Sunday, October 28, 2007

Unable or Unwilling? No Room to Cut Back?

In response to the Yated Readers Write Letter, featured in the previous post, which suggested fine tuning one's budget by using software, another writer decries the suggestion as "asinine" claiming that most people who are really struggling have no place to cut back. The letter appears below with emphasis added. My comments follow.


Dear Editor,
I am writing in response to Y. A., who authored a wonderful letter in your last edition on the spiraling debt in our society. While the letter was truly on the mark, I disagree with one point he mentions. Y. A. suggests getting hold of computer programs to rework one’s finances and try to save money. Perhaps that may be the answer for some people. However, for most people who are simply struggling to make ends meet, such a suggestion is asinine. Most of these people are already cutting corners in virtually every possible area. They are shopping in the cheapest supermarket in town, buying their toiletries in Wal-Mart because it is cheapest there, getting hand-me-downs from wherever they can, and using the same plastic tablecloth for all three meals on Shabbos to save some money. They give themselves their own haircuts and never have meat for supper. Their car is often a tin can on wheels and makes so much noise that it turns heads on the street. Of course these are just examples, but you get the point. So please, let’s get real. Microsoft Money doesn’t seem to have a place in this discussion. Thank you.

Sincerely,Kesef Minolon

Excuse me. . . you don't keep a budget on paper and you claim to have no place to cut back??? I'm sorry, but there is always room to cut. It may be pennies, it may be dollars, it may be hundreds of dollars, it might even be thousands of dollars. But, it would be a rare, rare exception to find a family that could not make a cut even if they are already running a tight ship. Unless the frum amongst us who are "struggling to make ends meet" as per above are sitting in a dark room, eating (dried) beans and rice 7 days a week, studying a borrowed sefer by nightlight, than the assertion that there is nowhere to cut back is utterly ridiculous.

Furthermore, the *powerless* of the assertion that there is no room to cut back is *spiritually damaging* in my opinion. Falling into the "there is nothing we can do" trap just makes a person miserable and makes a person feel sorry for themself. I know plenty of people who complain about their lack on money and yet they should be able to do more than squeeze by or fall into debt. But you have to be willing to do your hishtadlut. A few years ago I read a personal finance feature that compared a family that was "just getting by" on some high salary to a woman who was saving money while paying grad school tuition in cash and making only $12,000 a year. The latter's positive attitude and cost cutting measures really inspired me and sent me into action.

Back to the letter. . . . . I can already spot two places mentioned where the family can cut back: plastic tablecloths and toiletries. Regarding the plastic tablecloth covers, why not put the cloth tablecloth into an almost full load of laundry? Even if you have to buy a machine washable tablecloth(s) which run as low as $8-$10 new with a coupon at a big box store, the tablecloths should pay for themselves after you stop buying plastic tablecloth covers. Readers, what does a box of plastic tablecloth covers run? How many are in a box? Another alternative, buy a $7 heavy plastic tablecloth cover and sponge it down after Shabbat. It should last you from Pesach until the next Pesach if you are good about cleaning it. I used to do that, but decided on the 1st alternative. (On the lighter side: you might have better shidduch prospects should you stop using plastic over your tablecloth. But, you might have worse shidduch prospects because you will most likely opt for a darker color tablecloth. So, it is a toss up).

In regards to buying toiletries I will say, if you are paying for (some) of them, you are paying too much! (This is a tip that I picked up from the article mentioned above and I have not paid for a tube of toothpaste since then). The author mentions shopping at Wal-Mart because they have the best price on toiletries. Wal-mart might have the best retail price on toiletries, but if you shop on sale and combine coupons and rebates in drug and grocery stores, you should be able to get toothbrushes and toothpaste for the price of sales tax and other products on full rebate for the price of the stamp, if the rebate can't be done online.

I have an entire cabinet full of toiletries that I have bought for pennies without too much trouble and heartache, just a quick read of the Sunday circulars and an efficient filing system for coupons and rain checks. Just this month I have managed to get 7 tubes of toothpaste, 1 bottle of mouthwash, and 3 toothbrushes for sales tax alone and it wasn't so difficult. I picked up 4 tubes of toothpaste and 1 toothbrush that were on sale for $0.99 and paid for each one with a $1 coupon while at one of my regular grocery stores buying milk and flour. I picked up the next 3 tubes of toothpaste at CVS when I went to stock up on diaper wipes that were on sale (something the real tightwads would consider wasteful). I noticed that a new toothpaste and mouthwash would give me back extra bucks and I was already there to pick up something else. I checked my coupon file and noticed I had a buy one get one free coupon for the toothpaste and a $1.50 off coupon for the mouthwash (I also had a $5 extra bucks coupon from a previous purchase. I paid for everything with my extra bucks, coupons, and $0.16 additional cents and immediately received an extra bucks coupon for more than I paid ($6.8 if you are counting), plus a $2 of $10 CVS brand purchase. I promptly grabbed a second bag of diaper wipes to bring me up to $10, and turned around and paid a $1.47 for approximately 3 months worth of diaper wipes. Not bad and I didn't have to go to Wal-mart, which is not only out of the way, but also is a pain to visit mostly because of its size. (Another benefit: I won't be scrambling to buy toothpaste and toothbrushes, inevitably at full price, Eruv Pesach nervously).

Another trick I have up my sleeve is receiving a $10, $20, or even $25 gift card to (most commonly) Rite Aid, CVS, Target, and Kmart pharmacies for bringing in a new and/or transferred prescription to their pharmacy. I have received a gift card for nearly every prescription I have filled in the past 2 years. Let's just say this is a lot of diapers. Turns out that I had a gift card that was going to be phased out due to a merger of two drug stores. I ended up the remaining balance to buy the other 2 toothbrushes (lest anyone is keeping count) and some shampoo and body wash that were also on full rebate. I'm waiting for my check in the mail!

Frugal homemaking is an art. It takes practice, time, preparation, and work (wish I started learning the art earlier). But it pays off. And it gets easier and easier (plus, you can go through and energetic stage and then slack off a bit). I'm not an artist yet. But I'm getting there. And I (rarely) believe those who claim there is no room to cut back. I know a number of places we can cut back (even if I'm not quite there yet) and I'm guessing that "most people who are simply struggling to make ends meet" can find places too. I know there are people in the frum community who suffer terribly, but I know that "most" who are struggling could do better. But you have to want to.

(BTW--New Yorkers have it particularly rough because you don't have the same availability of regular supermarkets within arm's reach. I'd welcome a post from a NY'er for former NY'er on how to make bargain shopping work for you. After all, the majority of frum American Jews live "in town").


Anonymous said...

High 5 on the serious CVS-ing--- I have a friend who loves looking in my linen closet each week to see my toothpaste, etc stash grow.

Don't forget the nova max deal--- in the diabetes booklet there's a coupon for $50 off nova max monitors which cost LESS than $50 at CVS ($29.99 I believe- haven't gone yet).... use the coupon, get it for free (or get overage back, but most CVSes won't do that) to donate it to a senior home or whatever, and get $20 ECB back. Limit 5 on each card.

In other words for every adult in your household you can make $100 in extra care bucks just by going to the CVSes in your area to see who still has Nova Max monitors in stock (and the coupons to go with them!-- the diabetes booklets are by the pharmacy).

People can use that $100 to do holiday shopping at CVS. Or for you and me.... buy diapers and wipes, eh?

You can ALWAYS get free stuff at CVS every single week!

I'm jealous you got the crest pro health night deal--- I still have the coupon but no CVSes in my area have any left--- I'm too slow sometimes *sigh*. I really need to start CVSing EVERY Sunday morning.

PS--- we typically don't use plastic tablecloth covers--- the kids play with them. We use a dark tablecloth and throw it in the wash. My kids' future shidduchim, if they CARE about such things, are NOT beshert for my kids!

By the way for threads and threads about the nova max deal, check out --- these people are maniacs (and I mean that in the nicest way). I love trading coupons there.

Have a great week!

Anonymous said...

ps--- seph lady I know YOU know this, but for those just wondering about CVS-ing, the key is to buy with your previous ECBS what generates more ECBS. And use coupons for those products too. And use $4 off $20 coupons or $10 off $50 coupons or whatever you've got. Never go in without manu coupons, CVS coupons, and ECBS. PLAN your CVS trips. :)

Anonymous said...

SfardiLady, I used to have that great coupon system. That is why I found enough Windex and Fantastic off my Aliya shipment (you never know what's in the basement) to keep me going for over 3 years (Windex is finished, Fantastic have some left). I had enough toothpaste for nearly a year and enough toothbrushes for a year or more. I loved shopping for free. Nothing like that in Israel, unfortunately, so you have to be more frugal here.
That plastic tablecloth thing caught my eye as well. I stopped using them even in the States. They stick to you in the summer and they kids pick at them. Better than using a dark-colored table cloth is to use a WHITE one, which can be bleached to remove stains. Also, not having a plastic does force my kids to eat in a bit more civilized fashion, cause mom wants it to last 2 Shabbat meals....
I like savings but I do realize this: it's easy for a housewife (also called SAHM) to do the steps noted for saving money. It's much harder for a working woman/mother/wife. You need Sunday morning to go over the coupons and file them. Then you have to go over the circulars. Then make a detailed list of what is on sale at the markets/stores and note what coupon you have for the sale items you are interested in. This saves time in the store, but does take time at home. If you are going to more than one store (as I did, 90% of the time), it is TIME consuming, something working women don't have. SAHM also have the luxury of shopping under less pressure: they can go at their leisure during "empty" hours (in Israel I go Tuesday mornings), not fight the crowds, and not just grab stuff to get it over with. They have time to compare prices and brands (and thus come to the conclusion that Walmart may NOT be the least expensive way to shop. Free is better.) Do you understand what I am saying? It's a whole different ballgame if you are employed ouside the home and rush in the am to leave and rush in the pm to come home and see your kids.
If you are working outside the home, you really need to take measures to simplify life and those cost money.

Orthonomics said...

Absolutely easier for a homemaker to save money by shopping around. But, I know dual working parents who do this because they work as a team. And when you can gather 7 tubes of toothpaste for free in a month you can slack off for a while.

Anonymous said...

SL – I’m writing this before I read your reply. This letter really got to me. Obviously this author is not living in the real world.

This author makes shopping at Wal-Mart seem as something that is so undignifying that should only be done as a last resort. And to add assault to injury he/she is whining about using the same plastic tablecloth for all three meals on Shabbos. How about saving some money and not using a plastic tablecloth at all? This author has also mentioned people shopping in the cheapest supermarket in town. Huh? There is no such a thing as a cheapest supermarket, and anyone who is serious about saving money knows that. Each store, whether it’s a supermarket or just around the corner mom and pop place sells a few items at the below normal sale price. That is how they entice customers. You come in to buy cheap yogurt and end up paying full price for bread, cookies and milk. Someone serious about saving money shops by going to different supermarkets and selecting only the cheapest items in each one.

These are just a few examples, but you’re getting my point about integrity. People like to cry and whine and beg but they are never putting in effort. Without effort they will always be on the bottom, whining and crying and looking for a sympathetic ear.

Now, that I read your reply I’d like to add that one does not need to buy a tablecloth at all. There is nothing wrong with eating on a bare table. But otherwise I agree with you.

About shopping in NY. I live in NY and IMO it is easier to save in NY then out there. We have more stores, more competitions and more choices. But then again, I never really shopped outside of NY.

Anonymous said...

I would guess that anyone living in NYC could save at least 33% just by moving out of town. To places where there are "big box stores" and land is cheap. I remember visiting a (not frum) cousin of mine who is trying to live on a modest income in the East Village. We stopped in a discount store for a minute. Towels on sale there were twice what I had just paid for a higher quality.

Ahuva said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ahuva said...

Another thing is that while Wal-Mart is less expensive than a lot of places, it's still much more expensive that your local Goodwill. My sister is a die-hard bargain hunter and frequently sends me tznius clothing she finds at Goodwill and other thrift shops. I even have a favorite suit for the office that came from a Goodwill.

Another thing I found is that hand washing and air-drying clothing (especially office clothing) makes them last much longer. I drop my clothes in a bucket of soapy water before going to bed and hand-agitate them for a few minutes, then let them soak all night. When I wake up in the morning, I rinse them and put them out to air-dry. It takes maybe 10 extra minutes out of my day. Washing machines are hard on clothes-- by the end of the season my office clothes used to look awful. Now they keep that brand-new look.

Chaya Tova said...

Any ideas on saving money in Israel where coupons are not nearly as common as they are in the states?

Esther said...

I am not disagreeing with your main point. And certainly, as we talked about last week, there is the idea of leaving everything open to consideration of how to cut costs. (I especially like the person's comment above that one does not have to use a tablecloth.)

But unfortunately saving pennies, while a good thing to do, will not solve the problem for a lot of families, and I think that is the letter writers' point. The real savings needs to come from reconsidering how to save in high-cost areas that are currently considered a given - things like attending private school, keeping any more than basic level of kashrut, wearing a wig, etc. It's a lot harder for people to realize that these are just as much an option for cuts as toothpaste and car insurance.

Anonymous said...

chaya tova, believe me, if there is a way to save in israel, I am either on to it or someone I know is. This is the only help I can offer:
(a) find a store which is consistantly cheap on cleaning supplies, toilet paper, toiletries etc. We use Aleph for that
(b) find where dairy products are cheapest (Aleph wins there too)
(c) find where poultry and meat are cheapest (Aleph is okay on Rabbanut, but I found a place I like better, just got frozen chalak brisket for 13.99/kg)
(d) for the rest, just buy where the prices are always decent.
(e) I buy eggs at my local Arab market, 17 shekels for 30 super fresh eggs without Tnuva's seal of approval.

The problem with the above system is that while I do save money, I drive around quite a bit (free gas on company car) and spend some time saving (SAHM). I use my shopping days as an adventure with SAH 3 year old and "chap" a trip to Aleph when I can. It's harder if you don't have a car with free gas (that eats up the profits) and if you work.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tamiri--- if you're a SAHM how do you have a company car? Are you a WAHM really?

Charlie Hall said...

One suggestion for those in New York: Many (not all) Stop and Shop supermarkets have kosher bakeries with excellent products at one third to one half the cost of Jewish bakeries. You can also get your challah 10 minutes before candlelighting!

Anonymous said...

Company car is my husbands, and he has a motorcycle (ours) to get to work! He doesn't have to be the one driving the company car, beautiful arrangement. Our driving son is also covered. Don't mistake this for a totally free deal; we pay the leasing plus tax on the benefit through my husband's salary. They pay all insurance, maintenance, repairs, toll road (one such road in Israel) and gas. This benefit is not fabulous for everyone, but it sure is for us. We average around 45,000 km/year (28,000 miles). After three years we turn the car in and get another one. This is one case where leasing saves us a lot of money.

Anonymous said...

ester mentioned a wig. If you really want to save money just don't use a sheitel. Tichels are very cheap even if you have one for every outfit you own.
If you have to use one to work, you can probaly get away with owning only one sheitel/headband fall and wash it yourself, it's not that hard.
Another area that wasn't mentioned in breakfast cereals, they are more expensive than chicken per pound.

Anonymous said...

To add to what Tamiri said about bargains in Israel:

It's true that we don't usually have coupons (although sales are advertised in the paper), but we have the shuk. In Jerusalem, ground beef is NIS 18/kilo in the shuk and at least NIS 30/kilo in most grocery stores. Fruits and vegetables tend to be cheap as well. Because the shuk is closed on Shabbat, if you can go late in the day on Friday (say, 2 hours before candle lighting), you can get dirt cheap fruits + veggies because they won't be good by Sunday. I used to do this every week when I lived near the shuk.

A lot of grocery stores have occasional sales on certain products, like diapers or cereals. If you stock up when they have sales (say, 3 packs of Huggies for NIS 150) you can save that way (Hareidi neighborhoods are the best place to shop for diapers, and many have generic brands). Our local Supersol has very cheap chicken depending on how much you buy. If you buy less than NIS 100 worth (say, 2 chickens), it's 13 shekels a kilo, if you buy more than NIS 100 it's around 7 shekels a kilo.

All of this is easy if you live in a city--there are buses everywhere, and most places are within walking distance, so it's easy to shop at a variety of stores. However, the real best way to save money in Israel is to move out to a yishuv or other development area somewhere, pay $50-100 per month for a nice caravan or $200-$350 per month for an apartment and, despite being "out of town," enjoy a religious school system that is relatively cheap and usually good.

Orthonomics said...

Esther-Some families do have to make major overhauls if they want their situation to improve. But, I can guarantee you that some of the minor changes can add up to major money too. Many of us need to undergo a complete overhaul which could include finding ane extra income, moving, home/co-op schooling (or even public schooling), changing work schedules, selling off items from cars to sheitals, etc.

L'chatchila, if a person lives frugally from the start and puts the money into savings, they will create a second or third "passive income" for themselves.

Those on the edge who make changes will find themselves breathing easier.

For those in debt, these "minor" changes can at least slow the hemorrage while they gear up to make more major changes. And remember, as debt is paid off, the interest charged falls too. How is that for a return???

But I agree with you. . . . sometimes a complete financial overhaul is needed.

MLevin---You are correct. The tablecloth could go. I don't think covering the table for Shabbat is halacha, albeit a strong, strong minhag. I figure the family already has the tablecloth, however.

Speaking of disposables, I consider the use of such to be one of the major "minor" money drains in the frum community.

Orthonomics said...

Ahuva-Great comments. Also, if you have a newer washering maching with a hand wash cycle, you can also wash work clothing little wear. I mentioned disposables above. Dry cleaning is another money drain in the frum community.

Ariella's blog said...

There are several facets to budget-breaking spending on a daily basis. One problem is that we have grown to regard luxuries as necessities.

Here's another cost-saving tip: wash and blow dry your sheitel yourself instead of paying $25-$50 to have someone do it for you. Think about it: you washed your own hair, didn't you? But I know that some women will not put a price cap on anything they feel is essential to their appearance. Of course the sheitel itself can vary in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. And one has to break out of the mold of thinking "but everyone gets a custom." More hair cost savings: skip the high priced salons, and learn how to trim your own kids' hair or find the places that charge just $5 a haircut for boys and men.

Orthonomics said...

Regarding Ariella's comment: One of the best things I think a young person can do is decide to live off less than the salary of their first "real job" and bank increases in salary. If you are accustomed to living as such, you will be better off.

MLevin-I agree with your point about the whining about having to shop in Wal-Mart as if that is undignified. When I was in middle school, I was embarrassed that we shopped at K-Mart. But now that I'm an adult, I can see this was super childish behavior. As a grown wife and mother, I am proud to say that I safeguard the assets of my family. In fact, the Ben Ish Hai talks about this being a major responsibility of the akeret habayit. :)

Charlie Hall said...

The suggestion about wigs is a good one: My wife has a closet full of headscarves and snoods that cost her far less than even a single decent human hair wig would have cost her. She wears scarves to work most days (hats or snoods the rest of the time); one of the advantages of living in New York is that in the Most Diverse City in the World one can get way with just about any kind of dress, including one that screams I AM A FRUM JEW! And unlike wigs, scarves are an acceptible womens' headcovering according to all halachic opinions.

Charlie Hall said...

"having to shop in Wal-Mart "

We don't have any Wal-Marts in New York City. But in the outer boroughs we do have "99 cent stores" which offer a lot of inexpensive basic household items.

Zach Kessin said...

Learn to love cheaper foods? I've just "found"* lentils and have asked my wife to make a large batch of her lentil salad ever weekend with the plan of bringing it to work for lunch.

However as much as saving a some money on groceries is a good idea. It seems to me that the real problems are the cost of tuition and simcahs. If those are not addressed the grocery savings can become like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

*I bet you never knew they were missing :)

Ahuva said...

Another thought on Ariella's comment:

"Of course the sheitel itself can vary in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars."

A married friend of mine wears a sheitel that cost less than $50. Do a Google search on "cheap wigs" or stop by a hair accessories store that caters to African American women. Synthetic wigs really don't look that bad and cost MUCH MUCH less. They don't last as long, but even spending $50 every 6-8 months is a lot more cost effective than a human hair sheitel.

Ariella's blog said...

I still remember when my mother's synthetic wigs cost under $100, and my own first wigs were blends at just about $100 a piece, but very few young women today are willing to give up on the human hair because they look and feel so much more natural than the synthetics. But even within that category, there is a huge difference in pricing.
So it may not be realistic to expect a kallah to buy a $75 wig, but, perhaps she can be persuaded to buy a $450 one rather than a $4000 one. Those are real prices, BTW. To illustrate my point, I know someone in Passaic who tried to set up a home business selling the cheaper wigs like the one you find in catalogs, but she did not find buyers. Even in that neighborhood, which was considered not very materialistic, women were treating themselves to custom, semi-custom, etc. A local sheitel macher showed me a wig for over $700 that a local woman was buying. And she was not a high-powered professional who might claim to need it for her job but someone who ran a playgroup out of her home.

I have never spent that kind of money on a wig and keep mine for quite a few years. But I also don't wear them out too much, as I wear snoods and hats around the hat and for most errands.

Ahavah said...

You don't have to go completely meatless - a single diced breast or single can of chicken can be added to a whole pot of soup or pasta for flavor and added "heft." Likewise for beef - a single minute size steak finely diced will do wonders and I regularly feed six for dinner.

I have never worn a wig and never plan to - and I have found some absolutely beautiful scarves on clearance or at the used clothing store. I have a whole basket full of them for less than a single wig would have cost. And I have always been of the opinion, however you may disagree, that if the idea is to not be attractive to men who are not your husband, then wearing a wig that makes you look more attractive (or for the purpose of making you look more attractive, I should say) is hardly fulfilling the purpose of the mitzvah.

It all boils down to what your priorities are - or aren't. The writer of this letter obviously considers looking good to other people (clothes, hair, make-up, etc.) to be more important than a balanced budget. Well, that's her choice, but griping about her poor choices doesn't impress me. I have two tablecloths - one dark cloth and the other a white backgroud with colored flowers and is vinyl coated and also not disposable.

And I have to agree with the person above who said that if you aren't willing to cut coupons and keep track of prices and shop strategically - well, that seems to me like just wanting someone else to solve your problems for you. It takes effort - and there are plenty of working women who manage it. So I find it hard to feel sorry for the letter-writer. She has chosen her priorities, and they just aren't responsible ones.

Anonymous said...

It is halacha to cover the tables for Shabbat. (S.A. Perek 72:7, also Biur Halacha, Peri Magadim, ) to remind us of the mann with which Hashem fed us in the desert which was covered with dew both underneath and above it. Similarly the bread for the Shabbat is covered in honor of the Shabbat.

Even if one does not plan to eat at his table for the meals of Shabbat, the tables are covered in honor of Shabbat (S.A. 72-7).

I have never met a Jewish family who did not have a table cloth for Shabbat (and this includes families who did not have a real TABLE, or much of anything else).