If you’d been in our house lately, you might have heard me putting on my best Meryl-Streep-in-Out-of-Africa accent and intoning “I used to have a 401k account, at the foot of the East Bay hills.”
Of course, I still have the 401k, but it’s a shadow of its former self. And as much as I tell myself that this is retirement money, meant for a far-off day in the future, it still hurts to see those numbers. My solution? I’ve stopped looking.
My partner K has his own small business that has lost some clients, and I’ve been working part-time in order to have time to write, so we do feel a bit more on the edge, despite the fact that we’ve both saved and invested diligently over the years. And we’ve both always believed that one of the secrets to a happy life can be summed up in two words: Low Overhead.
So when we talk about reducing our expenses, it’s hard to know what more we could cut, since we already follow most of the suggestions being made to Americans who need to “radically” economize in order to survive this economic slump. To wit:
Don’t invest/overinvest in real estateWe've flirted with buying a house for the past 4 years, but the outrageous prices kept us out of the market – something for which we are now deeply thankful every day.
Share housingWe rent a larger house than we need and have a roommate (who has her own space), something that few middle-aged couples do. Yet. (Give it time.)
Don’t buy new stuffWe both dislike shopping and mostly buy only what we need, and then either on sale or second-hand. For 30 years, I’ve bought most of my clothes at consignment stores, even when I had a corporate career and wore suits. (Tip for the newly frugal: When buying used, go for the higher quality items. Cheap stuff deteriorates too fast, and the more expensive the item was originally, the greater the price differential between buying new vs. used.)
Keep the old stuff and use it longerMy car is 13 years old and still running well, despite almost being totaled by another car this year. While most people I know thought this would be a good opportunity for me to upgrade to a new car, I begged the mechanic to save my faithful Honda so I wouldn’t have to top off the insurance payment with several thousand dollars of my own to replace it. I also kept my previous car for 13 years. Not to be outdone, K just passed on his 20-year-old Volvo to his 23-year-old son, and happily considers his 7-year-old car “practically brand new.” [Oh, and we both keep our computers for a long time – my last one was good for 9 years, his for 7. Of course, we only buy Macs.]
Be energy efficientI grew up being yelled at if I ever left a room without turning off the light, or stood in front of an open fridge door, and have remained scrupulous about not wasting energy. Even though we live in a drafty older house that loses heat like my 401k has been losing accumulated returns, we keep the thermostat at 60 in the winter. That is, when we run the heat at all. Mostly, we use a space heater in whatever room we’re huddled in, and we turn the heat off entirely before going to bed. One of our winter hobbies is seeing how cold the house is when we get up in the morning. I believe 46 degrees was the winner last year. (This is in coastal California, mind you.)
Stop eating outOK, we still do this, because we love to eat, and we live in a dining mecca. But mostly our excursions are confined to lower cost meals like Asian food or pizza (both of which are fantastic around here). We’ve also become fans of happy hours, especially the ones that offer spendy-trendy food at half price. I’m hoping that the recession will cause these deals to multiply like mushrooms after a rain.
Cut down on entertainment costsI was addicted to Netflix even before we replaced the ancient 19-incher with a large screen TV (no home theater, though) a couple years ago. Despite being a movie buff, I’m now incredibly reluctant to spend $10 to see a movie unless I’m convinced that it’s both really good and needs to be seen on the big screen. (Or “the reeeally big screen,” as I think of it now, channeling Ed Sullivan.) We still go to the occasional live performance but often via discount ticket offers. And this year I started volunteer ushering to see performances for the cost of my labor.
Look beyond material pleasures, enjoy your friends and family, and make your own fun
We’ve always done this, but if there’s a bright side to this economic mess, it’s that it nudges us to do even more, and to remember that the things we enjoy most in life don’t cost anything. Our favorites include walking in our glorious local parks, hanging out with friends and loved ones, playing with the cat, and, well, you know…the old magic. That one helps with keeping warm in the winter, too.