Saving money is all about making choices. A luxury purchase, a necessity or an impulse buy all mean different things to different people.
The first installment in a report on my family's efforts to slim down our discretionary spending prompted more than 40 e-mails from readers with savings tips. Throughout January, my husband Clease Bair, my 17-year-old daughter Ali and I went on a spending diet, cutting out expenses for such things as movies, eating out, bottled water and coffee breaks and trying to limit our weekly trips to the grocery store to $70.
Some readers doubted that $70 a week was a realistic goal while others pointed out that for many families in South Florida, not spending isn't a choice but an everyday reality.
One caller was quite concerned that I was jeopardizing my daughter's health with such a meager food budget. Rest assured, we ate fine. The secret is buying specials, not letting any food go to waste and recycling leftovers.
Some readers didn't like the choices we made. Spending $14 for olive oil was a matter of debate. But I use it for salad, stir-frys and on the tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwiches I take for lunch almost every day. For me, it is a necessity.
Here's a report on how we fared in the second half of our no-spend regimen:
Jan. 16: I have vowed to be more frugal at the grocery store. So when I stop after work, I keep strictly within my budget. That means I can't even get everything on my list -- no lettuce or sprouts or the starch and Comet cleaner the housekeeper ordered. I spend only $54.87 -- well below my $70 allowance, but my husband made a grocery run earlier in the week that ate up the rest of the budget. And he bought cola and Red Bull, which my daughter classifies as a necessity during 5:30 a.m. ice skating practices.
Jan. 18: One of my colleagues gives me a bag of carambolas from her backyard tree. This will really liven up our menu. I make a salad with them as soon as I get home from work.
These days I'm watching any bank debits and credit charges like a hawk and I analyze our receipts endlessly. I discover a $9.83 charge for iTunes on my daughter's credit card! It's music for a skating program, she tells me, and reminds me I told her the week before that it would be OK. Aaah, I vaguely remember nodding my assent when I was half-asleep.
Jan. 19: I notice the broken trash can -- the one some people in the household said had to be replaced earlier in the month -- has been repaired.
Jan. 20: "This hasn't been so bad, " I say after dinner when I have the family's attention. "Maybe we should do it another month."
Jan. 21: We decide to do a run to Costco, the discount warehouse store where you go to save money but always end up spending twice as much as you intend. This is dangerous territory -- everything looks like such a bargain that you pick up items you never knew you needed. In December we spent $370.48 on our monthly visit to Costco. (That total did include a couple of holiday gifts). Today I have just five items on my Costco list: cat food, toilet paper, paper towels, pecans (we love them as a snack), and fresh pineapple.
We spend $139.85 and end up with 14 items. At first I'm feeling pretty good about spending $230 less than I did in December, but then I begin to have second thoughts. Not only did I blow the weekly budget, but did I really need $23.88 worth of Swiffer cleaning supplies? What a no-spending dilettante I am. I have a mop; a floor can be cleaned with water and vinegar. I needn't have spent a dime.