Is feta cheese a necessity? What about hearts of palm or olives?
These were among the pressing questions my family faced in January when we embarked on a month-long journey to cut all -- well, almost all -- discretionary spending.
Plus I put our food budget on a diet: $70 a week for a family of three. Knowing the experiment would begin on New Year's Day, I planted a vegetable garden in November, and by January it was paying dividends: tomatoes, basil, peppers, beans and collard greens.
The idea of a no-spending month had been swirling around in my head ever since I read Judith Levine's book Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, which chronicled a year without unnecessary spending.
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I wanted to simplify and yes, save money -- a noble goal considering the Commerce Department's announcement earlier this month that personal savings in 2006 had fallen to the lowest level in 73 years. Americans' savings rate of -1 percent was the lowest since the Great Depression.
Levine embarked on her experiment as a way to tread more lightly on the planet and, as she says, recommit to "citizenship, not consumerism." Still, she managed to save $8,000 in the process.
That meant going cold turkey on her copious book purchases, a year without movies, and philosophical debates with her significant other over whether wine should be on the must-have list. "I'm Italian. Wine is like milk for me, " Levine's partner Paul Cillo told her.
Before my experiment could begin, I had to get buy-in from my family. Anticipating the most static from my 17-year-old daughter, Ali, I started with her. She didn't like it. But I promised any savings would go directly to her college account, and she finally gave in -- grudgingly: "Well, I don't see where there will be that much difference. You're already cheap."
My husband, Clease, wasn't entirely enamored of the project either, but agreed to go along.
So we set the parameters. We would pay the bills, buy food, feed the cats and pay for the cost of commuting to and from work but cut out unnecessary products and services.
A few categories were off limits from the start.
My daughter is a competitive figure skater. So what about coach's fees, practice ice, music for skating programs? In my house, necessary. School and art supplies? Necessary. The weekly housekeeper? Well, yes I could get along without her for a month, but then I would hire her back -- right away. So she continued.
Bottled water, soft drinks, the movies, eating out, manicures, coffee breaks, new books, that cute T-shirt, convenience foods -- we would do without.
When I phoned Levine in Vermont to find out what she missed the most, she was quick to answer, "ice cream." And for her partner Paul, it was Q-tips. Ice cream? I certainly wasn't crossing ice cream off my list, and really, Q-tips are a necessity.
Dec. 31, 2006 was our last day as spenders. I gloried in our last meal out: a late lunch at Scotty's Landing after the King Mango Strut (free entertainment by the way).
Here's how our month shaped up: Jan. 1: My home is officially a no-buy zone. Everyone is on vacation, and my husband is talking about driving down to the Keys. But I know how that will go. It means eating out and maybe picking up a Hawaiian shirt or a patio item, and before we know it, $100 is gone. So I make a batch of brownies instead.
The top of the kitchen trash can has come loose. "We need a new trash can. Let's get one of those nice aluminum ones, " says my daughter. "Remember we're not spending any money, " I remind her.
Later she returns and informs me, "Dad and I think we should get a new garbage can -- in February." Jan. 2: I do the week's grocery shopping, and though it pains me to pick up a $14 bottle of olive oil, who can cook without it? When I get home, I find an unopened bottle of olive oil in the back of the pantry, prompting my daughter and me to take on the reorganization of the jumbled pantry. I find more things I didn't know I had: a bag of coffee, cleaning supplies, bottled water and the fireworks I was looking for on New Year's Eve. Organizing cupboards and closets is a great way to save money -- no buying duplicates because you can't find something.
Just two days into the New Year I spend $40.89 at Office Depot for computer paper and office supplies, but we can't do without. At the checkout, my daughter tosses a bag of Sour Patch candies on the counter. I raise my eyebrows. "Oops, I forgot, " she says as she puts them back.
My husband's car won't start. He pays $59.88 for a battery and installs it himself.
Jan. 3: I cancel the next day's scheduled delivery of bottled water as well as a delivery later in the month. Savings: $61.98.
The Cat Cafe closes. We have six cats and usually put dishes of food out on the patio so they can snack while we are at work. The problem is, all the cats in the neighborhood, the blue jays and even an opossum family also feed at our trough. Now the cats must come in and eat before the family leaves the house in the morning. This exercise gives new meaning to the term herding cats, but it should help cut the cat food bill.
Jan. 4: A quick trip to Ormond Beach to visit my parents. At a pit stop, the GooGoo Clusters and Peanut M&M's beckon, but I walk on by.
Jan. 5: We spend the morning at a farmer's market. My mother buys. There are bargains: a pound of tomatoes for a quarter. We talk about taking in some of the local attractions or going to a Native American festival with a $10 admission fee. But we end up taking a ride along the St. John's River, walking on the beach and playing board games.
Jan. 6: We eat in, talk, feed bread crusts to the birds on the beach and play more board games. My stepfather checks out the The Odd Couple from the library. I haven't seen it in so long, it's like watching a new movie. The day is a nice, low-key change of pace.
Jan. 7: We eat breakfast at the pier in Flagler Beach. I would have paid, but my step-dad has the fastest hand in the West when it comes to picking up checks. Other than gas, we have spent $0 in the past four days.
My daughter and I arrive home at 7 p.m. after a four-hour drive. "You must be tired, " my husband says. "We can always order a pizza." But we can't; it isn't allowed.
Instead, I whip up a vegetable and beef stir-fry with leftovers. I rummage through the cupboard for those little packs of soy and duck sauce left over from the days when Chinese takeout was permissible and stir them together with ginger to make a sauce. Not bad.
Somehow, my husband has managed to spend half the week's food budget over the weekend. I discover Lean Pockets and packaged coconut cake in the fridge. No and No. When your food budget is $70 a week, you've got to prepare most of the food yourself -- from scratch.
With school looming the next day, my daughter wants to give her school friends belated holiday gifts. But under the no-spend edict, the only acceptable gift is a homemade one.
At 9 p.m. we're melting chocolate and stirring coconut and sweetened condensed milk together for four batches of macaroons.
Jan. 8: With school back in session, my daughter takes a bagged lunch. In fact, we'll all be taking our lunches this month.
Jan. 9: There's a new food vendor in the cafeteria at work that everyone says is fabulous: fresh roasted turkey sandwiches, dilled salmon at the salad bar, Caesar salad. But I CAN'T try it, not even for a snack. Instead, I brew a cup of coffee from a package that's been hanging around my department for a few months.
Jan. 10: There's nothing to eat for breakfast, so I head to the market. Before I might have looked at the bacon or bagels, but now they're too extravagant. I buy a gallon of milk, cereal and eggs -- not another thing.
Jan. 11: All the parking lots at work are full. I head to the nearby Omni, thinking a day's worth of parking would be fairly reasonable. Well, times have changed. When I went to collect my car, the tab was a budget-busting $20.
I pass the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts on a performance night and make a mental note to check upcoming events on the website. But I quickly dismiss the thought. There will be no performances for my family this month -- Cleveland Orchestra or not.
Jan. 12: Word of my experiment has begun to spread. As I pull out a rather uninspired lunch bag of pretzels, carrots, an orange and a drink (Hey, I was in a hurry this morning!), one of my colleagues offers to buy me a sandwich. Touching, but I pass.
I send off the $400 check that locks in my daughter's spot in Cornell University's freshman architecture class. Tuition, room and board and books will top $46,000 -- a year. Nothing like that kick in the head to take the no-spending regimen from experiment to way of life.
Jan. 13-14: A relatively spend-free weekend. I use the week's leftover vegetables to make soup for Saturday lunch and punch it up with vegetables from the garden.
Our only weekend expenses are $10 to stock up on some grocery staples and the $1.25 toll I pay to go to Key Biscayne for a networking tea with students from Cornell. Purists are telling me, however, I should also be cutting my gas bill. That means no discretionary trips like my jaunt to the Key.
Jan. 15: Another work week, another bag lunch. But one of my colleagues tells me my money-saving ways have inspired him. He has brought his lunch today.
SEE AND COMPARE
To see what consumer units of one to five or more persons spend, visit: www.bls.gov/cex and click Get Detailed CE Statistics and then click on Create Customized Tables, then click "size of consumer unit."