Saturday, March 9, 2013

How to live comfortably on a lousy salary

Salaries aren't what they used to be. But in some cases they are. Reporters now are making the same money I made in 1986... but the cost of living is much higher. Back then my terrific apartment was $300, gas was a buck and a quarter, I could fly home for $125 round trip.  Plus, most of you guys have student loans, I did not. College was cheap back in the dinosaur age.

Anyway, many of you are expected to survive on 1980s dollars in a 2013 world. I've had clients take on second jobs waiting tables, working in a department store, etc. Sometimes it's necessary, but sometimes the solution to your problem is in your mirror.

Nothing illustrated this more than the time I was on a network assignment, and, as usual, was rubbing elbows with the rookies in the market. I heard one young lady moaning about her lack of cash... as she sipped a cup of coffee from Starbucks. So, let me get this straight... you can't pay your rent, but you'll blow five bucks every day on a cup of coffee?

The point here is that many of you (and people in general) simply don't know how to shop or manage money. When you're barely getting by, you must find ways to work the system. This doesn't mean doing anything underhanded, but simply understanding how the system works... and how it can work to your advantage.

So in no particular order, here are a bunch of things you can do to get more bang for the buck:

-Brew your own coffee at home. Let's get that Starbucks thing out of the way right now. Someone recently did a study and figured out that Starbucks made $152 on each pound of coffee. You can buy a pound for about six bucks.  Do the math.

-Avoid convenience stores and vending machines. You can pick up a soda or a chocolate bar for a buck and a half at the gas station, or you can fill your desk drawer with snacks and pack a cooler with cold drinks or a thermos with hot coffee and save about 75 percent of the cost. Convenience stores are called that for a reason... you're paying for the convenience.

-Ditch the debit cards and use credit cards to your advantage. When you use a debit card you get no bonuses. When you use affinity credit cards, your bonuses can pile up. But here's the key: you must, absolutely must, pay off your balance in full every month. I pay almost everything with a credit card. I have my utilities billed to a credit card. Groceries, gas, you name it. If I can charge it, I do. I have not paid a dime in credit card interest since 1985 because I always, always, always pay the full balance. In return I get free hotel rooms, a ton of restaurant gift cards, free airline tickets. I'm getting a rebate for paying bills and buying stuff I'd buy anyway. Last year on vacation we had five free hotel rooms and half a dozen free dinners at nice restaurants. All because I charge stuff.

-Best credit cards: Marriott, Discover, Chase Freedom, Southwest Airlines. As an example, this month Chase Freedom is giving you a five percent rebate on gas purchases. That's almost 20 cents a gallon. Discover is giving a five percent rebate on restaurant purchases.

-Don't buy a new car when you graduate from college or get the first job. You may want to start your life with everything new, but nothing sends a twentysomething into debt quicker than a big car payment.

-Look for chain store rewards and shop the sales. I'll use Walgreens as an example. Sign up and collect points for things you'd buy anyway. Let's say you like Colgate toothpaste and Walgreens has a sale this week and is offering points if you buy four tubes. Stock up, because you're going to use toothpaste eventually anyway and get a rebate. Shopping the sales for everyday stuff is crucial; you'll never run out, and you won't have to pay the regular price if you do.

-Clip coupons. Or download them. Doesn't matter. It's old fashioned and not very cool, but those coupons are basically cash. You'd pick up a dollar bill if you saw one in the street, right? A dollar off coupon on something you need is worth the same. (By the way, do a story with one of those local coupon queens and you might be amazed at how much you can save.)

-Cut the cell phone obsession. Yes, I know most of you will give up your phone when we pry it from your cold, dead fingers, but you're wasting a ton of money on these things. Let's say you're paying for internet service at your home anyway. Why are you surfing the web on your cell phone?

Recently we switched to Consumer Cellular. My wife and I both have iPhones but rarely use them to visit the Internet. Monthly bill for two phones? $42.50. Check out this company. There are others out there with better deals (and no contracts). Shop around. And if you're determined to stick with a major carrier, buy your accessories online. eBay has thousands of items at a fraction of the cost. Even the websites of the major carriers offer the same phones and accessories in the brick and mortar store for lower prices. (By the way, I bought both iPhones on Ebay for 60 bucks each. People upgrade often and put their old phones up for sale.)

Here's another deal about cell phones. Many carriers charge you a fee (around 20 bucks) when you upgrade your phone or renew your contract. I once said this to a person from AT&T. "Let me get this straight... you want to charge me for the privilege to remain a customer?" The woman laughed and waived the fee.

-Search for a cheaper Internet service provider, or lower your speed to get a better rate.

-Check the Internet for better prices. Something you see in the store might be available for half price on the net.

-Remember that everything is negotiable, even stuff outside the car dealership. And I do mean everything. (Especially furniture if you're setting up your first apartment.) Here's a common example: Hate your satellite bill? Threaten to switch to cable. Or vice versa. Trust me, they'd rather make 80 percent of your bill than 100 percent of nothing. Companies are fighting for every customer, and you as the consumer have the power. Always ask if they can do a little better, especially if it's a major purchase. Be willing to walk, the price usually comes down.

-Can't pay the rent or living in a lousy place? Consider a roommate. I know this is tough to do with the timing of contracts, but I've done it before and it worked fine.

-Before you buy anything, ask yourself this question... Do I need this, or do I want this? Very often the things we want aren't things we really need.

-Finally, start saving for retirement. Yeah, I know that seems ridiculous when it's forty years away, but you'll thank me when you have a comfortable retirement. (I'll probably be dead, but you'll thank me.) Even if you put away one percent, it will have four decades to grow. And if your company offers a 401k matching program, you're throwing away free money if you don't take advantage of it.


Anonymous said...

As I'm sitting here rolling my eyes at a TD whining about how expensive life is (after he bought a new iphone of course) forgot to mention learning how to cook from scratch instead of buying frozen dinners at 4-5 bucks a pop for the decent tasting ones. It'll take a big bite out of one's spending each month.

If you don't know how to cook, a programmable crockpot and a rice cooker are your friends. Both are a one-time buy and are pretty much fool proof in using them. Just add food and turn them on. Crockpots are also great if you are just too tired to make anything when you get home since dinner is done when you get home.

As for iced frapp is just double-brewed coffee, milk, ice, sugar and a pinch of xanthan gum to keep everything from separating. One can make a whole gallon of it for the price of a single tall from Starbucks. Like I said, learn how to cook.

Randy Tatano said...

Excellent point. Forgive me for missing the obvious, but Italians assume everyone should know how to cook.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the article.

Some people don't know how to live within their means because they get so caught up in keeping up with everyone else.

I am a 21 year old mother of one and I have learned to become frugal and advance my cooking skills. I no longer shop at the mall unless I find good deals on clearance items. The thrift store has become my favorite place to go. I have found new unused name brand clothing for $2.00.

I have known people to go beyond their means and have to beg for $300 because they can't pay their bills, but yet they're out on the dunes, driving fancy cars, and spending too much money on materialistic things. And they're my age or just a bit older. Young adults nowadays want to have it made, but won't make the effort to work for those things.

Anyways, thanks again for the article.