Despite innumerable blogs dedicated to this very topic already existing, I am presenting this post on frugality in the same spirit I wrote my movie reviews post, my preparedness post, my marriage/parenting post, and my manual labor post: to present in one post what I deem to be the most important aspects of what usually constitutes an entire blog-worth of material, and to do so from a traditional Catholic, spiritual, eternity-minded perspective. So I hope you will find this helpful and not redundant!
So in what follows I will go down my own monthly budget items and tell you how I save, and how I recommend saving, money in each of them. I first of all highly recommend keeping, on a simple spreadsheet, a very careful and accurate monthly budget. This is especially important for people like me, who work multiple part time jobs, so that we can ensure we are always making at least as much as we are spending. Be sure to include in this budget all of your less-than-monthly payments, pro-rated to how much they essentially cost you each month (e.g. property taxes, car/home insurance payments, etc.)
Above all: First fruits to God. Don’t think about whether you can afford this, just do it: take 10% and give it to God. A large chunk of this should go to your Parish. But you can also take parts of that to give to a good religious order, to helping the poor (even if by your own direct efforts), or to other truly worthy apostolates.
Think you can’t afford this? Test God. That’s right, test Him. I do not say this lightly. He will not be outdone in generosity. Lest you think this blasphemous of me (to encourage testing God), see Malachi 3:10
Home Payment (or Rent)
This is my own, as well as most people’s, largest expense. Unfortunately it is often completely set in stone given one’s life circumstances at a given moment. But I include this section on this post in case anyone reading happens to be in a situation looking for a new home.
- Get a fixer-upper that is nevertheless in live-able condition. This is what I did and I am so thankful for it.
- Don’t overestimate the value of a pristine neighborhood. So many people pay an extra one or two hundred thousand dollars just to live in what seems like a dream neighborhood, only to find out they have thrown their money away, for they still live next door to teenagers who blare terrible music, college students who party until 3am, hot-rodders who speed down the streets making children playing in them just as unsafe as in the ghetto, etc. Being able to step out your front door and go for a nice walk is indeed a benefit, but not one worth $200,000. Wherever you wind up living, you will still probably wind up driving to virtually everything you do, anyway. So why not drive to do your walks also?
- Have extra space? Sublet a room or make your home a two-family.
- DO NOT ALLOW CLUTTER to accumulate. I have written against this in other posts because, truly, physical clutter inevitably causes our spiritual lives to also become cluttered, thus it becomes a spiritual problem. But it is also a real financial problem. There are people who could easily fit into a house half the size of their current one if only they did not have mounds upon mounds of clutter they insist upon holding on to. This clutter makes them think they need a house twice as big as they actually do, hence they are stuck with home payments far exceeding what they need pay.
A cheaper home will also mean lower property taxes — less money thrown away to the government each year to fund an utterly decadent, immoral, failing public education system.
We are constantly barraged today (not from credible, authoritative, mainstream scientific bodies — rather, from fringe but nevertheless noisy groups) with the insistence that we eat and buy only “organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, raw, unpasteurized, preservative-free, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, etc. etc. (the list goes on for pages)” everything. Now if you want to eat on anything resembling a reasonable budget, then you’re going to have to ignore all of this ideology. And guess what? You’ll be none the worse for it (mark my words, there will be no adverse effect on your health), you’ll save hundreds of dollars a month, and you’ll enjoy your food more. Since those who insist upon this way of life rely primarily, if not exclusively, on anecdote (or non-peer-reviewed “studies” by those unqualified to perform them), I will give my own brief anecdote: I’ve never bought anything organic, and have practically never eaten anything organic. I’ve never had a health problem. And in my experience, those most obsessed with organic food, etc., are often those with the most health problems (aside, of course, from those who blatantly disrespect their health). In some circles, even being a good Christian and Catholic has somehow become conflated with adherence to all of these fads. Know that the Magisterium makes it very clear that the full force of our technological know-how should (and, indeed, must) be applied to agriculture. LINK. There is nothing wrong (so long as they have been adequately tested — and just about anything in a mainstream supermarket such as WalMart is FDA approved has been vigorously tested to ensure its safety) with pesticides, preservatives, pasteurization, processing, and other such methods; even genetic methods (Pope Francis made already existing Church Teaching even clearer, in Laudato Si, by pointing out there is nothing intrinsically wrong with GMO foods. Remember that DNA is NOT the “fabric of life.” That’s essentially a heresy of scientism. The Soul is the fabric of life. )
Now I’m all for eating a natural diet: that is, avoiding the soda, candy bars, chips, lucky charms, artificial sweeteners, etc., for the sake of rice, beans, potatoes, meat, bananas, etc. What I’m against is this notion that we need to go even further and buy “organic” things, or whatever the next diet/nutrition fad is that happens to be popular in a given week.
So now that this burden is off of your shoulders, here’s how I’d recommend going about keeping your food expenses low:
- Abandon the notion that you need to constantly have fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, dairy, and/or meat at every meal. A perfectly healthy day’s eating can simply consist in: Oatmeal for breakfast, PB &J sandwiches for lunch, rice/sweet potatoes/chicken/spinach for dinner (with fruit for dessert). Obviously you’ll want to change it up, but that basic structure for meals will save tons of money. A few basic spices (my favorite are cayenne and cumin with soy sauce) make simple rice into a delicious feast. Get a rice cooker! Thrift stores always have them on their shelves (ours was $2).
- Shop at discount stores. Super Walmart is great. But there are cheaper stores still, where I try to do most of my grocery shopping: for example, Save A Lot (others include Aldi and Price Rite). There I know I can get milk for $2.50 a gallon (for perspective, since milk prices vary often, this is being written in Albany, NY on July , 2016), chicken breasts for less than $2 a pound, rice, potatoes, and bananas for 40 cents a pound. I rarely set foot in the likes of a Price Chopper, Stop&Shop, Hannaford, Wegmans, or similar supermarkets. Why would I pay drastically more for my food than I need to, for the exact same thing?
- Don’t be attached to specific foods. Feeding your cravings is in general a recipe for disaster not only spiritually speaking, but financially speaking. Really love a certain type of fruit? Well, if it’s $3 a pound a given season, how about you hold off and instead buy bananas, which are almost always less than 50 cents a pound? Really love steak? Get over it, you don’t need it. Chicken breast or ground beef costs 1/4th as much.
- Have a baby? Exclusively breast-feed him or her. It’s healthier for the baby, and its free. Formula is extremely expensive. Don’t worry about not being able to meter it out like you can with formula: God made this work pretty darn well, the baby knows how much he needs and that’s how much he’ll take and ask for.
- Don’t even look at the price of the product itself, only concern yourself with the unit price. As long as you’re confident you’ll finish it before it expires, then the unit price is all that matters. Just be careful to compare unit prices correctly, which is not always easy since some unit prices are given in terms of dollars per pound, some in cents per liter, some in dollars “per 100”, etc. Bring a calculator shopping.
- Never buy a name brand if there’s a generic brand alternative. They’re usually just as good; just read the ingredients carefully to make sure you’re actually getting what you think you are getting.
- Buy used. By leasing or buying new you’re paying an enormous premium simply so you can enjoy that “new car smell.”
- Don’t worry about all of the “recommended maintenance.” It’s a car, not a person. Simply change the oil every 7,000 to 10,000 miles with full synthetic oil and a good filter (and, most importantly, check the oil regularly to ensure you aren’t running dry), and keep your tires inflated. Perhaps you should also check your transmission fluid occasionally, and your engine coolant if it seems that it is running hot. Other than that, wait for an issue to arise and address it when it arrives. [Note: if you have an “interference engine,” — google your make/model to find out if you do — then do indeed get the timing belt replaced when recommended, as this breaking could destroy the engine]. I also recommend waiting until an issue is bad enough so that it’s abundantly clear precisely what the issue is. If you go addressing car issues when the symptoms of them have barely arisen, you’ll wind up spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars fixing things that weren’t actually the problem.
- Taking a very long trip? Consider renting a car for it. You can often do so for a mere $25 a day. Tally up the costs of renting for the number of days you’ll need the car and compare it to the wear&tear costs of using your own car. If your own car is less reliable, this also gives you a car that will not be at risk of breaking down.
- -DO NOT LEASE!
- Go bare bones on car insurance; getting only liability, and only the amount of even that which is required by law. I did so with Progressive Insurance, also using their “snapshot” device for a few months so that they could see I was a safe driver (which further decreased my premium). I wind up only paying about $270 every 6 months for two cars and two drivers.
- Use Gasbuddy to ensure you’re filling up at the cheapest gas stations.
- Cumberland Farms, which is prevalent around where I live, gives a 10 cent per gallon discount merely for using their “smartcard,” which is completely free to sign up for and to use, so that’s a no-brainer. Even before the discount, Cumberland Farms usually offers the cheapest gasoline.
- Before going on any trip, remember that gasoline is actually not the primary expense. Wear and tear on your car is. Sometimes people think they’re doing their friends a favor by paying for the gas if they take them somewhere. But the converse is true. I recommend assuming that each mile you drive costs you, overall, about 30 cents. Before going on any trip, tally up the number of miles involved and multiply that by .3 dollars, and use that cost to decide of the trip is worth it. If all you do is think of trips as their cost in terms of gasoline, then you’re going to suddenly be faced with a car repair bill at some point that you are not prepared for.
- If you have an electric stove, then cooking is what you need to be the most careful with. Making a loaf of bread can easily cost you, in mere electricity costs (not to mention ingredients and the time involved), about how much a loaf of bread would cost at the store.
- — If you do have an electric stove, then favor using auxiliary cooking devices such as toasters, toaster ovens, rice cookers, and bread makers, (the thrift store always has tons of these things for sale) unless you are making something big enough that it will only fit in the oven.
- don’t let the coffee pot stay on after it’s done.
- I am a big advocate of incandescent (old school) lighting, because of how much more beautiful it is. But be sure to only use this lighting when you are actually in the room to enjoy it, and preferably have each incandescent bulb activated by a dimmer; which allows you to decrease the amount of light so that it is not only more enjoyable, but also less energy consuming. For utility lighting where beauty is not as important, be sure to go with LEDs. They are now quite affordable, and use extremely little energy.
- Only air condition one room of your house (the master bedroom!) with a simple 120V window air conditioner unit, which you can buy at Walmart for $90. Make good use of pedastal fans to keep you comfortable elsewhere.
- Install a water saving shower head and faucet in the bathroom sink. Most of these cost only a few dollars and easily screw in.
- Computers – especially desktops – can consume quite a bit of energy. I recommend setting the power button to activate “sleep mode.” This makes it doubly convenient, and your computer only uses 5 or 6 watts (which is extremely little) when it is on sleep mode, and yet it can wake up from sleep mode in a mere couple seconds, and everything you were doing is saved so you can easily pick up where you left off
- By far the most effective method of decreasing utility costs during the winter is by keeping your house as cool as you are willing to. 100% wool socks and good wool sweaters (keep the core and the feet warm) make this much more doable!
- Be sure to put the thermostat down to 50 degrees whenever you leave your house — it is NOT true (in fact, in contradicts basic laws of thermodynamics) that this overall costs you more because you then re-heat your house back up to its usual temperature when you return. In fact, the only reason to even keep your house at this temperature is to avoid frozen pipes; thus, if you know it will not drop below freezing outside while you are gone, then simply turn off the heat entirely.
- On the particularly frigid nights, you can save a significant amount of money by only heating one room to the desired temperature (if you do not have zone heating, then doing so by way of a simple plug-in electric heater), and keeping the rest of the house at 50 degrees.
- It’s a pain in the neck to air dry all laundry, but air drying (hanging up on a clothesline) at least your towels will save a lot of energy in the dryer, since towels hold so much water in them.
You don’t need a smartphone; you really don’t. In fact, the mere absence of one from my own life has not only saved me an enormous amount of money (my phone cost me $9 to buy and my contract-free plan costs $7 a month), but it has delivered me from the temptation to incessantly check my email and/or the news wherever I am. Win-win situation.
I recommend buying a cheap Tracfone.
Don’t have a landline. They are, simply, pointless. I am not much of a phone person myself, but if you are one, then you can have your long conversations with people just as easily (in fact, better) online by calling their phone with Google Voice, or simply Skyping with them.
Many of the benefits of a smartphone can be obtained for a fraction of the cost and no monthly fees or contract by purchasing a used slightly older smartphone (for example, a Moto G) for a small price (probably about $40) on Ebay, and only using its WiFi functionality
My internet plan is $14.99 a month. It is the “lite” option, which they do not recommend for people who want to do anything but check email. But it is absolutely fine for everything I need it for (I don’t do online gaming!), even though online (video-based) teaching is my job.
If they do not advertise a “lite” plan for your area, then call them and inquire about it; insist that you want the lightest plan they have.
Make sure to buy your own modem/router (just look up what you need and search for it on Ebay), so that you do not waste $10+ a month “renting” them from your internet company.
Don’t get one. Throw it away if you have one. The only thing worth watching on it is a solid movie, or EWTN; both of which can be watched on your computer.
Since our oldest is only two, I’ll have to hold off on an “adolescent expenses” section for a while! But for now:
- Above all, let the mom be the mom. Men: pay the bills. Ladies: be satisfied with a simple life so that your husband can pay the bills without working a career that destroys his peace or requires you to also work. For reasons infinitely more important than financial, children being raised by a stay at home mom is undoubtedly, by far, the ideal situation. But the financials are certainly worth pointing out: I once read that a stay at home mom performs services that essentially amount to over $90,000 a year.
- Never buy new baby/toddler clothes. Thrift stores are utterly teeming with them, and they are usually around (or less than) a dollar an item.
- Cloth diapers are a good way to save money, but they are also fairly expensive to buy, and do indeed add to your utility bill with a lot of extra washes, and they take a lot of extra time. If you’re not up for that, then go with the Wal-Mart brand (“Parent’s Choice”) large boxes of diapers. They are usually around 14 cents a diaper (hard to argue with that!) and we have always found they work well. The same brand of wipes is barely over a penny a wipe. You can order them online for just as cheap as buying them in-store, and you’ll get free shipping if you buy enough (which you inevitably will).
- Craigslist, garage sales, and thrift stores are always teeming with playpens, cribs, carseats, strollers, basinetts, etc. Don’t buy them new!
- Avoid buying baby food. Simply put in a food processor or blender normal food, or give the baby food that is already mushy (e.g. bananas, sweet potatoes).
Entertainment Wholesome Enjoyment
If you insist upon comparing yourself to others — be they co-workers, parents of your kids’ friends, Facebook “friends,” fellow parishioners, or what have you — and look at all of the “fun” things they do and allow this to foist an obligation on your conscience to do the same, then you’ll never be able to live frugally. Do not find your enjoyment from the flashy things; the fancy restaurants, going out to the movies, hotels, planes, Disney World, expensive hobbies, boats, expensive memberships, etc. Find it from the simple, beautiful, and holy things.
- If you want to live frugally, then don’t you dare get on an airplane unless it’s for a holy pilgrimage, to visit siblings or parents, for a business trip (that is, paid by your employer), or for an important apostolate! Do things you can drive to. You undoubtedly live within an easy drive of sufficient things to keep you busy your whole life (ten times over).
- As my blog followers know, I highly recommend cemetery prayer/conversation walks, which is where my wife, children, and I find our enjoyment: https://dsdoconnor.com/2015/11/06/a-walk-among-the-tombstones/
- You can wait for that movie to be out on Redbox — you really can. Don’t see it in the theaters unless it’s something so very important to support (e.g. For Greater Glory, the Passion).
- Don’t buy a book that you aren’t positive you’ll read within the next couple months.
Misc. Consumer Products
- When it comes to buying new items from corporate chains, don’t ever get roped into impulse buying when you find yourself thinking “oh! This is too good a deal. This sale won’t last. I need to get this now.” That mindset never pays off. There will be an even better deal tomorrow. Corporations are experts at making you feel this way with how they word their sales; you mustn’t fall for it. If in doubt (even a little), don’t buy it, whatever it is. Wait.
- Never spend more than $50-100 on a consumer good without first checking your local craigslist to see if someone is selling it used. If you do nevertheless decide to buy it new, then always shop around for it by checking how much it costs at the following sites which have a very broad selection of products and tend to have the best prices:
- Walmart.com (anything)
- Ebay.com (anything)
- Amazon.com (anything)
- HomeDepot.com (anything home improvement related)
- Harborfreight.com (anything tool related)
- Only buy expendable, non-perishable items in bulk. Why on earth would you pay double, triple, or more, for something just so you can buy tiny bits of it at a time? Soap, diapers, wipes, napkins, white rice (never goes bad), toilet paper, etc., should all be bought in bulk. Just be very careful to not allow the fact that you have a bulk amount of something to be wasteful with it. Treat it always just as if you only had one small portion of each thing.
- Except for socks, underwear, and undershirts: never buy new clothes. So long as you do not feel the need for the most recent fashion fads, then you can always get what you need from a thrift store (e.g. a Goodwill or a Salvation Army).
- Thinking of buying something that you aren’t sure you need? Only buy it if you’d still buy if for quadruple the price. Why? Because, in buying it, you’re also stuck with all of the following:
- Putting it somewhere (remember #1 on this list — home payment. Every square foot of your home costs you money)
- Organizing it (you’ll probably eventually need to buy more storage bins due to it, or more dressers/shelves/etc.)
- If you actually use it — which you probably won’t — replacing it every couple years, since consumer products these days are almost always intentionally under-designed so as to force consumers to regularly re-purchase them.
- And eventually, after what will likely be years of it collecting dust and taking up space in your house that could have been used for something else, you’ll have to pay to throw it out when you realize that you’re paying for a house with a garage, basement, and/or attic that is completely full of garbage to the extent where you need to rent a dumpster just to get rid of it all.
- Don’t be afraid to (carefully and thoughtfully) ignore the advice of “experts.” Remember, an expert is one who, almost by definition, cares “too much” about his particular field of expertise (this is why we do not live in a technocracy and why technocracy is a fundamentally flawed theory of government — the experts are there to advise, not to dictate… they advise so that those who are in a better position to consider the totality of the common good can make the decisions). If you took all of the advice of the doctors, dentists, car mechanics, the manufacturers of your consumer goods, the financial advisers, the lawyers, the insurance companies, etc., then you’re entire life would consist in maintaining itself and would thus become deprived of its transcendent essential meaning and you wouldn’t achieve anything for the Kingdom.
- Don’t sign up for paid memberships that theoretically will save you money. They won’t. Companies wouldn’t offer these memberships if they actually did save you money. Consider Amazon Prime: seems like such a good deal! But it’s a terrible deal, and it is usually justified by erroneous logic. Sure, if you watch 100 movies a year (ugh!), all of which wind up being free instead of the $2.99 you would have to pay to rent them on Amazon otherwise, then yes, you’ve “saved” $199 by paying the $100 for the membership. But this overlooks the essential facts: first of all, you only watched that many movies (stupidly!) because they were free for you to rent. You would have (rightly!) watched far fewer, and done something better with your time, if you didn’t have that membership. Furthermore, the mere fact that you had that membership means that you basically stop looking for better deals elsewhere; for example, RedBox, which allows you to rent a movie for a mere $1.50.
- Either do not own a credit card, or do not ever allow yourself to get behind on payments. Throwing away money at a bank in the form of interest payments is among the worst ways to waste it. I opt for not even having a credit card.
- Never make a decision based upon a sunk cost.For example “Oh, I’m still making payments on this car. So I really have to spend $6,000 to put a new engine into it even though this car is not worth putting that much money into.” Decisions based upon sunk costs are among the most common — and most damaging — economic fallacies. They stem from people not realizing that you cannot change the past: you can only make the best decision moving forward.
Whenever the same task can be achieved by a less expensive product, be sure to use it. You are always paying to use anything (because it is primarily wear and tear, not the mere passage of time — although that certainly factors in — that determines when a product must be replaced) in (loose) proportion to the cost of the product. Do you simply want a fan on in your room? Use a $10 box fan, not your $200 window A/C unit merely turned to the “fan alone” function.
Delay as long as reasonably possible significant expenditures.
- It’s very easy to fall into the mindset of thinking “well, I’ll probably need to make this expenditure anyway, so I might as well do so now.” But that type of thinking is a major financial pitfall; for it neglects to realize that you do not have a crystal ball! Spending $1,000 on a car repair that you could do without means spending $1,000 that perhaps you never would have had to spend if that car were to break down completely and need to be junked before that repair would have become truly necessary!
Finally, remember, frugality is not an end unto itself.
It is a means to an end: the end being freeing yourself from consumerist bonds so as to focus more on God. You’ve completely defeated the purpose if frugality becomes an obsession for you. Unfortunately there are no shortage of people who fall into this category: God is not the topic of conversation with their friends, rather, their most recent “steal” at the store was. They are constantly at thrift stores and garage sales, not because they genuinely need something, but because that is what their zeal is directed towards. They spend their reading time not with Scripture, but with pages upon pages of advertisements and coupon books, or clicking around online looking for deals. Do not be like them!