Friday, March 07, 2014

Frugal Finds and Fixes: The Apprentice Does the Math

In this edition of "Frugal Finds and Fixes," we interview our resident university student, The Apprentice.  

Mama Squirrel:  You are a busy full-time student, and a lot of money-saving things (the housekeeping, cooking kind) take time. You also have the problem of limited/shared space. How do you manage to do all that and stay sane?

Apprentice:  You're right, a lot of money-saving things do take time. To be honest, I'm definitely no Amy Dacyczyn. I do what I can, but am fine with spending a bit more money to save time or frustration..

One of the biggest examples of this is my living situation. Last year I was living in a student house with five other students. This year I've moved to an apartment shared with two people. The rent and utilities are significantly higher, but the advantages I have living here are worth the money. I have an above-ground room, quiet study space, and a large kitchen with tons of cupboards and a full-size fridge. I'm also closer to school. This living situation is more conducive to sleeping, studying, cooking, and travelling to school from, which are what my house is for! For me, frugality isn't about spending less money, it's about getting the most out of the money you do spend.

A smaller-scale example is food. I really like cooking, but often coming home after a late class I can be fairly tired and not feel like cooking. I know I could spend less on food, but having a few convenience foods around for a quick dinner is still cheaper than eating out when I don't feel like cooking. Yesterday I bought 2 kg of chicken fingers for $10, which will last me for many many meals and costs the same as going to a restaurant and ordering chicken tenders once. I do cook actual healthy meals most of the time, but the point I'm trying to make is that there are less frugal things and more frugal things that you can do. Both of them will save you money compared to a non-frugal thing like eating out.

At the same time, I certainly try to use frugal strategies that take a little (but not too much) time. Examples include baking my own treats, taking lunches and snacks to school, and fixing things that break. What I'd recommend most though are frugal strategies that don't really have a time element to them, just frugal thought. Since I was little I've learned that store brands are just as good as name brands, just without a fancier package. You can find clothes and household items at the thrift store for a tenth of the price, sometimes even new with tags. Textbooks are cheaper bought used from another student, and when the next year I just sell them to someone else and make most if not all of my money back. Taking a walk or bike ride outside costs much less than a gym membership.

Entertainment is a tricky category. It depends on what you like to do. Lots of activities have lower-priced alternatives, but those alternatives are not really the same thing, so it may be worth it to you to spend the extra money if that's something you really want to do. Going out to a movie and watching a movie at home are both fun, but a different experience. There are lots of free concerts and music festivals, but if you want to see a big name artist, you'll have to pay the big money for a ticket. Staying in is always cheaper than going out, but don't let that limit you every time.

Mama Squirrel:  What have you learned since being on your own that you didn't know before?

Apprentice:   Honestly a lot of the things that I do now are things that I picked up growing up, it's just that I didn't need to apply them until I started living on my own. I've tagged along with my parents at all sorts of activities, and helped out a lot at home: I often surprise myself by just doing something I didn't even know I knew how to do. I can pick out a cut of meat at the store, paint a room, bake a birthday cake, and build furniture. None of these things were something I had ever done on my own until I had to, but the knowledge was there and I just had to retrieve it.

Mama Squirrel: Any advice for the young and frugal?

Apprentice:  If there's something you don't know how to do, websites like eHow are incredibly useful. Even just Googling "what temperature bake turkey legs" will help you out a lot.

Definitely make smart choices at the store. If you're not much of a cook, that's okay. But buying a case of drinks, box of cereal and some lunch supplies will save you hundreds of dollars even if you're still eating out for dinner. A 500mL bottle of pop out of a vending machine costs about $2.50 around here, whereas cases frequently go on sale for $3, which works out to 25 cents a 355mL can. That's $5/L versus 70 cents/L. A box of cereal and litre of milk will give you breakfast for over a week for $6 or so. Buying store brand will save you even more.

Mama Squirrel:  Thanks, Apprentice!


Queen of Carrots said...

The Apprentice has a great point about the different comparisons--Even if circumstances prevent you from making the absolutely cheapest choice, you can still do things that will be a lot better than the alternatives. Having a few ultra-easy meals in the freezer or pantry for days when you just aren't up to cooking, for instance, is still way cheaper than ordering pizza. Something I have had to learn a few times.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing some of your valuable living experiences. I found my thoughts wandering back to my own university days.
I used to pin a large map of the city bus lines to a wall for ease of reference, along with a few choice route schedules. Armed with a monthly bus pass, purchased with a university student discount, I was unstoppable. I was also very quickly on good terms with my regular route drivers, who would regularly hold the bus for me if they saw me coming over a block away. Furthermore, the advantage of relying on busses for my “longer” commutes is that I invariably did a fair amount of walking, particularly when bus schedules didn’t align with my own. It made for some vigorous exercise and a splendid way to actively get to know the town I was living in. Occasionally I would borrow a bike from an acquaintance if the need, speed and versatility arose, or else I would acquire a cheap second-life one from a community bike shop, or garage sale. The cheaper looking the bike, the less I worried about it being stolen.
Groceries, I had down to a science. However, unlike you, I was not merely frugal; I was cheap. I’d scrutinize online fliers, making lists and scrupulously keeping to them. Not always trusting my memory, I’d even make master lists of what good prices for items were, and refer to these to confirm that a sale item made the cut. To avoid zigzagging across town, when possible, I’d bring fliers from competing stores and ask that a single store honour them all. Seldom would meat or processed foods/drinks make the cut, and typically I’d buy in bulk. Half-hour vegetable stir fries, beans and rice, and sandwiches, fruit and veg were my regular fare. I found that if I only brought a $20 bill with me, I would challenge myself on how much I could get for it and still have something left. Some weeks $5 was all I really spent.
For entertainment, I was a regular at the library, reading avidly and borrowing several DVDs at a time for the weekend. I’d also use the library as a hub for locating free events, including community meals, games, movies, and theatre productions (particularly in the summer).
To fashion, I admit I was blind during my university days, and can truly only ever remember buying socks and underwear when these became so paper thin that merely putting them on would cause a tare. I had no scruples in accepting hand me downs from others, typically extended family, such a coat or shirt here. My best winter gloves, to which I must admit still occasionally using to this day, I pulled straight out of someone else’s dust bin, as a fellow student discarded them for the crime of not matching. If I did find I needed something in particular, such as pants if the seat or knees had worn out, like you, the thrift store was my world. Sadly, it was only after my university days that I learned of the freecycle type networks where one person’s junk is another’s treasure (just imagine the Smaug like material hoard I could have amassed!).
With regards to text books, I found that it often depended on the mindset of the faculty. Some faculties appeared to be much more sympathetic to students than others in this regard, listing certain text books as optional only; making some copies available in the library for common use; providing photocopies of pertinent material, rather than the entire text book; while others seemed to favour being ahead of the curve by stipulating new text editions each term (often authored/co-authored by themselves), thus making campus resale value virtually impossible. Seldom would I purchase a text book from the course material list until the professor/instructor had indicated it would be actively used during the first week of classes.
Your interview was a fine doorway to my own memory lane, and for that I thank you. University is not only a place for academic learning, but also one in which to learn how to interact with our society, and where we get to explore ways of making our own unique niche.