By Karen Norling
Eight months ago, my husband, Jim, lost his engineering job at GE Health care here in Ohio. In all those eight months –after dozens and dozens of resumes “snail-mailed” and emailed — not one company has called him for an interview. Not one company has called me for an interview either, despite the many positions I’ve applied for (I have a Master’s Degree in English). Perhaps you’re facing a similar situation, ensnared as all of us are in this seemingly-endless recession. If you are facing such a situation, read on.
Admittedly, Jim and I have a fair amount of savings in the bank. But here’s the problem: we loathe having to use it simply to survive. That’s why we set out, from the first day of Jim’s unemployment, to challenge ourselves to spend as little as possible. Some of the changes we’ve made are, you might say, insignificant. But taken together with the more significant ones, they’ve allowed us to keep a great deal more of what lies in our account than we would have kept a few months ago. Actually, aside from the sometimes disheartening aspect of having to “live with less,” the experience has been fulfilling — i.e., it has helped me to reevaluate my priorities. Now I ask myself: 1. What are the most important things I want to have” and 2. What things can I not buy that will allow me to get those “most important things” sooner? Currently at the top of my “most important list” is the patio-pergola we were going to have built in our backyard. We had finalized all the details and were simply waiting for our contractor to break ground. Then came the dreaded “pink slip,” and we had no choice but to eighty-six our plans (for what we were hoping would be no more than two or three months).
Angry and disappointed as I was, I began to curtail my spending every way I could think of. (I would not go down to defeat). Lo and behold! After only one month of such “curtailing,” our MasterCard bill was $1,300 lower than it had been the month before (we’ve always been fortunate enough to pay the entire balance each month, so we never accrue finance charges). Suddenly I realized that saving money didn’t seem nearly as painful as I’d imagined it would be. In fact, I was kind of looking forward to receiving our next MasterCard bill — looking forward to seeing if I saved as much money the second month as I had the first.
There’s something else I realized at that point: I could have acquired the “big things” I wanted (the patio-pergola) much sooner, if only I had spent less on the “little things” (accent furniture, picture frames, household conveniences, etc.) throughout my 17 years of marriage to Jim. Call my realization a bittersweet reckoning, if you will. It was bitter for the fact that I hadn’t been saving as much as I could have saved; it was sweet for the fact that I could continue to save at least that much for the rest of my life (once Jim and/or I found a job). In other words, I have developed a number of worthwhile habits that I don’t plan to relinquish — even when Jim and I have more money coming in.
So, how have Jim and I saved as much as we have within the last eight months?
1. We don’t buy shoes, clothing, or house-related items unless we really need them. If we truly need them in the near future, we will buy them. But we’ll no doubt buy the least-expensive ones we can find.
2. We don’t spend nearly as much on food. For instance, I’ve stopped buying the $2 to $3 frozen lunches and dinners I used to buy for myself and now buy only $1-or-less entrees (You can find entrees for as little as this — if you shop around). Likewise, I no longer splurge on expensive Swiss or Belgian chocolate or buy items from the bakery. And Jim shops around for the very best deals on meat.
When we eat lunch out, as we do a couple times a week, we buy only from the $1 menus at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, etc. Our goal is never to spend more than $4 for our combined meals. (It can be done.) And we go to less expensive restaurants for our usual once-a-month “pig out” day. Now it’s Golden Corral and China Buffet instead of Longhorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster. (I would have cancelled the pig-out day altogether, actually, but Jim threw a mini-tantrum at the mere suggestion.)
We buy the cheapest brands of almost every food we need these days, except in those rare instances when the brand-name product really is better than its off-brand counterpart. Examples: orange juice, ginger ale, cheese puffs, and sour cream.
Lastly, we buy fresh fruits and vegetables only when they don’t exceed our predetermined limits: strawberries can be no more than $1.80/pound; bing cherries, peaches, broccoli, and asparagus can be no more than $1.99/pound. The list goes on. (Note: I do not use coupons because the off-brands I normally buy are much cheaper than discounted brand names)
3. I take complete credit for this one: keeping our house cool. You see, I bought a $22 fan and put it in our great room (where we spend most of our time from late afternoon to late evening). Likewise, I began to limit our use of the air conditioner 24/7. I have to admit, letting the house get as warm as I do is much easier on me than it is on Jim — as I am comfortable at 82 or 83 when I’m not cleaning house or exercising. Indeed, if it were up to me, we would scarcely use the AC at all. But because Jim is comfortable at 68, we have to use it to, shall we say, a “certain degree.”
Here’s our routine: Once the thermostat reaches 83 or 84 — usually in the early evening — we turn the AC down to 81 and Jim sits a few feet from the fan. A couple hours later, we open the windows to let the cool night air inside. As long as Jim stays near the fan, he is O.K. — not as comfortable as he’d like to be, but O.K. Truthfully, I don’t feel too sorry for him having to deal with the heat. I figure he’s just learning how I feel every winter when we keep the thermostat at 69 or below. For nearly two decades I have walked around the house, from November to February, wearing three to four layers of sweatshirts, heavy sweatpants, a winter jacket and earmuffs. I see it this way: I suffer in the cold months. He suffers in the hot months. It’s only fair.
4. What about saving money on medical expenses? This has not been nearly as straightforward as saving on food and air-conditioning. Here’s the story. Since our COBRA coverage ran out in April, we have been just barely covered by individual, so-called “insurance” plans. Those plans cost us a total of $1,200/month. Once we meet the deductibles ($1,000 for each of us), we’ll receive a whopping 50% coverage. To make matters worse, we have no drug coverage to speak of (absolutely no brand-name medications are covered, and only a very few generic medications are).
I have had to use my imagination to figure out ways not to use even the deductibles! For example, when I found out the other day that my one-month supply of Seroquel was going to cost $327 instead of the $30 I used to pay for it, I went to my primary-care doctor and picked up a bunch of samples to tide me over until Jim gets a job that includes health benefits. (I don’t rule out the possibility of me finding a job with health benefits before Jim does.)
Similarly, several weeks ago, when I noticed dark-red splotches forming on my ankles, I simply left the spots alone assuming I was just having an allergic reaction to something I touched while I was out gardening. But then the splotches started growing bigger and turning deeper and deeper red. Though I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I would have to see my doctor to find out what was wrong, I reached for my over-the-counter cortisone cream and applied it to the splotches three times a day for several days. Fortunately, the splotches began to fade, and I never made that appointment. Amount saved? At least $150.
As a final example, when the pain from my herniated disc became almost unbearable a couple weeks ago, I asked my orthopedist to prescribe me a $4-packet of Medrol instead of having me go in for a second $4,500 “cervical epidural.” (Medrol is a powerful, long-acting steroid that virtually ends the pain within two or three days.) As it turned out, much of my pain had subsided by the time I picked up my prescription, so I’m saving the prescription for future use.
5. On to gardening, my most beloved pastime. Because I never really had to save money until recently, I rarely tried to think of ways to garden for less. Now, however, I am doing just that. Aside from canceling our TruGreen lawn service ($300/season), I’ve saved the most money simply by postponing my plans for this spring and summer. Indeed, I had planned to spend about $300 for a few more hydrangeas, some tropical hibiscuses, a bunch of ivy geraniums and several begonias, plus copious amounts of mulch and compost. Instead, I’ve spent only $30 on a total of four six-packs of annuals, two potted dahlias, and two potted fuchsias. To pay for the soil I needed to plant the tomato and cantaloupes I started from seed, as well as the roses I ordered and paid for long before Jim lost his job, I cashed out our credit-card reward points for a total of $150. With that $150, I was able to buy not only 20 bags of Miracle-Gro soil, but four tomato cages and 10 large flower pots. Maybe next spring I’ll be able to implement my original, “gung-ho” plans or maybe I’ll decide to make them not-so-gung-ho. Either way, I will continue adding color and beauty to my surroundings. (I have also begun to collect rain water to use for watering. The first time I took a serious look at the buckets I’d placed near my front porch, I asked myself, “Are you really that desperate?” But then I reasoned that the less of the city’s water I use for my outdoor needs, the less money I pay the government. What could be more satisfying than that?)
One last thing I’m doing to save money in the garden is that I’m using the various fertilizers, fungicides, and pesticides I have on-hand instead of buying new ones. I rarely paid that much attention to how much I bought before Jim lost his job, so I’d sometimes end up buying things I didn’t actually need. No more of that.
6. Finally, we’ve delayed our trip to see friends and family in California, an excursion that would have cost us at least $1,500.
While I’ve given you examples of the most substantial things we have done to “save” our savings, here are some less-substantial, yet equally-worthy, examples:
- Entertainment: Admittedly, Jim and I have never spent much on entertainment aside from renting movies. Nevertheless, we’ve found ways to spend even less than we normally do. To make the most of our “basic” cable plan, we now watch as many “free-on-demand” programs as we can. These programs include movies, prime-time sitcoms and dramas, and news magazines. Though, we have maintained our $9.99/month Netflix subscription, the only other form of entertainment we indulge in is an occasional $1 Redbox movie.
- Magazines: I cancelled my subscription to People Magazine and stopped buying other magazines in grocery and drug stores. I used to read such magazines while I worked-out on the stepper each day. Now I listen to my favorite CDs instead — free of charge. Savings: nearly $200/year.
- Catalogs: I automatically chuck the myriad of catalogs that arrive in our mailbox day after day. I used to peruse virtually all of them and order items from one or two of them every few months. Many of those items were cheap, chintzy wastes of money I easily could have lived without. Now I do.
- Services: I discontinued Culligan’s automatic salt-refill service for our water softener, a service that cost us $180/year. Now Jim buys the bags of salt and carry them down to the basement. Of course, I don’t mind. It’s about time he did some things around here.
- Jewelry: I gathered up all the old gold jewelry I haven’t worn in years and exchanged it for $56 cash. I was happy to get that much, considering the fact that I’ve never bought expensive jewelry. Something is better than nothing.
- Pets: In the colder months, I waited twice as long (12 weeks instead of six) to have our Miniature Schnauzers trimmed. They stayed warmer, and we saved a total of $200 for two fewer grooming sessions.
Regardless of what job Jim has (or I have) in the future, I will never spend our income quite the way I used to. Again, I’d much rather wait a bit longer to buy the “big” things I dream of (remember the patio-pergola?), than spend too much on the “little” things (decorative towels, fancy sheets, custom address-labels, gadgets for the kitchen). Then again, we could win the lottery and never, ever again have to think twice about how much we spend. Yeah, I know. Good luck with that.