How to Save Money When You Don’t Have Much to Begin With

It seems like finances—personal, corporate, and government—are big news these days. I can’t click over to CNN without reading some story about the current financial crisis…or the custody battle of some celebrity. Obviously both topics that require careful consideration by the American public.

But I digress, the quality of news on CNN is a topic for another day.

Today I want to talk about finances, and in particular those articles that promise to tell you how to save money and usually offer some tantalizing tidbit about how some family saved $25,000 by just making a few changes to their lifestyle. I always click open these articles and begin reading, looking for a new way to save, only to find out that the family being profiled saved that money by cutting out their $10,000 a year coffee buying habit, only buying 15 couture dresses this year instead of 20, and using their Audi for routine errands instead of taking out their Ferrari when they just need a gallon of milk.

Very wise moves indeed.

But completely irrelevant advice to me.

If I had $10,000 to spend on coffee, then I probably wouldn’t have much need to worry about how to save $25,000. And if I owned a Ferrari would I seriously even blink when gas prices skyrocketed beyond the gas pump’s meager price telling abilities? I think not. But then again, I’m not rich, never have been, and almost certainly never will be, so I don’t have any firsthand experience with how difficult it must be to swim in cash (DuckTales, anyone?).

So since I find these how-to articles so irrelevant to my life, let me share here with you five of my own tips for saving whatever cold, hard cash you can find under your couch cushions or rolling around the floor of your 1996 Nissan.

1. Spend all of your free time deep in the backcountry.
It’s practically impossible to spend money while you’re in a tent in a forest in the middle of nowhere. There aren’t any stores, and there’s no entertainment beyond the annoying people sleeping a few trees down singing loudly about pickles well past midnight. And those bears nosing around outside, they don’t want your dinero. They’d rather just have your hot dogs.

2. Develop your own special form of ADD.
See the preview for the movie. Get excited about the movie. Then remember that movies are long—two plus hours long. And during that whole, long time you’re expected to sit still and be quiet. Realize there is no way that’s going to happen and put your $10 back in your pocket (or better yet, the bank…but not all in one bank if you happen to have more than $100,000 because man, I hear those things are dropping like flies).

3. Convince yourself that coffee tastes like dirt. (Because it does.)
No one likes to consume dirt (unless you have pica, and then, really, you should get that checked out, because consuming dirt is totally not normal). If coffee tastes like dirt to you, you will not buy it. You will not spend any money (no less $10,000) on coffee consumption. When that well-meaning but budget-busting co-worker stops in your office and asks if you want anything from the coffee shop, you can say no and really, honestly mean it. Because heck if you want to consume dirt, there’s plenty of it to be had for free (see backcountry).

4. Become allergic to shopping.
Imagine, for one moment, a mall: the crowds, the racks and racks of clothes none of which contain the right size, those horrific fluorescent lights, that loud music, the perfume stench of department stores, the cookie place that looks like it should be so tasty but really isn’t. Did you not just break out in hives thinking about it? Me, I almost needed an epi-pen. You, not so much? Well then, fine, go ahead and spend your money to look trendy and cool; I’ll just be thankful that I’m still the same size I was ten years ago…and that every now and again fashion comes full circle.

5. Have no real idea how much money you make.
Remember when you were sixteen and worked at the zoo and made $5.75 an hour? Convince yourself that that’s still the case. Remember when you took the time to figure out just how many hours you would have to work to pay for whatever it was you wanted: a new paint job on your rusty old car, a Wendy’s value meal, tickets to the Tori Amos concert? Do that again, but calculate everything as if you still only make $5.75. Decide then how much it’s worth to you. When you turn 100, go ahead and check your bank account. Do a happy dance when you find out you’re a millionaire. Then spend it all like there’s no tomorrow (because, come on, let’s face reality, at 100, there’s a fairly high chance that’s true).

13 Replies to “How to Save Money When You Don’t Have Much to Begin With”

  1. Great tips Theresa! I think the last two resonate the loudest with me.

    I am not a shopper by any means, but I can impulsively splurge on a ticket to some faraway place only to suffer the consequences later.

    Always try to put away something from every paycheck, no matter how little.

  2. I’m pretty damn frugal. Minus neccessities (tuition, rent, utilities, groceries, etc.) I don’t spend much money. Usually when I do splurge its on something that is self satisfying, such as refurbing my bar this summer. And even then its a one time expense and not a recurring thing. Generally its just gas and booze for me. Sure there’s the occassional Wii game, $1 menu from Wendy’s, Bat’s baseball game, but I have very few wants which leads me to “saving” (or NOT spending) most of my paycheck. I have seen have gone to the movies 3 times this summer (Indiana Jones and The Dark Knight) but you won’t find me there again probably for a year (like it was before I saw either of those movies). So the little money I make and will ever make will be there when I need it.

  3. Good post, especially #5. I’m pretty frugal, thanks to good parents and some awfully hard jobs during college. But when I actually look at my checking account balance and there’s a pretty good amount of money there, sometimes I go a little bananas and suddenly think I “need” stuff. I’m better off not looking and just writing a check to my savings account each month.

    And now I’m going to brew some dirt.

  4. Great post! This was so funny… I hate those save money advice columns. For me it took taking some drastic steps– selling my house and moving into a smaller apartment, getting rid of one of our cars, cutting out all spending. Easy right? Well the best thing I can say about it, is that it prepared me for traveling light, and since you have to literally carry everything you own, might as well stop buying stuff.

  5. This tactic works for me- immediately after receiving a pay check, put a percentage somewhere where you can’t access it! And then only spend what’s left in your checking account! I hit the statutory maximum on my 401k/IRA savings every year in addition to having auto withdrawal to an online savings account at HSBC. Logging into my online savings is like trying to get into Fort Knox: I literally need six identifying pieces of data, one of which is a 20+ digit number, to sign in. Since it takes me 5-10 minutes to check my balance, I seldom log in, which means that I am less likely to transfer money back to checking….

  6. I love this post! I also regularly click on those “How to save $XXX a month” and find them to be utterly useless because we already do everything they recommend. I was watching the Today Show one morning and they hyped up an upcoming story about a family that cut out $600 a month. Want to know what they did? Well, the wife gave up weekly mani and pedicures, they stopped their $95 a week lawn service, stopped eating out multiple times a week, stopped taking their kids to amusment parks every week…really?? and I was supposed to see this as ground breaking?? I guess living on $60 a month for food and a monthly $70 personal stipend for a year gave me a different perspective on need vs. want. Thankfully Bryan is more frugal than I, so it hasn’t been much of an issue.

  7. the cutting coffee out bit is so true. People spent like 1,000 dollars a year on starbucks, if not more. That enough to fly round trip half away around the world. cutting those little things out can really save a lot over time. a penny here and a penny there and it ads up. i think its ok to have one things you really like splurging on (for me that sushi) but that can be balanced by not wasting money on little things that are unneeded.

  8. hahahah I loved the post, Theresa!

    I love coffee and I don’t spend that much on it.. I prefer to make my own coffee because if you drink Starbucks, that one really tastes like dirt! yuk!

    Can I add a number 6 there!? **Stop watching TV**
    You know those miracle cleaning products? Or the new shampoo, just for your type of hair? You don’t need them.
    It’s impressive how my desire for shopping disappeared since I stopped watching TV.

  9. great post theresa,
    and I have to agree with Cris, stop watching tv makes a massive difference, if you can’t stop at least use with some moderation and be self conscious about it, all that ads, actors and “influential people” saying to you buy this, do that, go there, you need this, keep echoing (even if you know they’re just ads) in your mind every time you go out, then you end up buying lot of unnecessary things, to give you a 5 minute satisfaction.

    But I would add one more: Discover the joy of simple things, reading, walking on the park, cook a nice dinner, stay with friends, walk with your dog, play with your kids

  10. Seems like everyone here has a good grasp on saving money. Too bad we can’t teach the rest of the world (or at least the U.S.) how to do it! I like all the additional tips. I can see how TV can definitely influence us to spend more (as well as many consumer magazines). I guess I should feel happy that I don’t have time to watch TV these days…I don’t know what I’m missing out on! Obviously, my tips were a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s the basic principles of them that matter most—find things that you enjoy that don’t cost (much) money, know the value of money and think before you spend it, and find a way to make it difficult for you to spend money (whether that be tricking yourself about how much you have or getting a really inaccessible bank account like Magnifique!). I also think many of you hit the nail on the head with comments about need vs. want. There’s nothing wrong with wanting (and deciding what you want is worth it like Steve’s camera habit or Matt’s sushi habit), but when you can’t tell need from want that’s when you get into real trouble.

  11. Great article, first visit to the site. I cut back on Starbucks, movies, and have tried hard at not eating out often but has been somewhat difficult, but other than that, I set a goal for what I needed to save and how to save it for my trip and it has worked well. I don’t need a new pair of jeans from every visit to the mall or a new pair of shoes because its on sale. My Nikes from March 2007 still look and feel great and I don’t plan on buying a new pair any time soon.

    I know that when I get back I’ll stick to #5 on the list 😉

  12. I was just happy Tori Amos got a mention!

    In all seriousness, tip #5 works well for me. Except I don’t work, so it’s more like “How many articles am I going to have to write for Associated Content to pay for this?”

    And then I buy it anyways.

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