Monday, September 14, 2015

A Dot Com Veteran's Guide to Spending Less

The first time I was ever laid off during the dot com years, I took an outplacement assistance course. Not that I needed resume help, but I was bitter about the layoffs and I knew that the company was paying over $1,000 per student.

One bit of advice that has stuck with me is that when you're out of work, you should spend as if you're going to be out of work for a long time. That way, you don't drain your savings more than you really have to. Plus, if you do end up unemployed for 2 years (as some of my friends were during the dot com crash), you don't want to look back on your first few weeks of unemployment and regret wasting money on eating out, or whatever, when you need the money to pay bills now.

I've never been out of work for more than a few months, but the switch from techie cubicle drone to freelance writer has brought a significant dip in my income. (A freelance writer can make as much as or more than I used to, but the migraines mean I can only work part time and my income reflects that.) 

I was laid off a week before our wedding, so HA and I developed some frugal habits and kept them up once I was working again so we could build up our savings. I came up with some clever ways to save money and I thought I'd share. Remember--a penny saved is a penny that you can spend on yarn. Or concert tickets or whatever you're into.

Tip #1: Omaha Steaks. We were able to cash in my MyPoints for a $75 gift certificate. The steaks are pricey, but you can get a lot of gourmet burgers for your money. And it all comes frozen, so it can stay in the freezer for months. We got burgers, meatballs, green bean casserole, and potatoes au gratin. We got $75 of meat since we weren't sure that we could apply the certificate to shipping (we could). Not including side dishes, vegetables, etc, it came to $2.32 a serving. When you subtract the $75 gift certificate, we spent 45 cents a serving. And Hamburger Night was covered for months.

Tip #2: Convert those reward cards into one gift card. The place that laid me off pre-wedding  gave periodic bonuses loaded onto a debit card. As an ex-employee, I had no way to track the balance. You may be stuck with a $50 rebate card that's a pain to spend. So I bought a gift card to my local supermarket. The balance was printed on my receipt every time. Or just use one of those cards to load up a Starbucks card.

Tip #3: Use your credit card rewards. When I checked, I had enough cashback points on one card to get a $200 check. 

Tip #4: Clean out the pantry. I had some dried beans taking up space. It's so much easier to use canned beans that they could've stayed there forever. I used the chickpeas for an indian dish from a cookbook and made soup with all the white beans. Also, I've been relying on brown rice and couscous too long. We had open containers of kasha, quinoa and barley waiting to get used up too.

Tip #5: Brown Bag it. I did this when I was working, but HA would often have to buy his lunch. I started doing this when I first went on Weight Watchers. Soups freeze and travel well. I modified a bunch of recipes to make them full meals. Making loads on the weekend and freezing individual servings keeps you from having to eat the same thing every day for a week. (Super useful freezing tip--leave the food in the fridge overnight before freezing. The colder the food is when it goes into the freezer, the less likely ice crystals are to form. Got that one from The Daily Soup cookbook.)

We made sure that HA took his work to lunch every day and he went almost a month without a trip to the ATM.

Also? I started doing this when I worked someplace that had a cafeteria, but no fridge or microwave. I had to heat the soup every morning and put it in a Thermos. It was a hassle, but my lunch was usually tastier than what the cafeteria was serving.

Tip #6: Convenience food. It's pricier than cooking from scratch, but it's cheaper than a restaurant. Having a few things that cook up fast helped us break the habit of eating out because we don't feel like cooking.

Tip #7: Rock those kitchen appliances. We go through a lot of brown rice and used to buy the quick cooking type. But with our rice cooker (aka Reginald the Rice Butler), we can buy the cheaper, regular brown rice, cook up a batch on the weekend with barely any fuss and put the extras in the fridge or freezer.

Tip #8: Go stash-diving in the bathroom. The last time I was laid off, I found that I didn't need to buy myself fancy soaps and lotions and bath fizzies for a while. I had enough stored in my closet from previous retail therapy sessions to last me for months. And now that all those fragrances give me migraines, I don't buy them at all. Lavender-Scented epsom salts are all the bath time luxury I need.

Tip #9: Food stamps. We've never needed them, but I've had unemployed friends skip meals while walking everywhere to save the bus fare. Food stamps are a form of crop subsidy, and grocery store subsidy. They exist to bring in more business, not to feed people. That's just a side effect. Remember that the next time a politician starts bashing the program. If you're out of work long enough that you're skipping meals to save money, apply for food stamps. They can't say yes if you don't ask. There's no shame in being that broke. Lots of people are.

Tip #10: Work the transit system. I actually learned this one from one of my dot com friends. The NYC MTA gives free transfers between buses and subways. This was originally to get rid of 2-fare zones, where people who had to take a bus to the nearest subway station paid twice. But it also means that you can take the subway to a place, then take the bus back, all on one fare. As long as your return is less than 2 hours after your departure. So it doesn't work for when you're going to the movies or meeting friends for lunch, but it's perfect for doctor's appointments and job interviews.

Even if you're working, you could probably stand to save a few bucks to make up for the back to school shopping spree or to increase your budget for holiday gift shopping. 

What are your savings tips? Share them in the comments.

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