Embracing the Inner Cheapskate

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?

13 thoughts on “Embracing the Inner Cheapskate”

  1. My husband and I are pretty big cheapskates ourselves. You’ve got a lot of great ideas for saving money. Here are a few more:

    Free Samples: There are lots of websites whose sole purpose is to publish info about free samples, rebates and other freebie offers. If you’re on Twitter, check out @Freenology and @HeyItsFree. All those little samples can add up to a decent-sized savings.

    E-mail Discounts: My husband and I opened an e-mail account for the express purpose of signing up for discounts. We’re subscribed to pretty much every restaurant, store, etc. coupon club there is. I can’t remember the last time we ate out without a coupon, and we really rake it in on our birthdays.

    Sell Stuff!: This is more about getting money than not spending it, but if you have stuff around your house you don’t need anymore (which everyone does), sell it! eBay, garage sale, Craigslist… If you don’t have the time/energy to sell your stuff, at least donate it and get a tax credit.

  2. Learn how to fix your stuff. Especially for the car and house, I drop my jaw when I hear what people are paying for basic maintenance on these things. There are simple enough manuals to follow out there for both.

  3. We pretty much never eat out except for on vacation or for a special treat. I make sure to always have some frozen pizza and burgers in the freezer and on nights when I don’t feel like cooking or can’t come up with a plan those save us from eating out.

    I plan out our meals for two weeks before every pay day (around the sales like @wiseacre) and do one big shopping trip. This also helps eliminate the eating out.

    Check out paperbackswap.com where you can trade out some of those books you aren’t going to read for some you will. Or sell some of those on half.com

    Pretty much any larger item we want to buy we look at ebay to see how much we can save, including video games for the kids birthdays etc.

    We haven’t had a car payment in 10 years and we own two cars. Whenever we’ve need a new one (2 have run to pretty much the end of their life, 3 have been totaled) we’ve taken money out of our savings to buy a new-to-us used car. The cheapest one was $3,000 (which we actually sold 3 years later for $3,500) up to about $7,000 for a minivan. They’ve all been low mileage (50-65K) which is really what counts (not the year) and super reliable!

  4. I bought the $3 jeans. My wife hated them, said they looked ugly. They lasted forever. I have “splurged” and bought $20 jeans, that looked good, only to fall and tear a hole in them. Wife gave up iphone, monthly plan way too much $$$. Cable & land lines have gone the way of the saddle & horse-shoe-guy. We stopped buying books. We have a house full of books & boxes of books in storage. But digital is cheaper & easier to store (We need to buy 1 more book, Addition by Adoption, someday). Food & eating out is our weakness. Just need to keep cutting back.

  5. Lauryn – Selling stuff is a good one. We unloaded a lot of our DVDs, video games and books on Amazon. Their used marketplace is a pretty hassle free way to sell. Unfortunately, some of the popular books are kind of tapped out and you’ll see people selling them for a penny. That’s hard to compete with. ;-)

    Tim M. – That’s good advice, but it can also be hard depending on how much time you have. Good advice I heard for my business was to spend your time doing what you’re good at. If you’re not good at something (car/home repair), it might be more cost effective to pay someone who is good at it. I try to do some of that myself, but I often find I’m quickly over my head and it’s worth it to pay someone who knows what they’re doing to make sure it’s done right. The $20 oil change is suddenly a bargain when they do things I can’t do, don’t know how to do or don’t have the tools for, like rotate my tires, dispose of the oil/filters, etc. If you’re big on time and low on money though, absolutely.

    Julie Gumm – Stocking up on easy dinners to avoid eating out is a good plan. That always helps when the temptation comes. We’ve never been very good at planning out our meals, though I imagine that would help.

    daninreallife – My $3 jeans actually looked just fine. I gave up my land line for VOIP and only keep it for my business. And you should definitely pick up Addition by Adoption. I hear great things about that book. ;-)

    A few other cheapo things I thought of…

    Not caring about matching furniture. We’ve never had the matching bedroom set and have always got on just fine with whatever random piece of furniture works as a nightstand. Come to think of it, much of our furniture has come from friends or family, save for a few Ikea pieces.

    Haircuts. This one probably only works because I’m a guy, I work at home and frankly don’t care much about how I look, but I haven’t paid for a haircut in at least two and a half years. I’ve shaved my head twice and raised money for good causes both times (a third time is probably overkill, though I could use a haircut).

    Keep the frugalness coming!

  6. Let’s just be clear about who doesn’t care about matching furniture. I would love for our furniture to match but gave up that dream long ago…

    Second hand stores are great as is passing on/trading kids clothes with other parents.

    Avoid buying kids new toys. Pack up half their toys into storage when they want something “new” pull it out of storage and put something “old” in storage. Repeat this cycle.

    I sew/make what I can but those hobbies can be expensive so I use fabrics that would be thrown away – stuff from other people’s stashes they are getting rid of, sheets from a thrift store, outdated/large size clothes that can be remade into something new for the kids.

    Reuse old food containers for pencil cups/small storage instead of buying those containers.

    Trade babysitting with friends instead of hiring a sitter.

  7. I used to say, “I can’t afford that.” Then I realized that with our income, I most certainly can afford it. I just choose not to. Many of my friends have asked us to help them with their money management because they see that my hubby and I clearly have something going that works well for us. They just don’t like to hear that it actually requires effort. :)

    I shop at 4 grocery stores and know what is cheapest at each (costco is good for some things, but Trader Joe’s is a better deal for us for dairy, the produce market has screaming deals on fruit and veggies, and we even have a co-op here where we can buy our spices at 1/20 the price of Safeway’s).

    We think in terms of hours worked. When you do this, $10 becomes a lot of money.

    My hubby is a Craigslist junkie. We just got a screaming deal on a eco-friendly fireplace insert, which we hope to heat with craigslist wood that we season ourselves (saving big money) and then not use the heater as much in the winter.

    I cook almost every meal we make and blog the results to encourage others to do so as well. We have to make ourselves go out to eat on a date once a month or else we never would. :)

    Never wash big dishes in the dishwasher. It’s a waste of money, energy, and water. Turn the heat down to 68 in the winter and the AC up to 78 in the summer.

    And our failures? I have a bit of a problem with kitchen gadgets. I collect them. :) To be fair, I use every single one of them. I just always want more. :) I also love books, but I’ve learned to use the library for those. And while I don’t consider this a failure, we do buy organic, grass fed pasture raised meat. This easily costs triple what other meats costs, so we just eat less meat and more veggies. Isn’t that what they say is healthier anyway? :)

  8. We try not to pay interest. No more loans. We have a small home so the heat and electric bills are less. always pay credit card each month so we do not pay interest. We payed ahead on our mortgage and saved a lot. I do not like to any interest as you can tell. I like to go to savers to buy jeans.

  9. Abby: My poor wife. I think she’s picked up on my cheaply ways. ;-) Reusing old food containers has been a big one lately. I started just saving everything and now that we have a stockpile it’s easier to find something that fits exactly what you need.

    Paula: Yes, fighting our own laziness is kind of the biggest battle. At least that’s what I struggle with the most.

    Tom: Paying off loans is a big one. I’ve found that paying off a loan is a big psychological victory, even if it might have saved you more to pay towards a higher interest loan. That win is sometimes worth more.

    This is another dumb one, but we stopped buying Kleenex and I only use handkerchiefs now. It’s better for the environment, better on my nose and saves a little money. It works great, especially during allergy season (if you’re not completely grossed out by it).

  10. I wouldn’t describe myself or my wife as cheapskates. We’re probably too willing to spend money. However, neither of us are big fans of paying full price for anything.

    Gaming can be an expensive hobby if you’re also a hoarder. I’m not. I play a game until I’m sick of it, and then it’s gone. Between Amazon, eBay, Craiglist and Gamestop (and there are lots of other options out there, too), it’s pretty easy to dump old games and use that money to fund new purchases. For example, trade-ins dropped the price I paid for Super Mario Galaxy 2 down to $10, which I’ll turn around and sell for around $30.

    We used to buy and rent a lot of movies and see a lot of movies in the theater. For us, Netflix + streaming ($9/month) is actually a big savings over what we were paying for two tickets to a movie theater + movie rentals + movies/TV shows on DVD. We’ve yet to see a movie in the theater in 2010, and I’ve purchased one movie on DVD so far this year. I don’t think I bought any in 2009. If we do pick up a show on DVD, it’s on sale for some crazy price (we picked up the first season of Fringe at an unadvertised sale price of $10 at Best Buy, for example), and we usually sell the DVDs when we’re done watching the show. Sometimes we actually make money on this. Usually we’re at least close to breaking even.

    For furniture, we have a good thrift store nearby that stocks a lot of furniture, plus they have one day a month when the entire store is on sale for half off. They get a lot of junk, but if you aren’t in dire need and can be patient, you can score amazing deals even if you’re picky on quality. (We don’t want every piece of furniture to match, anyway.)

    We could probably do better at grocery shopping. I usually go with a list for one week’s worth of meals, so I’m locked into buying very specific things I need for the recipes I’m making, but when I’m buying things like frozen pizza or cereal, I try to get the brands that are on sale that week. Our grocery bill is helped by the fact that my wife is a vegetarian and so I very rarely buy meat.

    Finally, we both have smartphones. As others have noted, monthly data plans are expensive, and the fact we’re willing to pay for them is probably enough by itself to illustrate that we aren’t cheapskates. That said, after having Droids for around 8 months now, I’d honestly say it’s one of the last luxuries I’d want to part with. Having ready access to the internet, e-mail, GPS and thousands of apps has had a big impact on how we operate outside the home.

    And there are a lot of money-saving and budgeting apps that I bet all you cheapskates would really like. ;-)

  11. I found a book (discounted already, and 50% off = $2.50 about recycling old t-shirts – AMAZING. I am currently making an old worn through t-shirt into a purse using the t-shirt and an old pair of worn through jeans, and some ribbon and trim I already had. Really fun pockets on my purse!!

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