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.
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.
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").