jump to navigation

Belt-tightening in tough times. December 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,

Our friend Ben subscribes to Gary North’s free weekly e-newsletter (www.garynorth.com), which focuses on sound financial advice that applies to everyone, even such low-budget creatures as myself. A friend suggested it a few years ago, and I’ve really enjoyed it, especially when Dr. North’s advice ties in to what I’ve always done, such as buying used cars for cash and keeping them going as long as possible.

Today brought a new newsletter to my inbox, and I eagerly opened it to see what Dr. North had to say for himself. He recommended an article on www.lewrockwell.com by Karen De Coster called “Tolerating Spiders, Credit Cards, and Other Depression Survival Tactics.” We tolerate a lot of spiders here at Hawk’s Haven, since they provide free 24/7 pest control and we refuse to use toxic chemicals that will kill us as well as pests, so I accessed the article with great interest.

Much of what Ms. De Coster had to say was both interesting and sensible, and I recommend that you read her suggestions and put them into practice. But her opening comments aggravated our friend Ben to such an extent that I decided to write this post to rebut them. Here’s why:

Ms. De Coster opened her piece by saying that she was going to provide practical, real-life advice on budget control, not “silly, impractical” ideas like turning down the thermostat (she keeps hers set at 74 degrees F.) or riding your bike to work. Instead, she suggests spraying toxic chemicals all over your home yourself to control spiders instead of paying a pest-control service to do so, and buying an expensive espresso machine to make your own lattes in the morning so you can consider Starbucks an occasional treat rather than a daily necessity.

Well. Our friend Ben concludes that Ms. De Coster is still drawing a regular paycheck, and is trying to make the most of it. Nothing wrong with that! But for those of us who are scraping by as freelancers, who have been laid off, or who for whatever reason find ourselves trying to keep the financial wolf from the door, her suggestions are a bit otherworldly. After last year’s fuel oil bills, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have turned our thermostat to 60 degrees, and are still talking about dropping it into the 50s before we go to bed. Yes, it’s cold in the house. Our fleece vests, fleece-lined slippers, and fingerless gloves help keep us warm while we’re working at the computer, and Silence has been known to keep her fleece jacket on over the fleece vest and wear some legwarmers to boot.

We’ve put those sausagelike fabric draft excluders at every door, including some that you wouldn’t imagine, like the door from the mudroom into the house and the door from one closet that seems to draw cold air from outside. We’ve tacked up bubble-wrap “curtains” over windows and unused doors that tend to be drafty. We have thermal-lined curtains over our windows. We’ve managed to cut our fuel oil bill in half. If Ms. De Coster would like to subsidize our fuel bill, we would be very happy to turn our own thermostat to 74 degrees. Otherwise, perhaps she should consider our plight, and the plight of millions who are even worse off, before she dismisses turning down the thermostat as “silly and impractical.”

Ditto for biking to work or using public transportation or (gasp) walking. We certainly don’t advocate biking or walking in bad weather. But if you can, leaving the car at home and getting to work by bus or bike or foot makes a lot of sense to us. (As my grandfather famously remarked when my teenaged father requested a car, “Walking’s not crowded.”) We envy those of you who have access to public transportation or whose jobs are within biking or walking distance. Conserving our non-renewable resources and getting some exercise doesn’t strike our friend Ben as “silly and impractical.” 

As for that espresso machine that will save you so much money, here’s a thought: How about unearthing the coffee machine you got as a wedding present or with your first apartment, making coffee, and skipping the espressos or lattes? I really don’t think it would kill you.

Enough griping. Ms. De Coster has some really great advice about, for example, credit cards, something our friend Ben had never read before. Read her article and get everything you can from it.

Here’s another piece of advice I urge you to consider: One thing Silence and I have been doing for the past several years of belt-tightening is prioritizing. Every year, we take stock of our expenses and priorities, and decide what really matters to us. Ms. De Coster, for example, says that she’s stopped subscribing to magazines. Silence and I have cut back on our magazine subscriptions, but we each continue to subscribe to one magazine we love, and we request subscriptions to other favorite magazines as Christmas gifts. We’ve also cut back on our professional and personal memberships, but we have, for example, continued our membership at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, since we love going there and being members saves us a considerable amount of money in fees we’d otherwise incur over a year.

Two places where Silence and I could have practiced belt-tightening are to stop putting out birdseed for our wild birds and to stop using our greenhouse in the winter. But we love our bird visitors, who provide endless entertainment for us, and we love our plants, which would die because of low night temperatures if we stopped heating our greenhouse. (They’re fine during the day, since we’ve done everything possible to make the greenhouse a solar collector.) We can’t imagine not taking care of our tiny flock of six heirloom chickens, who give us an abundance of rich, organic eggs for much of the year, or our outdoor cats, drop-offs abandoned at our rural property who provide companionship and earn their keep many times over by keeping the rodent population under control.

On the other hand, we’ve dramatically changed our views towards groceries. We’re both native Southerners, and being Southern seems to include a genetic predisposition towards brand loyalty. So it’s been a struggle, but we’ve finally managed to free ourselves from most of our standard brands and buy what’s on sale, and store brands, instead. (We haven’t managed to abandon all our beloved brands, but we now look for sales on our faves—10 for $10 on Coke products, for example, as opposed to $1.89 per bottle, or great deals on Kleenex or our preferred cheeses.)

How about you? If you have some great budget-stretching ideas, we would really love to hear them. What a wonderful way to ring in the new year. Our blog mentor and hero, Ben Franklin, would approve!



1. Deb - December 27, 2008

Drive less. With gas prices the way they were, I just learned to stay home. It looks like that may be paying off finally. I paid 1.29 per gallon last night which filled the tank for less than $25. Still, I will not go back to my old driving habits.

Oh, wow, Deb! It’s still $1.69 around here, and we’re counting our blessings. What good advice. Thanks!

2. Cindy - December 27, 2008

Great tips. Here’s another. How about brown bagging your lunch to work. With a little foresight and planning you’ll save each week. Especially if you bring snacks for that afternoon time when the overpriced vending machines look irresistible.

Yes, good plan, Cindy!

3. Steve Parker, M.D. - December 27, 2008

Is Gary North the guy that hyped up the fear of Y2K?

Hmmm, not sure, Steve, I didn’t know about him then. He does talk a lot about gold, but aside from that, seems to have some sensible advice to offer. As with all financial advice, my own feeling is to take it all with a grain of salt, try to benefit from the good and ignore the bad!

4. Cinj - December 27, 2008

I turned my water heater down to the lowest warm setting, put a thick blanket on it and also put foam sleeves on the hot water pipes. All of that requires some investment though. It saves us lots of money on heating our water

I also try to use the smallest appliance possible for whatever I’m making. It uses less electricity to use a toaster oven or microwave than a regualr oven.

I bake as many things as I can in my oven at the same time so I don’t have to keep the oven warm for as long.

Do you have a programmable thermostat? I love mine. I’m so forgetful that I forget to change the temp up or down. I can also set it to turn the heat up 30 minutes before I get up to the house can be warmer when I get up.

Excellent ideas, Cinj, thanks! Like you, I try to wait to use my oven until I have several things I can make at once: cornbread and sweet potatoes or stuffing and baked potatoes, for example. Or, if I decide we must have some baked potatoes, I’ll use my cast-iron grill to make grilled veggies to go with them.

5. Daphne Gould - December 27, 2008

Interesting,I don’t worry about using things like the oven and stove in the winter. I figure I’m heating my house at the same time. In the summer I avoid the oven like the plague

I drink water. I confess this is not for monetary reasons, but I like water. I grew up not liking milk, soda, tea or coffee. I finally taught myself to like tea and a couple of different sodas to be sociable. But all those drinks cost money. Water is practically free from the tap. I also bring my own water bottle when I go places so I don’t need to buy anything.

Great suggestion, Daphne! You could save a LOT of money by skipping the sodas, coffee, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t like the taste of water, but I drink it at meals when it accompanies food. At bedtime, I like to flavor it with about 1/5 glass of fruit juice (which also makes a bottle of fruit juice go further!).

6. nancybond - December 27, 2008

While I don’t have any specific ideas to share, I have come to the realization that a couple CAN eat healthily on much less money than we had traditionally spent on groceries. I cook larger amounts and freeze, or make sure that I can at least cook enough so that Charlie takes leftovers to work for lunch the next day. Every roast, chicken, turkey gets turned into large pots of delicious and hearty soups. We’ve been eating slightly less meat, and leaning more heavily toward beans, lentils, etc., although that’s one that requires some convincing as far as Charlie is concerned. 🙂 We also purchase more store and generic brands of canned goods, cleaning products, etc. It’s become like a game of sorts to see just how nice a meal once can prepare for less and less cash. I’m absolutely tyrannical about turning off lights and TV, etc. when no one is using them. At night, we use two CFL bulbs in two rooms, and that’s it. I even turn the heater off in the coffee maker (Tim Horton’s machine) once we’ve had our morning coffee. Any leftover coffee can easily be reheated in the microwave for a midday pick-me-up. I guess that I’ve adopted more of a waste not/want not attitude, and as I said, I find the challenge to be quite fun. Our little 7 cu/ft freezer died before Christmas (perfect timing!) and we’re saving up to buy another one. It not only allows me to make large batches of one-pot dinners, but next year, I hope to be able to grow more of our own veggies and be able to freeze some of them. There are so many way to stretch a dollar that you don’t think of…until you HAVE to. This was a great post…very thought-provoking! And as usual, I had more to say than I thought I did. 😉

Thanks, Nancy! I think you had some great tips! Soup is an excellent idea. As people the world over have always known, it really stretches your food dollars, and if you eat it first, it fills you up so you want/need less of the denser, more pricey foods. Your other ideas are all sound and well worth adopting, too.

7. Laurel - December 28, 2008

Weird! I just read Karen de Coster’s article yesterday and had a lot of the same gripes. I think you folks have provided more practical tips, in my humble opinion, including leaving those beautiful spiders around to do their good work!

Thanks, Laurel! Poor spiders get no respect!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: