Becoming a frugalvore: How to eat well for less

Hey hey, y'all. Here's a guest post from former GRS staff writer (and perennial reader favorite) Donna Freedman. This piece about becoming a frugalvore contains material that originally appeared at Donna's site, Surviving and Thriving. It's been modified for GRS. Enjoy!

The "locavore" movement is based on the idea of eating only foods grown within a 100-mile radius of where you live. Vicki Robin, for instance, might be best-known for her money manual Your Money or Your Life, but she also wrote a book for locavores in which she advocates a ten-mile diet.

I'm not a locavore but I have my own system, and I think it deserves its own name: I'm a "frugalvore". Becoming a frugalvore is pretty simple. You shop mostly (or completely) for what's on sale.

This isn't exactly a new idea. Plenty of people shop that way their whole lives. But it might be new to you if you grew up in a home where no one read the supermarket ads, created menus, and then worked to get the most bang for each grocery buck.

Becoming a frugalvore both simplifies and complicates your approach to eating.

On the one hand, it's easier to shop because you plan menus around that week's most affordable foodstuffs. However, if you're the kind of person who always shopped by grabbing whatever looked good, then you'll need to rethink your supermarket habits.

Fortunately, it's fairly simple. Not always easy, but simple. Here's how you can become a frugalvore.

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The virtue of thrift

My grandparents, Lola and NoahWhen I was a boy, we lived in the country. That is, we lived five miles from the nearest town (Canby) and 25 miles from the nearest city (Portland). We were surrounded by farmland. Life was quiet. Pastoral. Bucolic.

The road we lived on was especially quiet, with very little traffic. Even from a young age -- five or six, I think -- I was allowed to walk the quarter-mile to visit my grandparents. (My father's parents lived "next door" to us, but next door was across a large field.)

Visiting grandma and grandpa was fun. As quiet as life in the country was, life at their house was even quieter. There was a stillness in their place unlike anything I've experienced since. Their home seemed stuck in time.

Part of this stuckness stemmed from the things they owned.

They lived in a little white farmhouse built in 1920. My grandparents moved there in 1943 -- two years before my father was born -- then remodeled the place. Sort of. (Like all Roths, they left the job undone — for more than forty years!)

During the 1970s, when I was young, they still owned and used many of the things they'd purchased when they moved in.

  • They still had a big, white Kelvinator refrigerator, for instance, with a moving door handle and hardly any space inside. They called it the "icebox".
  • They listened to hymns (sometimes) and radio sermons (daily) on an imposing wooden console "hi-fi" system as big as a couch.
  • They owned a long pink-ish, purple-ish "davenport" with scratchy, well-worn fabric on which grandpa would nap every afternoon after "dinner" (which was lunch).
  • They used a black bakelite rotary telephone on a party line.

My grandparents themselves were very much like the things they owned. They were old. (They were in their seventies when I knew them.) They were calm. They moved slowly during the day, and even more slowly at night. One of my fondest memories is sitting with them in the evening, watching as they sipped "sanka" and played Scrabble while a fire roared in the nearby woodstove.

For children, time always moves more slowly, but it seemed to me that nothing every changed in my grandparents' world. Their home was frozen in time. It was stuck. It was still. It was silent.

It was comforting, and I liked it.

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How I learned to stop worrying and love DIY

"Oh good," Kim said when I rolled out of bed yesterday morning. "I’m glad you’re up." She gets up at 5:30 for work most days, but I tend to sleep in. Especially during allergy season.

"Huh?" I grunted. It was 6:10 and I was very groggy. My evening allergy meds kick my butt. Plus, I hadn't had my coffee yet.

"Something’s wrong with the bathroom sink," she said. "Look. It’s leaking. The floor is soaked." She wasn't kidding. The bathmat was drenched. When I looked under the vanity, I was greeted by a small lake.

"Ugh," I grunted. This wasn't how I wanted to start my day.

Kim kissed me goodbye and hurried off to work. I pulled on a pair of pants, poured some coffee, pulled out the vanity drawers, and got to work.

I was worried that I might have caused the leak when I replaced the sink's pop-up assembly last month, but no. The problem was obvious: The hot water line to the bidet (which I installed in October) had worked itself loose. (By the way, I love my bidet. Too much information, perhaps, but it's some of the best sixty bucks I've ever spent.)

The water line to the bidet

Fortunately, the fix was simple. I reattached everything, then added a light layer of tape to prevent similar problems in the future.

Note: As a safety measure -- to make sure I wasn't missing anything -- I took photos of the issue and made a trip to the hardware store to ask their advice. They told me everything should be fine.

This might seem like a small thing to some folks but it’s a big deal in my world. You see, I’ve never really been a DIY type of guy. I used to get overwhelmed by home improvement. I felt unprepared, incompetent.

More and more, though, I’m learning that I can do it myself. It just takes patience and perseverance. And the more projects I complete, the more confidence I gain.

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Why frugality is an important part of personal finance

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Joe Pinsker shared some thoughts on why many ultrarich people aren't satisfied with their wealth.

There seem to be two reasons.

  • First, people tend to ask themselves: Am I doing better than I was before? Do I have more today than I did yesterday? "All the way up the income-wealth spectrum," one researcher told Pinsker, "basically everyone says [they'd need] two or three times as much" to be perfectly happy. It's the hedonic treadmill in action.
  • Second, people can't help but compare themselves to others. They ask themselves: Do I have as much (or more) than the people I'm comparing myself with? Do I have more than other folks in my family? Do I have more than my friends? Do I have more than my co-workers? We measure our personal success by comparing what we have to what other people have. This is the proverbial "keeping up with the Joneses".

While Pinsker's article is about the ultrarich, I think these tendencies apply to nearly everyone. Even me.

People in the middle class are just as inclined to hop on the hedonic treadmill. They're just as likely to compare what they have to what their friends have. The same goes for those who aren't well off. Even people in poverty get sucked into the comparison game.

In fact, I'd argue that for the poor and middle class, there's an added element. Time and again, statistics show that folks with lower incomes watch tons more TV than people who earn more. (Also here -- and many more studies.) When you allow yourself to succumb to the "other world" of film and TV, you're exposed to more ideas about how people should and do live -- even if these ideas are baseless. (It's like "The Grand Illusion" by Styx: "Don't be fooled by the radio, the TV, or the magazines. They show you photographs of how your life should be, but they're just someone else's fantasy.")

The rich compare themselves to themselves and others. The poor do too but they also compare themselves to fictional characters on film and television.

The bottom line seems to be that comparing your situation to anyone is likely to lead to trouble. Whether you're comparing yourself to yourself, your family, your friends, or to people in Hollywood productions, doing so leads to a desire for more.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

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The best of both worlds: How to find quality products without spending a lot of money

Our recent three-part discussion on choosing quality over price has been interesting. (If you missed it, here's part one, part two, and part three.)

It's clear that most of you money bosses value quality, but not all of you are willing to pay a premium to obtain it. And some GRS readers don't think it's ever worth paying more to buy the best. (In fact, some folks think this philosophy is foolish.)

One thing we all seem to agree on: It's always best to pay less.

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Spending rate versus saving rate

For years, I've argued that your saving rate is the most important number in personal finance. "Saving rate" in the world of personal finance is the same as profit in the world of business. We all understand that a company needs to earn a profit in order to grow and thrive, but what most people fail to realize is that people need profit too.

The greater the gap between your earning and spending, the faster you're able to grow your wealth snowball and achieve your goals.

Last week, the always-excellent Michael Kitces published an interesting article that argues spending rates matter more than saving rates. He writes:

Most households struggle to save because there is no money left at the end of the month to save in the first place. Because technically their problem isn’t a savings rate that’s too low; it’s a spending rate that’s too high.

When I began reading Kitces' article, I thought he was picking nits. After all, saving rate and spending rate feel are two sides of the same coin. Turns out, however, Kitces has a good point.

Saving Rate vs. Spending Rate

Your saving rate -- and note that it's not "savings rate" -- is calculated by dividing your profit (your income less your expenses) by your income.

Saving Rate

Your spending rate is calculated by dividing your spending by your income.

Spending Rate

As you can see from the equations, saving rate and spending rate are simply the inverse of one another. If you have an 80% spending rate, then you have a 20% saving rate. If you have a 5% saving rate, then you have a 95% spending rate.

Because of this, it's easy to dismiss tracking your spending rate as a needless exercise. That number is implicit in your saving rate!

But Kitces argues that shifting the attention from saving to spending makes sense because saving is, essentially, a side effect. The two numbers you actually control in this equation are your earning and spending. Saving is a byproduct. It's not a primary factor but a secondary one. This observation is subtle but it's important.

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When to buy cheap airline tickets

Although I fly several times per year, I'm not a sophisticated traveler. Many of my friends are top-notch travel hackers, but I'm just a beginner. Still, I'm getting better.

On my recent trip to Florida, for instance, I booked both my initial hotel and my rental car using travel miles. That's a big step for me! And it saved me from using actual cash, which is in short supply around these parts lately.

I didn't do such a good job with my airfare. I booked my flight for January 4th on December 5th. I paid cash. Luckily, thirty days in advance turns out to be in the sweet spot for finding cheap airline tickets, so I got an okay deal -- even if I didn't book the trip with points or miles.

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Time is money: How frugality buys freedom — tomorrow AND today

Time is money and money is time."Time is money," my father used to tell me when I was a boy. He didn't like how I dawdled with my chores. I didn't understand what he meant back then. To me, time and money were two very different things. As a kid, I had lots of time but very little money.

Now, as a nearly fifty-year-old man who has written about personal finance for the past twelve years, I get it. Dad was right: Time is money — and money is time.

This notion is the central lesson of Your Money or Your Life, the personal-finance classic by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. "Money is something we choose to trade our life energy for," they write. "You are the one who determines what money is worth to you. It is your life energy. You 'pay' for money with your time. You choose how to spend it."

The authors say that because you spend time in order to earn money, you're also spending time whenever you make a purchase. This has some powerful implications.

  • When you treat time as money (and money as time), you can better evaluate how to allocate your dollars and your hours.
  • When you know how much your time is worth, you can decide when it makes sense to "outsource" specific jobs.
  • When you spend less, you can work less. In a very real way, frugality buys time. But on a deeper level, frugality buys freedom — financial freedom, freedom from worry, freedom to spend your time however you choose.

Because of the time factor, Dominguez and Robin argue that you don't earn as much as you think you do. You may be paid $33 an hour, but your real hourly wage is less than that. Possibly much less.

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How we watch TV without cable (and how much it costs)

One of the main reasons Kim and I decided to move from our condo to this quiet country cottage was to save money. We were spending far too much living in the city.

Simply moving made a huge difference to our budget. But now that the dust has settled, it's time for us to look at other aspects of our spending to see where we can save. As part of that, I've been reviewing our recurring expenses to see what I can cut. Yesterday, I canceled our subscription to The New York Times (savings: $5/week or $260/year). Today, I'm reviewing how much we spend on TV and movies.

Cutting the Cord

Apple TVIt seems hard to believe, but it was ten years ago that I first "cut the cord". Since then, I've used the Apple TV device to access most of my video entertainment.

In March 2007, my then-wife and I canceled our expensive TV package and moved to just basic cable. Our monthly bill dropped from $65.82 to $11.30. We supplemented our viewing with Hulu (free at the time), Netflix, and by purchasing shows from the iTunes store.

I've been cable-free for a decade now. I haven't missed cable even once. Some folks are amazed when they hear I don't have cable. "How do you manage?" they ask. Yet I am amazed that more people haven't made the leap to a cable-free lifestyle. It's easy.

One of the biggest objections I hear is, "What about live sports?" People pay big bucks just so they can have ESPN. Honestly, there are plenty of ways to watch live sports without cable. Sling, for instance, offers a package with ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3. Plus, Kim and I have found that if we really want to watch a game, we'll just head to a local sports bar where we can join the crowd over a burger and a beer.

In 2007, I calculated that Kris and I were spending $27.90 each month to watch television. If we added in our Netflix subscription, that total rose to $44.89. Not bad.

Reviewing our current expenses, however, I see that Kim and I currently spend $83 per month in subscription fees -- plus whatever we spend to buy individual movies and TV shows on iTunes. Holy cats! How did that happen? We've experienced a bit of lifestyle inflation in the TV department.

Let's review the different services we use -- and how much we pay for them. Maybe there's a way we can save some money.

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Community supported agriculture and tour budget: Is it worth it?

Fresh vegtables and pasta in a photo illustration

We joined a CSA this year, our first time venturing into the realm of Community Supported Agriculture. I have been intrigued with the concept for several years, as I have friends who rave about their weekly boxes of fresh veggies from a local farm. A special deal popped up in my Facebook feed in late winter and I decided to do it.

We shelled out $475 ($450 for the CSA and $25 one-time delivery fee). The reason I finally took the plunge is because the CSA was coming from a farm in Salem, Connecticut, (about 30 miles from my home) but was being delivered to a farm in our town (about a 7 minute drive up the road). So the convenience factor weighed heavily in the decision.

The $450 applies to a season that started the last week in May and will run through November. That's 25 weeks, equaling an expense of $18 a week. The box of vegetables provides about 5-10 lbs of produce a week. From May through October we typically shop for veggies and fruits at our local farmers' markets (we are blessed with several near our home), where we easily spend around $40 a week. The CSA does not include fruit.

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