What I do–and don’t do–to save money

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There’s probably one thing worse than finding yourself jobless with ongoing bills to pay…and that’s being $150k+ in non-bankruptable debt, while also being jobless with ongoing bills to pay.  Even tough I’m part of the Gotta-have-it generation that became conscious of the world in the Decadent ’80s and came of age in the Decade of Denial (the ’90s), I’m still not too young to have been exposed to plenty of the GI generation that went through the Great Depression…and lived to tell about it.  I imagine that subconsciously, I took a few cues from them, some of their fundamental concepts seeding themselves in my head and germinating just when I’ve needed them most.

I don’t drive with the tailgate down, nor do I drive with the A/C off or the windows up when it’s 100 degrees outside, just to save on gas mileage.  Lots of people torture themselves, sweltering in their vehicle because they think they’ll reduce engine load or wind resistance/drag.  I haven’t found these to work in my favor.

Instead, I do stick to about 60-65 mph on the main highways, even if the actual speed limit is higher.  I do stay in the right-hand lane when doing this, especially if the general traffic flow is traveling faster.  Right away this saves me anywhere from 10-25% in fuel costs.  I started doing this during the $4/gallon days, and I haven’t looked back since.  Bonus: your stress level goes down.  Even though you deal with more tailgaters who don’t understand that the right lane isn’t for hot-rodding or passing other vehicles, you still find yourself calmer in general.

I don’t automatically buy larger sizes of a bottle of vitamins, for example, just because it’s there.  A lot of people do this, automatically thinking they’ll get more value for their money for buying in bulk.  Increasingly, larger sizes are not a bargain at all.  What’s worse is, some stores will try to disguise this by comparing apples and oranges; on the shelf label, some stores break down the price per ounce or whatever.  I’ve seen math errors, or different units used (thus making it tougher to compare directly, or whatever.

Instead, I crunch numbers.  Yes, I actually bring a calculator, and I look on the packages themselves to get size and content information.  This way, I can caculate an accurate unit price per pound, per capsule, etc.

I don’t clip coupons.  For some people this is almost a religious ritual without which their day would not be complete, but I disagree.  Coupons hardly ever include anything I would actually buy.  Usually they “discount” a pre-packaged item that is so over-priced that the value for the money is still rather low, even after accounting for the “discount”.

I also think twice before simply stocking up on something just because it’s on sale.  Too many times I’ve burned myself by stocking up on a shampoo, deodrant, or type of cereal, just to switch brands, leaving me with a lot of useless leftovers…and money wasted.

Instead, I only stock up on something when I already have its use planned, or perhaps it’s a perishable item but I’ve been using it every day forever and I have a freezer to store it in.

This is especially true for fruit; I try to buy organic fruit when it’s in season and freeze it.  Sure, I may lose some vitamin content during the freezing process, but at least I don’t waste food due to spoilage, and I can buy organic fruit when it’s more affordable, and keep it longer.

To keep Whole Foods affordable, I try to buy my dietary staples–and their accompanying spices–in the bulk section, instead of in little prefab packages.  It’s more work to combine the ingredients myself, and it’s not as glamorous as buying a cutesy little dinner in a hip designer box, but it costs much less, and as a nice bonus, I have more control over the ingredients.  And we do try to cook at home instead of eating out.  When we do eat out, I try to order something that reheats well on the stove, because if I can’t finish it in the restaurant, then I can get a take-out box and reheat it later.  Two lunches for the price of one, and I don’t overeat.  When I go out, I do not take my thriftiness out on the service staff if I’ve gotten decent service; they have to make money too, and tipping is a custom that is understood and automatically agreed upon by the very fact that I have chosen to eat at that restaurant.  If I can’t afford to tip according to custom, then I can’t afford to eat there.  Those of you who don’t want to tip, get over yourselves and go to Burger King.

I do not shop at Walmart–at least, not if I can avoid it.  Yes, it’s possible.  There is life outside of Wally-world.  And it doesn’t even have to cost you an arm and a leg.  The asterisk to those everyday low-low prices is that the stuff is junk.  I thought I was saving money by buying a skillet for $40 that would’ve cost me $150 elsewhere.  Well, after going through 3 or 4 of those in a single year or 2, I got sick of teflon coming off in my food and having to replace the thing every few months, and I buckled down, sucked it up, and invested in a product with some quality.  Sure I paid more, but 7 years later I still have the thing.  (The beauty is, it’s not even Teflon–which is all I could find at Walmart.)

Instead, to save money, I try to buy quality products locally, if I can.  Local mom-and-pop shops are more likely to give cash discounts to promote a turn away from credit cards and the fees they carry.  I do not buy extended warranties, especially from large chain stores, or for my truck.  I’ve been suckered in to several in the past, and none of them have ever come out in my favor.  Each and every time, I could’ve survived very well without them.  Invest in decent products from decent companies at decent stores, and you do away entirely with the problem that an extended warranty pretends to band-aid.  I also don’t usually buy generic products.  Some store-brand items are fairly good, but others simply don’t live up to the pricier brand name.  Experiment, because it’s a mixed bag.

For things I can’t get very easily at mom-and-pop stores like clothes, this is where chain stores come in, and there are plenty of good ones.  Some, like Kohl’s, sell great styles of decent quality (even if it is made in China, which is indeed a black mark), for a decent price.  I also like Ross; sometimes, a lot of last season’s Kohl’s or even Dillard’s or Macy’s overstock ends up there, with slashed prices.  In these stores, head to the clearance racks first; don’t underestimate last season’s leftovers.  This works in the malls, too, which is how we can afford to shop at malls.  In a crunch, don’t overlook Goodwill; there’s no shame in shopping there.  I might check Plato’s closet or TJ Maxx, but in my experience, while Plato’s closet has good selection, it’s a bit pricey for used clothes, and TJ Maxx doesn’t have a lot of style–or wonderful prices.  Ross is better.  In the Dallas-Ft Worth area, Dillard’s has a little-known national clearance/overstock store in which the clothes there are regularly 70% off the regular Dillard’s stores.  During holiday weekend sales, the savings are even greater.  The DFW store is the only one I know of its kind, so if anyone else knows of one in their area, speak up.  The drawback is, there are no returns, refunds, or exchanges, so try everything on and make sure you’re in love with it before leaving the store.  It’s worth it, though; we bought about $2300 worth of good quality clothes for about $260.  We do not, however, frequent any kind of outlet malls.  They’re practically full retail and sometimes the actual clothes lines are of inferior quality than those found in the regular stores.  And the return policies aren’t real friendly, despite the retail pricing.  I also would never shop at Walmart or Sam’s for clothes.  We used to, and the shirts would start coming apart as early as the first or second washing.

For non-clothing items I can’t get locally, I try places like Amazon, Half Price Books, or Movie Trading Company.

We don’t go to the State Fair on Pay-One-Price day (you know, where you get the bracelet that you pay a flat price for and ride unlimited all day).  We also typically don’t get season passes to any parks.

Instead, we do other things, like bowl during non-league times or mini-golf during off-peak hours.  It’s cheap and just as fun.  Although it’s less glamorous, there’s also less to go wrong.  We also go to dollar theaters instead of regular ones.  If we travel at all, we try to take trips during off-peak times and if we need to fly or stay in a hotel, we’ve had good luck booking online with sites like Priceline.  I’ve heard less-than-good things about Orbitz, though.

I don’t buy into the so-called “green” light-bulbs or low-flow toilets or low-usage shower heads.  Why?  Because the light bulbs have toxic chemicals like Mercury in them (how “green” is that??) and to flush or wash my hair requires a certain amount of water no matter what, and limiting the amount of water capacity won’t change that; it’ll just force me to have to flush again or use my shower head longer to get all the shampoo out of my hair.

Instead, I do save money (and the planet) by turning lights off when I’m not in the room (what a (lost) concept!!) and turning the water off while I’m working shampoo or conditioner into my hair.

I don’t buy used CDs to save money, unless I’m really into the cover art or I simply want to have the hard copy in my collection.

Instead, I download music for free.  There, I said it.  Before anyone goes getting all holier-than-thou on me about starving artists or starts trying to scare me into the consequences of my breach of the law, understand that the artist gets NONE of the revenue generated during the sale of a used CD, and don’t worry; the way I do it, I’m not going to get caught.  There is pretty much zero chance.  I’ve been using the same method for over 7 years, so have countless others, and I have yet to hear of a single charge being brought upon the users of our system.

Besides, I already have a helluva CD collection, legitimately purchased.  Oh, and I’m a starving artist myself, on the side.

I don’t try to pinch pennies by carrying liability car insurance only.  I get full coverage; that way I know I’m generally covered no matter what happens.  I do try to save money by shopping my car insurance every year, taking the defensive driving course (online, and it brings your premiums down by 10%), and avoiding accidents and tickets.  I also try to minimize my driving by combining trips and not making special individual trips, and carpooling when possible.

Other things?  Check with phone/internet/cable companies about package deals.  If you’re an avid user, look into unlimited plans.  If you make international calls, check out those plans.  They have them, but they’ll never tell you unless you ask.

Also, instead of going to a gym, I work out at home.  Sure, it’s not the same, and there’s a lot that I can do, but if you’re looking for an aerobic workout, you don’t even need a treadmill.

Instead I invested in Power 90 and other exercise tapes.  I went to used sporting good stores and picked up small sets of free weights.  I get a plenty-good workout, without the monthly gym expense, having to drive, or even having to front a lot of initial capital for expensive home machines.

It’s also good to scrutinize your bills, especially your credit card bills, and especially this time of year.  Unauthorized charges should be questioned, investigated, and reversed.  Pay everything off every month to avoid interest and other fees.

Also, instead of going to the MD for every little thing, I save money by getting adjusted regularly.  It seems more expensive, until you realize that it’s been forever since you’ve been sick and you think about all the medical doctor bills you’ve saved.

Instead of succumbing to pharmaceutical medications, I opt for natural supplements and preventive care instead.  Don’t skimp on a good CPA to do your taxes, either.  Chances are, they’ll save you more than they charge you.  Don’t pay unnecessary taxes; seek out a pro.  (Note: H&R Block does NOT count!)  And above all, I avoid anything that has a monthly charge, like memberships and automatic deductions.  I carry one credit card and I have a second one for online purchases only.  I refuse to sign up for any store credit cards, no matter how high the pressure to do so, or how tempting the discount is.  They don’t offer these discounts for nothing – the average discount is 15% off that day’s purchases; well, they’ll probably get that 15% back in fees, and probably more.

Saving money isn’t tough, but to really do it requires common sense.  What people think they’re doing to save money (i.e. opting for cheap products, or scaling back on a server’s tip, etc) often isn’t the way to go.  In reality, you need to think before you purchase and exercise long-lost virtues like discipline and resisting the temptations of instant gratification.

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