Thursday, April 14, 2011

Frugal Flexibility

This posts' title "Frugal Flexibility", is a play on the phrase "moral flexibility". By "frugal flexibility" I mean looking at issues pertaining to frugal living from more than one perspective to make financial decisions, much like someone with moral flexibility would do with moral issues. Sometimes when discussing frugal living, people tend to narrow their perspective. For example, there are proponents of frugal living always look at price and suggest buying the lowest-priced goods regardless of other factors. Others might suggest strictly covering necessities thus making all unnecessary purchases decidedly not frugal. Proponents of frugal living with strong environmentalist values would probably consider buying more expensive green products more frugal than buying cheaper ones that damage the environment. They'd see the cheaper product as costing society more in environmental problems, and thus more expensive as a whole than green products that actively prevent environmental problems. As human beings, we all approach topics, more or less, from our perspective. Our perspective is usually reflective of our personal values and is at times hard to step out of. It's for this reason that ideas about frugal living vary from source to source and are sometimes difficult to clearly define.

In this post, I will discuss some goods where I step outside of my usual frugal perspective. Generally, my perspective revolves around a lowest-price focus. I suppose this influence is directly from my mother, a woman who manages money exceptionally well by buying lowest-priced everything. My view is similar in most areas, except unlike my mother who isn't influenced by anything outside of price, there are some issues I care about that also affect my purchases. Let's get to it.

Frugal flexibility example #1: Oral Hygiene 
After years of brushing my teeth with the cheapest toothbrushes as a teenager (courtesy of mama bear), I decided once I got my first job that I would purchases my own toothbrushes. The cheapest toothbrushes are usually the most basic. They usually contain a small portion of bristles, none of which are in any different shape. The high end ones, I've noticed, contain a portion of circular bristles placed strategically in the middle of the normal bristles. I've heard that this circular potion serves to help you brush correctly and cleans your teeth more thoroughly than the plain set of bristles on the cheap toothbrush. I'm not a Dentist, so I can't tell you for certain whether or not high end makes much of a difference, but I can tell you that my teeth look and feel cleaner than they did when I used the cheaper toothbrush. I practice the same spending habits with mouthwash and toothpaste. I'm not opposed to buying a generic version of any of the products mentioned above, the problem is that usually there is a generic version available of the basic product (i.e. Colgate Total) but not for the high end product (Colgate Pro Clinical). Oral hygiene is simply something I'm not willing to take chances with. I'd rather spend a two or three dollars more per month on products, than deal with dental problems.

Frugal flexibility example #2: Jeans
This is one of the areas where I truly employ flexibility. I have always, and will always, be against buying clothing at full price. I always look for sales, scout thrift stores, accept clothing friends don't want if I happen to like it and check eBay for used clothing prices. Granted, I'm not going to pretend I'm anti-materialistic and anti-name brand clothing like some frugal extremists are. I consider clothing to fall under the category of artistic expression, and thus I don't subscribe to the "only shallow people care about how they look" mentality of some people within the frugal living community. If you don't mind wearing shirts with holes and stains in them alongside twenty year old jeans to avoid spending money on new clothing, that's fine by me. For those of us who have a sense of fashion but feel guilty dropping more than twenty dollars on a pair of jeans to satisfy that desire, there are ways to do so. I always search Ross and TJ Maxx for quality new jeans at a reasonable price. They sometimes carry Levi's that retail for sixty dollars for twenty dollars or less. Thrift stores, especially those that cater to a younger crowd and purchase unwanted fashionable clothes (Plato's closet), are great places to find stylish Jeans at exceptionally low prices. I will sometimes go to an expensive store and find a pair of jeans I like to look up on eBay. This is accomplished easily. Simply look at the tag and see if the jeans have a special title, most of them do. for example DKNY has a type of jean I like they call "Bleecker". Simply search "DKNY Bleecker" on eBay and look for jeans sold at prices lower than your local retail store. Trust me, before resorting to buying pricier jeans, I was fond of buying cheaper jeans. I used to buy most of my jeans from Target or Wal-Mart. I stopped doing so because I realized jeans sold cheap were jeans made cheap. I'd end up spending more replacing worn out pairs than I do on a pair of Levi's that lasts me for years.

Frugal flexibility example #3: Alcoholic bevarages
When I was younger and enjoyed throwing large parties, I would buy the cheapest kind of beer I could find so I could get a ton of it. For such an occasion it was usually Miller High Life. You can get an 18 pack of Miller High Life for about the same, or only slightly more than it costs to get a 12 pack of Bud Light. These days, now that I don't throw large parties and live a settled down lifestyle, I prefer to purchase premium. Yes, I understand the frugal argument against doing so makes sense, i.e. you get the same feeling (drunkenness) from Miller High Life that you do from Newcastle Brown Ale. I know that's the case, but since the occasions where I drink now I'm not trying to get annihilated, I make my choices based upon taste. Since alcohol is not a regular purchase for me, if I'm going to have a few drinks, I prefer to spend a little extra on Heineken, Newcastle or Red Stripe for the sake of taste. Like I do with Jeans, though I'm buying the premium product, I still search for deals. I usually try and go to a gas station or grocery store I know has the kind of beer I like at the lowest price. If I ever came across beer coupons (the modern day fountain of youth), I'd probably use those too.

The aforementioned spending decisions show where I veer from my usual "lowest-price" attitude concerning personal finance. This is because I don't see frugal living as a simplistic issue. Getting the best deal can't always be done strictly by examining the numbers. My point is not that we shouldn't care about seeking the lowest price in all situations, but that we should also consider criteria outside of price such as quality and durability in order to establish the true best deal. For this reason, I consider frugal flexibility a good thing. I'm sure there are plenty of instances where you too veer outside of your general rules in order to satisfy various needs. Such flexibility is what makes being a smart consumer and frugal living practitioner so interesting.  

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Source Of Inspiration

My first experiences with frugal living occurred in childhood. Long before I ever knew there were people intentionally living frugally, I noticed my mother's crazy money saving habits. I have fond memories of going to McDonald's after church with my mother and my little brothers. After ordering our food, instead of spending the extra dollar or so for a fountain soda, my mom would drive up to a nearby soda machine in the plaza and purchase twenty five cent store-brand beverages. She would purchase three sodas, for less than the price of one small soda at McDonald's. At the time I didn't think much of it as I was so young all I cared about was the pleasure of enjoying fast food and soda. These days however, I look back on such small strategic moves with a sense of pride in my mother.

As the years progressed, my attitude toward my mother's frugal ways would change in accordance with my lifestyle. Between the age of around eleven up until I was fifteen, I was quite annoyed by her spending habits. In these days I'd constantly call her "cheap" and was irritated when we waited longer than most families to acquire video game systems. I'd go to friends houses, where a full twelve pack of coke was put in the fridge and available to whomever, and wonder why my mother wouldn't do the same. She would purchases twelve packs of coke and place them in her bedroom, only taking out one per day for each of us to have with dinner. As there were never cold sodas readily available in the fridge, her storage idea worked because no one would drink more than one soda a day. Our twelve packs of soda would last the entire week. I suppose she must've known that someday I'd agree with her practices, as every-time I called her cheap (and even when I do playfully now) she always laughed about it and never took offense.

I first began to truly admire her ways and notice her deep-rooted influence on me when I got my first job at sixteen years old. As I spent the entirety of my paychecks on fast-food, mall outings with friends and collecting music, I began to get a sense of value. It was pretty evident that money was easy to spend and that many things cost more than I had initially thought. I suddenly went from thinking my mother was the cheapest woman in the world to one of the smartest. Memories of brand new school clothes and trips to Busch Gardens came to mind and I realized how my mother's shortcuts left her with more money available to spend on the things she values. What was more interesting was how her habits had become ingrained in mine. When we would go out for fast food for example, my friends would all order premium combos costing somewhere between five to eight dollars. My regular meal choice was three dollar menu food items and a free cup of water as my beverage of choice. While certain friends of mine didn't mind buying forty dollar jeans at the mall, I refused to pay that much. I would instead spend my time scouting Beall's Outlet, TJ Maxx and Ross for twenty dollar jeans. It appeared that one way or another, a little bit of mom's "cheap" tendencies had rubbed off on me.

These initial inspirations are what motivated me to practice and write about living frugally. My mother never really thought of the way she lived as frugal. She doesn't read frugal living literature. She learned to be that way from her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, was raised in a farm environment understood much about preserving resources and living on essentials. Frugal living is so natural to them it's not something they'd ever feel needed a title or explanation. Although I'm nowhere near where I would like to be, I do have plenty of deep-seeded frugal inclinations that steer the way I feel about finances. I've met very few people my age who are cheaper than I am. I nearly always get clothes, electronics, sneakers, movies and albums at lower prices than my friends do. I've always enjoyed discussing saving money and money management and that is what I enjoy about blogging about frugal living. Thought I take pride in my frugal inclinations, I know there is still plenty for me to learn and plenty to improve upon. As I continue on this path, that is precisely what I hope to do.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tax Season: I'm Not Wasting It All This Year

Photo by TomD. via Flickr

As a college student there are a couple of times per year where I receive a fairly large sum of money. Two such times occur when scholarships and financial aid funds are disbursed each semester. Most recently, I finally did my 2010 taxes and am set to receive a much larger return than any previous years. The reason I'll be receiving more is because I became a father last year and was able to claim my son this time around when I filed. As a result of this change in living situation, I will be receiving somewhere around $3,000a nd find myself thinking of how exactly to handle this money most responsibly.

To some people, such a task seems simple. These people can feel free to skip reading this post and spend their time doing something else. For the other 98% of us who never seem to do what we planned to do when we receive a large sum of money, let's see if we can get to the root of such behavior. Maybe this year we can alter it before our checking account balance hits zero once more.

If you hang around any given workplace long enough you will hear employees speak about finances. Often times this comes out in the form of complaints and statements about what said employee would do if they had more money. The catch is when they get more money, they never do what they claimed they would. I see this in myself and others this time of year when we receive a large sum of money in the form of a tax return. After weeks of getting by on our regular incomes, suddenly when we receive this temporary boost in income we start behaving differently. Our weekend outings switch from having two or three beers at the local bar to having premium mixed drinks at the upscale club. The occasional stop at McDonald's for a couple dollar-menu items becomes a visit to a more expensive restaurant for full course meals. All of a sudden your jeans just don't seem to fit right and need to be replaced by a brand new pair of Levi's. Although what we choose to spend it on varies from person to person, I'm sure all of us have, at one point or another, regretted spending part of or all of our tax return the way we did.

After blowing through a couple of financial aid payments, I decided I couldn't be trusted to manage large sums of money on the go. Specifically, I pretended that I could have the funds in the same bank account as my regular income, would make sure to mark the money as separate, and spend accordingly. What happened instead was I would spend my entire weekly income then continually dip into the financial aid money until it was spent in it's entirety. As a solution to this problem, I decided to store the financial aid funds in a separate checking account. I figured this way I'd use my regular account to manage my regular income and wouldn't feel tempted to spend my financial aid money as quickly. Unfortunately this didn't work either. This time, since the accounts were separate, I didn't use the financial aid money to replenish my regular income. Unfortunately, I didn't use the financial aid money intelligently either. Since I saw it as such a large, infinite sum of money, I'd just use it as a means of treating myself. I'd go out to more expensive restaurants, buy pricier clothes, go to classy bars, etc. without feeling guilty as the money was coming from an account with a ton of extra money instead of from my regular income. Though the method was different, the end result was the same; I blew through my financial aid money without putting it to good use.

Through this pocket-emptying version of trial and error, I arrived at the method I use today and plan to use for this tax return. In a sort of paradox, I will prevent blowing through my tax return by spending it, in it's entirety, shortly after receiving it. Wait a second, doesn't one of the staples of frugal living involve avoiding spending impulsively? Yes, that is certainly true. In most cases, impulsive spending is indeed the enemy. In this case however, what seems to be impulsive spending is not at all impulsive. Prior to spending my return in it's entirety, I map out precisely what I will use it for. Usually I have to wait about a week before the money is deposited into my bank account. During this week I make a list of financial priorities. This includes stuff like looking at my debts, thinking of any expensive household items I truly need (usually baby-related) or paying a couple of months worth of bills in advance. Once I have chosen what is most important and how much of my return will go to each specific expenditure, I wait patiently to receive my return. Then when I receive the funds, I immediately spend the money on these prearranged expenditures, leaving no room to mindlessly waste any of it away.

This time my end result is quite different. Instead of looking back a couple of months later, thinking "where did all that money go?", I know precisely where it went. By extension, I won't feel any regret as I realize it was all put to good use and spent living past my usual means for a couple of months. It's an experience I thoroughly believe everyone should have the chance to partake in.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Financial Awareness

Why Financial Awareness Matters
Developing a sense of awareness about your finances is among the most important aspects of frugal living. I'd even go as far as to say that without such an awareness, it isn't even possible to live frugally. The point being that if you aren't conscious of where your money is going or how much you're spending, how do you know how much you're wasting and what to do about it? Financial awareness is important because it is the key to all financial progress, from a simple plan like forming a budget all the way up to saving for retirement, financial awareness plays an essential role in all financial planning. Mindless spending never left anyone sitting with extra money in their checking account at the end of the week. Conscious spending habits, however, leave plenty of frugal-minded people with extra money in their checking account at the end of the week. By conscious I don't mean being awake (it's pretty hard to spend money when you're sleeping) but I'm referring to being fully aware of your thought process, feelings and behavior when you are spending money.

I think I've made it pretty clear in previous posts that I'm a frugal living beginner. Coming from such a position, I have no issues with sharing my personal finance problems and analyzing them to find a solution. In this particular post, I will be addressing my lack of financial awareness in regards and discussing a method for developing conscious spending habits.

A Financial Awareness Realization
This past week, as I signed online to check my balance every morning, I realized that nearly every time I checked there was less money in the account than I had expected. I usually remembered most of what I purchased, so it wasn't drastically less money than I thought I had, but definitely enough to require some time spent remembering precisely where these funds went. Usually, after a minute or two of thought, I'd remember some small expenditures I forgot about. The ten to twenty dollars less I encountered in my account would be explained away by a forgotten stop a fast food restaurant, some snacks at the convenience store or too many trips to a couple of coffee shops. I wouldn't mind if this occurred once or twice a month in very small amounts, say five dollars or less. In this particular instance however, not only was this "where did my money go" scenario occurring daily, but upon adding up the this "lost" money I found I could have easily contributed it to a more useful purpose such as debt reduction, building savings or paying bills earlier than I had planned.

What bothered me specifically about this situation, was a total lack of organization and a display of absentmindedness on my part. It was one of those problems that could be easily resolved but is ignored and thus develops into a larger dilemma. I think a dirty dishes example is one that anyone can relate to. Here's the scenario. You finish eating lunch and put your dish in the sink. As you have somewhere to go and are in a bit of a rush, you think "I'll clean that dish later". Evening rolls around and after finishing your dinner, you feel exceptionally tired and you once again decide to simply put the dish in the sink and go to bed. You repeat this cycle for four to five days. You wake up on one of your off days and decide you're going to make yourself a wonderful breakfast. Once you open the cabinet in your kitchen and find you don't have any clean dishes, you take a look at the sink. The sink is full of dishes and you take twenty to forty five minutes washing them all wondering why you don't wash them right after eating a meal in the first place.

Unconscious spending undergoes a similar process. You spend a couple of days frittering away small amounts of money without checking you balance thinking "I still have a lot left, this is insignificant spending". Three or four days later you check your bank account and see your balance is at least thirty dollars less than the amount you expected to have. Suddenly you wish you actually kept track of your money as you spent it and knew exactly how much you had left over every time you made a purchase. It certainly seems like it would make your life easier.

Becoming Financially Aware
Now that the problem is clear, I'm going to offer a clear solution. As this issue is clearly based upon lack of financial awareness, I will demonstrate how to increase financial awareness. I need you to find a comfortable chair, close your eyes, begin breathing rhythmically and block out all mental images while focusing on a perception of financial awareness. You might even want to whisper the words "financial awareness" to yourself as a means of staying focused.

I'm kidding (though I do respect meditation practitioners) and just having fun with the idea of "awareness".

I have a practical, hands-on approach I plan on employing this week to develop some financial awareness. This week, when I check my bank account each morning, I'm going to take out a piece of paper and write down my checking account balance. I'll put this piece of paper in my pocket and take it with me as I go about my day. Anytime I purchase anything (yes, that includes a seventy five cent soda can) I will pull out this piece of paper and write down the amount I just spent. Before going to bed at night, I will subtract the amount I spent that day from the total balance I wrote in the morning and figure out my new total balance. I will then take out another sheet of paper and write the new total balance at the top of the sheet to use tomorrow. The next morning, I'll grab the paper with the total balance, put it in my pocket and repeat the aforementioned process.

Isn't this the same thing as that annoying checkbook I don't use?
There are some advantages to using this method versus say making a budget in the beginning of the week or keeping a more specific spending record like a checkbook. Often times when people make budgets, they plan out a specific amount for spending on-the-go. Due to the nature of on-the-go spending, often times that twenty dollars a week spending limit for on-the-go purchases is exceeded within two or three days of unconscious spending. Taking time to write down how much you're actually spending helps you stay within your budget goals with very little effort. The method I'm employing is basically the same as a spending record like a checkbook but slimmed down. Unlike a checkbook, I don't have to carry around a bulky, multi-page item. Also unlike the checkbook, I don't feel inclined to have to fill out any additional information. If you're like me, a page which has boxes for writing down dates, store names, check numbers, etc., makes you feel as if you must fill out all that information in order to be organized properly. Using my strategy, none of that is required. Simply write down the amount, and do the subtraction later, no need to worry about taking down the date, what store you're purchasing from and all of that. What truly matters, after all, is being aware that you are spending money.

Moving Forward
If I employ this strategy successfully, I am certain I will go from thinking "where did that money go" to knowing precisely where it went. More importantly, as I stated earlier, it is impossible to live frugally without financial awareness. By developing financial awareness, I will be able to move forward and employ other frugal methods. Each day I will know how much money I have, which will make it easier to spend that money more carefully, reduce wasteful spending and funnel what was once wasteful spending into worthy causes such as reducing debt and building savings.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Building Savings

Photo Courtesy of Shinya Omachi via Flickr

I have always associated building savings with a high level of discipline. It's on account of such associations that I have had immense difficulty saving money. In recent months however, I've strongly reconsidered my stance. What led me to do so? Well, I decided it was time to change my perspective after watching my paychecks be spent in their entirety every week while the amount of fun I had, goods I acquired, and debt I carried seemed to stay at relatively the same level. Taking note of this cause me to ask myself "What in the world have I been spending all of my money on"? This question become more troubling as I added up the amount of funds I've received from scholarships, financial aid, student loans, tax returns and selling goods on eBay. At once I became conscious of the fact that though I've received thousands of dollars in the past year, I didn't save any of it. Not even one dollar.

The frugal experts are probably saying "You have no money in your savings account and you think you can offer insights on frugal living? Are you out of your mind?". Well my friend, the answer is "yes" to the first question and "I don't think so" to the second. While it is true that a frugal expert may know more about building savings, it does not necessarily follow that such an expert is the best person to teach a novice about the subject. From the first post, I admitted that much of what I write pertains to learning how to be frugal and taking initial steps in that direction. I never claimed to be a frugal guru ready on demand to recite current interest rates for various savings accounts. Furthermore, I believe that the average article on savings is too busy preaching to the choir to reach the astounding number of people who have trouble building savings. Sometimes you gotta get back to the basics and address what keeps people from saving before suggesting methods that they aren't yet ready to use.

That being said, I will lay out my plan to build savings. I consider it a simple plan and intend to keep it that way while I master the fundamentals of building savings. My first strategy I have in mind involves thinking small. I make around two hundred dollars a week and will start by putting just five dollars of that weekly income into a savings account. This will be done immediately upon receiving my paycheck to avoid making such a deposit seem larger. I will do this right away because it is much easier to set aside five dollars out of two hundred dollars than five dollars out of twenty dollars. In the former, you barely notice the difference, in the latter you give up a fourth of your remaining income and feel a stronger sense of deprivation. I will continue to make five dollar deposits to my savings on pay day and see how the weeks play out. My theory is that they will certainly play out the same as previous weeks. This is a likely outcome as five dollars is much too small of change in income to cause any inconvenience. The goal is to get to the point where I no longer see the five dollars as a portion of my income and putting it aside becomes so habitual that it's as natural depositing the rest of my money into my checking account. So unlike the previous weeks, I would be saving something every time I'm paid.

If this idea sounds familiar, it's because it probably is. There are similarly structured methods floating around the personal finance world regarding building savings. I remember reading The Automatic Millionaire a couple of years ago and being especially impressed by the whole "automatic" side of David Bach's ideas. The book proposed a method of saving for retirement in which a prearranged amount is automatically deducted from your paycheck and placed into savings. This way there is no sense of deprivation attached to building savings as the money is automatically put away for you and you quickly become accustomed to living without it.

In the method I am trying out, I don't want my process of saving to be completely automated as I would like to improve upon my habits while I'm saving money. In my opinion, the physical act of depositing the money versus having it automatically deducted will give me a sense of control and satisfaction I wouldn't get through the automated method. Many of those who have funds automatically deducted from their paychecks have these funds deposited into retirement accounts. The driving purpose being to build a large amount of money you can live off of once you are no longer working. Such savings seem incredibly far-fetched and uninteresting to a young man like myself and would definitely make me feel like I'm depriving myself now for some future gain. According to my present plan, I am saving without a clear purpose in mind. No you didn't misread that, I said I am saving without a clear purpose in mind.

Well I'm a part of this aimless, purposeless generation of young people aren't I?

Jokes aside, by no purpose, I simply mean without a set finishing line or enticing reward. I'm not building savings for retirement, or to purchase something expensive or anything concrete like that. I am saving money because I'm tired of blowing through money unconsciously and having little to show for it. I suppose I was wrong in saying I had no purpose. The purpose, would be to put my method of saving into practice without consideration of the end result. This time next year, if I realize that I'm still spending my paychecks in their entirety, I want to pull up my savings account balance on the computer and see I have $260.00 in there. I don't want to spend every week leading up to that point envisioning such an outcome. I would rather have saving money built so deeply into my routine that only upon remembering how wasteful I used to be would I notice the big difference.

Once I have that down, then I'll start looking at what I can do with the money I've saved. As cliche goes, you gotta learn to crawl before you can walk.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Frugal Living and Simple Living

We live in complicated times. Technology is progressing at tremendous rates and the world we live in is becoming all the more complex on account of it. I think those two statements are so commonly accepted that they're almost not worth mentioning. We've all heard such statements before and all we have to do is look around us and see that it's true.

Such complexity certainly has brought about it's conveniences and made certain tasks easier to accomplish. For example, in the past, someone who decided to simplify their life and live more frugally would not have a lot of the useful resources available today. In the past when you cleaned your home and decided to get rid of stuff you considered clutter but figured others might find useful, you'd resort to a yard sale or use word-of-mouth amongst friends to give away your stuff for free. These days, if you want to generate extra income, you'd forgo the yard sale and post your unneeded items on Ebay or Craigslist. If like many frugal minded people, you have things you don't think would sell but just can't bear to throw them away, you no longer have to ask around and see who wants them. Now you can offer them on Freecyle and anybody interested will gladly come pick up your unwanted goods. These services made it less difficult to reach much more potentially interested people, with much less effort, than it took before the internet era. When technology has clearly practical uses, the complexity it adds to the world is seen as an addition of valuable options and useful tools. It serves the kind of role I personally believe it should.

Pardon my inner Luddite, but although I see the benefits of technological advances, I also see their drawbacks. The increasingly complex world that technology has created is littered with massive amounts of distraction that can be difficult to filter out. I know everyone is guilty of signing on to Facebook and passing time when they are supposed to be working on something of importance. There are plenty of times where I initially plan on checking my bank account online and two hours later, realize I spent my time posting on my favorite forum or reading album reviews and never once checked my account balances. Although the internet has provided a means for the average user to access information on any given topic, it's used much more for entertainment than to increase productivity. I'm sure the amount of hours that are spent by people on video games, Facebook, forums, Twitter and YouTube eclipses the amount of time spent creating useful documents, reading fascinating articles or learning about something new and practical.

So how does one deal with distraction and still use technology for it's beneficial purposes? Well, like anything else, you learn to weed out the unimportant and devote more energy to that which truly matters. The way we deal with multiple options presented to us is by choosing those which we deem worth pursuing and focusing on them. When trying to increase productivity, we do the same with technology. If you're a college student and you have a major paper due in a couple of hours, you know not to spend your limited time on your favorite sports forum. Since you must complete your paper, you avoid distractions and put all your focus and energy into doing so. If you're signing online briefly to check your email, you decide to do so and move on with your day instead of clicking some advertisers link and deciding you feel like browsing new cookware for awhile. This ability to streamline is what separates the people who use the internet only for productive purposes (Are these people real?) and the people who spend three hours or more a day online but somehow never seem to learn anything practical to use within their lives (I know that guy).

"So Mr. I can't stay focused online so I resort to calling the internet a mess of distractions, how does any of this relate to frugal living?"

Well the key idea I was illustrating is the need to filter out distraction and focus on what is helpful in the face of complexity. I used technology because I think we all know what it's like to waste time on the internet. On top of this, in this day and age, the amount of time we spend online makes up a significant portion of our day. In our present era, I'm sure everyone has at point or another had to find a way to avoid distraction online and focus on a relevant task at hand. It's a necessary method of dealing with a complicated world and it is the same kind of thinking that thoroughly drives frugal living, and it's older cousin of sorts, simple living. Those who practice simple living do so as a means of focusing on that which they feel is important. They give up a lot of what they feel is unnecessary and try and stick to the essentials. By owning less and wanting less, they achieve a freedom they couldn't have without doing so and are free to do that which they find a valuable use of time. It is an effective means of dealing with complexity. To make the technology analogy complete, simple living would be like choosing only to use the internet for purposes that you care about as opposed to using the internet mindlessly when you could be doing something better.

Frugal living is founded upon a similar mentality concerning the way we use our money. In this increasingly complex world, alongside technology, the amount of goods one can spend money on has drastically increased. No longer is the bulk of someone's income spent on necessities. Though I concede that there are people out there in poverty who spend their entire incomes on food and shelter, I still insist that a large group of people with extra income exists. The majority of people have some kind of steady, disposable income which can be spent without much consequence. Once your monthly bills are covered and you are sitting on an extra one hundred to one thousand dollars (I'm attempting to span economic classes here) you have the choice to do as you wish with this surplus income. Or at least you think you do. With so many options presented to us for using this surplus, it becomes exceptionally difficult to focus on a valuable use of money and avoid the distracting temptations. The advertising industry has succeeded in this department to the point where they have messed with people's ability to distinguish between what is essential and what is simply a commodity. Frugal living looks at this situation and attempts to regain a sense of focus amidst the distraction of unnecessary spending. It's taking a minute to think about that extra pair of shoes before purchasing them and wondering whether you need them or are about to purchase them because some subtle message has been planted in your mind about their worth. It's about protesting a trendy bar's insistence that you can only have a good time there and should be paying four dollars a beer by deciding to go to the hole in the wall down the street with some friends and enjoy dollar drafts instead. It's about looking at a thirty five dollar item and acknowledging that it took you five hours at work (Assuming you're paid Florida's minimum wage) to produce the income necessary to purchase that item. Frugal living is about awareness and focus. It's the antonym of impulse buys.

I've found that a lot of the frugal living blogs that I visit also contain articles about simplifying your life. I've seen articles about how to clean out your closet and catalog your clothes to avoid overspending on clothing. There have been articles written about how to stay on task when cleaning your home or working on a project. There is clearly a kind of reverence towards a streamlined life amongst these blogs. It could be because showing discipline and wisdom in one area of your life is bound to appear in other areas. I know for one, I love the feeling a get when I walk into a clean house. There is a certain kind of peacefulness that I never seem to experience in a house littered with junk. I've experienced a similar feeling when I look at my account balances before I pick up my next paycheck, and find there is actually money left. I feel like I'm in control and focused for once and get a real sense of pride and satisfaction with that feeling. It is during these moments that I feel that I have successfully navigated through this complex world and arrived where I intended to go instead of being somehow led to the country of "Brokeland" once more. I hope as I continue to learn more about living frugally, I experience such moments more frequently.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

When Frugal Becomes Fun

I often times find it difficult to write about frugal living practically. I'm more drawn to the philosophical and reflective side of frugal living and that's probably why I tend to write long, analytical posts as opposed to simply listing a bunch of stuff I found on sale or providing clear, impersonal how-to posts on saving money. It could be because I'm young and in college (busy "finding myself" as the cliche goes) that I prefer to focus on reasons why one should care about living frugally versus how to actually live frugally. I had a conversation with some friends about actually putting ideas into practice as opposed to pretending that simply having the idea is enough. In accordance with that discussion, I'm going to shift focus today. In this post I'm going to discuss some shopping I did last weekend that actually meets the standards I set for myself regarding personal finance and finding ways to save money.

Photo: Dauvit Alexander, via Flickr

Though I don't go there enough, I've always been fond of my local flea market, USA Flea Market. I had fond memories of the place from my childhood, as my brother and I used to love their fake ninja swords. I don't remember when I first decided to go again as an adult, I think probably on some occasion with my father (one of the many notorious cheapskates in my family) in search of a cheap wallet. I came to realize that the flea market had a lot to offer and have since gone whenever I happen to be free on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday afternoon. This particular flea market is closed the rest of the week.

There is a lot of overlooked treasure at the flea market. I've picked up some exceptionally fresh sunglasses at some of it's shops. These pairs are similar to the high-end fashion pairs you see rock stars, actors and models and such wear except because they don't say "Oakley" in small print somewhere they cost two to five dollars instead of one hundred dollars. I can already hear someone saying "Yeah, but I've had my Oakley's for years and they are still in perfect condition". Well my five dollar flea-market sunglasses are still alive and well two years later, and I'd have to have broken them and repurchased them a whopping twenty times (I don't know anyone that careless) in order to justify having purchased a name brand pair instead.

This past Saturday I visited the flea market because I was in need of some new belts. I had browsed new ones at various stores like TJ Maxx, Ross, Wal-Mart and a Levi's store but found that it was pretty much impossible to find a belt for under eight dollars. In true tightwad fashion, I put the belts down immediately upon seeing the price and begin to think of where I could find a better deal. Eventually, my cheapskate dad's voice came into my head saying "El flea market tiene correas por cinco pesos". My father, like the rest of my family is Puerto Rican, so when his voice pops into my head it's either in Spanish or heavily accented English. So to translate his statement quite literally, it says "The flea market has belts for five dollars". One of the first stores I saw upon entering the flea market had a two for five dollars sale on belts. I found two I liked quite a bit and purchased them.

Finding those belts reminded me that saving money can actually be kind of enjoyable. I got a sense of satisfaction from knowing I protested the retail price of a product while simultaneously supporting a more independent business (most the flea-market shops are run by individuals and/or families). My wallet was also happy as I only had to part from five dollars to acquire two belts. Had I gone the retail route, it would've been more like sixteen dollars.

On top of the good feeling I got from saving money, I also tend to enjoy the flea market's atmosphere. In an article by Mishri Bhatia about the Waldo Flea Market in North Florida, Bhatia uses a lot of quotes from customers and vendors, alongside her own observations, to portray the flea market as having a friendly, social and personal spirit. I agree that the flea market has such an environment because my experience at my local flea market confirms it. The shop owners are generally interested in you as a customer and are more than happy to field any questions you may have. The customers stroll through the aisles at a relaxed pace, taking in the sights and sounds and browsing tables of goods for anything that catches their eye. You get a look inside the world of hobbies that you won't encounter in a retail setting. It's much different for example, to see action figures in the context of a collector's store full of adults searching for obscure toys is a lot more fascinating than to see a lifeless isle full of toys at Walmart. There is a certain personal touch to each store that welcomes and attracts customers.

Next time you're in need of something, try your local flea market. Aside from aforementioned products, most of them have electronics stores, furniture stores, pet stores, fruit stands, a food court, used video games, music and movies for sale, discounted clothing and just about anything else you might need. I know one thing's for sure, you're guaranteed to walk away with that great I-just-found-a-bargain feeling more often than you ever will at your local mall or retail store, something your bank account will thank you for later.