While I’ve always considered myself to be a very frugal person, I’ve never thought of myself as a cheapskate.  But that was while my household still had two incomes coming in.  Once I started staying home with my kids my frugality hit an all time high.  So when I saw the new TLC show Extreme Cheapskates I didn’t view it thinking great let me mock some people who pee in bottles to save on flushing their toilet (okay, so that did skeeve me out a bit), but I watched it with an open mind wondering what tips I could take away from these people who go to the extremes to save money.  Here’s what I learned.

1.  Spreadsheets are not a bad thing.  Some people never give a thought to having a household budget and I was one of them until my family had to survive on my husband’s paycheck.  The first thing I did when I stopped working was sit down, track all my expenses from the last month of our two-income life and make a budget, including what we were spending and a goal budget.  I remember complaining to my co-workers about being broke all the time when I worked and although I checked my bank account every day I can honestly say I didn’t really understand where my money was going.  I was shocked to see exactly how much we spent on dinning out and fast food.  Eww it kinda made me sick to my stomach looking at a total of $237 spent on fast food in one month.  So guess where cut number 1 went to.  Yes, my husband now takes a packed lunch to work at least 3 times a week and coffee in a reusable coffee mug (score for the environment too).  Item by item I went down the line and asked myself, “how can I save money here?”  Here’s the summary: it took five months, but we FINALLY refinanced our mortgage, saving us $280 a month.  Plus two months mortgage of not having to pay for the mortgage during and immediately following our closing means that we were able to pay off my personal loan to the sweet savings tune of $95 a month.  Next up is my husband’s personal loan and then we hit the credit cards.  Call it “extreme cheapskate” behavior if you want, but I even typed up a debt repayment plan which spells out exactly how I’m going to use the newfound savings to pay off one debt after another all the way down to when our mortgage will be paid off.  Ok, so maybe it’s a little weird to plan  30 plus years in the future, but I figure it’s better than having no plan and staying stuck in the same debt cycle we’re in.

2.  We are living in a disposable world and I am a “reusable” girl (sung in my head to Madonna’s “Material Girl”).  You name the product and we use it and throw it in the garbage – napkins, paper towels, paper plates, cups, cleaning products (though it makes me sad how much I love my swiffer duster, I’ll simply try to use that cloth up till it’s good and filthy).  We all do it and we don’t think much of it.  But here’s the rub, while we’re out there disposing of everything we use, we’re also treating our money like it’s disposable too.  If you’re a millionaire that’s fine, but I don’t know anyone personally that can afford to just throw hard-earned money in the trash everyday.  So here’s what I’ve been doing, call it “extreme” if you want but nobody batted an eye when our grandparents did it.  Think of unmatched socks and worn out shirts as your friends.  Yes, I’m bringing the rag-bag back for cleaning.  Also I use, (gasp) “real” plates, silverware, cups and yes cloth napkins.  Ok so I’m still working on using the cloth napkins more, but it’s baby steps.   I get a little laugh at the commercials that claim a brand of paper towels are as soft as cloth while at the same time, striking fear into the hearts of all us germaphobes out there by warning of the contamination that comes of using cleaning cloths because they might spread germs.  Hello, that’s why you wash them.  And the paper hand towels for your house that makes me laugh because surely we all want to feel like using our restroom is as sanitary as the one at the local gas station.  I’m really not trying to mock so much as open some eyes.  The truth is that it’s super hard to give up all things disposable.  My husband still laughs at me while I wash my used tin foil.

3.  Haggling is not an embarrassing thing, or if it is I’ll take my embarrassment down to the bank and deposit it with all my savings.  I’ve haggled $500 off the asking price of each of my last couple used cars.  Yes I drive used and I pay neither a high car payment or a high insurance payment.  If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.  I called my cable company and told them I would have to cancel service if I couldn’t get my bill to $100 (that’s internet, phone and TV).  Of course my husband would have a heart attack if he came home to his TV playing nothing but static, but they don’t know that.  Guess what, it wasn’t that hard to talk them down.  I tried the same for my credit card company.  After explaining to them that no 19% is not a “competitive” APR and a “member fee” is not acceptable I canceled my card.  If they had valued my 13 years as a customer they would have done more to keep me.  Thankfully I had no balance on that card.  Side note but there are a lot of little money traps we fall into because we simply don’t pay attention, like my husband and I paying for a P.O. Box we’ve kept 8 years after moving to our townhouse where our mailbox is at the top of our road and costs nothing.  As a bonus it’s not necessary to unstrap two kids and bring them in to the Post Office and restrap them and drive home.  Sure $44 is not a lot per year, but the point is that it’s our money and if I want to prove to myself that I respect money I can’t just go throwing it away.

3.  Free is for me.  Hand-me-downs are my favorite.  My sister, friends, and co-workers have all given me hand-me-down clothes for me and my kids.  I keep the next season of clothes in a trunk in my kids room and when the time comes for “new” clothes I “shop” at home.  No lines, no people all up in my personal space, and no debit to my bank account.  That to me is sweet.  Beyond this I think coupons are helpful if it’s something I can use.  ShopRite is pretty good for loss leaders on personal hygiene products and laundry detergent.  Provided you are not a slave to a particular brand there is no reason to ever pay for toothpaste or ever pay more than $1.50 for laundry detergent.  However, my feeling is if it’s for an item you won’t use, and can’t reasonably use up in your lifetime (think “Extreme Couponers” another show on TLC where people hoard items in every nook and craney of their houses) it’s not a good deal.  I also keep an eye out for promotions that can save my family money, like ShopRite’s free children’s prescription vitamins, which will save me $10 a month.  I know big deal right, well that’s $120 left in my bank account at the end of the year.  I think small to save big.  Just like the old saying, “if you worry about the ounces the pounds will take care of themselves.  Ok so in the show “Extreme Cheapskates” they show many people dumpster diving for food and household items.  The whole eating out of the garbage idea doesn’t appeal to me no matter how free it is.  But I have been known to scoop up good curbside freebies like a Little Tyke’s picnic table for my kids.  If it’s clean and usable, what’s the harm in keeping something out of the landfill?

I’m not suggesting we all become “cheapskates” in the negative sense of the word.  I like to try to live by financial expert Suzie Orman’s philosophy of “People then money, then things.”  Meaning you take care of the people in your life first, build up your money, then you buy the things you want.  We can all learn something when we put our needs first, appreciate what we have, and save for what we want.

If you know of any great money-saving tips, please share because I’m always looking for new ways to save.