Saturday, November 21, 2009

Money-Saving Tips

When I started this blog, I stated that I would not be talking about silly things like how to re-use pocket lint. Hints from Heloise and others have pretty much covered that waterfront.

Nevertheless, here are some money-saving tips I have come up with in the last few years, that save hundreds of dollars a year, literally - if not thousands.

1. Haircuts: If you are a woman, this is a very difficult and expensive personal item, and it can be hard to find alternatives, as workplace pressures and job expectations may require you to spend quite a large amount of money on hair care and clothing. A man can make do with a buzz cut and three suits, but a woman needs styling and a wardrobe. It ain't fair.

For men, however, hairstyles today are very short and even. I waited at the local barber the other day for over an hour, forced to listen to Rush Limbaugh blather on, on the barbershop's radio. My partner took his turn in the chair. The barber set the electric clippers to #2 and ran it over his head. 5 minutes later he was done. That will be $15 please, plus tip. What a waste of time and money. Multiply that times 52 weeks in the year, and you're looking at $1040 in haircuts. Times two people, that's $2080. Not chump change!

As an experiment, we bought a $20 rechargeable clipper set from Bed, Bath, & Beyond. Sitting out the back yard, we set the comb attachment at #2 and ran it over his head. In five minutes, we had performed the same haircut as the barber did. I took my turn in the chair next, and voila, instant haircut. The unit paid for itself twice over the first day.

All summer long we took turns giving each other "Prison Haircuts". The nice thing is, you can cut your hair when and where you want to - and as often as you want to. Rather than looking worse than having gone to the barber (where you may be tempted to save money by going less often), your hair ends up looking more trim and neat.

This Fall we went back to Bed Bath, & Beyond and bought a $29 Wahl electric clipper, 110 volts, like the real barbers use. Again, it pays for itself after the first cut.

By the way, be sure to use those $5, $10 or 10% off coupons at Bed, Bath, & Beyond. And bear in mind that many stores will give you the discount retroactively if you forget to bring the coupons. Just bring your receipt back and ask them to process it. No one pays full retail there, if they can help it.

Net savings in haircuts over a year: well over $1000. I'll miss hearing the latest from Rush, however.

2. Soap: Even if you shop at one of those "big box" stores, the price of soaps and detergents can be staggering. When we run out of this expensive item, we usually go to the large discount stores to re-stock. Buying laundry soap, dish soap, dishwasher soap, shampoos and personal soaps, car wash soap, de-greasers and cleaners, (Simple Green, Clorox spray) can add up to hundreds of dollars just in one shopping trip. Over a period of a year, you may easily spend more than $1000 in soap alone. It is staggering.

There are several ways to save on soap and detergent costs. To begin with, use the correct amount for all applications. It is temping to think that if you put "a little extra" in the dishwasher or laundry machine that the dishes or clothes will get cleaner. However, as we learned in chemistry class, once the soap reaches a saturation point, additional soap in the solution does not equate to additional cleanliness. In fact, it may end up leaving a soap film or residue on your dishes or clothes. Use the proper amount, no more. If you add 50% more detergent to a load of laundry or dishes, you are adding 50% to your detergent cost, which as I noted is already a staggering amount.

Second, avoid high-priced packaging. Dishwasher detergent is now being sold in capsules and tubes, and liquids and all sorts of "convenient" packaging, as if dispensing a small amount of powder is "too much hassle" for the average American. If you read the prices and cost per ounce (or cost per load, more about that later) you'll realize that those "convenient" liquids or capsules cost 3 to 4 times as much as the traditional powered kind. And in many instances, they don't work as well. We tried the liquid dishwasher detergent and found it didn't dissolve as well as the powered kind.

Third, it goes without saying that brand loyalty makes no sense. Detergent is detergent. The idea that one is better than another is pure bunk. Shop on price, not brand name. Store brands or generics are often the best value. Name brands touted as having "extra cleaning power" really do no better, and often the "secret" ingredient is merely bleach.

Fourth, compare detergents on the basis of cost per loads. Many modern detergents are concentrated. For years, the detergent industry sold us mostly water. You can now buy large dispensers which dispense concentrated detergent, usually through a tap, into a supplied measuring cup. When comparing prices, the "cost per ounce" numbers that the store provides are usually meaningless. You have to see how many loads each brand or bottle does, and then calculate the cost per load and compare. With concentrated detergents, it is particularly important to use that measuring cup when dispensing detergent. Many folks take the jug and just pour soap into the machine, guesstimating at the correct amount. In many instances, they are putting in 2, 3, or even 4 times as much detergent as necessary. For a $30 bottle of soap, this is a total waste.

Many soaps are over-concentrated, which also results in wastage, as the soap never fully dissolves. Like many Americans, we like to use liquid hand soaps to wash out hands. If you buy a dispenser bottle of this stuff, it usually comes out with a consistency of glue. As you try to get a lather going under the sink, globs of it fall off and go down the drain, serving no purpose and doing little in the way of good.

And by the way, buying the soap in individual dispensers and then throwing them away is a very costly way to buy soap, not to mention wasteful to the environment.

I have found that the foaming dispensers, usually sold by Dial, are the best for washing your hands. The soap comes out in an aerated foam which quickly dissolves in water, and makes for a quick lather. These can be easily re-filled using bulk bottles of hand or dish soap (available at any big box store) but they will not "foam" unless the solution is diluted two or three times. Diluting many liquid soaps can make them last longer and make them easier to use. Soaps that squirt out in globs often end up going down the drain without doing much in the way of cleaning.

3. Water: Americans drink more water than ever before. When I was a kid in the 1960's, we never had bottled water. Maybe we'd get a drink at a drinking fountain, but that was about it. In the 1980's, Americans started to embrace the European custom of drinking bottled water. Today, drinking fountains hardly exist, and every gas station is happy to sell you 12 ounces of water for $1. It is the biggest scam going.

We found ourselves sucked into this like most Americans. We'd go to the store and buy cases of bottled water, and cases of carbonated water as well. It was a preferred beverage, and instead of pouring a glass from the sink, we'd open up a plastic bottle, drink it, and then add the empty plastic bottle to our recycling bin, or worse, into the trash.

When the economy went downhill, we needed to tighten our budget. Bottled water was one area where we were spending hundreds of dollars a year - perhaps over a thousand, for no apparent reason at all.

Most modern American refrigerators with "ice through the door" or the like, also dispense chilled water. And most of these have a built-in water filter for the water and ice. We found that there was little difference in taste and quality between the water from the refrigerator and the bottled water from the store (some would also argue that the plastic water bottles leach chemicals).

And rather than buying specialized containers (remember, you can't spend your way towards wealth) we found that we had sufficient water jugs, coolers, insulated mugs, etc. to hold water for traveling. Rather than stop at a gas station and buy a dollar's worth of water, we'd make it a habit to bring water with us - to the store, to the beach, wherever. Water from the tap is nearly free. The savings were huge.

And, by the way, we had largely stopped buying sodas before then, and stopped almost entirely afterwords. American soda pop now contains something called "high fructose corn syrup" instead of the cane sugar we grew up with (and still in use in the rest of the world). Many argue that this corn-derived chemical is responsible in part for our obesity epidemic, as it cannot be metabolized properly by the body. Yet many families buy cases and cases of the stuff every week, and wonder why their kids are chubby and have short attention spans. Regardless, paying a lot of money for a beverage that is hardly "refreshing" and makes you fat simply doesn't make sense. We cut back soda pop purchases to nearly zero.

4. Car Washes: As I noted in another entry, it is important to take care of your car, and washing it is part of that car care. Not only does washing the car make it last longer, the improved appearance of a clean car will make you want to hang onto it longer (and avoid the temptation to trade-in every 2-3 years). Yes, many people trade in a car simply because it is dirty.

The local car wash wanted nearly $15 for every wash, including the hot wax. This is a lot of money, and when the car wash is 20 miles away, not very convenient. We purchased a Karcher electric pressure sprayer (like a model K2.93)for less than $100. They make many models, but the basic model works fine for washing the average car. These are pretty decent pressure washers and can be used to wash a number of things around the home (if you are careful) such as your sidewalk, siding, deck, boat, etc.).

Just bear in mind that these are consumer-grade products and made of plastic. Treat them gently and they will last a long time. If you try to yank them around the yard by the hose, the plastic attachments will snap off and ruin the device. Leave them in your freezing garage over the winter and they will freeze and crack. Treat them like the piece of plastic they are, and they will last for years. And just get the basic model. They all have about the same pressure rating and use the same or similar motor. The upright ones with wheels and accessories are the ones more likely to break. The best one I've had has been the smallest unit, less than $100 at a local boating store.

These pressure sprayers have a soap inlet to allow you to spray low-pressure soap as well as water. I have found GEL GLOSS RV Wash & Wax, from Camper World, works well with the Karcher sprayer. Dilute the soap at least 50% with water, however (see above about dilution). Wet the car down with water, using the high pressure setting to loosen bugs and hardened dirt, then soap it (the Karcher sprays soap in low pressure mode and water in high pressure mode). Wipe down the car with a wet soft rag to loosen the soap, then rise. The Gel Gloss makes a hot-wax like shine that lasts for weeks.

For the cost of a few $15 washes, you can buy the pressure washer, which, if treated gently, will last for many years. A gallon jug of GEL GLOSS will last a year or more, depending on how many cars you have and how often you wash them. The pressure washer and the GEL GLOSS takes a lot of the labor out of car washing with a bucket and sponge, and the GEL GLOSS is a fine alternative to monthly wax jobs (I now wax my cars maybe once a year as a result).

5. Produce: Most grocery stores put the produce section up front, as they want you to start shopping there, fill your basket, before you think about how much you are buying. The problem is, a lot of fresh produce you buy ends up wilting or going bad before you can eat it. No one wants to eat a brown banana, but many end up going to the trash this way.

And because most of us are so cheap, we hate to throw away bad apples, brown bananas, fuzzy strawberries, and wilted lettuce. But you have to, it has gone bad.

One way to avoid this trap is to buy smaller amounts. In America, the shopping trip is a once-a-week experience for many, so we feel the need to "load up" on groceries. You are better off buying smaller amounts more often.

And trivial amounts? Hardly. Some produce, like berries, are staggeringly expensive. People buy a big container and then let it rot in the fridge. They want to "save" the expensive berries for a "special desert" but then never get around to it. So they turn green and fuzzy and before you know it, $10 of raspberries goes in the trash.

There are other ways to make some produce last longer. Lettuce can be washed and then stored in layers of damp paper towels and it will last longer and wilt less. Lemons and limes, kept in a zip-lock bag last weeks, compared to mere days in the crisper.

The lime thing has been a real money-saver. We like to keep these around for mixed drinks and the like, but they always seem to go bad. In a zip-lock bag, they last for 10 days or more!

6. PAPER TOWELS: These cost you more money than you think, and are of course utterly unnecessary. Get in the habit of using real towels to dry your hands and around the kitchen. We've been using these for thousands of years and they've worked well and can be sanitary if cleaned often and dried.

For cleaning windows and mirrors, old newspapers work better anyway. Of course, as newspapers die, I guess you'll have to use your Kindle, Sony Reader, or iPad. But until then, a crumpled-up newspaper does the best job of cleaning and leaves little lint.

HERE'S A HINT: Dirty mirror in the guest bathroom? Lysol Spray, which you may use to "freshen the air" is a great glass cleaner as well. It also is a good toilet cleaner - just spray and wipe. Sanitizes, too. Clean the bath in a hurry before guests arrive, and leave it sanitary and smelling fresh as well.

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I may add to this list as time permits. The point is, if you are creative and approach every purchase and expense in your life creatively and analytically, you can save yourself a lot of money. Going along with the flow or "doing what everyone else is doing" can often cost you a lot of money in the long run, with no apparent benefit.