Best Frugality Tips?

Sharon December 1st, 2011

I’m going to be buried under my book for the next few days as the Adapting-In-Place book finally goes to my editor, but I did want to respond to this email, or rather, get my readers to respond. Gwen writes:

I just lost my job, and after a lot of late nights and panicked budget making, we think we can get along on just my husband’s income, but it will be very tough and there will be no money at all for extras of any kind. We’ve always used our discretionary income to support things we care about – in the last few years this was local farmers and craftspeople, and making ethical choices when we shopped. Now I feel like I don’t have the luxury anymore – I know a lot of things that I can do to save money will be environmentally sound as well – turning down the heat, cutting back on the lights, buying more used items, but I hate to go back to choosing the supermarket for food and Toys R’Us for gifts because they are cheaper, but they often are. Do you have any suggestions for frugal sustainable shopping?”

This is a great and timely question, and I do have answers, but unfortunately, I’m head down in the last bit of my book and don’t have time to respond right now. Thus, I pass it on to you, my readers. How do you balance the need to save money with making good and ethical consumer choices that support things that are important to you? What do you suggest to Gwen?

Thanks everyone!

48 Responses to “Best Frugality Tips?”

  1. Nicole says:

    Since Gwen is primarily concerned about food, I’ll restrict my comments to those ideas.

    1) Buy local, but buy in bulk and in season. I can get a peck of local apples for $6 here if I’ll take the smaller ones — they taste the same. I buy squash, especially pumpkins, *after* Halloween.

    2) If you have been supporting your local farmers and they know you, let them know you are in a budget crunch and are looking for deals on bulks and seconds. Marketable produce often has to be blemish free, but farmers may be happy to take half price for produce they can’t normally sell.

    3) Get away from the farmer’s market. Prices are higher there simply because the market will near it. Farm stands (the ones away from touristy areas) are almost always cheaper.

    4) Gifts: Freecycle, handmade or barter. Anyone who thinks you should continue buying expensive gifts on half your income probably doesn’t deserve one.

    5) If you grow food, concentrate on the more expensive items that do well in your area, like strawberries or lettuce.

    6) Start your budgetting buying in bulk while you still have some reserve cash. It pays off in the long run, but when you are flat broke sometimes the investment is hard.

    7) Find partners for bigger bulk and co-op purchases to get a better rate without buying more than you need.

    8) Choose your battles and don’t feel bad if you can’t continue to do everything. The fact you have been doing so and are still paying attention to the issue puts you way ahead of most people!

  2. Well the good news is, you’ll have more time! And there is always a trade space between time and money. If you have been supporting green consumer options like bottled cleaning products, organic free trade convenience food options, etc., you can make the obvious switches to DIY versions of the same. Always cheaper, *more* sustainable, and same effectiveness. Food is the place to save the most – cooking from scratch, etc. Since you are asking Sharon for tips there is a hefty chance you already do this, but it’s worth emphasizing. If you garden or are thinking of taking up gardening to save money, reduce your upfront costs by talking to gardening friends about taking unneeded pots or left over seed to save money in garden start up costs. If a friend came to me and said, “I’m broke but I really want to give gardening an honest try,” I’d find quite a bit in the garage to get her started, and give it willingly. Also, go NOW to nurseries and see if there are vegetable seeds the stores are just chucking out from last season. The seeds will all still be good next year.

    As Nicole says, if you have relationships in place with farmers and craftspeople, use them! Many people who sell expensive and hand made items are themselves not rolling in money and would be thrilled to barter with you. And there’s always taking on new skills to make gifts – I’m making cute little rag dolls this year from old business shirts of my husband that are too worn in the cuff to continue to be professional. I have no inherent skill for sewing, but the dolls are simple and I’m enjoying learning a new skill. Comprable ones on etsy sell for $40-$60 and I’m making bunches for the cost of some thread and time. Get creative – you may have a lot more ability to do this stuff yourself than you might imagine! :)

    Way to get scrappy! :)

  3. Heather says:

    We have been tightening our budget substantially over the past couple of years. I am very much into local foods, local products, handmade everything. Unfortunately, it is sometimes a lot more expensive. Some things that I have done are to pretty much eliminate meat from our diet. We only would buy local organic, and since I can’t afford it now, we replace it with beans and lentils. I make all of our baked goods as well. Bread is a whole lot cheaper (and tastier) homemade, and it also helps to heat up your house if you are dialing back on the heat (which we are). We are members of a winter and summer CSA. The winter CSA is especially important for us as we don’t know/have the space to store the winter veg that we can in Maine. It is a large cost up front, but ends up only costing us $18/week for 20 weeks, which is way less than what I would spend at the farmers’ market for good quality vegetables.

    We also have gone down to one car, which may not be a possibility for you, but since I stay at home with my kids it makes sense for us. We sold one of our cars, increased the deductible on the other car insurance and also our home owners insurance.

    For entertainment we rent movies from the library, and occasionally rent from redbox for $1/night. I also stopped buying books (hard for me) and instead put together my large reading list and request all of the books through inter-library loan at our local library (which includes books from every library in the state of Maine).
    It isn’t easy to cut back, but we make it work. Spend more dinners by candlelight, cancel the cable, read together, play more board games, and eat a lot of soup and homemade bread :-) Hope this helps!

  4. Robyn M says:

    We’ve been making a go of things on one salary for several years, but for awhile we were jobless, and living solely off of our savings. The commenters above have some great suggestions, but here’s one I stumbled into that really helped us out: trade your skills & services to friends in exchange for luxury goods. This might sound weird, but it worked really well for us, for several reasons.

    So take, for example, wine. My husband and I really love wine, we love having a glass with dinner, and just generally having it around. When you’re jobless, though, that’s a luxury you can certainly do without. But it hurt–it was one of the few luxuries we indulge in, and it was missed; it was sort of a constant, finger-pointy reminder that we’re really poor, we can’t even afford our one luxury. And gods knows, the last thing in the world you want to be when going through the checkout line is a poor person buying alcohol.

    We also had friends who wanted to help us out, but it’s frankly weird in our culture to have friends giving you money, or hiring you on a money-making basis. BUT, doing work for others in barter exchange for luxuries like wine, yarn (I’m a knitting addict), etc., let them help us out without so much of the weirdness. So I did some housekeeping for a pregnant friend in exchange for a nice 4-bottle collection of wine; I did a little housekeeping for another friend in exchange for a yarn stash-raid.

    Obviously this won’t fix all of your budget concerns, but it was a nice way for us to get some luxury items that just make life a bit more pleasant and bearable, without so much guilt or budget strain. I suggest this to anyone who is having to belt-tighten, and I hope it’s useful to you.

  5. MooMama says:

    It takes time to find sources, but buying locally and in bulk has allowed us to save money and eat healthy non-certified organic foods.

    We buy bushels full of windfall apples for $5 and make applesauce. If I take the time to carefully cut them I can even use most of them for canned apples. We buy 1/2 a steer each year and this year’s cost came to $2.41 per pound. In addition to all the beef I received a lot of fat that I will render and use for soapmaking. My husband has a cooperative agreement with a farmer friend who raises fryers and turkeys. We get the turkeys for free (the labor is our contribution) and the chickens we pay a bit for and my husband provides labor to reduce our costs. The free range organic chickens run us about 83 cents per pound.

    Check out Local Harvest to find even more local sources http://www.localharvest.org/

    If you have more time on your hands maybe you can trade a bit of labor with your local farmers in order to reduce your prices.

    I’m not sure where you’re located. We’re in the Midwest where prices tend to be pretty low.

    In addition to buying foods from local farmers we also grow as much as we can ourselves. Since we bought our 1880s house in the city we’ve added raspberry canes, blueberry bushes, apple trees, rhubarb plants, and strawberry plants. I bought the raspberry canes at a garage sale; the lady was thinning hers out and sold bags full of canes for $10. They were strong established plants and I knew they’d do well in my climate already. I bought the blueberry bushes at the end of the season one year when they were on clearance. The apple trees were my requested Mother’s Day gift one year. Rhubarb plants were another garage sale find. We also give away a lot of our extra perennials via Freecycle. Check Freecycle to see if gardeners in your area are clearing out perennials.

    We have several raised beds in which we grow vegetables. We start most of the plants ourselves from seed to save money. We built rainbarrels to collect water and not have to pay the high price of using city water to water our plants. We make our own compost so we don’t have to pay for fertilizers and yet can continually ammend the soil.

    I barter with my neighbor and he brings me fruit he’s gleaned from trees around town (with permission, of course). I can it or dehydrate it and give a share back to him. Likewise, he fishes a lot and brings us fish. In return, we share our turkeys with him.

    We take care not to waste food and stretch it as much as we can.

    I make nearly all of our food from scratch and choose simple ingredients that are low cost and in season. I feed my family of 5 (3 adults and 2 children) on less than $450/month.

    We’ve simplified gift giving and I make about 1/2 of the toys we give our girls. For Christmas we give four gifts – something we want, something we need, something to wear, and something to read. We found that limiting the number of gifts really made Christmas much more enjoyable for us. The items I don’t make myself I buy from other artisans. Used books are just as appreciated as new ones would be.

    The biggest change I’ve made in my life is switching from being primarily a consumer to being a producer. The bartering arrangements have me taking an active part in producing something. A lot of the time I’m not just exchanging money for goods.

  6. risa says:

    What Nicole said.

    We have a food club and get 30% off by spending $150 a month — which with over half a dozen households, a scale, and spare grocery sacks, we can manage.

    Rice and beans, rice and beans, rice and beans. If you can’t spring for the 25 pound bags, get the five pound bags or head for the bulk bins. The 49 cent a pound beans will feed you about as well as the 99 cent a pound beans. There’s usually one grocery store in one poor neighborhood that calls itself an “outlet” and sells you things at or past the due date of the other stores. It’s not shameful to patronize them, and getting to know the other customers can give you insights.

    Where we are there are apples still hanging on the trees in empty lots and the dandelions grow right through the winter. Even a wormy apple has good bits most times, and if you still have picky eaters (they get over this at some point) you can hide a lot of apple and dandelion and such in homemade breads, soups, souffles.

    I had a bumper crop of zumpkins this year — star-crossed zucchini and pumpkin lovers, which I think are as good as butternut, but which don’t have as much shelf life. So I use them up. They’re huge, no point in baking them with our empty nest, but I machete them up up and put them with a baking size potato in a 10 quart stock pot on the wood stove. The next day:

    1) scoop off the seeds and set aside to dry/fry on the wood stove in an oiled iron skillet. This is for snacks.

    2) select the better part of the softened squash to slice off the peeling (it’s easy now) and toss into the blender.

    3) cut up the spud and do the same.

    4) add enough water or stock (make stock every chance you get) and a little olive oil to blend easily (but not too watery), with a little salt and spices. Throw in some dandelions, onion greens, side leaves from broccolli or whatever else you might have been throwing out. Maybe even a feral apple. Try to keep the soup from turning too green as your efforts may be rejected (before real hunger changes anyone’s tastes).

    5) blend. You may serve this cold or hot, and the leftovers disappear into your bread easily. The consistency should be a shade thicker than clam chowder. Stale bread can substitute for crackers. I like a little butter in mine, not being vegan.

    6) The rest of what’s in the pot goes out to the ducks and chickens, with or without the rest of the seeds. Or give it all the above treatment and put in freezer containers.

    This kind of thinking combines Laurel’s Kitchen with Carla Emery. We grow potatoes and Zumpkins all over the yard, using the leaf-pile method, so there are always makings.

  7. Raye says:

    Some years ago we made an agreement with our families that rather than buy things for each other, we would emphasize spending time together for special occasions, and make donations to non-profits we all supported as gifts.

    You might consider asking that in lieu of gifts, people make donations to the charities you want to help.

    If there is something you can do or make for others, you might offer it more often as a gift. People have begun to respond to my efforts to establish the beginnings of a gift economy. A number of things have come my way, free, from people who see the point. When money isn’t part of the equation, it’s more fun anyway.

    I hang the laundry out to dry most of the time now. That’s cut our electric bill.

    Use simple inexpensive cleaning materials if you don’t already. Some things that can be used are vinegar, baking soda, salt, charcoal (not briquettes – the coals from burning clean hardwoods – people with woodstoves have this), and watered down soap.

    I brush my teeth with any of these items, sometimes mixed together: baking soda, activated charcoal powder, ground horsetail herb. It’s pennies a day to use these things instead of commercial toothpaste.

    Using rags has cut down on how much we spend on paper towels. It’s a little thing, but drops help fill a bucket.

    I also use “personal rags” made of cloth. That cuts an expense, too.

    I grow medicinal plants and use them instead of some over the counter medicines. Olive oil is a good thing to have around!

    I go to “pick your own” spots in the summer for fun and a little less expense. I can or dehydrate what I pick (which is multiple pounds at a time) and save a bundle on the dehydrated fruit and preserves.

    Dehydrators can be found at yard sales, I am told, for very little money. Or ask someone who usually gives you a holiday gift if they can get you one of those, or a gift certificate you could use toward that.

    Some local farmers let me help out, and usually give me produce that they couldn’t sell at market. Maybe it’s small, or very ripe and won’t last until the following week.

    There is a food establishment that puts veggie trimmings out back. Locals with animals like goats or chickens can help themselves.

    In the winter, when leafy greens get expensive because they are shipped in from a distance, I switch over to sprouts that I make at home. It’s a few dollars to get the seeds, but much less expensive than what you pay in the store for organic sprouts.

    I agree that buying bulk helps, and finding others who can share the expense is a break. There’s a local group that organizes a bulk purchase this time of year. Perhaps there’s one near you.

  8. risa says:

    Laura Ingalls Wilder once wrote in her newspaper column that she was proud (in a way she was bashful to admit to her readers) of being able to light all four of her burners from one match, and that if she had a burner going, and needed to light another, she would grab a used match from a little dish and re-use it. She felt these little things, even that small, would add up to good household management. It’s a mind-set that our society has worked hard to train us away from; now would be a good time to re-acquire it.

  9. Mandy says:

    I’m loving these tips you’re all sharing. I always learn so much from Sharon, and then again in the shared comments. Win-win.

    My son (19yo) remarked to me when he was home for Thanksgiving break, that we had participated in Black Friday when we had picked up two sweaters and a shirt for him (total $13 – two at 1/2 price), implying that we had failed in our counter-consumer efforts. I hastened to add that we had gone beyond our c-c efforts, buying said items second-hand at our local thrift store whose proceeds fund our community library. :)

    Our library will be doing a massive book/media sale starting tomorrow. It’s so big they’ve moved the venue to the local timber-yard :) I’m hoping to score big for our library and possibly some nice gifts in the process – for reading or re-purposing. Again – proceeds to the library.

    One of my tips (in common with others previously posting) – ‘don’t overlook the local’.

    We also participate in a bulk food buying co-op, (www.azurestandard.com) which also assists us in delivering the big bulk purchases 99% of the distance to our drop point; and as we are fortunate enough in our choice of housing location that we can now be car-free (and save $0,000s a year), we can pick up the goods in a hand-wagon in a series of trips to the drop point a few blocks away (amidst admiring glances and comments regarding our wagon).

    We can be somewhat mono-thematic when it comes to breakfast – oatmeal, rice milk, and fruit; toast or leftovers, but it’s economical, does the job for us, and rotates the supplies.

    Cooking-wise, we are mostly from scratch, cooking enough extra for lunches or DIY the next day; however my only obvious fuel conservation tip is to bring my water back up to boil after adding the pasta to the pot, then replacing the lid and turning off the heat. The ambient heat does the job, and catching the pasta at al dente point (lower glycemic stage) works just fine.

    And of course, where possible, grow your own food.

    There are more, but those came to mind first today.

  10. Breanna says:

    Also–don’t worry if some of these things sound frightening and extreme. You don’t have to do all of it–zumpkins, Mama Cloth, line-drying, charcoal toothpaste, hunting a bear for dinner (‘kay, I made that last one up)–all at once. You’ll save more money than you think by not having to do job things anymore–i.e., commute, maintain a professional wardrobe including makeup, buy lunches, buy more convenience things for other meals because you’re not home, buying wrapping paper, Scout pop corn, and other widgets from everyone in the office’s kids, etc.

    Concentrate on cooking most meals, staying on top of your housework, and enjoying each other. How much do you have left in the freezer? How much in the pantry? Sit down with a paper and pencil and come up with some meals from what you have; when I get to this point I generally have about a week, if I get creative. Obviously I don’t know your situation–you may not have anything in the freezer or pantry, in which case I echo the beans and rice and rice and beans comment above, with one notation: if you buy spices in the Hispanic section of the store (or a Hispanic grocery store), they are much less expensive, and they sure do make all those beans more palatable.

    But, I mean, enjoy each other. Light the stubby leftover Thanksgiving-orange candle and at least let it make dinner a bit festive. Kids really want *you*; the presents are just icing. So whatever you find for them, as long as you get down and play with the toys *with* them, it will be a shining Christmas. (My favorite memories are not of toys that my parents and grandparents got me–I can scarcely remember ANY of those, actually–but of things like when my grandma taught me to make a pie when I was 8, or when my mother gamely agreed to help us build an igloo in the sideyard.)

  11. Jo says:

    I am on about half the average income so it can be tough. To save electricity I only turn my hot water heater on about 3 hours a day and use a floor lamp in my lounge room rather than the “chandelier style” light, I save all my change in a jar (rather than it getting lost) take it out of wallet every day when I have spent something, surprising how much you can sometimes have withing a month.

  12. NM says:

    If you have kids in the house, and now, some time available, you can do a lot together to create a holiday feeling without a lot of money. If you have a newspaper printing plant around they sell roll ends, left from printing the newspaper, for pennies, and there’s usually a ton of paper left on them. Add some cheap watercolor paint, and collect leaves, bits of fir or pine branches, etc., to have the kids block print Christmas wrapping paper. Or use brown paper grocery bags, cut open. See if friends will save their grocery bags for you. Selvage ends from sewing, scrap bits of ribbon, etc., make pretty package ribbons. Worn out clothes, sheets, etc. can be cut up for the fabric, to make pretty little diaries, scrap books, cookbooks, photo albums, whatever. You can draw or paint little pictures in the corners of the pages. Lack of talent doesn’t matter (I don’t have any); just tiny, simple little designs; they will be charming.
    Tin cans can be punched (carefully) with nails in patterns, to make lanterns; I think there are library books about how. Or instructions somewhere on the Internet. You can spend time together baking cookies or bread or the pastries you remember your Grandmother making … all that stuff. Gather up your fabric scraps, or collect them (friends, Freecycle), and sew them up in patchwork pieces, then use those to make shopping bags, tote bags or other items as handmade gifts; unique, and unexpectedly pretty. I am not a great seamstress, which is why I love patchwork; my crooked seams and non-straight cutting don’t matter. I even made patchwork Christmas stockings, and they’re beautiful (If I do say so myself…). Tell the kids you’re having a Little House on the Prairie Christmas, and maybe even read the books aloud in the evenings; there are some wonderful Christmases described, and depending on their ages and personalities, they might really get into the spirit of making do. Of course, all that assumes it’s Christmas you’re celebrating, but if it isn’t, presumably there’s some type of equivalent in your own traditions.
    I wash my hair with 2 tablespoons of baking soda, made into a thin paste with water, and follow with a rinse of a teaspoon of vinegar in a couple cups warm water — much cheaper than shampoo. Baking soda also makes a fine cleaner, as someone else mentioned. Dish cloths last much longer than sponges, and are really more pleasant to use.
    Things I try to make instead of buy (some of the time, at least, depending on the time available) … bread, yogurt, cookies, cheesy crackers, dog biscuits. Also, of course, tons of canning … tomato sauce, pickles, soup, salsa, jam, juice, etc.
    Best of luck!

  13. Tum-bumwa says:

    Instead of buying or making material objects to give as Christmas gifts this year, how about handing out “service contract” vouchers to family, friends and/or neighbors?

    The service(s) you’re offering can be hand-drawn or computer-printed on plain paper or business card stock; for example, “5 babysitting sessions” (or lawn mows or snow shovelings or guitar lessons or house cleanings or storytelling sessions or computer cleanups or garden weedings or math tutorials or weekly errands etc.)

    Gifts such as these cost nothing and I’ve found that the recipients actually appreciate them more than merchandise bought from a store. This is especially true of elderly people.

    And if you’d like to RECEIVE service contract gifts such as the above, just say so. Many folks will be happy to help you and save money at the same time. Ask and you shall receive!

  14. Breanna says:

    Re: tin-can lanterns: you fill the can with water, freeze, and then carefully punch the nail through into the ice. Then thaw, dump out the water, put sand or dirt or kitty litter and a candle in the bottom. A nice luminaria that won’t catch fire. :)

  15. Teresa says:

    I love all the suggestions above. I will add this. Be honest with the produce manager at the super market. Ask for markdowns, and ask him/her when they do markdowns. I like to feed my children organic, but it’s pricey and we have an impossibly tight budget too, so I have made friends with all the department people and they tell me the best time to come by so I don’t waste gas. I’ve had the dairy guy be so kind as to mark down the organic milk while I was standing there. These are working folks who understand what it’s like to be stretched.

    If you eat meat, as the butcher for bones to make soup. They often are either free or cheap and usually have a lot of meat on them. Soup can be stretched a long way.

    Gather up your soap shards when they get small and keep them in an airtight container. When you have a good handful, take a washcloth and fold it in half with the soap pieces inside and do a simple but cute running stitch all around the 3 open edges with a contrasting thread. Kids LOVE these and will scrub and scrub and you don’t waste soap.

    Coupon shop. Yes, you can even get great deals on organic with coupons if you seek them out! I found $1 off Imagine Organic soups at my grocery a couple of weeks ago and paired them with a sale to get the soups for less than $1. That and a nice crusty roll will keep you from eating out when you are pressed for time so it’s worth it!

    Find a buddy who coupons and offer to trade out some items. Go to http://www.couponmom.com and find the sales in your area and match them with coupons. It’s fast and easy.

    Cook in bulk and freeze for future use. Again, you’ll have a go to and won’t be tempted to eat out as much.

    Don’t spend much on gifts. There are some great sights out there that have wonderful ideas for inexpensive things. Try pinterest.com.

    Good luck!

  16. Teresa says:

    Oh and if you like to read and you have a Kindle, and if you don’t you can still download Kindle reader for Mac or PC and read that way, check out http://www.pixleofink.com. They send a daily email list of FREE Kindle and Nook books! I almost never buy books anymore!

  17. c. says:

    I find it fascinating that most people’s suggestions for saving money and being frugal are related to personal body care and overwhelmingly to food. I’ll try to supplement.

    I’m in Mpls. and we have a new thing here called food HUBS. For a small amount of money 10$ last year, you could get a whole bunch of starts and seeds for a garden along with some basic education on gardening. They’re expanding the programs this next year (mostly volunteer run) and it would be a good method of getting yourself started with gardening if you don’t already grow some of your own food. I would look for something similar in your area. If you’re really broke learn haybox cooking – excellent for beans and if you get concerned with safety only do it overnight and then heat them up the next morning. Can do stuff as small as an insulated thermos for a single serving or two of oatmeal.

    Also try coffeandpower.com as a method of picking up some side work if you have the skills.

    The one thing, and this can apply to renters as well as homeowners is that being where I’m at one of my largest budget outlays I have control over is my heating bill. This MAY not apply to you in your location. Our thermostat goes down to 58 at night and up to 68 during the morning/evening bathing/cooking times in the house. Daytime is set to 65 because we have a home office. Also insulating, if it takes hanging some cheap blankets or blankets cut to size over your windows DO IT. Mine are sewn into actual curtains I put down every evening to keep in the heat and raised during the day for sunshine for the plants and me. Also get some caulk and a caulk gun. They’re not hard to use, the guy at the store can explain it. Caulk drafts around your baseboards, around your door and window frames etc. etc.

    Most utilities will offer discounted home energy audits and they are WELL worth the investment. Often they will bring you free items such as CFL bulbs and weatherstripping along with specific information for your home. In our area it’s 30 dollars to use this service.

    If you’re looking at a huge cut in income shop around on your fixed expenses. Car insurance on one car is STILL a large fixed sum. We’re in the process of moving our homeowner’s insurance (inspection required) but are looking to cut our costs 1900 per year!! That’s for the same level of coverage. I almost fell over when the guy quoted me that. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t had my car insurance with that same company since I was 16. Ask for discounts (a metal roof will get you out of hail damage insurance, certain alarm systems will also reduce costs. Do the math)

    When you negotiate with someone for a service or costly item be polite but be direct. If you cannot afford that tell them you cannot afford that and ask what the other options are.

  18. Emily says:

    You may well have more time on your hands (or not, depending on your approach to job searching), but a 50% increase in time won’t yield a 50% increase in energy – worry is going to burn a fair bit of that. Your energy and sanity are worth a lot, too. So while I agree that yes, every little bit helps, I also think it makes a lot of sense to strategize and spend more of your energy on low-hanging fruit instead of tons of activities with low returns.

    How ’bout engineering a weekly “family fun night” that’s also super-frugal? Is there a favorite dish you can make that is nutritious and doesn’t break the bank – spaghetti and veg, pizza and salad, mac-and-cheese w/carrot sticks, maybe? Maybe “Wednesday is spaghetti night” at your house. And after dinner, do a cheap, fun family activity: watch a movie or favorite TV show or play a board game, maybe.

    If you can think of something that’s fun + affordable + nutritious (popcorn and apples for a snack?), not only does the family have something fun and “together” to look forward to, you get one night every week that you don’t have to think about…but can feel really, really good about.

  19. kathy says:

    This Saturday is our annual Potlatch. It’s an exchange of gift quality items. We are on our 5th year and it’s a huge success with no money changing hands and lots of free gifts. It’s not too late to put one together if you can find a space. We do ours at a church. My kids get mostly used gifts and never complain. The best present is the jugsaw puzzle because we all work on it together. I just picked up several at Salvation Army. I use reusable bags ( or pillowcases)for all gifts and make the tags from last year’s cards. When we announced that we were cutting back and not giving gifts outside the immediate family everyone was so relieved. Nobody had the time or money but nobody wanted to admit it. Making a menu really helps. I waste a lot more if I don’t have a plan. I find that if I make a nice dessert it livens up a pedestrian meal. Fruit crisps are healthy and inexpensive and make up for a lof beans. Pudding is really cheap and so is rice custard. If you voluteer at events you will generally get free tickets. I echo telling people that times are tough. You never know where help will come from.

  20. risa says:

    Google Books, too, and for from-scratch housewifery, as well.

    The remark above I like best was that about going from consumer to producer — yes! That’s it in a nutshell. You’re not saving on expenses, you’re working for your living, just like your husband is. Your wages are your family’s subsistence and well-being, and much of that work is tax free.

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  22. Pat says:

    If your family will eat soup, stew, stir fry and/or casserole, these are great ways to stretch food and use up leftovers. Make it your goal not to waste anything: even leftovers on plates can be re-used. Just cook them and they will be germ-free. It might sound icky but going hungry is worse, and it really isn’t any worse than regular food since it’s been cooked.

    Many plants people consider “weeds” like dandelions, curly dock, purslane, thistle, and chickweed are edible and free. I took leftover meat from dinner the night before, fried it with some dandelion greens, added gravy leftover from Thanksgiving and the meat juices in the pan scraped out with a bit of water and made a good sauce to go over noodles last night. The kids (two teenage boys) loved it. Look up “foraging”, “eat the weeds” or “wildcrafting” for a lot of information on good free edible plants.

    Fat in the pan from cooking meat, frying eggs, or making bacon can be reused to fry something else. It takes several days for oil to go rancid, and if you reuse it by that time it’s gone anyway.

    I have a wheat sensitivity and am trying to lose weight so I don’t eat much grains. Potatoes, rice, beans and onions are pretty cheap and can be used in just about every meal.

    People don’t need desserts … if you’re feeling particularly deprived there are always after Halloween, after Christmas, after Easter sales where you can get candies at 75% off … but we’re not big candy eaters, we still have a huge bowlful left over from Halloween.

    If you dress warmly inside, you don’t need the heat on much over 55 (which they recommend to keep pipes from freezing). If you don’t have enough blankets you can get those for hardly anything at thrift shops or from Freecycle. Also check the “free” sections of Craigslist for stuff, you can often find amazing things that way. That is how I got a huge pane of glass for my cold frame a few years ago.

    If you don’t know how to garden, Google is your friend. There is SO much information out there, and even in the dead of winter you can grow lettuce greens in a container in a sunny windowsill. I don’t bother using fancy pots, those throwaway plastic and paper containers work great to grow plants in.

    If you have other friends in similar circumstances (or even if yours aren’t) you can do a stuff swap, where people bring stuff they don’t want and take stuff they do want. Usually you do it that you can take as many items as they bring, so if you bring two you take two, etc. Anything no one wants you can give to charity.

  23. Nicole says:

    I love all the tips, especially the service gifts. I think this one will work for kids, too. There are always activities or games kids love but adults are reluctant to do. I always wanted to play “Candyland” as a kid but no one would ever play with me because it bored them to tears. A punch card for 10 Candyland games would have been a real treat for me!

  24. Brenda W. says:

    Learn to do “it’ yourself. Meaning, pretty much everything! Cooking, baking, cleaning products, personal care products, entertainment – it can actually be fun if you try to make it fun. I’ve had some spectacular failures, but I found that I can make most things we need myself at a cheaper price. It may take time, but you have time. Enjoy that!!

    There is so much information on the internet that you can learn to do just about anything.

    Good luck!

  25. Breanna says:

    Oh, and a thermos and a steady stream of hot drinks helps a lot when you’re keeping your house cool. And body heat from a significant other, of course–there’s no argument so bad that you won’t make up in order to have someone to stick your cold feet against. :)

  26. EngineerChic says:

    As a “more than full time” employed person, I can tell you some things that I would gladly pay money for right now – and all of them have to do with time.

    We’ve needed to go on a Costco run for 3 weeks now (we’re out of coffee & have been limping along with smaller amounts of higher priced grocery store stuff). If I could give you my Costco list with money for it + $20 I would do it in a heartbeat. Costco is maybe 15 miles from me, but might as well be on the moon right now.

    Ditto for the drycleaner – I have a small stack of things that need to go. It’s 3 miles from home but my hours have been crazy and I can’t get the time/organization together to have the stuff with me on a morning that I leave home late enough that they’re open.

    About 45 min away is a local farm that sells beefalo. I want some. Finding 2 hours to make that drive is about impossible. But I hate buying supermarket beef – it tastes like watered down cow compared to this stuff. Again, if I placed an order online & you could pick it up it would be worth a good $30+ for me.

    I guess my point is that with all the corporate down-sizing we have a gulf between the haves & have-nots. On one side of the gulf we have people with extra time but no extra cash. On the other side we have people with extra cash but no extra time. I’m more than happy to reach across the gulf to trade you some of my cash for your time.

    BUT (and this is a biggie) I’d worry I was insulting you if I said, “Hey, since you’re not working can I pay you $20 to run to Costco for me?” On the other hand if you mentioned, “Since I’m not working right now, I’ve been thinking about starting a business to run errands for people when they’re at work. Do you think that’s nuts?” then I would jump up and say, “OMG, can I be your first client??”

    If you can’t tell, I’ve thought about this a lot. I know a couple people who are unemployed right now and if I could find some tactful way to say, “Look, it’s not a lot of money but I’m swamped at work … any chance you’re going near Costco in the next week? It’s worth $20 to me if you could pick up a few things …”

  27. Matriarchy says:

    I know you asked about food shopping specifically, but most of us can’t hep but offer all sorts of advice. LOL

    You don’t have to go back to the grocery store if you find money elsewhere to keep shopping your local foodshed. If you do have to use grocery stores, pick and choose what you buy. Track your grocery spending closely, and make a list of your staples. Identify the lowest cost source for each, and buy in bulk, on sale and seasonally. Know with certainty that you should never pay more than $3/lb for cheese, so that you can afford local produce. Develop a deep pantry that means you never have to pay full price because you ran out and it’s an “emergency.”

    Choose which local sustainably-produced items are the most important to you, and most cost effective. I found 20-lb bags of local potatoes and 10-lb bags of onions that were cheaper than store brands. I use them fast enough that they don’t spoil, and I know they are not sprayed with stuff for shipping and warehouse storage – they still have dirt on them. I can’t afford local pastured meat, but I can afford pastured eggs. I found local raw milk I can afford, and I can make yogurt. I grow herbs and found a source for organic chicken backs to make the best soup stock I can produce.

    Can you free up other bits of money to keep buying better local food? You mentioned you had done some budgeting. Do you have a detailed idea where your money goes? Not just the big monthly bills like mortgage and utilities – every penny. Try keeping a money diary, for a month. See where you have money “leaks” you might not have noticed. For instance, do the kids need feeding when you take them with you to do errands? Either take a snack from home, or don’t take the kids. Do you have a friend that takes you to restaurants you can’t really afford? Start having them to your house for lunch. Can you reduce your dry cleaning bills with careful clothing maintenance?

    Calculate the cost per mile to use your car. Start thinking of errands in terms of their cost. Do you get 20 mph, and did you put 20 miles on your odometer? That cost $3.30 (my local cost per gallon). Can you reduce your trips by stringing errands together, or eliminating some of them? I can walk to do many of my local errands.

    Network. You’d be surprised how many of your friends are also scrimping. Form a group and tell each other what you need. Someone else might have a pair of dress shoes for your son to wear once for an occasion. You might have something someone else needs. Trade yardwork for gutter cleaning, babysitting for the use of a chainsaw, baking for haircuts. Share tools, seldom-used kitchen equipment Have canning parties. Carpool to common destinations. Have potluck suppers. I have friend who comes to my house for oatmeal breakfast and the use of my computer/printer once a week – she has lent me her car and helps me with two-person household chores.

    And above all… forgive yourself. If you have to buy cheap mass-produced chicken parts, you do. Keeping your family fed, clothed, and housing is the only measure of success. Don’t be your own harshest critic.

  28. c. says:

    ugh. Or some of us are just too tired to read straight but still tryin’ to help (blush)

  29. Brad K. says:

    As time permits, attend estate sales, flea markets, etc. Just follow a simple, basic rule. Buy only things that you, personally, will use in the next month. And never pay more than $1. Don’t worry about something you might be able to sell for more money, don’t fall for “it is worth hundreds!” — the only value going is “do I have $X of need? Hang around, and when the garden tools are picked over for $25, $5, and $2, there might be a hoe left, or a rake. You can go broke buying bargains. Instead, only buy to fill immediate needs. Crafts that you haven’t already started — sewing, needlework, gardens, chickens, exercise machines, etc. — don’t count. Speculating, buying something you may want in the future, is something affluent people do.

    Do pick up a small container of turpentine and linseed oil. Combine 3 parts linseed oil and 1 part turpentine, to apply to wood garden handles as a preservative. If they are rough, a few minutes with sand paper can do wonders. Keep tools cleaned of dirt, you can linseed oil the metal parts, too, to slow rust after the season is over. Linseed oil is simple to use — brush on or wipe on with a rag, wait a few minutes, and wipe off anything left with another rag. *Note* — be *careful* about disposing of cloth with linseed oil on it; it can get warm and spontaneously catch fire as it dries. I use a metal trash can and keep the rags flat (not crumpled together). (I also saw this happen to a sleeping bag, after a couple had used it for massages using olive oil.) A little goes a long ways, and on prepared wood it can make a lovely finish, ready to wax with little more drying.

    As for gifts — Toy ‘R’ Us is great. Unless you face the fact that toys that aren’t hand made are seldom worth their cost. But what really gets kids a better start in life is time with parents, talking and working. Sometime take a pound of beans and a pad of paper. Figure out how to spend a few minutes — I bet it doesn’t take long. Draw a circle that will hold three beans, then see if you can get three beans inside, repeat for four beans, and five; stack beans, arrange in shapes, make pictures. I won’t even mention rubber bands and leather thongs for slings, flicking beans with a snapped finger for distance, control, and accuracy. And you can put them back, if you wash your hands first and keep them on the table. Have you tried tracing around a single bean? Stringing beans on a cord? Fisher Price and Hasbro make great products. But the real value of a Barbie doll is the clothes that you or a child make for the doll. And hand-made dolls and toys can be sewn or carved from wood. Wood puzzles and puppets have been around for a long time, and can entertain as they did before.

    In addition to turning down the furnace, you might consider turning off the water heater several days each week. No one will be injured by washing up with cold water; when you work up a sweat, a cold shower is livable even in winter. It is astonishing the amount of energy we spend keeping all that water hot in case we need it. Experiment to find out if your washer and detergent need hot water, or will work fine without.

    Luck!

  30. Lisa Bashert says:

    I love all the tips above (and I do almost all of them). We figure we live WAY above our actual income and live much greener because we follow the above practices and have just one car.

    A few things others have touched on that I want to re-emphasize — take advantage of the commons! Use your library. Use the bus system. Ride your bike. Walk and put the kids in the wagon. When mine were small, I took them everywhere in the wagon in summer, on the sled in winter. It was fun for them and transportation for me.

    I also advocate cooking, growing & preserving your own. If you have a grocery coop nearby, join it. Members get a 30-35% discount on bulk purchases at my coop. For many years, I couldn’t afford to join, so instead I volunteered doing things I enjoyed: I led a book group on food topics, I led a quilt group that made an annual fundraiser raffle quilt, I gave workshops, etc. If you have an idea and offer it, many coops will be thrilled! “Working” for your discount doesn’t have to be stocking shelves or cleaning the floor. You could work on the website, become the herb buyer, take care of the landscaping…

    Another person above mentioned this, but I do a fair amount of foraging in the immediate area: I pick blackberries in the woods, wild mushrooms, use dooryard herbs for salves, tinctures, & teas, also am always foraging when we camp. Sweet fern tea is yummy, wild blueberries, elderberries & cranberries, teaberry leaves, etc. There are many rental properties that have harvestable fruit on them if you keep an eye out — crabapples and mulberries are especially prolific. In my neighborhood, we’ve been putting together a Google Map of nut & fruit trees on public land, park land & rental properties. In addition to this, I am working to increase the edible landscaping in my vicinity by buying bulk food plants from the county conservation district (hazelnuts, elderberries, spice bush, fruit trees) and planting them everywhere — along bike paths & near the river & in the parks & along the river.

    I also highly recommend getting involved with your neighborhood association (or starting one) — you can share tools and do a sort of mini-freecycle right within walking distance. Often people will give you stuff if they know you need it. I believe asking builds community and interdependence.

  31. Ing says:

    Bone broth. Bone broth. Bone broth. (good to use in place of water when cooking rice and beans, rice and beans and beans and rice : )

    There are so many good ideas here that I’ve read so far! I find that even if I’m buying some not-so-desirable-food from the supermarket, good bone broth will help keep our nutrition up. A good bird is a little more expensive, okay, sometimes a lot more expensive than a conventional bird, but I would rather buy some conventional vegetables (generally thick skinned) to compensate. A well raise chicken can serve as one roast dinner for our family of three with some leftover meat for soup or stirfry. The carcass with any innards that were included and juices from roasting go in the stock pot to simmer for 24-36 hours (we use our wood stove that is already working to heat our living space) with a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. The ACV and the long simmer help draw out all the goodness from the marrow. Chicken backs alone make a good stock. Chicken feet add more nutrition and are the last thing most people want to deal with so small producers should have them available.

  32. jj says:

    We’ve had to face something like this, as we’ve gone from two incomes to one…voluntarily, thank goodness, so we had time to prepare, but it still is taking some thinking and doing things differently.

    One thing we’ve found is that all of the ‘little luxuries’ add up darn fast. A couple of $5 lattes a week is $40 a month – that’s a fair bit of money. Likewise, we were paying a monthly fee for online games we rarely use anymore, another $30 a month that adds up over time. Even an extra trip into town costs $10 in gas, plus whatever we spend while we’re there – invariably, we end up having lunch at a restaurant… Take a close, critical look at what `luxuries`you can replace with cheaper versions (home-brewed coffee, anyone? Brown bagged lunch? Non-branded clothing?), or do away with altogether (do you really need cable? A second vehicle?) Some things might matter enough to keep, but that needs to be a reasoned decision, rather than just force of habit.

    As for food, that’s been pretty thoroughly covered, but one big money-saver for us has been stretching the meat. We try to use it for flavoring, rather than as the base of the meal – for instance, instead of each having a steak, we will cut one steak into thin strips and marinate it, then stir-fry it with seasonal (cheap) veggies and a nice sauce, and serve it over rice, which turns a $3 steak into dinner for 4-6, rather than just serving one person. Likewise, one pound of ground beef can make a vat of chili, or a large portion of spaghetti sauce, with the addition of lots of beans or lentils (canned lentils do a reasonable job of mimicking ground beef, and will stretch a meal very well). We eat vegetarian 30-50% of the time. Same with cheese – we buy the “old” style stuff, the strongly flavored cheese, then use less of it. We tend to make huge pots of favorite recipes (spaghetti, chili, soup), then freeze the leftovers in portion-sized containers for my lunches at work. That saves a bundle, too – I have not bought a lunch in years.

    We also grow a fair bit of our own food, and can and dehydrate, but for many years, I purchased from local producers. One year, when things were tight, I approached one market gardener about picking my own produce for a discount. She gave me 40% off for my labor, a huge discount for local organic veggies. Asking for seconds was also mentioned, and I have had good success with that, as well. Also, I have found that a lot of producers are happy to give at least a small discount for buying in bulk – we buy our whole year’s worth of corn at once, then blanch and freeze it, and we get a discount from the farmer for buying so much all at once, as long as we warn him a day in advance of how much we plan to buy.

    About cleaning, we basically just use vinegar for household cleaning, including the floors, tub, and toilet. Works a charm, especially in this house, we seem to be very prone to mineral buildup, and vinegar works particularly well for that.

    For entertainment, second-hand books (or the library) and a board game or two can go a long ways. A deck of cards can be endlessly entertaining, too, if you know a few games.

    Best of luck to you!

  33. AJ says:

    Thank you all for sharing your wisdom. I appreciate all the suggestions. I have one income and I’m a single parent to three. My biggest money saver besides finding healthy and low cost food is to make sure our veggies and fruits don’t go bad. This will save you so much money. If you want, you can make the veggies into a soup and freeze it, or can it.

    Our favorite soup which helps stretch the dollars:

    Lentil Kale Soup

    1 bunch of kale cleaned very well.
    1 lb of lentils
    4 large carrots
    1 24 oz can of diced tomatoes (or 1 cup of fresh tomatoes)
    1 tbsp of olive oil
    salt, pepper and chili pepper to taste (we use about 2 tblsp of chili pepper).
    vegetable broth

    Clean bunch of kale very well. Break into bite sized pieces. Meanwhile cook lentils in a vegetable broth till nearly done. Add 4 sliced carrots, 1 cup or 24 oz can of tomatoes and 1 tbsp of olive oil. When carrots and tomatoes are cooked, add the kale to the soup. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, allowing the soup to cook until all the ingredients are well cooked.

    We serve with jalapeno cheddar corn bread with the soup. It’s very satisfying and inexpensive.

    We really like making a large dish of roasted root vegetables too.
    The way this works:

    Choose your favorite root veggies and choose one of your least favorite root veggies (or whatever you have!). Slice or dice them and add a little olive oil to your pan. Move the veggies around in the pan until the olive oil has coated the veggies completely.

    Roast the veggies at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Delicious and cheap!

    Quiche is one of my other favorite and inexpensive dishes. Get comfortable making quiche. If you have laying hens, this dish can be made anytime you have 6 – 8 eggs saved. We add veggies. So onions, broccoli, and mushrooms are classic ones, but don’t be afraid to use left over veggies with your quiche. A bit of cheese, and salad greens and you have a yummy meal, at a low cost.

    I agree that you should make a list of your favorite meals and attempt to find inexpensive ingredients for those meals. Suffering at meal time will make it hard for everyone. If you have your favorite meal once per week, everyone will be able to endure the less favorite meals during the rest of the week.

    Also, don’t raise picky kids. Some kids are just picky, but try to expose them to new foods on a regular basis. It takes up to 15 offers of one food for most children to accept it. So keep trying, and keep a nice smile in your face. Eventually, your kids will be eating all the good foods that you make.

    Bake your own bread. This is not only very inexpensive, but very cheap. It is a skill that takes a few times to perfect, but well worth the first few loaves of bread turning out poorly, to learn this.

    If you think about the Little House on the Prairie, they lived on bread, salt pork and potatoes in the winter. They survived. If your time of a lessor income is going to be short, remember you too can survive. If it is long term, join the garden growing families. Can, dry and freeze foods in the summer and fall so you will have access to veggies in the winter. Also, from what I understand, drying is a far superior way of preserving foods.

    In terms of children:

    You probably are already doing these things, but it is worth it to mention. Disposable diapers are very bad for our environment, and much more expensive to use. Basic Indian prefolds, diaper pins and hand knit diaper soakers will be the greenest way to go for diapering.

    Make your own baby food with your blender, or a special baby food grinder. Twice cooked rice can be sent through the grinder and mixed with breast milk.

    Breastmilk is the ultimate food for baby humans. Formula is expensive, inconvenient (requires cleaning bottles and nipples). Breastmilk is the perfect food, which will change and adjust to your baby as your baby grows. You can use breastmilk for ear infections, nurse your baby when he or she is sick and it is magical in curing anything that ails your baby.

    Babies need no baby equipment except for a baby sling. Keep your little one close to you by wearing her in a sling, nursing her in a sling and getting your work done while she is in the sling.

    Clothing can be hand made, or hand me downs. There is no need for a baby to have an expensive wardrobe.

    Have a clothing, toy and book exchange in your local community (the local attachment parenting group is ideal for this). You can do this every season change, and always have “new” clothes, toys and books for your little one.

    Overall, if you can do without it, you don’t need it. No matter if it is for children or adults, try to reduce what you own. You will not want as much, you will feel happier because you don’t have to clean everything all the time, and your storage and closet’s can be filled with food and water.

    Good luck! I’d love to hear how you guys are doing in say 3 months. I am thrilled to know there is such a large group of people who seem to be living in volunteer simplicity.

    AJ

  34. d.a. says:

    I am ever grateful for learning how to cut up a whole chicken. Buying whole chickens are much less expensive than pieced ones, and I can often afford pastured/humanely-raised chickens this way. There are tons of YouTube videos on how to do so:
    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%22whole+chicken%22+cutting&oq=%22whole+chicken%22+cutting&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=1999l7156l0l7252l23l11l0l0l0l0l0l0ll0l0

    Treat meat like a condiment instead of the main dish, and serve lots of veggies and healthy starches (brown rice, sweet potatoes, etc.) as the more filling part of the meal. Good fats (butter, olive oil, etc.) will make a sparse meal more satisfying.

    One of my favorite things to do: roast a whole chicken in the oven. After it cooks & cools, piece it out for meals. Or pick the entire carcass clean of meat, setting aside the shredded meat to top salads, for sandwiches, enchiladas, soft tacos, stir-fry, etc. Save the carcass & bones (you can toss them into the freezer until you have time) and cook down into a broth.

    Once the broth cools, put into containers into the freezer, and use the broth for soups, rice pilafs, etc. A new favorite is using broth for congee – 9 parts broth to 1 part white rice, cook for an hour (brown rice, cook for 2-to-3 hours). Spoon into bowls and top with sauteed greens and poached eggs or leftover meat.

    Eggs are an inexpensive protein. Look up recipes for “egg bake” – as long as you stick to the basic egg/flour/liquid proportions for the body of the dish, you can throw any meat, cheese and veggie leftovers into an egg bake, cut into squares, and freeze/reheat when desired.

    Best of luck to you and all of us here as we learn to joyfully live lives filled with simple quality over quantity :-) .

  35. Sue Sullivan says:

    Late to the party here, so apologies if this tip has been posted somewhere in the 33 comments above, but I find that hitting the grocery stores more frequently to look for marked-down products nearing their sell-by date can help enormously — I’ve found organic whole chickens at half-price, organic milk at 75 pc off (which, if there’s extra, can be made into http://www.thecrunchychicken.com/2011/10/top-5-easy-homemade-cheeses.html without special materials.) I always cruise the organic sections of the regular and more specialty grocery stores to keep an eye out for clearanced and heavily discounted items. It’s definitely hit or miss, but worth the time, if you have it.

  36. [...] more, check out Best Frugality Tips? More posts you may be interested in:Cheap But Healthy: Eating Well on a Shoestring [...]

  37. BoysMom says:

    You say Toys-R-Us, so I’m guessing there are kids involved. Adults can get behind the idea of things they needed anyway as gifts, or just skipping adult gifts, but kids not so much. Home made sweets and canned goods make great gifts for adults outside your household.
    It might be a little late for you to do this, for this year, but you can often find kid gifts at garage sales. (At least where I am, no one is having garage sales any more: too great a risk of frost-bite.) Re-using is always good.
    One of the things we ask relatives for who are inclined to ask what we’d like for gifts are membership passes–local museums, swimming pools, those sorts of things. A toy holds the kids’ interest for a few minutes, but the pool membership and the children’s museum pass get used constantly–3x and 1x a week respectively (you can guess which is a longer drive). Those sorts of things aren’t quite as much fun for the kids to open the first time, but over the course of the year the enjoyment is huge and by the time the kids have received them once or twice they’re as excited over them as they are over toys.

  38. Megan Wilson says:

    One thing I haven’t heard mentioned, and I really hope that Gwen is still checking these comments, is to strongly consider switching grocery stores. I have found that the ethnic grocery stores carry a MUCH larger variety of produce, and for a much lower price than the mainstream supermarkets. Granted, I live in Los Angeles, which means that I have access to amazing ethnic neighborhood supermarkets, and because so much produce is grown in California, it’s almost all local, but I also had access to some pretty decent ethnic supermarkets when I lived in Winston-Salem, NC, which is not exactly known for great ethnic diversity, so I know for a fact that this is not California-exclusive. If you’re willing to shop in a different neighborhood, you can easily cut your food budget in half.

    If you’re not looking for them, and don’t know what to look for, these supermarkets can be difficult to spot. Many of them are in strip malls and are smaller than a mainstream supermarket. And their signs may not be in English. And the ones that are in English might be confusing. For instance, some of the Asian supermarkets call themselves things like “Seafood Emporium”, but when you get inside you see that it’s a regular supermarket with a larger seafood section.

    What are the demographics of where you live? If it’s pretty much all white people, or all white and black people, then it’s more difficult. But if you know that your area has even a fair number of immigrants (Serbo-Croatian, Algerian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Cuban…) – talk to one of them and ask them where they buy groceries. They probably have a hidden little gem of a supermarket. I LOVE my local Armenian supermarket – things that would be considered luxuries at another supermarket are completely affordable there, because they aren’t considered luxuries (SEVEN different kinds of feta cheese in the deli case, for instance).

    Most American supermarkets have to throw out TONS of produce because nobody buys it. Kumquats are crazy expensive because they’ll be lucky if they can sell a pound of them, so they have to adjust their prices to pay for what they throw away. Sell those same kumquats in a place where people cook with kumquats, the price can be way less because the store knows they will sell every kumquat. For instance, my Armenian grocery store is currently selling dates in bulk, at $2.99 per pound, and almonds at the same price. I wouldn’t be surprised to find them at $9-$12 per pound in a regular supermarket.

    My local Mexican grocery sells papayas at 3 lbs for $1 in season.

    Is it weird being the only white girl in the store and/or the only English speaker? Yes. But it’s kind of cool, too. And any weirdness is completely offset by paying $30 for a cart full of AMAZING food.

    Also, while this is probably irrelevant, but just to make it clear: I shop ethnic because it’s AWESOME. I am not experiencing any financial hardship right now. (Knock on wood, right?) My point is, I think that the quality and value of the food at the ethnic stores is CONSIDERABLY SUPERIOR to the mainstream supermarkets. That is why I shop there. So, while pinching your pennies and streamlining your budget is your goal, and shopping ethnic is a great way to do that, you may just discover hidden gold. Once I went ethnic, which I did when I was suffering my own financial hardship a few years ago, I never went back. You’re thinking you have to make a downgrade, but maybe what you really need to do is make an upgrade. Good luck!

  39. Megan Wilson says:

    Also, if you’re of child-bearing age and think the price of tampons and pads is something you’d love to cut out of your budget but you’d rather not just cross your fingers and hope for early menopause, I highly recommend http://www.divacup.com – this thing is THE BEST. The industrial marketing machine has done a great job of making sure nobody knows this alternative exists, but it does and it’s wonderful. I switched two years ago, and I love mine. You never have to buy femine products again.

    Wow, that sounds like a commercial. Sorry. I’m a real person. I just REALLY love the Diva Cup. :)

  40. Kim says:

    In addition to all these practical tips, I just want to add some more big picture kind of advice. Change your expectations.

    We live in a culture of abundance and extravagance. But not every meal needs to be a feast; not every child needs a playroom stocked like a toy store. Serving sandwiches and applesauce or raw carrots for dinner a few times a week is acceptable. Then when you have a more elaborately flavored dinner, with more ingredients or more meat, it will seem a little more special or out of the ordinary. Kids don’t need many different toys; a few basic ones will do as long as they have lots of opportunity for imagination and play. In fact, the fewer toys they have, the more imaginative they will have to be, and isn’t that the goal of play, after all?

    Also, stop watching commercials and don’t go to the mall if you can help it (and especially try to keep kids away from these). You’ll be amazed how you can downsize your expectations without the powerful consumer culture exerting such influence on you. And try to find some friends who have similar values. It’s much easier to be frugal (and feel comfortable about my frugality) when I spend time with my friend who has the 10 year old tv set than it is when I’m around my friend who shops and goes out eat all the time.

  41. Nicole says:

    One more thing — with all these tips to go here and there, remember to watch the mileage. Calculate a mileage rate for your vehincle passed on gas and maintenance (mine’s 50 cents although the reality is higher). If you can’t save at least that much by going somewhere else, don’t do it.

    Thinking, “this errand is going to cost me $5″ has helped me prioritize combining errands and planning my shopping excursion carefully and when to chase a sale (and when not to) in the way that simply knowing I *should* do it did not.

  42. Karen says:

    If you have debt, make it a priority to pay it off and make it your goal to not make purchases with a credit card. If you are making a monthly mortgage payment, talk to your lender about changing your payments to every two weeks. This will cut years off the life of your mortgage. Consider living without cable, cell phone and possibly even television. We’ve done that and have freed up our lives sustantially. Now I have time to read, sew and all sorts of creative endeavors. Get to know your local thrift stores. Look for quality wool, fabric and clothing which can be repourposed. I can make two tote bags from a men’s shirt and these make nice gifts.
    One last tip which may be off-the-wall for many of you is to consider giving up house insurance. This can only be done if there is no mortgage on your home. I know this sounds like a big crap shoot but it wasn’t that long ago that none of us carried house insurance. I know if my house burns down, we will still have the land and outbuildings and if necessary we could purchase an inexpensive used mobile home. I also know that my community members will help us out, living in a rural community helps. In my entire 60 years I’ve seen very few houses burn down. By giving up many of these modern day luxuries, we can live very comfortably on a very small income.

  43. Kris says:

    Wow, so many good ideas here!

    I just have one thought to add to this conversation: Craigslist.

    I heart Craigslist. Not only for buying things (or getting things for free) but also for selling things or letting go of things you no longer need but other people could use. When you are between jobs Craigslist could be a godsend for you on many levels.

    It’s always amazing to me to see what gets posted on Craigslist. You can buy fresh eggs, seeds, fruit/veg starters, gardening equipment, toys, clothes, household goods, etc. there on the cheap — one very frugal way to shop and a way to reuse rather than buy new.

    If you want to work but can’t find a job in your chosen field, use Craigslist to post a free ad for “gigs” for services you can do either for money or barter. If you know how to organize a garage or closets, pack up household items for people who are moving, sew, run errands, tutor, take care of pets/water plants while people are on vacation, prepare meals in advance for people who are too busy to cook, be a companion to a homebound person, drive an elderly person to doctor’s appointments/shopping, etc. — advertise your services — these are all services people need. And who knows –maybe you will find the possibility to start your own business advertising through Craigslist because your services are in high demand and you find you really like working for yourself.

    Also take this time between jobs to declutter your home and use Craigslist to sell (or freecycle, or barter) any items that you no longer need/use. Use the $ for shopping at your preferred vendors or for frugal shopping w/a few luxuries thrown in.

    Best of luck to you & I hope you find that being w/o a job brings blessings to you and your family (more time, more conscious living, more happiness).

  44. lindabkai says:

    Gwen, I know what you mean. In my city, “local” and “sustainable” have become the new status symbols…complete with high price tags! So, what’s an ethically-inclined person to do?

    First, I’d re-consider supermarkets…for now. Do any of your local supermarkets sell locally-produced food? If so, you may find the prices there are much lower than the farmer’s markets which, as one reader mentions, are not cheap places to shop. Perhaps you could ‘re-frame’ shopping the sales at supermarkets as an anti-corporate act – taking advantage of low prices to stock up on necessary items without succumbing to the temptation to buy more! Also, consider that frugal living is, in and of itself, deeply ethical – though I realize it was somewhat foisted on you by losing your job. Still, you’re making the most of a difficult situation. Knowing how important sustainability is to you, you will do more when you can.

    As for gifts, some friends of mine get together with other parents and exchange games and toys (in good condition) from their children’s collections. My friends find that their kids do not actually play with all of their toys. Those are the ones that get traded. Interestingly, the kids don’t mind at all that the toys are not ‘new.’ What matters is that they’re new…to them!

    Best wishes to you and your family.

  45. Mary Platt Clements says:

    A talented artist friend of mine organized a ‘trade only’ event at our local co-op. People brought anything they had to ‘sell’ and traded for anything others had to sell. It was very successful. Services were also traded, like henna tattooing and babysitting.

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  48. Brian says:

    A bit nontraditional, but I think it’s often easier to make more money than it is to become even more frugal.

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