Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Eighteen Random Tips to Survive an Economic Slump

Lots of people are feeling the pinch of rising food and fuel prices. Recession jitters and higher unemployment have many people keeping a nervous eye on their monthly income. My particular view of frugality comes from my position as a housewife with a background in professional cooking and an interest in self-sufficiency. In no particular order of importance, here are a few suggestions for cutting costs when it counts. Please add your own survival strategies in the comments!

#1 Stop eating out. Restaurant meals are luxuries, not necessities. Even if you make no effort to grocery shop economically, buying and preparing food for your own meals will save you a bundle, week after week. You don't need to be a gourmet or an expert cook to make good food at home, though it certainly helps. If you need help learning the basics, check out a good introductory cookbook, such as The New Best Recipe, out of the library. For the best return on your money and time, shop the sales, eat vegetarian a few times per week, and make sure none of the food you buy goes to waste. Take dinner leftovers to work for lunch.

#2 Pack the kids' lunches for school every day. Amy Dacyczyn, mother of six, nails this in her incomparable The Complete Tightwad Gazette. There are ways to put together cheap, healthy lunches that your kids will eat. Do not resort to buying snack pack items for them; they will be more expensive than the school lunches. You will need to do some prep work to achieve this. Start by buying refillable juice containers. The old trick for keeping juice or milk cold until lunchtime is to put a small amount of the beverage into the container and freeze it overnight. In the morning, fill the container the rest of the way and the frozen part will keep the rest cool as it thaws. Ask your kids for feedback as to the temperature of their drink until you get the amount to freeze just right.

#3 Strategize your home's energy consumption. In winter, layer up and turn down the thermostat. Close off parts of the house that don't need to be kept warm all the time. In the summer, keep the blinds drawn on sunny sides of the house. Install an attic fan for cooling the house more cheaply than an air conditioner can. As in the winter, close off any room that doesn't need to be cooled if you run an air conditioner. In general, cool or heat only as much of your house as strictly is necessary. During hot weather, use a ceiling fan or other fans before you reach for the AC controls. Install compact fluorescent light bulbs throughout your home. Reconsider any electrical appliance that runs automatically or on a timer.

#4 Drive less. Never drive the car for just one errand at a time. Try to schedule all of your errands and appointments for one day of the week if possible. If you live in a densely developed area, consider biking or walking whenever you can. Carpool to work if you can. Carpool with friends or family for occasional shopping excursions to more distant stores. Get in the habit of asking friends and family if they need anything when you make a trip to such places. With luck, they may learn to reciprocate, saving you trips. Carpool with other parents if your kids need running around for their activities.

#5 Re-evaluate your insurance policies. When was the last time you checked around for competitive rates? An hour spent on the phone could end up saving you several hundred dollars per year. Even if you plan to stay with your current insurer, review your policies. If you're driving your car less than previously you may be eligible for a mileage discount. Raise the deductibles on your plans as much as you can without putting yourself in jeopardy of a serious financial crisis. If you have some breathing room in your budget, set aside an extra $500 in your emergency fund to cover car repairs, then raise your deductible by the corresponding $500. You'll have the funds to cover the expense while also reducing your premium.

#6 Use your local library. Libraries are a treasure trove of resources and free entertainment. Are you paying for a Netflix account? Just as an experiment, put it on hold for a month and see how far your library's collection can go towards replacing that source of entertainment. Remember that most public libraries will try to find books and sometimes DVDs or VCR tapes that they don't have in their own collection by using the inter-library loan system. If you can develop patience you'll probably be able to read 95% of the books and watch 95% of the movies that interest you for free.

#7 Rally the troops. Get your kids and your spouse on board to conserve household resources by using just as much toothpaste, shampoo, soap and other toiletries as is really needed. You don't need an inch of toothpaste or a palmful of shampoo. Tell the kids you'll pay them a dime for every time they catch an adult leaving lights on around the house unnecessarily. Look for creative ways to encourage yourself and everyone in your household to conserve money. Play a board game together in one room, rather than running lights and entertainment appliances in every room of the house. Challenge the kids to come up with a new way to save money each week. Reward the best idea by preparing any homemade meal of the child's choice, or by indulging in a favorite dessert. If anyone in your household stays in hotels as part of work-related travel, bring home those complimentary toiletries and use them up before paying for any others.

#8 Hang up your laundry to dry. Rig up something inside for cold weather or rainy days. Put the laundry in the dryer only for a few minutes on "fluff" (unheated) once everything is already dry. No stiff towels! Read more about my laundry strategies.

#9 Put the kids to work. Shifting to a frugal lifestyle is going to entail more planning and effort in many aspects of your life. If your kids are past the toddler stage, assign them regular, age-appropriate chores to help make the transition more manageable. Cooking, doing the dishes, and other cleaning tasks should be shared around. See item #2 for a perfect opportunity to teach them some self-sufficiency. Let them earn their spending money by doing household work above and beyond their regular chores. Keep a list of such "above and beyond" work so they could choose a task at any time. Keep the pay scale minimal. When you teach them to associate money with work, you're teaching them a valuable lesson. They should have so little money available to them that they have to think carefully about what they really want to spend it on. Teach frugality as you practice it.

#10 Dilute, dilute! If you buy frozen orange juice, add a small amount of extra water to the pitcher when you reconstitute the juice. A small amount won't be noticeable, but you'll get a small extra serving. The same thing goes for liquid soap if you use it. I find that the regular strength soap is so dense that it often falls right off my hands and into the sink. Diluting the soap a little helps prevent such waste, extends the product, and also keeps my hands from feeling dried out so that I need to put moisturizer on them. I also extend each half gallon of fresh milk I buy with one cup of milk made up from powdered dry milk. I got some coupons for free bags of the powdered milk, so I'm extending our fresh milk for free. Again, a small amount of extra water in the milk goes unnoticed, since we mostly have our milk with tea and granola.

#11 Reconsider your hairstyle. If you're paying for haircuts or other hair treatments, you should rethink these expenses when hard times come. In a very few career fields, a professional cut may be necessary to project a certain image. This is never the case for young children, and most adults could get away with maintaining their own hair. Cutting a child's hair can be as straightforward as crew cuts for the boys and all one length for girls. If your girl wants bangs, these are also ridiculously easy to maintain. Women and teenage girls can also learn to maintain their own cuts if the cuts are simple. If you have a short cut that needs frequent maintenance, grow it out to a length that is easier to take care of yourself. Yes, there may be an awkward stage as your cut grows out. That's what barrettes, hats, and scarves are for. Paying for perms and color treatments should always be regarded as a luxury, especially when these services are provided in a hair salon. Home kits are more economical, but they should still be viewed as wants and not needs. Assuming you were paying for a very cheap cut four times per year, cutting your own hair will save you a bare minimum of $60 annually, per person.

#12 Reuse everything you can. Start by washing ziploc bags and aluminum foil. Aluminum foil is very easy to wipe down and clean. Just dry it in a drainage rack with the dishes. I dry my ziploc bags dry by hanging them over glass bottles or clipping them by the corner to the refrigerator with a magnet. Think twice or thrice before throwing something away. Can it be repaired? Repurposed? Do you know someone who could use what you no longer need?

#13 Start gardening, or expand your garden. When times are really tough, it helps to move towards greater self-sufficiency. Obviously, gardening is not an option for everyone. But even a sunny window can provide space for a few herbs and vegetables, such as lettuce. Just look at what this woman did! Container gardening works great for tomato plants. If you have a bay window, any amount of lawn, a porch, or even a parkway strip in front of the sidewalk, you can grow some of your own food. Don't defeat the monetary savings by spending a fortune on fancy containers, an AeroGarden, or other expensive gadgets. All you need is halfway decent soil, a simple container, water and seeds or plants. If you already garden, think about adding more edibles to your beds. Give a vegetable crop any space you would normally use for annual flowers.

#14 If you still have a job, review your employee benefits package. Are you familiar with every benefit your employment provides to you? Ask for a copy of these benefits if you don't already have one. You may have a life insurance policy that you're unaware of. If you're paying for another life insurance policy separately, there may be an opportunity to save by eliminating a redundant policy. What other benefits are you eligible for that you're not using? Could you use them to save money or improve your life without any extra expense?

#15 Have faith in the small things. It's always hard to see the value of saving small amounts of money, especially when we feel forced into frugality by difficult circumstances. It feels great to save a large chunk of money by cutting our insurance premiums. But there are only so many ways to save large chunks of money. And a dollar saved is a dollar earned. Small amounts of money saved over and over again will make a difference to your bottom line. I'm completely convinced that at the end of the year the many little savings add up to every bit as much as our few one-fell-swoop, large-dollar-amount savings. The same goes for debt repayment. Sending an extra $5 each month with your mortgage payment may seem like a trivial amount that will not make a difference. It will make a difference. It may not look like it, but your little gains here and there do have the power to alter your situation for the better. Stick with it and take pride in your efforts.

#16 Develop a new frugal skill. If you have any free time at all, start learning a new skill. Even if you have just an extra hour or two throughout the week, that's enough time to read a basic orientation book (from the library of course) on a skill that you'd like to learn about. (And if you're watching any amount of tv, or playing video games, there's your opportunity time.) For me, the obvious choice was making bread, but for you it might be basic plumbing or sewing. Try to pick a skill that doesn't require you to invest in costly tools or pay for expensive classes. When you've mastered one skill, go on to another one.

#17 Turn your passion into income. What do you love to do? What can you do better than most people? What do you know about in depth? If you have a well-developed talent or an area of specialized interest, look into opportunities to share that talent with the world in exchange for money. Community colleges and adult education centers offer an amazing array of non-credit courses. In almost all cases, you won't need any teaching credential to teach such classes. Call up the office and see if there's room for a class or two in your area of expertise. All it takes is a little gumption, a little confidence, and some preparation. Don't sell yourself short before you even try. If you have a lifelong passion, chances are excellent that you're qualified to teach others about it in some way. You may find an appreciative group of students who will enroll in your classes again and again. I know a dog lover who taught herself about dog training, and now teaches obedience classes in a public park on a regular basis. It's good money for something she loves to do.

#18 Pay off your debt, and don't accumulate any more. Every frugal blogger out there talks about debt reduction/elimination. Obviously, the importance of getting out debt, especially credit card and other consumer debts, cannot be overstated. 'Nuff said.

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