10 Mar 10 Sure Ways To Save Money
This post was adapted from the original 1992 Edition of Your Money or Your Life. After our reflection on frugality based on the 1998 Miriam Webster Dictionary, the chapter goes on to a hierarchy of strategies for saving money, from the “one sure way” to many possible ways.
Step 6: Valuing Your Life Energy-Minimizing Spending This step is about the intelligent use of your life energy (money) and the conscious lowering or eliminating of expenses.
We have arranged the following hints and tips in several lists, all of them based on decades of experience with living frugally. We’ll also include some of the tips that Amy and Jim Dacyczyn share so generously in their newsletter, The Tightwad Gazette (subtitled “Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle”), which we mentioned in Chapter 4. (Amy Dacyczyn published the Tightwad Gazette from 1991-1996 and anthologized her newsletters in several books)
Consider the lists that follow as a menu of options. Explore the ones that intrigue or inspire you and leave the rest. There’s something for everyone here-but not everything will be for you. It might be instructive, though, to ask yourself why you are discarding some ideas and adopting others. You may encounter some childhood programming, some cultural myths and even some revealing information about your values. Remember, these ideas are opportunities, not should’s. Frugality is about enjoyment, not penny-pinching! Happy saving-or should we say happy frugaling …
ONE SURE WAY TO SAVE MONEY
Stop trying to impress other people
Other people are probably so busy trying to impress you that they will, at best, not notice your efforts. At worst, they will resent you for one-upping them.
When Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, he didn’t make a big splash, but the term he coined, “conspicuous consumption,” has made it into the heart of our culture. In the foreword to Veblen’s book social commentator and writer Stuart Chase summarized his thesis this way:
People above the line of base subsistence, in this age and all earlier ages, do not use the surplus, which society has given them, primarily for useful purposes. They do not seek to expand their own lives, to live more wisely, intelligently, understandingly, but to impress other people with the fact that they have a surplus …spending money, time and effort quite uselessly in the pleasurable business of inflating the ego.
But just because conspicuous consumption is a cross-cultural and historic aberration of the human species doesn’t mean that you have to fall prey to it. If you stop trying to impress other people you will save thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars. (And think how impressed people will be with how much you’ve saved!)
TEN SURE WAYS TO SAVE MONEY
1.Don’t go shopping
If you don’t go shopping, you won’t spend money. Of course, if you really need something from the store, go and buy it. But don’t just go shopping. According to Carolyn Wesson, author of Women Who Shop Too Much, “59 million persons in the U.S. are addicted to shopping or to spending.” About 53 percent of groceries and 47 percent of hardware-store purchases are “spur of the moment.” When 34,300 mall shoppers across the country were asked the primary reason for their visit, only 25 percent said they had come in pursuit of a specific item. About 70 percent of all adults visit a regional mall weekly. The number of U.S. shopping centers has grown from 2,000 in 1957 to more than 30,000 today, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The number of shopping malls recently surpassed the number of high schools in the United States. (Ahh, how times have changed! According to this 2017 article, America is down to 1100 malls. They speak almost nostalgically of these dying palaces of consumption the way we spoke of soda fountains on main streets in small towns. We’ve moved our shopping lives online. What will we be nostalgic for in 2038?)
Indeed, shopping is one of our favorite national pastimes. More than the simple act of acquiring needed goods and services, shopping attempts to fill (but obviously fails, since we have to shop so often) myriad needs: for socializing and time structuring, for a reward after a job well done, for an antidepressant, for esteem-boosting, self-assertion, status and nurturing. A Martian anthropologist might conclude that the mall is our place of worship, and shopping the central ritual of communion with our deity. Lewis Lapham observes, “We express our longing for the ineffable in the wolfishness of our appetite. . . . The feasts of consumption thus become rituals of communion.” Consumption seems to be our favorite high, our nationally sanctioned addiction, the all-American form of substance abuse.
So don’t go shopping. And while you’re at it, stay away from advertising that whets your appetite for stuff you don’t want. (How can we stay away from advertising when our clothing is branded and product placement in films insinuates brands on us. Conscious consuming requires much greater vigilance than in 1990.) And for pity’s sake don’t tune in to the Home Shopping Network. (Home Shopping Network! How quaint now that Amazon, Craigslist, Ebay, all major department stores, grocers and more now let our fingers do the one-click shopping. Do you remember the Yellow Pages ads that said, “Let your fingers do the walking”?) You may be saving more than money. You may be saving your sanity, not to speak of your soul.
2. Live within your means
This notion is so outmoded that some readers might not even know what it signifies. To live within your means is to buy only what you can prudently afford, to avoid debt unless you have an assurance that you will be able to pay it promptly and always to have something put away for a rainy day. It was quite a fashionable way to live one short generation ago (OK maybe three now, with Boomer parents the last true children of the 1930s Depression), before we started living beyond our means. There are two sides to the coin of living beyond your means. The shiny side is that you can have everything you want right now. The tarnished side is that you will pay for it with your life. Buying on time (the quaint version of credit. Stores used to have layaway plans and installment payments), from cars to houses to vacations, often results in paying three times the purchase price. Is going to Hawaii for two weeks this year worth working perhaps four additional months next year to pay it off? This doesn’t mean you have to cut up all your credit cards-you just have to avoid using them.
Living within your means suggests that you wait until you have the money before you buy something. This gives you the benefit of avoiding interest charges. It also gives you a waiting period during which you may well discover that you don’t want some of those things after all. He who hesitates saves money. The bright side of living within your means is that you will use and enjoy what you have and harvest a full measure of fulfillment from it, whether it’s your old car, your old coat or your old house. It also means that you can weather the economic bad times when they come-which they will. Alfred Malabre, (author and former) economics editor of The Wall Street Journal, published a book in 1987 whose title says it all: Beyond Our Means: How America’s Long Years of Debt, Deficits and Reckless Borrowing Now Threaten to Overwhelm Us. In it he says:
In brief, the jig is about up and, for all the accumulated wisdom of all the eminent economists of the various schools, painless extrication from our predicament just isn’t going to be possible. Now that’s a pitch for living within your means if there ever was one!
3. Take care of what you have
There is one thing we all have that we want to last a long time: our bodies. Simple attention to the proven preventive practices will save you lots of money. Brushing your teeth, for example, could save thousands in dental bills. And eating what you know agrees with your body (judging by your energy, not by your taste buds) may save you thousands inexpensive procedures, not to speak of your life.
Extend this principle to all your possessions. Regular oil changes are known to extend the life of your car. Cleaning your tools extends their life. (How many hair dryers and vacuum cleaners have choked on hair balls?) Dusting your refrigerator coils saves energy and could save your refrigerator. One big difference between living beings and machines is that machines are not self-healing. If you ignore a headache it will probably go away. If you ignore a funny noise in your engine you could throw a rod, burn out a water pump or otherwise incur major (and costly) damage.
Many of us have lived with excess for so many years that it no longer occurs to us to maintain what we have. “There’s always more where that came from,” we tell ourselves. But more costs money. And more may not, in the long run, be available.
4. Wear it out
What’s the last item you actually wore out? Americans discard 1,455 pounds of garbage every year (here is one area where we’re still the world’s leader), and much of that was probably still perfectly usable. Synthetic fibers are extremely durable. It’s hard to actually wear out clothing these days. If it weren’t for the fashion industry (and boredom) we could all enjoy the same basic wardrobe for many years. Survey your possessions. Are you simply upgrading or duplicating last year’s electronic equipment, furniture, kitchenware, carpeting and linens, or are you truly wearing them out? Think how much money you would save if you simply decided to use things even 20 percent longer. If you usually replace your towels every two years, try replacing them every two and a half years. If you trade in your car every three years, try extending that to four. If you buy a new coat every other winter, see whether every third winter would do just as well. And when you’re about to buy something, ask yourself, “Do I already have one of these that is in perfectly usable condition?”
Another way to save money is to ask, before trashing something, whether there might be another way to use part or all of it. Old letters become scrap paper. A chipped cup becomes a pencil holder. A broken toaster oven becomes an assortment of screws, plus an electrical cord, Nichrome wire, a small metal tray and a heat-resistant handle. Old furniture can provide the wood for your next carpentry job. The frugality experts from the 1930s (and before) always kept a pile of wood scraps and assorted junk out back and had a knack for cobbling together what was needed out of available materials. All it takes is the recognition that everything is useful and the creativity to see what those uses might be. Then instead of buying something you can ask yourself, “Do I already have this item in some other form? If so, what would it take to make it serve my current needs?” (One FIer, Peter Mui, started Fix-it Clinics to help people salvage their broken possessions.)
A word of caution to the already frugal. Using something until you wear it out does not mean using it until it wears you out. If you must continually fiddle with a lamp to make it work and you’ve already tried repairing it, it may not be worth your life energy to coax it along for another year. If your car is taking you for a ride, costing more hours in tinkering (or more money in repairs) than it’s giving you in service, do buy a newer one. If your knee joints are suffering from running shoes that have lost their bounce, it would be cheaper to buy a new pair (on sale) than to have knee surgery.
5. Do it yourself
Can you tune your car? Fix a plumbing leak? Do your taxes? Make your own gifts? Rewire a toaster? Change the tire on your bicycle? Bake a cake from scratch? Build a bookshelf? Repair your roof? Clean your chimney? Sew a dress? Cut your family’s hair? Form your own nonprofit corporation? It used to be that we learned basic life skills from our parents in the process of growing up. Then the Industrial Revolution put our parents in factories and, after the passing of child labor and mandatory public education laws, put us in schools. Next our grandparents were put in rest homes, removing the people who traditionally taught life skills to the children while the parents worked.
Eventually home economics and shop classes had to be incorporated in the curriculum as supplements to the ever-decreasing skill-nourishment we got at home. By the 1970s it was no longer fashionable for mothers to stay at home with their children. By the 1980s many couples assumed it wasn’t even possible, economically, for mothers to stay home with their children. Is it any wonder that the only way we know how to take care of ourselves in the 1990s is to be consumers of goods and services provided by others? To reverse that trend, just ask yourself, when you’re about to hire an expert: “Can I do this myself? What would it take to learn how? Would it be a useful skill to know?”
(Ponder this, people of the 21st century. This was how Joe and I lived. Some people still do. FIers who learn these and many more skills will have a foundation of wealth in the future. But now, in 2018, how many of us are at all equipt to fix anything?)
Basic living and survival skills can be learned through adult education classes, extension agents, summer rural residential programs and, last but not least, books. (Not last anymore. Anyone with a smart phone can call up a YouTube video on any skill imaginable.) Every breakdown can be used as an opportunity for learning and empowerment. What you can’t do, or choose not to do, you can hire others to do, and tag along for the ride. Every bit of your energy invested in solving these breakdowns not only teaches you something you need to know for the next time but helps prevent mistakes and reduces the bill. One FIer tells the story of how her heating system failed one winter.
Three companies sent out repair people to assess the problem and make a bid. Each one told her with absolute certainty what the problem was. Unfortunately, each told her a different story. So she cracked the books, meditated on the Rube Goldberg maze of pipes, came to an educated guess and chose the company that came closest to her analysis, thus saving herself hundreds of dollars of unnecessary and possibly destructive work. By staying with the repairman and observing his work she also was able to avert a few more expensive mistakes and to save (expensive) time by doing some of the simpler tasks. A typical working couple might have paid ten times what she did to have the job done and then felt fortunate to have two paychecks “since the cost of living in the modern world is so high.”
6. Anticipate your needs
Forethought in purchasing can bring tremendous savings. With enough lead time you will inevitably see the items you need go on sale by the time you need them-at 20 to 50 percent under the usual price. Keep current on catalogs and sale flyers of national and local catalog merchandisers. Read the sale ads in the Sunday paper. Be aware of seasonal bargains such as January and August “white sales,” holiday sales (such as Memorial Day and Labor Day) and year-end clearance sales.
By simply observing the poor condition of your car’s left rear tire while it still has some life left, you can anticipate a need. By simply being aware of this need you will naturally notice the phenomenal tire sale that will appear in the sports section of your Sunday newspaper three weeks from now-and you’ll know it’s a phenomenal sale because you have been watching prices.
In the shorter term, shopping at the corner convenience store can be expensive. Anticipating your needs-that you’ll be wanting evening snacks, that you’ll run out of milk midweek or that there’s some taping you want to do and you’re all out of blank cassettes-can eliminate running out to the corner store to pick up these items. (Taping? Blank cassettes? Substitute toner cartridges for your printer. Or kitty litter.) Instead you can purchase them during your supermarket shopping or on a run to the discount store. This can result in significant savings. Refer to the sample Daily Money Log in Step 2 (page 72) and note the price differential in blank cassettes bought at the convenience store on Friday versus those bought on Saturday at a discount store.
Anticipating your needs also eliminates one of the biggest threats to your frugality: impulse buying. If you haven’t anticipated needing something when you leave your house at 3:05, chances are you don’t need it at 3:10 when you’re standing at the gazingus-pin (Gazingus Pin: the thing/s you habitually buy on impulse that you don’t need) counter at the corner store. (Or online at your preferred mega-store) We’re not saying you should only buy things that are on your premeditated shopping list (although that isn’t such a bad idea for compulsive shoppers); we are saying that you must be scrupulously honest when you’re out and about. Saying, “I anticipate needing this,” as you’re drooling over a left-handed veeblefitzer or cashmere sweater is not the same as having already anticipated needing one and recognizing that this particular one is a bargain. Remember the corollary to Parkinson’s Law (“The work expands to fit the time allowed for its completion”): “Needs expand to encompass whatever you want to buy on impulse.”
7. Research value, quality, durability and multiple use
Research your purchases. Consumer Reports and other publications (and websites) give excellent evaluations and comparisons of almost everything you might buy-and they can be fun just to read. Decide what features are most important to you. Don’t just be a bargain junkie and automatically buy the cheapest item available. Durability might be critical for something you plan to use daily for twenty years. One obvious way of saving money is to spend less on each item you buy, but it’s equally true that spending $40 on a tool that lasts ten years instead of buying a $30 one that will need to be replaced in five years will save you $20 in the long run.
Multiple use is also a factor. Buying one item for $10 that will serve the purpose of four different $5 items will net you a savings of $10. One heavy-duty kitchen pot can (and perhaps should) replace half a dozen specialty appliances like a rice cooker, a popcorn popper, a Crockpot, a deep-fat fryer, a paella pan and a spaghetti cooker. So, if you really expect to be using an item, buying for durability and for multiple purposes can be a good savings technique. But if you’ll be using the item only occasionally you may not want to spend the extra dollars on a high-quality product. Knowing what your needs are and knowing the whole range of what is available will allow you to choose the right item.
Besides reading consumer magazines, you can evaluate quality by developing a sharp eye and carefully examining what you are buying. Are the seams in a piece of clothing ample? Are the edges finished? Is the fabric durable? Is it washable or will you be paying dry-cleaning bills to keep it clean? Are the screws holding the appliance together sturdy enough for the job? Is the material strong or flimsy? Is the furniture nailed, stapled or screwed? Here is where you will become an expert materialist-knowing materials so well that you can read the probable longevity of an item the way a forester can read the age and history of a fallen tree. This is the opposite of crass materialism. This is as much honoring the wonder of creation as standing in a redwood grove. Everything you purchase has its origin in the earth. Everything. Knowing the wear patterns of aluminum versus stainless steel is honoring the earth every bit as much as lobbying for stronger environmental protection laws.
8. Get it for less
There are numerous ways to bargain-hunt. Here are few:
A. Mail-order discounters
When you know exactly what you want, including make and model, you can cut out the middleman and order through discount catalogs. (and websites) Discounts in film and photographic equipment, in computers and associated paraphernalia, in tapes and in stereo and video equipment are huge; see ads in photography, computer and stereo magazines. Get specialized discounters’ catalogs; these are available not only for photography, computer, audio and video supplies but also for tools, automobile parts and equipment, sporting goods and much more.
Besides being money-savers, catalogs are a great education in conscious consuming. Ponder those enigmatic left-handed veeblefitzers. What are they for? Why are they in the doohickey section? Were there veeblefitzers in last year’s catalog or is this a technological breakthrough? Will one veeblefitzer save me the headache of replacing those @#!$@!!*%$!!! framus-pinders every year? We are catalog-reading addicts-everything from J. C. Penney to J. C. Whitney-and we would have to say that we have acquired more of a general education from this activity than from our years in college.
B. Discount chain stores
Just because you buy something at “the best store in town” doesn’t mean it’s of any better quality than the same item bought at a discount chain store. The discounters and warehouse stores carry many high-quality, name-brand products at a discount, but you have to know your prices. So even if you prefer to browse at a high-priced emporium because you trust their buyers to select only the best equipment, do your buying at a discount chain store. One word of warning, however: just because the stereo you want is available at Harry’s Low-Cost Cash-and-carry doesn’t mean it’s a bargain.
Harry’s price may indeed be cheaper, if he is passing on his low overhead to you, or if the item is overstocked, discontinued or being used as a loss leader (an item priced at or below cost to lure you into the store for a buying binge). But on the other hand, it may not. Know your prices. How can you know when and where to buy what? See number 3 below.
C. Comparison-shop by phone
Where do you shop and how did you choose it? Is it where you’ve always shopped? At the mall closest to your home? Where your friends shop? Where advertising or status-seeking has told you is the only place to shop? We shop via the telephone. Once we know what we want, we phone around for the best price. The more educated you are about the product and the more specific you can be about the exact make or model you want, the more successful your bargain-hunting will be. You will be amazed at the range of prices quoted for the same item.
If you prefer doing business with a particular store or supplier, phone-shop for the best price and then ask your favorite vendor if he or she can match it. In 1984, after much research, we decided we wanted a Toyota Tercel with four-wheel drive. We then called every dealership within 100 miles-and shaved $4,000 (33 percent) off the highest bid by purchasing a demonstrator (a deluxe model with everything but air-conditioning) that had 3,600 miles on it. Seven years and 100,000 miles later, nothing has gone wrong. (In fact, the Tercel lasted until 2002 when it was replaced by a Honda Insight purchased in the same way with the same 33% savings. Said Insight is still in the driveway.)
You can ask for discounts for paying cash. You can ask for discounts for less-than-perfect items. You can ask for the sale price even if the sale begins tomorrow or ended yesterday. You can ask for further discounts on items already marked down. You can ask for discounts if you buy a number of items at the same time. You can ask for discounts anywhere, anytime. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Haggling is a time-honored tradition. The list price of any consumer item is usually inflated. As soon as you hear the words, “The list price is …you should say, “Yes, but what is your price?” According to Jim Dacyczyn you should be able to shave 24 percent off the sticker price for a car, but this strategy applies to more than houses, cars and other major purchases. You have nothing to lose by asking for a discount at any store-from your local hardware store to a clothing emporium.
A case in point was our recent outing to buy new running shoes. A $60 (list price) pair was sitting on the manager’s special rack with no price. They fit perfectly. We asked a salesman what they would cost. “$24.99,” he replied. “Would you take $19.99?” we asked. Surveying what he had left, he said, “Eighteen dollars.” We could have pointed out that haggling etiquette suggests that his counteroffer be higher, not lower, than ours. But we were astute enough just to shut our mouths, open our wallet and take advantage of a great bargain. A reporter for The Wall Street Journal, researching an article on the increase in haggling precipitated by the 1990-9 1 recession, tried bargaining in his New York neighborhood. From hardware stores to antique boutiques to major retail department stores, the majority of retailers were willing to shave substantial amounts off the asking price. So bargain. What have you got to lose?
9. Buy it used
Reexamine your attitudes about buying used items. If you are a thrift-store or garage-sale addict, look at whether you are really saving money or whether you are buying items that you don’t need just because they’re “such a bargain.” But if you wouldn’t be caught dead in a musty Salvation Army thrift store, look around your town: thrift stores have become fashionable emporiums. Even Newsweek says so. In “I Can Get It for You Resale” the magazine declared that “Secondhand shopping is chic as well as thrifty. . . . The change reflects the new national Zeitgeist…Quality and value are more important than flash and cash.” Clothing, kitchenware, furniture, drapes-all can be found in thrift stores, and you may be surprised at the high quality of many of them. As a matter of fact, donating brand-new items to thrift stores is one way that shopaholics justify excess purchases. If you just can’t bring yourself to shop at thrift stores, consider consignment shops.
The prices are higher, but the quality is consistently higher as well. In our experience, thrift stores are best for clothing but garage sales are cheaper (and more reliable) for appliances, furniture and household items. If you’re an early bird (arriving before the sellers have even had their morning coffee) you can often find exceptional buys. On the other hand, the later in the day you go to a garage sale, the more eager the people will be to get rid of the stuff for a song. “Swap meets” and “flea markets” are two names for the same event-weekend open-air bazaars where you’ll find merchants of every stripe displaying their wares: shrewd hucksters, collectors of every kind and families hoping to unload their excess before moving across country. Just as when you shop at discounters, you have to know your prices. There are some clever nomads working the flea-market circuit who will sell you tools, imported peasant clothing, crystals and other items for more than you’d pay at the shopping mall.
10. Follow the nine steps of this program.
The steps of this program have been successfully followed by thousands of people. These people have found that doing all the steps leads to a transformed experience of money and the material world. All the steps matter. They synergize to spur you on. If you find your pace slackening, check to see if you’ve skipped a step (thinking, perhaps, that it doesn’t apply to you)-and if you have, go back and do it. Your speed and clarity will pick up again, guaranteed. You don’t have to believe that the steps will work. It’s okay to do them mechanically. But do them-and you will surely save more than money.