Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Living Cheaply

A couple weeks ago, I heard a podcast called, "How Much Does It Cost to Live?" Not only did they just give the governments level of income for poverty, but they also assumed that it was too low. From my persepective, this is crazy. Yes, we get a lot of donations as a ministry, but even before we received donations, we lived below the poverty line, paying for apartments, and we lived just fine.

The problem is, in the U.S., we get caught up in lifestyle. We don't think about what is really necessary and what is really inexpensive. We don't learn to pay attention to costs-- whether obvious or hidden. To live cheaply is to pay attention to the detail of cost and the bottom line. The bottom line is how much money you save, as much as spending as little as possible while still having a quality of life. Living cheaply isn't about living without pleasures. Rather, it is finding that one can live with pleasures on little or nothing.

Not everyone has to live cheaply. And there's nothing wrong with splurging. Some of us have to, because of low income. Others of us want to use our money for those who really need it to survive. Some of us have a low income in order to avoid paying taxes that go to war. Whatever the case, it IS possible to live under the poverty line. If we just learn how to do it.

1. Live Without What You Can
The main issue for living cheaply is doing without. Many things that were “necessary” growing up, or many habits we have simply are not necessary for our lives, if money becomes tight. Most of us in an urban area can live without a motorized vehicle. And given the amount of money necessary to purchase and maintain a vehicle, it makes good economic sense to do without one. Most of us have way more entertainment than is necessary, and whatever we lack we can usually obtain from the public library. We don’t need to go out to eat regularly. I could give you more, but it isn’t my place to tell you what you do or don’t need. Make your own list. And start cutting things out.

2. Always compare costs
The best way to live cheaply is to have a running cost comparison in your head for everything you buy on a regular basis. There is never one price for anything. There is a price that a store may have for a while, but that price will change and so the “cost” of anything must be constantly adjusted. For many items—like milk, cheese, ice cream, toilet paper, etc.—there is a range of prices that are pretty consistent. Those are good to begin a list in one’s head. So every time I look at a two block pound of cheese, for example, I might see a price that says six and a half dollars and I say to myself, “I can get that cheaper pretty much anywhere” and I won’t buy it. If I see a price about five dollars, I say, “Safeway has that for six and Winco has it for five, so I might as well buy it now.” And if the next week I see the same item for four and a half, I will snap up a few of those.

It is important to compare like to like. Don’t compare one package of cereal with another, even if they are the same type, because the sizes of the cereal might be different. Rather than comparing packages, one needs to compare weights of equal size. Usually grocery stores do this already. Comparing this way has no worth with toilet paper, however. You can compare prices of rolls in your head, but the rolls are different lengths in different brands. And a “double roll” may not actually be twice the size of a single roll. The only way to compare toilet paper is to bring a calculator and to compare the price per yard or foot. That sucks.

3. Check out different stores
If we are going to compare prices, the minimum one needs to do is to go to a few different stores to compare. Almost every store has items that are cheaper and items that are more expensive. You can’t look at one store and say “Everything is cheaper in this store.” For instance, Winco usually has the cheapest prices for food, overall. But their prices on medicines and hygiene items aren’t as cheap as other stores. A dollar store seems to be a good deal, but they have many items that actually cost less than a dollar in other stores. And they have many items whose quality is so poor that they would break if you looked at them funny.

4. Get Stuff For Free
There are many things you can get for free, if you would but look. In dumpsters, for example. People throw away perfectly good items for the shakiest of reasons. Some folks will get a new TV and rather than give away the old one to Goodwill, they will throw it away. Well, Goodwill’s loss can be our gain, if we are willing to look. Stores are not able to sell items past an expiration date, and they will throw the items away in the original packaging often neatly in a bag. So this means that we can pick up items on the expiration date that are still perfectly good for free.

Okay, not everyone is willing, like myself, to actually jump in a dumpster and see what fine items are available for no cost. But this shouldn’t stop one from looking at Craig’s List for free items or stopping at someone’s house who has stuff with a sign that says “free” on it. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Do a little work and save a bunch of money.

One thing that is a good caution, however, is don’t get carried away. Only pick up the free stuff you can actually use right then. It is best not to pick up stuff that you think you might be able to salvage if “I only did this.” Probably you will never fix it, and then you have just picked up someone else’s garbage to end up paying for you to throw it away yourself.

5. Live in community
It is just as cheap to have three people use a turned-on light bulb as one. And if you buy food in large quantities it is cheaper. It is cheaper to rent a house with others than it is to rent an apartment with a single family. Yes, living in community can be complicated. You have to figure out the agreed-upon rules of the house. You have to work out all the quirks of different styles of living. One’s privacy is more limited. But most of these issues can be worked out if you are willing. Just think of it as an extended family. We live with eleven people in our house right at the poverty line. We all eat and are happy. Not only is it cheaper, but it’s healthier for all of us, for we never isolate and we always have family.

6. Don’t get sucked into name brands
The name brands have a lot of ways to get you to buy their products even though they are more expensive. Some will offer coupons for forty cents off when the product is a dollar more. Some will pay to have their product placed in the store to make it look more attractive or to give it more attention. They can even use color and pictures to give their product more attention than others. Don’t be distracted. Focus on cost. If you just do the math, you can laugh at the name brands and how they thought they would trick you.

7. Cheaper isn’t always cheaper
Just because something is cheaper it doesn’t mean it will save you money. We have to remember, first of all, who we are buying for. I have a daughter who won’t eat meat except for hot dogs (don’t ask me why, I don’t know). But if I buy the cheapest, healthiest hot dogs (turkey franks) she won’t eat them. So, even if I save money on the hot dogs, I still have to buy more and that costs me money.
Also, some items are of such poor quality that you would have to replace it quickly. This is something to consider when buying items at a thrift store or a garage sale. If an item is going to break down within a week, it isn’t worth buying.

8. Some foods are more expensive than others
Every college student knows that Raman is the cheapest food out there. The noodles are filling and just ten to fifteen cents a meal. Most of us, however, are not content to eat salty noodles three times a day. But if we are concerned about cost, then we have to be careful what we choose to eat. Meat is typically expensive, but ground turkey is almost always cheap. Cereal is an expensive and relatively unhealthy meal because you are not only paying for the (overpriced) processed and sugared grains, but you are also paying for the milk you put on it. Hamburger Helper may be easy to use, but it’s cheaper to buy noodles and to get the recipe book out.

9. Watch out for poverty pimps
There are people who actually target the poor in order to obtain what little money they have. For instance, check cashing stores charge a huge amount of interest. If a person in a poor state need a loan on a check that is coming, they should look at the actual cost of getting that loan—a 250 dollar loan may, in the end, require a 50 dollar fee in interest, or more depending on how long one needs to pay it back. Banks also take advantage of the poor because their fees hit those who have little money in their account the hardest. “Free checking” is no such thing for a person who has a hard time keeping account of how much money is in their account. Just remember, if a business is trying to “save you money” they are doing no such thing. They are trying to make themselves money. We need to be aware of their tricks.

10. Buy in bulk and hide things
Buying in bulk is a great way to save money, for the most part. Check prices, and buy in large quantities. However, there are many items that I have found that if I buy large quantities and make them readily available, then they will disappear at twice the speed. Cheese and cream just aren’t worth the savings to buy in bulk because the more there is, the more it gets used. So what I do is keep a storage refrigerator where I can hide bulk items so they don’t get used so frequently. This is also good if I find a good price on meat, so I can freeze a lot of it for future use. If someone says, “We’re out of cheese,” I can reply, “No we’re not!” And like a magic trick I go to the basement and voila! More cheese!

11. Keep an eye out for hidden costs
When making big decisions that involve money, try to keep in mind everything involved in the cost. We got chickens to get eggs. And although our initial costs were subsidized, the chicken feed is probably equivalent to eggs we could buy. Winco might be a cheaper store for food, but it doesn’t make sense to use it as one’s only store if the closest one is many miles away. Gas costs money too. If the cheapest items are a distance, try to buy items when you are already going for other reasons. Travel is an expense, and so reducing long travel is a way of cutting costs. Many people love Costco, and it can be a good way to save money on many items—including an individual meal! However, if you wouldn’t use it frequently, it doesn’t save you money because of the annual fee. You would have to go to Costco at least a few times a year, buying

12. Fast food isn’t always expensive
Most people consider fast food to be unhealthy and expensive, however it is often an inexpensive alternative. It is usually possible to buy a hamburger with all the trimmings (lettuce, pickles, tomato, cheese) for little more than a dollar. If one were to buy all the ingredients for that item at the store, it would cost the same, and you’d have to cook it yourself.

Then there is the issue with health. “What about veggies!” some decry. First of all, almost all fast food places offer really nice salads now—even McDonalds!—with a variety of veggies, including carrots, tomatoes and cucumber. These can easily be exchanged for fries in a meal, and iced tea instead of a soda. However, this isn’t always the cheapest option. What we sometimes do is I would go out and buy some hamburgers and my wife will cook up some frozen veggies like green beans. There we have a decent meal with little prep and it is still inexpensive.

13. Splurge every once in a while
Everyone splurges. It is a part of our human nature to want something “nice” every once in a while. What could happen if we refuse ourselves splurges, is that we will binge and spend money that we don’t have. If, however, we occasionally give ourselves a splurge, allow ourselves a financial cheat, it will be cheaper in the long run. Just be careful that the splurge remains a splurge and not a habit.

14. Make a list of cheap or free entertainments
Everyone has different things they like to do: be active, watch TV or movies, eat out, read, etc. Every one of these activities, in urban areas, have equivalents that are free or cheap. Libraries are one of the best resources for inexpensive entertainment. If you are reading this, you have some access to the internet, and so you can access the free movies and books and tv shows that the internet provides. Go to a park. Find the local free meals for the poor and find the ones that are really good. Try this for a date sometime: go to a neighborhood in your city neither of you know much about and just walk around, looking at the houses and shops. Or just walk around a mall with no money in your pocket. In my city, the local zoo has one day a month that it costs only two dollars for the whole day. There's a lot to do that costs nothing. All it requires is imagination and using the resources that are readily available.


Anonymous said...

I was the one responsible for that podcast and if you'll listen to it, you'll see we believe the poverty line is entirely too low, not high.

Steve Kimes said...

Sorry "responsible one". I mis-wrote. I will correct that now.

leeann said...

practical. thanks.