Preparing for Lent

For the past few years, I’ve made a practice of giving up something for Lent.

I’m working towards a couple of financial goals this year, so when I started to think about what to give up for Lent, I strongly considered giving up spending money online. My rationale is this: there are few (anticipated) online purchases that are truly so essential that they can’t wait until we run errands the next weekend. I have already done my special occasion shopping for the next two months. We newly have to pay taxes on (some) Amazon purchases. And frankly, it’s just too easy to decide that we need something and then order it without stopping to justify why we need it.

However when I put this idea forth to the internet, a number of people wisely suggested that life with a new baby is hard enough without taking away conveniences, and that if I’m actually after a reduction in spending, I should look to those luxuries where I could reasonably cut back. Point taken.

So what I’ve decided to do is this:

  1. We’re going to give up ordering delivery/take-out. We order in about once/week, almost exclusively on days when I’m just too tired to think about food. This means we’ll both have to put more effort into cooking because if we’re too tired to think about food, the baby is almost certainly too tired to be dragged out for a meal.
  2. I’m going to give up buying coffee and sweets (or second breakfast) at work. I make coffee at home most mornings, but I often want a second cup. And I’m often hungry enough (or feel like it, anyway) to want something between breakfast and lunch. And so I spend $3 at Ex Libris for coffee and a donut, which is $3 I don’t need to be spending. So I’ll be making my second cup in the office suite kitchen, and bringing treats from home if I need them.
  3. If online purchases are really necessary, I’m going to document why. I was encouraged to think about this with regards to the hidden costs of NOT shopping online: gas, price differences, taxes, and my time. I’ll report back!

Money-Saving Resources

It occurs to me that I should’ve included these links in my last post.

  • punch in your zip code to find coupons available in your area. If you’re doing any holiday baking, it’s worth clicking over to find coupons for spices, shortening, oil, foil baking pans, etc. Note that you’ll have to install a coupon printer, but that it’s the same software used by lots of other discount sites.
  • Groupon: sign up to receive daily emails about deals in your area.  The deals can be hit or miss – I think I’ve purchased 6 in the last 7 months for the 3 cities I follow (6/690, or .8% purchasing rate) – but the ones we have purchased have been awesome.  More about Groupon later.
  • if you do any shopping online, it’s worth checking for discount codes – if codes are available and stackable, that information should be noted.
  • Amazon Subscribe & Save: Here’s where your comparison shopping pays off.  We made a list of the non-perishables that we use regularly, then compared the per-unit price on Amazon with the stores where we normally shop.  It makes financial sense to buy macaroni and cheese, toilet paper, and olive oil in bulk.  It doesn’t make sense to buy granola.  By ‘subscribing’, you’ll often save an extra couple of bucks, and you can cancel your subscription as soon you receive your order.
  • Target shoppers, if you use your Target credit card, you save 5% on all your purchases.  This is only actually a deal if you pay off your card each month, but if you’re working on (re)building credit like I am, it’s worth keeping in mind.

I’d like to talk about coupons for a moment.

My friend Amber has posted about the Coupon Mom strategy for coupon savings, which involves things like maximizing your savings with store membership programs and planning your shopping around matching days.  Amber’s tried this approach, and while she was able to save money, she also found that in order to really work the program, you end up buying a lot of processed stuff that she – and I – doesn’t really want to eat.

One of my problems with coupons is that they rarely apply to non-processed foods. Why aren’t there coupons for milk? Apples?  I suppose that’s what the weekly circulars are for – tracking the store that has the best price on these staples.  But you know what? I have neither the time nor the energy to drive all over town to save less than a dollar on a half gallon of milk or a pound of apples.  Perhaps I would feel differently if I were feeding a family of five and going through two gallons of milk each week – but then I would have three other people to keep track of, which would cut into my strategic shopping time!

I digress.

I’ve always been a coupon clipper, but since moving to A2, I’ve been much more vigilant about clipping and printing, planning our shopping, etc.  Our favorite grocery store sends out monthly coupons – usually 2-3 for 10-20% off your total purchase – so we use those along with product-specific coupons and in-store discounts to knock $5-20 off of our weekly grocery bills.  They send additional rewards certificates and discounts based on spending – in fact, I just received an email with a 15% off coupon while writing this post.

Shopping at Plum Market isn’t as cheap as going to Kroger or Aldi, both of which are within a mile of our house.  We could probably save a few dollars extra each week if we shopped at Meijer, or if we went to each store to get the best deals.  Which brings me to a central dilemma about food shopping: cost versus quality.

Plum Market’s product selection is comparable to Whole Foods, but their prices are a bit lower.  Plum is a Michigan owned and operated company, and in every aisle you can find products made in state, if not in town.  My shopping basket this last week included organic celery ($1.49/pound), organic honeycrisp apples grown in Michigan, and half-priced day old bread from Zingerman’s ($3 for a large French round).  The apples were among the best we’ve ever had.  Half of the bread will last us upwards of a week, the other half will go in the freezer for another week’s worth of meals.  I had a $10 rewards certificate, a 15% off coupon, and $5 worth of product coupons.  I could get these things for marginally less money elsewhere, but by shopping at Plum, I’m support local business and industry while also buying high quality products for us.

By not running around to chase sales, we build loyalty points at a single store, resulting in those $10 rewards certificates – and in a small but useful relationship with the store itself.  Our impulse buys are restricted to one store, not two or three.  We know the product selection and price range, which also includes knowing when products are cheaper elsewhere – for example, we stock up on Annie’s macaroni and cheese from Amazon Subscribe and Save and on frozen pizzas at Trader Joe’s – rather than buying those items at a higher price at Plum.  We eat really good food at home without breaking the bank – while making responsible shopping and eating choices.  In the long run, those things are more important than a few extra bucks here and there.

Photo by John Zwinck

Frustrated by my lack of business cards and inspired by this post on what to wear to conferences, I spent about $10 at Vistaprint, which included 250 cards with my personal contact information and URLs, a card case, and shipping.  I don’t have many occasions when I need a business card, but now I’m prepared for those times when I really DO need to give out my information and don’t want to have to scribble it on something easily misplaced like a receipt or a name badge.

Well, that $10 paid off today when a card dropped in one of those fishbowl drawings won me FREE CHIPOTLE FOR UP TO 30 PEOPLE.

That’s right.  Free.  For up to 30 people.  My office has 20 full time staff members, so that’s how many lunches we’ll be getting next Tuesday.  If everyone gets a burrito, that means that my 25c business card bought at least $119 worth of food.  Now that’s what I call a good investment.

Cookie Monster

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie
Photo by norwichnuts

I have been craving cookies since lunchtime yesterday.  With $20 in my pocket, I could’ve easily bought one somewhere, but we had plans to go out for $1 tacos, so I figured I’d save my calories (and dollars).  We ate our fill of tacos, queso, chorizo, chips, and salsa for under $20, but I still wanted cookies.  Not enough to bake a batch when I was already stuffed with Mexican food, though.

When I still wanted cookies this morning, though, I decided it was time.  I had to go to three separate places before I found any cookies at all – a coffee shop, a cafeteria, and another coffee shop – but then I happily forked over my $3 for a big oatmeal raisin cookie and a coffee.  Totally worth it.

I hate shopping for clothes. Oh my lord, do I hate it. But I do love vintage clothes, and $29.99 (Buy it Now!) is a pretty great price for a wool dress and jacket. Honestly, I probably would’ve spent money on this if I could be sure that the jacket would fit across my shoulders – but alas, instead I saved $29.99 plus shipping.

I did, however, spend $13 on a small pizza that I ate all by myself and that I had delivered because our car is in Cleveland at the moment. I also spent $3 on a Christmas present, which is not much to spend in the grand scheme of Christmas presents.

So I didn’t spend $29.99 but I did spend $16.

60’S MOD MAD MEN WOOL SHEATH & CROPPED MINI JACKET – eBay (item 360317045860 end time Nov-13-10 04:46:52 PST)

The Back Story

In 2009, I was making good money working at a very expensive private university in a major US city, while my now husband SB was making good money working at a public university nearby. We paid $1200/month in rent for a one bedroom condo in a cute suburban neighborhood, ate or drank out a few times a week, and did most of our travel on our employers’ dimes. We owned one car, a fair amount of furniture and household goods, and two cute but occasionally quite expensive cats.

Then came the move to a college town in the Upper Midwest, where SB took a dream job and I rapidly drained my savings while looking for a good job, then a job, then any job. About a year ago, I took a job that paid dramatically less than my previous position, but that offered benefits and a salary, which shouldn’t be sneezed at in this economy.

For the last year, I’ve struggled to embrace austerity and responsibility – at least in comparison with my previous moderately spendthrift ways. Gone are the days when I can drop $100 on clothes, $30 on happy hour drinks, $40 on a spontaneous perfect gift. I can’t fly home for a long weekend because I have neither the money for the plane ticket, nor the vacation time for the visit.

Inspired by South by Sacrifice, though, I’m going to give this austerity thing a try by posting how I want to spend my money – and how I’m going to make it happen by forgoing other things.