One vivid memory I have of elementary school is not having Guess jeans. Never mind all the things we did have – a great home, a pool, two parents who adored us, bikes, a pantry full of food, vacations to southern California. No. Never mind that stuff. Once the mid-80s Guess jeans, Esprit bags, high top Converse trends hit suburban Phoenix, I felt like a pauper. All the other kids had Guess jeans. Why was I wearing JC Penney? WHY OH WHY?
My mom would laugh at my requests and she would not be swayed. She could not understand why any parent would purchase $100 jeans for a growing child. It simply didn’t make sense.
Today, I think my mom is a genius. Then, I thought she was trying to forever keep me unpopular. My third grade brain decided wearing the “right” jeans and tennis shoes, made you a better person. Being cool meant complete happiness.
Eventually I saved enough babysitting money to buy a Guess t-shirt in 7th grade, but by then the brand was fading from popularity. The shirt didn’t fit for long and I’m pretty sure I regretted the expense, even if it did look super cool with my puka shell necklace and double barrel bangs. My mom just shook her head, sure that at some point I too would figure it out: things weren’t going to make me cool. Money wasn’t happiness.
I’d love to tell you there was some huge “a ha!” moment soon after when, say, volunteering at a soup kitchen or wrapping Christmas gifts for orphans, I knew this to be truth. Sadly, there was no clarifying moment of cheap grace. I always loved helping others and I always loved going into a fancy department store, or Gap, or Target – or heck, even Costco – and coming out with a cart full of shiny, bright, stylish items that gave me the rush of NEW.
I am human, and therefore complicated.
Now, as I’ve combined households and finances with someone, I’m embarrassed I haven’t done a better job of listening to what my wise mother has been trying to say for two decades: save more, spend less. Ashamed, really. Instead, I have a closet full of shoes, more books than I’ll ever be able to read and a passport full of stamps from flights I often put on credit to pay off … when I could. They were, of course, “once in a lifetime opportunities.” All of them. Really.
I know it is tacky to speak of money; if I’m insulting your Victorian sensibilities, look away.
My current top 10 budget hacks:
- It goes without saying but: the ultimate budget hack is to not spend more than you earn. Track every expense in a free Google doc and Mint. Compare utilities on a utility comparison site such as Utility Bidder to find yourself the cheapest utility bills available to you, and other monthly expenses to review usage. Change phone/energy plans to best meet your needs and uses. Review receipts and track expenses by category to see where you are going over budget and need to make changes. You can’t change it if you are in denial.
- No movies. It is never really just the movies. It’s a $12 ticket and $30 worth of high fructose corn syrup. Instead, we have an $8 a month Netflix account and if we are in the mood for junk food, I’ll bake a pan of sea salt brownies. If we want something else, we go to Red Box for $4.
- No shopping. This sounds simple, but I’d gotten in the silly habit of buying a new piece of clothing every time I had a big event. Sometimes it was a full outfit, other times it was just something small. I’d spend my lunch hour at Target with a giant $4 iced coffee from Starbucks. New makeup. New socks. Some new peanut butter I hadn’t tried. The result is too much of everything. I have zero need for more clothes, makeup or for-the-love-of-god — peanut butter. To meet this goal, I’m limiting how much I look at magazines or let myself spend time in stores, which fuel my desired consumerism.
- I plan our meals using Stacey’s tracker. This means shopping with coupons for a specific ingredient list, and trying to cook enough for two meals, plus lunches. We eat leftovers and we take our lunch. We also don’t go out to eat on a whim anymore. We plan one night out a week and make it great. It feels like a treat. We are eating healthier as a result, and our food expenses are budgeted to about $120 per week, together for a total of 40 meals. We also have an American Express blue cash everyday card so when I do spend that $120, we can earn 3% on our card at the local grocery store. We can then put our earnings towards rewards, but we haven’t chosen what to spend our rewards on yet! We eat a lot of eggs, Crockpot roasts and fresh fruits and veggies. Sure, this takes focus, but it really does make life so much easier once you get in the groove. No more having to swing by the market on the way home for this or that. You know. It’s planned. It’s printed. It’s on the fridge.
- I’ve changed my beauty routines. No more manicures and pedicures. I do them myself, saving more than $100 a month. I also have limited my beauty product use to a dime size. We use everything to the last drop, and it last ridiculously longer. I’ve also been cutting coupons specifically for beauty products and even joined a coupon group at work that swaps information on what is on sale at what store each week. (When I do want a splurge, SWIHA has a fantastic hour-long massage for $35. And the Aveda school in Tempe does a great haircut for less than $20.)
- As for hobbies and gift giving: it is a time to use what we have. I’m making gifts from my current yarn and fabric stashes. I’m using paper stock and stamps to make birthday cards. And when I need a gift, I often turn to half.com for a book I’ve loved and want to pass along. Most books are $.75, with $2-$3 shipping. Along with a handmade card, you can’t go wrong. Is it cheap? Yes. Is it thoughtful? Also, yes. If you’re not creative and find it hard to think of something, why not check out classified ads like LeoList to find gifts at a lower price? If anyone you know is hoping to get any electronics you can find ones for sale less than the normal asking prices!
- As for health – it’s time to floss. And exercise daily. And drink a lot of water. And wear sunscreen. These sound simple, but all will help keep long-term health expenses at bay. I’m also planning to ride my bike to work once it cools off. That will save ½ gallon of gas per day, or $1.75. It’s minor, but it will add up as I build awesome quads. Also, I’ll be less tempted to visit Target at lunch if I have to bike there.
- It isn’t all austere. With a little research, I’ve found some fun free things to do in downtown Phoenix. The Phoenix Art Museum has free admission on Wednesdays from 3-9 pm. The city’s concerts in the park series start again soon. There are countless trails we will hike, and roads to cycle.
- It’s the little things, really. Like that $3.45 cup of espresso I became so accustomed to each morning. Instead, we buy our (fair trade) beans in bulk. With milk and stevia, it comes out to $27 per month for more than 90 cups of coffee. $3.45 per cup just went to less than $.30 per cup. I take a thermos to work and sip my coffee during the morning. If only all changes were so simple to see such change!
- Give yourself a cash budget for the extras. I put a $20 bill in my wallet on Sundays. This is my soda money. My mid-week Ben and Jerry’s-after-dinner-run money. It’s the little bit of extra I get to play with, and if I don’t spend it – I get to save. Suddenly, I love that idea far more than the thought of spending.
I hope some of these may be helpful if you too are trying to live la vida frugalista.
P.S. Mom, I finally heard you.