Wednesday, July 04, 2007

On the cheap

The first decade of adulthood branded me in a particular way. From 18-28 I worked full time for less than 2 years in total. The rest of the time was spent studying (a 3 yr B.A. then later another 4 year full time course) and travelling. While other friends had been building a nest, I’d been living on the cheap – using milk crates, salvaged planks and bricks for bookshelves, sleeping on borrowed mattresses and then finally buying my first futon. I lived in shared houses with dozens of people over those years. My most worldly possessions were a coffee grinder and a Le Creuset fry pan and pot. I guess even then kitchen equipment was more of a priority than what I sat on.

Apart a 6 months stint in a well paid job at 19, having taken a semester of study to follow my heart to Sydney, every penny was counted. A cup of coffee in a café was a luxury and had to be worth it in taste, company or time bought to write. I never ordered a juice with a meal, it seemed such an absurd luxury to drink anything other than water if it threatened the budget or could otherwise be spent eating better food. Likewise, a movie didn’t need popcorn or a bucket of drink to make it enjoyable.

After a while, such things became second nature. By the end of my 20’s I was probably even poorer than the beginning, being in debt and slowly setting up a business. While backpacking again, all this came back to me. There is something about the culture of travelling that way that makes you loose perspective. When someone wants to charge you 20c more for a bottle of water, you feel ripped off, you bargain to get a room for $1 less a night. Spending time in a society where everything is bartered skews your perception of value.

Back in Melbourne I’ve been to the sales to buy warm jumpers, bought books and gone out for food when I could have cooked it myself. The cents gained on market transactions forgotten. In one day I spent more than I could have lived on for a week in Indonesia. It is all relevant. But the ghost from my past has been awakened. Here are some tips on living on a budget, made easy in a city like this.

Love the libraries - I think I’d stand at the barricades and fight for the continued existence of free libraries. I remember the tiny, 1 roomed library of my childhood, the joy of being allowed to choose a book or two, the reverential atmosphere – it reeled me in hook line and sinker. Now I have a couple of local libraries to choose from. Not only can I borrow dozens of books at a time, there are dvds, magazines, free internet access, local history and cosy nooks to loose yourself in for an hour – deliciously warm in winter and air conditioned cool in summer.

Cheap nights at the movies, discount cards, public radio subscriber concessions – why pay full price, when you can see the same movie for half the price? Even better there were a few years when I had friends working in every art house cinema in Melbourne, which usually meant free movies. The Beat and other freebie magazines, as well as local radio also had giveaways.

Half tix – likewise for live entertainment, a quick whiz into the city on the bike meant the same show for less.

Speaking of the bike – not owning a car for those years made life a lot cheaper. Even now I see my vehicle as a ridiculous luxury that just gobbles up money to register, insure, feed and maintain it. A bike, a good pair of shoes and a multi trip tram ticket still gets more use from me.

Name brands or generic? My weakness is food and some things I’d prefer to go without than go generic – mayonnaise for example, if I don’t make it, it has to be Thomy. Mineral water however is a different story.

Asking myself do I really want/need/must have it? It’s taken me a long time but I finally realised that if something isn’t the right colour, size or cut – getting 80% off isn’t going to make it feel any better to wear. Discounts sometimes hoodwink us. If I’ve been in a shop a week before the sales begin and there’s nothing in the store that I desperately want or need – I just walk by when the seductive red banners are raised. The psychology of ‘the bargain’ can sometimes makes us blind to our real needs. A bookshop with “20% off everything” is another matter! But unless I’m travelling I now rarely by fiction. A once off read is best for the library but non-fiction is an investment to be reread.

Freecycle – wasn’t around in my lean years but we did hunt in packs in op shops, down laneways for discards and through the streets the night before hard rubbish collections. I’ve given a heap of stuff away on Freecycle in the last year and I reckon it’s all good karma.

Picnics – I was the picnic queen in the warm months and now am down to organising a scant 1 or 2 a year. A simple way to gather people together, sharing food, enjoying the great local parks. Very cheap and lots of fun.

credit cards - Apart from the obvious of not using them when you can't pay them off in full at the end of the month, it's the sneaky little extra charges that pile up when you use the card instead of cash - taxis, paying for parking and a heap of other 'slot machines' take a percentage on top of the few dollars you are paying for. It can add up over a year. Of course they are useful to brandish at a new purchase and then ask "Any discount for cash?", especially in a place that accepts the higher merchant fee attracting Amex.

What tricks work for you in the lean times?

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Blogger The Editter said...

The vege garden. Home-made hummus. Deciding that my Aussie clothes-buying splurge means I'll make do with the clothes I've got through winter (and maybe even longer). Packing sandwiches, apples and water when we go to a park or playground so we don't "have to" buy snacks and juice.

I would use the library more if my bookshelf wasn't so full of unread books that I've got at school fairs or sales or have been given! DVDs from the library here have just gone up to $4 each a week (from $3) so we'll go back to utilising the supermarket receipt coupons for 2 free weeklies with every overnight hire ($5).

I'm supposed to be making my lunch every day now too, but didn't today, so must off and buy some...

10:30 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Great tips Ed :)

I thought of another - don't use your credit card unless it's going to save you money (a real bargin that you can pay off the card in full before you have to pay interest). Actually taking cash not cards when you go out, so you have to stick within budget is something I still do - especially a saturday night out, to limit drinking!

1:30 pm  
Blogger Aleks - Anarcho-Syndicalist said...

Libraries. While I like the concept, the fact that I don't know where the books have been makes me shudder - I'm sure we have all heard the story (probably urban myth)about someone finding a piece of toilet paper in a library book.

Books, CDs and DVDs/Videos - these are my extravegance to which everything else takes a backseat. Of course having just moved the 20 odd boxes of these things can be tad painful on the back. They will soon be set up again and open to friends (including bloggers), colleagues and comrades. Well, so long as they aren't used you are you know where.

Strange, when I first started my first post-university professional career 6 years ago I earned almost exactly (only off by $80) half what I get now, yet I still likely find ways to spend all the money I will now earn. Sometimes I can be so bourgious. :)

3:22 pm  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

You'll be drinking chardonnay next Aleks :) Welcome to sunny melbourne...hope we get to meet you soon.

3:31 pm  
Blogger Aleks - Anarcho-Syndicalist said...

Chardonay? Unlikely - for all intensive purposes I gave up alcohol about the same time I gave up eating meat about a year ago (well, 1 year and 8 days, but who is counting :))

I'm sure that I will meet some of you soon.

Strange the word verification today is ejuch - replace thej with an n - *shudders*

10:59 am  
Blogger Ann O'Dyne said...

ditto the Thomy.
ditto the Library ...
and my Le Creuset is the orange 28cm round, 35 years old and still going strong. Did you notice the Weekend Australian magazine food writer gave a eulogy for his a couple of weekends back ? (it hadn't died, he just said it was an essential lifelong love object).
I belong to the
Least-Polluting demographic (old poor women living alone).

8:36 pm  

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