it gets freezer burn.
I have a trick for going to Costco. I go about 90 minutes before closing, and this keeps me focused on what I came for, and helps me avoid looking around for things not on my list.
E. Quality if cost-effective. I don’t think you should sacrifice too much on the quality of meat , eggs, produce, etc you buy . Better quality items are more nutritious, usually more satisfying, and better tasting.
F. Along that same line of thought, EAT LESS MEAT. While there are many schools of thought on the various environmental, ethical, and health related benefits of not eating meat, I am doing it more for the taste, health and cost savings. Instead of regularly having whole chicken breasts or steak, cut up pieces of it to use for the flavoring in a dish with rice, beans, pasta and/or vegetables.
G. Be realistic about eating out. I don’t particularly enjoy cooking every night, and there are some dishes that I haven’t been able to replicate from restaurants, so I just figure carry out into our budget 2-3 times a week. We are a family of four, and can eat out for less than $20 if we are careful (using a coupon, avoiding extras, drinking water, using coupons, watching for specials, sharing food) I have many times tried to get really strict with the groceries and get the cheapest stuff, and I have often ended up throwing out spoiled food and getting carry out. Financial experts would likely disagree with me, but I am trying to have a system that is sustainable and realistic for us.
H. Use caution with buying pop and junk food at the grocery store. My husband and I both love pop, but when I buy cases of it, we end up drinking much more of it. Whether its diet or regular, pop is not good for you. So, instead of having “vices” like this readily accessible, we find it’s best to go out and get treats like pop, candy, ice cream as part of an experience. We might end up paying more, but living somewhere there are months of winter, getting out is a necessity, and when you have something less often, its more of a treat.
2. Evaluate your mindset
A. Avoid recreational shopping. When I spend a lot of time just “browsing” at Target, garage sales, catalogs and websites, I tend to find myself wanting things that I didn’t even think about before I saw them. If you truly want to reduce your spending, don’t seek out experiences and places that tend to trigger the “spendies.” Sales are a double-edged sword: if something is 50% off, and you didn’t plan on buying it or needing it before you heard about the sale, how are you saving money?
B. Impose a “delayed gratification” plan for all purchases. I started this with my kids, and realized I needed to do this for myself. When I think of something I think I “need” or “want,” I put it on a wish list. If I still find a need for it weeks later and we have the room in our budget, then its worth consideration. Now that I have kids, and have to pick up clutter constantly, I evaluate every purchase for “where is it going to go?” and ‘will we really use it?”
C. Do purging every month. Go through items that have been worn or used and donate to charity/sell regularly. When we moved to a smaller house, the storage space was more limited, so I had to “tough love” myself out of a lot of stuff. When you regularly go through and donate things, you see how much stuff you have, and are less likely to add to it.
D. Constantly be reminded of the big picture. I have Quicken software, and the pie chart that tracks my expenses. This a good reminder of where our money is going. I have a “bucket list” of things that I would like to do, places to go, etc. in the next decades of my life, I want to remain focused on having the resources to do these things with my family. More than stuff, I want shared experiences with my family.
E. Break up with credit cards. We took a Dave Ramsay Financial Peace course about 4 summers ago. From that course, I came away with the belief that there is not much value to credit cards, with all the inherent risks built into them. Sure, you can earn rewards, but if you get put in a situation where you can’t pay your bill, the interest and fees will wipe out any benefit they have. I admit to my own weaknesses, and don’t have the temptation around. We came to frugality the hard way, but it really only makes sense to buy things you can pay for at the time of purchase. Being a slave to your things is not a good way to live.
F. Avoid comparing yourself to others. I don’t always heed this advice, but when I see or hear of friends going on a vacation that we can’t afford, its easy to fall into a self-pitying mindset. But the truth is, I don’t know their income, their budget, their credit card bills, or the other things that they gave up to go on the vacation. I can already see my 7-year-old daughter noticing that “other people have this..why can’t we?’ It really becomes a much higher spiritual / psychological issue about gratitude, and contentment and having ‘enough.”
G. Set up “frugality” challenges. I must give credit to my older sister, who has always managed money well. She has told me to set little challenges like “don’t spend any money for five days.” I have added to that, like I am not going to buy any (non-edible) items that are new for 2 months. (Everything must be from Craigslist, Salvation Army, or I need to get creative with what I have.) I also have tried to see if I can put less than 15 miles a week on my van (my kids take a bus, and for now I don’t work outside the home.) It makes you more conscious of what is possible.
1. Keep track of the price of items so you know what is a good price.
2. Wait and let other people do the research on new gadgets, new restaurants, etc. Use sites like Yelp, Amazon, etc to read customer feedback.
3. Check out museums, libraries , festivals and the like for things that are free or low-cost for entertainment. Factor in the cost of gas into the adventures. Go to places on off days, or hours.
4. Keep track of happy hours, kids eat free nights, or other specials so you can enjoy treats, but for less money.
Well, that’s what I have so far. Life is a work in progress.