Advice on scraping by

Last Updated on December 6, 2018 by Dave Farquhar

Here’s a good, timely Google search query: scraping by advice.

I looked, and I’ve never written anything that matched that query well. I know a lot of people are hurting right now. I’ve been in some tight spots and I’ve gotten out of some, so let’s talk about what I would do, on a really practical level, if I ran into another tight spot next week.

Don’t let yourself feel too deprived

I think the first key is not allowing yourself to start feeling too deprived. Set aside a small allowance that you can spend indiscriminately, so you can splurge on a movie at Red Box or something. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money–and shouldn’t be–but it helps. Weight Watchers lets you eat dessert for a reason–nobody’s going to stick to a diet that completely eliminates desserts. Financial diets work the same way.

Cut back mercilessly

The first thing to do is conserve whatever cash you can. If there’s something you can do to save a nickel, do it. Cancel cable TV if you have to. A Roku makes a good substitute. Make sure you’re turning off the lights in rooms you aren’t using, turn off the TV if you aren’t watching it, wear sweaters so you can keep the heater on a lower setting, and stuff like that. Need more ideas? Poke around my Saving Money category and you should be able to find a lot more.

Eat cheap

Don’t pay extra for name-brand foods. Generic equivalents are often made in the very same factories alongside the name-brand stuff. Sometimes generics are better. And don’t turn your nose up at the discount grocery chains like Aldi. The selection at those stores is much lower, and the quality of the produce isn’t as high, but the quality of the stuff in the frozen section and in the aisles is comparable to anywhere else, and it’s much cheaper.

There’s a book titled Eat Healthy on $50 a Week. It’s old, so the amount of money involved could be higher today, but the ideas all still work. You can pick up a used copy of it for $4, if you can’t find it in your local library and you want some additional guidance.

And if you cook, cooking your own meals saves a ton of money over eating out, and even over buying prepared meals. There are many books on the subject but I can vouch for Once a Month Cooking. The idea is spending one day cooking for the entire month to save time and money. Having a freezer full of food that can be ready in minutes really cuts back the temptation to “grab something” (translation: eat out), because you’ll have something healthy and homemade ready to go in less time than you’ll sit waiting in the drive-through. We did this for several years, and once our kids get a little bit bigger, will probably start back up again because it worked.

And if you have a job that doesn’t pay enough–as opposed to not having a job and needing to conserve money until you find one–pack your meals and take them to work rather than eating out. You can easily save $35 a week that way.

Drink something other than soda

The cost of soda adds up very quickly. You may not be able to eliminate it completely, but drinking coffee or tea–made at home, of course–for a caffeine fix is much cheaper and healthier. One rule that helps is that for anything you drink, you also have to drink the same amount of water first. So drink 12 ounces of water before popping the top of a can of soda. That’ll save you considerable money, and help you stay healthier too.

Dollar stores aren’t always a great deal

Be careful at dollar stores. You’ve probably heard this before, but although you can find good deals at a dollar store, a lot of items there are available for less than a dollar at a regular discount or grocery store. Or, something like a tube of toothpaste or a bottle of shampoo might cost 50 cents more, but have twice as much product inside.

Sell stuff you don’t use anymore

You can sell things like DVD movies, music CDs, video games and systems, and things like that if you aren’t using them anymore. Resale shops won’t give you a lot for them, but it’s better than having them sit unused while you struggle to pay the bills. You can sell other household items to specialty resale shops too. This works for things like kids’ clothes and toys, women’s clothes and accessories, and the like.

To get a little more for some of those items, try selling them on Craigslist. Or to avoid driving a lot, hold a garage sale. Don’t expect miracles, but a garage sale can be effective. We held a small garage sale a few weeks ago, and although it was a bad day–a large tailgate sale soaked up most of the traffic–we still made about $170 on stuff we didn’t use anymore or that our kids had outgrown. On a good day, we would have done better than that.

Shop at garage and estate sales

Speaking of garage sales, you can save a bundle by shopping at garage and estate sales, especially late in the day when people are ready to deal. There’s no reason to ever pay retail for ordinary household items like laundry baskets, trash cans, coffee makers, and stuff like that. Find a nearby estate sale, take your shopping list, and see what you can find. You’ll be able to get a lot of your household needs out of the way for pennies on the dollar. For stuff like that, you can get away with going late in the day, because the early risers are after the big-ticket items in the estate. At an estate sale, everything in the house is for sale, so you’ll find anything there that you would find in anyone else’s house. The people who make a habit of spending their weekends trolling estate sales already have all that stuff. So it goes cheap, if it goes at all.

I once went to an estate sale an hour before it closed on a Sunday, and the dealer running the sale basically let me buy whatever would fit in my car for $100. After going to a few sales, you quickly get a feel for which sellers specialize in getting top dollar for everything, and which ones are more interested in emptying the house.

Shop at thrift stores–the right thrift stores

Goodwill has used the increased traffic from the recession to really jack their prices, so I’ve lost a lot of respect for that organization. But most thrift shops run by local charities are good, and it’s entirely possible to find good deals in most of the other national thrift stores like Value Village, St. Vincent de Paul, and Salvation Army. When you need household goods and can’t wait for an estate sale, you can do a whole lot worse than venturing into a thrift store.

Shop the day-old stores and aisles

Many grocery stores have aisles where they sell day-old and other merchandise near its expiration date at a deep discount. We’ve bought boxes of cereal for 50 cents, on occasion. And if there’s a store near you that sells day-old bread, you can save a lot of money shopping there.

Make lists

And yes, when you do shop, make a list, take it with you, and stick with it. That’s the best way to avoid impulse shopping, where you buy twice as much as you intended. If you’re scraping by, you can’t afford that.

There is no stigma

It’s also important to not think worse of yourself for doing things like buying generics and shopping at deep-discount grocery stores, thrift stores, and estate sales. I see wealthy people at estate sales all the time, and they aren’t always buying big-ticket, prestige items. I know wealthy people who buy generics and shop at thrift stores, too. They may be shopping for fun rather than necessity, but if they’re going there, it’s perfectly OK for you to be there too. You’re doing what you need to do in order to conserve what you have.

Don’t worry about what the other people there are thinking. Some won’t even notice you. Some may chat you up to see if you might have any insights into the store or the seller running the sale.

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One thought on “Advice on scraping by

  • October 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Some of us, millions of us, live like this. We’re called America’s poor. We would rather be poor in the U.S. than poor in Cuba or most of the world. In those countries, people worry every day about eating.
    “But I, being poor, have only my dreams. I have spread my dreams under your feet; tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”
    William Butler Yeats

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