Sunday, January 17, 2010

Happy Thrift Week!

Did you know that this is National Thrift Week? Well, OK, not officially. The holiday hasn't been officially recognized in over 40 years. But for half of the twentieth century--from 1916 to 1966--the week of January 17 through January 23 was celebrated as "Thrift Week" to encourage Americans to save. There were even special themes for each day of the week: Have a Bank Account Day, Invest Safely Day, Carry Life Insurance Day, Keep a Budget Day, Pay Bills Promptly Day, Own Your Home Day, and Share with Others Day.

Thrift Week began on January 17 because it was the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the most frugal of the Founding Fathers. Since this happens to be my birthday as well, I thought it would be appropriate to host my own celebration of Thrift Week here on the blog. However, it doesn't seem to make much sense to celebrate the individual days, like "Have a Bank Account Day," since I would imagine anyone reading this blog already has these matters pretty well in hand. So instead, I'm going to spend each day of the week focusing on one of the top seven categories in the typical American budget: housing, transportation, food, health care, entertainment, insurance, and clothing. I'll talk about ways that we're thrifty in each of these categories (meaning not just spending less money, but using resources as wisely as possible), and I'll invite you folks out in cyberland to share your ideas too.

But first, a quick aside: if you visit the website linked above, you'll notice that the "thrift expert" cited on it is David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, whose other big issue is the promotion of "traditional marriage"--meaning mommy, daddy, and kiddies, with the kiddies definitely not optional. Although a self-proclaimed liberal, he has publicly decried same-sex marriage because the "true purpose" of marriage is to provide a stable environment in which to bring up children, and a same-sex partnership is, according to him, inherently unsuitable for this purpose. I wish to stress that my support of Thrift Week does not in any way imply that I also support Mr. Blankenhorn on this issue. I agree strongly with him about the importance of thrift; I disagree equally strongly with his views on marriage. So I'm focusing on the message and doing my best to ignore the messenger.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's turn to our topic for Day One of Thrift Week: housing. According to the 2008 Consumer Expenditures Survey, the typical American "consumer unit" spends $17,109, or 34 percent of its total budget, on housing, making it by far the largest expense for most Americans. Housing expenses include shelter (owned or rented), utilities (gas, electricity, water, phone), household furnishings, and "housekeeping supplies," which includes cleaning products and office supplies such as postage and stationery. Pretty much anything that you use exclusively in your home falls under the category of housing.

Here are a few of the ways in which Brian and I are thrifty in our home:
  • We didn't buy more house than we needed. Actually, some might question whether a couple without children needs to own a house at all. An apartment or a condominium would certainly cost less and use less resources. But on the other hand, many of the frugal things we like to do, like gardening and line-drying our laundry, are things you really can't do without a yard. So we decided that we did want a house, but just a small house--not one where the two of us and our cat would rattle around in all the space. We also decided we were willing to do without a lot of the amenities that many people think of as necessities, like a dishwasher, central air conditioning, and a garage. It took us over a year to find a house in our price range that we were happy with, but it was time well spent. A smaller house meant a smaller mortgage, which meant that our finances weren't strained during my long stretch without work last year. And it saves us money on utilities as well, since there's less space to heat and cool.
  • Anything that we can do ourselves, we do ourselves. If a room needs painting, we paint it, rather than hiring a painter. We don't have a cleaning service; we don't have a lawn service. (In fact, our attitude towards our lawn is pretty much one of benign neglect. We cut it only when it gets long enough to lose small objects in, and we never fertilize it, because if it grew faster we'd just have to cut it more often.) This means that things don't always get done around our house as fast as they might; for instance, we've been in the process of refinishing our basement for over two years now, and there's still a good bit left to do. But after all, we're in no hurry, and when it finally is done, it will be much more satisfying to be able to say we did it ourselves.
  • In wintertime, we keep the thermostat at 67 degrees during the day. (I know some people turn it even lower, but I'm a wuss.) At night, we turn it down to 56. In the summer, we use the A/C only on the hottest days (when it gets above 90 degrees in the house), relying on fans to keep cool the rest of the time.
  • Most of our furniture is secondhand.
  • We keep the place clean with a few basic, inexpensive (and nontoxic) products, such as vinegar, baking soda, and ordinary soap. We use rags in place of paper towels.
  • Here's one that might not be obvious as a household expense, until you remember that "housekeeping supplies" included office supplies: we do most of our banking online, including paying bills. This saves paper, postage, and time.
The one thing we don't skimp on? High-speed Internet. We rely on it for too many things, including my job and the aforementioned online banking. However, you could make an argument that this, too, is a frugal choice. The $50 a month we spend for our cable modem takes the place of many other things we might otherwise have to pay for, like TV service (we can watch TV online with our new media spud) and newspapers (we can read the New York Times online). It also gives us easy access to sites that help save us money, like the Dollar Stretcher, MyPoints (which gives you "points" when you shop online, which you can then cash out in the form of gift cards), and Coupons.com. Perhaps for a later entry, I'll do the math on all this and figure out to what extent our high-speed connection actually pays for itself.

How about you, fearless readers? Any thoughts you'd like to share on the subject of thrifty housing?
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