Things I no longer buy.

thLast year I voluntarily downsized my salary, i.e., I decided not to rush to replace all the income lost when MSN Money kicked all its writers to the virtual curb.

Since then I’ve had to make some very conscious choices about what – and whether – to buy. Less money = fewer expenditures.

News flash, right? But what surprises me isn’t that I’m spending less. It’s that I don’t miss any of those things very much.

Things like:

Social commerce vouchers. I used to buy lots of them – for restaurant meals, discounted massages, soft pretzels, bagels, you name it. I even bought a Groupon for an Alaska water park (insert your own punchline) called H2Oasis, so I could take my niece and her two boys.

Now I find other ways to get my needs met. For example, I treat my great-nephews at home instead of in restaurants (more on that in a minute). While I used to pick up almost every massage Groupon I saw, the new austerity meant fewer rubdowns. So I decided to budget for a single two-hour massage per month from a self-employed masseuse who does an excellent job for a reasonable price.

(And yes, I do consider massages a need rather than a want. No machine runs for almost 57 years without some maintenance issues.)

Gift cards. At least once a month (sometimes more often) I’d send discounted gift cards (movies, restaurants) to a couple of relatives. These days I give darned few “just-because” presents. I’d like to, but they’re simply not in the new budget.

I do give gift cards for birthdays and holidays, but I get them by cashing in points from rewards programs. In addition, I meet many my own day-to-day needs (haircuts, groceries, movies, home-improvement items, drugstore purchases) with discounted gift cards purchased on the secondary market, saving anywhere from 2 percent to 25 percent.

(Speaking of the secondary market: About halfway down the page, on the right, is  a widget for Raise, a company that sells discounted gift cards. Choosing to buy in this way would provide a small referral fee for your friendly neighborhood blogger. Every little bit helps.)

More things I skip

Plane tickets. Between 2010 and 2012 I was away more than I was home. Cheap fares were easy to find and frugal hacks like house-sitting, visiting family, staying in hostels and using public transit made travel quite affordable. Or I’d attend a conference and then stay a few extra days to get to know a new place. Since moving back to Anchorage I’ve reacquainted myself with a cold, hard truth: There are no cheap flights from Alaska.

E-mailed coupons. A coupon for Qdoba could tempt me to run out for lunch instead of cooking. I used to print out DQ Blizzard BOGOs and take the boys out for ice cream, or IHOP coupons and take them out to breakfast.

I still use coupons whenever possible, especially at my weekly lunches with Linda B. Sometimes I even use them in conjunction with those discounted gift cards. (Frugal twofer!) But I no longer automatically print out coupons, and instead of taking the boys out to eat I invite them over to Café Awesome.

Kettle corn. Those midnight movie excursions no longer include this delicious but pricey treat. Linda B. and I have mutually sworn off the sauce, for reasons of both health and economics. That’s saving me some pretty decent coin. Over time it may also cut down on the amount of dental floss I buy.

Back on frugal lockdown

After returning to college in midlife during a protracted divorce, I lived pretty close to the bone. In my second freelance piece for MSN Money in 2007, “Living ‘poor’ and loving it” (please note that I did not write the headline), I said that my most important financial-management strategy wasn’t fretting over how to get more. Instead, it was reminding myself how little I really needed – and how much I already had.

That attitude was a big help in slaying my divorce-debt dragons and earning a university degree without student loans. After that I was able to buy pretty much whatever I wanted.

In theory, anyway. I indulged in a fair amount of travel but did so frugally (see above). When at home, most of my meals were cooked in my own kitchen and I rarely shopped for clothing because who cares what a freelancer wears?

Still, I knew that I could spend, and sometimes I did:

  • Flying my niece and her two boys down to Seattle for a week-long visit. (The airfare alone approached $1,800 even though I used a companion-fare coupon, and then there were the treats…)
  • Sending $100 a month (and more at Christmas) to my elderly aunt, a habit that began before my debt was repaid.
  • Mailing just-because gift cards to my daughter and other people.
  • Lending money, even though I shouldn’t have.

Now I’m back on frugal lockdown, but you know what? It’s okay.

Sure, I miss being able to send a $25 movie or restaurant gift card – or both – to my daughter. Linda B. and I have been seeing fewer midnight films; instead, we go to the first show of the day or on a Tuesday, when all seats are $6.25.

As for travel: I love being in other places. My recent visit to Austin was delightful, and I’m looking forward to two more work-related trips in the next couple of months. But frequent travel seems less attractive now that I’m in a loving partnership; I miss DF too much to want to pick up and go someplace new every month.

Beyond the bottom line

Lately I’ve had the feeling that life is about to change again, and for the better. Maybe that’s because I recently got an insanely lucrative blog consulting gig for a PR firm. Although it was a one-shot deal, the publicist left the door open to working with her again in the future.

Even if it doesn’t lead to more assignments, it’s one more reminder that at this stage in my life there’s less pressure to take – or keep – jobs I don’t really want. That since I’m not in my early 20s and trying to make a name for myself (and raise a family or pay off college loans), it’s okay not to burn the midnight oil.

Maybe that’s short-sighted. But time is becoming more precious as I get older, and I’m increasingly inclined to believe I should enjoy my gigs, not merely endure them.

Plenty of people don’t have that option. I know full well that this is an incredible luxury. I also know that choosing it means a corollary choice: To woman-up to the consequences, i.e., to keep living in self-imposed semi-penury.

Again: It’s not so bad. Back in 2007 I wrote that while I might not have chosen to be broke, I was going to see what I could learn from it.

“My hope is that it will make me wiser about I eventually seek. … Being poor doesn’t mean not wanting things; it means wanting the right things for the right reasons.

“True prosperity is more than just a healthy bottom line. Being rich wouldn’t necessarily make me happy or generous. Those two states of mind have nothing to do with your bank balance. There’s a world of difference between poverty and poverty of spirit.

“Not that being poor makes me noble. It doesn’t. It just makes me careful. And grateful.”

In 2014, all I can say is: Still grateful.

Readers: Have you trimmed your spending lately, either voluntarily or out of necessity? Got any advice to share?

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  1. We have had to cut back on our frivolous spending and we’ve done quite well with it. We still enjoy ourselves but not to the same degree, just like you. And what I do with those emailed coupons is file them in a coupon folder (digitally); out of sight out of mind. I’m less tempted that way.

  2. Woooo!

    We’re life-style inflating these days. Assuming Home Depot every finds the vinyl they were supposed to replace our childrens’ bathroom carpet with…

  3. Great post. Working with a much smaller budget these days, I can relate to having to downsize. Like you I was already frugal to begin with but the new circumstances help me spend more mindfully. Being able to carefully choose the few splurges makes me appreciate them more. Thank you for sharing.

    • Donna Freedman

      I agree: A carefully chosen treat is fun to anticipate and loads of fun to enjoy. Right now DF and I have ice cream in the freezer (Umpqua brand — the Bordeaux Cherry is the best ice cream I’ve ever had). We hardly ever have ice cream, so this batch is being sloooowly savored. Bonus: It was on sale for $3.99 (for a quart and a half) with a coupon in the store flyer — but when we were looking at the selection, DF found a different store coupon that made the ice cream $3.50.
      Guess which coupon we chose.

  4. Although my pay has managed to increase lately due to hard work, I still have to watch everything. As a single mommy who can not ever rely on child support payments coming in with prices rising on everything so fast, I have had to reduce our food, utilities (my kids claim I am so mean because I am on them about turning lights off), eating out and entertainment funds significantly.

    • Donna Freedman

      Yep, you’re mean. You want them to have enough to eat and to stay warm in the winter. What were you thinking?!? 😉
      Hold that line, mama.

    • I am speaking from experience when I say that I walked in your shoes. Just know that you will make it if you stay focus and determined to make the “best” life you can for your children.

      They will thank you some day 🙂

    • SherryH

      Lisa’s right – they will appreciate it one day!

      Our older son, now on his second job, recently came to us and said, “I used to think you guys were stingy or mean when you wouldn’t buy us stuff or take usd places because you said we couldn’t afford it. Now I understand!” His financial decisions aren’t always the best – but whose are? He’s got a frugal, live-within-your-means mindset, a strategy for budgeting his money, and a healthy savings account for the entry-level wage he’s making.

      There are things I wish I could have given our kids or done for them financially, but in the end I think what we did give them was the most important thing.

  5. Excellent post, and I remember your 2007 one as well. In fact, your wisdom helped me emerge from divorce and bankruptcy (chapter 13; my creditors got about 97 cents on the dollar), get a college degree, and buy a house. I’m not rich and never will be. That’s okay. I am almost debt free (mortgage and student loan) and will be by the time I’m eligible to collect Social Security – 5 years from now. Retirement may not be an option, but I enjoy what I do, have a couple side gigs that could become bigger earners if I want them to, and most of all, I am content with my life.

    Thanks, Donna, for helping to make that so!

    • Donna Freedman

      Well done, you! Thanks for sharing your story so that others will be inspired by how much you’ve accomplished in the past seven years.
      I’m pleased to know that my article helped with your initial inspiration (makes up for all the trolls!), but remember: You did the work, not me.

  6. My husband and I had a quite a bit of a lifestyle change. I used to buy tons of candy and he soda but now we’ve cut those out since we’re doing the Paleo(-ish) diet. So more fruits and veggies, less crap. But I used to buy gift cards to help my sisters, who are both in the navy, for school stuff and baby stuff. But now I’ve had to put an end to that and try to keep it to whenever Swagbucks or Bing rewards gives me Amazon gift cards( I can buy anything there!). We’re about to buy our first house so everything “extra” is going into the “Down payment/random fees/What’s broken now?” account.

  7. Cathy in NJ

    I thought about what I am not buying and concluded I am buying the same things only I am buying fewer or investigating the best deals, consignment shops etc. One thing I did not buy recently was the XBOX. My daughter came home from a slumber party with an XBOX “need”. Guess what they played with at the slumber party? My daughter received a XMAS present WII that has become a “waste of money” museum relic covered in dust. I love my daughter dearly and want to get her the things she wants, sometimes even ridiculous things. But past performance told me this XBOX, in a short few months, would be an exhibit in the “waste of money” museum.

    • Donna Freedman

      Nothing’s as dull as yesterday’s sensation. Sigh. Maybe she could sell the Wii and use it as seed money for an X-Box? Except that by the time she gets the money together, she might no longer want the X-Box — which would be a swell illustration of your point.

  8. Ro in SD

    I have cut my spending pretty drastically over the past six years with ideas gleaned from your blog and other frugal resources. My son is in college out of state and needs an occasional budget boost from us but not much. We are assisting another deserving family member with her college degree so our spare money is going in that direction these days as well as bolstering our Emergency Fund. I still enjoy lunches out with a girlfriend a few times a week but pass up other expenses. I rarely buy coffee outside of the house; hardly ever dine out in the evening except for date night with DH on Friday nights. I spend little money on grooming as I go to the local beauty school. I do my own manicures and pedicures. I will spring for massage therapy and buy “packages” when my favorite therapist offers a deal. I rarely buy second hand clothing in Thrift Stores any more as I have been involved with several organized clothing swaps (on my way to one today) where I can change out my clothing for free. I’ve been taking advantage of Sears Outlet’s Tuesday treats and have gotten most of my wardrobe for my upcoming European cruise for under $5.00 per piece. Last week I picked up a brand new evening gown with rhinestone trim for $2.16. I belong to a frugal group and will barter for as many items as possible from my stockpile of products purchased cheap with coupons. Life doesn’t have to be expensive to be lived well!

  9. I grocery shop only every two weeks and stay out of stores otherwise. Out of sight out of mind really helps me to not overspend. We don’t eat dinner out often but do splurge on a couple movies a month for a date night. We try now to just replace worn out items rather than fill our house with useless junk.
    Christmas is usually when we backslide but I’m hoping this year will be different and we’ll find small but meaningful gifts that everyone will enjoy.

  10. I always love your posts about ways to save money. You are really an inspiration. Due to a financial issue beyond our control, my DH and I lost a lot of our retirement savings. So far we have done the following: street parking for work rather than the garage parking (saving $140 a month), cut back our internet plan (savings $100 a month), dropping our supplementary injury and illness insurance (saving $100 a month, and eating almost entirely meatless and cooking entirely from scratch(saving about $100 a month). Right now we are shopping for combined auto and homeowners insurance for a lower rate despite the fact we have been with our current company for 40 years. I have increased my “side gig” of teaching yoga classes which brings in about $200 additional each month. We are shopping more for clothes at Land’s End and LL Bean sales rather than the higher end stores. We very rarely use a credit card anymore. It adds up and we are paying down some bills. Reading your columns makes me realize we could be doing more. Keep up the great work, I love your blog.

  11. I believe “Living Poor & Loving It” was one of the first articles I read of yours. I have been a reader ever since! I have cut back in the past 7 years while helping my children thru college. Several of the cut backs have been simply using things more than once and not over spending in the material items. I have to say that I am happier with my simple life.

  12. Kristin

    We’ve had to cut our budget since 2012 due to reduced income. It’s amazing what you don’t miss that was “normal spending.” We think twice before some of the little treats – going out for ice cream after dinner, for example. We’ve only done it once this summer, and with evenings here as cool as they have been lately, it’s not likely to happen many more times, if any. Gifts to others are perhaps not as pricey, and I look for more deals. Less spending on entertainment and more free entertainment, like Shakespeare in the Park this past weekend.

    Of your list, I think the only one I would truly miss is the kettle corn…if you and Linda B. are going to fewer movies and less expensive ones when you do, surely you could splurge for the kettle corn….

    • Kettle corn turns out to be not too difficult to make (not much more difficult than regular stove-top popcorn), and you can control how much sweet and salty goes in when you do.

    • Donna Freedman

      Part of the issue is health-related. But if DF and I go to one of those five-hour opera movies, I think I’ll get kettle corn.

  13. SherryH

    We’ve had the luxury of spending a bit more since we paid off the loan on our mobile home, but over the last month or so I’ve been trying to throttle back. There are repairs to save up for, both home and car, and our emergency cushion could use a shot in the arm.

    I’m trying to plan and organize so that dinner is prepared – or at least planned – so that when we go out, it’s because we intend to, not because it’s super late, everyone’s exhausted, and nothing is defrosted. Our little garden didn’t exactly thrive, but we’ll have some tomatoes and peppers and make a better plan for next year.

    In some areas, we’re spending more, but trying to spend mindfully – paying a few more cents on some items to support the grocery store we like, with the cheerful, friendly employees, instead of the big box store. Eating in small, locally-owned restaurants rather than fast food joints.

    We use the internet for entertainment, and the TV as a display for the DVD player and VCR. (We might get a basic cable package, though, when we shift from a landline phone to cable phone service.) I used to want TV for the news – but the local radio news is better with less hype, and I don’t miss out when they throw up a visual…

  14. Yes, I definitely agree with the concept of choice, and of opportunity cost. Every cent I spend mindlessly now, is a cent I won’t have later, for something that is more important to me. Now I try to ask myself: how important is this really? Is it worth working a year or two longer than I want to before I can retire? Like you, time is becoming more valuable to me than dollars. No number of greenbacks will procure me more time. I will keep reading your blog to keep myself reminded that I need to make better choices, for my own sake.

  15. Donna, I was inspired by your post “Living Poor and Loving It” and have followed your blog for years.
    Due to a divorce, I lost a lot of money. I live on $2,100 a month and manage to put $400 or so in savings. How?
    I have not had a car payment in years,
    I rent an apartment instead of buying a home. Nice neighbors, no yard work, all repairs taken care of, and a great view out my patio.
    I budget. On the 1st of every month, I withdraw a certain amount of money for gas, groceries, misc. When it is gone, it’s gone. Since I love to be on the go, I make it last!
    My cable and internet is in the rent.
    I am finding church work to be very rewarding and fun.
    I need nothing because when I did buy, I bought quality (furniture, clothes, shoes, etc.). My taste is classic, and I inherited many lovely things from my family (china, furniture).
    I never carry a credit balance.
    I take one huge vacation a year which I save for. Other trips include day trips to interesting places, visiting museums in my own city, and going to free concerts from our 2 colleges.
    IF I splurge, I go out to eat(order water) and the cheap $3.50 theater.
    You are my inspiration, Donna, and I bless you for writing all these years.

  16. murphath

    I, too, found you with that original article: Living on….etc. It came at the right time as the recession hit and my husband had to close his business of over 30 years. Broke his heart and wounded his pride. I was still working and we had one final child to get through college. We’d always been frugal but we got even frugal-er!
    DH found p/t work, which is sometimes f/t, and he loves it. Best thing is he can always say no if we have plans. I took an early retirement because of the incentive offered and am happy as a clam. We even managed to get our son through college w/o debt. I’m now in my fix/get the house in order phase and have been doing projects. DH calls me his contractor wife. It’s been a huge learning curve, but fun. Just have to replace some closet doors/regular doors and then I’ll be done!
    Travel is our fave thing to do, too. Planning some trips to national parks in Utah, and a bigger trip to Ireland/Scotland (for 2016). I may not have the biggest, brightest, newest car in the world (2005 Toyota Corolla), but I will have the world!

    • Donna Freedman

      Well, we’re driving a 1999 Subaru Forester and we’re the happiest people I know.
      Congratulations to you both on your ability to prioritize, which of course leads you to realizing what’s really important.

  17. This is great. At least twice a year we take a look at what we need or could change. Life is great right now and has been for a long time and its easy to be complacent, but if we can make the cuts (not really a cut if it’s unnecessary spending) now while times are good it won’t be bad when the hard times come. Everyone has hard times but if you can live your life so you can say “Still grateful” no matter the situation, you are on the right path.

  18. christy

    I have know for all of 2014 that I will be moving quite a ways away in the summer of 2015. Nothing puts “stuff” into prespective like the idea of moving it and all that includes. Do I want to pack it? Do I want to have less money to move with? I have stuff listed on ebay to sell so I don’t have to move it. I am preparing now by not bringing more into the house and spending less so I have more to cover the moving budget and settling in budget. A pleasant surprise, finding I don’t miss the things I have parted with and I don’t mind eating out less as I eat out of cupboard and freezer. It’s a relief.

  19. Virginia

    I have very happily entered into my own ‘loving partnership’ recently, and we had to take a hard look at where we were spending – separately, jointly – and cut back. Our biggest change has been food spending – as 2 singles, we were eating out, or eating convenience foods, far too frequently. We scoured the local shops and decided to go with Costco and local farmers markets. We cook nutritious meals and keep healthy food in the house. What a huge change in the food bill! We eat together every morning and night, and pack each other’s lunches. Not only have we saved the money, it also makes each meal seem very special! Meals out are still a possibility, but only for big events, like birthdays, anniversaries, and promotions. So very happy with the change!

    • Donna Freedman

      That sounds lovely. I particularly like the part about packing each other’s lunches — such a simple, loving gesture. Your new routines also set the stage for less financial stress and continued health as you age.
      Thanks for sharing your tips, and congratulations on your partnership.

  20. Glad to read that you’re not missing anything, Donna. I’m sure you feel better with the money in your account.

  21. Donna:

    I miss you and the other Smart Spending posters. I thought of you today. (While at my favorite thrift store.) Years ago you had us write what we were hoping to find. I had two items. A ice cream churn and a leather LL Bean bag.

    I don’t know why I wanted an ice cream churn. That came and went before I bought one.

    Today I found my LL Bean bag for $2. I bought it remembering the post from long ago. It was dirty so I risked my investment of eight quarters and tossed it in the washing machine.

    It looks great. Five years later I got what I could have paid $100 bucks for. I just had to let someone else buy “my” bag and enjoy it first.

    • Donna Freedman

      Hi there! I do remember that article, and I’m so glad you got the bag you wanted.
      I still run into old Smart Spending people (virtually, anyway) on the “Not MSN Money Proboards,” which began after MSN Money ditched the message boards. That seems like decades ago.
      To anyone who’s interested, here’s the link:
      You have to sign up before you can post. Or you can just read without commenting.

  22. You’ve inspired me, Donna, by opening the door to a new way of thinking. After all, what do we really need? And shouldn’t life be more about gratitude for what we have than longing for what we don’t. How much is enough? So happy to have found your blog.

  23. I think you’re the Grand Master of Frugality.

    Hereabouts? My spending is completely out of control: one outrageous unexpected expense after another since the first of the year. Just got a $13000 itemized statement from the hospital & am going back in three days for a repeat visit. Jeez! Budget: out the window…permanently, far as I can tell.

    • Donna Freedman

      Ack! In your copious free time, go over the bill line by line. Sometimes they charge automatically for things you didn’t get.
      Hoping for a good outcome, i.e., that they get it all this time and no more visits are required.

  24. I also found your blog through the “Living Poor and Loving It” post. I’m approaching retirement now, nearly down to the wire, and whenever the media tells me “The decisions you make today will mean the difference between having an ok retirement and ending up in the OFP (Old Fogey’s Poorhouse)!” (YIKES!), I read your blog and remember that it’s not all that cut and dried, and I can make decisions with as many Plan B’s as I need and adjust them later. Thanks, Donna.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks for your kind words, Eddy. And yes, I agree that one size doesn’t fit all. Being able to live on less is a big help. Diversifying one’s income sources is a plus, too; I recently looked at my own retirement numbers and they’re not bad for someone who was employed full-time for only 18 years, being either “permanent part-time” or freelance for the rest of her working life. In fact, I haven’t held a full-time job since November 2002. But I have a 401k and a small pension from my newspapering years, a Roth IRA, about $10k in CDs that my ex and I started back in the 1980s, and another 401k that my new LLC is funding.
      If I keep funding at the current level and everything continues to grow at the current level (i.e., no dramatic dips, although a dramatic increase would be nice) over the next 14 years, then I should be OK.
      Still living relatively close to the bone no matter what, but that’s OK, too. I’m fortunate to have a partner who is as frugal as I am, and with whom spending time is more delightful than any shopping trip or satellite TV package. We don’t spend much because we don’t need to spend much — we have everything we need and some of what we want, which is a blessed place to be.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.


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