How to Live and Travel Cheap

How to Live and Travel Cheap

1. Live in a basement. Neil and I are going to take our cheapness to the next level this Saturday by moving into the Michaleks’ basement. We’re not doing it exclusively for financial reasons, but it will be nice to save some money on rent, which is infamously equivalent to “putting money down the drain.” But as we saw, buying a house isn’t necessarily as great of an investment as you might have thought, either. So what’s a young couple to do? Rent a room.

Our apartment rent has increased by $124 since we moved in three years ago. What a rip-off! To be fair, $50 of that was due to our month-to-month lease. But even that option increase $20 since last year. Meanwhile, the quality of our living space is getting worse with wear and tear. We love our apartment, it’s location, and the freedom it offers, but I think living with the Michaleks will be sweet!

Of course, this option probably isn’t viable for those with children or parents living with them. But perhaps the empty-nesters should give it some thought. And this is only option for those with friends kind and brave enough to let you live with them. The Michaleks are gracious beyond reason—they’re clearing out both of their downstairs rooms for us! And they’re courageous to invite us in while they figure out their new life as a family of three. But this leads me to the next suggestion about how to be cheap.

2. Have someone live in your basement (or rent a room). It’s a great way to offset some of the cost of your mortgage while serving someone else and having sweet fellowship right in your home. The Hughes have had three different people stay in their basement. Now they’re quite grateful for Mark’s seemingly quirky suggestion to move in with them. And they’re not the only ones who have tried “communal” living after marriage. We’ll be the second couple to stay with the Michaleks, and the Avdeevs also rented their spare basement bedroom.

So think about it. Is there someone who could use a cheap place to stay, and maybe a better living situation as well? Could you use a couple hundred bucks to go toward your mortgage payment? (Of course you could!) Does your house floor plan allow privacy in at least one extra room, or is there a way you could put up a wall or finish a room to make this possible? Recruit someone who wants to move in and have them help you make the necessary improvements.

3. Pay for everything with a credit card. No doubt that sounds like the worst financial advice you’ve ever heard. But you have to follow these conditions:
1. Use a credit card with a points program.
2. Always pay off the balance each month. This means you’ll never pay interest, but also that you should never buy something you don’t have the money to pay for right away.
3. Pay for as many of your expenses as possible with that one card. You want to rack up the points if you’re going to spend that money anyway.
4. Actually redeem the points. Let them pay for your vacation, new ipod, or Calphalon pots and pans.

Hawaii, here we come!

This is how “cheapies” like us are flying to Hawaii in two weeks (sorry Joe, I had to mention it). We got a free plane ticket, and I carefully watched the flight prices for months until we could score a great deal on the second ticket. We also have a free place to stay which will save a ton. So I guess having friends in warm places is also key to being cheap.

I must repeat: do not pay interest on your credit card! That is the opposite of being cheap. If you are paying interest, you’re effectively paying for people like us to go to Hawaii. Now doesn’t that suck?

How to Be Cheap: Car Talk

Neil has a strategy for owning vehicles. Here it is:

1. Perhaps this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: Never buy a brand-new car. This is one of the worst investments you could make, comparable to buying stock snap bracelets. Instead buy a fairly new car, two or three years old. There are people crazy enough to get a new car every couple years, so find them or their dealer and buy their “old” car. They’ve already taken the huge financial hit of losing thousands of dollars by driving the car out of the dealership. In the first second that you own a new car you lose a ton of money. But if you can find a fairly new car, much of that loss has already been suffered. And you didn’t have to suffer it.

Just because your Barbie had a Corvette doesn't mean you need one.

If you go this route you can hopefully avoid a car payment by saving up for this purchase. You’ll need some serious dough, but shop around and make sure you take someone who knows about cars with you to look at it. Luckily Neil fits this description. If you can’t avoid the car payment, go for the shorter loan and pay it off faster than you have to.

You want to have one reliable car if possible. Reliable car is an oxymoron because any car can break anytime—even a brand-new one. But of course the risk increases with age, so get something fairly new. When Neil’s station wagon died we only had one car for a month while he shopped around for an inexpensive vehicle. But at least we had my trusty Focus to get around in. I would drop him off at work in the morning and then use the car during the day. You don’t want two beaters because they could both go at the same time and then you’re screwed.

2. For a married couple, your second car should be an inexpensive one, which probably means older. It might be a beater, but remember, you have your more reliable car in case this one breaks. This strategy works much better if you know how to fix cars, or know someone who knows how to fix cars. Mechanical labor isn’t cheap and you can save a ton by doing the work yourself. Remember, this is Neil’s strategy and it works because he can fix a lot of common car problems.

Not a hot car, but a hot deal!

You don’t want one car payment, but you really don’t want two. And you probably don’t need two. So drop your pride and get an old ride. Neil insists on driving the junkie car because he drives less than me and he’d rather be the one to break down. I appreciate this, and I also appreciate that he doesn’t take his identity from driving some hot-rod. Some of the high school kids even seem to look up to him for driving modest wheels, because it demonstrates his simple lifestyle and non-worldly values.

3. Get regular oil changes. I always have my eyes open for sales or coupons on oil changes. Then when I need one I know where to go. Although Wal-mart is cheap, I don’t recommend going there because their auto department is awful (at least the one near us). Sometimes they won’t even acknowledge you for twenty minutes, and you still might have an hour and a half wait ahead of you. Speedy Monro and Firestone often have good specials or coupons. Make an appointment, wherever you go. The ten-minute places are fast, of course, but you pay almost double for the convenience. It’s not worth it to me—it wasn’t even when I was working 60+ hours a week. There’s always something you can read or study for an hour, so slow down for once and save yourself $20.

Keep up on oil changes.

Keep up on oil changes.

I hear doing an oil change yourself costs about $15. With a coupon you should get out for around $20. So if you want to save $5 and freeze your husband, go ahead. But during Ohio winters saving $5 every couple of months doesn’t seem worth it.

4. Drive it till it dies or becomes too much of a money pit due to repairs. At some point your good car will probably become your junk car. I hope the Focus has several years before it makes this transition. I’m also hoping the Shadow makes it at least a year. But for the price we paid, we already got our money’s worth in the six months we owned it.

Neil was told me about someone at work whose “car died.” He went out and bought a new one that day. But his car didn’t die at all. One of the accessories just broke. I used to think if your car was broken, you couldn’t drive it. Of course it depends on the problem, but it generally isn’t all-or-nothing as I once thought. Neil has kept cars going long past their prime, including the infamous swamped station wagon, which my parents gave him for free instead of junking it. Once he replaced the carpet and fixed some of the electrical problems, he actually considered it a nice car for some time. It was by far the newest car he’d ever owned.

Ken Rockwell has a different strategy to car-buying. He advises you buy something nice (used) that will hold its value, like a Mercedes. They don’t depreciate much so you can sell it years later for close to the price you paid. Then you basically drove it for free, excluding repairs and gas. But you need some capital to get this plan off the ground, because if you’re paying interest on a loan it certainly isn’t free. Ken’s clever saying, “I can’t afford to drive a Ford,” sounds nice, but Neil’s plan is more realistic for most of us.

How to Be Cheap: Regifting and More

Answers to your burning questions about gift-giving and receiving.

I said you should be cheaper so you can be more generous. Does this mean you should have bought all your family members iPhones for Christmas, then? No, I don’t think so. Here’s my take on gift-giving:

1. Remember who you’re buying for. Generally, you’re buying for Americans whose basic needs are met. You should be as generous as you want to be without exceeding your means. But ask yourself, am I buying a gift for someone who has everything they need, who could buy anything (within reason) they want? If that’s the case don’t spend crazy amounts of money on Christmas or birthdays, especially on fancy gadgets they’ll shove in the closet next month and forget about for years.

Generous does not mean extravagant.

I’m not saying you should be stingy. And I’m not saying you should skimp on a gift for someone who is in need. But every Christmas I’m tempted to feel bad that so-and-so gave me a nicer gift than I gave them. And that’s just stupid. It’s buying into the commercial materialism of American Christmas instead of the humble gratitude that should accompany the season. It’s a different version of trying to keep up with the Joneses. I’d rather give less expensive gifts and be able to give to people with real needs, like the Ethiopian kid we sponsor.

2. Is re-gifting okay? Yes, if you’re being cheap (frugal). No, if you’re being stingy. In other words, if you have something in new or good condition that you don’t want, that you would buy someone else as a gift, then go ahead. But if you’re just giving people junk they don’t want, that’s not just stingy, it’s also inconsiderate. No one wants to take your junk to Goodwill for you. If you’re not sure whether they’ll want it, ask them. And at this point the gift potential is eliminated so it’s now in the category of freebie.

Re-gifting isn't as bad as Seinfeld made it out to be.

You can also re-gift something along with a (purchased) small gift. Check clearance racks for good buys on items people you know would like.

3. Money is the most efficient form of gift-giving. You don’t have to go to the store, and they don’t have to return the gift to the store. They can get exactly what they want, and you don’t end up buying them something they didn’t want. Of course, some people think the gift of money is tacky, lacks thoughtfulness, or is inappropriate. In some cases this is true. Your spouse probably doesn’t want to receive cold hard cash from you since you should be sharing all your funds, anyway. But I find money to be the perfect gift for young people, especially college and high school students who are often “broke” by American standards.

What's not to like about this?

Gift cards are a less efficient form of giving money. In effect it is a cash exchange without the flexibility of cash. They’re good for the person (like me) who will probably spend your gift of cash on toilet paper. You’re forcing them to spend the money somewhere fun, like a clothing store or restaurant. But the disadvantage is that they might lose, forget, or just not spend all the money on the card, in which case you just gave a gift to the store, not your loved one.

Once we bought Neil’s brother a gift certificate to Two Amigos, a cute and tasty Mexican joint in Highland Square. When he went to use it a few months later, the restaurant had closed. What a rip-off! They took my $40 knowing they were going out of business!

For the gift card receiver, I recommend keeping a “store credit” file with all of our gift cards and store credit receipts. I carry my Panera gift card (thanks Adi!) since I go there a lot, but everything else goes in the folder. That way we don’t lose them or forget about them.

4. Don’t spend money on gift bags. Save all the gift bags you receive and collect them in a larger bag. They don’t take up much space. Keep two rolls of inexpensive (clearance) wrapping paper: one for birthdays and one for Christmas. Go for neutral colors or prints that don’t look gender-specific.

Why would you spend $4 on this?

5. Maybe all this cheapness regarding gift-giving is bothering you. But I don’t think I’m alone. As I casually talked to friends about Christmas this year, they all said the same thing: “I really don’t need anything.” “We have everything we need.” One friend asked for toilet paper. I always ask for stuff like good shampoo (meaning more than $2 a bottle). Neil’s siblings decided to donate to a charity instead of buying each other gifts. We offered and received gift ideas from the rest of our family, but overall it was clear that people didn’t want to receive a bunch of stuff they didn’t need, at great expense to their relatives.

So be specific when someone asks you for a gift idea. It can be hard to come up with something, but if there isn’t something that you’ve been longing for, ask for practical items that you’ll have to buy anyway. Or a gift card to a place where you can purchase these. Or something that is worn out or broken. You save money this way, and your relatives won’t be wasting money on you.

How to be Cheap Comments

Hey everyone, I just wanted to say thanks for all the comments. I just discovered them–usually they are automatically emailed to me and I see them that way. But for some reason they weren’t showing up there. So once again I was accusing Neil of not reading my blog and he said he’d commented on it. I was kind of wondering how I wrote six blogs without getting any comments. People kept making comments in person so I was happy with that. But Neil told me to check on my site so I did and there I found tons of encouragement and good tips as well! So now your comments are approved. Sorry about the hold-up. I’m too lazy to go through and respond to all of them, but I really appreciate them.

I did want to say that Christy takes the the prize for cheap food! Our garden was more of a money pit than anything last year, but I think we figured out what we were doing wrong so hopefully we’ll get more than two tomatoes this year!

Hopefully I’ll have time to write the next installment soon.

How to Be Cheap: Myth Busters

Cheapness Myth Busters

First, buying cheap things does not make you cheap. One of the biggest ways you’ll be tricked out of being frugal is buying items that are a good deal, but which you don’t need. For those like me who get a thrill from finding a good bargain, this cheapness fallacy is especially easy to slide into. The summer I was sixteen I spent way too much time at the mall and spent way too much money getting “great deals” on clothes I didn’t need. I got a lot for my money, I thought, but when you buy things you don’t need, it’s never really a good deal. You might buy things you’ll need in the near future, which is a good deal. That’s called stocking up. But when you buy more of what you already have plenty of, like polo shirts in my case, you aren’t saving money. You’re wasting money.

So beware “good deals” just for the sake of getting a bargain. If that good deal can be used as a gift, or you might need it soon, go for it. If not, pass it up, even if it’s only the low, low price of $2.99. We waste much money in little increments. The daily gas station coffees and weekly Walmart clearance purchases add up over the year and can mean the difference between being broke and being able to save and give.

Why not buy it because you really needed it?

Second, buying cheap things isn’t necessarily a better deal. I used cheap here in a more literal sense: not only is it inexpensive, but poor in quality. Consider how long the item is likely to last you, and whether it’s worth the money you’ll save. Let’s take a couch, for example, with arbitrary prices and years to make a point. If you have the choice between a $300 couch which should last three years, and a $600 which should last ten years, which is the better deal?

The more expensive one, of course. You can’t know how long something will last you for sure, but you can do your research. The internet is a great source for customer reviews. Often these are posted on the store web site. Or go to the local library and find a copy of Consumer Reports that reviews the item you’re shopping for. And better yet, ask a friend who owns the same item. Grill them with questions: do they like it? How is it holding up? What kind of wear/use do they get out of it? Have they ever regretted the purchase? Would they recommend it? Why?

My husband is the master of researching purchases, especially for technology. The key is to read a lot and ask good questions. He errs on the side of gathering so much information that he can’t even make a decision. I wouldn’t advise this. If you find fifty good reviews and one or two bad ones, just buy the thing already!

I’m hoping my Ford Focus doesn’t turn out to be a case in point here. I didn’t choose it so I can’t be held responsible for the outcome. But basically the thing is only seven years old, just hit 100,000 miles, and is doing all sorts of weird things. Neil seems to work on it more than his 1990 Dodge Shadow, although we drive mine much more. I love my little red car and it gets me around, usually, so I can’t complain. I’m just a little worried about all those ticking sounds in the dash board.

How long will it last? Several more years, I hope!

Another myth is that you have to pay the asking price for an item. You can haggle in more situations than you’d think, even in the mall. I hear you can go back and forth from one jeweler to another (in the mall) and get them to bring down the price as they compete with each other. Neil talked a salesman at a tuxedo place to give him a free tux since he was the best man in the wedding. That saved us a $100. He’s also scored several free camera lenses from second-hand shops and Craig’s List sellers. Not too shabby, hubby!

I’ve also heard of people talking car salesmen down by $10,000. That’s quite a chunk of change to save. Don’t be too proud or too scared to ask for a discount or just state, “This is all I can spend” and stick to your guns. It’s certainly worth it.

Also, if you find a minor flaw in the item that doesn’t significantly affect your ability to use/wear it, ask for a discount. The dress my mom wore to my wedding had a small snag in the fabric at the bottom, where no one would see. We got 20% off of an already marked-down clearance item.

Additionally, if a salesperson is giving you crap about not having your driver’s license when you’re trying to return something, or bringing it back 91 days after you bought, throw a fit. Make a scene. Whip out the very effective line I learned from Amy Lagotte: “This is unacceptable.” Say it in your firmest voice, but don’t get mean. Say it loud enough so that the other people shopping in the store can hear you. Ask to talk to their manager. Don’t believe them when they say they are the manager. There is always someone higher up when you’re dealing with the people behind the counter.

Does this lookl like a person with power?

The truth is, those people at the customer service desk don’t have much power. They probably can’t take the item back. They need a manager to override whatever policy limits the action. If you talk to the manager, throw a little fit, and they still don’t do anything, then their hands are probably truly tied by some policy outside of their control. In that case you’ve tried your best and you should be nice and thank them for their time.

I had a salesperson tell me I needed to pay an extra $40 for the laptop I’d already purchased on-line (I had to pick it up at the store). The $40 was for a service they did to the laptop. It was not for a product or program or anything there was physical evidence of. Do you think I paid $40 for some mystery service there was no evidence of? Hell no! I applied the means described above, left with the laptop, and paid no extra charges.

It’s also a myth that cheapness is only practiced out of necessity and therefore is embarassing. Some of the cheapest (most frugal) people are the rich! Many people are rich because they know how to spend their money, and how not to. They may be able to afford nicer splurges than the rest of us, but their day-to-day lives may include fewer splurges than yours. I knew a couple who was fairly well-off. He drove a Lexus, and they belonged to a fancy country club. But they were always eating pasta, she wore about three different outfits total, and they shopped in the aisles of random stuff at Marc’s. They also paid their house off early.

So you should never be ashamed to be cheap, as long as you aren’t being stingy.

Up next: is re-gifting okay?

How to be Cheap: Entertainment

I’ve told you some ideas of what to eat for lunch and dinner, but what about breakfast? I highly recommend eat oatmeal—either quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats from the big can. It’s a great value, it’s very healthy, and you won’t start your day with a lot of sugar. Most pre-packaged breakfast items have a lot of sugar, which doesn’t actually fill you up. I recommend sweetening your oatmeal with half a banana, mashed. Then drink some milk with it and you’ve got a very healthy, cheap start to your day.

Eat it for breakfast

If you do buy boxed cereal, buy it at Aldi! Don’t pay more than $2 for a box—even that is a bad deal compared to a can of oatmeal. I recommend buying Bran Flakes because they are inexpensive, healthy, and more filling than other cereals. Again, add half a sliced banana for more nutrition.

Don’t spend money on movies or television. There are so many ways to get these forms of entertainment for free. Plus, watching television or movies frequently is a waste of time. You can watch television shows for free on YouTube or Of course it isn’t as quality or convenient as watching it on cable, but being cheap requires some sacrifice. And most shows are so dumb that they’re not worth paying for. It’s embarrassing enough that I love watching America’s Next Top Model; it would be even worse if I were paying for trash t.v.

Here’s an important motto for anyone who wants to live cheaper: having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card! It’s so true! The library has endless hours of entertainment for free. They have many popular t.v. series, movies, fitness videos, music CDs, and of course books. Why spent $3-5 renting a movie at the video store when you could get at the library? Most libraries lend DVDs for 5-7 days, plus their late fees are way cheaper than video stores. This requires planning ahead—because libraries aren’t open late weekend nights. But if you think ahead and stop there on the way home from work, you can save a lot of money over the course of the year.

Trinity College, Dublin

Even worse than renting movies is buying the DVD or seeing it at the theater. Unless the movie is really special to you, or you’re celebrating a really special occasion, why would you spend $8 to see a movie once or $20 to own it? This just doesn’t make sense when it’s all sitting at your local library for free. If the library near you doesn’t have it, they can usually borrow it from an area library. Or go to a bigger library nearby. The movie theater is a rip-off and should be visited sparingly. The worst part is that most new movies aren’t even good, so why waste your money on them? I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie in the theater. I think it was Prince Caspian, which was out last spring.

The drive-in is a good deal if you squeeze a lot of people into the car. So head to Ravenna when the weather gets warm if you want to see a new release. The other good deals are places that show second-run movies, right after they leave the big theaters. The Linda Theater in Akron shows one film a week for $3. Even better is Cinemark Movies 10 in North Canton which has ten screens and charges $1.50-$2.25 depending on the day and time. So if you’re dying to see a new movie or want to go on a date, wait until its first run is over and check the internet for showings at these discount places.

And need I even say that you should not buy popcorn, snacks, or drinks at the theater? Just bring a big purse if you must munch while movie-viewing.

Another good way to get free movies is borrowing them from your not-so-cheap friends or family who actually buy DVDs. You probably know people with massive movie collections, so ask if you can borrow something. Most people like to share. Just make sure you return the items before too long, or they may never lend you something again.

The library is also quite useful for books. I don’t buy a book until I’ve checked the on-line library catalog. Many libraries have a better selection of Christian books than you’d expect. The downtown Akron library is better than smaller ones in the area. So check the library first, unless you know the book is something you need to own. And here’s a secret: you can write in library books. I love to underline, not only for future reference but also to focus better while reading. I did this all through college and the library never said a word. So just use pencil and don’t be afraid to leave the next reader good notes.

When you do buy books, buy them used whenever possible. Check the library book sales where they may be 50 cents or $1. For Christian books, the best deals are usually on and are also good but generally not as cheap. has good deals on new books (much better than Borders), but usually their used book prices aren’t as good.

Buy your magazine subscriptions on e-bay. It’s by far the cheapest. Neil and I get about 8 magazines (not counting the ones the guys so kindly signed us up for last year) but we paid only $5-10 for each yearly subscription. There’s another cheap form of entertainment for you.

Who wants to pay $700 semester for textbooks?

A note for college students: don’t buy your textbooks at the bookstore! It’s a rip-off. First, check OhioLink, a service provided by your university library on their web site. Do this a week or two before the semester starts and request the books you need. Then you can renew them all semester. Just don’t lose them because they charge steep fines for books borrowed this way, to the tune of $150. If you need math or science books they may not have them, though. So go to They have tons of textbooks. Often you can have an older edition than the course requires. You’re not going to fail a class because you have a slightly older edition of the text.

Now that I’ve banned restaurant eating and going to the movie theater, what are you supposed to do on a date? Eat at home. If cooking for a date stresses you out, make extra food the night before and just eat the leftovers. Or cook together as part of your date. Here are some restaurant-taste-alike recipes:

Lime chicken soft tacos:
Chicken enchiladas:

Orange chicken (cut the brown sugar in half):
Szechuan Chicken:
Sesame Chicken:
Egg-drop soup:

Chicken Parmesan (skip the frying step):
Florentine Chicken:

Chicken Tikka Masala:
Red Chicken Curry:

Chicken with Basil:
Chicken Satay:
Massaman Chicken (yellow curry, note my bowl in the picture):
Starbucks is a bad daily habit, but a cheap date!

What to do after dinner? Go to a coffee shop and order a small coffee or tea. It’ll only cost you $3 total and you can sit there for as long as you want and talk. Talking is a great activity for dates or hanging out with friends, and it is free. You just need somewhere to talk, and if you feel the need to “get out,” coffee shops are cheap because you can just buy a beverage and you don’t have to tip. Then you’ve related, relax with one of your free library movies and make this amazing, cheap recipe for kettle corn. Just beware: it’s addicting!

Kettle Corn:

How to Be Cheap: Stocking Staples

Stocking Staples

Here is a list of items to have on hand. This is Rachel’s Ray’s Essential Pantry, minus the things I think are unnecessary, plus a couple things that are probably too unsophisticated for her. Now don’t go out and buy every single item you don’t have this week. But do slowly add the items you don’t yet own, especially as you choose recipes that require them.

With that qualification in mind, consider this your shopping list. Check which items you’re out of each week and put those on the list (you definitely won’t need to buy them all every week). Then check your menu and see what other ingredients the recipes require. For example, if you’re making something Mexican maybe you want fresh cilantro ($1 at Acme) on top. If you’re making Thai food you’ll need a can of coconut milk ($2 at Acme in the baking section).

A note: for fruit, I buy one bag of apples, oranges, or whatever else is the cheapest that week; and one bunch of bananas. You can’t have as much variety when you’re cheap, but you can still eat healthy. For veggies, I mostly buy frozen ’cause they’re cheaper than fresh and better for you than canned. I only buy fresh tomatoes in the summer because they’re not that good during the winter. In addition to carrots and celery I buy one cucumber, pepper, or something else for salad topping.

Baking Goods and Spices
Bay Leaves (whole or flaked)
Chili Powder
Ground Cinnamon
Ground Cumin
Ground Ginger
Curry Paste or Powder
Dried Oregano
Seasoned salt
Taco seasoning packets
Red Pepper Flakes
Dried Thyme
Coarse Black Pepper or Peppercorns
White Sugar
Brown Sugar
All-Purpose Flour
Baking powder and soda

Hot Sauce
Mayo or miracle whip (don’t buy the latter at Aldi)
Peanut Butter
Bread Crumbs
Vegetable Oil
Vinegar: Red Wine, Balsamic, and a mild light one like cider, rice or white wine

Dairy and Deli
Parmesan cheese
Cheddar and/or mozzarella cheese

Lemon or lime juice (Aldi has lemon, Walmart has lime)
In-season fruit
Bagged salad ($1 at Aldi–I buy 1 or 2 per week)

Freezer Items
Frozen Mixed and/or stir-fry veggies
Frozen Corn
Frozen Chopped Spinach
Chicken breasts
Ground beef
Canned Goods/Pantry
Chicken Stock
Beef Stock
Canned Crushed Tomatoes
Canned Tomato Paste
Canned Tomato Sauce
Canned beans
Canned cream of chicken or mushroom soup
Loaf of bread
Taco shells
Tortilla chips

As a final note, we also keep a few snacks on hand, such as granola bars, one bag of chips, one 2-liter of soda, and popcorn. Don’t stock too many snacks or pop because you’ll probably go through it faster. If you know you only get one bag/box/bottle a week, you’ll make it last.

How to be Cheap: Grocery-Getting

Now that you want to be cheap and have some basic guidelines, let’s get down to the details of menu planning and grocery-shopping.

Plan Ahead

The number one way to reduce your grocery budget is to shop at Aldi (or other discount food stores). But you have to know what to buy there. They have many pre-packaged convenience items at relatively good prices, but these are still not the best deal. Choose your convenience purchases wisely and based on your needs. For example, I buy the granola bars but skip the frozen meals.

The second best way to reduce your grocery spending is to plan ahead. Aim to go shopping once a week. (Large families may need to go more often for fresh items). It’s inefficient to go several times a week because you didn’t plan ahead. That takes time, and time is money. At the same time, if you wait much more than a week you’ll probably run out of fresh produce, and you’re more likely to stop at convenient stores where prices are higher. If you go without a list, you’ll spend more because you’ll buy whatever looks good, and you won’t know how much you’re spending.

Grocery shopping isn't so bad when you plan ahead.

I go to Aldi and Acme most weeks. At Acme I buy sale items and the few items Aldi doesn’t have. The more expensive grocery stores often run great sales, but it’s not worth buying the items unless they are cheaper than at Aldi, or equivalent in price but of better quality. Every couple months or so I’ll go to Save-a-lot or Marc’s to stock up on a few items that Aldi’s doesn’t have, and that are cheaper than at Acme.

To make good choices, you have to know what’s a good price for most items. In general, Aldi has the best prices so pay attention to the prices at Aldi. This way you’ll be able to look at your grocery list and know how much it’ll cost before you ever get to the store. This allows you to plan your splurges, too. Also, pay attention to price per ounce when you’re comparing two similar items. This is listened on the price labels at Aldi.

Stock Staples and Spices

So that’s how I plan where and when I’ll go shopping. But how do I plan what to buy? It’s simple: make a menu. Before I go shopping, I spend about half an hour choosing recipes and writing out the ingredients I’ll need. I also look in the cupboards and refrigerator to see what staples I’m out of. You should always keep certain staples that are common in many dishes. Many cookbooks and web sites have lists of suggested staples. I tend to be a bit minimalistic when it comes to these. I don’t really think you need to have 3 types of beans in your cupboard at all times. But look at a list or two and adjust it according to your family’s typical tastes and needs.

I do recommend having a variety of spices, which are an easy, cheap, and healthy way to give dishes lots of flavor. In addition to the standard spices you’ll find at Aldi or Save-a-lot, invest in (when they’re on sale) more exotic spices like red and yellow curry, Chinese five-spice powder, garam masala, and smoked paprika. These are good to have because you can make Thai, Indian, and Chinese food that tastes like restaurant food. A $4 spice is much cheaper than a $30+ meal at an ethnic restaurant.

also a spice

Choosing Recipes

When choosing recipes, I look for three key qualities: nutrition, cost, and prep-time. I want dinner recipes to be high in protein, relatively low in fat, contain mainly staple ingredients and a couple other inexpensive ingredients, and not take too long (generally more than 30-40 minutes) to prepare. Once in a while I choose to overlook one variable in my health-cost-time formula, but if you usually follow this then you’ll be healthier, cheaper, and not spend too much time in the kitchen.

To plan inexpensive meals, I recommend eating mainly chicken and ground beef, plus two non-meat meals per week. I rarely spend more than $2-$2.50 per pound on meat. Save expensive beef and pork cuts or seafood for special occasions.

Lunchmeat, by the way, is a money pit. While I commend you for packing lunch instead of buying, lunch meat is often $8 per pound. That’s crazy! You could buy two 5-lb. whole chickens for that price at Aldi. Instead of packing sandwiches for lunch, make an extra serving or two of dinner the night before and pack the leftovers. It’s much more economical. Unless you want to eat peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. That’s cheaper, but Neil will never agree to that.

So shoot for $2 a pound for chicken breast and ground beef. And find a lot of ways to cook chicken. I’ll share some below. Even cheaper, however, is the aforementioned whole chickens at Aldi. They’re only 79 cents a pound. And you get a variety of light and dark meat (which Neil likes). The only drawback is that you have to clean the chicken—rinse it, take the bags out, and cut off the skin (if you want to reduce fat). Here are two good, easy ways to cook a whole chicken:

Making a whole chicken is the cheapest!

Spicy Rapid Roast Chicken:

Baked Slow Cooker Chicken:

The good thing about these chickens is when you’re done eating them the way you cooked them, you can shred the leftover meat and add sauces or spices to make BBQ chicken, enchiladas, tacos, etc.

Beans are the best alternative to meat in meals, for the same reasons that the Taco Bell bean burrito is the healthiest, cheapest fast food option. Dried beans are the cheapest form, but since I only cook for two and those take a long time, canned beans are a good alternative. I don’t like to pay more than 50 cents for a can of beans. Aldi’s has refried, kidney, chili, pinto, baked, and Mexican chili beans. Periodically they carry chickpeas and black beans (my favorites). I also stock up on these when they go on sale at Acme. Here are some good bean recipes:

Butter Chickpea Curry (contains no butter):

Black Bean and Salsa Soup:

Chickpea burgers:

Easy Pasta Fagioli:

Moroccan Lentil Soup:

Also you can make your own bean burritos with refried beans, cheese, taco sauce, and tortillas.

Pasta, potato, egg, and cheese dishes are also good. Here are some options that go beyond the standard grilled cheese, spaghetti, and mac and cheese:

Spinach quiche (I skip the croutons):

Quick Gnocchi (made with instant potatoes):

Cheesy Potato soup:

Potato and vegetable enchiladas (substitute whatever veggies you like; spinach is good):

Thai Peanut Butter Noodles:

Spinach Calzones:

The chicken breast and restaurant knock-off recipes will have to wait for next time. But please note that you can change recipes to make them cheaper. In most cases you can use dried spices instead of fresh if you want to reduce the cost. You can substitute different vegetables, use lemon instead of lime juice, or even skim milk instead of cream (just add a little cornstarch). If you want the best flavor, use fresh ingredients and don’t skimp on oils. But I cut fat and cost in most of my cooking and Neil doesn’t even notice the difference. Stay tuned for more tips and tricks…

How to be Cheap: General Principles

General Principles

1. Plan for giving first, not what’s leftover. If you wait to give what’s left, there won’t be anything. Diversify your eternal portfolio: give to the fellowship, missions work, and poverty relief through Christian organizations.

2. Minimize spending on indulgence and convenience items. Don’t stop at the gas station frequently for snacks and drinks. Pack lunch instead of buying. If you spend $5 a day on lunch, you’re blowing $80 a month! If you bought lunch once a week or less, you could use the money you saved to sponsor two impoverished children! See more on eating at restaurants below.

Besides food there are many items which make our lives easier or more comfortable. I’m not suggesting we eliminate these entirely, but think about whether you really need that new kitchen gadget or cleaning tool before you buy it. Also, reduce your consumption of paper and plastic products. Refill water bottles (of any type). Use resealable plastic bags sparingly, and wash and reuse whenever possible. Buy the choose-a-size paper towels and use half a sheet whenever possible. Use sponges more for cleaning to conserve paper towels. Consider paper and plastic products luxury items and use in moderation.

3. Minimize restaurant eating, including fast food. Going out to eat should be a treat, not a daily or even weekly occurrence. You could easily drop enough money to feed your family for a week on one meal. This is fine for special occasions and infrequent splurges, but it is not financially wise for common practice. The same goes for fast food. As a habit it is a money pit and very unhealthy, but in a pinch go for the dollar menus. The best value is the Taco Bell bean burrito. For $1 it’s packed with filling protein and healthy fiber, while it’s relatively low in fat.

Don't eat fast food regularly!

When you do go out to eat, skip buying beverages. They are the biggest rip-off ever! Water is healthy and free (not so in other countries). Also, keep your eyes open for coupons to use at restaurants. And consider getting take-out. That way you don’t have to pay as much tip or tax.

One problem with not going out to eat is that most Americans go out a lot. So if you want to have a social life, you’ll probably need to go to restaurants. In this case, order cheap items or split a dish with someone. Also, the beverage principle flips if all you buy is a beverage. If you go out with a group of people and don’t want to spend money, eat beforehand and then just buy something to drink or an inexpensive side. These are the cheapest items on restaurant menus.

4. Don’t buy brand names. You don’t need them! Even if you life the brand name better, you can get used to the off-brand. There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are few. When you do choose name-brand, buy it on sale.

I love Aldi!

Shop at Aldi! Save-a-lot is good for some things, Marc’s for others, but overall the best bargains are at Aldi. Just bring a quarter and some shopping bags. They are always getting new and fancier items, too. I have never become sick from eating Aldi’s products. It’s perfectly safe to shop there. If you object to shopping there, consider two truths: If Aldi doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it. (Though you may want it and of course can buy it elsewhere.) And you are not too good to shop there! I know people who are well-off who shop there because they have good values.

5. Don’t buy clothes until you really need them. Fashion sells the myth that you need new clothes every season, or even every year. Just wait until your clothes are really worn out or don’t fit, and then shop at the thrift store, clearance, and sales. You don’t need to be in style or have your clothes fit like they’re made for you. At the same time, don’t buy clothes that are obviously cheaply made. For example, many of the mall stores with teeny-bopper-type clothes have cheap prices but the clothes fall apart in less than a year. Gabriel Brothers and other stores that sell quality items for less are great. All the same principles applies for shoes, pursues, and other accessories. Why do you need five purses? Just get something basic that will match many outfits and seasons.

6. Choose your splurges carefully. You will spend more if you indulge impulsively. Don’t buy a Starbucks drink on a whim every other day. Instead, decide to buy one once a week, or once a month, or when you go there with a friend (part of the social-life thing). The same is true for groceries. You don’t need to buy gourmet ingredients or your favorite snacks every week. Choose the splurges that fit into your budget and forego those that don’t.

When buying technology, appliances, furniture, or any other big purchase, shop around. Do the research to find out what will last, and how to get a good deal on it. Try e-bay and Craig’s list. Know what the product is worth is don’t pay more. Shopping around and doing research requires more effort but it’s worth getting a better value on a big item, especially something indulgent like a camera.

7. For young couples: understand home equity. When we started looking for a house I thought buying a house (at a good price) was automatically a good investment because real estate increases in value. What I didn’t analyze was how much you pay in interest, taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and other incidentals. Over 30 years you’ll pay something like 150% of the loan value in interest alone. Will your home value increase by 150%? In thirty years it well may. But most people live in a home for 5-7 years. If you pay the closing costs, it will take five years to regain that money in equity.

Is a home a good investment for you?

Of course, if you need a house then it makes sense to buy one. Even if you’re not getting much of a return on the investment, there’s a utility value. Just don’t think you’re going to be making a ton of money automatically when you buy a house. Even in this buyer’s market with low interest rates. Think about why you want or need the house, and how it fits into your long-term plans.

This is a brainstorm of principles I follow; please comment with others. Next up: cheap meal-planning ideas.

How to be Cheap, Part 1

Why to Be Cheap

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about frugality lately. Considering the economy and increased prices in staples like food, this only makes sense. People keep telling me I should write something about how to be cheap since I’m good at it and other people aren’t. So this is my attempt to help out those of you who weren’t born cheap like me.

First, I would like to acknowledge the limits of my experience with frugality. I don’t have kids or a house or other expenses you might have. I don’t have any financial expertise, either. Probably many people can out-cheap me, so I’m just offering you what I know. If you need help planning and shopping for cheap meals, I can offer some good suggestions. Also I follow some general principles which I’ll lay out.

But before we get into the details of how to be cheap, you need to consider why you want to be cheap (by which I mean frugal). Because being cheap isn’t easy; it requires planning, discipline, and effort. So if you aren’t motivated to be cheap, or you’re motivated for the wrong reasons, you probably aren’t going to stick with it. And if you’re cheap for no reason, there’s another word for you: stingy.

Consider Your Goals

Maybe you need to be cheaper because you’re living beyond your means. That’s a good reason. In that case it would be helpful to determine how you got into that position in the first place. What false expectations about your lifestyle are you holding on to? Are you trying to keep up with someone, maintain the lifestyle you grew up with, or make life as easy and comfortable as possible? Identify and repent of any ungodly attitudes in this area. (I realize that emergencies and other circumstances may contribute to this problem rather than wrong attitudes.)

Perhaps you want to save money. What is your goal? Is it to save a down payment for a house? Do you want to buy a shiny new piece of technology? Do you want to have more money for emergencies? Consider whether your goal is worthwhile enough to motivate you to save. Also determine whether your goal is reasonable. If a goal is too lofty you’ll get discouraged trying to attain it.

Why are you saving?

Also ask yourself if you’re saving without a goal in mind. Are you just saving to have a lot of money stored up, because it makes you feel safe and secure? Or maybe it’s just your personality to want to save. You may be very motivated to save, but if you don’t have a reason, you’re probably being stingy and not trusting God.

I say this as one who is a natural saver. It’s good to be a saver, but there is a better reason to be cheap: giving.

Generosity: The Best Reason to be Cheap

If you really want to be cheaper, give more money away. There is no better motivator for frugality than generosity. Being cheap because you have to makes you feel like you’re under the law. You can’t buy this, or you must save that. This mindset makes people want to rebel. It’s part of the reason poor people splurge on fancy cell phones or hair-dos. When you feel deprived, eventually you’ll treat yourself because you think you deserve it.

If you want to be cheap, give away more money!

But generosity follows from grace. Because God has given us so much that we don’t deserve, we want to share with others. And then if I pass up buying a new shirt or eating at a restaurant, I won’t feel deprived. I’ll feel grateful for what I do have, and for the opportunity to share my provisions with those in need. Gratitude, not guilt, should motivate your giving and your frugality.

God calls us to generosity: “They only asked us to remember the poor– the very thing I also was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). The Macedonia church is praised repeatedly for their generosity (despite their own poverty) to the Jerusalem church during a famine. As Americans, God has blessed us financially. So let us be good stewards of God’s provision and give to His work here and around the world, including poverty relief efforts. The first step to being cheap is to have the right motivation: making wise financial decisions which will allow you to be more generous.

Stay tuned for practical suggestions…