This guest post from Claire Brown is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.
I'm writing to you today from sunny London about how I learned frugality by throwing things away. This may sound counter-intuitive; if being frugal is about economy and not wasting things, then throwing things away could be seen as a big admission of defeat.
But in the same way that having a budget is about consciously spending your money, I think consciously taking stock of what you throw away and — vitally — how it found its way into your house in the first place is a great way to become more frugal in the future.
UK vs. USA
First, a few words on some similarities and differences between the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
You're probably getting more UK news in America right now because of the Royal Wedding. While Kate and William have recycled the engagement ring, I doubt their wedding will be as frugal as the Queen's wedding was when post-War rationing was still in place.
In many ways the UK and US are very similar. Consumer credit is easy to get, so a lot of people are carrying massive personal debts. An explosion in house prices encouraged many people to borrow against the equity in their home and for a while it was possible to get 110% home loans (i.e. the bank would lend you 10% more than a house's value). That bubble's burst now, but I could still walk down the high street and get an interest-free couch, half a dozen store cards, and a personal loan for a holiday without much trouble.
However, the cheap abundance of consumer goods that the US has enjoyed since the 1950s is relatively new here. For many years the UK was known as ‘rip-off' Britain. Consumer campaigns, the European Union, internet shopping, and China's booming manufacturing sector have all driven down prices. It's still very easy to find terrible overpriced food in the UK, particularly around tourist hot spots. But there has been a real explosion in budget clothing and home stores, like Primark and Pound Saver, and BOGOF deals (Buy One, Get One Free). If you walked through the new Westfield London Mall on a Saturday you might think the UK was shopping mad. And you might just be right. The average British woman now owns sixteen bras and buys four new ones each year. This kind of abundance is relatively new to the UK and the novelty hasn't worn off.
But home sizes are smaller than in the US or places like Canada, Australia or New Zealand. The average new home in the UK is a third the size of its US counterpart.
So unless you happen to have inherited a grand country pile you probably will need to de-clutter on a regular basis. Will and Kate won't need to worry about where to store their surplus wedding presents, but the rest of us do.
How did I learn to be frugal by throwing things away?
Between the ages of 20 and 35, I moved house ten times. The two moves that really made me re-evaluate my spending habits were moving countries, and moving to a third floor apartment in a building without a lift.
- Why did I have all this Stuff which I never used from one year to the next?
- How on earth had I managed to buy all this on my modest income?
- I had never had 19 people drinking champagne in my flat at one time, so why did I feel the need to have 19 champagne flutes?
- Why did I keep running out of cardboard boxes?
These were the questions I asked myself as I struggled to get everything packed in time.
I've bought a flat now and don't plan to move again for a very long time. But I want to maintain the habit of regularly going through my cupboards to work out what I need and what I don't. Because doing this stops me spending. Safe in the knowledge that I have eight very nice champagne flutes, why would I buy any more? I have a generous three sets of sheets (one for us, one for guests, one in the wash), so I'm not even tempted by the John Lewis sale.
I would also argue that a well-ordered house makes it easier to be frugal because you can find things when you need them. My grandfather was a real hoarder, because he grew up on a farm in the Depression when you kept everything. But that only works if you can find what you need when you need it. When clearing out his house after his death my mother found four full toiletry bags because whenever he went on holiday he wouldn't be able to find the last one amongst all the clutter.
The hard part
So if it's a while since you've moved house, take a day to clean out your wardrobe, the cupboard under the stairs, the closet in the spare bedroom, your loft or your cellar. Work out what you still use and what you can get rid of. Julie Lanoie at the Downsize Challenge has some great ideas for what to do with your unwanted stuff.
But before you put your stuff on eBay or take it to the charity shop, add up how much you spent on each item to work out what it actually cost you.
- How much did you spend on those books you read only once?
- Did you pay for that iPod on plastic?
- What was the thinking behind that purchase? Did you want to keep up with the Joneses? Treat yourself after a hard day? Was it too good a bargain to put down? Was it really worth it?
This kind of analysis is what will help shift you from being a compulsive to a conscious spender.
My biggest mistakes and best tips
Here are a few of the things I've learned over the years:
- Clothes. I'm a sucker for a sale, and generally the clothes I've bought but never worn were ‘great' bargains at the time. But of course if you never wear it, it's not a great bargain and you might as well throw the money away. So now I've worked out my body shape and which colours suit me, designed a capsule wardrobe, and I keep a list on my cell phone of the new clothes I need for when I'm shopping.
- ‘Once a year' goods. These are the items that only see the light of day a few times a year: camping goods, DIY equipment, sports gear, and cooking appliances like ice-cream makers. My boyfriend and I have been camping once, when we went to a music festival. We used Freecycle and eBay to acquire things that we were likely to use on a regular basis (e.g., a picnic set and airbed) and we borrowed most of the rest from friends (e.g., the tent and camp stove). We enjoyed it but not so much that we've felt the urge to go again. If you only use your tile cutter or drill once a year, then chances are your neighbours are the same and will be happy to lend them to you. Of course, if you decide you love camping or skiing or pasta-making then you can go out and buy the full kit, but try before you buy.
- Books and music. If I were stuck on a desert island, I'd take my complete Jane Austen with me. I can happily re-read her books over and over again. But some books, like murder mysteries, are distinctly one-read only. So I've stopped buying them and borrow them from libraries or friends. For music, try before you buy via an internet radio station like Last.fm or Spotify. But while I am committed to frugality I don't pirate music, because I don't think I should enforce my frugality on composers and musicians by denying them royalties.
- Food. I've thrown away more bags of slimy salad leaves than I care to name. So I decided a few years ago to only buy whole lettuces instead. A lettuce will last two or three weeks in the fridge, so you can create your own salad mix. Once a week, generally before I do the food shopping, I turn out the fridge and make curries, soups, stews and other meals with those ingredients at the end of their natural lives. Try Love Food, Hate Waste for ideas. Internet food shopping is very competitive in the UK, and the only supermarkets near where I live in London are really small. So I buy my groceries on the web and I can always pop to the kitchen while I'm shopping to see if I've run out of pasta or need more eggs.
- Technology. It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you wait a while to buy your technology, it will probably be better and cheaper than the version available on day. Frugal Dad had a really interesting post the other day on things our grandparents lived without. If you believe that your life isn't complete without the latest gadget, then at least get rid of your redundant gizmos quickly. A two-year-old cell phone has some value. A ten-year-old cell? None. My father has a computer graveyard for a study. He loves computers and new technology. But when he buys a new printer/computer/laptop, he still keeps the old one just in case. So at last count I saw four computers, three laptops, and five printers. If he'd got rid of them when he made each new purchase then they could have been of use to someone else. Now they're completely obsolete and good for nothing but the scrap heap.
- Gifts. Whenever I move house, one of the hardest things to deal with is gifts. I've been given some great presents over the years. But I also tend to come across books I've never read, jewellery I've never worn and ornaments I frankly do not like. Presents also tend to follow themes based on your known interests, like cooking or travel, so I've been given a lot of similar gifts over the years. These are things my family and friends have spent their money on and chosen for me. So I feel really bad that I just don't want them. Is it okay to re-gift? After reading April Dykman's great posts on Get Rich Slowly how money can buy happiness if we spend it right, I'm thinking of politely suggesting to friends and family not to give gifts, to give to charity in my name or give me experiences instead of things. I would much prefer a dinner out together than another apron to go in the drawer with the three aprons I already own.
Over one-hundred years ago, English textile designer and artist William Morris wrote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” That's a mantra I now try to live by. I think consciously about what I buy and consider the pros and cons of each purchase.
But I'm sure there are some pretty frugal readers out there with some more great tips and some reformed spendaholics too. What are your best suggestions?