Vote With Your Dollar

This topic can very easily feel preachy so here is my confession up front: I TRY to be a conscious consumer, but sometimes sales are too good, my budget is too tight, I don’t have the time or I just plain want something that isn’t in line with some of my consumer values.

The point is, I am aware of the fact that how I spend my money has an impact on the local economy, the nation’s economy and the global economy. (Wow! I am so influential!)

Everyone, as a consumer, has the ability to vote with their dollars. I LOVE this local bookstore near my house. Every time I walk in I feel like they somehow knew exactly what I wanted to read and they put it right out front for me to see. When I need to buy a book, I try to support them. Last month I ordered a book from Amazon because I was having Christmas timing/shipping/getting my act together problems- that’s ok too. But I don’t order all of my books from Amazon- I buy some from my favorite bookstore.

I try to buy used goods because I am rescuing that item from ending up in a landfill. Used goods are less expensive and usually just as good as brand new items, and I feel better about reducing my consumption stream. (Especially furniture. I can’t believe what people pay for new furniture when there is gorgeous used furniture aplenty!)

I secretly want to be an artist (ah, what a life). When I see an artist selling work at a market or a festival that I like, I buy it! That could be me selling paintings on the street, and I want to support people who take a risk in a notoriously difficult career path. Because of that, I never buy mass-produced art and I think my house is more interesting because of it. (I also buy frames at Goodwill and I feel very savvy when I find a nice one!)

Lots of people have problems with Walmart, but I freaking love them! (and not just because Walmart was the closest thing I had to entertainment when I lived in my double wide in Alabama). I have a background in fisheries and Walmart has an awesome and admirable seafood supply business model. I think their model should be copied by every store in the US, so I am happy to buy fish at Walmart because I support their business model.

Ditto organic yogurt- the environmental impact that Walmart has by carrying just one brand of organic yogurt is bigger than all of the organic yogurts at all of the farmers markets in America. When I am picking products at Walmart, I try to buy organic (which I admittedly don’t usually do) because I know that Walmart is analyzing its consumer data and they will supply items that their consumers are buying. Their scale of business is so big that a tiny change in their products will have a huge impact, and I feel like my dollar is being used to influence change on a large scale. But I am aware that when I buy yogurt at Walmart instead of at a farmer’s market, I am spending money on big business instead of local dairy farmers who could probably use the money more. There isn’t a perfect answer, so it depends on what you value.

I have a friend who will only buy either items that are made in America, or items that are pre-used. She wants to support the American economy, so she doesn’t spend her money directly on items that were manufactured elsewhere. She votes with her dollar. (Although she told me that she has a really hard time finding certain products (used bath mats? Ick. But try finding a bath mat that wasn’t made in China!))

I went on vacation last month and instead of booking a generic hotel we rented out a whole apartment through Airbnb. Not only was it cheaper and more comfortable than a normal hotel (and it had a stocked kitchen so we could cook for ourselves), but we got to meet the couple who was renting out the apartment. They were a lovely young professional couple who were welcoming and kind and who loved meeting people from other places. I was very happy that my money was going to this lovely couple rather than to a hotel chain.

When I was finishing grad school, I had a friend who was frustrated that the program we had finished did not put enough emphasis on her specialization. She was going to write an angry letter explaining how she wasn’t provided the resources/education she had signed up for. Instead, she decided to donate money to the program that was specifically earmarked to fund resources needed for her specialization. Do you think the administration cares more about an angry outgoing student’s opinion, or a longterm donor’s opinion? Putting some cash behind your complaints may feel counterintuitive, but it can affect the change that you want to see.

The bottom line: when you spend your money, there is some influence that goes along with that dollar. Maybe you don’t have a lot of money- but if you have any at all, you still have some monetary influence. So be aware of what you are spending on and try to make purchases that support the things that are important to you.

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Tips and Tricks to Slenderize Your Spending

So you’ve made a budget, you’ve tracked your  spending, you’ve made your goals…but something isn’t quite adding up. Your input is not matching your output, and if you keep this up you will go into unwanted debt (or maybe you are digging yourself out of debt).
How do you slenderize your spending without sitting in the dark alone on Saturday night?
Here are some tips and tricks  to help you cut back on some of the expenses in your budget.

  • Sign up for your grocery store’s discount card program online. I have access to internet coupons that load directly onto my grocery card, and it takes me about 5 minutes to prep for my shopping trip. My grocery card not only gives me coupons on things that you can’t get from normal newspaper coupons (discounts on produce, fresh bakery items, meat), but they also track my purchases so that I get special deals on the items I buy the most. I can upload my list of coupons to my phone so I can double check that I have the brand right while I am in the store. For 5 minutes worth of work, I save 20-30% each time I go grocery shopping. It’s slightly annoying to get it set up (but really only takes 10 minutes) and I have saved hundreds of dollars on groceries this year.
  • Does your work reimburse you for commute expenses? At my work, I have to submit a ton of paperwork to get reimbursed for public transportation costs when I go to meetings. It is super annoying to track $2 each time I go anywhere, but I do it quarterly and so far this year I have been reimbursed for $400 that I otherwise would have just eaten the cost for. That $400 is a mini vacation that I otherwise couldn’t afford- well worth the hour’s worth of paperwork I have to do every three months. That is like making $100 an hour…more than I make at my day job, that’s for sure!
  • Do you eat out a lot? Consider cooking at home more. EVERY PERSON in the entire world finds cooking skills to be an attractive quality. Short on equipment? Goodwill has a ton of cooking equipment that costs about 10% of what you would pay for it new. Grossed out by Goodwill? How is buying a dish at Goodwill and then washing it at home any different than eating off of a dish in a restaurant? Also, you are reusing an item that might otherwise end up in a landfill- awesome! Short on time? Look for a crock pot and a rice cooker at Goodwill. Bam! Dinner is served! If you are opposed to cooking in general or seem to set the fire alarm off every time you try, buying frozen prepared foods is still cheaper than buying fast food meals. With God as my witness, you’ll never go hungry again!
  • Buy bulk. Not a good option if you live in NYC, but if you have the storage space it is better to pay $.40 per roll of toilet paper in that ginormous pack than it is to pay $.80 per roll for the tiny pack. Plus you run out less frequently and that is always good (and you save on gas because you have fewer trips to the store). Keep in mind: don’t assume that bulk stores (Costco, BJ’s) are always cheaper because sometimes sales at normal stores lower the price further than a standard price at a bulk store.
    I hate buying toilet paper. It just feels like I am flushing my money away! (yuk yuk yuk)
  • Buy things in the off season. Christmas wrapping paper is cheap on Dec 26, not so cheap on Dec 24. Sweaters, coats, boots- cheaper in the spring! Bathing suits, shorts, sandals- buy ’em in the fall! (The selection is not as good, though.)
  • Buy things when they are on sale. My favorite razors are on sale this week for half the cost of what they usually are. I bought multiple packages, because I know I will use them and I would rather not run out and then have to pay a higher price.
  • STOP BUYING BOTTLED WATER. It costs $.08 per year to drink tap water for all your water needs. EIGHT CENTS. YOU CAN FIND THAT LAYING ON THE STREET. Fussy about water? Buy yourself a Brita, sign up for Amazon.com to automatically order you filter refills on a schedule, buy yourself a few reusable water bottles and stop wasting money and plastic.
  • When you buy online, check out retailmenot.com for online coupon codes that are all compiled in one place. Pretty handy.
  • I wish I had more information about how to find this one, but some places have grocery stores (usually they are ethnic stores or those weird off-brand groceries) that have massively cheap, fresh and amazing produce. I had one where I went to grad school where I could buy more produce than I could carry and I never spent more than $20. This is because these stores carry “seconds,” which are fruits and veggies that have been rejected by the major groceries but are still fresh and good to eat. So if a box of apples has one rotten apple, it is likely the whole box will end up at the seconds store for a fraction of the price. Awesome deal, but I don’t have any hard and fast rule about where to find the stores that carry seconds. I guess you just have to be adventurous in your grocery explorations!
  • Check out the perks that go along with things you already have. I get 10% off of train tickets (something I use quite a bit) and discounted movie tickets with my AAA membership. I get a certain percent off of purchases that I make with my credit card when I go through the credit card’s website to get to the store’s website rather than just going directly to the store’s website.
  • Evaluate your entertainment habits. Rent a lot of movies? Try checking out the selection at your library. My library has a ton of movies and tv shows on dvd. Do you watch your cable enough for it to be worth it, or should you buy a Netflix subscription instead? Do you have Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime and Cable? How do you have time?! Prioritize your favorite media sources and ditch the rest.
  • Can you extend the amount of time you wait between recurring expenses? I love getting pedicures, but instead of getting them every month like I would like to, I get them every 6 weeks instead. After 3 weeks I do a quick refresher coat on my own, which doesn’t look as good but it definitely doesn’t look as bad as chipped polish. Now you know intimate details about my toes. You’re welcome.
  • Speaking of eating out a lot…do you pack your lunch? Make your own coffee? Why don’t you whip out your new crock pot and make a week’s worth of lunches at one fell swoop with minimal effort? Doing things yourself can save a significant amount of money in the long run. $7 for eating out every day is $1820 a year. Spent on sandwiches.
  • A few months after I started working in an office, my friend organized a clothing swap. A bunch of girls cleaned out their closets (added bonus!), all got together, poured some wine and swapped clothes. This was not only super fun, but professional clothes can be very expensive and this was a good way to get new clothes without having to spend a lot of money. We donated the remaining clothes to Dress for Success. 
  • I am terrible at handwashing clothes, so I will never recommend that you forgo washing machine use to save money. I will,  however, recommend forgoing dryer use! At the last apartment I lived in it cost $2 for one hour in the dryer, and my clothes were usually still damp! $4 to dry each load? Where the heck was I supposed to get all those quarters?! After some trial and error, I invested in the best drying rack of all time. You will notice that this drying rack is not inexpensive, but I paid for a study, large, adjustable drying rack and I expect it will last forever. At that apartment, it paid for itself in 10 loads of laundry. If you have a dryer in your home, using a drying rack will save you about $.75 per load. This doesn’t sound like much, but after a year of drying one load per week your fancy clothes rack will have paid for itself. Added perk- air drying makes your clothes last longer and it is better for the environment.
  • I will run another post on the wonders of CVS deals, but if you save your extrabucks and use their coupons, you can save a TON of money.
  • Check out my post about romancing your squeeze on a budget. Many of those ideas are transferrable to hanging out with friends, as well.

This list is called “Tips and Tricks” not “Do This Because Kate Said To.” If you don’t have space to dry your clothes- don’t worry about it! You can cut back in another area. You love Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime? That’s ok! Try making your own lunches for work instead of cancelling your Netflix subscription. The point is- make your budget work for you. Cutting back on expenses isn’t fun, but managing your expenses is a judgment call and you are the boss of your own finances, so only you can decide what to cut and what to leave.

Doing Christmas Right This Year

We hosted a Christmas party for a few of my friends last night. It was fantastic, and one of the most successful parts of the night was the gift swap that we organized. This particular group of friends is very environmentally conscious, so I knew they would be into the theme, which was:

Zero Net Impact Gift Swap

The rules were traditional except for a twist: no buying anything new! Gifts could be 1. something you already had around the house but were ready to part with (a book you’ve read, exercise equipment you don’t actually use) 2. a re-gift (remembering to be sure the original giver wouldn’t be at the party!) or 3. something purchased from a consignment store/Goodwill. I reminded everyone that the people invited to the party are FRIENDS so crappy gifts aren’t appreciated (a risk you run with any gift swap). This might not work with all groups, but these pals are pretty good sports.

It was a big hit! No one had to spend any more money or do any extra errands (although if you were feeling desperate you could have gone to Goodwill I suppose), you got to clean out your closet or get rid of an unwanted gift that made you feel guilty. Someone else got use out of it, and at the very least….we all had a good laugh!

This is an alternative to consider if you are looking to cut back on the superfluous gifts on your to-buy list, if you’re in charge of your office holiday party or if you are a large family looking for ways to cut back on spending. Christmas consumerism can feel stifling, especially when you have to buy gifts without a specific person or need in mind. This is just a small way to reduce your impact while still celebrating and having fun with the people you love.

Merry Christmas!

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