With the economy in the toilet for the umpteenth year in a row, most of us have to be mindful of where our money goes and try to stretch it as far as possible. After I lost my job back in April of 2009, I rapidly transitioned into “penny-pinching” mode, where I remain today. Unemployment paid me roughly forty percent of my previous wage. After it ran out and I went to work for BigBoxRetailer, I found myself at fifty-six percent of that – about twenty-two percent of my most recent salary. With this new job, I’m back to about seventy percent of my 2009 rate.
To say the least, I’ve learned to squeeze a fair amount of mileage out of every dollar. I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my methods. Most of the things that I do are common sense if you think about it, but some may seem weird or extreme at first glance. Many other folks have given similar advice elsewhere. I’m just telling you what works for me with the hope that it will help you as well. There are many areas to consider when it comes to spending less. First, I’m going to talk about food.
Coupons are your friend, as are sale prices. However, don’t get carried away and spend five dollars in gasoline driving all over town in an effort to save fifty cents. It doesn’t take much in-town driving to spend way more in fuel than you’ll save at the register. Some places price match, but be advised that Walmart has found a way around most of the matching. If the price at the competition requires a rewards card, and the vast majority do, they won’t match it. Reward membership, although free, is deemed equivalent to membership at a wholesale club. These are considered special situations, not a normal sale, and therefore ineligible for price matching. At least that was the policy several months ago, the last time I tried.
Buy in bulk if you can, but make sure that the mega-size box really is less expensive per unit/ounce/whatever. I often find that the larger size containers cost as much or more per unit than smaller containers of the exact same product. A calculator is your friend, just make sure you actually check the amount in the container – more about this shortly. At the same time, be sure you don’t buy so much that it goes bad before you use it up. Half price isn’t a deal when two-thirds of it goes bad and must be thrown out.
Buy generic or store brand products unless the name brand is really worth the price difference. Sometimes it is, either because the difference in price is very small, or because the recipes really are that different. Most of the time, though, it’s not. For me, one such item that is worth the extra is mayonnaise. I buy Hellman’s Canola mayo at nearly four dollars per thirty ounce jar, while generics typically run under three dollars for thirty-two ounces. Although advertised for other benefits instead of the lower calorie content, it has the same or fewer calories than most “light” mayonnaises (a significant consideration for me because of my weight issues) but tastes as good to me as any name brand regular mayo that I’ve ever tried – something that I can’t say about any “light” mayo that I’ve ever tried.
You’ll notice that I said that the Hellman’s was a thirty ounce jar and the generic was thirty-two ounces. This is a trick that many manufacturers have been using for quite some time. Jars that we have grown accustomed to containing thirty-two ounces only have thirty ounces of product in them nowadays. The same goes for canned products. What used to be sixteen ounces is now fourteen. That orange juice carton isn’t half a gallon (sixty-four ounces) any more. It’s fifty-nine ounces. The prices per unit go up less over time, so people don’t realize that they are paying significantly more per ounce than they used to. Not everyone does this, though. Tropicana is the major offender when it comes to orange juice. Minute Maid is still a full sixty-four ounces, at least for now. Kraft and Hellmans only put thirty ounces in their mayo jars, but Duke and most of the generics are still thirty-two. Boxes of pasta aren’t exempt. The other day, I noticed a fourteen and a quarter ounce box right next to, and nearly identical in appearance to a standard sixteen ounce box. Pay attention, folks.
Look for perishable products, particularly meat, that are going out of date and have been reduced. Make sure it doesn’t show obvious signs of age (meat that has turned brown, etc.), of course. I don’t remember the last time I bought regular-priced meat. Sometimes I end up with pork when I’d prefer beef or vice versa, but unless there is a good reason not to, make do with whatever has been marked down. For the best selection, find out when your favorite store does their markdowns and be there shortly after that time.
If you have a back yard, grow a garden. It is not terribly difficult as long as you water it frequently (unless you live in the Pacific northwest, or some similarly wet climate), and don’t let the weeds take over. Think about what you buy that will grow in your climate. Start with the products that cost the most over the course of the year, and plant as many of them as you have space. Seeds, fertilizer and irrigation water all cost something, but not nearly as much as fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. – not to mention that the crap you buy at the grocery store tastes like cardboard compared to what you will grow at home.
Learn to can. Take advantage of seasonal items and sale prices, and preserve enough to to get you through until the next sale or harvest season. I’ve been canning for a couple years, just the stuff from my own garden, but was unaware of reusable canning lids until earlier this year. These are definitely the way to go.
If you have a little extra space, consider raising some of your own meat. Rabbits are nearly invisible to neighbors – no noise or smell unless you really, really neglect them. Muscovy ducks are a good red meat option and are the quietest ducks I know of. You will need to clip their flight feathers to keep them from being too visible, if visibility is a concern for you, but they don’t tend to stray. Other options include chickens and goats, both for dairy and meat. A little research will tell you the particular needs of each so you can decide which option, if any will work for you.
The next area I’m going to talk about is your car. First and foremost, slow down. Accelerate slowly and smoothly, not aggressively. When entering interstates, judge the length of the acceleration lane, and adjust your throttle pressure accordingly. As long as you’re paying attention to traffic, you can safely use the entire acceleration lane. You don’t want to try to merge at twenty miles per hour under the limit, but it is also unnecessary to push your right foot through the floorboard to match the speed of traffic as quickly as possible. Unless you drive in hilly or mountainous areas, your accelerator should never see 50% or more under normal circumstances. The same applies to stopping. Don’t wait until the last second and then brake heavily. You’re not saving any real time doing so; you’re only wearing out your brakes a lot more quickly than necessary.
As much as possible, consolidate your errands into the fewest number of trips. If you can, avoid the busiest times of the day when you are likely to spend more time idling in traffic. Speaking of idling, learn the traffic light patterns in the areas that you frequent and if you will be sitting at a light for more than about twenty seconds, kill the engine. In modern fuel injected engines, very little additional fuel is used during the engine starting procedure. If you’re driving an older car that is equipped with a carburetor, you should probably avoid this unless the idle time is anticipated to exceed one minute.
If your car has a manual transmission, you can also turn off the engine and coast if there are slight downhill grades of at least half a mile. (This may be illegal in some jurisdictions – check your local laws.) Steep grades are another matter. Use common sense. If the grade is steep enough to require brakes to keep from exceeding the speed limit, you won’t save any fuel by killing the engine, but you will increase your chance of an accident. Remember that you will lose power steering immediately and it won’t take long until you will lose the power assist on the brakes. This could present a safety issue if you’re not prepared to exert the additional effort that will be necessary. If you have any doubts, don’t. Better to burn a few extra ounces of fuel than wrecking the car.
When it comes time to buy a replacement, consider your needs with economy in mind. Sure, that four ton Ford F-350 supercab long bed 4×4 with the V-10 is cool, but do you really need that much truck? For those considering a truck at all, think about how often you actually use it as a truck. For most of us, we’d come out way ahead to buy an econobox and rent a u-haul for the rare times when we need a truck. Sure, econoboxes aren’t the most luxurious or comfortable options out there, but do you make enough long trips or carry enough passengers and/or cargo often enough to justify the larger, heavier and less efficient car or truck? If you do, pick the most efficient and reliable one in your price range. If not, a Kia Rio or Toyota Yaris might be the best choice for you. My Corolla is only one step up from the bottom, but it is very comfortable even on long drives. The LE model has more bells and whistles than many “luxury” brands offered a quarter of a century ago.
I get about thirty-eight miles per gallon during my current commute of approximately thirty miles each way. I incorporate all of the recommendations above, including running at one to two miles per hour under the limit. Increasing to eight miles per hour over the limit and changing from gentle acceleration to normal, non-aggressive acceleration cuts that by over ten percent, costs me about fifteen percent more fuel (over five dollars), and only saves me thirty-seven minutes in travel time for the entire week. Anyone with a shorter commute distance will see even less of a time savings. It’s not worth a dollar per day to shorten the trip by three and a half minutes, particularly when an added benefit to the slower pace is elimination of the question of whether or not eight over the limit will get me a ticket.
Continuing on the subject of transportation, take care of your car. Regularly check your tire pressure. Under-inflation uses more fuel. Learn to perform your own preventative maintenance and minor repairs, and then do it. Don’t scrimp on preventative maintenance. It will cost you more in the long run.
Change your own oil, oil filter, air filter and fuel filters regularly. Why pay your local garage thirty dollars for an oil and filter change that you can do yourself for less than twenty and fifteen minutes of your time? The same goes for brakes. Disc brake pad replacement is more difficult than changing the oil, but is far from challenging in most cases. Brake pads typically cost less than thirty dollars per axle, and can be changed out in an hour or so with basic hand tools. Meineke will charge you a hundred dollars or more by the time they add in their markup and charge for labor. Drum brakes are a few notches up on the difficulty scale, but are a DIY item if you’re reasonably competent mechanically.
I’ll move on to utility consumption next. Turn off lights that you aren’t using (which with current LED and CFL bulbs isn’t nearly as big of a deal as it was in our younger days) there is a lot you can do to decrease the amount of energy that you use. About CFLs, if you choose to use them, don’t buy them from the dollar store. The cheap ones won’t last nearly as long as they are supposed to, and will end up costing more in the long run. I’ve had good luck with the GE ones that Walmart sells. They are made in China, but seem to have some semblance of quality control. Keep in mind proper disposal. Home Depot offers free recycling/disposal. I’m no tree-hugger, but neither do I want to drink mercury from broken CFL bulbs that got dumped out back a couple years ago that filtered into the water table.
Climate control is the largest single energy expense for most households, so go there first. Make sure your unit is in good repair. Locate and seal air leaks. Add insulation if your home is deficient (assuming you own your own home, of course), upgrade windows, doors, climate control appliances if you can afford them. Afterwards, be as conservative as possible with the thermostat setting. I’m not suggesting 55 in the winter or 88 in the summer, but find the edge of comfortable for your entire family and set the temperature accordingly. If the temperature is such that you’re comfortable in your birthday suit in the winter, or need long sleeves in the summer, you could probably stand to decrease the temperature a bit. Find a balance between comfort and economy.
Other things can make a noticeable difference as well. If you’re baking a small item, use the toaster oven instead of the oven on your range. Consider turning off your computer when you’re not using it. Some will recommend against this because of the heat that PCs generate during normal operation, and the fact that electronics tend to dislike thermal cycling. Personally, I’ve never had a problem, but use your own judgment on this one. Be conscious of what you’re using and if you don’t truly need it, turn it off. Those pennies add up.
Water is one of the biggest concerns for me, although the financial burden is minimal compared to food or gas. I’m on municipal water, and they charge by volume. As much as I try to conserve from a financial standpoint, I’m more concerned that one day I’ll wake up and the lines will be empty. If I’m already watching every drop, it shouldn’t be quite as much of an adjustment. I have multiple backups in place, but none are nearly as convenient as opening a faucet. Most of the water saving tips have been drilled into our heads during one drought or another. Short showers instead of full baths – turning the water off while soaping up, water off while brushing your teeth, only wash full loads of clothes, and so forth.
I did think of one that you won’t hear from your local water authority. Use drip irrigation for your garden instead of traditional sprinklers or watering with the hose. There is a bit more expense to a drip system than a garden hose and plastic sprinkler from Wal-Mart, but they still aren’t that expensive. By putting the water near the roots, most of the evaporation is eliminated, meaning that you will use significantly less volume for the same effect. In traditional sprinkler systems, half or more of the water you put down evaporates and your garden gets zero benefit from it. You paid for it, either directly to the municipality or to the electric company and the pump manufacturer. You may as well get full benefit from your investment.
Consider your entertainment and communication needs. Do you really need a smartphone for every member of the family, and the full TV package? Maybe you do, but at least consider the possibility that some cash outlay could be saved in that area. I’ve had a prepaid Tracfone for years, and have never needed to buy more than the $20 card every three months to keep it active. I also have had a TV antenna on the roof since about a month after I moved into this house. For a while, I splurged on a Netflix membership, I canceled it long ago. I can get most of what I want to watch from hulu free, and if I want to watch previous seasons all that badly, I can pay the eight bucks a month for hulu plus.
Reload your ammo. Since most pistol brass is almost infinitely reusable. you’ll save at least thirty percent on pistol reloads when compared to even the cheap TulAmmo or Wolf steel-cased stuff, and a lot more compared to the good ammo. Reloading for rifle saves quite a bit also. Since few rifle shooters (EBR shooters excluded) fire anywhere close to as many rounds as pistol shooters, it will take longer to recoup the cost of the reloading hardware, but, there is the added benefit of availability as long as you have all the necessary consumables. Ammo shortage? No problem if you have two years worth of consumables on hand.
Consider thrift stores for your clothing needs, if your tastes run higher than $11.97 Rustler jeans from Walmart. Or even if they don’t. They practically give the stuff away, and a lot of stuff is new with the tags still on them.
Work to eliminate credit, starting with whichever card charges the highest percentage rate. Using credit is sometimes unavoidable, but remember that every penny you pay for using someone else’s money is a penny that won’t be available for anything else. Save up and pay cash, or use the 90 days same as cash promotions whenever possible.
Those are the high points. There are advanced options – rainwater collection, solar water heaters, and a myriad of other things that wander past basic frugality, and into the realm of disaster preparedness, but I won’t go into those at this time. Hopefully you found enough useful information here to make it worth the time it took you to read it.