The Great Recession took away lots of things from Americans and gave little if anything back. Credit is much harder to come by. Wages for the working class have stagnated. Many of us (including yours truly) occasionally tap credit cards to get by, and live from paycheck to paycheck.
Job security? Forget about it: That job your parents held for 20 years looks like some implausible dream sequence from a 1950s sitcom. Meanwhile, employers keep cutting back on “perks” such as health insurance, saying that it’s “industry standard.” Translation: “Everyone else is nickel and diming you, so why shouldn’t we?”
OK, enough ranting: Let’s get saving. Although the harsh realities of our economy might seem harrowing, I maintain that frugal living takes on all the strategy and tactics of a rousing game of Battleship. We live in a nation so blessed with abundance that 99 times out of 100, cutting back doesn’t require living like a monk. Rather, it means chopping excess from our lives that’s wasteful, redundant or just plain dumb.
Here I offer you 10 ways to live frugally, save money and not diminish your quality of living one iota. What are your favorite frugal strategies? I’m asking you to contribute your ideas, either in the comment section or via my email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Once I gather enough string, we’ll turn over this slice of real estate to you, the loyal readers of Money Under 30.
1. Ditch your cable TV — all of it — and get Netflix or Hulu.
The best habit I developed in college? I stopped watching TV. It began by accident, because reception was crappy in my dorm and I needed every spare second to write papers and study for exams. The habit stuck, and as a result I save hundreds of dollars a month on cable. Three weeks ago, I was in Minneapolis and tried surfing the hotel room cable to see what I might be missing. And there it was, channel after channel of crap, crap and more crap.
You hardly need cable when you can stream TV through your iPad via services such as Hulu Plus, which costs $7.99 a month. And it still amazes me that I can stream Netflix through my Sony Blu-Ray player, also for $7.99 a month. The movie and TV offerings are incredible; my kids love watching “Cake Boss,” “Mythbusters” and all the Japanese anime they can handle. Then again, I guess I could pay $100 a month for cable, watch my bills go up every four months and get tons of crap I’ll never, ever watch.
2. Ditch your cell phone carrier and use Google Voice.
Feeling brave? Sick of your wireless carrier bills? Then you can try the method Pablo Defendini devised. In this blog, the graphic and interactive designer describes how he uses Google Voice, his iPad or iPod Touch, a data-only plan and a portable wireless hotspot from Karma to make phone calls. Since leaping off the wireless gravy train in March, he’s spent $28 total on expenses related to phone calls and $100 for his hotspot. That’s it. About the only drawback, he says, is that he can’t make 911 calls from his phone.
3. Goodbye brand soda, hello DIY soda.
If you’re a soda fiend, you can save lots of money (and indulge in mixing hijinks) with a SodaStream. They range in price from $80 to $200, and while that doesn’t sound frugal at first blush, consider that a 24-pack of pop typically costs $12. How long do you think it’ll take before a SodaStream pays for itself?
4. Don’t buy groceries unless they’re on sale.
I have a simple mantra that guides all my frugal exploits: Never pay full retail price for anything. Yet when many of us go to grocery store, we throw that logic out the window. You can get back on the frugal train with a new habit that will save you a bundle: Concentrate on your grocery store’s sale items. Period. Where you shop also matters. Trader Joe’s, for example, may not have all the wonderful gourmet diversions of a Whole Foods, but you’ll save a lot of money and still eat healthy.
5. Clip coupons.
Now, let’s take your frugality to the next level. Although you may associate coupon clipping with someone’s Italian grandma, it’s gone high-tech. Websites like Coupons.com and BargainBabe (my personal favorite) make it easy to find coupons and discounts on the things you love. I’m predicting that you can cut your grocery bill by at least 10 percent with just a few minutes of modest effort, and signing up for freebie alerts and such can stretch your frugality reach even further.
6. Get a Nest Thermostat.
While it may sound like sci-fi to control your thermostat from your smartphone or tablet, this device makes it a reality. You can control your heating and air conditioning from your iPhone, iPad or Android devices — which comes in handy whether you own your home or pay utilities in a rental unit. So imagine, for a moment, controlling the temperature of your home from your bedroom, or from across the country. The Nest also learns your habits to help save energy and keep you comfortable while working at home. Nest gets software updates that add features, just as smartphones do, and it’s incredibly easy to install. They run around $250 at most stores, but again, think in terms of savings. This device will easily pay for itself within a year, and then start pocketing dough for you.
7. Skip the designer racks, hit the thrift shop.
Here’s the dirty little secret of clothes shopping: Sometimes thrift shops are designer racks in disguise. Just last week, I went to Crossroads Trading Co, in Evanston, Ill., and swapped in two rugby shirts I never wear for a sporty Kappa jacket with “ITALIA” emblazoned across the front. My detective work shows the jacket cost at least $150 new. My price after the trade-in? $3. By most estimates, thrift stores can save you 50 to 80 percent on clothing. That kind of discount adds up in style.
8. Stop using premium gasoline.
Think you’re doing your car a favor by filling up on premium? Well, you are doing someone a favor: the fat cats at the oil companies. Premium gasoline costs 20-plus cents a gallon more than regular, but there’s no reason to use it, ever, unless your car’s manufacturer requires it. As noted on cars.com, “If your engine is designed to run on regular gas (87 pump octane), engineers insist there is no significant benefit to using midlevel (around 89 octane) or premium gas with higher octane ratings.”
9. Start a discount card wallet.
In my Chrome messenger bag, I carry at least four dozen stamp and discount cards in a small billfold. They’re for all sorts of products and services; I have coffee cards, fast food cards, sandwich shop cards, drugstore cards, you name it. With all the cards in one place, I never miss a chance to save on purchases. When friends give me gift cards as thank yous, they go right in the billfold so they don’t get lost. I’ve also grown find of using QR-based loyalty cards, as offered by Belly and other companies. These track rewards for me with the simple scan at the cash register.
10. Avoid impulse shopping by planning your purchases.
This may seem so obvious as to elicit a “duh,” but stop: How many times have you bought something in the last month out of boredom, enticement, or the need for a little “retail therapy”? Shopping for stuff should be fun, but not at the cost of your bottom line. So if you’re heading out to the store or online, make a shopping list first. Ask yourself what you really “need” as opposed to what you “want,” and if something falls in the latter category, stop to consider how long it will take for you to become bored of the purchase and relegate it to some dusty shelf in your closet, basement or garage.
I can’t promise that frugal living will solve all your financial worries. Nor should we confuse it with miserly behavior; I use part of the money I save to tip generously and treat friends to coffee or lunch.
But you’d be surprised how much further your dollar can go, and how cool it is to treat frugal living like a board game, where the object is to save as much as possible without wreaking havoc on your quality of living. Besides, I love games where I can win just about every time.
Do you have any tips for frugal living I missed?