Buying in bulk saves money even when you don’t have access to Costco because you live in a big city. If you are a young person and your mother still mails you holiday gifts of socks and underwear (mine sends Avon!), ask for a giant bottle of ibuprofen. Seriously, what parent is going to refuse you that? You’ll save six bucks every time you get cramps. The giant bottle costs about $20 and will last forever. By the way, I did learn from the Cheapskate book that medicines should NOT be kept in bathroom — they degrade in warm, wet environments.
I really, really love food. I love nothing better than a dozen oysters and a tall Hefe-Weizen after a lucrative day. I feel like I’m eating really expensively (I limit my oyster consumption more based on time than money — I’d say I do it about twice a month), but when I looked at the numbers over the course of a month, I’m really not spending the ridiculous amount of money I thought I was. Why? Because, when I’m eating really good food in restaurants, I am really, really into it, but when I am eating really inexpensive food, I am not thinking about food because I am doing other things. It’s good to have a staple food, the thing you eat when you’re not thinking about eating. When you pick a staple (ramen is fried and the broth packets are full of MSG; too much pasta is fattening; cereal for dinner is sort of sad; polenta is popular among Italian college students), you want something cheap but not damaging to your health. Mine is lentils. One of the best (non-Avon) things my mom ever sent me? A Paula Deen casserole dish. Throw in a 75¢ bag of lentils, some hastily-chopped carrots and potatoes, half of a leftover rotisserie chicken, etc., let this thing cook on low heat in the oven for a couple hours, and you’re in business for DAYS, and feeding yourself for pennies. (The point of a casserole dish is that you don’t have to watch or stir what’s in it — the lid keeps stuff from evaporating or thickening too much). Just put the whole dish in the fridge later that night and put it back in the oven the next day (or ladle some of this into a to-go dish for work). I find that if you’re forcing yourself to eat dollar store mac-and-cheese, you feel deprived, but if you’ve made something that’s actually pretty good for you and you’re eating it while making money, reading a book, etc., you don’t even notice.
Many people swear by libraries. My best friend points out that New York has possibly the most comprehensive library system in America, and that you can order any book and have it sent over to your local branch, where it will be labeled with your name and waiting for you on a shelf. Even if the books are late, fines are just 25¢ per day. I have to admit that, while I am happy to pay taxes so that knowledge may be shared, for free, with everyone, including (and especially) people who do not have internet access, I personally am skeptical of library books because of germs. Even my BFF had to admit, “You’re right, there’s no way to know that other people haven’t read those books on the toilet.”
You can just call your credit card company and ask for a lower APR. You could try saying that you’re considering switching to another card and transferring over your balance. Sometimes this works! You have nothing to lose but part of an hour on hold.
I’m sure everyone’s already aware that you can watch TV for free at Hulu, but I was also able to get a $15 cable from Radio Shack that hooks my laptop up to my TV so I can see Hulu shows on the big screen. I also have an iTunes season pass to Mad Men. What else does a person need? Certainly not a monthly cable bill. I see enough reruns of How I Met Your Mother on airplanes.
Relocate to Mexico City, Quito, or Buenos Aires for a few months. If you are unemployed, or a freelancer who can work from anywhere, why pay New York rent all twelve months of the year? You can get most of the benefits of being in New York (knowing the right people, furthering your career, attending all those Shakespeare in the Park performances) by living in the city most, but not all, of the time. If you live someplace in America, but much less exciting (to you) than New York, this goes double: once you pay for a plane ticket, you can live super-cheap and more excitingly in many other parts of the world (I mention the cities above because they are in well-developed areas with European-style dining and amenities, but the list of the world’s cheapest cities also includes Tunis, Addis Ababa, Chennai, Kathmandu, and many more). I decamped to Buenos Aires for all of January, 2009, rented an apartment off Craigslist for the month, and made a profit on my vacation by writing math problems from a variety of charming bookstore/cafes, some of which will keep you supplied with empanadas as you work. Try this for a month or two between leases. Considering that you can email and Facebook from anywhere, you don’t necessarily even need to tell anyone you’ve left.
Denying yourself little things several times a day is sometimes necessary, but really not fun. (It’s worse in New York, because in a walking culture, you are can’t even get from home to work without walking past dozens of attractive places of business; at least in the ‘burbs, you can drive from your house to your job and not really be tempted by seeing the outside of the mall). If you’re a high-achieving type person, doing something halfway is demoralizing: why exercise unless you can GO TO THE OLYMPICS?! So, if you can become really ambitious about saving money, you might be more motivated to do so. Fortunately, plenty of people are already using online financial programs and you can compete with these people and try to win! This post on Budgets are Sexy talks about why it’s important to track your net worth. This NYT article contains links to a variety of websites that will allow you to track your net worth in an ambitious manner.Knowing your daily salary is helpful to keep purchases in perspective. A person thinking in annual, pre-tax dollars might say, “I’ve been working hard and I deserve this $300 item.” A person who has taken a look at her last paycheck and divided the after-tax amount by 14 days might say, “I make $97 after-tax dollars per day and that object is not worth three days of my life.”
If you are a freelancer or entrepreneur, rather than thinking in terms of a daily salary, think in terms of a daily target. When you get a $5,000 contract to do something, your pay rate is not at all determined yet: if you do the job in 30 days, you are a $166 a day worker. If you do it in 20 days, you’re a $250 a day worker. Calculate a target simply by dividing your rent and other expenses by 30 (or 22, if you only want to count 5 workdays a week) — that’s the base daily amount you need to survive. If you want to buy cool shit, you need way more than that. Just as some people count reps at the gym, I know every single day how much money I’m making (when you charge for your services by the hour, it’s pretty easy to keep track). If I’ve booked less time than usual on a particular day, that’s my cue to make up for it by jamming out some pages on any of the writing projects I get paid to do; if that amount is $0, I make sure to have some serious fun instead (I recently took a boat ride from the South Street Seaport to the Statue of Liberty along with a bunch of European tourists!) I think that’s a big key to the good life: the best days are extremely lucrative ones, and extremely fun ones. Eliminate all the ones in between.
Going to bed early saves on drinks at the bar, booze and munchies at home, spontaneous iTunes movie rentals, late-night online shopping, and even utilities. (People eat much more expensive food late at night! With the lights on and everything!) Imagine what would happen if you went to bed two hours earlier and got up two hours earlier — what you normally do from 11pm-1am looks very different from how you would probably spend your time from 6-8am. That’s when novels get written, side businesses get founded, and Fergie-abs get sculpted! (You can save this tip until you’re kind of old. I understand).
There you go — how to save money without saving old bread bags and making dresses out of potato sacks. A couple of good places to go from here: Mint.com, a popular budgeting and financial website, and Learnvest, a financial education site for young women. Not that a potato sack dress couldn’t have a certain hipster appeal if you played it right.