I’ve been writing a “statement of need” for an adoption grant application and been trying to explain how poor we are. Not poor enough that we can’t handle the adoption of course, but poor enough that we need help. Which raises the question of what’s “poor enough”? After all, who doesn’t need help, especially these days?
It’s been an interesting exercise. At any rate, I found myself trying to describe our family as financially responsible and frugal and trying to give realistic examples to back it up. I kept wondering what other people do to be cheap. After all, one person’s frugal is another person’s extravagance. One person’s necessity is another person’s luxury.
I want to share a few areas where I think my family is being cheap—not to brag, but to share some thrifty ideas. I hope you’ll share your thrifty ideas in the comments. It’s kind of a touchy subject because everyone has different values (cable TV may seem like an extravagance, but if it’s your only entertainment expense and you never go to the movies or buy DVDs that might be pretty economical), but I hope maybe we can learn something from how others have done it. Saving money is always good, but especially in this economy.
Here are a few of the things we do to be cheap:
- One car. Except for a brief period when we owned a junker (literally, we traded an air conditioner for it—guess which one still works), we’ve been a one-car family. Especially with two kids it makes life more complicated, but the savings are significant when you consider all the extra expenses that go along with car ownership.
- Technologically immobile. I’m a pretty tech savvy guy, but I could care less about mobile technology. An iPhone is tempting, but I don’t need one. We don’t even spring for the unlimited text message plan. When I’m out of the house I don’t need to check my e-mail. I just can’t imagine paying the monthly fees for a data plan. Considering all my Facebook and Twitter friends who talk about these technologies I feel like the odd man out, though I suspect that’s a reality distortion.
- Cheap entertainment. We try to keep our entertainment choices pretty cheap. We rarely go to the movie theater (maybe 3-4 movies per year, depending on what big movies are coming out), we don’t have cable TV and we don’t do Netflix (we had it, loved it and cut it to save money). We occasionally rent movies from the $1 rental machine at the grocery store or the library (free!). We also watch a lot of stuff online (go Hulu!) and watch DVDs. We have quite a DVD collection, though we try not to spend too much on DVDs (most of them are gifts).
- Clothes. Clothing always seems like an area where you can find a lot of savings. I used to scout the clearance racks pretty regularly and prided myself on finding $3 jeans. I haven’t been able to do that lately, but Abby does try to shop second hand stores and make the most of deals. I’ve also been patching my jeans to make them last longer, with decent success. It also helps that I work at home and don’t need a stockpile of dress clothes.
- Food. Grocery shopping is always a tough one. It seems like everyone has their tips and tricks for saving a little money here. I’m always amazed at the people who clip coupons and somehow seem to save gobs of money. We shop at Costco and take advantage of buying in bulk, though I’m always trying to compare prices and make sure we’re really saving money (and not letting things go to waste). We’ve probably saved the most money on produce and meat. We also try to stock up when stuff is on sale and buy generic as much as possible. This is probably an area we where we could better.
- Monthly payments. This one is more general, but I’m always leery of anything that has a monthly subscription fee. $10 a month doesn’t sound bad at all, until you consider how quickly that adds up. Five years later that’s a big chunk of change.
- Lawn care. I’m notoriously cheap when it comes to yard work. I use a me-powered reel mower. I hemmed and hawed about buying a weed whacker. I don’t bother with fertilizer or pesticides or killing weeds. Bring on the creeping charlie! My neighbors must hate me. But frankly, I’ve got better things to spend my time and money on.
- Holidays. I’ve talked before about redefining Christmas. We try to do something similar for Valentine’s Day and not spend money (though be careful with that one guys—this isn’t an excuse to cheap out; you usually have to put in more effort if you’re not going to spend money).
And a few areas where we fail:
- We’ve had a family cell phone plan with the lowest possible minutes for almost four years now and I don’t think we’ve ever used close to our total allotted minutes per month. We love the convenience and safety of it, but I’m beginning to think it just isn’t cost effective. When our contract is up next month I think we’re going to switch to a pay-as-you-go phone. We could easily save $50/month.
- Eating out. This is a hard one. We can be pretty lazy when it comes to cooking and it’s often easy to just go out, whether it’s to a restaurant or just fast food. Not only is it expensive but it just isn’t healthy. Thankfully having little kids has minimized this one, but we always need to do better.
- New car. As much as I think our one-car approach has saved money, the fact that we’ve bought new cars probably hasn’t helped (though getting the family member discount has been a huge plus!). I’ve always wanted to be a member of the Junky Car Club, but if you only have one car it’s extremely important that it be reliable. As our current car approaches the end of its loan period I’m really salivating at the idea of no car payment.
- Pop. I grew up drinking a lot of soda, so I was always a bit shocked that in college my cheapness really minimized my pop intake. For a while when we were first married we never kept pop in the house. But I’ve slowly fallen back into pop drinking and currently nurse a one can per day addiction. OK, sometimes two. I suppose it’s not that bad, but the expense certainly adds up.
- Books. Being a teacher and a writer books are easily a soft spot. We used to be regular visitors to the used section at Barnes & Noble, gobbling up books at their half off and $1 sales. The result is a library that easily exceeds 1,500 books. In the past few years I’ve realized I’m never going to read all these books and have really cut back on the purchases. I’ve been doing a lot more library borrowing and realizing that I just don’t need to own every book out there.
A lot of this comes down to living simply. It’s something I’m always trying to learn and always realizing how far I have to go. Sometimes we need to march against ourselves. There’s so much we really don’t need, and when we’re able to go without it frees us up to do so much more. As Johnny Cash says, “Every possession is just another stick to beat youself with.”
You could spend a fortune on books about being frugal, but sometimes it’s easier to hear it from a friend. So what do you do to be cheap?