Learning to scale back

Earlier this month, I helped some old friends stage their home, in order to get higher offers. It was not an ideal situation. They had bought about a year ago. Very nice place. They had always lived very frugally, and had bought when the market seemed just about right. They had intended to stay in this house for at least a decade. They moved and settled in, and loved being home. And then the primary wage earner was let go. It was a major blow. Since December, they’ve made ends meet, while trying to find options that would let them stay in their home. Temp jobs. Independent contractor positions. Trying to find creative ways to spend less and earn more. They recognized that staying in their home may not be an option. So far, they had gotten an offer, which would put them out about $15,000. It’s not an ideal situation.

So it was that I offered what help I could. Decorating. They had set up their home in a way that was perfect for them, but it was not going to get them the kind of offers that would be acceptable. So we went to work. We basically moved my living room to their place. I bought some items that I’d been waiting to buy. Painted one room. Had the carpets cleaned. Organized their storage, and put all unnecessary items away. Reupholstered a storage bench. Put out potted, flowering plants along their terrace. In the end, the place looked good. I hope it’s good enough …

As I returned to my own home, I thought about how extravagant my life is. Granted, it’s not nearly as extravagant as before I bought my home. But there are still many areas where I spend more than I ought. Be that as it may, I thought it a good idea to talk about the ways my spending has changed, and invite others to share their ideas on scaling back.

My parents are good examples of frugality. They almost never buy anything full price. From groceries to automobiles, they always research the competition and buy at the best rates. We grew up not knowing what air conditioning was, and always turning off lights. Most of the accessories of my childhood were second hand, from clothes to toys to bedroom furniture. At the time, I didn’t see the wisdom of this, as I gazed longingly at my classmates’ Member’s Only jackets. Somehow, there was always money for growing and learning experiences, even if there wasn’t enough for everything else that I wanted.

Fast forward to me as an adult. in my twenties, most of my disposable income went to what I was concerned with most: how I looked, and how much fun I had.Thai massages, pedicures, eyebrow threading, haircuts, dining out, entertainment, clothes, accessories. When I hit thirty, I  started weeding out the most ridiculous expenses. And now that I’m a home owner, I’m learning to cut back even more.

  • Gone are the pedicures and eyebrow threading. It’s self-service now.
  • No more cable tv. Instead, I use hulu.com or Redbox
  • I bought energy efficient appliances and applied for every rebate available. I hang dry most of my clothes.
  • Ceiling fans instead of a/c. Warm clothes instead of heating. Energy efficient light bulbs.
  • Few theatre movies. When I go, I buy discount tickets at Costco
  • Brown-bag lunches. Since I prefer a hot-lunch, it’s generally a mix of steamed veggies and chicken that I prepare at home and can heat up at work.
  • Buying gas during the middle of the week, and always at my favorite cheapie place. Trying to take the metro to work once a week instead of driving all the time.
  • Borrowing books from the library.
  • Walking or biking to do my local errands.
  • Creative parties at home. Potlucking the food.
  • Buying in bulk when possible.
  • Pay bills on-line. Better for record keeping and for saving money on stamps.
  • Changed cell-phone service, using a family plan with my parents and sister.

What about you? What old or new ways have you found to economize? Are these permanent scale-backs, or temporary?


Dora is a pediatric critical care nurse. Therapy to alleviate the stress in her professional life include traveling around the world, reading, partner dancing and hosting dinner parties.

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11 Responses

  1. EM says:

    My husband and I are “retired” now but we were still living like we were earning our previous income; consequently we ended up in debt. I finally sat down with the husband and told him I was putting us on a strict budget, and we are only working with cash. No more credit cards or debit cards. I made him cash in some of his investments to pay off the debt – that was tough for him. AND I told him he couldn’t play golf anymore, until the debt was gone. After I said that, cashing in the investments was easy! It amazed us how quickly we realized how much money we could save and that we were spending our money on just stuff – nothing of worth and all that stuff certainly didn’t make us feel any better about ourselves. And most of all it’s so good to have that peace of mind knowing that we don’t owe anyone. We’re slowly selling off the stuff now, and de-cluttering. So for us pensioners it’s definitely a way of life now – and it’s so much better. We don’t need all the trappings of life to make our lives worthwhile. There are so many more important things to do with money.

  2. Two of Three says:

    I watched an episode of Oprah a few years ago that focused on saving money. I was so irritated that I wrote to the show’s website. Her suggestions were things like how to get a $400 dress for $100 or finding salons that will do you nails for a fraction of the cost. I was so taken aback because I felt that these suggestions did not speak to me or my peers. I can’t tell you if I have EVER spend $100 on a dress. More likely, I have found something I adore at a second hand shop for under $20. And salon nails? My 9 year old does mine on the back porch while eating watermelon slices at the same time! (Now that’s talent!)

    Frugality to me is cutting coupons and cutting makeup wipes in half so they last twice as long. Every car we have purchased has been used, but in good condition. Most of our clothes are second hand or we shop clearance.

    For these efforts, we have been able to take the kids on some really great vacations. We have done Disney (packing in our own lunches, of course!) and just returned from a fabulous trip from Yellowstone. It’s all where your priorities are. I don’t care about $75 purses, but do want to make some fun memories with my kids before they are grown.

  3. Caroline says:

    This is a great post, Dora. I too have been trying to figure out ways to scale back.

    One thing I did was dump my monthly cell phone service. I’m now doing pay as you go – way cheaper for my needs.

    I’m also trying to figure out cheaper solutions for my hair. Instead of going to a salon, I’m trying to find stylists who work out of their home.

    Also, I’m deliberately scaling back on going out to eat. When it was just me and my husband, we would go out at least 3 times a week. Now it’s once a week maybe. And of course, I get my food from Costco whenever possible.

    Here’s a big one: I’ve joined a babysitting collective, so we swap babysitting. That saves hundreds of dollars a year.

  4. A key thing is to live under your means, so that you are saving steadily.

    There are also two completely different approaches you can take. The one is focused spending. Sitting on orange crates, eating steak — that is a good example (where you keep a very low baseline and splurge on planned specifics).

    The other is to raise your baseline and keep everything at that level.

    Most people are happier if they live where they are more prosperous, relatively so, than the community they are in and if they keep their baseline low and have spikes.

    But some are not. Know which you are.

  5. Deborah says:

    It doesn’t get to your question but . . . how awesome that you did that for your friends. That’s not lip-service service — that’s real, practical work during someone else’s time of stress.

  6. Dora says:

    Thanks Deborah. These are extremely good friends, and we do a lot of good for each other.

    Good ideas, Caroline. I especially like the babysitting cooperative. What a great way to make sure one’s children are being well taken care of, and to support other families.

    Two of three, I agree that frugality is a good path to follow. In college, I remember reading a book called the _Tightwad Gazette,_ full of fun ideas about frugality with both money and resources.

    EM and Steven: Yes, saving, especially for retirement, is very key. Last night I attended a financial seminar with my mother and SIL, geared toward women. I was amazed that some of the women didn’t know what a Roth IRA was! Saving and preparing is so essential, especially in today’s economic climate.And learning to live within our means, whatever they are, is not just good sense, it’s something we’ve been counseled to do repeatedly.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Bless you, Dora, for helping your friend. We are in a similar situation to your friend. DH was laid off 3 months ago (start-up he was working for shut down). We purchased our home 5 years ago for a really good price. But, with the market the way it is, we are hoping to just break even. We’ve had it on the market for 2 months, and only 4 people have come to look at it (one almost bid – it was their second choice).

    Anyways, I have lived frugally my whole life. My family growing up was below poverty after my dad left. I was on my own at 18. DH and I had 3 kids whlle DH was getting his PhD. Two more since we graduated. We’ve paid cash for our cars. At the point that DH got laid off, we had half of our goal in our savings account. With his severance package, we had exactly what we had budgeted we would need to survive 6 months. I’m grateful that I didn’t spend money on new furniture (our couches have HOLES) or new flooring because we are surviving this period of unemployement/underemployement.

    But, I admit that right now I am stuck between two competing thoughts:

    1. When DH finds another “good” job, I want to continue to be super frugal and pay off our student loans and mortgage and save for kids’ college because my oldest is only 8 years away.

    2. Because my oldest is only 8 years away from college, I want to take advantage of this time he is with us. We have never been to Disney World or Yellowstone or anywhere that we have wanted to go. We keep waiting until our finances are such that we can go. What if that never comes before he leaves home? The thought just makes me too sad. I want to live while my kids are still around.

    Anyways, just my thoughts. DH had another interview on Thursday. Pray for us, please. 🙂

  8. wendy says:

    My husband was without employment for over a year (not right now, thankfully), so we had to learn how to be frugal right away. At first it was a big adjustment, but then we just got kind of used to it. Here are some things that stand out as making a difference (some made more of a psychological difference than a financial one; but when you’re facing unemployment, the emotional sense of having some control over the situation is HUGE).

    -The first thing to go was entertainment. We stopped going to the theatres and borrowed movies from library. I also never buy books for myself, and found great used bookstores for my kids. We also generally entertained less; it was a cocooning time for our family. We explored playgrounds in our neigbourhood, found out about free events offered through the City and community groups, and went on lots of picnics and walks.
    -Open your curtains and blinds in every room every morning. You can get a way with natural light for a lot of the day, and you feel so much better seeing the outdors everytime you walk into a different room.
    -The cheapest food is the food that is already in your house. I took a bizarre pleasure in using what was in my deep freezer and pantry (this is what you have been saving it for!). Plan your meals around what you have, and go vegetarian more often. We had so many egg-salad sandwiches and pancake dinners I can’t even count.
    -Along the same lines, learn how to make your own bread. Fresh homemade bread can turn salad or canned soup into a pretty satisfying meal. You can save a lot of money over time. And I somehow felt safer once I found a great recipe for whole wheat bread. Like my family could survive on bread and cheese or jam if things got really desperate.
    -Don’t go to the store or mall unless you really have to. It’s not worth it to put yourself in tempting places and then feel bad about all the stuff you wish you could buy. Bring a list with you and stick with it. When you sense an urge to buy, question it. What is it that you really want? Do you already have something else like it at home? Do you even have a place to store it? Put the brakes on that impulse to buy to make you feel better (because we’ve been getting that message our entire lives).
    -It’s been kind of freeing to not participate in fashion trends. As I would get dressed for Sundays, wearing something that I had been wearing for years, I would remind myself that I did not have an obligation to anyone to be “current.”

    For me, living frugally dovetailed nicely with decluttering my home and living more sustainably. An unexpected peace came when forced to live frugally. I stopped competing as much with others, and I learned what kinds of things really made me happy. Our mantra during this time was, “Everything we really need we already have.” And it wasn’t just a smarmy thing to say. We would go digging in our garage and find things– like a lamp to replace one that broke– all the time.

  9. Erinan says:

    I was raised in an upper-middle-class family, but you never would have guessed it from seeing us: we all wore hand-me-downs as much as possible, and when we absolutely had to buy new clothes they were always a size too big (so we could grow into them) and purchased off clearance racks. The first time I remember choosing my own clothes in a store, I was a teenager, and I still stuck to the clearance racks. Sure, as a kid I felt out of place at school in my older brothers’ t-shirts, but in the long run it made me more confident and kind: I learned to look past superficial things like clothes at a young age and evaluate people by their personalities and actions instead.

    Another big cost-cutting tactic my parents used was cutting all of our hair at home: my mom got a little training from her sister, who worked at a salon, and she cut my hair and my siblings’ hair and my dad’s hair. She trained her daughters to cut HER hair, which showed a lot of bravery: I started as her “barber” at the tender age of 13. I made some mistakes at first, but she was patient and I got better with time. I had never been to a barber until college, and I still go to beauty schools to get my hair cut since that’s the best deal I’ve found. I’ve also never dyed my hair or used many styling products, and the result is gorgeous, healthy hair–not dried and fried and stripped by heat and chemicals. I get compliments on it often.

    I’m a newlywed now with a baby on the way and my husband and I continue to live frugally. At this point we buy all our furniture and many household appliances and other items from secondhand shops; I figure staying out of debt is far more important than having everything match. What we can’t get at secondhand shops we get at Ross. We do eat out, but almost always use coupons when we do. At home we eat a lot of beans, brown rice, eggs, and potatoes–cheap and nutritious foods. We have a little garden as well.

    When we want something that is really more of a want than a need, we do our best to finance it with “extra” money. For instance, we have one vehicle but my husband really wanted another one. So, he bought a broken computer for $10, took it apart and fixed it up, and turned around and sold it for $300–which was a fair price. Then he found a car that needed some TLC but had a solid engine and transmission, and bought it for $350. We spent a couple days cleaning it up, he did some minor repairs costing about $100 total, and now we’ve got a nice little car that essentially cost $160 plus some elbow grease. Best part is, if we get to where we can’t afford it, we can resell it for around $700 easy with the work he’s done on it.

  10. Erinan says:

    Oh, and the money my parents saved by living well below their means? They used that to help put all ten of their children through college. I wouldn’t trade that for all the nice clothes and popularity in the world growing up. Their generosity has allowed me to stay in school even while dealing with health issues that make it impossible for me to have a job on top of doing schoolwork.

  11. Spike says:

    had prlviousey tried to figure out how to make a circle spiral pattern and ended up with Mardi Gras because as the circle got bigger, it kept rippling. Today I finally figured out the increase to

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