Many news stories are featuring families that follow shopping bans for a year or more. I applaud anyone who makes a major change to improve their finances, and the sentiment has strengthened my resolve to resist needless spending. I’ve encouraged those looking to break a recreational or therapeutic shopping habit to try this tool. That said, I’ve refused to jump on the shopping ban bandwagon. Shopping bans are banned from the Pretend to Be Poor household. Here’s why they aren’t for me:
- Rules are made to be broken. The very nature of the human heart rebels against rules, and imposing extra, unnecessary rules might not be the best way to stimulate financial self-improvement. As soon as I’m not allowed to have lattes, what am I thinking about? LATTE LATTE LATTE LATTE! But if you need to, ban lattes till the cows come home.
- Goals are more motivating than rules. Finding a positive motivation, like focusing on specific financial goals like debt payoff, saving for a major purchase, investing more aggressively, or giving to a charity can be a lot more effective than a big fat NO that ultimately incites rebellion.
- I want purpose and principles to order my life. I’m not interested in reducing spontaneity or socializing because I’m so controlled by an artificial constraint. For example, one of the principles that separates effective from faux frugality is counter-intuitive: instead of budgeting how much we should spend, we strive to see how little we can spend. We don’t follow this to a tight-wad extreme, but make sure we meet our family’s needs, practice generosity, and prioritize relationships. To be ordered by purpose and principles means I’m not going to spend $4 a day on coffee because I know what that $4 a day could do in the stock market, or for an impoverished kid in a developing nation.
- The personality factor. I firmly believe there is an element of personality that affects our finances profoundly. I’m a saver, married a saver, and if anything, my tendency is to resist buying things when I should. For example, Neil has been threatening to throw out my beat-up shoes for six months now, and tries to find excuses, like the fact that I wore them when the toilet overflowed, as reasons to do so. (I sanitized them.) Small children and pets all seem drawn to my jeans’ growing knee holes, and Neil suggested I might be taking the PTBP thing a little too far. (I’m just protecting my nicer jeans from the harsh effects of motherhood.) I realize shopping bans allow for purchasing needs, but I’d rather decide what I need as I go than trying to make an all-inclusive list ahead of time. That’s just my personality though. For other temperaments, if the shoe fits, have a shoe-shopping ban.
- Having children inflicted an involuntary shopping ban on me. I remember rushing to the store to secure a “mom” bathing suit the day of a family pool party, since the (hand-me-down) string bikini top seemed downright dangerous with a nursing babe in arms. Bathing suit shopping with kids is a very relaxing experience. My son detached all the bikini straps and threw them in the aisle while yelling made-up words. Then he sneaked behind a mirror into a forbidden nook, and returned only to push said babe around in the stroller at breakneck speed.
- I’ve automated my spending to a large extent. People often imagine being frugal is super hard work. Sometimes it is (ask my husband who’s been fixing our cars), but mostly it’s easier to simply not go to stores and not buy things.
- Like certain forms of minimalism, shopping rules can be as materialistically focused as over-spending. For example, if I spend too much time thinking, talking, or writing about why I’m going to keep wearing my holey jeans till they rip right off my body, I might be just as focused on material goods or money as if I went out and shopped for new—even (gasp!) brand name—ones. I’m not saying all shopping bans are ill-focused; I’m just recognizing the extreme I’d be tempted toward.
To wrap up, I wouldn’t inflict my shopping-ban ban on anyone who needs a habit-breaking hiatus. Here are some questions to help you determine if this tool would help you:
- Do you know where your money goes each month? (I.e. do you follow a budget?)
- Do you shop or drive-thru when you’re emotional or bored? Is shopping or stopping for food/drink a hobby or habit for you?
- Have you tried to break the habit before, without much success?
- Are you saving and giving away money on a regular basis?
- Are you able to window shop or go to stores without buying anything?
- Are you able to enter a store and buy only what’s on your list?
- Do you have way more things than you need in a particular area (clothes, shoes, accessories, electronics, movies, books, tools, etc.)?
- Is your entertainment or restaurant spending significantly more than you want it to be?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, you might consider a shopping ban. If you’re not ready to go all in, here are some other ideas to try first:
- Automate errands with Amazon Subscribe & Save.
- Limit frequency of shopping trips.
- Use cash envelopes for problem budget categories.
- Budget a small amount of fun money for splurges.
- Develop a Healthy Aversion to Spending.
- Try pre-gaming restaurant dining.
- Write down your financial goals and why you want to reach them.
My next post will reveal one of my best hacks for spending less when I do shop.
Have you tried a shopping ban? How did it help? Have you banned shopping bans? Why?
How does our family of four stick to a $300 a month food budget while eating healthy? I’ve already shared the important principles of grocery savings: shopping at discount stores, menu planning, shopping with a list, and cooking from scratch. Remembering that not everything has to be your favorite also goes a long way. And here I share my nitty-gritty little tricks, including recipes and pantry list, that help us keep costs down. So feast your eyes on my frugal food hacks.
- Buy full fat coconut milk and cut with 1 can of water to make 2 cans of light coconut milk.
- Stir a little flavored yogurt into homemade plain yogurt (recipe below) for a healthier, cheaper snack.
- Zest lemons before juicing them to extract more lemon flavor.
- Cottage cheese is the old-fashioned, less expensive Greek yogurt (26g protein/cup).
- Grow lettuce. $1 of seeds fed us salad most days for 3 months. “Salad bowl” variety is our favorite.
- Popcorn (stove-top) is the cheapest snack food. We like butter & salt or kettle corn.
- Keep a well-stocked pantry. Sign up for our email updates on the right sidebar and I’ll send you my pantry list.
- Cook dry beans in the slow cooker; freeze in jars (saved from spaghetti, salsa, etc.)
- I cook 2 lbs with 10-12 cups of water for 6-8 hours on high.
- Cheaper and healthier than canned beans.
- Make your own hummus, refried beans, or baked beans. Add to soup, chili, salads, etc.
- Whole chickens or thighs instead of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Less than half the price per pound.
- Make chicken stock from the bones.
- Make bread (in 5 minutes a day). Great fresh from the oven; toast the leftovers, or use for grilled cheese, garlic bread, crostini, French toast, or French bread pizzas.
- Make yogurt for basically the cost of milk. It’s so easy! I can’t find a site that doesn’t over-complicate it, so here’s the process:
- Heat a gallon of milk (anything but skim) to scald it (not quite boiling).
- Transfer to a large bowl (I use my crockpot stoneware) & cool to 110 degrees, or when you can stand to put both pinkie fingers in for 10 seconds.
- Stir in 1 Tablespoon of plain yogurt (the starter), from the store or your last batch.
- Cover & place in the oven with the light on, or in a cooler with hot water bottles for 8-16 hours, until set. Strain if you want it thicker (I don’t). Then refrigerate.
- Homemade granola bars—cheaper, and more filling and nutritious. (I use half the sugar in the linked recipe.)
- Buy one: one snack food, or juice, or whatever treat that isn’t necessary but is fun to have in moderation. When it’s gone, it’s gone, till next week.
- Stock up on marked down meat. I recently purchased 100 pounds of chicken for 33-50 cents per pound, and 20 pounds of pork chops for $1 per pound.
- Buy soda in 2-liters.
- Drink (homemade) iced tea instead of soda.
- Candy instead of fruit snacks. I’d rather give my kids 1 or 2 gummy bears than a whole, over-priced bag of fruit snacks. The piece of candy has less sugar than a pouch of “fruit snacks.”
- Peanuts are the cheapest nut.
- Cut kids’ juice with half water (or more). Or serve kids iced herbal tea with a little honey or just a splash of juice for a flavorful, healthier, and thriftier alterative to juice.
Chew on this principle: try to find the cheapest way you can live with to meet your nutritional needs. Think twice about all the marketing ploys to buy “super-foods” or specialty items when there are cheaper, healthier alternatives right under your nose.
What are you frugal food hacks? And what splurges are worth it to you?
Okay, Pretenders: open your refrigerator and—if you have the stomach for it—find all the expired, old, and rotting food it contains. I’m sure your parents pulled the starving Ethiopian card enough for a lifetime. But this might hit closer to home: perhaps you can’t buy something you want or give more generously because you’re wasting hundreds of dollars each month on things you throw away or don’t really need.
One of my favorite adages, which I quote frequently to the chagrin of my family, is Ben Franklin’s pithy “waste not, want not.” And it goes way beyond letting some leftovers go bad. Americans have strayed ironically far from this founding father’s wisdom. In the U.S. we are wasters by default; we think nothing of throwing away 251 million tons of trash annually. That’s 4.3 pounds of garbage per person per day, not including recycled or composted material.
This issue of waste is central to our financial problems. Just think about why so many personal finance bloggers and readers are engineers. My (engineer) husband says it’s because engineering is all about reducing waste by figuring out how to do more with less. And that’s very much what being thrifty is about, too. It’s like getting the best deal, all the time, on everything, so you can do what you want with your money (i.e. financial flexibility).
According to a recent TIME article “America’s Clutter Problem” by Josh Sanburn, “Americans have more possessions than any society in history.” For example, the U.S. is home to 3% of the world’s children, but buys 40% of the world’s toys. The equilibrium between population and possessions is similarly off when it comes to food, clothing, electronics, petrol, or just about any consumable you could imagine. We have more buying power than most, but also waste A LOT of everything.
We throw out TVs, not because they are broken, but because they aren’t big enough and flat enough. We throw away clothes not because they are completely worn but because they aren’t stylish enough—according to arbitrary standards we’ll laugh at in a few years. We throw away food not because it’s contaminated but because we forgot to eat it. I’m guilty, too, but it’s outlandish to waste like we do.
I’ve been reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my son and it’s astonishing how little the family wastes. They save the ashes from their stove all winter, and combine them with animal fat saved for months to make soap. They save rags to braid into rugs, or to trade for new dishes from the tin peddler. When a July frost threatens to kill the corn, every family member spends hours outside in the middle of the night, splashing water on 3 acres of corn plants to save them.
And sometimes I’m too lazy to sew a button back on a shirt.
I doubt any of us can go from producing 4.3 pounds of garbage per day to zero. But certainly we could waste less, and subsequently, want less. Wasting less means spending less by using what you already have. This in turns leaves you with more money to give, save, and invest as you seek financial flexibility. So what can you waste less of? Some of the top resources we waste are:
- Food. Make a menu, shop with a list, and keep perishable foods in a visible place. Put leftovers in clear containers. Pack them for lunch instead of going out to eat.
- Energy. Turning off the lights, setting back the thermostat, keeping the AC off, hanging clothes to dry…simple steps like these can save you hundreds each month on gas and electric bills.
- Gas (petrol). We don’t do anything extreme to limit our driving, but try to bike or carpool when we can to reduce fuel costs. Plus it’s more fun to bike or ride with a friend.
- Electronics. We simply don’t need to upgrade computers, TVs, or phones every year (or several years). The global impact of our wasted technology is huge and takes the biggest toll on the most impoverished.
- Money. Spending money on products or services you don’t need or get real happiness from is a waste. Maybe you waste on recreational shopping, an outrageous cell phone bill, a bad life insurance policy, frequent restaurant dining, or cable TV that you don’t have time to watch. Decide what is really worth your money and what spending has simply become a habit. Tackle one area at a time; a few minutes’ hassle could save a lot over time.
While any one act of wasting less may not save a ton of money, the habit of reducing waste, along with the attitude of being content with what you have goes a long way toward meeting financial goals. Wasting less turns the tide from always wanting more to actually building wealth.
What could you waste less on? What goal will you put your “waste less” savings toward?
People have been asking for a “practical” post so here is a topic with instant application–grocery shopping.
You can’t change your mortgage or car payments immediately, but if you don’t already shop at discount stores, you can cut your costs by 40-50% with almost no additional sacrifice. For a family of four these savings can easily equal $100 or more per week. That’s over $5000 a year!
Here are some of the huge advantages of shopping at discount stores:
- Almost everything is cheaper. As long as you are buying the same items you usually would, you will save 40-50% off regular grocery store prices. If you’re awesome at shopping sales & cutting coupons your savings may be somewhat less, but still substantial.
- The store is smaller. Bigger is better if you want 10 choices for everything, but when you have small children or are just short on time, smaller stores make shopping more expedient. Plus, you’re less likely to spend extra when there are fewer items to entice you.
- Shopping is simpler. You don’t need to follow weekly sales or cut coupons. It’s easier and less time-consuming before and during shopping. Also, you don’t have to memorize the prices. Some people have a knack for this and thus can spot deals, but if these details don’t stick with you, discount stores will save you precious memory space.
- Better guarantees. For example, ALDI has a “double money back guarantee” which allows the shopper to return an unwanted item for a refund AND replace it with a new product. Most big chain grocery stores don’t allow returns on perishables, even if you unwittingly bought something moldy, rotten, or expired.
- Increasing options. Some discount stores, including ALDI, now offer organic, all natural, lower calorie, and gluten free options, plus seasonal items. Many also carry inexpensive basic toiletries, paper products, and household items.
And did I mention everything is cheaper?
(I don’t work for ALDI, I just shop there.)
But I know what you’re thinking. So let’s handle some common objections to shopping discount stores:
The food is low quality or unsafe. I’ve been shopping at ALDI, Save-a-lot (less frequently), and a local discount chain for 12 years and never had something seriously wrong with the food, including meat. It’s almost always comparable, and sometimes preferable, to brand name products. In the few instances I tried a product and didn’t like it, or even just bought produce that wasn’t good, I took it back & got a refund AND a replacement (only at ALDI). I’ve found way more expired items at the Big Store—probably because it’s too big.
It doesn’t have everything I need. There are certain brand name items we really prefer or the discount store doesn’t carry. So we stop by the Big Store periodically to stock up (if possible). But is it really worth spending TWICE AS MUCH! just so you can get everything in one stop? I have a baby and a toddler, and some weeks we’ve just bought sale items at the big store because we couldn’t go two places. I get it. That’s fine. But EVERY WEEK for the rest of your life spending TWICE AS MUCH! That’s nuts.
There isn’t one close to me. If there is a discount store within reasonable driving distance, take larger, less frequent trips such as every 2-4 weeks. Stock up on staples, frozen goods, anything that will last 2-4 weeks, and stop for milk and produce at the big expensive store in between.
I’ve heard Costco can be very economical if you do it right. We have great stores much closer so I’m not an expert on this, but look into it if you live near one. Walmart’s price-matching app is another way to get good grocery deals. Unfortunately this requires going to Walmart regularly.
The savings come from exploitation. There’s no way I can speak for every store or employee, but my research has led me to believe that rather than mistreating or underpaying employees, discount stores save money through a more efficient model. For example, ALDI maintains smaller stores, stocks with pallets, hires fewer employees, advertises less, doesn’t bag groceries, and “rents” carts. The Big Store is a big game—changing weekly sales, doubling certain coupons, and offering “free” fuel perks, babysitting, and food samples. There is no such thing as a free lunch and that’s why your lunch costs twice as much there.
For all the Trader Joe’s fans out there: did you know ALDI owns Trader Joe’s? I just wish we had one closer.
My spouse (or kids, or whomever) is skeptical. Just try it for one week! Or even one meal. If everything sucks, return or donate it, and go back to the Big Store. But I doubt you will.
So are you ready to take the discount store challenge? Here’s what you need to shop at ALDI:
- A quarter. Put it in the cart. Go shopping. Get it back out of the cart. See, it’s not so bad.
- Bring some bags. Better for the environment. If you forget, they sell ‘em cheap at the store, or grab some free boxes (leftover from stocking) and consider your daily workout done.
- Shop your usual list. Then compare receipts and start deciding what you’ll do with $5,000 more a year.
If you already shop at discount stores, good for you! I’ll offer more detailed grocery savings tips in the future. Stay tuned for pantry & shopping lists, meal planning ideas, and other principles.
I’d love to hear how the discount store challenge goes for you. Or from previous converts, what convinced you to change grocery stores?