Friday, November 23, 2012

Dollars and $ense

I discovered two fascinating reality shows while flipping channels recently -- "Extreme Couponing" and "Extreme Cheapskates." The couponing show was unbelievable. These OCD and usually quite bubbly couponers would go into a store and purchase a motherlode of items worth $1000 for about $5 after coupons, sometimes even for free, and in some cases the stores even paid THEM! I guess retailers are different in the U.S. that they allow this activity. Stores here in Canada wouldn't have it. They impose limits on how many sale items you can buy and how many coupons you can use. The stores on these shows allow you to use hundreds of coupons and even double your coupons so that in many cases the items wind up being free. So these savvy shoppers wind up with a massive stockpile of items (that looks like a store in itself) that they've paid next to nothing for. It's amazing that they're able to provide for their families that way. In some cases they even donate items to charity. Of course it takes a huge commitment of time to research, organize and cut the thousands of coupons. It's almost a full time job in itself. And the big shopping haul excursions usually take several hours to complete. I don't think I'd ever have the patience. As much as I admire their resourcefulness, I can't imagine shopping with someone like that. I remember it used to embarass me as a kid when my Mom just used a few coupons. Now I find myself using them. Every bit helps.

The "Extreme Cheapskates" show was much more bizarre. It was amazing the lengths that some people would go to to save money. One man was eating other people's leftovers in a restaurant! His wife was understandably mortified. One woman was dumpster diving for dinner. (Note to her friends -- DON'T go to her place for dinner!) One woman was creating her own reuseable toilet paper (!) out of cut up t-shirts that would be placed in a basket by the toilet and washed later! Disgusting. Another woman was peeing in a jar to save on the water bill and she had all her utilities calculated on a spreadsheet so that she knew down to the penny how much she was using. Being a germophobe, none of those money-saving ideas sounded very appealing to me!

There were other cheapskates who tried to negotiate a lower price on everything they bought, or tried to barter for items they needed instead of paying for them. Though most of them seemed eccentric at best and insane at worst, some of them were clever and inventive. One couple had chosen to live modestly and were able to retire early as a result. They only purchased what they needed and were masters of reducing, reusing and recycling. They had a ritual which they called a "fiscal fast" every so often where they would go a week without spending any money whatsoever. They wouldn't buy groceries, they just used up whatever they had on hand already in their cupboards, freezer etc.

I've actually gone on "fiscal fasts" since having Michelle. Days where I didn't spend a dime because I didn't go anywhere. There were times I couldn't get out shopping with her anyway and saving money on groceries was a big help so I just used up things at the back of the cupboard (cans of soup etc) and in the freezer (bags of veggies I'd forgotten about etc). Not going out also meant saving money on gas. While I was working I tended to spend a lot of money on fast food as well. Now even when I'm craving it, Michelle usually won't let me hit the drive-thru windows! She has simplified my life in many ways that end up saving me money. I can't get out shopping recreationally. I don't eat in restaurants or go to the movies. Of course she can be expensive when it comes to diapers and wipes but I always look for sales and use coupons for them. Breastfeeding, aside from being the healthiest choice for the baby, is also a blessing financially because it's free milk to feed the baby for six months. Saving that money on formula is a big help.

I don't shop for clothes for myself anymore. I make do with what I have, even though my pre-pregnancy clothes are a bit too small and my maternity clothes a little too big. If I get a hole in a sweater, I sew it rather than throwing it out. When you're on a tight budget you can't afford to be wasteful. I save money on makeup now because I don't often get to wear it. There isn't usually time. I stopped wearing foundation altogether because I couldn't be bothered. If I have to go out I try to throw on a bit of eyeliner so I look somewhat human at least. I wear my hair in a ponytail 99% of the time because Michelle pulls it if I have it hanging down. I never did anything fancy with my hair anyway, even before the baby. I never went to a hairdresser. I just got my Mom to trim it. Or sometimes I just trimmed it myself.

I buy things for Michelle but I always look for sales and shop in bargain stores. I was very fortunate to get a lot of gifts and donations from friends and family which saved me buying a lot of things including clothes and large items (all the nursery furniture etc.) 

When it comes to groceries I have become more careful. I try to limit myself to the staples, just the necessities. I shop at the cheapest stores and wait for sales. I stock up when an item is on sale. I also try to stretch things out a little more. I re-use paper towels (if I just used it to dry my clean hands, I fold it and leave it on the counter to use to wipe up spills, clean the counter etc. I know some people just use towels and dish cloths in the kitchen but those seem unsanitary to me.) I water down orange juice so it lasts twice as long (and has half the calories.) I don't buy bottled water. Tap water is free and I just use a Brita filter. I water down shampoo to stretch it out if it's getting low. I don't take daily showers anymore either (Michelle doesn't let me) so I'm saving money on body wash, shampoo and water. I'm always too hot so I save money on my heating bill as well not turning the thermostat up. I always do my laundry and dishes during off-peak hours to save money on hydro and I never leave lights on. I sometimes use a flashlight (and it's a wind-up one that doesn't take batteries) rather than turn the lights back on if I have to go back down for something after I've gone to bed. It's funny. Things I used to find annoying and silly about my Mom I now find myself doing!

My Mom was a penny pincher. She always shopped in bargain stores, clipped coupons, never bought anything unless it was on sale. She stayed home with the kids and somehow we managed, all six of us, on my Dad's modest income. We never took a vacation. My parents never even ate in restaurants or went to the movies. We never had name brand anything. It was frustrating when we'd ask for things that other kids had. The answer was always "No." Back then I didn't understand or appreciate how tight things were and why Mom was so careful with money. I swore I would never be like that. It used to embarass me going shopping with her and she'd be pulling out all these coupons. Now I find myself using coupons. I try to buy only things that are on sale. As much as we try to avoid it, sometimes we do become our parents! These days I have no choice but to be frugal. On maternity leave there is just barely enough to cover the mortgage and bills. I am grateful to have the option of a year off work to spend with my child. I know that this wasn't always an option. Mothers used to only get a couple of months, if that. I think this time with my baby is so important that I just can't miss it but financially it is difficult.

I used to be somewhat of a shopoholic, though a bargain hunter like my Mom. These days it's not an option for a couple of reasons. I have to try to limit myself to necessities while things are so tight. Groceries and things for Michelle. And secondly even if I wanted to shop, Michelle doesn't let me anyway! I can't spend more than 15 minutes in a store without her having a meltdown so it's just not worth it.

It's amazing how little you can live on if you have no choice. The mistake most people make is living way above their means. It's a consumer society and everyone buys into it. Everyone wants to have more stuff, new stuff, the latest stuff. I don't have the latest toys and gadgets (I never had an iPod or iPad or tablet or whatever they are). I never had a video game system (Wii or whatever). I still don't even have a cellphone. Sure there have been times I wished I had one for emergencies. But I couldn't justify the money going out every month for something that I really don't need. Unless you're a Hollywood actor or a real estate agent I don't think you need to have people reach you at every second of the day (in line at Walmart, while you're driving etc.) I can always get to a phone if need be. I may be the last person in North America over the age of 12 who DOESN'T have a cellphone but I'm standing my ground. I'm old-fashioned. Whenever I tell someone I don't have a cell they look at me like I'm from outer space. To me, it's a waste. I make and answer my calls at home. If I'm not home, they can leave me voicemail. With the baby especially I'm home more often than not! Besides, I think people get addicted to their cellphones, become slaves to them and then they're never free again. I've seen them texting on it, checking it constantly, pressing the little buttons like zombies. Even couples having lunch together, ignoring each other while they click away on their little devices. It's sad to me! The human being sitting across from you should be more important than the one that isn't there.

I don't pay for fancy TV channels. I just have the basic cable package. I had switched to Rogers years ago when they offered me 6 months free service. I couldn't argue with free! Bell couldn't compete with that. They gave me all top of the line services for phone, internet and cable, including all the channels and PVR which was really cool. Once it stopped being free however I gave up the PVR and downgraded to basic service. Of course there was a catch. I had to sign up for a long contract (I can't even remember if it was 2 or 3 years) but it was OK. After the free ride was over, it still wound up being about the same as I paid to Bell and that 6 month break in payments was a godsend.

We live in a society of spendthrifts. Most people live above their means to some degree, buying things they don't need and can't afford. I knew a couple who furnished their entire house at the "Don't pay a cent event." Those sales get people into so much trouble. If you don't have the money to pay in full once it's due in a year or two, you pay back interest retroactively from when you bought the items. Credit is a trap that most people fall into. It's just so tempting. People want everything now, even if they can't afford it and they wind up buried under a pile of debt that they can never get out of. Cheapskates, on the other hand, especially the ones on those shows, live below their means, carrying frugality to insane extremes. In the long run I don't think some of them will be saving at all because they'll wind up sick with e-coli or something after their dumpster dinners and run up a big hospital bill, considering the U.S. doesn't have free health care. Unlike spendthrifts who want everything now, cheapskates deny themselves things now in order to save for later. But quality of life has to count for something. If you're skimping too much your wallet may be healthy and you may not be. You can't take it with you. I wouldn't want to be a cheapskate or a spendthrift. I'd like to think I fall somewhere in between.

I think the best thing to do is to live within your means. Don't spend more than you can afford and if your situation changes, adjust and cut back accordingly. We live in a consumer society and it can be hard to scale back and realize the difference between "wants" and  "needs." You don't need to have expensive gadgets just because everyone else does. As children we worry about having what all the other kids have (I got picked on for wearing clothes that weren't popular name brands) but most of us carry that mentality into adulthood. They call it "Keeping up with the Jones'." I've always moved to the beat of my own drummer anyway. I never worried about having what everyone else had just because it's cool. I don't have the latest toys. In a digital world, I'm an analog girl. So many people go into debt trying to have everything they want, even though they can't afford it. You have to practice restraint to keep yourself from spending more than you can actually pay off.

Since having the baby, I'm having to stretch my dollars a lot further but I don't mind. In many ways, it simplifies my life. It's worth the sacrifices I have to make. I will do whatever it takes to have this time to spend with Michelle. Sometimes I stress out about money. I wonder how I'll make ends meet. It is a struggle as a single Mom, figuring out how to manage but somehow you do it. You adapt and do your best. Of course I still keep hoping I win the lottery. They say money can't buy happiness but it buys freedom and that's close enough for me! To have enough money to never have to worry about money again would be amazing. To be able to travel, to live wherever you want, to have time to spend with family and never have to worry about working...It's a nice dream. Of course even without the lottery I feel very blessed. As they say, the best things in life are free. I may not have an entertainment budget anymore but I have Michelle to entertain me. Every day she makes me smile and laugh. 

I don't go to the movies anymore but I've been making movies of Michelle. I take so many photos but my sister suggested I take some video of her and I know she'll grow so fast I'll be glad to have these moments captured. I got some video of her with my cat Ali on the couch. I took a video of her dancing the "Highland Fling" in her little tartan skirt and I shot some video of her in her new Jolly Jumper which my Mom just gave her. I put them on Youtube in the playlist along with songs I'd written for her -- here are the videos --




These days with Michelle mean more to me than anything. She is more than worth any sacrifices I have to make. I try not to panic about money. I know that things have a way of working out. In February when Mike left us, he left owing me money and I was in a bad situation. On top of that everything else went wrong and all sorts of unexpected expenses came up (as they say, "When it rains, it pours"). I didn't know what I was going to do but I did what I could and miracles started to happen. Things just fell into place. It's like someone up there was looking out for us. So I know that we'll be OK. I'll just do what I can and hope for the best.
And who knows? Maybe I will win the lottery...The funny thing is, even if I had a million dollars, Michelle still wouldn't let me go shopping!

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