Survival Skills 101: Frugal Living

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I have been barely surviving living frugally for nearly all of my life, although I have been taking this to the extreme these past five years. But now that many of you are also having to either cut back on your living expenses, due to unemployment, underemployment or fear that you will become un(der)employed soon, I no longer feel I have to be so secretive about my own lifestyle, so I thought I'd share some of my own tried-and-true strategies for basic survival skills with you.

Life style changes:

  1. avoid window shopping -- and stores in general. If you can't see a large variety of cool gadgets and clothes, then you won't want to buy them.
  2. avoid online and spontaneous purchases by not carrying your credit card with you to places where you have internet access.
  3. get rid of your clutter! Sell it or give it away to someone who needs it more than you do. By getting rid of it, you'll feel better about living in a small space.
  4. learn to enjoy walking again. It's a great way to get into shape, to save gas and to get to know your city and your neighbors.
  5. give up your vices, like smoking, recreational drugs, alcohol and gambling (yes, even lotto -- you know you're not going to win, so why bother?). Fortunately, the only vice I have is alcohol, which I rarely indulge in these days.
  6. I love coffee, but it is terribly expensive to purchase a cup of java at a coffee shop. Instead, as a treat, I (or my readers) buy expensive coffees, have them coarse-round and then I brew myself a cup or two at home using my coffee press.


  1. rely only on one cell phone that has only the most basic of plans (no text messaging, internet or other bells and whistles) and get rid of any other phones that you have, including your "land line". The best aspect of cell phones, in my opinion, is that long distance calls cost the same as local calls.
  2. get rid of cable TV, or better yet, get rid of the TV itself. (I have never owned a TV and never will -- I go to a pub to watch TV when I really want to watch something special, like the presidential debates).
  3. if you already have wireless internet, offer to split the monthly costs with a next-door neighbor (if you live in an apartment) by either paying half the bill or bartering goods or services for half the bill. If you don't have wireless internet access, like me, use the free wifi provided by a local library.
  4. electricity use can be reduced by turning off lights when a room is not in use; replacing your light bulbs with energy-saving fluorescent bulbs; reducing the thermostat to 68 degrees -- or cooler -- and wearing a sweater or sweats; turning the heat off when you are out during the day; unplugging appliances that are not in use (many appliances draw power when not in use); and making sure you know what you want before opening the refrigerator or freezer.
  5. pay all your bills online as soon as you receive them -- this way, you will never pay late fees, you'll save money on envelopes and stamps, and you can make sure the money is transferred from your bank account to the billing company's account on the due date, and not one day earlier (or later)!


  1. most important, I do almost all of my shopping for food and cleaning supplies at my local 99-cent store, and I completely avoid convenience stores and the large "box stores."
  2. make a shopping list before going to the store and then only purchase what is on that list (always make sure that toilet paper is on your list).
  3. choose one day per week (or one day every two weeks) to do your shopping and stick with it!
  4. keep a careful watch over the prices of items as they are rung up -- I always catch the cashier trying to overcharge me for items that are on sale!
  5. purchase dry foods that you use often in large quantities to save money -- but only if you use them often and can store them without attracting mice! For example, I purchase oatmeal in quantity and store it in resealable plastic containers.
  6. purchase foods from the bulk section instead of as prepackaged items.
  7. reduce your dependence upon convenience foods (for example, the only convenience food I purchase are canned vegetarian soups. Further, I only purchase them when they are on sale).
  8. avoid purchasing junk foods, like chips, crackers, candy, ice cream, cookies and soft drinks.
  9. eat less meat or give it up altogether (I eat meat only on special occasions).
  10. eat leftovers and do not waste "spare" pieces of food -- learn how to prepare the food items that you have on hand.
  11. refill your used plastic water bottles with tap water instead of purchasing a fresh bottle every day.
  12. substitute store-brands and generics for name-brands for items such as spices, cereals, vitamins and over-the-counter medications.
  13. purchase fresh produce from the "overripe" bins and use it immediately. I do this for my companion parrots and they are able to enjoy a huge variety of fresh fruits and vegetables nearly every day as a result.
  14. learn how to cook using a microwave instead of a stove/oven.
  15. remember that your freezer is your friend.
  16. when I lived in Seattle, I baked all my own bread, cookies, pies and cakes. If I still lived there, I would also be making my own yogurt and brewing my own beer. Of course, I live in a tiny apartment in NYC and do not use a stove/oven, so none of these things are possible now, so I just do without all of these items.


  1. learn how to repair your own clothing, and then schedule time each week to actually DO IT (replace buttons, hem pants, fix holes. When I owned a sewing machine, I also sewed my own clothing).
  2. purchase undergarments only when they are on sale, and purchase outer clothing from thrift shops (Goodwill, Salvation Army, etc.) and used clothing stores.
  3. have a minimalist wardrobe that is centered around one or two colors that go together well. My basic wardrobe, for example, consists of one pair of shoes, jeans and a variety of t-shirts and polo shirts that are either black, dark blue or dark green. Personality is added by wearing a colorful neckscarf.
  4. clothes washers and dryers (especially those monstrous commercial machines that most NYCers are stuck with) damage your clothing, so help prolong the life of your clothes by hanging them to dry instead of throwing them into a clothes dryer. For example, I hang my clothes in the shower and they are dry in less than 24 hours.


  1. I do not have a car, and even when I lived in Seattle, I did not own a car. Instead, I relied on riding my bike, walking and public transit to get around. I rented a Zip car when I needed to make long trips or carry a lot of heavy items.
  2. if you use public transit daily, then purchase weekly or monthly public transit cards instead of per-ride cards because they are accompanied by big price savings.


  1. check out DVDs from the library instead of renting or purchasing them, and especially instead of watching movies on the "big screen". Purchase only those DVDs that you especially enjoy watching over and over (and over) again (you know, like the Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings DVDs).
  2. check out books from the library, or purchase them used instead of new. Or do as I do: write book reviews for magazines or your blog in exchange for free books. (NOTE: not everyone wants to, or can, do this).
  3. listen to the radio to keep up with news of the world instead of watching TV. I recommend listening to National Public Radio (NPR), which also airs BBC News for an hour each morning.
  4. stop eating at restaurants altogether, or if you must eat out, purchase an appetizer instead of a full meal.


  1. learn how to repair holes in your walls, floors and next to pipes (especially those ubiquitous mouse-holes!), fix plumbing problems, and paint rooms yourself.
  2. if you have space, consider getting a roommate to share your rent expenses.

There are plenty other ways to survive a financial crisis, so I invite you to share your own suggestions here for how you are doing this. My suggestions are specific to my own situation, and to the situation that might be experienced by a New Yorker, but you probably have a variety of suggestions that are suited to your own situation, or that I haven't thought of.

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I think that many of your observations and ideas are functional and certainly frugal. This is a great list for an urban dweller who lives and works in a metro or larger town or city.

You are neglecting the other half that live in rural areas and have to commute into work (a choice that I and many have made). I work in the State Capitol of Maine and live almost 11 miles away (a quick commute), but there is no public transportation that I can access, the libraries are much closer to my office (less than a mile) than my house, so I am dependent upon having personal transportation. My nearest neighbor is 1/2 mile away. This is all by choice and I wouldn't change it for any of those so-called conveniences of living in the city...been there done that.

Your plan for not having a landline is fine if you can't plug in when the power goes out to recharge it makes a great paperweight, but if power is out for extended periods you need the landline which has its own power unless the lines are down.

You do have alot of great ideas for both urban and rural savings.
Harold Shaw

Things that have helped me when I was a new, jobless Houston resident:

- Freecycle.
- Ask if anyone has an old cell phone they are discarding, and get a prepaid plan.
- Shop for clothes at Fiesta (the local Hispanic supermarket). Food is often (but not always) cheaper there too.
- To get out of the dangerous heat during the day, get a job, even a low-paying one, so long as it has air conditioning. Alternatives: hang out at the mall, visit friends, use the laundromat (they have A/C here), stay inside. When you are forced to be at home, get a portable fan and carry it from room to room with you. Don't overdress... if you live by yourself, go naked (keep a light wrap handy). A/C is massively expensive.
- Because it's so hot... It's the law here that restaurants must serve you water on demand. In Houston, that water is filtered. Carry a bottle. Also, cover your head with a light-colored scarf or hat or a dark-colored umbrella when you go outside.
- Public transportation is crap in Houston. My guy, who does not drive a car, got a great deal on a bike and he says it works well with the buses to get him where he needs to go. For places where there is no bus, make friends and ride with them on errands. Practically everyone has a car unless they live downtown... Houston is like that.
- Ethnic neighborhoods in my area have great places to eat really cheap... six dollar Indian vegetarian buffets, inexpensive Mexican joints where nobody speaks English, little Chinese restaurants in Sharpstown. Chipotle burritos (a vegetarian one is 4.95 I think and full of nutrition). It's often cheaper to go to a Vietnamese restaurant and order a good banh mi (big Vietnamese sandwich loaded with meat and vegetables) than to buy the ingredients and cook for yourself. You can live on those things. They cost between three and five dollars most places.
- Fresh bread and vegetables go bad fast around here because of the heat and the humidity (=mold). It's cheaper to figure seven 5-6 dollar dinners out into the budget than to wind up wasting 30 dollars worth of food at the end of the week.
- Rents are cheaper here than they are in many other places in the country. Make sure you use the FREE services of an apartment locator service who knows what complexes are safe and salutary.
- The tap water around here is lousy (which is why the restaurants are required to filter theirs). Freezing the water in your bottles and drinking it as it thaws improves the flavor.
- Smile at and be pleasant to your neighbors and they will get to know you and help you out. You aren't valueless just because you're poor, so there's no reason to be a recluse. You can help someone or just be there to talk to. Remember the boundary thing, too--you don't have to eat people's shit to live. (I have had to remind myself of this a lot when I have been broke.)
- If you have to request aid from private or government sources, don't understate your need when applying. An old, wise social worker friend told me that EVERYBODY lies so they factor it in. If you tell the exact truth or, worse, act like you're really OK except you need a little bit of help, you WILL get turned down.

By speedwell (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

Random suggestions:

Go ahead and buy yourself a burr grinder for the freshest, best tasting coffee. It took a bit of practice, but my coffee beats the coffee shop's.

Buy new clothes at the end of the season when they are on clearance. I've gotten some very nice long-sleeved shirts in February for $3 each.

TV leads people to believe they need a zillion different cleaning agents. Not so. In my home, it's window cleaner, dishsoap, a bowl cleaner with hydrochloric (I get lime build-up), rubbing alchohol for disinfecting, and Simple Green, a non-toxic all around cleaning agent (floors, toilet, counters, desk, auto, de-greasing, etc.). That's it. And a gallon of S.G. lasts a long time.

Eat at restaurants at lunchtime, the prices are lower. I eat lunch at buffets; I get a nice meal at half of what it would cost me to make it at home.

Don't borrow money to buy anything except a house or an education. Save up and pay cash for "stuff". A car is "stuff".

House mortgage: 15 years max., 10 is better. A 30-year mortgage is the bankers best friend.

Net10 is a pay-as-you-go cell phone service that costs a minimum of $15 a month. $15 gets you 150 minutes. Phone use costs 10 cents a minute for all calls, so if you can restrict the yakking to 2 1/2 hours a month, you can have phone service for $15. I bought my phone at W-M for $30 and it came with 300 minutes, so the phone was FREE.

Front-load washers are much kinder to your clothes than top-loaders, they use 1/4 the laundry detergent and something like 1/2 the water.

Advanced: My computer is set up as my entertainment center. 22 inch flat screen with a speaker system that plays both stereo and 5.1 surround sound. So I do not need a: TV, DVD player, stereo system, or radio; it's a very efficient home entertainment center.

Harold, i grew up in the country and even though i love it, i think that people should stop transforming wild lands into human habitats, and i also think that country living places a greater toll on the environment than frugal city living does (although i don't have any data to back me up, so i could be wrong about this), so these are the reasons i advocate -- strongly -- that people live in cities.

speedwell, good suggestions. now here's a couple suggestions that might help you:

- i never use AC, even on the hottest and slimiest of NYC days (but i do shower often).

- i always store my bread in the freezer, and remove only what i will use within a few minutes (microwave ovens are your friend).

- i also use the frozen water technique (for water bottles) and even though the tap water in NYC is excellent (but the pipes are often ancient and make the water taste terrible), i keep my water in the refrigerator in a brita-filtered container. it works great.

- i actually do get food assistance from the local food bank and food pantry in the form of dried beans and rice. unfortunately, medicaid and food stamps are difficult to get if you are a single childless adult. but i really wish they could also help with cleaning supplies since my allergies are extremely bad (and i also have asthma) so i have to keep my apartment very clean at all times.

kamaka, good suggestions! i would get a burr grinder, but the coffee shops i get coffee from will grind it for free, so i don't need one. and like you, my computer is my home entertainment system (except no speakers, yet, and no 22-inch screen). it does everything i'd ever need, except make me a cup of coffee in the morning. unfortunately, i do not have a good wifi connection when i am at home, so i cannot stream radio or videos, so i have a small alarm clock radio that plays CDs to make up for that.

These are all great suggestions. But one of the biggest costs of living in Manhattan is the rent. I love the fact that you can be car free, but I think one can still stay car free by living someplace close by like Jersey City or Hoboken where the rent is ~1/3 less, but the rapid access via PATH gives easy access to Manhattan for work. That may free up nearly a grand or so in money each month in these tight times. Some parts of those cities also feel much less like suburbia and more like Manhattan than some of the boroughs of NYC outside Manhattan.

Wow, no A/C ever? Here in my Houston apartment, we have turned on the heat for four days this year. The A/C is set now, and it last came on the other day... it was in the 60s outside but weirdly almost 80 in the apartment (I was baking, and the apartment is surrounded by other apartments).

Good bread suggestion, but I don't eat bread anyway because I'm on a diabetic low-carb diet. I make the occasional pan of low-carb rolls in the toaster oven (which is another good frugal purchase; they take loads less electricity than an electric oven).

Put some food you like on your Amazon wish list. If you select the Prime or Super-Saver eligible stuff, people can send it to you for no shipping cost. I do this for my guy's unemployed mom who lives in the next state. She shops and I buy what I can.

By speedwell (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

Regarding alcohol and espresso, I derive most of my calories from those. Since I do not efficiently digest much else other than bread, those fluids are the best buy, and I just throw in a salad for vitamins.

Birdseed is my largest food expense. So I buy the "premium finch mix" and dilute it with the 1.75 lb. bags of seed from 99¢ Only store (the Zebra Finches particularly like the white prosso more anyway, so there is less waste this way).

Please don't take this as a slight or attack on your article.

It's so funny to read these 'frugal' tips coming from the US angle. My experience, having lived through wars in Balkans in 1990's is that no one in US has _any idea whatsoever_ what frugal means.

Here's your use case: It's January and you've been told that the rolling blackouts from power-grid will extend to 45 day periods. The next time your power comes on is at the end of February. What do you do? This really happened in a 'normal' country, with developed infrastructure (think level of Spain).

Here's another interesting tid-bit: never mind coca-cola, I wasn't able to afford sour cream for 2 years.

Survival tips from me:

* get a wood-burning stove.
* prepare to hurt anyone who comes for your wood/food.
* learn how to make candles.
* have a weapon.
* have friends that will back you up. You have to back them up too.

Forget you ever had cash/credit/debit cards.

There will be that surreal feeling of "omg! this is not happening" when the first crisis directly hits you. Best approximation for you guys is the experience you get when you're being mugged. We all went through it in the first weeks of civil war. It quickly goes away and you realize that you are capable of much more than you thought you were.

I think most scientists would be able to contribute to the list, if nothing else because (with rare exceptions) they were poor in their graduate student days!

I'd second the point about those in outlying or rural areas needing cars. (That said, it is one of the reasons I am looking for a place in town.) I agree that careful use of a freezer can be useful. The habit of switching things off, esp. lights, as you leave a room it becomes second-nature after a while if you work on it.

I use my iMac as a home entertainment centre too, not that I have time for watching videos or movies. It's really a "work" machine, but it can be doubled up in a useful way, espcially as the screen is wide-format. I'm considering getting a USB-based TV tuner/receiver if my TV heads south and I want to replace it.

My comments may not apply in the USA, but here a few idle thoughts below. (Most of these seems self-evident to the point that I feel a bit embarassed posting them, but I'll do it anyway...)

1. Don't use the rental telephones provided by the telecos: it is cheaper in the long run to buy an el cheapo model yourself.

2. In areas where you can, grow your own veges, etc, esp. the things that tend to be more expensive. (There probably won't be a lot in it for some basics like spuds or carrots.) Obviously, this best suits rural areas or places with sections, but herbs, chillis, etc. can be grown indoors. (I realise inner-city USA tends to be apartments!)

3. Be a fan of garage sales, whatever the local term is (moving sales, junk sales, etc?). I have cast-iron frying pans for example that cost a song: they last almost literally forever!

4. If it's just yourself, make sure you buy appropriate-sized lots of food. Wasting food is throwing money away; even if it was cheap to start with, buying larger amounts can in the end be false economy.

5. Learn how to store food properly! I still get amazed at some people's tips on freezing things and there are obvious does and don't with veges, etc. Basic student flat tip, really.

6. Learn the buying/selling cycles of items. After a bit you'll know when the cheap periods of the year for particular items are. This applies to both foodstuffs and non-food items.

7. There is an argument to use a slow cooker (or just stew slowly in a large pot), as this should allow you to use the cheaper cuts of meat if you're a meat eater.

There a plenty of tips related to self-employment or small business, but that's getting off-topic and besides I'm taking up too much space here already... (I'm a freelance scientist: have experience, computers, will travel, etc.!)

By DeafScientist (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

M (January 7, 2009 1:11 AM):

I understand where you are coming from, I have travelled in areas like similar to that. For what it's worth a money saver for where I live that I left out is a wood-burner with a wet-back. With on your power bills actually go down in winter, as the hot water & heating is the worst of the bill usually. They also remove your reliance on electricity for heat and hot water (esp. good for coping with power cuts in winter in rural areas).

I have always suspected outdoor people might fare better in the sort of situation you describe (at least initially) as they are used to simple resources, and making the best of what you have, etc.; I'd be interested in your thoughts on that.

By DeafScientist (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

By "I understand" I mean "I have some appreciation"; I realise living the thing is invariably different. "I understand" is a bit ambiguous. Excuse my over posting, but I wanted to put this right.

By DeafScientist (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink

refill your used plastic water bottles with tap water instead of purchasing a fresh bottle every day.

Better yet, use glass bottles as much as you can: old plastic bottles give water a bad taste. Glass ones don't, and they can be washed easily.

Good tips, and I know how you feel living on a grad student budget. I think I have a stew I make (well, it's sort of a stew) that would be good for you, it's really cheap, and it makes a TON, so you can freeze it and eat off it forever

-1 can chickpeas
-1 can kidney beans
-1 can black beans
-1 can corn
-1 can diced tomatoes (or more, some people like more)
-ground turkey or tofu, or you can probably just leave it out
(buy all of these store brand and you can get the beans and corn for around $0.60 each, the tomatoes and turkey are a little more)
Brown your turkey, season with whatever you like (I like rosemary and basil and stuff)
Drain and rinse your beans and corn. Add to a large pot. Add tomatoes. Add the browned meat. Add water as desired. Bring to a boil.
Serve over rice.

I did this the other day and I had a HUGE dinner, and extra meals for 10 days to freeze. Super cheap and gets you your protein.

And AM, glass bottles BREAK is the problem. I got one of those new aluminum ones, they're great, and you can still clean them without a dishwasher (as opposed to nalgenes, which I could never get to the bottom of with my sponge). I just boil them.

OK, Im curious, why dont you use a oven/stove? I lived in a tiny NYC studio for 8 years, and used the oven/stove regularly, even though the "kitchen" was a stove, sink and fridge, all about 50 years old, stuffed into a closet with the door taken off.

arvind -- i actually live in a rent-stabilized apartment, which means that my rent is roughly the same as what i'd pay for a similar apartment in seattle or hoboken NJ, and less than what i'd pay in san francisco. i probably should have mentioned that rent-subsidized (low income) or stabilized housing is a "must" for surviving on a limited income.

speedwell -- nope, i never use AC, although i will hang around libraries when the heat index climbs into the vomit-inducing regions. i also never heat my apartment, although this was more of an issue in seattle than it is here since heat is included as part of the rent and is controlled by the landlord.

sara -- i think it might be useful to make a list of suggestions for how to live with parrots or other pets when trying to survive on a limited income.

M -- i appreciate your comments (i actually was homeless a couple times in my life!) but a wood burning stove in a NYC apartment is a fast way to start a very big fire in the building.

DeafScientist -- your "garage sales" comment reminded me about something special about NYC: the garbage. i know i've written about this before on my blog, but the garbage is piled onto the street and picked up daily by garbage trucks in NYC. but the amazing thing about the garbage here is its quality. i can pick up really nice objects from the garbage pile that i cannot afford in real life and bring it home for my own use -- for free! in fact, most people encourage this sort of recycling, and often post little notes on their "garbage" that say things like "this works!"

AM -- i don't use glass bottles because (a) they break and (b) they are heavy -- when dragging a laptop, a book a cell phone and a digital camera around with you everywhere, you quickly learn to minimize the mass and number of these carried objects.

Scicurious -- thanks for the suggestion. i actually do have a crock pot but rarely use it because my freezer is tiny and doesn't function well, especially in the summer, so storing large amounts of foods doesn't always work very well. but i should fire it up this winter.

Great recipe SciC, going to have to try that sometime in the next week or so. Will have to convince my flatmates to clean out the freezer first but I'll cross that bridge when I come to it! To return the favour here's a good Scottish dish which should keep you full, warm and nourished for very little money over a cold winter - Stovies.

4-5 good sized baking potatoes
2 onions
1 tin corned beef
Some beef stock

Chop and fry the onions in a large pot until soft
Slice the potatoes thinly and add to the onions, stir now and again for a minute or so.
Add stock - you want it to come up to maybe a little less than half the level of the potatoes/onions. I tend to tilt the pot at 45 degrees as I add it and stop when it hits the level of the potatoes/onions.
Simmer for about 40 mins without a lid until potatoes are soft and break up into a mash easily
Slice the corned beef and sit on top of the mixture, cover and simmer gently for 10-15 mins
Add any seasoning necessary (black pepper is great), and mix it all up.

That should make enough for about five meals and you can have it with salad or some nice hunks of homemade bread. It's a very versatile recipe so feel free to add carrots and mushrooms or use diced beef/sausage/whatever instead of or as well as corned beef. Some crushed chili flakes make a tasty addition as well...

As for the rest of the tips I say one of the best things you can do, as mentioned, is to walk or cycle everywhere within about 20 miles. Cheap and, more importantly, extremely healthy!

"except no speakers, yet"

Logitech x-540 5.1 speaker set, less than $100 shipped,

Small, decent quality, with stereo/surround sound switch.

Cannonball Jones, that sounds delicious!!! I am absolutely going to try that. Can I use something in place of the meat? I can't always afford it.

Of course you can SciC - veggie stovies is just the same recipe without the meat. Make sure to add carrots or whatever else to make it a bit more interesting though! Over here corned beef is only about 60p per can so it's always affordable :-)

You left out the part about eschewing medical attention even with a broken bone.

That continues to bug me, grrl - how's your wing?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

My personal habits:

1. Never buy bottled water.
2. Never buy soda pop. Even teenagers like KoolAde better.
3. Work at home: less driving, less laundry. No daycare!
4. Live close to schools, and make the kids walk or bike.
5. Never buy meat. I'm no vegetarian, just broke.
6. Take advantage of free school breakfast and lunch.
7. Never buy a car you have to pay for monthly.
8. Give away what you can. Friends will help in return.
9. Provide services for friends. They have their own talents to help you!

Just a minor point.

If you use low energy compact fluorescents instead of standard GLS lamps it may not be cost effective to turn them off.

It depends on how much your electricty costs compared to the CFLamp.

Switching any fluorescent on and off reduces its useful life. Under the IEC regs the rated life of a fluorescent lamp is based on an 8h switching cycle to 80% initial output (ANSI is/was continuous operation to 50% failure); so you also need to be aware of the testing regime when comparing lamp lives.

So for CFLamps, if they are going to be off for a few hours or more then switch them off, but don't do so if you'll be switching them back on again fairly soon.

The life of GLS lamps aren't affected much by switching so switching them off always makes sense.

Oh yes, be careful with CFLamps, their output can fall to a very low level before they die and they do so gradually so you won't notice. Should normally be changed out every 3 or 4 years in a domestic environment even if still glowing.

By Chris' Wills (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink

Wow, lots of excellent advice from Grrl and the commenters in this thread. The term one hears frequently, wrt to reactions to the economic crisis in the US, is "hunker down". I'm sorry that anyone has to "hunker down", because it sounds as if you're under siege (which, in a sense, you are). It isn't fun and games to have to "make do", or "do without", when you're struggling just with the basics of food, shelter, and health care - I did it for several years in grad school, and wouldn't wish it on my worst enemies.

The current problems are made worse in the US because of our shameful cultural tendency to turn the poor into invisible beings. The urban poor often register as barely visible, but the rural poor are completely invisible, as far as some Americans are concerned. Many of them are isolated and out of sight, living (and suffering) in trailers or shanties or even tents, away from paved roads. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

I'm very fortunate that I no longer have to struggle with the basic requirements, but many of my frugal habits are deeply ingrained. And hey, if I can save some money, I'll have it to share with those less fortunate. So here are a few of my retained thrifty habits:

- The crock pot is a great way to prepare beans (dried beans are very inexpensive) and cereal grains from scratch.

- If you have a job, bring your lunch instead of eating out. I'm surprised how many people (including students) fail to do this, and spend $3-$8 every week day on lunch. Ouch.

- Buy a Thermos and bring tea or coffee to work with you. This is cheaper than the reduced-rate departmental coffee.

- Garage sales, mentioned earlier, can be a great source of inexpensive household items. My mom found a very nice covered casserole dish for me at a garage sale for $1; I use it all the time.

- Sprouts are an economical sorce of protein, and very easy to grow at home. You just need a glass jar, and some cheesecloth (available at dollar stores) or a modified lid. Recently I bought a 2-lb bag of mung beans for about $2, and they sprout just as well as the expensive ones from the health food store. Growing sprouts in a very humid climate, such as Houston or New Orleans, can be problematic, but it works most other places.

cannonball jones -- i love your recipe and i know i can make that in my crock pot without meat, too. i'm going to try that as soon as i can and report back on my blog.

pierce -- ah, yes, i do avoid medical care, even when i need it, because i cannot afford it, nor can i afford all the lawsuits that such care generates. to answer your question, my arm is very stiff, swollen and painful, and it is extremely colorful, too. i meant to photograph the changing color scheme and post the images on my blog, but then decided that my regular readers might get think i was taunting them by doing so, so i haven't done it.

miss celiana -- our personal habits are nearly identical, except i don't have kids or cars! (but i do have parrots). i also never buy bottled water, except i once purchased bottled water last august before traveling to my speaking engagement in london, so i could have water available during my flight, hence, my water bottle. instead of the free breakfast/lunch deal, i occasionally eat a hot meal at a local shelter (but only on holidays).

chris -- interesting. i don't use lights in general, except when preparing my birds' breakfasts (i don't want to chop a finger off) and i do leave a light on during the day for my birds in the winter since my apartment is so dark. i really need to find a decent light fixture that i can move around the apartment so i can use lights that mimic "natural daylight" for the birds' benefit. alas, one of these days .. i keep checking the garbage piles for such a light fixture, but haven't found an undamaged one yet.

... my arm is very stiff, swollen and painful, and it is extremely colorful, too.

[wince!] I'm no health-care pro, but that sounds _very_ alarming and not at all typical of a clean-healing fracture two weeks after the break. (And I speak with some experience in that regard, having once hitchhiked across the country on a broken leg & a crutch.)

If you've had bad experiences with a given clinic, find another one. Use a fake ID if you have to, but please, do something!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 08 Jan 2009 #permalink

"give up your vices, like smoking, recreational drugs, alcohol and gambling"

A minor quibble here with the recreational drugs part. Some recreational drugs (I'm thinking psilocybin mushrooms mostly, or some outdoor cannabis strains..indoor cannabis is just a bad idea, very expensive to maintain) can be grown for personal use easily and inexpensively.

And although I wouldn't recommend it, they can also be sold for quick cash if you're in dire straits..

Ugh, really? This sounds like an exciting way to live. Are you into self-flagellation as well?

It has been my experience that buying used clothing is not the best way to save money. Last year, I hit an after Christmas sale and got $700 worth of clothes for only $230. The reason I got them so cheap is because they are winter clothes and the store needed to make room for the incoming spring clothing. I find that seasonal sales are better than outlet stores or second-hand stores. I also buy a lot of holiday items the day after that holiday is over. For example, almost all of my socks have Halloween or Christmas patterns, and I have a set of plates and cups that have a Valentine heart pattern, but I use these things year-round. The cups will hold my water as well in the middle of summer as they do on Valentine's Day. Also, if you want to splurge, Feb. 15 is the best time to buy fancy candy.

I was leaving lights off to save money (and because I like almost dark). December in Ohio, got severe case of SAD. Now going against all instincts and turning on lights.

I'm so glad I don't have to do this any more. I don't like waste, so I still try to be frugal, but it's not a necessity for me. Here's some stuff I've done.

Buying dried beans is much cheaper than buying canned. Indian grocers are the best place to get them - they have high turnover.

If you volunteer at a soup kitchen, you also get to eat the free food.

If you can't walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transport, you can still reduce transport costs. A small motorcycle or scooter is cheaper than a car, and uses way less petrol. If you sometimes need to carry large things, take a taxi. Do the calculations: a few taxi fares a month is most likely cheaper than the cost of car registration taxes, depreciation, parking and running costs.

Shop with a few friends at the big vegetable markets. Or organise a pool - you don't all have to go. At closing time you can get amazing bargains. My friend once got a 20kg bag of carrots for $2. (This is why you need the group. You can't eat 20kg of carrots by yourself.)

Most cosmetic items are expensive rubbish. Literally: the packaging and advertising is 95% or more of the cost. The really useful ones are moisturiser, lip balm, sunscreen and hair conditioner. Cheap sorbolene works just as well as the high ticket items. You can also make your own.

Get a haircut that does not require daily blowdrying and expensive maintenance. Mine is the long ponytail, which needs no expensive hairdressers - I trim the ends myself. It also only requires washing twice a week. This depends a lot on your personal hair type and activity, so YMMV. Figure out what works for you.

I'm sure you don't pay gym fees when you can walk or jog for free, right? But don't skimp too much on shoes if you run: that's a false economy, especially with the cost of the US health system if you get an injury.

These all sound like good and practical tips for single people; however, many of these tips become more problematic when children are involved.

I would like to raise the broader question of why scientists/educators are being forced to make such cutbacks. Why should an interest in a scientific career condemn one to poverty?

This is an issue that should be generating greater anger among scientists. Let's hope the promised broader science spending under Obama also translates to raised salaries, and more FT tenured positions, rather than simply a greater number of the same crappy, insecure PT, non-tenure track jobs that have virtually replaced normal faculty positions in the last few years.

What a fantastic list! One quick thing I'd like to add...I always buy generic, toiletries, paper products, etc. So many people seem to think that generic means lower quality but I've found that most of the time generic products are just as good if not better than their name brand counterparts. Why pay more just for a brand name?

Thanks again for the useful tips,


Although city living definitely has it's benefits, I'll take my acre in the 'burbs any day of the week. Most cluster living has restrictive covenants that prohibit you from doing frugal things like raising chickens, putting a garden in your front yard (or at all), hanging out laundry, and other silly stuff. We've slowly been replacing our landscaping with attractive edible perennials and fruit trees ... we're up to 3 apples, 3 cherries, 3 plums, an apricot, three beach plums, a plot of blackberries, 4 blueberry "shrubs," 2 black walnut trees, a plot of asparagus, a walkway border of alpine strawberries, and 2 grape vines. Try doing -that- in the city! Even if you could, I'd be afraid to eat it as carbon monoxide and road salt make them toxic.

By Cheap Yankee (not verified) on 17 Jan 2009 #permalink

Hmmm. I can't comment on living through civil war. M., I admire your resourcefulness and your succinct way with a priority list. I do have a tendency to hang on to things that will be useful in the next depression.

I once lived in a small house and when we put in a wood-stove, the need for heating fuel fell by about 1/3.

Lots of recipe suggestions on the web. Buy basics. Things that you buy dry are cheaper. E.g, buy 3-minute rolled oats for breakfast. Make the regular recipe for porridge but throw in a bit of cornmeal to give it a golden color and some texture and maybe some bran. Instead of cooking and stirring, microwave it in a pyrex beaker for 1.5 -2 minutes, then sit for a minute. (Get a microwave oven if you can.) One bag of oats should keep you going for a couple of weeks. I like to make it with milk instead of water or at least half milk. Then serve it with a teaspoon brown sugar and a little more milk on top. The combination of oats and milk gives you protein and helps to keep you from getting hungry soon.

Lunch: whole wheat bread, cheese or peanut butter alternate days, 1 - 2 fruits, 1 - 2 crunchy veg (e.g. celery & carrots). Buy one loaf of bread, cheese when you can afford it, keep PB on hand. 3 apples, 2 oranges, gets you through a work week. A small bag of apples is cheaper than apples by the pound.

If you can have a garden, do so. If not, perhaps pot-plants of herbs?

Main meals: potatoes, onions, beans, carrots, cabbage, meat if it's cheap, eggs, margarine, milk. Canned tomatoes. Frozen corn and peas. Canned brown beans.

Buy dried beans. Soak beans overnight in the refrigerator in another pyrex beaker or a jar. Rinse the beans first and remove any that float or look bad. Change the water in the morning.

Definitely bake your own cookies (10 minutes' work) and muffins (5 minutes' work) if you can. If not, stick to cheap cookies from the bulk bins -- two a day. If you can, bake your own bread as well. And pies. Two or three apples with a sprinkling of sugar make a nice pie. If you have overripe bananas, make banana cake.

Chocolate chip cookies: use the recipe on the back of the bag but leave out half the sugar. (I leave out the white and just use the brown.) Cut the salt in half. Now substitute 3/4 cup of whole wheat flour for 1 cup of white flour. You have a cookie that you can taste.

Clothes. Thrift-store clothes are fine, but look at them carefully to find out why they were discarded. Then only buy what you really like and makes you look good -- not something that's merely OK. That's no bargain at any price. Learn to mend, alter, or sew.

Walk if you can, take transit, ride a bicycle, move closer to work, find work close to home. Car pool. Taking a taxi once in a while is far, far cheaper than owning a car.

Good luck!

For books, consider Members get a unique ID for books that they register. When they no longer want a book, they pass it along. Sometimes they even hear what happened to it. Many cities and towns have members who meet occasionally to swap books or pick a cafe as a Bookcrossing zone where members leave books for others to pick up. It has wish lists, forums, book discussions, book rings of sequential borrowers -- everything you might want about books.

I linked to my Bookcrossing shelf for a change.

I forgot that you can use a crock pot or slow cooker to make porridge overnight while you sleep.

Crock pot beef stew:
The night before: chop an onion, a few carrots, a few potatoes. Assemble in a large crock-pot "crock" with a package of stewing beef (frozen is fine) and tomatoes from a can. Cover with water. Put into the fridge.

In the morning: take the crock from the refrigerator, add salt and pepper if you want, place the crock in the heating element and turn it on low. Waltz off to work. When you come home 5, 8, or 10 hours later, supper is ready.