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A day in the (frugal) life

Making every penny count is actually kind of fun.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 1, 2009 12:27AM

When I wrote "Surviving and thriving on $12,000 a year," some people thought it was a scam. They wrote notes to the editor along the lines of, "Come on, nobody could really live on that." The fact is, plenty of people in this country live on less.

These days, some readers ask whether this part-time writing job changed things. As I noted in the follow-up to the original article, my life changed but my lifestyle didn't. The additional income has let me visit family, invest in decent shoes, and buy the occasional rotisserie chicken. 

I still hate to pay retail, though. 

Yesterday's errands are a good example. I'm listing a typical day of frugal hacks to show that yes, I do still live this way and that no, it's not onerous. Actually, it's kind of fun.

Body wash, potato chips
Breakfast was the usual oatmeal, from a 42-ounce box that cost 50 cents thanks to a loss-leader price and manufacturer's coupon. While eating I read the Sunday ads and planned the most efficient driving route to preserve that $3.25-a-gallon gasoline.

First stop was Albertsons, for Lay's potato chips at 99 cents a bag with store coupon; I'm stocking up for my daughter's wedding reception, a sandwiches-salads-veggies affair. (Potato chips are vegetables, right?) In the same shopping plaza is Staples, where sale price plus the $3 store credit from a spent ink cartridge meant that a two-pound tub of Anderson pretzel rods cost 98 cents. (With a little mustard these are a low-fat treat.)

Across the street at Rite Aid, I got a bottle of shampoo and some disposable razors for $7.49. I'll get the $7.49 back with store rebates that are filed online -- I don't even have to buy a stamp. 

At a Walgreens one mile down the road, I used coupons and sale prices to buy six bars of soap, two bottles of mango-pomegranate body wash, two deodorants, two tubes of toothpaste and a 64-ounce bottle of liquid soap for $28.43. After store rebates, the cost dwindled to $10.95. I also transferred a prescription in order to get a $25 store gift card. 

Fruits and knowledge
I'd been able to find just one college textbook online for spring quarter, so my next stop was the University Book Store -- taking advantage of free campus parking on weekends. From there I walked to a nearby Jimmy John's and bought a day-old baguette for 50 cents. 

Also in the neighborhood is Office Max, which recently sent out a $10 coupon. With it I got two spiral-bound notebooks and a 400-count box of Sweet'N Low for just $1. 

On the way home I swung by another Walgreens for a dozen eggs ($1.50) and a Bertolli frozen pasta dish for two that cost $2.49 with coupon and instant store rebate. 

My last stop was a produce stand where items are cheap and also discounted when they're really ripe. For $5.74 I got two mangoes, three on-the-vine tomatoes, four big oranges, four bananas and a pound of strawberries.

Frugal multitasking
Once home, I put two chicken leg quarters and two pork chops in to bake; when I heat up the oven, I like it to be full. The chops were 99-cent-a-pound loss leaders that I'd rewrapped and frozen in pairs; the chicken is always 89 cents a pound at a market a few blocks away.

Next I put two shirts into soapy water in the bathroom sink. While they soaked I put away my purchases, recorded the rebate information, and put some homemade chili and grated cheese in a microwaveable dish as the basis for the next day's brown-bag lunch. Then I rinsed the shirts and hung them up to dry. 

My meal was tasty and cheap: chicken, a sliced tomato, a serving of white corn, a piece of that baguette, strawberries and homemade iced tea. It cost $1.58 plus the electricity to cook the four pieces of meat -- and I now have the basis of three more suppers in the fridge, part of my "one-pot glop" theory of cooking. 

How much did I save?
Obviously, I got some great deals. But my hunting and gathering had other benefits. For example, those scented body washes will go into holiday gift baskets with other inexpensive or free-after-rebate items plus a bath sponge from the dollar store.

The frozen dinner will come in handy some night when I'm too tired or harried to cook from scratch. At $1.25 a serving, it's certainly cheaper than takeout.

The errands got me out of the house on a sunny spring day. It was pleasant to walk through university grounds full of cherry blossoms and daffodils.

Pleasanter still was the frugal frisson that I feel when I get a deal like school supplies and three months' worth of iced-tea sweetener for a buck.

Not everyone can or will take frugality to such an extreme. But even a few steps -- packing lunches, clipping coupons, picking up dropped change -- can add up surprisingly fast. Frugal hacks start to feel normal. Paying full price starts to feel irritating. However, even I would stop short of using two-for-one coupons on a first date.

On the other hand, if your guest pulls a BOGO coupon out of his or her wallet, it might be love.

Published March 31, 2008



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