Friday, 6 June 2008

Frugal Habits - Old and New

When I quit work I was completely debt free, had rent income from two houses in the US and a substantial amount of cash – just over 3 years’ living expenses – in savings in the UK and about the same over in the US. I was light-years beyond fed up with my employer and felt that my very sanity was as stake, so I sacked the job and called it retirement; and it still is retirement from that line of work.

Then I found the Inland Revenue wanted still more money, and the extensive repairs on one of my rental houses were not actually finished, and the accountants still wanted more money. The UK savings dwindled to about a third of what it was and the exchange rate on the dollar decreased to 50 pence. A death in the family required a last-minute and expensive visit across to the US. The price of necessities like heat, food and petrol rose before my very eyes.

Nonetheless, I was determined that I would have at least what Brits called a ‘gap year’. This is usually something UK students might do before going off to university, but increasingly adults are giving this to themselves and calling it a ‘career break’. I wanted the time to rest and re-cooperate, also the luxury of using my energy to execute my ideas instead of an employer’s. I’d always intended to ratchet up my frugal practices as part of that energy expenditure, but the unexpected expenses were further motivation for me to do so: I wanted to have my gap year AND still have some savings left at the end of it. Ultimately my aim was to see if I could live happily within the rental income of the one house, and that seems to be showing itself as entirely possible, at least so far.

It helps a lot that I find a frugal lifestyle relatively easy and more than a little fun. Between reading The Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life (the one by Joe Dominguez and Vickie Robin, not the one by Alvin Hall, though his book is also very good), I developed an awareness that (a) money was what I got in exchange for the hours of my life that I worked, (b) spending money on junk was therefore spending the hours of my life on junk and (c) finding creative ways to not spend money was actually very satisfying.

These days I do a lot of simple, easy things to be frugal, such as:

Stay busy at home. It’s easier not to spend money if I'm doing things at home and not out and about looking at things I could buy or working up a need for food or drink. There are more things to do at home than I will ever get done and working down the list is both useful and frugal.

Use up what I have. Apparently I have in the past bought far more shampoo than I really needed at the time! Some of the surplus is due to keeping a gym bag (for when I cycled to work) and a travel bag (for both business travel and holidays) stocked in addition to my running bag and the home supply. I am just now – 9 months later – down to two small bottles of shampoo, one at home and one in the running bag. I believe my hair conditioner supply will easily last another six months. I have practically a life time supply of soap, in part due to Bill’s mother moving into a care home and the multitude of soap gifts she received in the past. Since I use a lipstick brush to finish off all the lipstick in the tube, and I rarely wear eye make up anymore, I probably have a near life time supply of those cosmetics as well.

Go to the library. I use the library at least several times a month; it meets most all of my reading ‘needs’. Unfortunately, Brits aren’t big on self-improvement books, which I enjoy reading, so I still do have books that I want to buy at some point. These turn up on my wish lists, but if Bill doesn’t agree that I need to improve (bless him), then I have to break down and buy them myself – on Ebay or second-hand on Amazon where ever possible.

Wear all my clothes. All my life I've heard people say they ‘have nothing to wear’ when in fact they have a whole closet crammed full. Decades ago I developed the habit of planning my work clothes on a Sunday afternoon. I would take the first hanging item from the left side of the closet and work my way to the right to find the coordinating pieces for Monday’s outfit. The next item hanging on the left would be worn on Tuesday with other items, and so on. Careful shopping meant I could find quite a few different combinations . When I hung clothes back up in the closet they went in on the right side of the rail. I would hang a scarf on a hanger as a divider to see when I’d worked all the way through the rack. I could skip an item once or twice if the weather wasn’t quite right or I wanted something a bit more confidence-inspiring, but more than 3 times skipped meant I had to consider whether I was going to keep that item of clothing. Out of season or special occasion clothes are kept separately. This system means that I wear all my clothes on a fairly regular basis. I don’t get tired of them, because I don’t wear the same thing very often and so it’s easy not to go buy clothes I don’t need.

Re-use or re-purpose what I have. I use my plastic grocery bags to line the trash bins; milk, egg and mushroom cartons for seed trays; old clothes for craft fabric; laundry soap boxes (decorated with gift wrap or wall paper and ribbon) for magazine or other paper holders; plastic milk bottles for watering cans; egg cartons for jewelry and crafts storage; bits of odd yarn to knit potholders; big laundry soap bottles (from Bill’s work) for plant pots; clear glass jars for storing sewing notions; margarine cartons for storing leftover foods; large envelopes as wrapping paper for posting items; small envelopes to write ‘to do’ lists or other notes (as opposed to the practice of developing health care and other British government policy on the back of used envelopes). I’m sure most people do this sort of re-purposing to some extent, but I try to take it as far as I can. At times I start with ‘I need a… – what do I already have?’; at others it's ‘I have this…what might I do with it?’

Use those gift certificates. I’m bad about not using gift certificates I get in a timely manner, mainly because I’m not in the habit of shopping as entertainment, but also because they are often in denominations smaller than the whole price of what I would want to buy. Fortunately they don’t tend to expire. I’ve been uncovering these certificates and keeping them on hand for when I need to buy something. I will be comparing prices less those certificates in future.

Craft with what I have. It’s really easy to walk into a fabric or a craft store and spend a small fortune. I did that not too long ago and though I don’t regret it, I’m determined not to do it again for a while. I have a modest stash of fabric, but a sizable stash of zippers, thread and buttons, old clothes, hangers, etc. In short, a huge amount of materials that I can use to satisfy my crafting urges. I’m working my way through organizing all those supplies and capturing ideas for what I can do with them, not to mention looking through my craft magazines and library books. The same thinking process for re-using items works for generating craft projects. I plan to make most of my Christmas presents, something I've long wanted to do.

Walk. Whenever I walk or cycle for transport I feel I’m doing some brilliantly complex multi-tasking: I’m (a) traveling to my destination; (b) getting some exercise; (c) being environmentally friendly; (d) if I choose a pretty route, enjoying nature; (e) exposing myself to potentially meeting new people (dogs, cats, flowers, money, gloves, umbrellas…) I just assume that I will walk to any place within a mile of my house unless there are really pressing reasons why I need to drive. This is much easier now that we have summer, or an approximate facsimile thereof.

Make bread. I started to say this is only frugal because Bill bought me a bread-making machine years ago, but given the high cost of the truly inferior bread available at supermarkets I would probably chose to make bread by hand if I had to. As it is, the machine is still holding up though we may need to find some replacement bits before long. I bought a book of bread machine recipes, but found that some of the more unusual flours are difficult to find here, so we stick more or less to a universal version of a tried and true recipe. It calls for half the flour to be ‘strong white’ but the other half can be a mixture of things like oatmeal, brown flour, corn meal or wheat germ. I opt as much as possible to use oatmeal, because I like the texture it gives and because it’s a very cheap and healthy whole grain. We enjoy excellent quality homemade bread for about half the cost per loaf as the store bought loaves. The tough end crusts get processed into bread crumbs, used to make stuffing or recipes like salmon puff. One of my birthday presents was The Vegeterranean which has some other interesting ideas for bits of bread (but probably not low-fat…).

Use the Internet. In a recent interview with Amy Dacyczyn, editor of the Tightwad Gazette, she admitted that her originally published opinion about computers and Internet access was now out-of-date. She listed the many money saving uses the Internet provides, but I would say it mainly provides me with a huge amount of entertainment. Local phone calls in the US don’t cost, but they do here in the UK. My conversations are held via email. I don’t spend much on postage for the same reason. I can’t remember the last time I bought a magazine. I used to have a real weakness for them but I find the many weblogs and even websites for women’s magazine fill this niche neatly. And of course, I get to write and ‘publish’ this blog!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Shelley--In a previous incarnation, Rags against the Machine was a frugality blog. I greatly enjoyed this article.