Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time to evaluate cost-cutting measures

How much is too much – and too little – when you're trying to save money?

This falls into two categories, decreasing your carbon footprint by cutting back on energy use (which also saves money) and just plain cost-cutting.

I am not in financial trouble now, and I know I have it better than many people. But recent changes in my situation make me nervous because I now have to cut into my reserves. As I wrote before, the newspaper terminated me, which means I now have to pay a much higher payment through COBRA. The subsidy for the first nine months makes it bearable, but the second nine months is ridiculously expensive, and after that I'm on my own. I think I also wrote that Bates College, where Joe will be a junior, gave him generous grants his first two years and cut him off this year. He's a good student and productive member of the community, so it's not anything he did; probably just the way things are going at most colleges. In any case, I an awaiting the result of an appeal. 

So what to do? I don't spend any money going out to eat, because I'm not allowed to. Sometimes I make chicken one night and have it three different ways the next few nights. I have my little extravagances, like a subscription to the New York Times and good desserts (which I should be eating anyway to gain weight), and, now that I'm allowed, if I really want a cup of coffee at Starbucks, I buy it.

To save money and energy, I unplug appliances when not in use because these "energy vampires" use power without our knowing it. I turn out lights and sometimes don't turn them on, reading into the dusk in semi-darkness. I have some energy-saving light bulbs; I'm working slowly on converting the house. I read somewhere that it wastes energy to wash a dish in hot water and then put it in the dishwasher, because you're then using hot water twice, so I try to remember to use the cold for the first rinse. I wrote a story about a movement trying to get more people to used clotheslines,  (check out the Project Laundry List website) instead of the dryer, but I can't go that far, although I do hang some things up.

When I forget to take my reusable bag to the grocery store and end up coming home with plastic bags, sometimes I put trash in them to get a double use and save on trash bags.

Sometimes I don't turn the lights on in the living room, which is on the other side of the staircase from the den, dining room and kitchen, where we usually hang out. This drove my mother crazy. "Will you turn on some lights?" she'd say. "Forget about the electric bill."

It does affect your mood to have part of the house in darkness, so I often though not always follow her advice.

And of course there is always the question of how high to turn the heat when the weather cold weather comes. I keep it pretty low ("Wear a sweater!" I say to the frozen kids) and try to turn it on only at the last minute; my parents would come from their overheated New York apartment and turn my heat up so high I thought I would broil.

Paper towels produce a dilemma. When we were growing up, my father worked with a man named Alex who had trouble making ends meet. My father asked him how he did it, and one item on his list was, "I don't use paper towels." Now I am supposed to use paper towels so I don't get germs from a dishcloth, but sometimes I think of Alex and feel wasteful doing it. 

Recent "cost-saving" measures have made me wonder if I might be going a little overboard. When I went to make granola the other night, I realized that all the slivered almonds (about $2 for the container) that the recipe calls for had been eaten, but there was still a larger container of whole almonds (about $4). I didn't want to waste the whole almonds, so I sat down and cut 3/4 of a cup of them on a cutting board. Was this smart for a couple of dollars? The knife wasn't that great and my platelets are low, and here I am whacking away at almonds. Today I bought a new box of slivered ones.

My mother was always particular about the kind of napkins I used. She didn't like the cheap, thin ones, preferring Vanity Fair. Out of habit, that's what I buy now. I have a partially used package under the cabinet, but I haven't brought a refill up to the basket where we usually get them. Basket empty, we've been using a piece of paper towel for a napkin. (We could now go into a debate about napkins, such as are they necessary anyway and whether if we re-use cloth ones that might not save any money because they need to be laundered...but let's not.) 

Tonight as I pulled off a couple of pieces of paper towel for dinner, I stood in the spot near the counter where my mother often stood. I heard (or imagined) her voice loud and clear: "Take out the napkins, for goodness sakes!"

So I did.

None of us never knows how much time we have, so shouldn't we use a nice napkin if we want?


Ann said...

This post really struck a chord with me. I'm in charge of finances and I've become something of a zealot on the cost cutting front. When I realized that some of the changes that I'd made were making me unhappy I had to ask myself if it was really worth it in the end? Not so much. I'm still frugal about most things, but allow myself a small luxury item every now and again. Premium gelato every few weeks makes me happy and if I check out tomorrow smiling because of it, then it was well worth the expense. Treat yourself when you can.

Anonymous said...

Of coruse it was Vanity Fair!! And I still use them - even at the Lake where we have LOTS of people going through napkins!! We do become our mothers!!

PJ said...

I have to chuckle about the napkins. My husband likes quality napkins; I see them as wasteful. Thing is, he re-uses his, either at subsequent meals or puts it in his pocket for future use, which I think is just gross and unsanitary.

You have to spend additional money to be safe as a transplant patient--I do the paper towel thing too, in the bathroom and kitchen because I won't use a fabric towel that holds germs. Sponges, too, should be regularly replaced. And on and on. Wasteful but necessary and possibly lifesaving.

Do you make pads from recycled printer paper? This could counter the napkin thing. Or, if you're like my father was, you use your napkin to make notes and diagrams.

Marilyn said...

I really enjoyed this, Ronni.

You begin taking us down a path we are probably all familiar with, this v. that. What's a real savings? And you factor in the need for added safety, of course. But in the end, with the napkin, you weave in something that cannot be measured in dollar or cents.

I just love this.
I wonder where your writing will go next. A door shuts, a window opens.

Thank you for stirring my thoughts today.

Nelle said...

I think this is a dilemma everybody has now with jobs and the economy as it is. My husband JUST went back to work this month. I had to add him to my insurance which was very costly. We had to make lots of cuts. I buy paper towels when they go on sale ONLY. Then I buy as many as I can afford to so I never pay full price. Our local Foodtown store has "luncheon napkins" their brand that are very nice. They are cheaper than Vanity Fair ones. You might make some kind of compromise. Our parents didn't live in the world we do, where there is no working for a company for your entire adult life and then a pension. It's a different world financially. I select certain splurges and then economize on everything else. Paper towels are a necessity for you right now. I wouldn't compromise on them. Hang in there with your talents you might some free lance writing jobs.