#FrugalFebruary – What we can all learn from The Overspent American

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If you haven’t read The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need by Juliet Schor, then I would encourage you to add it to your ‘must read’ list.

Written towards the end of the 1990’s, Schor’s message is as true today as it was in the days before the global financial crisis. If you’re looking to simplify your life, the messages from this important book may resonate with you (as they did with me). I just wish I’d read it before.

In today’s post, I share some of the key tenets of Schor’s persuasive manifesto in the hope that they will help you on your journey towards a more meaningful life with less. In particular, I’d suggest that these are messages we’ll want to teach our kids so let me know if they resonated with you.

Beware ‘prosperous referents’

We’re all aware of the idea of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. In the case of our kids, for Joneses read ‘Kardashian’ (and consider the title of that celebrity family’s television show) and ‘Made in Chelsea’. Schor takes this notion further, describing the impact of widespread ‘upscale competitive consumption’ on individuals and society as a whole.

Schor suggests that we are now exposed to a much broader range of ‘referents’ (points of social and cultural comparison) than ever before. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to those we see on social media, on the television, at the office or in our neighbourhood.

We see others remodelling their kitchens and want to do it, too. We observe colleagues with the latest gadgets or we look on enviously as siblings book foreign holidays.

Yet, the truth is this: everyone’s finances are unique. If we aspire to buy what others have, we may find ourselves enmeshed in what Schor calls ‘a cycle of work-and-spend’.

Upscaling has undermined saving

There’s absolutely nothing wrong in striving to achieve [and save for] what we want in life, but remember this:

upscaling has undermined saving

When the urge to own what others becomes overwhelming, we find ourselves stretching budgets (or taking on debt) to pay for things that we don’t actually need.

We all need an emergency fund for when the washing machine breaks down or the fence blows over. Do we all have one?

Consider Schor’s manifesto

Here’s my 2017 take on Schor’s plan, which is aimed at both individuals and society. What do you make of these action points? Can you apply any of them to your own life? What would you advise your kids, especially teens for whom independence and adulthood is not so far away?

Control desire

Unsubscribe from email marketing. We can all do this individually or use a service such as Unroll.me. Recycle catalogues that land on your doormat.

If you do purchase something, buy the best quality you can afford so that it lasts. When own something lovely that adds value to your life, you stop looking.

Make exclusivity uncool

Consider what a difference it would make if conspicuous consumption were frowned upon, exposing competitive spending for what it really is.

So, be prepared to stand out from the crowd. Set spending limits.

This can be particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with children. By deciding to hold just a modest birthday party, for example, other parents may thank you for taking the pressure off.

For teenagers, try establishing a monthly allowance. When it’s gone, it’s gone. There’s no borrowing from next month. This approach helps teens enormously; it helps them see that exclusivity is uncool when a single purchase can blow their budget and prevent them from using their allowance to enjoy experiences.

Embrace the sharing economy

Educate yourself about the brands you love. Consider the provenance of their products (about which there may not be a great deal of information). To what extent do the values of your favourite brands truly align with yours? Do you really need to buy a product with a label (when you will, in effect, become a walking advertisement)?

To build on this theme, become ‘ad-aware’ and more alert to the possibility that we are surrounded by subliminal messages encouraging us to buy.

Even better, find ways to share, rather than to own. Tool libraries are now emerging, but I’d wager there are many more things we could share in our communities.

For example, I think a ‘Spice Sharing Collective’ would be a fabulous way to have access to a range of unusual herbs and spices that you’d otherwise hesitate buying. Local friends, don’t go out and buy Fenugreek; come and get a teaspoon from me!

Avoid retail therapy

Spending, which can be addictive, may be a substitute for other activities or needs. The idea of shopping as therapy can make a situation worse, as debt and guilt add to the feelings that ‘retail therapy’ was designed to eliminate.

De-commercialise the rituals

See if you can avoid every holiday, festival or celebration becoming a shopping spree. Instead, discover the histories of the holidays you celebrate. If a particular ritual involves gifting, consider making something yourself.

Make Time

If you outsource, you buy time but have to earn to pay for it. That doesn’t really make sense. Consider how much ‘life energy‘ you’d have to expend just to pay someone else for a particular service.

Doing something the slow way is definitely cheaper and may be more eco-friendly, even if it takes more time. It may also bring you closer to those in your community, which is good for them and for you.

Break the work-and-spend cycle

Here’s where Schor addresses society as a whole, including those who can legislate for change.

If we tax larger vehicles, as we do in the UK, that may nudge us towards a different choice.
Likewise, the larger the home, the higher the domestic property tax.

Maybe these types of governmental controls will cause us, consumers, to consider if what we already have may actually be enough thus breaking the ‘work-and-spend’ cycle of consumption.

Mitigate the factors that lead to competitive spending

Here’s another one for government. What would happen if advertisements were no longer subsidised? Is more always better?

If, as consumers, we stopped believing the marketers who persuade us that buying a particular product could fill a heart void/help us look younger/slimmer, make us happier, we may be able to break the pattern of competitive spending. Keeping up with the Joneses would become a thing of the past.

Beyond a certain point, more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness

I think we all know this deep down, but a reminder now and again is no bad thing.

More stuff doesn’t make us happier. In fact, we know that more stuff equals more misery, more stress, more distraction, more debt.

A turning tide?

Schor concludes with a desire for balance, proposing ‘a decently functioning economy coexisting with a decent cultural and daily life experience’.

Almost 20 years on from the first publication of this influential book, I’d like to think that the tide is turning. I’d like to believe that this balance is achievable. A growing interest in minimalism and simple living makes me hope that it is.

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#FrugalFebruary – Slow your home

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In her little book, The Simple Life, Rhonda Hetzel describes how becoming a homemaker helped her to see that it’s possible to live well in either of two ways:

  1. Increase your earning potential by earning as much as you possibly can
  2. Value becoming a skilled homemaker and change your definition of success

Certainly, by adopting the ‘slow’ approach to your home life, it’s possible not only to develop and enjoy new skills but – dare I say it – increase your happiness.

Hetzel argues that, by adopting a frugal mindset, we will naturally slow our spending thus adding value to the family ‘bottom line’ in ways that don’t involve work outside the home.

In today’s post, I’m going to explore some ways in which we can embrace the ethos of Hetzel’s ‘slow home’ philosophy.

‘In-source’ not ‘out-source’

What can you do yourself, rather than outsource it?

For a period of time last year, we employed a cleaner. The reality was that whilst this got the basics done, the cleaning was never as thorough as it would have been if we had done it ourselves. Stopping the cleaning enabled us to make a decent cost saving and – with a minimalist home – it’s not difficult to do the job ourselves.

When I was 21, I lived for a year in Switzerland as a ‘jeune-fille au-pair’.  The families for whom I worked set the bar high in terms of outsourcing; they bought in a lot of help. To balance this, they worked long hours in demanding jobs. By contrast, our little family  endeavours to ensure a work-life balance in terms of how we choose to live, but we do our all of our own ironing, gardening, car washing and so on. You get the picture.

Guard your hard-earned cash closely

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Don’t go to ‘shiny spending places’ because shopping is addictive. Instead of going to the mall, think how much time you’ll have to enjoy a walk in the fresh air, time to read, time to play, time to be with others.

If you need to buy something, ask yourself how much ‘life energy‘ you expended in order to be able to buy it. That is, if you think about your hourly rate of pay, how many hours did you have to work to be able to buy the item in question.

I’ve written before about how slow shopping is a minimalist thing. If you are going to shop, consider buying locally-produced consumables from the market. Slow down. Enjoy being out and about. It’s the frugal way.

Make do and mend

Consider how our grandparents would have lived. It’s about going back to basics to a place that is homely and comfortable. As Hetzel says, it’s about “warm oats soaked overnight and cooked slowly rather than cornflakes; it’s home-baked bread instead of sliced white in plastic wrap.”

Now, I can hear you say, “Well, I have a full-time job, kids, a dog, a house and… and…and.”

I know. I understand. I’m with you.

Find what works for you. Minimalism isn’t a rigid construct. It’s about identifying what adds value to your life. What works for you may not work for me. For example, I don’t compromise on food (I cook virtually everything from scratch) but I have no inclination to grow my own veggies because I know that wouldn’t fit with our family way of life. Our garden, full of woody shrubs, would also need a major overhaul to enable us to grow our own.

Take inspiration from others such as Jen Gale whose Make Do and Mend Year (of buying nothing new) turned into My Make Do and Mend Life.

Alternatively, listen to the Slow Home Podcast with Brooke McAlary.

Cheryl Magyar, writing on her blog, reminds us that’s it’s possible to combine traditional practices in contemporary life, especially when we can make the most of the teachings, insights and content available at our fingertips through the internet. Harnessing the power of the web enables us to have a ready source of instruction, guidance, advice, support and knowledge. Thus, we combine new technology with enduring traditions in a positive way.

As Hetzel points out, today’s work-and-spend cycle potentially takes away the ability to do things for ourselves, disconnecting us from a sense of personal pride in what we make and what we can do.

Consider different approaches towards a ‘slow home’ that works for you.

Spend out

Use what you have, before you buy more. Not keen on that particular brand of shampoo? Use it up! Don’t buy more until you have actually run out. You’ll save money if you take this approach.

Change your definition of success

Hetzel says, “I used to measure success by the amount of money I made and spent.” Her book reveals the joy in the small successes that can be achieved from the time spent at home.

Success can take many forms. It can be as simple as the satisfaction of a dish that turns out beautifully; a small DIY job around the house that you achieve yourself; time freed up to enjoy an activity you really love; or just feeling less rushed, less scheduled, less obligated.

So,what does success look like for you? Have you made attempts to slow your home? What were the outcomes? What worked well for you? What didn’t go so well? I’d love to know !

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A week without schedule

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Today is the middle day of February half-term.

For those outside the UK, half-term is literally a mid-term break for school-children whose school terms normally span (roughly) a 12 week period.

This short winter vacation allows kids and their teachers to catch their breath, as the Christmas holidays seem some time ago and Easter is not yet round the corner.

A spring-like vacation

The weather is so mild, one could be mistaken for thinking spring had already arrived. I remember freezing cold half-term breaks in years gone by. This week we can already enjoy crocuses, snowdrops and narcissi all around us. What’s the weather like with you?

A week at home

This week, I decided to join our 15-year-old in taking some time off, so I booked 5 days’ annual leave. Instead of sitting at my desk at 16:30 on a Wednesday, I am enjoying a cup of tea at my breakfast bar. They say a change is as good as a rest; I’d suggest it’s even better than that.

Days unscheduled

For me, I was looking forward to week involving few plans. In actual fact, when I reflect on it, it’s not that my days have been unplanned or full of drift. On the contrary. What I realise is that this time has unfolded as a ‘week unscheduled’.

What a joy! 

As a list-maker, I had previously noted down a few things that needed to get done (tick), but had made a mental note of lovely experiences to enjoy when the domestic jobs were done.

A natural pattern

So, my days have fallen into a natural pattern.

Get up just a little later than usual (carpe diem wins out!). Walk dog. Do something productive. Eat lunch. Indulge in a time-intensive activity such as reading, writing or yoga. Enter the evening feeling a little less rushed than normal; a little more chilled out. Relax.

A case in point

Today has included a walk into Kenilworth to run a few errands (double brownie points here; Ollie-the-cockapoo also got his morning walk). Then, I returned to complete some decorating I have been doing for the past few weeks: I had a radiator to gloss and a pine bench to rub down for painting. Lunch – a baked potato – cooked itself, as I got on with my DIY tasks.

Mummy and daughter time

This afternoon, my daughter and I had time for a cuddle on the sofa (tricky when I’m a ‘non-squishy’ mama, says she!) and a nail-painting session. It’s these little moments that we can enjoy and treasure when we’re not rushing around or dashing from one appointment to the next.

Many of us have work lives that are incredibly structured and arguably over-scheduled. A week without schedule is one to be cherished. I heartily recommend it to you.

Can you schedule one in sometime ;-)?

Coming up next: The penultimate post in the #FrugalFebruary series – Slow your home

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#FrugalFebruary – Frugal Entertaining

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Entertaining is something many of us enjoy, but entertaining on a budget can prove challenging. At the request of reader, Elaine, here are 12 tips on frugal entertaining.

Go veggie

Recently, we entertained a family of 4, so our party was 7 in total. The kids happily ate pizza; the grown-ups enjoyed a very delicious Happy Pear recipe. Plant-based meals are both healthy and tasty and are almost certainly to be more cost-effective than a meat or fish-based main course.

Bring and share

If you’re the host, you cook the main course and have your guests contribute a starter, pudding, cheese and biscuits or a side dish. We’ve followed this format over several years with a group of friends; it’s a lovely way to enjoy each other’s company without the host having to incur all the cost.

You can even ‘bring and share’ for an event like a wedding, which gives guests a real sense of having contributed to this special occasion. A ‘bring and share’ wedding we attended was one of the happiest I can remember.

Use your slow cooker

I made lunch for 9 the day after Boxing Day. With a cheaper cut of meat and a very good recipe from Nigella, the whole meal cost about £25.

Don’t use disposables

Use your table napkins and make do with whatever crockery you have. Mix and match is charming and frugal. If you need something like a larger dish or an extra chair or two, borrow these.

Cook from scratch

Start backwards when preparing, with pudding first (one large one is easy to prepare), then main course, then starter. This can take a few hours, but the effort, quality of food and cost-effectiveness is worth it.

Remember that your friends are here to see you

Your guests won’t judge you as though you were a competitor on Masterchef. Good food, simply cooked, is the best thing ever.

Look in the freezer cabinet

If you want pre-prepared or need bulk-buy foods, frozen foods may be cheaper than buying fresh. Iceland, for example, sells large packs of chicken breasts for a fraction of the cost of fresh. So, shop around.

Go tea-total

Catering for large numbers? Make homemade lemonade or fruit punch for a pre-dinner drink, instead of offering expensive alcoholic options.

Make savvy substitutions

If you intend to serve alcohol, make some savvy substitutions – Love a glass of fizz? The prestigious French brands are top-dollar, so opt for Prosecco. Even better, try Cava or a supermarket-own bottle of sparkling wine. Made into Buck’s Fizz with two parts of fizz to one of orange juice, this can also stretch a long way.

Plan, plan, plan

Look out for things you’ll need that might be on offer in the days or weeks leading up to your party.

Have a theme

Go back to your student days: jacket potatoes and chilli make a great bonfire night meal. Another idea is to get your guests to bring their favourite song and enjoy a ‘Desert island discs‘ evening. The food doesn’t have to be the main event.

Change the time

Make dinner high tea ; make tea lunch; make the whole thing brunch. This can prove to be less costly overall and more enjoyable for those who aren’t night owls!

I hope you’ve enjoyed these 12 ideas on frugal entertaining, but I’d love to know what you do when you’re feeding a crowd but want to keep the cost down.

Further reading:

#FrugalFebruary – Food and groceries

#FrugalFebruary – 10 Frugal Fun ideas

#FrugalFebruary – 8 Tips to Minimize Everyday Disposables

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#FrugalFebruary – A word about credit cards

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If you’ve paid off your credit card after the winter holidays, why not put your card away in the drawer now? If your goal is to live within your means and even get some savings behind you, I would suggest that the regular use of a credit card may not support this goal.


Can you be masterful with money without a ‘MasterCard’?

Some folks use a credit card for all of their discretionary spending, paying off the bill in full when it arrives at the end of the month. I’m not too comfortable with this. It means that your income is immediately devoted to paying off last month’s costs, so you’re always on the back foot.

Use cash

Here in the UK, the CAP Money Course is well-respected way of helping people break the cycle of debt and get on top of their finances. CAP advocate a cash system: withdraw the money you need for each item of discretionary spending (e.g. food and groceries), place the cash in an envelope and only spend the amount of money in the envelope until next week comes around.

I use ‘cash’ but with a debit card, tracking daily my spending against different budget categories, which I anticipate and plan for every month.

Emergencies only

I have one credit card account. I once cut up the actual card completely, but realised that this was probably an extreme move, as I do some international travel and having a credit card can be useful.

I now retain that single card but I use it only for genuine emergencies. Here’s one such example. Around Easter 2015, we took a trip to Dubai as a family. We all became very poorly, which we attributed to a meal we ate in the desert. My husband subsequently collapsed because of dehydration and gastroenteritis, following which he spent a night in one of the city’s hospitals where he was put on a drip to recover. Moral of the story? Keep a credit card for genuine emergencies. That was a real emergency, involving blue lights and a lot of other ‘excitement’ that I’d rather not repeat.

What if I’ve got more than one card?

There are varying different views on this.

If you are familiar with the work of Dave Ramsey, you’ll know that consolidating credit card debt onto one card (or onto a loan) is a no-no. Ramsey’s view is that you should work to pay down the smallest debt first, which results in a positive ‘snowball effect’ of paying down each debt one by one. Although you’ll keep paying the minimum payment on any other card/s you have, once you’ve paid off card 1, all of your efforts can be devoted to paying off card 2 and so on.

Another possible option is to buy yourself some breathing space by transferring your credit card debt onto an account where you pay zero interest for a given period. This could allow you to divide the money owed into manageable chunks, paying off the balance before the credit interest kicks in.

What I do see from Ramsey and others:

No debt is good debt. If you need to use a credit card to buy something, that suggests you can’t really afford it.

What’s your view? How does becoming minimalist support your financial goals?

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When one job leads to another…

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We already knew that there was a hole in the conservatory roof. This 25 year-old structure was beginning to look its age. One of the polycarbonate roof panels had slipped, so you could stand in the conservatory and have a conversation with someone who was leaning out of the bedroom window above.

Can anyone help?

I rang a number of companies. Roofers weren’t interested. They said to call a property maintenance ‘one-man-band’. So, I called two. One came and looked. He never quoted. The next didn’t even come and look. So, I finally rang a conservatory company who came, as planned, took a look and gave me a price for the job.

Here’s where it is gets complicated

The blinds in the conservatory ceiling needed to come down so that the panel could be leveraged from both inside and outside. However, the blinds were stuck and – worse – still connected to the electrics.

So, I called an electrician. He could do the job of disconnecting the blinds.

Since you’re here anyway…

While the electrician was with us, we agreed it would be good to replace some old light fittings that were worn out and no longer functioning.

Suddenly, the house felt lighter and brighter but now there were new holes to fill where the old light fittings previously attached to the wall or ceiling.

On Monday, after what seems like an inordinate amount of time, the hole in the roof will finally be mended. I hope…

Moral of the story?

The more stuff you have, the more there is to maintain… and the more costly becomes the whole enterprise.

#FrugalFebruary – Review your Habits

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Do you ever wonder how you can turn your finances around if you’re struggling with debt or wondering how to make ends meet? In today’s blog post, we’re going to consider the issue of habits.

Take the advice of PTMoney who say that if you’re getting started with improving your financial situation, you should probably take a look at reducing your expenses first. They call it the low ‘hanging fruit’.

But, how to get started when you have a full life and don’t want to lock yourself away?

The answer?

Review your habits

It’s easy to get into the habit of buying a skinny latte on your way into the office (you’ve all read about the ‘latte factor’). The fact of the matter is simple. That £3 per day represents £15 per week (for a 5 day week) and whopping £600 per year if you’re working 40 weeks of the year. These things soon add up.

So, reverse the maths in a positive way. PT Money’s 52 week Money Saving Challenge encourages savers to save just $1 in Week 1, $2 in Week 2 and so on. Result after a year? $1378! If you prefer, you can start with the higher amount ($52) then work downwards towards that final $1 in the last week of the year. Either way, as the year progresses, you’ll need to plan for the money to be saved in the upcoming weeks, so add this to your budget spreadsheet and pay yourself first.

Going with the crowd

If your friendship group is intent on doing a specific thing as a way of getting together, and you’re sticking with Frugal February, don’t be afraid to be different.

My colleagues are looking forward to an evening out next month. This involves both a meal and tickets for a comedy show. As I’m not especially keen on the comedian they’re planning to see, I’ve said I’d be really happy to have a bite to eat with them, but will pass on the entertainment. That’s fine with them; I don’t waste money on something I don’t feel is worth the ‘life energy‘ spent to pay for it and my bank balance is happier.

Splitting the bill on a night out with friends can also be another stressor for someone who’s watching the pennies. If you’re keeping an eye on costs, consider joining friends after a meal (you can pay for your preferred drink at the bar on arrival) or suggest a bring-and-share supper at home.

Spend time not money

Cultivate ways to spend your time that doesn’t involve going to ‘shiny spending places’. A walk, a bike ride or a cup of coffee at your friend’s kitchen table costs nothing and I promise you it’ll be more fun than a shopping trip or expensive lunch.

Sign up to the library and enjoy a wealth of free resources that you can borrow. eBooks are even better!

Watch out for free local events or explore if you can obtain a pass for a free local attraction. We’re close to Kenilworth Castle which, in 1958, was given to the people of Kenilworth. As a result, residents enjoy free access during normal opening hours.

Leave your purse at home

If you take your purse every time you go out, you’re more likely to pop into the corner shop to stock up on something. Make it a habit to only take your keys, phone and whatever you need. If you get into difficulties and need money, chances are you’re not going to be far away from help or you can nip home and pick up your debit card.

Buy second-hand or in the sale

If you need to buy something, don’t automatically buy new or at full price. Some things are just as good (if not better) second hand, so seek out excellent sources of second-hand products. Because I wear a particular brand of clothing (a dress) every day for work, I always buy in the sale and stock up with one new dress each summer and winter, always buying at half price. These days, there’s always a sale on, so you’ll never have too long to wait.

Use your budget spreadsheet every single day

My mum and I were comparing notes at Christmas. We didn’t realise before, but we each monitor our finances every single day and use a spreadsheet that has to balance. They say “look after the pennies and the pounds manage themselves”. Maybe that’s right.

My dual account budget spreadsheet is coming out with my next Community newsletter, so if you’ve not yet signed up, head over to our Community page!

Delete the apps that cause you to spend

One of the things that helped me was to delete the eBay app’ from my device. Even if you are ostensibly using eBay to sell your unwanted stuff, it’s all too easy to take a look round the shop while you’re there. Worse, if there’s money in your PayPal account, that doesn’t count, right? Of course, it matters. So remove any visual prompt from your field of vision. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ really works.

Look differently at leftovers

Last night’s leftovers often make a really great lunch, particularly if you have a microwave in your workplace kitchen where you can heat food. Where I work, a great many of us bring our lunch to work and (more often than not) it’s a small portion of what we cooked the night before. Recently, I made a huge amount of dhal; freezing portions has kept me well fed at lunchtime over many days.

In addition, it’s often possible to adapt something’s you have leftover from one meal to form the basis of the next. So, being frugal with food will reap financial benefits, too.

Happy helpful habits

Did you change any habits, which enabled you to save money? What frugal habits helped you? Let me know! And don’t forget, my dual account spreadsheet will be available through my Community newsletter, so click here to receive my next mailing when I’ll share the link to it.

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