This is a guest article by Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, posts weekly at MSN Smart Spending and blogs at Surviving and Thriving.
Is your budget hurting? It could be overuse syndrome.
Ergonomically speaking, a body part that is forced to work at a greater level than it is prepared for will suffer strain and possibly serious damage over time.
Economically speaking, a budget that’s impacted too hard will suffer, too.
The obvious answers are to earn more or to spend less. A whole bunch of people would love to earn more. But during a recession, a whole bunch of people feel lucky to have jobs at all.
Which brings us to spending less, i.e., causing less strain on your paycheck. But suppose you’ve already cut the health club membership or the 600 cable channels. Or suppose you never had those frills to begin with and are wondering where to cut back.
Try some macro techniques. Specifically, look at the things you do every day to see if you’re overdoing them.
Here’s an easy example: driving at the speed limit or above it. If you slow down from 65 to 55 mph, your gas mileage improves by 15%, according to this article.
It’s hard to estimate the cost of some habits. Water is a good example. Some people pay for city water (and, later, for the city sewer). Other consumers pay only for the electricity needed to pump it up from their own wells (plus, maybe, eventual pumping of their septic systems). Folks who live off the grid use people power to pump or haul. The first two groups can benefit from suggestions like xeriscaping the yard, installing faucet aerators and low-flow showerheads, and breaking habits like letting the water run while dishes are rinsed or teeth or brushed.
But we indulge in many other forms of waste that are much stealthier. I’m talking about habits so ingrained that we don’t realize how much they cost us – or why they might be unnecessary.
For example, do you take a pain reliever at the first twinge of a headache? Maybe you really need that ibuprofen. But maybe you just need a change of scenery, especially if you’re stuck in Cubicle Land with a bunch of other Whack-A-Moles. Some people take several smoke breaks a day or hang out by the water cooler; surely you can justify stepping outside for five minutes of fresh air, or at least to walk out of the room and move around for a few minutes. (Best-case scenario: You find a quiet spot to take a power nap.)
Headaches can sometimes be a sign of mild dehydration, so take a drink of water. Massage your neck or scalp. Brush your hair. Stretch. If you can find that quiet and private spot, do a couple of simple yoga poses.
Feel better? If not, then go ahead and take the ibuprofen.
Notice that I said “ibuprofen” rather than a brand name. The generic versions work just as well and are almost always cheaper, unless you have a coupon or rebate deal.
Keep it clean, on the cheap
Do you fill the laundry soap cap all the way? It’s probably overkill, unless your spouse is a farrier or a sewer worker. Clothes that aren’t heavily soiled can be washed with as little as one-fourth the recommended amount of detergent. Cut back slowly and see if you notice any difference. If not, then you’re spending 50% to 75% less each year on soap.
Some people make their own laundry detergent. You could do that, too, if you like that sort of thing. Maybe I’ll try it myself, once I go through the approximately two years’ worth of suds I’ve stashed cheaply thanks to coupons and rebates.
Speaking of laundry: Do you wash a bath towel after one use? Do you have to launder clothing every time you wear them or could you sometimes delay laundry day? I’m not talking about clothes you’ve worn while toting barges and lifting bales, but rather a shirt you wore for a few hours at church or a dress you wore to a job interview. Re-wearing means saving more laundry soap plus water, utilities, and wear and tear on your washing machine and your clothes.
Not on your dryer, though, since you mostly hang clothes to dry. You do, don’t you?
Cleanliness is next to thriftiness
Apparently you have to fill only one of the two detergent cups in your dishwasher. Personally, I use my dishwasher for storage; it’s full of canning jars and lids. Thus I can’t vouch for this tip -– but I see no reason to doubt it.
You don’t need to frost your entire toothbrush with toothpaste, despite what you see in the ads. (Think about it: Who designs the ads? The folks who sell toothpaste!) My sister the dental hygienist says this is true. In fact, she agrees with Amy Dacyczyn, who wrote a “Tightwad Gazette” article saying that you don’t really need toothpaste at all: Just plain water and dedicated brushing for at least three minutes will do the trick.
Myself, I like feeling all minty-fresh. But a little dab’ll do ya. Really. Try a spot of toothpaste the size of a pea. That’s up to a 75% annual savings.
How many times have you accidentally squeezed out too much shampoo but used it anyway? Next time the bottle is half-empty, fill it with water and shake well. Just a little squirt of the resulting liquid lathers quite nicely. When the bottle is empty, pour half of a new bottle into that one, fill both the rest of the way with water and shake, lather, save.
Also, consider washing your hair every other day (unless it’s particularly oily) and conditioning only a couple of times a week (unless your hair is particularly dry). Potential savings: 50% or more.
Or: Don’t use shampoo at all. This one’s a bit fringe-y for me but some folks swear by it. (Others swear at it.) Potential savings: 100%.
More ways to save
Do you automatically order soda or iced tea with meals out? At fast-food restaurants do you always upgrade to the cup that’s big enough to bathe in? In both cases you could save a couple of dollars a pop, as it were, by sticking with water or choosing the regular meal sizes, which are usually plenty big enough. Or try this: Order a kid’s meal and refill the cup as needed. It’s not only cheaper, you get a toy!
Of course, restaurant meals should be the exception, not the rule. Packing a lunch is a much thriftier way to go. Healthier, too, since you can control portion size, sodium intake, etc. When I interviewed people who’d started doing this, a common refrain was, “I just never added it up — I could kick myself now that I realize how much I’ve been spending all these years.”
Could you cut back on the meat used in a chili, stew or casserole? Or do you need to use meat at all? I’m a dedicated opportunivore — I’ll eat whatever’s around — but I can also go a week with few or no animal products. Maybe you can, too. Try a “meatless Monday,” a “vegan until 6” or some other way to go vegetarian once a week.
When making that chili or other dishes, do you need to use canned beans? Dry beans are much, much cheaper; for the price of one can (1 and 2/3 cups) of beans, you can buy almost two pounds of dry beans, which will yield six cups when cooked. They’re easy to prepare in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.
Penny-ante or penny-wise?
Some people decry these nickel-and-dime tips as, well, too nickel-and-dime. They don’t think that packing a lunch or washing Ziploc bags could translate into real savings.
I don’t agree. If adjusting a few habits saved you 50% or more on everyday expenses, why wouldn’t you do it?
Let’s assume you spend $50 a year on that laundry soap. (I have no idea what it actually costs, thanks to those coupon/rebate deals.) Paying attention to how much you use could put up to $37.50 a year back into your budget. All it takes is a minor lifestyle change.
And that’s just one change. Add up all the examples cited above and it starts to sound like real money.
But don’t stop there: Come up with your own small changes. Start paying attention to the way you do things. Ask yourself why you do it that way. Brainstorm ways to do it differently. Keep track of the savings, which may motivate you to find more ways to save.
And by the way, washing Ziplocs is completely optional. So is washing your hair with baking soda.
Photo: dpatricklewis, Tamara Burross