Friday, August 21, 2009

Extreme Frugality

I've been pretty proud of my efforts to cut the grocery bills from the highs of a couple of years ago - a little over $200/week. And that $200/week was when I was shopping the sales at the big grocers, and taking advantage of coupons from the Sunday paper.

I'm not a coupon shopper anymore, and generally do the shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joes, with less frequent trips to the big grocers, costco and the farmers market. Doing things this way, you don't exactly have a Sunday sales flyer to use while building your weekly menu and shopping list. It's working better than I'd thought when I started changing the way I shopped.

With the couple of months, I've been able to pull the average weekly spending to under $130/week for our family of five. As the temps cool, and baking all of our bread becomes practical again, it'll keep dropping. In fact, if I can keep my $110 & under weeks going, we should be on track for a below $120/week average by the end of the year. Being below the USDA "frugal" spending levels was - I thought - quite the accomplishment.

Until I read about the Z-day Challenge. W. Hodding Carter, a writer for Gourmet, has spent the summer growing vegetables, stocking the freezer with a quarter-cow, and prepping for a month with Zero Spending.

That's right. ZERO spending.
I realized the moment of truth had arrived. The Z-Day Challenge, our personal anti-stimulus project. For the entire month of September, we’re spending ZERO dollars. We’re ready. Our garden’s ready.

It’s our civic duty.

As some of you may remember, I’ve theorized (read ranted) that spending our way out of this current mess is wrong. To me, it’s like putting an overweight person on a 1,000 calorie-a-day diet of ice cream. It may work in the short term, but it’s definitely not healthy in the long run. We need to remember—or in most cases, learn—how to save money, pay off our debts, and become one with reality: The party has now been over for quite a while.

So, on August 31, after topping off the cars and stocking up on groceries and a month’s worth of animal feed, we’re migrating to Unamerica—a land where misers are heroes and spendthrifts are scorned. A land of limited horizons and very little opportunity. A land where … well, you get the idea. I know this sounds like a gimmick since we have a fairly full pantry, nearly a quarter of a cow in our freezer, and we will still pay our monthly bills, but answer this: What’s the longest you’ve ever gone while living your normal daily life without buying something? Think about it. Be honest. A month? A week? A day? For me, during this frugal year, I’ve lasted around two to three days. But I want to do better. It’s time to shake off the shackles and see what it’s like without consuming.


At first glance it seems like a big plunge. Heck, it seems like a big plunge at second & third glance, too. But, I've started reading the beginning of the Extreme Frugality series, published back in February.

For years, Lisa had been telling me we were living beyond our means. “Please, please, Hodding, don’t buy that hand-carved black walnut countertop!” she’d implore. In fact, once she even kicked me out of the house for nine months in hopes that I’d wake up. But like that alcoholic who downs yet another Two-Buck-Chuck, I wasn’t ready. I knew that my next book was going to be an international bestseller and I felt entitled to live as did my father (although he was 25 years older than I) and all those successful, happy people in ads and on TV. Here I was, though, finally seeing the raw truth. Our average combined income—drum roll, please—for the past decade had been … $41,000. Thanks to those heady days of refinancing, deft shuffling of credit-card debt, deceased grandparents, and a lucrative house sale, however, we had lived, year after year, as if we were making $120,000. Like 70 percent of our fellow Americans, we were living off our VISA cards with no means of paying them off any time soon. As a result, we had $75,000 in credit-card debt and owed $245,000 on a $289,000 house. What had I been thinking?

Never mind. I’ll sort out the “why” on my therapist’s couch. Right now, it’s time to do the unthinkable. It’s time for us to be more like our grandparents and less like our neighbors. (Ninety percent of us buy something we don’t need every month, and Americans in all walks of life—except the very rich—carry $961 billion of credit-card debt at any given moment, paying $1.22 for every $1 they spend.) For the first time ever, my family is going to do the unthinkable. We’re going to live within our means. No matter what we actually make, we’re only going to spend $41,000 for the entire year. In other words, after paying our mortgage, taxes, insurance, and the $500 to service our credit-card debt, our family of six is going to live on $550 a month.

After mortgage and credit card payments, $550, for a family of six. Again, Wow.

I am a lightweight, a pansy, in comparison to this family. I intend to keep reading my way through the year, and see which lessons I can carry over into my family's habits. (Not raising chickens for eggs though. Even if there weren't zoning laws about livestock intown, I do not want to clean up a henhouse. Been there, done that, and glad to buy my veggie-fed, no-cage eggs at the store.)

Still, there's probably a lot more I can do, and next month is probably a good time to try it. After all, it was last September that I embarked on trying out a variation of the $100 Grocery Challenge, where I upped the amount to $125, to reflect the five members of my family, rather than the four in the original article. Maybe, if I can spend the next week doing some serious planning and sensible stocking up, I can try a month of Semi-Extreme Frugality. It won't be zero spending, but maybe I can treat it like a limbo... how low can you go?

1 comment:

Slamdunk said...

Wow that is a challenge. Zero food spending for a month sounds insane, but with the author's approach it makes sense. Certainly inspirational