Penny-Pinching Is Fine, But It Won't Save the Profligate
by Alina Tugend
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Sometimes I read about ways to pinch pennies and I feel good. We turn off lights, often buy in bulk, use compact fluorescent light bulbs and put tap water in our reusable bottles instead of buying disposable ones.
A pat on the back for us.
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Then I read another list and realize there are some things I just don't want to do. I don't make my own cleaning supplies. I am pretty hopeless about remembering coupons. I rarely wash out baggies.
A kick in the pants for us.
It turns out there are a million ways to save small amounts of money, and not all of them are going to fit all of us. I know some people who have elaborate coupon systems that work well for them, but it's just not something I want to spend time on. I do use every rewards card I can, though, to rack up points toward a free movie ticket, meal or flight.
I'm not saying my choices make sense. I'm simply saying that saving is as individual as spending.
And perhaps, despite common wisdom, the small ways to save don't really help us. They can even but hurt us by fooling us into believing we are making genuine financial changes when we're not.
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"We've read so much about economizing -- here's how to clip a coupon and save 10 to 20 percent," said Jeff Yeager, who wrote "The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches," (Broadway Books, 2008). "But what we're missing is the golden epiphany of the time -- not can we save, but what do we need?"
Cutting out the little stuff, what's known as the latte factor, "works on paper, but not necessarily in reality," said Mr. Yeager, who also runs the Web site ultimatecheapskate.com. "It's analogous to the easy weight-loss plans -- that you can save in a quick and painless way."
If we're living way beyond our means, drinking a little less coffee may make us feel as if we're doing something, but we're really avoiding making the more challenging decisions.
Rather, we need to focus on the big choices in life, like buying a smaller house or downsizing the one we have now, Mr. Yeager said. Or living at home during college so we don't run up debt and then moving out when we graduate (rather than, as seems to be increasingly necessary, moving back in with the parents after college).
I can see these issues are important to think about and even act on. But can we start a bit smaller?
Yes, Mr. Yeager said. How about this idea, which is a common one, but worth repeating? Eat out much less. Forty-five percent of the average family's food budget is spent on meals prepared outside the house (that includes fast food). Imagine how much we can save by eating at home.
I don't have to imagine it. I know. That's one of the things we cut back on last year, and it has made a difference.
But notice, I said cut back. We haven't eliminated it altogether. There are times when a Chinese takeout or a restaurant dinner is just what we need. And that's O.K., said Rebecca Schreiber, a certified financial planner for Solid Ground Financial Planning in Silver Spring, Md.
"People tend to focus on the smallest areas that have the least impact," she said. "The key is satisfied spending." That is, don't just spend out of habit, but because it's something you really want. For instance, many people eat lunch out almost every day. It may be because they enjoy the food, but part of it is the activity surrounding the meal -- getting outside and socializing.
So try to do that in a cheaper way, Ms. Schreiber said. Instead of going to a restaurant, buy some fresh lunch options at a grocery store. Then meet with friends and eat outside or in the work cafeteria.
"You can get a salad for $4 at Trader Joe's," she said. That may be more expensive than making one at home, but it's less than ordering it in a restaurant.
When working with a client, "we get into the weeds of the behavior," she said. "We listen to the frequency and timing of the spending." For instance, one client says she goes shopping every weekend with a friend, not because she needs anything, but because it's something they always do.
"You might need to stop shopping with that friend, and find a less destructive habit," Ms. Schreiber said. "I used to take my 4-year-old son to the mall every weekend and think of something to get. What I really wanted to do was just get out. Now we go to libraries, playgrounds and museums."
Another big place to save, Mr. Yeager said, is cellphones. Don't have one.
I fear this is a battle Mr. Yeager is waging largely in vain. But his argument is that most people spend at least $1,500 to $2,000 a year on cellphone bills (I did a quick calculation, and that is true for us). While most of us tend to believe that having a cellphone is not just a convenience but a safety issue -- how else do I keep track of my children? -- the number of people killed using phones while driving belies any true safety claim, he said.
While I'm not going to give up my cellphone, I did go to the Web site fixmycellbill.comand plugged in some information to see if I was on the right plan. People waste a lot of money paying for add-ons or minutes they don't need. The site will, at no cost, tell you how much you could save by changing plans or carriers. For $5, it will give you a detailed report.
I was happy to see that our plan was the most economical one available on our carrier, but apparently if I switched carriers, I could save about $600 annually. Something to check out.
Here are some more ideas I picked up. They may not help you climb out of a deep financial hole, but if you just need to trim your budget slightly, they're worth considering:
• Your printer is a place you can save bucks. Change the font on the documents you print. A Dutch company, printer.com, found that Century Gothic and Times New Roman use significantly less ink than some of the more common fonts. It found that Century Gothic, for example, uses about 30 percent less ink than Arial. And I've found that ink bought on the Internet from companies like inkjetsuperstore.com is far cheaper than in major stationery stores.
• If you were already considering buying a new refrigerator or clothes dryer, many states are offering a cash-for-appliances rebate, modeled on the highly successful cash-for-clunkers rebate program. Each state is administering the program differently, but if you act fast you might get a rebate if you buy a new energy-efficient appliance.
• Taking a shuttle to the airport or paying for parking can run into hundreds of dollars. My neighbors and I started a reciprocal deal. If the timing allows for it, we drive and pick up her family and she does the same for ours.
I rejected a few ideas out of hand. Flattening the toilet paper roll just enough so people can easily pull out only a few sheets at a time seems, well, pathetic. It might save a few pennies, but that's one lifestyle choice I don't want to live with. I'd skip the latte instead.