Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Stupidly easy ways to save money

There's a lot of discussion going on regarding the federal debt, and most of it - 99.999% of it - ignores the real issue, which is where that debt is being felt. I'm assuming that most of you reading this make enough to get by, maybe paycheck to paycheck but still not having to make those "food or medication?" decisions. I know that, personally, all I want out of money is to be comfortable - to make just enough that I don't have to worry about how much it is, enough to spend a week at the beach every once in a while, enough to buy what I need and a little of what I want. Less than this (I've been there) and finances become too much of a burden; more than this and the extra becomes meaningless.
So here are a few ways to make what money you do have go further. To live a little bit more comfortably. None of this should be surprising... just common sense things that people tend, for one reason or another, not to do.

1) Get rid of cable.
I don't mean "cut back on TV" or "bundle your services" but flat-out get rid of it. I haven't had cable or dish (or even antenna) for several years now, and I'd never go back. The shows are available on hulu or the network's website, and any relevant local news is on the free antenna stations. Netflix is there for the rest. (If there's a series you really want, ask for the DVD box set for your birthday.) Instead of paying $35 upwards for TV ($110 or more for a bundled phone-internet-TV plan... more on this momentarily), I pay $9 a month for Netflix and $40 a month for DSL by itself. Annual savings in that case, not even taking into account the fact that something around $100 per month is an "introductory" price only, is $600.

2) Get rid of your home phone.
This is already true for many people. We have cell phones now. They also work inside houses. So why have a landline? How often do you use it? No reason to pay for both services. Even in a bundle, that landline is costing you money you don't need to be spending. A recent Comcast deal advertised $33 per month for each of three services (home phone, internet, cable) for a year, meaning $99 per month total. But we've already mentioned that getting rid of cable saves some of that, and getting rid of home phone will, too. That leaves you with the internet-only option... and though it may seem scary that internet by itself is $40-$60 per month, remember, that's half of what you were spending when you had the whole thing bundled.

3) Bring your lunch.
Going out to lunch is expensive. Really expensive. At the cafeteria where I work, a sandwich, soda and bag of chips will cost you nearly $7. Even the most expensive "name brand" frozen entrees from the grocery store tend to remain under $3 a piece. That's $980 a year difference! Not only are you saving money by "buying in bulk" and doing the labor yourself, you're avoiding the hassle of procuring food right at the moment you're hungry enough to want it most.

4) You don't need an iPhone.
Not only do you not need the newest, shiniest (and hence buggiest) phone, you don't need the $100 per month service to go with it. I pay $30 per month for my cell phone plan. That's $30 per month for 1000 texts, 1000 minutes, and 1000 MB of internet/data. That's less than half what Verizon charges. My annual cell phone plan savings is nearly $500.

5) Store brands really aren't that bad.
I will concede that there are a few specific things - Dr Pepper being one of them - where store or value brands simply don't cut it. But once it's out of the wrapper, can you tell the difference between Walmart's brand crackers or Ritz? How about other consumables, like toilet paper, fabric softener or shampoo? With a store's coupon card and some ingenuity, you can cut your grocery bills in half (for me, this amounts to maybe $500 a year or more). You can always go back to name brands if you aren't satisfied. (This also goes for clothes. I buy nearly all of my clothing at Kohls and Walmart. I'm not going to pay someone $70 to "pre-stress" my jeans.)

6) There are no taxes on unprepared foods.
Not just taxes, even, but costs incurred by labor. Buy a steak, some peppers and an onion, not the pre-made "stir fry mix" or pre-skewered kebabs. Stores will charge you plenty for the work they've done. A prepared fruit salad will cost far more than the individual ingredients. You can end up saving lots of money by purchasing the "raw materials," if you will.

7) Let's talk about Windows.
Ok, you're not ready to switch to Linux. Fine. But keep in mind, I didn't pay a cent for my computer's operating system, whereas Windows 7 costs anywhere between $80 for an upgrade and $320 for the full license Ultimate version. In addition, I don't need antivirus software for Linux (another $40 per year saved), and all of the programs I use (Open Office, Chrome, Thunderbird mail, games, tools, etc etc etc) were also free. But even if you have Windows, you can get open source software that costs little to nothing and has the same capabilities as the proprietary version. The cheapest version of Microsoft Office is $150. Sun Microsystem's Open Office suite is totally compatible with Microsoft documents, and is completely free.

8) Get refillable containers.
Let's assume that you can't just go without your morning cup of coffee. You can still save money by purchasing a refillable container. Most coffee places, like Starbucks, have cheap refills on drip coffee. While you're at it, get a loyalty card and remember to bring it with you, so that one out of every ten cups is free (or whatever it is). I've earned a lot of free pastries at Panera in my time.

9) Buy a used car.
I've put this lower down on the list because I assume it doesn't (shouldn't) come up that often. But when it does, who wants a car payment? New cars depreciate in value exceptionally quickly - "the minute they drive off the lot," as the saying goes - and yet you're still paying $400 a month. I chose my car carefully and bought it with cash, so now I have no car payment and a very small gas and maintenance cost each year. Used cars are also generally cheaper to insure, and when someone finally does scratch your car door with their shopping cart, it doesn't hurt as much.

10) Put on a sweater.
Energy bills can be horrendous. Keep the thermostat a few degrees above or below where you would normally set it (given the season) - try 75 in the summer and 65 in the winter. It makes a big difference. With a sweatshirt and an electric blanket, I was able to keep my old apartment at 62 degrees all winter, and my electricity bills were on the order of $30. It's harder in the summer when you live somewhere in the southern half of the US, but it's still possible. Hang out downstairs, take cooler showers and sleep without covers.

11) Share costs with others.
Instead of paying $200 a night for a hotel room at the beach, why not find some friends and rent a beach house for $1000 per week? Instead of a Starbucks trip every morning, why not get your officemates to chip in for an inexpensive espresso maker? Instead of a $500 per month studio, why not move into a $700 per month two-bedroom unit and get a roommate?

12) Do the math.
There are tons of ways to save a little money here and there, and we all know them. But all too often, either finances aren't laid out ahead of time or we set far too difficult goals for ourselves. Be realistic, and be proactive. Work out how much it will save you to take one step, and you're more likely to take that step and stick to it. Remember, the average credit card debt is over $10,000... and that's just credit cards. It's worth your time to do the math.

13) One more for a baker's dozen.
If this post seems a bit out of character, you're right, it is. But I witness these things every day, with friends and coworkers and even myself. There's such a mismatch between the myriads of "money tips" websites and stories out there and the staggeringly high amount of the average US citizen's debt that it boggles the mind. I offer this list in the hopes that we can avoid the Orwellian (or Huxley-an) dystopia which awaits us further down this road (it's bad enough that we already have a mind-controlling oligarchy). I want to know that something is being done. What tips would you share?


  1. That is great! One of my favorite tips is making custom lamp shades for fluorescent bulbs. Their light has gotten better, but it used to be a bit white and harsh. I know it made me reluctant to replace some of our most heavily used lamps with fluorescents.

    We have a local arts store that sells beautiful papers- artsy large papers with designs, textures, interesting colors, etc. I found that, using papers from the yellow end of the spectrum, I could make lampshades that have a wonderful softening effect, or just re-line or supplement existing shades. This gives you great latitude in creating lighting mood, as well as energy savings- right in the center of the living area.

  2. Excellent idea. Plus you get the added satisfaction of having created something yourself.
    I've also heard other suggestions: ditching the car altogether (where possible), brewing one's own beer and buying used furniture instead of new, to name a few.


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