Posted on | April 28, 2010 | No Comments
People age and then forget. That applies equally to individuals and societies in general, though individuals seem to do a better job of retaining wisdom. The Great Depression began in 1929 for most Americans. By the end of 1930, the entire world was suffering from the effects. For the sake of this short essay, let us presume that in order to have experienced the depression, one must have been both in an economic position to be disposed by its effect as well as able to understand the complexities of survival at the time. Agreeably, a depression survivor would have been at least six years of age in 1929. This means, any remaining survivors of that time in history are now at least eighty seven years old. A frugal, sensible and generally contentful way of living for many people is coming to an end, society is once again forgetting its wisdom.
How many useful things do you throw away, every day? There’s no possible use for the can that contained the ravioli that you ate for dinner? The unprinted side of the box of Rice A Roni would not be suitable to write a grocery list? How about the receipt from the grocery store? Its too much trouble to carry a backpack with a sandwich and a thermos to avoid buying lunch at Starbucks? You smoked half of a cigarette yet threw the whole thing away? You’ll crank up your A/C when a simple table fan might do the job? You’ll crank up the heat when a blanket would do? You’ll drive five blocks instead of walking, with the A/C on? You’ll spend $20 on frozen dinners when $10 and a little effort could yield the same thing? Have you thrown away something that probably could have been repaired? Do you leave the water running the whole time you shave, brush your teeth or do your dishes? Do you use an automatic dishwasher? Do you own a frost free refrigerator? Do you order water with your meal when dining out? Any of these things seem small, and they are. What they illustrate is a manner of thinking and self serving conservationism. Every hour you spend doing a little extra work is keeping your money in your pocket where it belongs.
I think, perhaps it is my very modest life style that allows me to draw this kind of comparison. I am modest as much by circumstance as I am by choice, $20 is more than enough for a weeks worth of my day to day needs, including food. Even on a budget that slim, I find some of my spending wasteful. Even if I could afford to spend more, I wouldn’t, I’d put the money away for future needs. I’m not a cheapskate, I don’t eschew major purchases – I just make them out of necessity, not desire and make sure I get good value for my money. I’m not going to buy a LED television any time soon, I don’t watch TV enough for the pay back in energy savings to mean anything.
I see a lot of friends coming out of a really scary crisis, then I see them go right back to their original spending habits the second their wallet permits it. Growing up, we had what we needed, but only what we needed. Sure, there were special occasions (I was, after all one of the few kids in my neighborhood with a computer) but those were exceptions to the rule.
Rather than just complain, here’s a list of habits that can save you money. I’m breaking it down into places where you are likely to spend money:
1 – The Grocery Store
Eat before going, I mean it. I know jokes are made about going grocery shopping after skipping lunch, its not a laughing matter. You are likely to spend between 40 and 80% more if you show up hungry. The receipt you got from shopping the previous time is your grocery list (minus a few alterations) for this trip. Make sure you save it, so you can compare prices from last time. The goal is to spend the same or less, every time, preferably less. Be careful with box food, like mac and cheese. Buy the cheaper stuff that takes a little more effort to cook. Whatever meats are on sale (if you eat meat) are the meats you’ll eat that week. Don’t sacrifice good nutrition to shave $10 off the bill, that’s just shorting yourself. Sacrifice convenience while you weem yourself off of the more expensive brands. Buying in bulk sometimes helps, if your budget allows you to part with the price of a 20 pack of paper towels vs a couple of single rolls. If you feel like something is too expensive for its actual worth, try to find an alternative .. don’t just complain to yourself.
2 – The Drug Store
Go generic, always. The generic brand is chemically identical to the active ingredient in the more expensive brand. This can get tricky with over the counter stuff such as pain relievers. Both the brand name and the generic may have the same pain reliever, but the brand name may have found (and patented) a way for it to take effect faster, or last longer. Don’t put up with a throbbing headache over two bucks. In most countries, medicines are available by the piece, so you don’t have to buy a bottle of 50 tablets for one headache. Get the smallest pack you can, when is the last time you burned through 15 tablets in a month? By the time its gone, you’ll be into next month’s budget.
Always reserve $5 to play the lottery. After all, you have to play to win. Plus, well, its fun If you can have fun on $5, you have accomplished something.
3 – The Department Store
Almost everything that breaks can be fixed. This goes for appliances, clothing, toys, electronics, you name it. The extent of savings in that depends upon your skill and free time. Stop calling time you spend paying yourself by not needing to spend money to replace something free time, you are putting money in your pocket by keeping money in your pocket. I know people who will buy a new pair of $50 pants just because of a rip in a seam. I know other people who will buy new appliances to replace broken ones that are still under warranty just to avoid the ‘hassle’ of sending it in. The rationale is usually something like “I only paid $30 for that, I didn’t expect it to last too long ..” Send in warranty cards the same day you get the thing and take them up on their offer.
I don’t eschew brands. In a department store, brands count. I buy Docker’s pants because they last for years, the same with Levis jeans. Kenmore appliances often become heirlooms and Craftsman tools last forever. Don’t buy into “you get what you pay for” blindly, however. Think about how often you’ll actually use what you are purchasing.
If the sale rack doesn’t have your size, come back when it does, whenever possible.
4 – The Electronics Store
Always go cheap here, anything you buy is obsolete in a year. You’d be lucky to get 1/5 of your money back selling it a year from now. Go for the best price, but mind the warranty. People go to electronics stores (and departments) for two reasons. Reason one is to browse and wish, leave all of your credit cards with your spouse when you do this. Reason two is to actually buy something, knowing what you want and what you want to spend ahead of time. If you know what you want, go in the store and make a bee line for it. Tell the sales people you hear voices , they’ll leave you alone. Just be sure to get what you need before the men in white jackets show up.
Don’t buy into industry gold plated FUD. Research what you need ahead of time. Try to buy stuff made in your country, if you can, but don’t consider stuff made elsewhere as ‘junk’. A warranty is a warranty.
5 – The Mall (In General)
The next time the sun beats down and you feel the urge to crank up your A/C, pack a sandwich and some fluids and take public transportation to the nearest air conditioned mall. Get in some speed walking, find free wi-fi, enjoy your lunch and have fun window shopping. When the sun subsides, head back home. You not only saved some cash, you just lowered your carbon footprint. On average, such an excursion will save you about $7, minus the fare you paid to travel. Leave your credit cards at home.
While there, look around for the stuff that you need (or want). See what’s on sale. If what you want is not on sale, ask to talk to a manager. Give them your phone number and ask to be called when / if that item is reduced. Trust me, 8/10 times, you’ll get a call. Sometimes, you’ll get a discount on the spot. Now you have to decide if you want it bad enough to go home and get the means to pay for it. Even the big retail chains have a customer service desk where you can ask to be informed of upcoming sales and events.
6 – The Movies
My biggest weakness is the movies. I don’t download videos, if its something I want to see, I’d rather see it on the silver screen. Netflix is cool, but its still not that completely awesome experience. Go with a group, get a big bucket of popcorn to share and a couple of boxes of the huge candy boxes and share. Some theaters will let you bring in water, go to the ones that do. If going solo, eat first. Tickets are sometimes cheaper if you get them on-line, beware ‘additional charges’ when redeeming them.
7 – Sporting Events
I never go unless I get free tickets. When I do go, I eat first and bring water. Its a shame that the average person would pay well over $100 to bring their family of three to a home town game. Its different when you have kids, its a memory for them, hence full value for your money. I saw Cal Ripken break the iron man record on TV, tickets to that game were in the hundreds for the cheap seats. Season tickets may seem cheap, when compared to the gate price but they are still a major shock to the wallet. Going to one or two games a season is reasonable, provided you watch what you spend while you are there.
8 – The Gas Station
I don’t own a car. I don’t see us owning a car any time in the near future. For the last five and a half years, I have done quite well with public transportation, all over South East Asia. If I can figure out how to use it here, you can figure out how to use it anywhere. I don’t pay gas, maintenance or insurance costs, period. If we really need a car for something, we borrow one.
If you can avoid driving, do so. You’ll pay less and do the world some good. Walk, pedal, skate, whatever .. you’ll stay healthier, save money and save emissions. The less you use your car, the longer it lasts.
Drive slower, use your A/C only when you need it and try to drive less. A walk to the store with your kids is a LOT more fun for them than a drive. The less you start your car, the longer you delay replacing a starter. Remember, when it comes to cars, nothing breaks until just after the warranty runs out.
9 – The Toy Store
As much as we want to give our kids everything that they want, we are doing them an egregious disservice by satisfying every impulse. Expensive toys are for birthdays and holidays. Set a budget before you enter the store and stick to it, make sure the kids know what it is. At the same time, you can’t continuously ostracize kids from their peers while trying to teach them adult practicality, or you’ll end up with little disgruntled adults. You have to listen when kids say “But DAD (or MOM) everyone has this, I’ll be the only one who doesn’t!”
Use your best judgement, while not making a habit out of caving in. As they get older, it gets harder.
10 – The incidentals
You were caught in the rain, McDonalds is dry and you need to buy something in order to stay there until the sky clears. While wondering why you did not carry an umbrella, spend the least amount as possible. Things happen, at least a few times each month you’ll be put in a position to spend money that is not in your budget. The key here is damage control. Settle for a coffee instead of a super sized meal, then eat when you get home. Life is full of ancillary costs, just remember that you still retain control over your wallet.
When I started this blog in 2007, I swore that I would (above all) try not to reiterate common sense as a topic. However, I’m alarmed enough at an apparent lack (or disregard) of common sense that I ended up writing a micro marathon. In all things, be good to yourself, yes you deserve to enjoy the fruits of your labor just as much as the next person. What I’m advocating is sensibility as the norm. Many people, despite recent turmoil seem all to eager to just pick up bad habits where they left off.
We can learn a lot from those who survived hardships that (thankfully) still exist only in history, at least in most parts of the world. Wisdom should be preserved in a way that enhances our common sense.
How quickly we forget.