If you read this regularly, then you are already aware that we've been treading water in some uncertain seas here at our house. The world of part-time, freelance, and contract work is financially a bit unpredictable; in addition, it is a world of pay-for-your-own-medical-benefits. Combine those two things and you have a serious need to cut out extras and live close to the bone.
I'm not complaining (at least not right now! ; ) I like to think that tight times, like hardships, build character and fortitude. I also believe that we as a country are a wasteful, greedy, spoiled bunch of brats for the most part. I don't want to represent that growing segment of the population.
Take those health benefits: I've had person after person tell me that I should try to get them for free, or less. It's the same story with every assistance program out there: "The help is there, you might as well use it," they say. I try to point out to these "helpful" sorts that we still have two running vehicles, jobs we can do, skills we can use, good and plentiful food from all the food groups, a home with heat and even A/C when it's stiflingly hot, a home computer, enough money to occasionally do something just for fun... I can see from the glaze in their eyes that it's not sinking in, but what I'm saying to them is true: we are not destitute. We have all the requirements for life and far more. If I can still pay for my health benefits, I will; I don't care that the state wants to give them to my kid. I don't care that we might qualify for some sort of assistance. We do not want for ANY necessities; that's enough information for me to decline all the handouts. If I really, absolutely, positively must take them, I will. If I am wanting for necessities on a regular basis, I will accept assistance from those programs, because people in those straits are the folks for whom such programs exist. But I'm not there yet.
You see, a lot of Americans have pride about the wrong things. They have no qualms whatsoever about taking any and every thing the government will give them, but they turn up their noses when I mention shopping second-hand. Or ALDI. Or knocking on a neighbor's door to ask if you may use the apples that fall from their tree and rot on the roadway. Why are we collectively more ashamed of shopping in the wrong stores, of looking less than wealthy, but not ashamed to accept handouts? Why are people reluctant to use coupons at the grocery, but unapologetic that they still get checks or money equivalents from Uncle Sam? Is is because Uncle Sam spares them the embarrassment of being forced to use coupons? What is wrong with coupons?
I don't mean to harp and rant. I realize we are all making our own choices and that is part of what I love about America. I also realize there are a few people in this country who are truly doing without the basics and suffering. I just wish the idiots in charge would stop giving it all away to anyone who asks; they're creating an ever bigger, uglier monster of laziness and entitlement.
ANYWAY. That wasn't supposed to be the point of this post. This post is about squeaking by without feeling squeaked.
The other day, I saved my grocery store receipt to show my husband. Why? I was proud of that receipt. It wasn't for a huge purchase or anything; I simply pointed out to him that the amount of the purchase was $12.97, and the amount saved was $12.60. That's how I shop, people. One good thing about having more time and less money is that you can dedicate as many minutes as needed to planning and scanning: planning your list and menu, and scanning the store flyers to see where your best deals are.
I've put together a quick list of tips and methods on which I rely weekly. Following this list pretty much guarantees you'll save money. However, it's just like a diet—not following it guarantees nothing. Diligence works, while distraction and lack of discipline do not.
Cheapskate Mel's Shopping Tips
• Always keep a list of needed items in a central location. Write down each item immediately upon thinking of it. If you always buy certain items at certain places, then keep multiple lists titled by the appropriate store name. (Don't write the list on a chalkboard, whiteboard, etc. because then it is not transportable. The list must be easily transportable or you will not use it.)
• Use coupons, but only use them for items you already buy. Do not use them as a way to buy something unusual, unless it is something you've really been wanting to try anyway. Keep the coupons in your wallet, in your handbag (if you're a woman), or in the car that you drive. Do not keep them in the desk or on the table in the office, because you will never have them when you need them. Clip them together or contain them in an envelope. Before you go into a store where you plan to use them, take out the stack, find the one(s) you need, and put those coupons on top of the stack so they're handy when you check out.
• If your list is short and/or does not contain heavy, awkward items, do not get a cart; get a basket instead. Or, put the items to purchase into your reusable tote. (NOTE: I can employ this tactic now because I'm typically shopping alone; if your little one is still coming along, ignore this tip for now.) Having that basket limits you from impulse purchases. If you can't comfortably carry the impulse item, you will likely not buy it.
• Shop ahead of time and always have back-ups in the freezer or pantry to help you avoid panic purchases at more expensive, more convenient locations. Stocking up ahead of time allows you to take advantage of good sales involving multiple items. It also saves you from, when in a hurry, being forced to buy a pricey brand-name item because the convenience store doesn't offer generics. Ideally, you should buy an item only when it's offered at a sale price. Usually, with prior planning, that is an achievable goal. (This works best if you have a good idea of what things cost when they're not on sale.)
• If your list involves only one part of a large store, do NOT venture into the rest of the store. You will most certainly find things you think you "need." Fight the urge, check out, and leave the store.
• If you really have a hard time controlling yourself, use the cash system: roughly figure how much your total purchase will cost, and then take only that amount of money into the store. A limited cash "cache" will force you to restrain yourself and stick to the list. Apparently, gamblers do this, I've heard—they take with them an amount of money they can afford to lose. Um, hello? If you can afford to lose more than a couple of bucks, then please invest that money wisely instead of flushing it down the toilet!?! (Dave Ramsey, debt-free guru, frequently recommends a cash-only method to families; he calls it the envelope system, and suggests that financially strapped people set up envelopes each month, labeled by expense and based on what they can afford and what they realistically need to spend in order to survive. We haven't yet resorted to the envelope system, but I'm not ruling it out...)
• Plan your meals based on what is in season and what's on sale. Buying fresh food in season costs sometimes half as much as buying the same food out of season. It's better for the environment anyway; stuff that's out of season has to be shipped from far away, likely picked before it's ripe, and possibly preserved en route by the use of unhealthy and unnatural means.
• Like to read? The library is still free. Remember the library, before all those big-box book-and-coffee stores? And oh, yeah, they have movies at the library, too. If you have extra money, that would be a great place to donate a few bucks; thanks to our stupid leaders, public libraries really need more funding.
• Eat at home. I've already hit on this several times in past posts, so I won't go on and on. It's cheaper, healthier, and better for your family (if you have a family). I know it's hard to do sometimes, thanks to different schedules, sports, work, etc... Do what you can. Slow cookers still work well, and fresh food doesn't take as long to cook. Not to mention this is still excellent grilling weather.
• Make it known that you happily receive hand-me-downs. We have several folks who kindly share with us their kids' goods, and since I have more time, I can sort through them, label them, store them, and pass on any excess. Sometimes people have nice clothes, toys, books, etc. that they'd like to give to someone, but they're hesitant to pass things on in fear of insulting the recipient. Let it be clear to others that you detest waste and will accept with gratitude any of those items they're planning to unload.
• Shop second-hand. It's just smart. You pay $30 for something, and I pay $3 for the same item. I wash it, and it's clean. This is especially true of household items and furniture. Obviously, I won't buy anything that looks worn, beat-up, or straight from the 70s, just like I won't buy an article of clothing that's stained, or pilled, or has holes. I don't want to be a bum. I just want to spend money on things that really matter. (No, I don't buy undergarments second-hand. I have common sense AND standards.)
• Make a deliberate decision to live low-tech. We have done so and it saves us a ton. I know some of you may think this is easy for me to say because my child is still very small. However, remember that America is known for helpless children and helicopter-parents who hover. Maybe the answer is having emergency-only tech tools, just for older kids who are unsupervised more often. Perhaps we should all stop running around so much. Easier said than done, I realize—but some of our own suffering we bring on ourselves. Don't worry about keeping up with all the great gadgets. They're amazing, they're fun, and...they're expensive. Get by with the minimum, forget the frequent upgrades and newest versions, and have a face-to-face conversation or look up from that screen to see the world around you. The technological boom has done a huge disservice to free thought, creativity, and common sense. In my humble opinion, of course. As I type this on a computer. But hey, it's 4-1/2 years old already and it was the cheapest Mac available at the time.
Okay, okay. I'd better stop. I'm starting to preach, and no one wants to read that. Seriously, though, it is possible to cut corners and still live large. I'd welcome any additional money-saving suggestions!
To squeak by, you need to sort of rethink and question our culture. You have to pretty much forget about the Jones family and focus on the really important things in life. Thankfully, those things aren't terribly expensive, at least in dollars. And if you're worried that you'll short-change your kid, I disagree: you'll be teaching the younger generation that there is more to life than Wii, Abercrombie, new cars, the current restaurant fad, and the latest iPhone. Now, that's a lesson we all need to learn.