Friday, August 28, 2009

In Protest of Premature Promotion

Unbelievable, I know, but I have already begun to hear Christmas music playing in stores and restaurants, and most oddly of all, blaring from an ice-cream truck. I don't know about you, but all this untimely jollity puts me in a decidedly "Bah, humbug!" mood. It was bad enough that they started around Halloween the last few years. Now, before all the kids are even back to school, before the calendar even officially recognizes Fall, it has begun.

All of this early cheer has a purpose, of course. Facing the prospect of another dismal holiday shopping season, retailers are trying their hardest to get us in the shopping mood. Should you feel responsible for jump starting the economy by shopping 'till you drop? I say no. Retailers will adapt by streamlining their operations and selling more affordable merchandise, or they will not survive.

Don't be pressured into buying by the power of suggestion. The best way to shop for Christmas, birthdays or any occasion, is to shop all year. Take advantage of clearance sales, retailer coupons, closeouts, and brand new merchandise at yard sales and flea markets. If you see some great bargains during the actual Christmas shopping season, great. If not, you can sit back and rejoice in the season, secure in the knowledge that you have a well-stocked gift box at home. All that's left is to listen to some free downloaded Christmas music and wrap your gifts (using recycled materials of course!).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Penny Pinching Pioneers

You're probably aware of a lot of great magazines and blogs out there today dispensing advice about frugality and simple living. Did you know that even before the days of the Internet, way back when, there were some masters of the art of saving money, who were scrimpin' it old school? I want to make sure you don't miss out on their wisdom.

Ben Franklin, one of our country's founding fathers, was not only a hard-working man and inventor, he liked to hold onto his cash. "Spare and have is better than spend and crave" he once said. Nor did he believe in abusing credit. "Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt" he advised. He thought it prudent to watch the small expenditures that can wreck a budget. "Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship." he felt. "Shop till you drop" was definitely not his motto. "If you would be wealthy, think of saving as well as getting" he counseled. A fan of "do-it-yourself", he printed wine-making instructions in one of his publications to help people brew their own inexpensive wine. He also started a lending library.

The pioneers were frugal by necessity. They couldn't lug a bunch of stuff with them over such a long distance, over rough terrain, in a rickety wooden wagon. They had to get creative, and make what they used, grow or kill what they ate, and use their stuff until it wore out. What was not strictly useful got abandoned by the side of the trail to lighten the load. Once they established new settlements, they had to keep up their simple ways. There was no local department store to rely on, and no money to spend anyway. Aside from some limited trading with the Indians, they had to make what they needed. That chapter in one of the Little House on the Prairie books where they made all their Christmas gifts - rag dolls, wooden toys, etc., has always been one of my favorites.

Those who lived through the great depression also had no choice but to be thrifty. Jobs were scarce, savings were lost when banks failed, and people had to help each other to survive. No matter how little food a family had, if someone came to the back door asking for something to eat, they would share. People would share clothes, tools, household items, anything they had. Sadly this spirit of giving is scarce today, although a return to this mindset would benefit us all. During this time, many inexpensive recipes were developed to work around shortages of certain foods, and utilize cheap ingredients that were readily available. Some of these recipes can be found here: .

There's even a video on YouTube of a 93 year old woman preparing some recipes from this era:

In the 1970's a teenager named Dolly Freed wrote the book Possum Living. It was about her "back to the land" lifestyle. She lived with her father on half an acre just outside Philadelphia. Much of the information and ideas may be too extreme for most people, but it is fascinating. They lived on a budget of about $700 per year, raised all their own food, and brewed their own alcohol. If you are interested, you can read it here:

Just before the rampant consumerism of the 80's got underway, there was a book published called Living More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. Written by a Mennonite woman, the book revealed how wastefully Americans live, and how people in other countries make the most of their meager resources. It is a manual for living more simply and being less attached to material possessions. There are a lot of practical tips for stretching your budget and making do with what you already have. Since the author is a religious woman, the biblical quotes may put some readers off, but if you can get past that there is some great information there.

Amy Dacyczyn, aka The Frugal Zealot, became fairly well known in the 1990's for her newsletter, The Tightwad Gazette. The newsletter was eventually published as a series of three books, The Tightwad Gazette I, II and III. After that, there was a "complete edition" with all the books combined. This series is my bible. Originally a spendthrift, Amy became an extreme frugalite to realize her dream of raising a large family and owning a sprawling farmhouse in New England. Although her and her husband had an average combined income of less than $30,000, after seven years they had saved $49,000, purchased vehicles, large appliances and furniture, and were debt-free! She analyzed things such as the cost of drying a load of laundry or whether it was cheaper to use cloth or disposable diapers, and came up with ingenious ways to reuse things that would normally be thrown out. She also includes some great thrifty recipes. Again, some of the information could be considered extreme, but she always approached saving money ethically. You can use what you want and ignore the rest. I heartily recommend these books as the best I have ever read on frugality and simple living. Now that Amy has achieved her financial goals, she no longer writes books or newsletters, and declines to blog, although many have begged her to. She claims she has shared everything she has to say on the subject.

Another classic frugal living book that came out of the 90's was Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. It was about changing your relationship with money and achieving financial independence as soon as possible. The most useful idea I gleaned from the book was that of analyzing each purchase by the number of hours of work it took to earn the money to pay for it. Things suddenly become a lot less desirable when you realize how long and hard you would have to labor for them. This book also reveals how silly the old model of "keeping up with the Joneses" is. Now that we are in the age of the Internet, there is a website dedicated to the book's philosophy here:

Last but not least, there is the first book that taught me the basics about personal finance and investing. It was originally published in 1997. Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties by Beth Kobliner. It explained everything in very plain, easy to understand language. Nowadays, there is a website, of course, where you can go for more information:

I hope some of these pilgrims of parsimony, explorers of economizing, scouts of saving serve to inspire you. Do you know of any frugal pioneers I haven't mentioned? Please share their stories. I'm always searching for new sources of inspiration.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Reading, Writing and Reasonable Prices

It's back to school time. For moms, that means lots of peace and quiet, but what does it mean for the rest of us? It means savings!

All the major department stores and office supply stores are having sales right now on office supplies. Pens, pencils, notebooks, paper, USB drives, tape, glue, even laptops are on sale. Some drugstores and office supply stores have these items for a few cents or even free if you send in a rebate. Check to see if your local stores have a rebate program. Now is the time to restock your home office.

Thanks to the kids heading back to college, a whole bunch of housewares are on sale too. Towels, mini fridges, sheets (usually twin XL only), and small appliances such as toasters and microwaves, are all discounted. Organizational aids, such as memo boards, shelves, closet storage units, hangers and plastic bins are also cheap. Many of the items that are suited for college dorm rooms are also perfectly sized for studio apartments. Now is the time to outfit yours.

Students also need new clothes for school (or think they do). Great prices can be found on clothes, shoes, backpacks, etc. for the next couple of weeks. Act now if your wardrobe needs a boost.

Take advantage of the many opportunities for back to school savings. Why should kids have all the fun?