Where Logic Meets Love

How We're Saving Money

Friday, December 11, 2009

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How We're Saving Money | Faith Permeating Life
The ideas for blog posts are piling up in my mind faster than I have time to write. Here's one that's been in the queue the longest.


In my downtime at work, I've been trying to learn as many things as I can, particularly related to the various programs we teach in our workshops for faculty. I came across one of Google's many variations, called the Tip Jar, where people submit and vote on money-saving tips. I've lately become obsessed with saving money and getting free stuff (yet another blog post in the queue), so I decided to read all the highest rated tips to see what Mike and I could implement in our life.

Here's the weird thing: We already do all of them.

Through some combination of our mutual desire for a simple lifestyle, my compulsive reading of books and articles on everything, including financial stuff, and just good ideas we've come up with along the way, we actually save money in every one of the areas these tips touched on. There was literally only one new thing I read about, which was filling a gallon jug while the shower is warming up in the morning and using it to water your plants/garden/etc. Seeing as we live in a third-floor apartment and own no plants (except a small flower recently given as a housewarming gift, which I am slowly but surely killing by never remembering to water it), this isn't exactly practical for us right now, but I have no doubt that once we're in a house we will combine this tip with the use of a showerhead we already want to buy that automatically "pauses" the water flow once it's warm enough for a shower.

Unlike Mike's prediction, we didn't go into marriage and instantly live really cheaply. We never lived expensively, but we've been slowly and intelligently pruning our spending so that we went from spending slightly more than we were bringing in, to breaking even, to -- last month, for November -- bringing in $700 more than we spent. (All of that will, of course, be immediately absorbed into Mike's tuition payment due this month, but it's still something.)

I thought maybe it would be helpful for me to compile a list of all these things for the benefit of the handful of people who stumble across this blog. So, here is my attempt, followed by some thoughts.

1) Our local library is excellent. I've basically stopped buying books because I have such a backlog of books I want to read that are all at the library. More than that, though, our library has a collection of movies and TV shows on DVD (all free to borrow) that are somehow exactly Mike's favorite kind of movies and TV shows, and he recently discovered that they have Wii games as well. Books, movies, and video games -- that sums up our entertainment pretty well, all for free.

2) Mike hooked up all of our electronics -- TV, Wii, DVD player, sound system, and modem -- so they're controlled by a single switch, and I eventually managed to convince him to turn off the switch when we weren't using it. Our electricity bill dropped amazingly. We're both gone during the day at work, and at my parents' all day Sunday, so everything's on for a total of about 3 hours each evening, and part of the day Saturday. This is one of the benefits of being in an apartment -- everything's pretty much in one spot, and we don't have to pay heating or water, just electricity.

3) Going along with that, we barely watch TV. Mike used to use the TV to unwind when he got home, and somehow with moving in here and not having things hooked up right for a while, he broke the habit. We only turn the TV on to watch a specific show (right now, only Lie To Me, and his shows, 24 and Lost, start soon) or to watch a movie. Plus, as I said, we're not home that much anyway, and when we are, we have things to get done. Once Mike gets his weekends back, our schedule may change somewhat, but I don't think we'll watch that much more TV. Needless to say, we don't have cable.

4) We have a $50 limit per month on eating out and entertainment. Surprisingly, this has not been much of a problem (the only issue is that Mike will insist on going out early in the month and then lament that we can't go out at the end of the month, but that's his problem!). We've had friends over for dinner at our apartment at least one per month -- three of my friends and one of his friends, plus we had a Halloween party, and my little sister spent the night one weekend. Also, because we spend Sundays at my parents' house, we usually go out to eat with them or order take-out, so we get our weekly dose of that without spending money (yes, we are spoiled).

5) Speaking of being at my parents' house, we've started bringing our laundry there every weekend, so we haven't paid for laundry in over a month. My mom doesn't mind at all because of all the work I'm doing for her on the family home videos, and she even insists on helping me fold it sometimes. I told her I'm more than happy to be paid for my time in laundry detergent :)

6) We only subscribe to two magazines, one of which my mom bought for us to support my sister's school fundraiser, and one which we got for free with our Coke Rewards points (which, in turn, were free thanks to friends who drank a lot of Coke and didn't want to set up their own accounts). We still have lots of Coke points, so we'll probably renew it in a year with more of the same.

7) When we moved in here, we sorted through a lot of stuff and piled up everything we didn't want. Some of it, the stuff we'll use in a house, is stored in my parents' basements, a lot of it went to Goodwill, and a handful of things we sold on eBay for a total of $60. I've started lending out or giving away books whenever I can, just to clear out some space. This in itself isn't necessarily money-saving, but by being in an I-have-too-much-stuff mindset rather than an I-need-more-stuff mindset, I don't feel much pressure to buy new things. And anything I feel that I do need, I put on my birthday/Christmas list.

8) I have a really organized system for tracking our spending. We have a big binder with dividers by category (Gas, Groceries, Rent, etc.) and notebook paper in each section. At the beginning of each month, I write the new month name and year at the top of the next piece of paper, and then all receipts in that category for that month get taped in that section. I add up totals at the bottom of each filled page. I have a spreadsheet in the front of the binder with a list of categories. At the end of each month, I go through our bank and credit card statements and match them against the binder to make sure we're not missing any receipts, then add up the totals for each category. Both our paychecks are direct deposit, so I can quickly add up our income and fill that in as well. So every cent we earn and spend is recorded, without much effort, and after December I'm going to look at the past six months and actually draw up spending limits for each category, so we can have a more consistent idea of how much we will spend each month.

9) We each get $10 a month for our personal allowances, which we can save or spend. This is basically on a trust system -- we each keep track of how much we have left in our own personal accounts. I use a Google Doc; Mike keeps it in his head, which isn't that difficult given that he pretty much spends his $10 every month, so he only has to remember how much of the $10 he's spent so far. Any gift money can go in our personal account as well. This is probably the biggest thing that has cut down on Mike's spending tendencies, because rather than having our whole income to work with and justifying to me every purchase he wants to make, he knows exactly how much money he has to do with as he likes, and when it's gone, it's gone, until the next month. Anything that has a category, like haircuts, or is a mutually made purchase, like furniture, he knows there's money for, and anything else he has to decide whether it's worth using part of his $10 for.

10) All of our bills are paid online, so we don't ever spend on postage to pay them. I did make Mailing a separate category, but only because I've been sending surprise gifts to friends over the past few months, and that's almost all of our spending in that category. Because we get an e-mail when our statements are ready, I can pop them right into my Google To-Do List, so they're always paid in plenty of time (and we pay our credit card off in full every month, so we have no interest). I also check our bank and credit card activity online every few days, so I can see right away if something isn't right. We get points from our bank card and cash back on our credit card, both of which are awesome (see the aforementioned future post for more on this).

11) Before we even started putting together our wedding gift registry, we made a decision that we didn't want to use paper towels/napkins/plates/etc. We have a ton of cloth napkins and washcloths, and we don't ever have to spend money at the grocery store on any paper products except toilet paper. We have so many Tupperware containers they're kind of taking over one of our kitchen cabinets, but I rarely have to throw away much from my lunch except maybe a banana peel and occasionally a granola bar wrapper. I have a water bottle and a thermos that I use at work -- I've become pretty averse to anything disposable.

12) We -- mostly Mike -- cook a lot, so we aren't usually eating stuff like one-time boxed or frozen meals, which saves a lot of grocery money. He usually cooks enough to have leftovers for at least a night, and when it's my turn to cook I usually make pasta because I love pasta and it's easy, and it also happens to be a cheap meal. We do buy a lot of frozen Steamfresh vegetables (as well as fresh vegetables), but that's because we honestly wouldn't get enough vegetables if we had to cook a side of fresh vegetables ourselves. Neither of us drinks coffee, and we've both mostly stopped drinking pop/soda/whatever you call it, which helps save money as well. Mostly we just drink a lot of water, and with meals sometimes have milk or V8 Fusion.

Those are the basics -- I also do other stuff to get discounts and free stuff, but I'll talk about that another time.

What I found most interesting, going through this "Tip Jar," is the kinds of things that people have to work to cut down on or cut out of their lives. I don't know how we would maintain the earning:spending ratio we have if we had cable TV, subscribed to a bunch of magazines, stopped at Starbucks every morning, smoked, drank, and went out to eat every weekend, yet I get the sense that these are people's most frequent "money-eaters." One of the tips that amused me was:

"Eliminate some cable service. Note that I'm not recommending getting rid of cable completely, although that's certainly a way to save money."

It has such a cautious tone, as if expecting people to be extremely defensive about their cable. And yet, I know that people are. I'm so grateful to have built a lifestyle that doesn't require cable TV. Probably even more than that, I'm grateful to have a husband whose view is so closely aligned with my own when it comes to all these things. And I'm grateful to have a family who lives close by who is willing to buy us dinner and let us do laundry for free in exchange for free video editing work and some quality time together.

Some other ones that amused me:

"Use ALL the surface of paper towels. You can save a lot of trees."
"Bring your lunch to work twice a week to save around 40% on those lunches out."

How are you saving money? What are your biggest money-eaters?
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