June 3, 2018

Living cheap without being a Cheapskate

Click and Clack say, "The cheapskate always spends more money in the end." Truer words were seldom spoken.

Here are some guidelines to get started:


I can hear the angry crowds already. "Don't shop at Walmart! What better way is there to save money?" If you are satisfied with cheap junk from China, by all means shop at Walmart. I am not a Walmart hater, and I am not a snob. This rule illustrates a crucial principle: "Shop for quality, not for the lowest price." Of course if you can get the same quality at a lower price, it only makes sense to do just that. But here are just two of many similar stories I have heard.

(1) A fellow is using an electric screwdriver to drive black wallboard screws and they keep snapping off. A friend asks, "where did you get these?". "Walmart!" of course. They go to a home improvement store, buy a box there and no more screws snapping off.

(2) My very own son bought a blue ray player at Walmart. As near as he can tell, the same brand and model his brother bought elsewhere. But it won't play non-blue ray disks like his brothers will. It turns out this is a well documented story. Walmart negotiated a special price on the item, and the maker did a special run to fulfil the contract, using a less expensive internal read head assembly.

The story here is the same as I hear about junk from China. If you demand above all else the lowest price, you can get it, but the supplier will do what they have to do to still make money. We get junk from China, because that is what we demand when we insist on the lowest price.


Shop for quality, not the lowest price.

I used to buy cheap tires. They didn't last that long and had all kinds of problems. Then I learned to buy quality brand name tires. They last longer, are safer, and perform better. I am willing to bet that my cost per mile is about the same, or lower.

This applies to a lot of things. Buy quality. This will pay off, as long as you don't use it as an excuse to buy expensive luxury items. Quality items will be more of a pleasure to own and use, and in most cases last longer, making them ultimately cheaper.

Why old cars and old phones

My son works for a car insurance company. He tells the story of a customer calling and saying that they don't understand why their rates are so high. He looks at their records and tells them, "It is because of the new cars you are driving." Their response is, "New car? My car is two years old". If this response makes sense to you, you need help.

The principle here is to view your car or phone as a tool, not a status symbol. Many people bolster their self image by driving a new car, and trading it in for no other reason than, "it is getting old". There are a litany of excuses of course -- "It is unreliable". What? Is it breaking down regularly? Do you drive it to remote areas where your life and safety will be endangered by a breakdown? Another you hear is: "It costs too much to fix it". Really? Most people I know making car payments are paying on the order of $500 per month. I can do a lot of fixing for $500 a month.

Then there is the ridiculous logic of "it costs more to repair it than it is worth". Apparently this is some ill founded illusion that your car is an investment. Your car is a disposable item. Wear it out, get rid of it, and move on. If you can repair it and get another 2 years out of it, divide the repair cost by 24 months and if that monthly cost to operate it is more than a new vehicle, then go for the new vehicle instead. Be honest with yourself, you don't really need a new car.

New phones are by and large simply a status symbol. After about 2 years the battery will be shot -- so spend $30 and get a new battery, or have one installed. Despite the advertising hype, there are almost no new features or significant speed increases. So use that thing and take care of it. I have owned two phones in my life. The second one is on its second battery and pretty much ready for a third. Be honest with yourself. You want a new phone so you will be the cool one when you show it to your friends.

The time will come when you need to replace that car (or phone). This is the time to refer to the quality section above. Check Consumer Reports. Talk to your mechanic. I drive a Toyota and bought it essentially new. It is now over 15 years old and going strong. They hold their value so well that it really doesn't make sense to buy a used one unless that simply won't fit into your budget (see below).

Eating out

Get out your pencil and figure out how much each week you spend eating out. Then ask yourself what other things you could be doing with that money. Be honest with yourself and admit that you just cave in to laziness and you like that unhealthy fast food. Then bite the bullet and start packing your lunch. Eating out should be a special treat, not a regular way of life.

Starbucks deserves its own special section. Apparently some people are regular (i.e. daily) Starbucks users. All I can say is to get out that pencil again, figure out how much you are spending each week and decide if you are happy with that and how it fits into your budget (see next section). It is your life. You are in charge.

Have a budget

For reasons that totally escape me, many people hate the idea of having a budget. Take a new look at this. You are totally in control. A budget is you deciding what you want to do with your money. Not wanting a budget is saying that you want to be clueless, out of control, and living in a world of self delusion. Now you know why you are so badly in debt. If you don't like your budget, revise it -- but there is no escaping the need to live within your means.

At some point, your lifestyle adjusts to your budget and you find that you don't need a literal budget. You will know this because you never have any credit card debt and can pay all of your bills. This is what living within your means is all about. This is the happy new way of life that you are aiming for.

Avoid debt

I am talking here about credit card debt. It is hard to avoid a loan if you want to buy a house or car, and those are entirely different topics. Credit card debt though is reckless and foolish. It boils down to being unwilling to wait and unwilling to live within your means. Self control is learning to say no to yourself, so develop some self control. Here are two tips. One is to never view a credit card as money. That card is a danger and menace to your freedom unless you can pay it off every month. Second is to imagine that if you have credit card debt, you are just buying cigars for some fat banker someplace. Why do that? So pay off those cards. And then make yourself pay them off every month from then on. If it hurts, fine -- that will teach you to live within your means.

Some people literally cannot handle having a credit card. The only solution for them is to get rid of the thing and work from good old cash. Yes it can be done, although a credit card is nearly essential for some things. Limit its use to those only and lock it up somewhere at other times -- or something of the sort. You are smart; figure something out.

Put God first

Are you a Christian? If so, tithe. Yep, give God 10 percent. 90 percent with God's blessing goes further than 100 without it.

You are not a Christian? The world is still put together in such a way that when you give, you get back more than you gave. In other words giving is good. Try it and you may be surprised at the results. And you may want to see what other non-intuitive surprises are waiting for you in the Christian world. All that aside, there are things going on in the world that will benefit from your involvement, whatever you believe in. And giving keeps you from becoming a miserable Scrooge and wretched miser.

Feedback? Questions? Drop me a line!

Tom's Essays / tom@mmto.org