A brave, frugal world, month one

First Posted: 7/4/2009

Well, folks, Im here to report on how the first month went in my households attempt to take on a more frugal lifestyle.
The results, as you might guess, have been mixed.
I do also have to issue a public apology to my oldest daughter, who is 17. I made mention in that first column about our new frugal lifestyle that my kids, especially the two oldest, had already developed some teen habits and lifestyles which might take a while to wean from, thus the frugal life might be slow in taking root in some areas.
My daughter took some offense at that, and she let me know that she does not, in fact, have many pricey habits, and I have to admit she is correct, shes actually rather good at avoiding spending.
She also told me she doesnt have any teen habits shes developed, and she could adapt to most anything we do quite nicely. That was just before she informed me she would not give up using the dryer on her clothes, the air conditioner when temperatures rose above her comfort level, nor would she eat sandwiches made with our new, super-cheap bread recipes.
So, with that introduction to how news of our changing lifestyle was greeted on the homefront, Ill move on to a status report for the first month.
If we looked solely at the dollars and cents of what we lived on in June remember, our goal was to live on $900 a month, excluding the cost of rent and my work commute then wed have to chalk up June as a colossal failure.
A root canal and paying for a home missions junket by three of the household members will do that to you.
On the other hand, if we look at June as a learning experience, a time to set us up for being successful in subsequent months, then it was a good month.
Okay, heres the deal. Adopting a rather strict, frugal lifestyle just doesnt happen overnight. One of the things I shared with you all early in this little experiment was that we realized we could save quite a bit of money by making our own bread. In order to do this, however, our upfront costs for some things made our June expenses a little higher. However, some of the basic materials well use for that will last us well into July, maybe even August. The key here is to make that extra upfront costs last beyond the month, and then not spend the money you save in subsequent months on other things.
We also learned we need a bit of record keeping to make this work.
First, we need to keep track of all of our spending. I do mean every last nickel, and Id encourage you to do the same if youre trying this.
Why? A couple of reasons.
First, when you start recording everything you spend, you begin to realize theres a lot of money flowing out of your pocket that really doesnt need to. An example would be hitting the vending machine for a soda. You might not think much of dropping 55 cents into a slot for a can of Mountain Dew, but if you have to record that in a little spending notebook every time you buy one, you see in black and white how much youre throwing away instead of a couple of quarters and a nickel, you see its 55 cents one day, $1.10 another, 55 cents the next day maybe even $3 or $4 in a week. Multiply that by 52 weeks and youve thrown away a big chunk of money (yes, yes, I know…you need the caffeine, but there are much cheaper ways to get your fix. Well get to that in a week or two).
Second, as I said earlier, sometimes you have to spend a little money upfront to save in the long run, but unless you record your spending, you really dont get a good grasp of the savings. A couple of examples from our household would be the 50-pound bags of potatoes and dog food.
Fifty pounds is a lot, and its quite a bit more than a 10-pound or 20-pound bag, but when you break it down on a per pound basis, its cheaper. A 50-pound bag of dog food in our house was about 50 percent more than a 20-pound bag, but lasted more than twice as long. Thats a significant savings over a little time, but you dont fully realize it unless you record your grocery expenditures. Youll see one trip a little more costly, but later trips less so. Seeing it recorded in black and white makes it more tangible.
Third, I dont know about you, but when we do save money in one area, we somehow manage to fritter it away. Writing your expenditures down helps you keep track of your money and NOT throw away the savings youre picking up with a more frugal lifestyle.
The second bit of record keeping we are putting together, and Id encourage you to do the same, is a price book of all the items you use on a consistent basis.
Its well and good to go into a store and, say, see peanut butter on sale. You look at the regular price maybe $4 for a two-pound jar and see the sale price at $3. Hey, thats a great deal, right?
Maybe not. If you can regularly get it at another store for $2.50, then the sale isnt such a hot buy.
Of course, if you see it on sale at still another store for $1 for a one-pound jar, thats a good deal and you should stock up.
If you put together a price book of the items you use most often, then you know when you see sales and special offers whether thats a good deal compared to where you normally buy that item.
And yes, if youre putting together a price book, that means youre going to do some comparison shopping. Nothing wrong with that. Lets face it, most grocery stores are within a couple of miles of one another, so its really no big deal to pick up some items at one, other items at another, and still more groceries at a third store. You might invest a little more of your time this way, but if you save, say, $70 a month with such comparison shopping, and it adds a couple of hours a month to your work, thats like making $35 an hour for that extra work. I dont know about you, but there are a lot of jobs Id do for $35 an hour.
So, to summarize, we figured out in our first month we cant feasibly get to where we want to be in a single month. We have higher utility bills to pay off as we work our way toward more economical uses of utilities. We have to start from scratch in figuring out the cheapest way, in the long run, to buy groceries. And we have had to start up with record keeping on all of our expenses and our price book.
So, the first month was a time of learning and working toward our goal. July, hopefully, will see us come much closer to that magic figure of $900 a month.
Next week Ill talk a little about one of our biggest month expenses the electric bill, and how Im driving my family crazy in our little attack on this drain on our checkbook.
John Peters is editor of The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected]

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