Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Saving Money: 10 Things I Will Do, 5 Things I Won't

Maybe it's the terrible economy. Maybe it's the wider availability of technology, not least sites like this one. Maybe it's just that I'm an adult now. For whatever reason, it seems like for the past little while, money-saving columns are everywhere. As someone who develops some economics-based personal finance in my spare time, I figure that rather than bore you with the theoretical analysis that shapes my money decisions, I'll throw my hat into the "I do these things to be frugal" ring like everyone else.

A few articles I've picked up today are this one by a guy, this one by a girl, this other one by the same girl saying what she won't do to save money, and this one by a different girl who makes it gender-neutral. Most of the tips are good (like harvesting seeds from your garden), some aren't so much so. One that absolutely needs mention right here is the tip at the end of the last article: that you "shop" at lost and found bins. That is something I've never seen as a money-saving tip before. It's so beyond the pale I can't justify putting it on my list of things I won't do to save money, if only because it would never have occurred to me. It's not quite as bad as forging food stamps or stealing from the Salvation Army, but it feels like it's trending toward that end of the ethical spectrum.

Before I begin with my list of ways I do and refuse to spend money, I may as well begin by saying why it's important I noted the above links by gender. Something that I had probably known but had never really realized is that I save a significant amount of money just by being a man. I have never bought makeup or feminine hygiene products (that's what they're called now, right?) in my life. If tasked to do so, I'm sure I would appear very confused to the store's employees.

Another thing that's worth mentioning is that certain tips that are great for some people simply don't work for others. For example, the biggest single way I save money is by not having a car. No purchase or lease costs, no gas, no insurance... which turns around and becomes thousands in savings, vacations, and the peace of mind to know I can treat myself to a few extras without going broke in the process. However, I understand not having a car simply isn't an option for those who don't live in urban or other eminently walkable areas. I'm sure everyone has his/her own version of this: some people don't drink, others have family and friends all nearby so they have less need to buy plane tickets, and so on. I also don't smoke, which is helpful but is pretty normal for my generation.

Here are 10 Ways I Save Money and 5 Ways I Refuse to Save Money.

To save money, I...

1. Make use of the local library, as well as free promotional e-books.

Libraries, especially campus libraries, have amazing selections of books. Books that have passed into the public domain are often available as free e-books, and many newer indie authors are releasing their books for free. Thanks to the free e-book option, I've read books as far-flung as Bleak House and Machine of Death, both of which I'd recommend. Without these resources, Book a Week may not have been possible. Although I love my home library dearly, I simply don't need to own a hard copy of every book I ever read. Moving a lot helped this decision along too. I still buy books I feel like I'll want around in paper form but I spend a lot less on books than before.

2. Use coupons mercilessly.

I know this is on everyone's list, so it's not exactly the most original thing here. It's on everyone's list for a reason. It's also a great way to buy clothes, as opposed to the horror stories of patching up holes the size of a Buick. My favourite coupon-driven purchase: a pair of running shorts, from $36 down to $2. Remember, when combining coupons, take the percentage discount before the flat dollar discount.

3. Use hotel soaps and shampoos at home.

For those who travel even semi-frequently, this is a great way to save. I honestly have difficulty recalling the last time I bought shampoo. I understand each container won't last most people almost a month like it does for me, but even so... A fringe benefit is that you get to try a bunch of different kinds.

4. Make sure I do full loads of laundry.

I have way too much experience with commercial washers and dryers for someone of my tender years. As a result, watching a few articles of (usually white) clothing bounce around inside a washer or dryer is a frustrating use of a couple bucks. Waiting to wash darks or lights until I have a full load's worth, or close to it, saves money that is otherwise spent on absolutely nothing.

5. Think purchases through before making them.

This doesn't mean waiting weeks on end to see if you still want to buy something. That's a great way to lose out on sales. It just means having a logical reason for making every purchase, even if that purchase is a chocolate bar by the checkout counter. If you don't feel like you can defend a purchase to someone asking you why you made it, it's probably not a good idea. ("I'm worth it" isn't a defence.)

6. Don't throw out food.

This one seems simple, yet people throw out food all the time. Knowing what's in your fridge and freezer not only helps determine when you need to eat certain things but also prevents you from accidentally buying something you already have. Not letting food expire - or refusing to keep buying foods that often do, like a seldom-used salad dressing - is another way to stop spending money for nothing.

7. Take more napkins than necessary from fast-food restaurants.

This was more of a thing from my undergrad days, considering how rarely I eat fast food now. (Saving there too.) I don't see napkins as something to buy from a store. They're used for a few seconds and then discarded. Hard to justify paying for something with that quality when the place where you last bought a sandwich on the way home from work/school will do it for you. It doesn't have to result in guests knowing where you went last week, either, if you keep cloth napkins around for company and use the ones you got for free when you're by yourself.

8. Keep plastic bags from the grocery store.

I use my canvas grocery bags all the time. I own about half a dozen of them, most of them given to me for free. During big trips, when those bags are full, I'll generally get plastic bags. They've carried my track shoes to the gym/track, they've sat inside small garbage cans, and they've also been great donations to my parents for when the cat's litter needs to be cleaned out. Throwing out plastic unnecessarily isn't just horrible for the environment, it's literally throwing away something you could be using.

9. Reuse freezer bags.

Whenever they're empty, I wash them with soap and water. Then they can hold more of whatever was in them before, usually meat. Like the plastic bags above, there's no reason to throw something out that is still just as good as when you got it. The difference with freezer bags is that you actually paid for them. (For those who pay 5 cents per plastic bag at the grocery store, this still applies to you.)

10. Don't put off purchases until the last minute.

If an item you're looking to replace isn't something you only ever need one of (like a pair of shoes), there's nothing wrong with owning more than one while the original's life is fading. If said item is something you only ever need one of (like a microwave), it may be worth trading a couple extra months of life for a huge discount on the successor. Desperation doesn't come out to getting the best deal. The more time you give yourself to replace something, the more chances you give yourself to come away with a great deal.

Hopefully all that applies to everyone as much as is possible with personal finance, as much as peoples' individual circumstances vary. I've also excluded ways to make the most of credit card reward points, as I view that as more of a way to make money than to save it. All that said:

To save money, I won't...

1. Do anything that takes more time than it's worth.

Whenever I undertake a task that results in a financial net gain, I view it as though I'm performing a job. For example, if I attend a one-hour focus group and am given $50 for my efforts, I view myself as, for that hour, a $50/hr focus group attendee. That same logic is applicable in the home. If I take half an hour to make a meal that cost $2 of ingredients, provides no leftovers, and doesn't involve any creativity on my part, rather than microwave a prepackaged $4 meal, I'm essentially working as a low-level chef for $4/hr. (The difference in costs, doubled because I used half an hour as my example.) Those little ways to save money around the home could actually be short-term sub-minimum wage jobs in disguise. There are better uses of my time.

2. Cut my own hair unless I actually want a buzz cut.

For whatever reason, this one comes up frequently on frugality lists, including the men's one above. If a buzz cut is your personal style and you feel reasonably capable of doing a good job, go for it. If not, just go to a barber and fork over the cash. It's one thing to be defined by your frugality in terms of the wisdom of doing things like, say, not wantonly dumping food in the trash. It's another thing entirely to be so defined by frugality that people can tell you're frugal by looking at you. Worse yet, imagine if everyone followed this advice, resulting in the only difference in men's haircuts being measurable in small numbers. A personal style is not something I'd give up for a few bucks.

3. Compromise my clothing choices, whether for fashion or for quality.

I haven't done any formal research on this but I'm willing to guess that the average person wears clothing every day. There are so many sales on clothing from various retailers you'd think there was a world oversupply so blatant they'll have to turn the unsold items into rags. Fashion-wise, the personal style comment above applies. Wear what you'll enjoy wearing, because if you buy any reasonably good clothes they'll last for a while. Quality-wise, better clothes last longer. If a clothing item costs twice the price of a lesser counterpart but lasts at least twice as long, you aren't really paying more for it at all. Much like with the fridge and freezer example above, knowing which clothes you own is helpful so you can make the best of your durable purchases.

4. Regift.

It may seem resourceful and frugal to regift - if you're the one doing the regifting. Now imagine you're the person who bought that gift in the first place, possibly spent hours picking out just the right one, and it gets regifted. Not exactly quite so cheery anymore, are you? If someone buys you a gift, that gift is for you. It's not a proxy that waives your need to buy someone else a gift. Regifting is also less generous, as it removes the time and effort that demonstrate your care for the recipient. The only real defence for regifting is that neither the person whose gift is being shipped off nor the person who's getting a gift you didn't put any time or money into will usually end up knowing. In all, you've shown no appreciation for the time someone took to pick out a gift for you, shown no effort in shopping for someone else in your life, and justified the whole exercise by keeping both of those people in the dark. If that's how far you're willing to go to save money, I'll start hesitating before buying gifts for you at all.

A notable exception is if you truly believe something you got is absolutely perfect for someone else and the original giver agrees with you. This tends to occur more in terms of things like gift card swaps than in the giving of actual items. In this case, though, you're regifting in order to make a good faith attempt at making multiple people in your life happier, not to save money.

5. Cut up the credit card.

In addition to the aforementioned reward points, a credit card represents flexibility. I never carry a balance and view a credit card expense as though I had paid cash. Certain purchases, especially online ones, require a credit card. (One curious quirk of living in Canada versus the States is that Canadians don't have Visa debit cards.) There's also no guarantee I'll have enough cash in my wallet to cover a purchase every time I leave home. An unexpected sale at the grocery store could be out of reach but for a card sitting on the night table at home.

On that note, feel free to buy something at the grocery store that isn't on your list... as long as it's reasonably priced and you'll eat it. Handcuffing yourself doesn't make you more responsible, only less able to pounce on  deals.

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