Tuesday, July 8, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: Three Frugal Rules I Break (and Three I Swear By)

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

A big part of my journey into living on the cheap is figuring out my boundaries. Everyone has to do this – determine what can be cut ($10 cocktails) and what can’t ($90 haircuts?). Could you do like this guy and live on $30 for 30 days? Well, sure, if you really like eggs, bread, and potatoes and don’t care so much for greens. (And maybe if you have a really great multivitamin.) It’s cheap, but not healthy or very good. Still, it’s good to see what’s out there, what other, crazier people are doing. (Hearing about other NYCers living without air conditioning was what inspired me to go for my unplugged, uncooled summer, and a month in, I and my spray bottle are going strong!)

The internet is full of these sorts of ideas. You can hardly sneeze in the frugal blogosphere without running into a list of ten or 25 or 101 tips/pointers/VITAL RULES for living on the cheap. I love these lists – there’s always something I haven’t thought of or heard before – but I also consistently run into a few Rules of Frugal Living that I consistently, willfully don’t follow. I am such a rebel. Check it out:


1) Budget budget budget! Live and die by your budget! You know what? I tried going on a rigorous budget. More than once. I tracked every penny I spent, and in about three days I wanted to tear my hair out. That sort of precise monitoring drives me crazy, makes me desperate to break the rigid rules I've set. But I can’t just spend money willy nilly – that’s what got me into this mess in the first place. (Well, that and the awful dollar-Euro exchange rate.) So what do I do? I guess I still budget, but very roughly. I set an amount for groceries each week, and spend about that, give or take a few bucks. The important thing about this is that I’m not allocating every penny into this (or to bills or rent or whatever). I always leave a cushion so that, say, if I want a frozen yogurt or an occasional cup of coffee, I just do it – no checking with my budget, no counting pennies. I leave room for these small impulse purchases that normal people make, and when I run out of cash, I run out. And then I feel normal, and sane, and all is well.

2) Put your stimulus check/bonus/birthday money towards paying off your debt or building savings! I go eleven months of the year being rigorously frugal. I foodshop the bare minimums, I almost never eat out, I rarely buy new clothes, and every month, on schedule, I pay the same amount towards my debt – there just isn't room for big indulgences in my budget, and I accept that. So when the government wants to send me $600, or I work a freelance job that actually pays cash money, sure, some of that goes towards debt. But some of it also goes towards new jeans, or movie tickets, or a fun dinner out with friends. Constant tightwad living creates tension that can just build and build. This might be my particular psychology, but planned splurges make the rest of my life totally manageable. (And reasonable, because otherwise I would never have money for new clothes without not eating for a month.) When my hand-me-down iPod died last year, I lived without it for months, doing quite well for a while. But I got to really miss the music and listening to NPR on the subway, so when I got a freelance producing gig this spring, some money went to my credit cards, and some went my lovely new silver iPod. Could I have put it all to my debt, and paid things off a month earlier? Sure. Is that extra month worth the countless hours walking around the city with my own personal soundtrack? I know my answer.

3) Quit the gym! This seems like a small item, but I've seen it pop up on many lists. The gym is expensive, they say. The outdoors is free! Then they cite a statistic about how most people use their gym membership, like, twice a month, which works out to about $40/hour, which is ludicrous. So yes, those twice-a-month people shouldn't waste their money on gym memberships. But I know that my gym membership is a big part of what gets me exercising. I love the facilities and the myriad options the gym provides. I don't run – I lift weights and use machines and take advantage of lots of fancy equipment. Not only do I not have the money for even a solid set of freeweights, let alone the desire to lug 50 lbs of iron home from a store, but I don't have space for any of this stuff in my apartment. The gym keeps me healthy, keeps me strong, and since I go a few times a week, is, for me, a vital investment.


1) Cook your own food! I can't stress enough how crucial this is to me not being a big, broke, debt-ridden mess. If I'm really sneaky, I can buy a decent wrap at a place near work for $5. Or I can bring my own food from home – a sandwich, left-over stir fry, eggs, veggies, hummus, whatever – for usually under $1. Dinner? If I eat out, at least $10. Made at home? More like $2. This adds up so quickly. For a few extra minutes in the morning, I spend a fraction of what bought, prepared food would cost, and since I'm controlling the ingredients and avoiding processed foods, it's a ton healthier, too.

2) Ditch the cable/internet/air conditioning! I am lucky to live in an apartment building with several unprotected wireless networks. (Slightly unethical? Perhaps. But totally frugal.) When I moved into my own apartment, I couldn't imagine how I would live without cable, having previously been an unrepentant DVR junkie. Ten months later, I don't even think about it. Heck, I don't even watch regular, uncable TV. I get some shows online, and have TV nights to watch “The Tudors” at my plugged-in friends' apartments, but that $60 a month is totally worth the slight inconvenience. And a month into the summer, my AC-less lifestyle is going strong! I never thought I could manage without these expensive "necessities," but I read about how other people did, and got inspired and tried it myself, and am so glad. Thank you, internet! (And the unprotected wireless router you came from.)

3) Pay yourself first! You see this a lot around the frugal blogosphere, and at first it's hard to parse. Pay myself first? You mean buy myself that new dress right away? Sadly, for me and Urban Outfitters, no. It makes more linguistic sense when you're talking about saving, but it means that the first place my paycheck goes is to your debt. On payday I take a few minutes with my online bill pay and pay my credit cards, electric bill, and phone bill. (I'm not up to living cell phoneless just yet.) It's a sad-looking instant depletion of several hundred dollars on just the day the money came in, but once it's paid I'm sure not to run out of money for the vital stuff. Can I live off of pantry staples for a week? Yes. Can I miss a credit card payment? No. This makes sure that even my shoddy budgeting doesn't get in the way.

Everyone figures out their own way to save money and cut spending. For some people, the gym is a waste and an expensive haircut is a stupid extravagance. For me, I know where I can cut down to bare minimums and what spending keeps me sane (and feeling pretty, dammit). And I work out my (rough, cushioned) budget to make room for what I need to do to make this lifestyle sustainable. As long as my friends stay subscribed to Showtime, I’m golden.

Readers, how about you? What rules do you break/follow religiously?

(All photos courtesy of Amazon.)

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I totally agree. Being frugal for the long haul is not about being cheap. It’s all about prioritizing what’s actually important to me. My big savings come from living in a small (low rent) apartment, not having a car, and cooking my own food. I also don’t spend money on a gym but pay small fees for at-work yoga classes and volunteer my time as a mentor for a running club so I can participate for free.

I do all that not only so that I can aggressively pay down my debt but also so that I can afford to spend money on the things that I value more. I have a cell phone (though no landline), cable, internet, and save up to buy clothes from time to time. One of the highlights of my week is brunch with friends after our Saturday runs.

I also budget with a cushion so that I always have a little wiggle room. I pay my bills/debt first and then just work with what’s left. It works for me, which is the important thing.

Milena said...

I completely agree about a budget being total B.S.

They are too easy to break.

Jessica said...

Budgets are important but strict ones do make me spend more. I always have the desire to break the rules I set - like with dieting. If I set looser rules, I tend not to break them.

alicia. said...

Haha I totally do the wireless thing too! It's just not worth the extra $50/month to me even if there were no networks around -- with school, all the WiFi hotspots and family with access.. My husband feels bad about it, but we're not doing anything to get anyone in trouble, so..

I'm glad you mentioned the "Live and Die By Your Budget" thing too. I can't do that, and sometimes it makes me feel like a fraud when other frugalites (huh?) look down on me for treating myself.. and yeah, it's happened.

So glad you posted this!

Amy said...

Excellent post!

I read a lot of the personal finance blogs and you know, it can be a touch over whelming. I'm single, living alone (with a puppy), I don't own a house, and frankly, so much of the advice so doesnot fit my life. Yeah, there is a little farm girl in me that would love to bake bread from scratch and visit the farm stand every day. But I want a glossy magazine and a $5 coffee every now and then. You're right, being frugal is about making choices, not about being cheap. I just bought a Nike+ doodad and new sneakers ($120) with a portion of saved funds and a portion of my rebate check. Those are investments I can be happy with. So much of the finance blog stuff feels like hoarding for the future, but you do have to live in the present and that might include a splurge every now and then.

Meags said...

I am one of those freaks that lives by a strict budget. My hubby and I purchased the YNAB budget software and we change up our limits per category each month based on our changing needs. The thing that made this work out for us is that we have $50 a month each (yes, I realize it's not much) to spend however we want. A lot of times we spend it on gifts for each other, but we also splurge on random things (like a latte or a new game for the Wii), even though we have entertainment and eating out budget categories.

The budget was really hard to deal with before we added the "fun money" bit, but now it just makes sense, and we're reaping the benefits. We've been married only 2 years and we've got enough to put 20% down on a newly constructed home. I realize it's not for everyone but if you can make a budget work it is totally worth it.

Grumpy Misanthrope said...

Slightly unethical?

And slightly illegal if you live in most of Europe and a growing number of American and Canadian cities. I can only hope you aren't doing anything remotely unethical/illegal online for the sake of the people who's IP you are stealing (yes, it is theft since you are doing it without telling them).

Autumn said...

Really excellent post. I always feel guilty about the budget thing, because mine isn't calculated down to the last penny. But you're right--sometimes, policing yourself that way can be counterproductive.

Anonymous said...

While I kind of think that anyone who doesn't make an attempt to secure their wireless is asking for trouble (keys in the ignition as it were).
Bear in mind that using someone else's unsecured wireless leaves you open to having your information hacked.
There is really nothing frugal about it if it leads to your bank account being emptied.

Anonymous said...

On-line banking is my budget's best friend.... I set up my payments on payday, then I know how much "wiggle" room (usually not much!) I have for the month... and I'm never late with that visa card payment.

Anonymous said...

Frugalaity is a necessity. Mine started 25 years ago when I wanted to stay home to raise my sons. Living on one person's salary is hard unless you watch what you did. I had a budget for EVERYTHING and tried not to deviate. As my children grew up, they did not understand why they couldn't go to McDonalds every night. But now as young adults, they are following in my same footsteps. My 23 year old drives at 1996 car with over 200,000 miles on it and as he says, will drive it until it runs no longer!! Yes, his friends tease him about it but he has a job and an apartment while they remain at home with their parents and their expensive sports car & insurance payment. The other son (25)does not have a car and uses the city busses and/or inline skates to get around. Both have a small amount of money in the bank and hardly ever eat out. They both hit the neighborhood grocery stores looking for tag sales on their meats. It makes this mom proud that what they disliked growing up has really taught them lessons on frugality that are needed now. PS: Neither is allowed to marry before they are 30, so far so good!!

Anonymous said...

We have a budget and the amounts change based on big goals that we have. We just bought a car (used) and want to finish paying it off in 4-5 months that means our budget just downsized inot almost nothing gear. (: Being out of debt is important to myself and my husband so we make the sacrifices. I don't count pennies with our budget, but I do deep a watchful eye so that we don't go over by much. (: The "spending money" category has really helped us as well. We have found that even $10-$15 is enough to make us feel like we aren't stuck. Then when we look at something that we would like to have we can decide to get it, or decide it isn't worth it without feeling trapped because we "can't".

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this comment is too old to be relevant...but on the subject of "stealing" wireless...it is unethical, and it slows down their internet. A better thing might be to ask around to your immediate neighbors who has wireless, and offer to pay some of their bill in return for using their service. I did that in an apartment I lived in, we wound up paying $10 a piece, and I had their password so it was secure. It's certainly cheaper than setting up a router and wireless all by yourself, and in an apartment, it's pretty easy.