The New Frugal
Tips and tricks for surviving with less and loving it
By Russell Wild
Ben Franklin said, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Quite obviously, Ben didn't have to deal with income taxes. Today, a penny saved, assuming you fall in the 28 percent tax bracket, is more like 1.3 pennies earned. Why spend more than you need to? With a recession here or on the way, here's how to chop your expenses on home, auto, entertainment, travel and healthcare.
Make Yourself at Home Planning a vacation? Why stay in a crummy hotel room when you can occupy an entire house for less? The Caretaker Gazette, is a bimonthly newsletter that lists rent-free house caretaking opportunities around the world. The publication costs $29 a year. Subscribe online at www.caretaker.org, or call 715.426.5500.
No Call Waiting The telephone market has become terribly competitive. And even though picking and choosing plans can sometimes be a pain in the neck, it can save you lots. "If you're still with a plan that hasn't changed in a year or more, you may be paying much more than you need to," says Irene Leech, Ph.D., associate professor in consumer education at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
The first thing you need to do is to check your bill carefully. Are you using each and every option you're paying for: caller ID, call waiting, call forwarding? If not, nix 'em. Second, are you on your provider's most economical plan? Call and ask, "Given my typical month's phone usage, do you have a better deal for me?" These moves alone could save you 25 percent on your bill.
Pop Fewer Pills Many people consume more vitamin pills than the medical establishment recommends. Money spent on megadoses of vitamins, particularly water-soluble vitamins such as C and the B, go quite literally down the toilet. Check with your doctor to see if you're overdoing, underdoing or doing just right. Then, whatever you decide on, go with store brands from a reliable pharmacy or supermarket. They're at least 25 percent cheaper than name brand, and it's all the same stuff.
Review Insurance Policies Are you paying for disability insurance, even though you're no longer working? That's $200 a month you can save right there. Indemnity income riders, which pay you for days in the hospital, are almost always a waste, says Leech. Save the $20 a month. "Most hospital stays today are very short. Indemnity income is a big consumer rip-off." An even bigger rip-off, she adds, are the credit life payments often hidden buried in the credit contracts you'll sign to buy a car or large appliance. You may be paying $4 or more a month so that in case you die, and your heirs choose not to pay off the car or refrigerator, it won't be repossessed. But that's their choice. Maybe, just maybe, they don't want your pink Cadillac.
Be a Cheap Date On the dating scene? "There are great ways to get to know your new special someone that won't put you or your date in the poorhouse," say the folks at Match.com, the online dating website. Match's frugal but fun recommendations include a picnic lunch, a museum outing, a visit to a botanical garden, the zoo.
Check Your Tires According to automotive expert Lauren Fix, a few simple steps can lower your gas expenses dramatically. First, keep your tires properly inflated. You lose up to 2 percent of your fuel economy for each pound of underinflation. You also wear out your tires before their time. Check tire pressure against the door placard or behind the gas door once a month. Never use the number on the tire. Don't warm your car up for more than 30 seconds, even on cold winter mornings. It isn't necessary. Modern engines are designed to warm up as they drive. Total gas savings per year, following all the tips above, assuming a midsized car driven 15,000 miles: $96.
Buy a Second-Hand Car A two-year-old car with 40,000 miles, unless it's a model particularly known for its durability, will generally sell for 50 percent of the cost of a new car, yet it will still have 75 percent of its life ahead of it. The warranty may have expired, but the costs of repairs should be much less than the payments you'd make on a shiny, new number.
Rent a Casket Often, the families of those who choose cremation invest in a fancy casket that quickly winds up as ashes. What a waste of good wood! Rent a casket instead of buying, and you'll save plenty. A typical oak casket runs $2,800 to buy but only $700 to rent. "Casket rentals have been getting more and more popular," says Robert Maitner Jr., owner of Maitner Cremation Services of Jersey City, N.J. "The casket, by the way, is just the outer shell," he adds. "The body never touches it."
Don't Be a Bulb Boob Those incandescent light bulbs you've been using for years haven't changed a whole lot since Mr. Edison invented them 123 years ago. They're strictly 19th-century technology. Consider modernizing. According to the Alliance to Save Energy, compact fluorescent bulbs, which can almost always screw into the very same fixture, emit roughly four times the amount of light for every watt of electricity. And the fluorescent bulb will last 13 times as long, about 10,000 hours vs. 750 hours. A fluorescent bulb costs about $11, which is comparable to the cost of 13 incandescent bulbs. But, assuming you keep your lights on four hours a day, you'll save roughly $9 a year in electricity for each compact fluorescent you install.
Hit the Gym at Home You're determined to get into better shape. You could buy a monthly membership in a gym or you could invest in some home gym equipment. "But ask yourself honestly if you're the kind of person who can work out at home, by yourself. You don't want to buy a piece of exercise equipment and have it get used as a coat rack," says Leech. Monthly membership in a gym typically costs about $30. A good exercycle can be had for far less if bought on Craigslist. Heck, a really expensive pair of running shoes saves money right off the top and all you have to do is step out of your house to exercise. Walking for 30 minutes daily is enough to keep you healthy and connected to the outside world. And don't forget to figure in the time saved and the gas money spared by not driving to the gym.
Go Out on a Limb The National Park Service will pay your way, provide lodging and even give you a small salary in exchange for working with tourists or trees. Retirees Marianna and Scott Broaddus of Glen Allen, Va., once spent three months in Yellowstone National Park. They helped manage a Park Service restaurant six to eight hours a day, and the rest of the time they were free to commune with nature. "It was one of the best vacations we ever had—and we got paid for it!" Marianna says. Contact the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., at 202.208.6843 or read all about the deals on line at www.nps.gov/volunteer/index.htm.
Grow Your Own It's amazing what you can grow with a handful of seeds, a little plot of land, or even a few large pots out on the patio. Not only can you save money growing your own tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, mint, peppers or squash (some of the easiest crops to grow), but yours will be so much tastier and more organic than anything you can buy at the supermarket. One of the best books for beginning gardeners and a classic in the field, Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew, is deeply discounted at Amazon.com for $11.87 plus shipping, and, of course, is also available for free at your local library.
Discount Replacement Checks Your bank may charge you as much as $20 for a box of 200 replacement checks. You can do much better. Several independent printers can beat the bank's price by a long shot. Direct Checks Unlimited of Colorado Springs, for example, sells most checks for $8.95 per box of 200. First-timers get four boxes for the price of three, and no shipping cost. See their extensive collection of check designs online at www.checksunlimited.com. Good deals can also be found at Checks in the Mail at 800.733.4443, or order online at www.checksinthemail.com. Prices start at $9.99 for a box of 150 checks.
Spice Up Life Hot apple cider with cinnamon? Buy your spices through the Atlantic Spice Co., and save 50 to 90 percent off supermarket prices! Atlantic also sells nuts and seeds, teas and herbs, all for dandy discounts. Purchases can be made online or by mail. Go to www.atlanticspice.com or call 800.316.7965.
Budget Rx Arthritis acting up? If you're having a hard time footing the bill for medications, contact the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association of America and ask for its free Directory of Prescription Drug Patient Assistance Programs. "Virtually every major pharmaceutical company in America offers assistance to patients who can't afford medicine. These are often people who fall through the cracks, not qualifying for Medicaid, but without a lot of economic resources," says Jackie Cottrell, association spokesperson. You can find the directory online at www.phrma.org, or call PHRMA at 800.762.4636, and they'll ship you one.
Go North If you don't qualify for special assistance, you may still save a bundle on prescription medication by buying direct from Canada, where prices on drugs can be less than half what they are Stateside. Two of the leading suppliers are both online and have toll-free numbers: Maple Leaf Meds (www.mapleleafmeds.com; 800.794.8552) and CanadianDrugstore.com (www.canadiandrugstore.com; 888.773.2698).
Half-Price Mags Share magazine subscriptions with a likeminded neighbor or friend. That's a 50 percent discount right there. In addition, subscribe by phone and try negotiating a special term, such as professional, senior or student rate. Often you can shave a few percentage points off the price merely for the asking. Don't renew magazines that you rarely read. (You can always find them at the library.)
Random Notes The Complete Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn (Villard; $19.99). Over 900 pages, jam-packed with creative ideas for promoting thrift. The Dollar Stretcher website at www.stretcher.com. It's free, well-organized and the money savings cover everything from dry-cleaning to travel to kitchen cleaners. The Frugal Living website at http://frugalliving.about.com is another information-stuffed website. If you don't find it on the Dollar Stretcher, you'll find it here. See also the enormous and growing amount of information at [ http://www.frugalitynetwork.com/ ]www.frugalitynetwork.com.
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