Reinvigorating the frugality discussion

gnltabor
By gnltabor on Thu, Mar 24, 2016 - 5:35pm

When I read the opening paragraph to the Frugal Living group, I was excited about the possibilities of finding fresh ideas that would help me in my own pursuits to create what I call financial margin in my life.  Financial margin is the amount of money you have left after paying all your financial obligations, such as housing, utilities, transportation, education, food, clothing, tithing etc... usually not much.  This is the amount of money in your budget which you can use for discretionary spending. Sometimes, this can actually be a negative amount like when your obligations exceed your net take home pay each month.  Other times, you're running a balanced budget when a major car repair suddenly drops in your lap, or a medical emergency crops up, or an accident of some kind occurs, or you lose your job.  If your monthly budget doesn't provide financial margin in the form of some amount you can contribute to savings, retirement, charity, etc. you're living beyond your means.  So initially, frugality may be just about getting back to a balanced budget and paying down credit cards, or other debts.  From there however, financial margin creates the opportunity to invest in things which will reduce your fixed costs.  It's these items I'd like to see more discussion on in this forum and I've got a number of ideas I will write about over time to stimulate your thinking about these notions of financial margin and investing to become more frugal.

Whatever you may do with it, financial margin is a means to improve your quality of life.  When you do not have margin, your opportunities to become more frugal are limited to doing without, which is a strategy, but not the ideal strategy.  Be that as it may, doing without, having self discipline, and making sure you maximize the utility of the money you have available are foundational elements of Frugality.

If you haven't yet listened to Chris's interview with Ed Butowsky, you need to go listen to it.  Ed's Chapwood Index is demonstrating that the real rate of inflation is running closer to 10% annually versus the reported 2% or less in the government's CPI.  This means that the raises that most working people are going to get by doing a good job each year are falling seriously short of the rising costs.  Being frugal is a way to close the gap on the shortfall, maximizing the use of the limited resources you have to meet your needs.  If you aren't becoming more frugal, you're falling behind, period.

I believe that it's possible to create savings through frugality, invest those savings in additional cost saving strategies, which ultimately increase the amount of financial margin you have.  Subsequently, these saving strategies will create even more financial margin, from which you can make ever larger cost reducing investments.  Without these savings, you're falling behind on the treadmill of life with every passing year.  I hope you'll engage with me in the conversation of how to become frugal in ways that maximize your satisfaction with life and the opportunities it presents.

 

18 Comments

David Huang's picture
David Huang
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returning to a frugality focus

It interesting that the Ed Butowsky interview made me also think about needing to refocus on frugality.  Many years ago I put a lot of attention and energy into creating a frugal/simple living lifestyle for myself.  Without a doubt I am happy with the results of those efforts and where it has put me in life today.  I also realize I've drifted away from it to a certain degree.  Mind you, compared to the average person I'm still very frugal, but I've observed my spending (which I track to the penny) rise over the years.  Part of this is no doubt due to the levels of inflation on things I actually spend money on as noted in the podcast.  Part is also a shifting of priorities or investments.  For example, I know I spend much more money on food these days since I'm investing in my personal health with higher quality food instead of the bargain, highly processed, low nutrition, food I used to live on from a local salvage goods store.  (They had GREAT deals on dented cans, crushed boxes, past freshness date type stuff.)  Even with all this I know my spending could be trimmed back down from what it is without seriously impacting my quality of life. 

I plan to return more focus of my attention to frugality.  I think the trick for me is to figure out how to do it without feeling like I need to cut out what I'll call "investment spending".  I do see a significant increase in my spending in this category too.  What do I mean by investment spending?  Well, the higher quality food noted above would be one example.  Another would be that today I just spend a bunch of money ordering perennial trees, shrubs, and plants that are edible in some way.  I see this as investing in what the book "Prosper!" would call living capital.  The goal is to reduce my expenses in the future by growing more high quality food right here on my property.  There's even a potential for this investment to become an income stream through the sale of extra production in the future.

eastcats's picture
eastcats
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frugality

This is such an important issue.  Thanks for reintroducing it and thank you David for your response.  I feel the same way you do about food and health.

Can someone provide a link to the Butowsky interview?

A good book which covers this issue from the perspective of not using as much and not wasting as much as we do is Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson.  It has provoked me to look thoughtfully at every purchase that comes into our home, especially packaging.  Our trash has gone from two bags to one and I keep examining even that to reduce it more.  When I began to look carefully at our trash I realized 95 percent of it is packaging materials and paper (tissue, paper towels, etc).

eastcats's picture
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Butowsky interview

Found it!  My email has been crazy lately and it just opened to the interview.

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Here's the link you wanted
eastcats wrote:

This is such an important issue.  Thanks for reintroducing it and thank you David for your response.  I feel the same way you do about food and health.

Can someone provide a link to the Butowsky interview?

Sure, it's right here.

I like this frugality idea...I think it's time for me to reexamine all of my contracts for starters...phone, cable, insurance, etc.

What I've noticed is that the longer I spend between renegotiating them, the higher they creep.  

One example of which I am not proud from 2015:

I had direct deduct arranged for my car insurance with Commerce Ins to draw directly from my checking account.  While I would scan the premium bills as they came into my mail what I failed to do was notice that the fee I was being charged by Commerce for the direct withdrawal 'service' went from ~$1 to nearly $30.  Per month.

WTF?  Seriously?

I immediately canceled and went over to GEICO and when the local agent that set me up with Commerce tried to get me back with a lower, competitive fee structure I just laughed.  You only get to screw me once  I have a long memory.

But my learning is to just insurance shop and hop as a regular part of life.  I assume I will have to apply the same diligence to other services because one 'feature' of living in America is the presence of covert and/or predatory business practices.

And, yes, I felt stupid for not noticing earlier.

eastcats's picture
eastcats
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Hidden fees

Thanks, Chris, for the link.

And for the reminder to check our ongoing contracts.  I've noticed that my Verizon bill has jumped in one year from $89.00 a month to $104.00.  When I checked the bill the only increase was in their multitude of fees.  Time to check for a new provider.

David Huang's picture
David Huang
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Another good book on this topic

Another older, but good book dealing with frugality is "Your Money or Your Life", by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominquez.  I think the latest revised edition came out in 2000, so even that one is dated and not everything in it is fully relevant anymore.  Still, it's a book that really changed my life and helped me get a handle on personal money management.  One useful tool they have in the book is that of figuring out your real hourly wage, accounting for all the time your job really takes from your life and all the expenses associated with working it.  Then using this figure to evaluate what your spend money on by translating dollar cost into hours of your life.

eastcats, looking at the volume and contents of our garbage would certainly be an interesting and powerful way of shining a light on our spending/consumption.  I've managed to get my garbage volume down to about 1 can every 2 or 3 months.  However, that is for me living alone, and it doesn't include all the stuff I bring to the recycling center, which takes almost all the packaging waste I generate.  I have observed that plastic packaging is the bulk of my waste, that and styrofoam containers from the Chinese take out place.  Observing this long enough finally got me to stop eating the take out as much.  The waste stream was bothering me almost as much as the fact that I should be cooking at home instead.  Alas, I still seem to generate a lot of pizza boxes, but they get used in sheet mulching.  ;)

Chris, wow, someplace charging $30 a month for an automatic payment from your bank account!  That's crazy.  I'm sure they get away with that because for many the whole point of such an automatic payment set up is that you don't have to pay much attention to it.  Is it common these days for companies to charge a fee for that at all?  I actually don't do any auto payments or direct deposits as a matter of principle.  I really don't want to give companies that sort of access to my bank account.  Plus I adopted that policy as a money management/frugality measure.  When I have to physically write out a check each month it makes me more aware of my spending.  Just as physically getting and depositing a check makes me more aware of my income stream.  Occasionally I get paid for things through PayPal and it always feels weird to me.  I know I got the money, but it never feels like I got paid.

For a related frugal tip, I find that paying for most things with cash also makes me more aware of what I'm spending, both when I'm spending it, and when I'm getting the cash at the bank.  While I didn't do this as a student I think if students had to physically go in and lay down a stack of 20's or 50's for their tuition every semester they would be less likely to blow off classes, and more likely to squeeze everything they could out of college.

Thrivalista's picture
Thrivalista
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Cutting contract costs - new Verizon MVNO

I switched a couple of months ago to BlueGreenMobile, and am saving over a Verizon-direct plan. I went with BGM because they're the only Verizon MVNO that allows hotspotting. That will save on Mi-Fi costs when traveling, even for short excursions. So now I'm paying for just one device (my phone).

I wasn't wild about their service during sign-up - you enter questions in an online "chat" box, and get a response by email within 24 hours (usually less). That said, along with the SIM card came a letter with a phone number to call to activate. Service from the people at that number has been *great*, and they are all native English speakers (easier for my slight hearing impairment), located in the US.

I'm not affiliated with them in any way, but they're relatively new so I wanted to make sure others who might make use of their lower rates knew about them. They offer plans for other major carriers too.

gnltabor's picture
gnltabor
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Cell Phones - Review contracts frequently

I'm a Verizon Wireless customer with 4 phones in our plan, at least partly because they offer a 22% discount for employees of my company.   We've been using Verizon for at least 8 years now and I've come to learn that you need to review plans and options at least semi-annually and probably quarterly if you want to make sure you're getting the best deal available.  While the 22% discount used to apply to the shared minutes plan you purchased, with most plans today offering unlimited talk and text, the discount now applies to data.  Last year, I reviewed our plans as I was adding a phone for one of our kids.  At that time, Verizon was offering a special discount on a 10Gb shared data plan.  I locked that in, but understood that the monthly fee for each phone line was virtually the same whether you owned your phone outright or were under contract, purchasing a new phone.  In fact, they had structured their plans so that you actually had a small monthly savings to be under a contract purchasing a new phone rather than using an already paid in full phone.

Last Fall, I called in as I had noticed their newest plans seemed to offer lower prices on shared data than even the special pricing I'd locked in the year before.  After chatting online, I learned that while the data pricing was lower, the individual phone charges were slightly higher, so it depended on how many phones you had if it would be better to upgrade the plan or stay where you were.  Given the number of phones we have, it was cheaper to stay with what we had.  However, in the discussion, it was brought up that one of the phones had become fully paid up a few months earlier and no longer should be charging $40/mo. for the line, but should have reduced to $25/mo.  That had not been the pricing scheme earlier that year when I'd set up the new phone, so I hadn't realized we were entitled to a price drop.  The agent indicated that the process of dropping the charge wasn't automatic and had to be initiated by the customer.  She gave me a one-time credit for a portion of the missed savings and changed the charge going forward.

Cellular service quality in your area is the most important factor, but staying abreast of the latest plan offers from your provider is essential to making sure you're getting the best deal.  Watch all the add-on chargeable options you may be activating and use the features of your provider to ensure your kids aren't accidentally incurring additional charges to download ring tones or other special services by activating blocking or you'll be experiencing new surprises periodically.

 

gnltabor's picture
gnltabor
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Cutting Cable?

Three years ago, we were paying $129/mo. for a Comcast Cable bundle that included Internet service, basic Cable with a few added channel groupings, but it wasn't even HD quality.  I think we'd added the Big Ten channel during Football season for an additional $5.00/mo.  The package included set top boxes for 3 TV"s in the house and frankly, we weren't ever going to use more than 3 channels at a time, so the 100+ channels available was not useful.  The price didn't even include any movie channels and we didn't include a home phone.  Like often happens, there was an initial first year deal that was heavily discounted, but when that deal ended, you weren't eligible for the deals being offered elsewhere.

I did some research on Digital Antennas and learned that our house was well situated to receive the free digital channels being broadcast in our area, which included NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX.  The antenna I purchased and mounted inconspicuously on the back side of our chimney also included UHF so we could get PBS and the Create channel.  There were additional religious channels and a dozen or so Spanish channels, which we simply blocked as part of our TV configuration.  We had one older TV that was analog and had to purchase a converter box,  but otherwise, hooking the coaxial cable run from the antenna into the cable that entered our home would provided free digital TV of higher quality than we were getting on Cable for free.  I figured the payback on the equipment with self installation would pay for itself within the first couple of months, a no brainer, except that I still needed cable and would need someone to put in another coaxial cable jack into our home to continue using Comcast as our Internet provider.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find an independent contractor who would come out to install a new Coaxial jack to allow me to connect an coax internet wireless router.

With some further shopping, I learned that Centurylink had Fiber Optics to our neighborhood with copper from the neighborhood box termination directly to each home.  Centurylink could provide internet download speeds of up to 30mbps, faster than Comcast as well.  For new customers, they would come out and install the new phone jack for the service at no additional charge.  This solved my need for another coaxial cable jack, so I pulled the trigger.  Our new cost for Centurylink was $45/mo. that first year, but we were able to drop our costs each year at contract renewal until last year, we paid only $21/mo for the same service.  This year, the price went up to $32, but compared to what we were paying for the Comcast bundle, we've been saving over $1,000/yr ever since. 

Soon after cutting the cable, we felt we'd gained in picture quality but lost some programming we would have liked to watch, but not enough to justify the cost.  Given how much we were saving, we invested in a Hulu device to access other channels over the internet and added Netflix.  After 6 months, we decided Netflix wasn't worth the cost and dropped it but our kids have leveraged friends Netflix accounts to watch movies when they came over from time to time.  This past year, we picked up Amazon PRIME service where we can watch older TV programming and a range of "free" movies.  More recently, we activated Sling which provides ESPN and ESPN2, along with a number of other kid-friendly channels for only $20/mo. on a month-to-month basis.  We can activate it for football playoffs, March Madness, or whatever the occasion may be to ensure we have access to the games we really want to watch, but all together, aren't spending half what we had been before making these changes.

I've noticed that cable providers are reducing prices in response to losing customers in this way, but believe the strategy is still maximizing the cost/benefit tradeoff for our family.

 

 

jtwalsh's picture
jtwalsh
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Being connected

gnltabor:  Great advice about cable v. dish. Our local cable provider has this policy that you can only lock into a plan for eighteen or twenty-four months after which they automatically start charging you the highest rates.  You then have to call, or visit one of their centers, to renegotiate a lower rate. Luckily another provider is wiring our area with fiber optics so you can play one provider against the other and negotiate back to nearly new subscriber rates. But it still is a pain to have to keep redoing the contracts. I never seem to catch the time my contract ends and usually end up stuck with the high rates for a month or two until we lock in again.

Four years ago we bought a cabin in Northern New England and deliberately decided not to install cable or wired phone service.  When looking at properties we made sure there was cell phone service in the area.  I obtained a dedicated internet cell phone account through Verizon, which cost me about $25.00 a month in addition to my regular cell phone service. The credit card size device can connect by wifi to up to three laptops or tablets.  The data usage is tied to my cell phone and I rarely go over basic monthly allowance. 

We decided to not even have a television in the cottage. We have a small portable CD player to watch movies and I purchased an inexpensive Crossly combination radio, CD, cassette tape and record player.  I also invested in a battery operated am/fm and shortwave radio.  My wife and I find when we are there, even for days at a time, we do not miss television at all.  Sometimes we will watch a movie but more often will play music from our collections built up over thirty five years, or if we are crazy for news, will listen to Maine or New Hampshire Public Radio, both of which cover local and national news as well as connecting to the BBC several times a day.

We have found it to me very pleasant not having a television constantly blaring away in the background.  However, after visits of a few days, several of our friends and relatives went into absolute withdrawal to the point that they will not come again if we do not have 24/7 cable..

I would love to go no television cold turkey at home but have been warned by the two adult children and the grandchildren that live with us that I will start an inter-family war if I try something they see as extreme deprivation.

JT

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mntnhousepermi
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internet speed

I switched last year to a slower internet speed with our cable provider, and cancelled the limited basic tv service. Now we pay $49/month. We have multiple users and streaming with no complaints even though we are on our cable providers lowest internet speed

Since my car is a 2004, this year I took comprehensive off of the car insurance, since its value is low, and just carry liability.

I pay homeowners insurance and car insurance annually, so I do not pay extra to make monthly payments. I just set the correct amount of money aside in my saving account each month so I am ready to pay the annual bills when they come.

These and other small steps taken as a whole realy add up in annual savings.

gnltabor's picture
gnltabor
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Free Digital TV?

jtwalsh,  We face the same issues with our kids.  I used a website to locate antennas in our area and identify the type(s) of antennas needed to pick up the stations.  Some mountain locations are unable to receive signals, but it's worth checking.  Try www.antennaweb.com or www.antennapoint.com for specifics using either your address or gps coordinates if your cabin is back country and mapping systems can't find you.

While I installed an antenna and connected it to my home's existing coaxial cable infrastructure to feed multiple TV's throughout the house, you can also buy a countertop antenna that connects directly to your TV for something less than $50.00.  Of course, if your TV is an older analog set, you'll also need a converter box.  I bought one for an older back-lit projection TV we had in the basement and it worked for a few years until prices for a good replacement set had come down to something more reasonable.  I gave the old set to our Boy Scout Troop who was able to sell it for $50.00 to someone who was happy to have it.  Depending on your distance from the digital tower(s) in your area, this option may be more than adequate for many people.

Given you're in a cabin, there may not be cable service in your area.  However, for vacation homes in areas with residents who may be seasonal, the providers have adopted an ability to activate and deactivate with a phone call.  My brother-in-law owns a condo in a resort area which he bought during the R/E downturn for a song.  He eventually plans to retire there, but has another 10 years to go before making it permanent.  In the mean time, he's able to activate the services while on site and de-activate them while away.  We've used their condo a couple of times and were able to turn cable service on and off with ease. 

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Wendy S. Delmater
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Repulbic vs Sprint cost comparison

Cellular service quality in your area is the most important factor, but staying abreast of the latest plan offers from your provider is essential to making sure you're getting the best deal.

I used to have Sprint, but I use Republic Wireless now. It mostly runs off wifi, which makes sense since I am usually home, and runs off G3 when I am out of the house or away. The phone was $150 but the fees are $15 a month, with a discount if you do not use much cellular. My bill has been $13.40 most months. The highest monthly bill I had was $17.84 when I was out-of-state for 10 days traveling last August.  For the year I have had it, the phone's total cost was $330, and at two years it will be $510

With Sprint I had a "free" flip phone that cost me $75 a month on a two year contract, which they would renew starting the two year contract over every time you got a slightly better phone for "free". The two-year cost for my non-internet ready phone was $1800.

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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cutting our cable; a fable

My stepdaughter moved out two years ago. She was an entertainment addict, and the cable TV was always on when she was home. When she moved, we dropped off our cable box at the provider (Time Warner) and canceled our cable service. We hardly ever watched it anyhow. We mostly read or listen to radio.

But because we have very high speed internet (my husband needs it for work) we discovered we had most of the channels anyhow, for free! Some channels 'leak around the edges' when you have high speed internet, according to the folks at Time Warner, and they know and don't care.

We still do not use it much, except for the channel that has doppler radar maps when we have severe thunder storms, or if there is a news item we want to follow, but it's nice to know it's there.

My stepdaughter let us use her Netflix, which mainly became something to watch if we were sick with the flu or had a once-in-a-blue-moon craving for a movie that was not free streaming anime. Now that she no longer has Netflix, we just go to IMDB (the Internet Movie Data Base) and rent things via Amazon. In the last year we've watched three movies at $3-4 each, about the same price as a month on Netflix. And that is without Amazon Prime.

Sometimes we bring up live concerts on YouTube and use our TV as the display. But we have our own instruments and can make our own music.

gnltabor's picture
gnltabor
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Self-Insuring - Buying the right amount of coverage

Mntnhousepermi,

Your comment about removing comprehensive off your 2004 car is a great example of right-sizing your insurance based on your needs.  When you have financial margin, you can raise your deductibles and reduce your premiums.  This makes sense especially if you're a good driver and have set aside enough money to replace the car if the unexpected does happen, or the car is a family "extra" that you could live without for a time if something happens.  You can quickly calculate the risk you're assuming by taking the reduction in premium and dividing it into the amount of financial risk you've assumed by dropping comprehensive coverage. 

As an example, a $200 savings/yr that drops $2,000 in replacement insurance coverage, has a break even of 10 years.  If you've been driving for years without having an accident, that could be a good risk for you.  If you're doing that for a new teenage driver in the family, the savings on insurance will liklee be higher each year, but the risks of an accident are also increased.  In this case, having the money to replace the car in an emergency fund would be a good basis for such a decision.

This same thinking can be applied to most any kind of insurance.  Another classic example is when choosing between various employer sponsored health insurance plans.  There's usually a premium coverage with lower deductibles, a standard coverage with deductibles that may be 2x the premium option and offer a higher percentage co-pay such as 60% coverage versus 80% under the premium plan.  One of the benefits that usually doesn't change regardless of the plan you're under is the prescription plan.  You may also have coverage items that do not require you to meet deductibles or co-pay such as well baby visits, certain immunizations, etc.  The number of family members who must meet their maximum deductibles before reaching the family maximum may also differ between plans. 

I run a spreadsheet each year to evaluate the plans, and unless I'm facing a known major medical expenditure in the following year, I find that the lowest overall cost is usually the standard plan.  Typically, I'd need to incur medical expenses for my family of 4 in the neighborhood of $15,000 or more before the Premium plan would make sense, a number that implies some sort of accident or emergency medical need that rarely has occurred in my experience of 54 years.  The money I save by selecting the lower coverage, I usually direct into my Medical Spending account.  That means that the first dollars in out of pocket expenses are paid from the pre-tax savings, giving me an offset to the higher deductibles and co-pays I may experience. 

If you're fortunate enough to have an employer sponsored medical plan these days, I'd strongly encourage you to develop a spreadsheet to evaluate the level of medical expense you'd need to incur to justify a higher payroll deduction to buy down your deductibles and co-pays.  This is a form of "Self Insuring" by taking on more risk and paying less in premiums.

For those who are young and in good health, you may find that taking out a high deductible plan which only provides catastrophic coverage is the best way to go.  Some employers may even kick in money to encourage you to select one of these plans as a way to offload their own risk and expense potential.  These plans may have deductibles of $5,000 or more and high co-pay percentages as well, with maximum out of pocket limits as high as $20,000 or more, but if a major emergency does occur, you're covered above the maximums.  Such plans will often allow you to put aside money into a Medical Savings account that is owned by you and can be accumulated into the future.  Such plans provide a tax shelter for your contributions, which may also earn income while accumulating in your Medical Savings account.  When needed for a future medical expense, the funds are available but are not restricted as with a Medical Spending account that must be used no later than March 15th of the following calendar year or you forfeit the balance. 

Thrivalista's picture
Thrivalista
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Entertainment with a return on investment

>>But we have our own instruments and can make our own music.<<  Sooo good for the brain, too - making your own music gives a great "return on investment" when you consider the psychological and neurological benefits. Plus, fun!

Yoxa's picture
Yoxa
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Posts: 262
Canceling insurance

One bit of insurance we recently canceled was the "credit protector" feature on one of our credit cards. Supposedly it would pay our balance in the event of certain catastrophes. The fee would vary depending on the balance, so many months had no cost and we kind of forgot about it. But after a recent trip where we used the card a lot, the charge was close to $30. Not something we need!

We're now on a mission to reduce "vampire expenses", those multiple small costs that bleed our finances but create little value for the household.

webbrowan's picture
webbrowan
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It's easy to look for finance

It's easy to look for finance deals and the cheapest product on the block when you're in the market to buy something, but translating saving money into a habit that applies in everything from grocery shopping to how you run your household can be an entirely different thing altogether!

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