I meant to slide backwards today and discuss the foundations of this series – why I’m writing it and for what purpose, but to do that properly I need to cite references and frankly my dear, it’s been a whirlwind. We had a long weekend, and today I have a list of things to do that is longer than the time I have to do things in. So I’ll address a point I talked about in the first post, and it’s one I can do off the top of my head.
I grew up poor, the First Reader grew up poor. We’ve both lived most of our adult lives making just enough. I don’t think either one of us thought of ourselves as poor when we were kids. I know that in the last decade I’ve had times where there was no leeway for a misspent dollar, but I always managed to feed my children and keep the lights on. With the life changes we’re going through, the financial situation is slowly looking rosier (I’m still not counting chickens until they hatch, though). Despite that promise for the future, we will continue to live as we have been: spending less than we bring into the house.
As the home executive in this house, I handle most of the finances. He could, but one person doing it is better, and besides that, I know he’d rather not. We don’t, however, do this alone. At the beginning of a month we sit down and talk through the budget, what’s coming in, special expenses, and make a plan. Sometimes the plan changes, and we talk about it some more. But we talk about money often, and it’s a comfortable talk. We’ve never fought over money and expenses, because we’re on the same wavelength when it comes to the household finances. And both of us prefer to live frugally – if anyone is a spender in this house, it’s me. And my idea of retail therapy is a trip to the Salvation Army store, or the used book store. Which isn’t to say that we live in shabby hand-me-downs, or the kids do. Just that we’re careful for the budget.
I hesitated before writing this post. Talking about money tends to be a cultural taboo here in the US. I knew when I used the word frugal, it was likely to make people think of washing and reusing foil and ziplocs (I have, but don’t usually). Or making your own laundry soap (definitely not. I do, however, buy the cheap stuff. Soap is, chemically speaking, soap). Or growing your own veggies and canning them. I’ve done that, certainly, and talked about it here on the blog, but in most cases of common veg (say, carrots, onions, and potatoes) it’s cheaper to buy it. And the amount of ‘pesticides’ you’re consuming isn’t, if you’re doing your due diligence and cleaning them, any higher than from your own garden. Certainly few of us (and I’m one of those) have the time, know-how, or inclination to really garden. If you’re not careful you can pour hundreds of dollars into the garden and watch the deer and bunnies feast.
I’m not trying to be discouraging. I’m being realistic, basing this on how I’ve lived and learned. I’ve been there, breaking my back over the gardens, up to and including market gardens. If you’re trying to learn as you go, you need to have another reason for gardening than cheap produce. Like sun-warm tomatoes fresh off the vine. Those are totally worth it.
Frugality is more a mind-set than an action-set. I’m not a couponer, for instance. Most of the time coupons are for the brand names, and they don’t bring the true price down any further than the generics. Generic groceries are usually just as good as name brands, and they don’t have the hidden cost of the slick TV ads you’re paying for. I know there are people who swear by extreme couponing, and again, it’s a time-waster. I figured out what the minimum hourly cost is for my time a few years back, as a freelancer, and if I’m not saving more than I could be making, I don’t do it. I do shop scratch-and-dent stores, and the bargain bins. I buy in bulk, portion, and freeze. I buy flats of cans when something is on a good sale.
How do you know if it is a good sale? Just because the signs say ‘SALE!!!’ doesn’t mean it’s a good buy. The First Reader and I, in talking about this, discussed the Dollar Store as an example of this. You can go in to buy an item, and say you can get a half-dozen of that item for a dollar. Seems like a really cheap thing, yes? Good deal? Not really. That makes the individual cost of that item $0.17 and you can get that same item for $0.07 if you buy it in bulk. Sure, the initial cost is steeper if you buy 100 of them – it’s $7.00. But if you’re going to use them then it’s less than half the cost over the long run. For me, this is the key to frugal grocery shopping. Knowing what the unit cost is – I keep that in my head, and then if I am in a store, I know if that can of corn is a deal, or not. I know that sugar should be roughly $0.50 a lb, BS chicken breast is a good buy at less than $2 a lb, and so on. These days, I use Amazon prime pantry for some non-perishable shopping, and I have to know what I’m getting – but Amazon kindly provides the unit cost with most items, which is great. I also factor in the convenience of not having to go drive to a store, deal with people, use gas… you get the idea.
The grocery budget, especially for a family with teens like mine, is possibly the biggest line-item in any household, and often the least controlled. Reducing it will help you become a thrifty home executive. However, there are many other areas where overspending can be a problem. For us, we’ve cut so many ‘common’ things out of the budget, we don’t even think about them. I have no idea what cable should cost – I haven’t had that bill in my life for nearly a decade. We don’t have a landline. We do all have cell phones, but I don’t use a contract plan, and we pay less for the whole family per month than I would for just my phone on a contract. It did mean spending more upfront to buy each phone, but you may be seeing a theme starting here. For paying more initially, you wind up paying less in the long run. We own our vehicles – no car debt means that we paid out more to purchase than a down payment, but then we don’t have ongoing payments. And yes, you will have repairs when driving rusty trustys, but they are still less than a monthly car payment would be.
And it’s also not the case that we don’t have any fun or do things that cost money. We just think about them ahead of time, and plan for it. We’re not big on impulse spending (although it does happen, but again, I have a budget item for that kind of thing). The First Reader and I added ‘date night’ to the budget when the kids came to live with us full time, and we hunt down obscure little restaurants with good food at great prices. We’re not going to be happy sitting down to a meal that is costing us $50 a plate or more. That’s just us. It helps that neither of us is a drinker – we were talking about the cost of alcohol in restaurants the other day. He’d been to a whisky tasting with friends, which was a set cost and fine, but he happened to see what a double of one that wasn’t on the menu for the tasting was… and choked. He could buy a bottle of the stuff for that price! So go out, relax, enjoy good company – but plan ahead for it and you won’t feel guilty in the morning.
I also have an entertainment budget for the house. I mentioned above that we don’t do cable. We do, however, do Amazon Prime for music and videos, Kindle Unlimited for books, Netflix for TV and movies… and it’s about $25 a month, going up to $35 a month once I no longer have Student Prime. Internet for me is a business expense, so it’s not really part of the house budget. Amazon Prime is more than just entertainment, but I lumped it in there to illustrate my point. We can access the world, and very affordably.
I signed up for a free budgeting tool a few months back. It’s very useful, and I highly recommend it. There’s a paid component, but you don’t need it if you’re willing to sit down a few minutes each day and enter any transactions that were conducted. Every Dollar beats the spreadsheets I used to set up manually hands-down. But what amused me was the series of emails they sent out, with money-saving tips and tricks. I already do all of those, and more. Some of it was simply being brought up to make do, make it work, and use it up before you buy new. Some of it is that I’ve learned it’s Fun to scrounge and save money – I often make a game out of coming up with what I want for the least possible outlay. Like furnishing this house. Our living room furniture cost a whole whopping $23 for couch, loveseat, two Queen Anne’s chairs, end table, and coffee table (I’m not counting the other tables we already owned). That’s satisfaction, right there.
Being frugal doesn’t mean doing without. It means that you have the freedom to be confident in your purchases and not suffer buyer’s remorse. It means not running out of money before you run out of month. It means that you’re not wasting your money paying for stupid.