Simple Ways to Save Money

Even after his death, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman has the power to irritate me . . . especially when he’s right. His solution to poverty was simple: give the poor money. Yes, he’s right – but where are you going to get the money to give to the poor? And, frankly, who’s going to take care of you after you’ve given it all away? (Try that line the next time your clergyman starts “the money sermon”; it’s guaranteed to make you the hit of the congregation.)

Until the social order is restructured, then, and everyone has democratic access to the means of acquiring and possessing private, productive (meaning income-generating) property, the only way any of us are going to get ahead (or, at least, keep our heads above water) is to figure out ways to save. Fortunately there are a number of simple ways to save money; the list is effectively endless. More valuable than a mere list of ways (although examples are always helpful), however, is a basic reorientation to our approach to cutting costs and spending money. The popular weight loss programs – those that are effective, anyway – always make a point of telling clients that they have to re-learn how to eat. Similarly, consumers have to relearn how to spend.

Yes, everyone knows how to spend money. I myself am an expert at it – especially if it’s someone else’s money. And the one thing overweight people know how to do is eat. It’s a question of doing it the right way. Fortunately, there are a few simple rules that can be followed:

Time is Money

It’s a truism – but it’s also true. Time IS money. Many people’s food budget, for example, is (if you’ll pardon the expression) eaten up by fast or convenience foods that, superficially, save time. The first thing you have to learn, however, is that they don’t really save much time, if any. It takes time to drive to the burger joint, stand in line, wait for the order, and so on. Similarly, selecting which premade product suits your particular taste, doesn’t contain lead paint from China or poison (and if you’re Orthodox Jew or Muslim, where the “hidden” unclean foods are), and so on. This, too, takes valuable time.

I have found that making virtually everything from scratch, whether bread, beer (I brew the beer I drink – one of the slogans of the American Homebrewer’s Association, free plug), or (believe it or not) sausage, in many cases takes no more time than going through the shopping rigmarole and ends up being substantially cheaper in the mid- to long-term.

The other rule is that:

It’s All in the Planning

Many people spend a great deal of time budgeting their cash, but very little time budgeting their, well, time itself. A little planning, however, goes a long way, and can result in substantial savings.

Make one trip in the car instead of six. Yes, some people may have to wait a little longer, but it’s better than making multiple trips when one would do – and with the price of automobile fuel going up sometimes by the hour, it can be well worth it.

Walk instead of driving. You save fuel and get exercise. Jogging always seemed a little pointless to me, but jogging down to the store to pick up something on sale, or to the library to borrow a book instead of buying it (like you were going to read it anyway), has multiple benefits.

Mixing the bread dough, doing errands or housework, then returning to bake the bread. People always complain to me when they find out I bake my own bread that it takes too long. Really? It takes a few minutes to mix it and knead it, then I forget about it for a couple hours until I shape the loaves for the second rising, then go off again until it’s time to bake them. It’s all a matter of planning.

The third (and final) rule of saving money is:

Get Down to Basics

Don’t buy anything readymade that you can make yourself, especially better and cheaper. I take this to what some people would call ridiculous extremes. I even make my own furniture! As a result, I have a “morris chair” that is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,000 that cost me, including the tools and special equipment I needed and the cushions, under $500. The best part is that I can use the tools again – and I have, to build a couple of armchairs and a dining room table, as well as more than 20 bookcases out of material I found discarded at the dump. I don’t recommend this for everybody, any more than I recommend making your own clothes, unless you already have the necessary skill level. The equipment costs too much, and you have to know what to do with it. Be very wary of getting TOO basic. You want to save money, not work yourself to death.

Now for the concrete examples – although you realize that your specific case is going to be different. What you do to save money depends on your particular circumstances. As I tried to make clear, it’s the attitude and approach that’s important, not what you specifically do.

Up Front Cost

The downside to “getting down to basics” in food preparation, of course, is that sometimes you need specialized equipment. This means an initial cash outlay in the beginning, so you must carefully consider whether the benefits from future lower cost are worth the current cash outlay.

With something like bread, this isn’t much of a problem. The “special equipment” consists of a mixing bowl (and you can knead the bread in it, too, saving clean up), some loaf pans, and the usual array of measuring cups and spoons. A 5-pound bag of flour – don’t waste your money on “special” bread flour – can, depending on where you are, cost between $1 to $2, or the cost of loaf of common white bread. You can get approximately 8 to 10 loaves of bread out of a bag of ordinary white flour. If you want whole wheat, take a tip from the Italians – mix white flour and whole wheat half and half for substantial savings. Don’t use the milk called for in most recipes, but use all water. Buy yeast in bulk, not those expensive little envelopes. Ultimately, you’re going to end up with better and cheaper bread, all for the cost of a little planning.

Sausage? You’re starting to talk a little more up front cost here. You need a grinder – unless you’re buying ground beef (which often has too much fat – you need some, but, come on!). You can even do without the special “horn stuffer,” but you won’t really want to. All of this and more can cost you in the neighborhood of $300 or $400, which I don’t recommend – unless you have a lot of people to pack lunch for. You can even go in with a group of neighbors – as long as you’re not selling the sausage, you won’t come into conflict with the law. Don’t build or buy a smokehouse, but use liquid smoke and cook in water. Don’t buy special casing, but sew casing out of muslin cloth and cotton (not polyester-cotton mix) thread. Use heavy twine instead of hog rings. (All of this makes sense if you get into sausage making.) Similar hints apply to making your own beer or wine.

Joining together with friends and neighbors is a good way to save money – but only if everyone agrees to the same basic principles and business plan. Otherwise, you’re just asking for trouble. Buying in bulk is a great way to save … but not if the people in the group have different dietary needs or restrictions, to name a simple problem.

In conclusion, saving money is all in the basic approach, not in the details, which differ from person to person and from family to family. Planning and budgeting both time and money will generate substantial returns but only if you follow the most important hint of all, and with which I’ll close:

Do it, don’t talk about it!