It may come as somewhat of a surprise to those who’ve read my (very opinionated) blog posts over the past year, but I am actually not particularly comfortable telling people what they should do. My opinions extend to me and my family only. Other people’s decisions are none of my business.
Which is why when, as part of Kveller’s month dedicated to women and money I was asked to contribute a piece on the best ways to save (probably due to my well-known and much written about cheapness), I actually felt extremely discomfited by the project.
The thing about saving money is that it all comes down to choices. Prioritizing, and discerning needs from wants. I think that it’s safe to assume anyone reading this blog on the electronic device of their choice is neither starving, nor lacking a roof over their heads or shoes on their feet. So we’ve got the basics covered.
Anything beyond that is a value judgment. What’s imperative to me (a Jewish education for my children, fresh food) may be frivolous to you, and vice versa (phone, fashion, car).
So in the interest of continuing to not tell people what to do, here are five ways in which my family saves money. You can try them, or you can apply the general lessons to items you consider more important. It’s all under your control. Which is as it should be.
Tip #1: Buy Everything on Sale/Don’t Buy Everything on Sale
My husband peruses the grocery circulars like a Talmudic scholar. He knows which stores have the cheapest chicken breasts with the least fat, which have the lowest-cost juice and whose fruit is the freshest on what days. Meanwhile, I know to soak tough meat in vinegar to soften it prior to cooking, fry potatoes as they’re going bad to cover up the taste, moisten stale bread and use it as hamburger filler, and turn all mushy fruit into smoothies. We stock up on dry goods when the price is good and thus always have pasta, tuna, sardines and canned vegetables available in a pinch. On the other hand, a lesson I try to teach my kids is that a coupon for an item you weren’t going to buy in the first place isn’t a sale–it’s an expense. Not buying something is always a 100% saving.
Tip #2: Free is my Favorite Price Point
God Bless America. So much free stuff just for the showing up. The library doesn’t merely have books, it also has DVDs (and if they don’t have the title you want, they’ll borrow it from another library). Not to mention free theater for kids, art classes, chess, computer, even video games. Pick up your local library’s activity guide, and you won’t need to spend a penny for entertainment. The same goes for public parks, which often offer performances by world class actors and musicians (we all saw Sondheim’s “Into the Woods” this summer, and our only expense was seven hours of standing in line! Which was even kind of fun. As long as you told yourself it was), not to mention a variety of free classes in everything from tennis to soccer to basketball to yoga to ice skating to rock climbing. (I realize that living in NYC, I have options that others in smaller cities do not. But, everyone has something, it’s just a matter of looking for it.)
And it’s not just the city that gets into the act. Almost every month someone is either giving out doughnuts or drinks to celebrate their favorite corporate holidays. Since I don’t buy my guys junk food, this is not only a cost-free treat, but a way to keep them from feeling completely deprived (and thus make the forbidden fruit even more enticing). Not to mention all the kiddie acts who are constantly holding free concerts so that you’ll buy their CDs. We’ve been to Princess Parties at Bloomingdale’s (the only time I ever set foot in that store), Game Nights at product demos, and more book launch parties for children’s titles than some people read in a lifetime. Do I buy the product that’s being demonstrated? Sometimes. If it was something I was going to buy anyway, I try to do it during their event. And periodically, I even turn into a regular customer. I play fair. But, smart.
Tip #3: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
I don’t buy garbage bags. Why, when the ones we carry groceries home in work just as well. I don’t buy sandwich bags to pack my kids lunches. Why, when we have weekly bread bags, and challah bags and others that would otherwise be thrown away. I turn old sheets into picnic blankets, old clothes into dust rags, and old yogurt containers into pen holders. I pass clothes down from kid to kid to kid – gender be damned, and I love to check out thrift shops for barely worn outfits at a fraction of the price. The same goes for toys, bikes, scooters, strollers, cribs; all temporary items. We’ll take what’s offered and we’re happy to pass it on when we’re done. Do we do it because we love the earth? Eh, we and the earth are cool. We do it because it saves us money and helps other people. The earth should like that.
Tip #4: I Taught My Own Damn Self
Chris Rock has a comedy routine about his father (a man truly after my own heart), who never hired someone to do anything he could do himself. The punchline is, “How would you like to go to a doctor’s office and see hanging on his wall, instead of a diploma, a sign that says: I taught my own damn self?” Well… considering the household I grew up in, where my own father pretty much played doctor for the entire community–regardless of his lack of M.D.–that actually sounds kind of familiar. While I wouldn’t attempt to perform open heart surgery, or even set my son’s broken arm (especially considering how long it took me to figure out he even had one) I also really don’t need a medical professional to give my child a Tylenol, remove a splinter, put on a Band-Aid or serve him a cup of prune juice.
My husband laughs at my assessment, “As long as they’re not lethargic, they’re fine.” But, they usually are. The same goes for other tasks around the house. It’s certainly much cheaper to cook than to order in. You don’t have to spend the entire day locked in the house waiting for a plumber if you snake your own drain or unclog your own toilet. They sell paint at the store if your walls need a quick touch up. Not to mention, why pay for a car that you then have to park and insure, when you can take the bus? And why take a bus when walking is free and good exercise to boot? The healthier you are, the less you have to see a doctor. It’s practically a virtuous circle!
Tip #5: Does It Cost to Ask?
People from other countries are used to bargaining. Americans, not so much. We see a price, and we figure: Well, that’s the price. Not necessarily. Maybe the store will give you a discount if you buy in bulk? Or take the last one off their hands? Or accept the floor-model, with all the dings on the side? Many schools, synagogues and enrichment classes offer financial aid. But, you have to ask for it. Of course, they’re not going to bring it up. If you do though, you may be surprised by what’s available. Or take it a step further. Barter. Maybe you child needs a place to play after school, and the place where you’d like him to play needs help setting up their website. Or doing Public Relations. Or taking registration or making phone calls or washing the stuffed animals. You never know. And, once again, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
I’ll even throw in my final tip for free (but, shh, I won’t give it a number so management won’t notice): Remember how, at the top, I said other people’s decisions aren’t any of my business? That extends to purchasing decisions other people make. The fact that someone else has better clothes, shoes, hair, phone, teeth, house, horses, diplomas, make-up, bank account than my family doesn’t concern me in the slightest.
I spent the first seven years of my life in the Soviet Union living in a single room with my parents. We didn’t have a bathtub. We shared a communal kitchen with another family. My husband grew up with two parents and two older siblings in a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem. Before it was gentrified. Back when the President was telling the city to drop dead. We both have so much more than either of us ever dreamed of, how can we possibly feel that we are lacking anything? It wasn’t something we talked about before we got married but, afterwards, we discovered that one of the many other ways in which we were sickeningly, disgustingly compatible was that, not only did we not want to keep up with the Joneses, we didn’t even know who the Joneses were or why we might wish to compare ourselves to them. It’s a lot easier to live within your means when you only care about what you need, and now what others have.
In other words, self-centeredness rules!
(Before people start writing in to tell me that we should care about those who have less than us, let me reassure anyone concerned that a list of our charitable works is available upon request. You know what I meant.)