Friday, January 20, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 4: Local Shopping Budget Day

The fourth day of Thrift Week is designated as Keep a Budget Day. Budgeting is, of course, a favorite topic of frugal-living experts; Money Crashers alone has numerous articles on how to do it, including envelope budgetingzero-based budgeting, and the anti-budget system. It's practically an article of the frugal faith that you have to make a budget of some sort if you're ever going to prosper.

So I realize I'm probably going to shock a few people with this confession: I don't have any sort of budget and never have. I do track my spending, so I can keep tabs on where my money goes, but I've never sat down and decided, "OK, I want to spend 30 percent of my income on housing, 10 percent on food..." and so on and so forth. Instead, I just follow what the blogger at The Financial Diet calls a "minimalist mindset." Rather than setting aside a specific sum for savings, I look on all my money as savings and see my bills as cutting into that savings—so every time I make a purchase, I ask first whether I'm willing to spend my savings on it. This has worked just fine for me for over 20 years, and I see no need to suddenly switch to a rigidly regimented budget now.

In recent years, however, I have discovered that there's one problem with this minimalist approach. Because I've gotten into the habit of questioning every single purchase—"Is this really worth the money?"—it's sometimes hard to convince myself to spend on things that actually do matter to me. For example, as I've noted in previous posts, I really like the idea of supporting local businesses—but when I see their prices, I just balk. $30 at the local comic-and-game shop for a game that costs only $20 online? $10 a pound for fresh mozzarella from the farmers' market? $5 for a tiny cafe mocha from our local organic roastery? No...no, I just can't do it.

To get over this mental block, I've sometimes thought I should give myself a monthly budget for this specific purpose—not to control my spending, but to encourage myself to spend more where it matters. The idea was that Brian and I would set aside some small sum we can easily afford—say, $10 or $20 a month—with the goal that we will spend that money at local businesses. Unlike a normal budget, it wouldn't be a maximum for spending, but a minimum. The point would be to use all of it if possible.

That way, when I see the $30 game at the local game shop and realize I could get it for $10 less online, instead of going home and handing over the money to some stranger, I'd think, "Great, this will just meet my local shopping quota for this month." The extra money would go to support the local economy, helping local businesses stay afloat so our town can thrive. And the $10 lost from my monthly savings would be so trivial a sum that I'd never even miss it.

Over the past couple of months, Brian and I have made more efforts to spend locally. For Christmas, he bought me the latest Sandman graphic novel at the local comic shop, even though it would have been about $9 less online. And this week, I splurged on an $8 tin of fancy, Fair Trade hot cocoa mix from Ten Thousand Villages that he could enjoy at work. But so far, we haven't given ourselves an official local shopping budget to cover these little extravagances.

So today, in honor of Thrift Week, I've decided it's time to make it official. As of now, our local shopping budget is $10 a month, an amount I'm confident we can manage. If I'm finding we can easily meet that goal every month, we can maybe bump it up to $20, but for now I'm keeping it modest.

My rules for this local shopping budget, which I just made up right now, are:

  1. The money must be spent here, in Highland Park. Supporting locally owned businesses in other towns we visit is a nice idea, but it doesn't count toward our local shopping budget.
  2. Priority will be given to independent businesses that are locally owned as well as operated: the comic shop, the art-supply store, the wine shop, the farmers' market (in season), and so on.
  3. Local branches of larger chains, such as the Stop & Shop and the Rite Aid, get second priority. They're not locally owned, but they're still part of our town's economy, and I'd like to see them stay in business.
  4. However, since the point of the budget is to encourage me to buy from local businesses even when their prices are higher, money spent at these stores will count only if it costs more to buy there than it would to go somewhere else. If cereal goes on sale at the Stop & Shop for $2 a box—a better price than I could get anywhere else—and I buy five boxes, I can't count that as my local shopping for the month.
  5. If we buy something that we didn't particularly need—say, the cocoa I got for Brian—then the entire sum can be applied toward the local shopping budget. If we buy something we were planning to buy anyway, but could have bought for less somewhere else, such as the graphic novel Brian gave me, then only the difference in price—the amount we paid for getting it locally—counts toward the local shopping budget.

The $8 I spent on Brian's fancy cocoa mix gets us most of the way to our local-shopping goal for this month, so I just need to find some way to spend an extra $2 in the next 11 days. Perhaps one of those overpriced $5 mochas from the local coffeehouse isn't such a bad idea.
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