A reader asks,
“So I was wondering if you could maybe do your Top 10 (or even better 20!) list for making it through a very tight month. There are the obvious ones, like not eating out at all, no outside entertainment, etc…..but I’m sure you being you, will be able to come up with some that I haven’t even thought of.”
Long-time readers know that I was married once before. I’ve never elaborated much on this ill-fated and disastrous union because it’s a period of my life that I prefer to not revisit. Most of the time I just pretend that it never happened, but in the interest of camaraderie, I will tell you that my ex-husband and I faced a very serious financial trial shortly after we purchased our first house. So severe, in fact, that after all of our bills were paid for the month, we were left with only $14 to buy food. For the entire month.
So….yeah. I know a little something about this.
Our money pinch lasted for nearly 6 months, and it was one of the most stressful times of my entire life. I suffered from daily headaches and stomachaches, and spent most of my free time stewing, and fretting, and wringing my hands over what might happen. But I’m here to tell you that worrying solved nothing. It didn’t make me feel any better, and it certainly didn’t change my circumstances, so if I may, here is some valuable advice:
1) Take one day at a time. Live your life in “day-tight compartments.” Remember the wisdom of Matthew 6:34 – “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” When you wake up each morning, make a careful, frugal plan for your day, and when the day comes to a close, give thanks to the Lord for your blessings. A positive attitude goes a long way. Embrace the challenge!
2) Remember to pray. You’re not in this alone – God is with you, and He wants you to turn to Him in times of trouble. When I’m worried and troubled, prayer is like a soothing balm for my soul. It makes me feel less helpless, because even when there is nothing else I can do to change my situation, I can always pray. I can give control of my life to God, and really, there is no one better equipped to handle it, is there?
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.”
3) Take care of yourself. Now, more than ever, it’s so important to eat well, manage stress, and get enough sleep, because not only does this give you strength to cope during difficult times, but it can help prevent a potentially costly health crisis. You don’t need medical bills and lost wages on top of everything else.
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A few other tips:
4) Get organized. Organization is always my first weapon of defense when I’m facing any challenge, but especially during a money crisis. Why? First, because order helps me to think clearly and remain calm, but also because, as I always tell my children, it’s remarkable what you find when you clean up (because usually their room is the equivalent of a garbage dump, and there are many forgotten treasures beneath the rubble). Sort, clean, and organize every drawer, cabinet, and closet. Take inventory of everything you have, and use it before buying anything else. When money is tight, you can’t afford to waste money on unnecessary things.
5) Know where you stand. The first thing I did when I learned that our income would be cut by more than half was figure out exactly, to the penny what our income and expenses would be, so I knew what I had to work with. Just knowing where you stand gives you a sense of control, and helps you to be prepared, and make smart financial choices.
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6) Have a plan. When I had an honest financial picture, I was able to create a budget. A budget is absolutely necessary if you’re facing a financial crisis, and you must have the discipline to stick to it. After I created our budget, I realized that I had absolutely no wiggle room, and that forced me to stick to it. If I didn’t, we wouldn’t eat.
7) Go to extremes. I have occasionally been accused of being “too frugal,” but in my opinion, a financial crisis is the time to be extreme about saving money. Do what you have to do, and pay no attention to what people say.
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8) Stay out of stores. Now is not the time for recreational shopping. Some people have the attitude that it’s OK to “browse” when money is tight, because they aren’t going to buy anything. Honest! But the truth is, many people can’t resist the temptation, especially in dollar-type stores, and even at garage sales, because everything is so cheap! And what can it hurt to spend $5 or $10, right? But in a serious money pinch, those little incidentals can hurt your bottom line more than you think. So please, take my advice….stay home.
9) Eat at home all the time. Restaurant meals cost an average of 3 times more than meals eaten at home, but I’m not just talking about breakfast, lunch, and supper. I’m talking about the $4 coffee you pick up in the morning, the snacks for the kids, the occasional soda. All of these things add up to a lot, and there is no room for them in your budget when you’re trying to survive a tough month. Also, manage leftovers carefully, because wasted food is wasted money.
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Cut the Convenience Foods
My Favorite Pantry Staples for Frugal Meals
Breakfast, Lunch, and Snack Ideas
Coffee and Tea Mixes
Money Saving Mixes
The School Lunch Conundrum
Plan Ahead for Bread
Bread Making for the Not So Knead-y
10) Eat less meat, or no meat. For most people, meat is one of the most expensive grocery items, and you’d be surprised at how much you can save by just cutting back or eliminating meat. I have two basic rules for purchasing protein foods- they must cost $2/pound or less, and we eat no “unclean” meats. This means that in general, we eat only chicken, turkey, lean beef, and venison. We also eat canned tuna and boneless, skinless salmon. I can routinely purchase these proteins for $2/pound or less, but I also cut meat costs by using less meat. For example, when I make meat loaf I use 1 1/2 pounds of ground beef instead of 2 pounds, and in soups and casseroles I use 1/2 to 3/4 pound instead of a full pound, as most recipes call for. We also try to be “Once-a-Week Vegetarians,” which means that on one day each week, we eat no meat at all.
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11) Do a “pantry challenge.” I do these sometimes just because I hate shopping, and I always enjoy a frugal challenge. It’s fun to get creative, and see what meals I can put together using only what I have on hand. For pantry challenge rules, please see The Pantry Challenge
12) Shop smarter. Here are some posts that might help:
Let’s Go Shopping with Heather
Grocery Shopping Guidelines
How to Keep a Price Book
How I Shop and Plan Our Meals
Tracking Price Trends
Tips for Buying in Bulk
The Savings Notebook
Coupon Lingo Explained
Shop at Scratch and Dent Stores
13) Return stuff. Yes, I’m serious. In my house, aside from items I’ve purchased for gifts, you won’t find brand-new items, sitting around with tags still on, waiting to be used. In general, we buy more used goods than new, but if we do buy something and later realize that we don’t need it – because we found a cheaper alternative, or simply because we decide to make do without it – I take it back. Again, this is where organization pays off! Because I keep an organized filing system, I always know where my receipts are, so returns are quick and easy (but don’t make a special trip – wait until you’re already at the store). I often see new, unused merchandise offered at garage sales for a tiny fraction of what it originally cost, and it makes me cringe! If you have stuff that’s been sitting around, unused for a month or more, it’s time to think about whether or not you really need it. If you can live without it (and trust me, you probably can) take it back.
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14) No entertainment that isn’t FREE. I don’t need to elaborate on this do I?
15) Suspend or cancel subscriptions. I don’t subsribe to magazines or newspapers, because news and coupons are available for free online, and magazines are free at the library. I also cancelled NetFlix, because DVDs are free at the library. Which brings me to…
16) Investigate your local library. I guarantee that you will find more free entertainment than you can possibly take advantage of. We live near several libraries, and they offer books, DVDs, videos, CDs, magazines, a coupon exchange, free family movies, free story hour, with snacks and activities for kids, newspapers, cookbooks, Halloween costumes, cake pans, online service, audiobooks, faxing and copying, interlibrary loans, downloadable e-books, downloadable video games, and free downloadable music. Free. It’s all FREE!
17) Combine errands. Gas is expensive, so pick one errand day, plan a logical route, and do them all at once, rather than making several trips. Better yet, walk your errands (if you can). It’s cheaper, and good for you too!
18) Lower your thermostat, and turn off the lights! I sometimes think that people have forgotten some very simple concepts, often touted by my Grandma. If you’re cold, put on a sweater, and if you’re not in the room, why are the lights on? We have a programmable thermostat, and in the winter, we keep it at 69 during the day, and 67 at night. We bundle up in flannel PJs, and put extra blankets on our bed. I actually think we sleep better when the temperature is cooler, and we saved about $30 on our heating bill in the first month! I also regularly walk through our house to shut off lights. My children seem to think electricity grows on trees.
19) Sell some stuff. Have a garage sale, take stuff to consignment stores, advertise on Craig’s List, or sell on eBay (it’s easy to use. Really). Think you don’t have anything to sell? Oh, I bet you do.
20) Let go of vanity. When you’re in a financial pinch, expensive personal grooming procedures should be among the first things to go. Truthfully, I never make stuff like this much of a priority. I get about one manicure/pedicure a year, usually because my children buy me a gift certificate for Mother’s Day or my birthday. I enjoy having my nails done, but not enough to pay for it every month. I also stretch haircuts to at least two months, and I rarely purchase makeup. One of the best frugal tips I can give you is to remember that you’re beautiful just as God made you.
21) Eliminate the non-essentials. All of them. This includes soda, junk food, toys, clothing and shoes you don’t need, alcohol (though there will be many days when you need a drink, believe me), and most definitely lottery tickets and cigarettes (and really, why would you waste your hard-earned money on such crap anyway?)
22) Hang laundry. Your dryer is one of the biggest energy-using appliances in your home, and you can save a lot of money by line drying clothes. If you can’t have an outside clothesline where you live, you can improvise. Wooden drying racks are inexpensive, or you can do what we did, and staple heavy duty twine to the rafters in an unfinished area of your basement. We have enough clothesline in our laundry room to hang an entire load of clothing.
23) Do it yourself. If something needs fixing, don’t call a repair person without first trying to fix it yourself. Hiring people to do stuff for you is very expensive, and there are free instructions available in books, and on the internet, for just about anything. Over the years, my husband and I have refinished cabinets and furniture, installed vinyl flooring, repaired plumbing, painted rooms, and installed carpet. We found instructions on the internet, and rented necessary tools. We also do all of our own car repairs and maintenance, gardening and landscaping, snow removal, and cleaning. We only hire someone as a very last resort.
24) Search with Swagbucks. The internet is a valuable tool, not only because of the wealth of information available, but also because you can make money while searching for it. If you don’t already use Swagbucks as your search engine, I encourage you to try it. I just ordered a Christmas gift for Cakes on Amazon, and I saved $10 with gift cards earned through Swagbucks. When times are tough, every little bit helps, so click the banner to sign up!
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25) Use less of everything. I often challenge myself to see how little of something I can use, without sacrificing quality. There are many examples in this post – Use Less to Save More
If you’ve done the best you possibly can, but you’re in a truly desperate situation, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. Please. It’s not noble to needlessly starve, and there is no shame in needing a helping hand. Remember, if you pay taxes, you’re paying for government programs that can help you temporarily, until you get back on your feet. It’s not charity if you’re paying for it, right?[print-me/]