There’s probably a reason recession is only a few letters different than depression. The troubled economy has left a lot of folks discouraged and dispirited. But it doesn’t have to be so bad. Penny pinching sounds undesirable to some, but changing your lifestyle is easier than you might think. I was challenged to flex my spending muscle in five major areas of daily life. Some of the suggestions may not work for you, but others might be helpful on your path toward living a more frugal lifestyle.
Obviously we know we should be clipping coupons like our parents did. But that’s time consuming and few people even get the Sunday paper anymore. My key to saving money at the market is a three-tiered approach. It takes a bit more time and a few more stops, but it really pays off.
First, start your shopping at the cheapest store around—the dollar store. Spend money there and every other market will seem overpriced and make you reconsider what you actually need. Once you pay $1 for shaving cream, you’ll never pay $3.99 again. Next stop, the warehouse store with no club fees. Just pay close attention to the price per unit to make sure you’re getting the best deal. Make your regular grocery store or farmer’s market your last stop. This is the place to swing in and buy what you couldn’t find elsewhere. Put your iPod on and make it a fast, enjoyable trip as you grab the produce, milk, and yogurt you need to round out your list.
EASY GROCERY TIP: If you only have time to stop at the grocery store, make a policy of buying items that are on sale that week as much as possible. Train your eye to search for those brightly-colored sale stickers. If you see something you eat a lot of, like peanut butter, and it’s half-off, you can buy three and make it last for several months.
I wear nothing but Diesel, Guess, and Polo. I also own a pair of $900 shoes from Prada, yet I don’t spend more than $300 a year on clothes. How? I shop at a thrift store in the trendiest area of town, where the best-dressed residents live. I haven’t shopped at a mall in nine years and I don’t miss it one bit. Malls are for unruly teens, I tell myself. I even refuse to go to movie theaters in shopping centers. I like to pretend malls are relics of the ’80s, like Rubix cubes and Alex P. Keaton.
EASY CLOTHING TIP: If you didn’t wear it in a 12-month period, it’s gone. For me, that means keeping only one suit for weddings and funerals and limiting myself to one coat, since I live in a state with a warmer climate.
The same 12-month rule can apply to entertainment. If you haven’t listened to certain CDs or watched some DVDs within the past year, do you really need those items taking up valuable space? And let’s be honest, how good could those have been anyway if they barely crossed your mind in the past year?
Think of all the different ways you can enjoy a flick with your friends, other than the pricey cinema. A friend of mine hosts summer screenings in his backyard and projects the film on the side of his house. Check with your church to see if they have a projector you could rent or borrow.
Build evenings out of major cultural events—the last night of “American Idol,” the Super Bowl, or a major awards show. Friends of mine annually host an Oscar party where everyone must bring a treat inspired by one of the nominees.
The classic date structure is dinner and a movie. Try flipping the two—movie, then dinner. Go to a matinee and get dinner afterward. It’ll save you a few bucks. Or figure out a childhood activity neither of you have ever done, like playing jacks or flying a kite. Then head to the dollar store to pick up the item and try the challenge together. It may go well, it may not, but you’ll probably end up laughing—and perhaps your romance will take flight as well.
EASY ENTERTAINMENT TIP: When hanging out with friends or someone you’ve been dating a while, video the fun you’re having. You can extend that great day by watching the video later in the evening without dropping another dime.
I treat going to a restaurant as an exotic adventure I can only afford to do a few times a year … the equivalent of going out of town for a weekend trip to the mountains. Seriously. I almost never eat out. But if you must be a normal person and go out to eat, apply the classic rule of grocery shopping (“never shop hungry”) to dinner. Most people save their appetite before eating out, which means they’re more likely to buy appetizers and maybe even dessert. Having a snack an hour before you leave for the restaurant reduces the chance of blowing unnecessary money. If you must go hungry, at least go somewhere that offers free bread and fill up on that.
Just be wise when you do decide to go out for meals. Maybe a coffeehouse is a better, cheaper blind date. Why splurge on an entire meal for two if you’re unsure about the person? If spending too much money in restaurants is a particular problem for you, think about how long you worked (in minutes) to buy that appetizer you barely nibbled.
EASY DINING TIP: If you do go out regularly, make a rule of never ordering soda. A soda at a restaurant costs four times what it costs at home. Drink water. Eating food in public while being waited on by another person is enough of an indulgence. Who are you, Oprah?
Buying gifts for birthdays and at the holidays can create major holes in your pockets. Whenever one of my sisters has a baby—and this happens frequently—my first appropriate thought is, What a blessing. A gift from heaven. My second, less-appropriate thought is, Wow. Another niece or nephew to buy gifts for. I firmly believe that children under the age of 4 can handle very cheap gifts (a month’s supply of wet wipes, for example). They’re never going to remember what their Uncle Dan got ‘em anyway. As they get older, I start to spend more and more.
The key to shopping for adults is to buy throughout the year. Create a shelf or closet space specifically for gift giving. If you’re on vacation and find souvenirs for your family, save those items for next Christmas rather than giving the gifts upon your return. When a store is closing, attack! Buy up presents and keep them in a designated spot until someone you love has a birthday. And purchasing sale-priced items throughout the year is another way to make gift giving easier on the wallet.
If you really have no extra cash, figure out free ways to show someone your love. A framed, handwritten thought on nice paper could mean as much as any present. Consider using your time as a gift. If one of your siblings is disorganized and you’re not, maybe a morning of free organizational help would be the best birthday gift you could give. Detail a friend’s dirty car, rake your Grandma’s lawn—whatever. Think of the tedious tasks you do well in your own life and offer to do them for the people you care about.
EASY GIFTING TIP: Buy right after the season, like getting Thanksgiving decorations in December when they’re 75 percent off. Next year you’ll love the surprises you didn’t remember buying.
Spending less doesn’t have to mean living less well. Following some of these tips will make living in a troubled economy less troubling. Soon enough you’ll find yourself squeezing much more out of that last bottom dollar.