My Best Deals mission: Spend one day trying to cut every expense I encounter. While this would be (heavily discounted) cake for more frugal folk, when I am asked to choose between convenience and savings, I confess to having an unfortunate tendency to go with the former. Time to toe a more price-conscious line. As a single New Yorker, I do have some idiosyncratic expenses. Still, plenty of what I discovered could apply to most people’s daily routines. Here, a day in the life of a cheapskate-in-training:
THE USUAL: Buy oatmeal, $2.05
TODAY: Make oatmeal, 28¢
Cooking is an obvious way to trim your budget, but I tend to either forget or run out of time. But dump oatmeal and water into a pot? That I can do. This is gonna be a breeze!
THE USUAL: Subway, $2.50 each way
TODAY: Bike, free Wait, where’s my bike lock?
FOUND IT! Too bad I’m now 21 minutes behind schedule.
MAP A PATH TO SAVINGS
Commuting by bike got me to work only 10 minutes later than usual. (I did, however, have a bad case of helmet hair.) Up for a cycling commute? Most city websites include bike routes, and Google Maps offers bike-specific directions.
THE USUAL: Starbucks, $2.01
TODAY: Coffee cart, $1
Staffing firm Accounting Principals reports that workers spend more than $20 a week on coffee, on average. MONEY has a coffeemaker, but while I applaud the idea of free office java, I can’t bear to choke down the reality. The carts around our building hawk cups of joe for $1.25, but I can do better. I keep walking until I spot a cart on a residential street. Medium coffee, $1. Take-away? Sellers on prime real estate can charge more. Go a few minutes out of your way to save.
THE USUAL: Salad, about $8
TODAY: Pizza, $1
If, like me, you’re too forgetful or lazy to brown-bag it, you may be doing real damage: The typical employee spends $36 a week on lunch. Finding cheap food by the office is no problem, says Chris Willets of freebie site The Skint, provided you meet one criterion: “No regard for health whatsoever.” My poison is the $1-a-slice joint.
Some bargains may not be worth it. I save by eating at a $1 pizza joint, but the grease factor makes me miss my usual over-priced salad. My vow: Stick to places with a frequent-diner card. Used consistently, I’ll get a free lunch every two weeks.
THE USUAL: Grocery store, $12.99
TODAY: Produce market, $7.93
Score! I pick up apples, squash, and other fresh produce for $1 a pound.
THE USUAL: Drugstore, $33
TODAY: Discount store, $8.97
Searching for cheap staples, I venture into Jack’s World, a discount store. Normally the mishmash of products—faux-fur jackets! nose-hair trimmers!—would scare me away, but now I’m on mission. My best find: a $5 moisturizer that’s selling at The Body Shop for $20. High on my bargain-hunting prowess, I splurge on a 99¢ box of graham crackers (vs. $6)—but only after checking the expiration date.
CHECK THE LABEL
Thanks to Andrew Schrage of Moneycrashers.com, I avoid dollar-store traps: smaller-size bottles of popular brands and food past the sell-by date.
THE USUAL: Afternoon treat, $1.50
TODAY: Free Pinkberry yogurt
Well, almost. I’m excited when Laura Zanzal of discount blog 89thandBroke.com directs me to a free-yogurt coupon. The problem I discover when I arrive: The offer’s valid only until 2 p.m. Oops. Next time I’ll read the fine print!
BEWARE OF LOOPHOLES
Nabbing discounts by following brands you like on Facebook and Twitter can be tricky. Watch out for narrow windows and other restrictions.
THE USUAL: Dinner out, $40
TODAY: Half-price happy hour, $14.70
To socialize on a budget, Irene S. Levine, author of TheFriendshipBlog.com, suggests taking the initiative so that you can choose an affordable place. I find a cheap spot near my dinner companion’s home. Half-price Pinot Grigio takes the edge off the effects of the day—an aura of road grit and pizza grease—and my discounted appetizer is massive, easily filling in for dinner.
THE USUAL: Dry cleaner, $29
TODAY: Dryel, $10.24
Sacrificing clean clothing is not an option after a day of biking, so I give this dry-cleaning alternative a shot. Are my clothes really clean? Honestly, I can’t tell. But they do smell nice and look sharp—which is more than I can say for their owner.
Total Savings $87.93