My family of three has never been very good at being thrifty. Sure, my income took a hit during the recession, so we tried saving here and there. But few of the changes suggested in articles like “Easy ways to save, save, save!” were useful to us. Cutting our grocery costs at big-box, wholesale-style supermarkets wasn’t an option since, for ethical and health reasons, we eat mostly organic, sustainably farmed food and use health-food store brands. Coupon clipping was also a no-go. We’re too disorganized to use them in time. The upshot: Not many of the standard-issue money-saving ideas stuck.
Then, this summer, I had an epiphany. When you have a tangible, I-can-taste-it-in-my-mouth reason to save, you will save. Fortunately for us, our motivator isn’t job loss. And the mortgage on our house in an affordable city is small. Our must-save motivation is to live abroad part of next year. We’re now three months in and have cut hundreds from our monthly expenses. Here’s how.
1. Scaling back on eating out. It’s elementary home ec, right? Eating out adds up. And like roughly 60 percent of Canadians, we used to eat out at least once a week. We enjoyed sushi at $100-plus a pop, but now we limit Japanese to once a month. Our other “regular” weekly dinner out has to be $50 or less. (Your “Japanese” might be an upscale salon mani-pedi habit. The point is, move down-market and save.) Savings: $150/month.
2. Dedicating one meal a week to “found food.” Canadians waste a lot of food—an average of 25 percent of what we buy. My family’s fairly typical: Some nights we’ve eaten out because a peek into the fridge revealed produce that, while not spoiled, looked fit for the composter, not a plate. Now, once a week, our crisper leftovers are transformed into an everything-into-the-pot pasta meal. Savings: $200/month in averted dinners out.
3. Practising meatless days. We now eat two vegetarian dinners a week, up from one. It’s improving our health, reducing our carbon footprint and saving money. Savings: Up to $60/month.
4. Dumping digital cable.We thought our nine-year-old might have issues with this…but she watches her anime, tween sitcoms and cartoons on Netflix ($8/month) and has barely noticed. As for the grown-ups, we head to Citytv’s video portal for Modern Family. Savings: $95/month.
5. Ditching phone extras. What’s so bad about not knowing who is calling? Or getting a busy signal? If someone really needs to reach us, they’ve got our cellphone numbers. Savings: $25/month.
6. Nixing personal training. I used to book a monthly personal training session ($40) and weekly private-swim lessons ($20 per one-hour session). I’ve dropped both in favour of a Sunday afternoon advanced swim class, and at $140 for a 10-week series of three-hour-long classes, it’s a bargain. And I’m inching closer to my bucket-list goal of lifeguarding! Savings: $120 over 10 weeks plus $840 by training independently thereafter.
7. Taking a second job I hate. A second job is considered the Holy Grail of debt reduction. And, by Jove, it is! It’s also a crappy way to spend nights and weekends. I can attest to this, having recently undertaken a mind-numbing contract gig that pays an average hourly rate equal to what I made 10 years ago. Between this jaw-clenching new project and my regular freelancing (which I love!), I’m working a 60-hour week. But at the end of this four-month ordeal-by-laptop, I’ll be thousands of dollars closer to my goal. Second-job earnings: $5,980 by February 2012.
The Bottom Line
It may be true that if you watch your pennies, the dollars will look after themselves. But we’ve found that big cuts get the job done faster. We have some expenses we can’t compromise—charitable donations and car repairs, for instance—but one of the side effects of the cuts has been the cumulative changes they’ve inspired. Once you dump cable TV, it’s amazing how much time you have for free or income-generating activities.
I need $30,000 by next summer. This plan diverts an extra $13,320 to our vacation savings account by July 1, 2012 (with thousands more we’ll have saved through skipped weekend getaways, cutting back on new clothes, reducing—but not eliminating—extracurricular and birthday activities, and so on). It also provides breathing room for additional cuts, odd jobs and other hare-brained schemes aimed at raising the rest.