By Dr. Margaret Curtis, WCI Columnist
I recently read with interest the Physician on Fire’s (PoF) column on his family’s thrifty habits, in which he shows how they live on approximately $80,000 per year by, for example, cutting his wife's hair and buying jeans at Goodwill. Naturally, I took this as a personal challenge. I can’t match his spending level—we have spent more on custom hockey helmets than his entire daily budget—but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.
My mother was thrifty her whole life (and an original subscriber to the Tightwad Gazette), and she taught me well. I saw her: leave her first career (teaching), enter a second career (IT, before it was even called IT), save carefully, and establish herself financially so she could retire comfortably. I got the message. I haven’t always gotten it right, but thanks to her, I entered adulthood with a careful spender’s mindset. So, here are some of the ways our family saves money—and each comes with an added non-monetary bonus.
We Save on Goods and Services
I am no longer allowed to cut my husband’s hair (there was an incident, the details aren’t important), but I was our kids' barber for years. I also patch their clothes. When they were under the age of 5, they wore almost 100% hand-me-downs, and now we shop for them at outlets. They are teenagers now and are particular about what they wear, but they still bring me anything that needs mending. Added bonus: keeping our clothes and gear out of the landfill.
Like PoF, we happily buy used items. I get all my office clothes used. Online consignment stores like Thred Up have every brand and every size of clothing. Rental services would work if fashion is important to you. I just want to look professional, so I don’t go that route. If you are worried that the clothing you buy online won’t fit or flatter, you can send your purchases back for a full refund and it will still be less hassle than shopping in person. Added bonus: you won’t care when you spill coffee on your $5 shirt.
Our favorite sofa is the one we found for free on the sidewalk. My youngest spotted it in front of the house of a neighbor who we know to be meticulously tidy (former neurosurgeon) so we weren’t worried about bedbugs or cigarette smoke.
As we were hot-footing it over to bring the sofa home, a man stopped and asked what we were doing. Apparently, where he comes from, people don’t just give away stuff in front of their houses. I was almost too shocked to explain how this local “freecycling” works: clean usable items go on the sidewalk, sometimes with a “free” sign. The front lawn is off limits, but anything on the sidewalk or edge of the road is fair game (be careful where you leave your lawnmower).
Maybe this is just a New England thing but everyone does this where I live, regardless of the neighborhood. We have given away items ranging from ski boots to an upright piano this way. Other things we have gotten for free: a nice rug (spent $100 cleaning it), a free-standing basketball hoop, and a foosball table. Added bonus: each item comes with a story.
Our dogs’ favorite treat is a raw carrot, and their favorite toys are the used tennis balls we get for free from a local court. Added bonus: the vet says they have great teeth (from all those carrots) and they have never needed dental cleaning under anesthesia (at least $2,000).
We barter. This doesn’t really even go under money-saving activities; this is just how communities have always worked. My neighbor fixed the brakes on my bike, and I watched his kids for two hours. Another neighbor is a professional baker and brings us treats, and we shovel her driveway. I couldn’t tell you how much money we all save because we don’t keep track. Added bonus: helping your neighbors.
Speaking of helping your neighbors, here's a fun story: we used to live in a small town in Vermont where everyone looked out for each other. The town was hit hard by Hurricane Irene (all the roads washed out) and people were practically racing to pump out each other's basements. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) helicopter landed on the town green to distribute food. No one needed the food, but someone left some zucchini bread on the pilot's seat. In case they needed a snack.
We Save on Activities
We have cheap hobbies. My absolute favorite sport is Nordic skiing, and my favorite place to do it is either the golf course (free) or the snowmobile trails (also free). Added bonus: finding new, beautiful places.
We garden. We used to grow almost all our own vegetables in the summer. Where we live now, we have room for just a small plot, but it’s enough to keep us in tomatoes and basil all summer. Gardening can be expensive if you buy seedlings and fancy planters. We start most of our plants from seed in empty yogurt containers and grow them in the compost we buy in bulk from our municipal composting service (one free bag per week, or $15 for a cubic yard). Added bonus: we eat really well.
A few years ago, pre-COVID, we rented a camper van and spent two weeks in Utah and Arizona. We stayed at a few private campgrounds, but our favorite places by far were on National Forest Service lands. The staff at the local Forest Service centers were incredibly helpful (and less harried than their National Park colleagues) and gave us great advice on off-the-beaten-track places to see and stay. We paid $5 per night to camp in some truly magical places. Added bonus: amazingly, we had each one entirely to ourselves.
When we are home, we hardly ever go out. With streaming services, we can see the best entertainment the world has to offer from the comfort of our (free) sofa. One hundred years ago, royal courts didn’t have this kind of luxury. Added bonus: the kids know where to find us on a Saturday night. Teenagers need parents who are stable and predictable. Mine frequently tell us we are boring, to which I reply, “You’re welcome.”
We Save on Home Expenses
We share a bathroom with our kids. We live on the edge of an expensive neighborhood: our house cost about $400,000, and houses a few streets over are $1 million and up. One of the reasons our house was affordable was that it only had one bathroom. I knew we had done well at brainwashing our kids when one of them asked me to explain a phrase he had read in a book: “What does it mean when it says HER bathroom? That doesn’t make any sense.” We have since added a half-bath, because one toilet for five people was . . . untenable. My problem now is getting to the shower first in the morning before the teenagers. Added bonus: my kids are prepared for college life and sharing a bathroom with everyone on their floor.
We paint and do minor repairs ourselves. Our neighbors probably wish we paid someone to do our landscaping. My husband used his spring 2020 work hiatus to build a retaining wall and patio in our backyard.
Regular readers might remember that he also puts in a skating rink every winter. This is not especially frugal when you add up the cost of the boards and his time maintaining it, compared to $5 open skate at the rink down the street. But it keeps my husband happy and out of harm’s way. Added bonus: we know where to find our kids on a Saturday night. They are playing hockey in the backyard.
There you have it: some of our family’s best tricks for saving money and keeping ourselves entertained. Post a comment about yours, and if I can’t beat it, I’ll borrow it.
What are some of the more creative ways you save money? Would you be willing to take any of these suggestions and implement them in your life? Is it normal where you live to take a free couch off the sidewalk? Comment below!