This article was written by Kathleen McGinn Spring and Jamie Saxon
While it seems that almost everyone has a tactic for avoiding reality — spending time on Facebook is a big one, as are pedicures — when asked point-blank, what are you doing to save money, the answers come tripping off the tongue.
We called a dozen area working professionals, pretty much at random, and we only got three anonymous comments: one from a family who raids their township get-rid-of-all-your-junk day for printer cartridges to bring them to Staples for credit to get new ones; one from a woman who says she would rather bag groceries at the Acme than give up her cleaning lady; and one from a Lawrenceville resident who has found a free yoga class but doesn’t want anyone to know about it for fear it will fill to overflowing. And one socialite we saw consigning clothes at the new Greene Street Consignment shop on Nassau Street (see story this page) declined to be interviewed. And one eldercare consultant we contacted said she didn’t feel she could participate because her business is doing so well she isn’t cutting back at all. Of course we hate her.
We found a number of commonalities: Craig’s List and eBay were cited frequently, and plenty of people have mastered the art of coupons, both paper and virtual. In fact we discovered a number of websites for bargains and coupons, including half.com for books and videos, and couponmenot.com. One of our own editors shops at Stop & Shop in Pennington not only because it’s close to her house and has a fantastically affordable organic house brand for virtually all the items on her list, but the store prints coupons on the back of the receipt, and she gets $2 off her already-cheap $16 haircut at the SuperCuts next door. Everyone’s eating out less and when they do go out they are frequenting more affordable restaurants and BYOB. And library use is way up for both books and videos.
We also thought it important to ask people what they won’t give up. While several people say they are buying less wine, nobody is giving it up entirely, some are buying fewer bottles of good wine and others are trading down to lower priced wine. Nobody will give up their gym memberships, although some have switched to more affordable gyms. Others have put their memberships on a six-month hiatus.
There are those who can’t live without their daily Starbucks, and everyone with kids says they make the necessary sacrifices to give their children good-quality music and dance lessons and to send them to good camps. Many say they will still spend money for good-quality produce (and go to the area’s many farmers markets to buy local) and many are buying more organic produce, despite its higher cost.
What we found particularly interesting was that people who are still employed, who are not even being subjected to sporadic furloughs, are spending cautiously. They are either fearful about job security or they have realized that their spending they weren’t being careful with their money. Remarkably, now that they have cut back, they find that they’re enjoying life more, and spending more time with family and friends in ways that don’t have a price tag attached.
‘I’m on Facebook at the moment but I’m really supposed to be telecommuting,” says Princeton Township resident Michele Tuck-Ponder, when reached for a telephone interview. As executive director of the Women’s Fund in Union, Tuck-Ponder says that she has a fancy title but working for a non-profit means she doesn’t have a fancy salary — yet she still has to look like she has one. Her husband, Reinhold Ponder, is an attorney at Ponder & Williamson in Princeton.
“I’m a huge eBay person,” she says. “I need to dress pretty nicely for work. I would never walk into Nordstrom’s to buy a St. John’s suit, which can go for $2,000. I got one on eBay for $99. I got a pair of $100 spinning shoes for $25.” In addition to signing up for alerts when her desired items are up for sale, her secret eBay strategy is to go to the store, get the item number or style number, and then punch it into eBay. “I’ve even done it with lingerie. There’s this bra that Oprah wears called La Mysterie. It normally goes for $88. If you go on eBay you can get one for $29.” With two children, Jamaica, 10, and William, 2, she buys all her videos on eBay as well.
“Saving money is a really fun game. I’m always bragging, look, I got this for this much. I get such a kick out of it. My mother always used to say to me, don’t always pay full price, just be creative and patient. I research prices.” If she wants diapers for William, she types in “diaper coupons” into Google and almost always gets a printable coupon she can take to the store. She says she gets hand-me-downs for her son from friends. “All kinds of people give me clothes. Sometimes clothes show up on my porch and I don’t even know who they’re from.”
When it comes to food, Tuck-Ponder has a unique way of keeping costs down. “I’m a cook, so one of the things I do is, if they have coconut milk on sale at the supermarket, I buy five cans. Then I put coconut milk into Google or epicurious.com, then make that recipe. It’s forcing culinary experimentation.”
She admits to a penchant for exotic ingredients, but she has also taken this tack with salsa, canned soup, beans, and canned tomatoes. “I am cooking through my pantry and freezer.” Do her kids always eat what she makes? “I make them eat it. I’ve had a couple of clunkers. I don’t have money in my budget to do pizza and Chinese. I can’t remember the last time we went out to eat.”
She raves about her aerogarden, an indoor soil-less garden that she got at Bed, Bath, & Beyond with, of course, a 20 percent off coupon. Instead of paying $2 or $3 for a package of basil that inevitably shrivels up in the refrigerator, she grows it in her aerogarden along with dill, oregano, thyme, even lettuce, 365 days a year. “We’re trying to reduce waste. If I only need half a head of lettuce, that’s all I pick.”
She does draw the line, however. “My makeup and hair are non-negotiable. I’m in the paper a lot, so I have to look good.” As for her hair, she says, “Not only do I pay, I drive to Hackensack (to get my hair done).” She buys her makeup from Sephora and also doesn’t skimp on what she puts on her children’s skin, using brands such as Eucerin and never the house brand. “As I’ve gotten older” (she’s 51), I’m really careful about what I put on my body.” There’s one more thing she won’t give up. “Star…bucks…Cof.fee,” she sounds out as if articulating to a foreigner. “Soy…latte.” That’s $4 a day that won’t go in the piggy bank.
Mike Briehler is a busy guy. The owner of PEAC Health and Fitness on Route 31 Pennington, he has just started Inhouse, a marketing firm with offices on Main Street in Pennington. His days start early, and they start with savings in mind.
“I get up at 4 a.m. and log onto Craig’s List,” he says. “I plug in Pennington/Hopewell/Titusville to see what was just listed. I don’t have a lot of time, and this is a good way to browse.” He wants an air compressor and is confident that “one day a small air compressor will come up.”
Meanwhile, he has scored some amazing bargains. His strategy is all nonchalance. He sees something he needs, politely informs the seller of the (low, low) price he is willing to pay — and then just waits. If he doesn’t get his prey, fine. But quite often he does.
“I saw a brand new $2,500 king size mattress,” he recounts. “They wanted $1,000 for it. I wrote and said ‘if you’re ever willing to take $200 for it, let me know.’ I got a call on Easter. They said ‘it’s not what we want to take, but we’re moving to an apartment and we have to get it out of here.’” Briehler drove over and picked up the mattress. “It was still in the plastic,” he marvels.
The father of four, including three-month-old Cooper, Breihler also scored a $900 crib, offered on Craig’s List for $300, for $50. The family selling it lived just half-a-mile away, which is a big plus for Breihler, who knows to the dime how much it costs to drive to any given location. “We coupon shop,” he says. “I had a $5-off coupon for formula at Sam’s Club, where it was $25. It would have been $38 in the supermarket. It costs me 70 cents to drive my Honda pick-up to Sam’s Club.” Coupon, plus bargain price, minus low-cost drive equaled a worthwhile saving for the Breihler household, which also includes his wife, Michelle, a yoga and pilates instructor, their two-and-a-half-year-old, Kole, and two older children, 25-year-old Michael, and 20-year-old Kelly.
These small savings add up, and Breihler hopes that substantial energy improvements in his home will generate even bigger savings down the road. “I have a 40-year-old home,” he says. “I replaced all the windows, converted from oil to gas, and put in 12-inch insulation. I found that it only costs 10 percent more to go from 6-inch to 12-inch insulation.” With the paltry interest banks are paying, Breihler says it makes much more sense to “invest in your house.”
“I wouldn’t buy plastic shoes for the kids, but I will buy kids’ clothes at garage sales,” says Breihler. “I look for minimal packaging. Cereal in a cellophane bag is a good value. I’m very price conscious. I always think that way. My family had two restaurants. I grew up with spreadsheets, budgets. I’m always looking for value spending.”
Janie Hermann, technology librarian at the Princeton Public Library, could write the book on money management. Five years ago, she and her husband, Ed Hermann, who works in software configuration management at ETS, adopted their son, Alex, from Russia. It was a major expense, and the couple “cut everything to accomplish this,” she says.
This year they were all set to ease up a bit as Alex made the leap from day care to public kindergarten in Lawrence Township. “Day care is so expensive. You can’t believe it,” says Hermann. “It’s $1,100 to $1,200 a month. It’s like a second mortgage.”
Just as that expense lifted, though, the recession settled in. “We both have secure jobs,” says Hermann. “Well, I think our jobs are secure. But there were no raises this year.” The economy is troubling enough to the couple that they have cut back even further than they did during the day care years. “With no day care, we thought we would do this and that. We have money in the bank, but it’s the uncertainty.” So rather than living it up, the Hermanns are “examining everything” with an eye to living lean.
“We haven’t been out as much,” says Hermann. “We’ve cut dinner and a movie from two times a month to once a month. We’ve cut out magazines and we cut back to basic cable.” She laughs as she admits to a 21st century oddity. “We just have one TV,” she says, “it’s 10-years old and it’s not a flat screen.” Also, the color is going.
Despite her enviable downtown Princeton work location, Hermann packs her lunch. “It’s the biggest savings,” she says. “Even at a Princeton cafe, lunch is $9 or $10.”
With lunch in the bag, Hermann and her husband devised a plan to cut down on budget-wrecking impulse purchases. “Whenever either of us wants to buy something above a set limit, we have to call the other.” The limit has fluctuated, but is generally either $25 or $50. A recent example involved a crock pot. “It had some different features. It was all digital. And it was on sale,” Hermann recounts. Before heading to the cash register, though, she called her husband. “He reminded me that we already have two sizes of crock pot,” she says. “He asked ‘do we need it now?’”
On the energy front, all of the family’s old appliances were swapped for new, energy efficient models. “There was no big change with the kitchen appliances,” says Hermann, “but there was a big change with the washer and dryer and the hot water heater. I was surprised at how much energy they sucked up.” More savings come from hanging clothes outside to dry in the warm months and from running the dishwasher just three times a week and stopping it before it gets to the dry cycle.
For Alex’s clothes, Hermann taps into her online moms’ forum. “I have an online friend in Chicago,” she says. “Her son is six months older than Alex.” She pays her friend the cost of shipping and “throws in a few bucks.”
Choosing low maintenance pets for Alex, Hermann went with hermit crabs. Rather than consuming cases of food, the little creatures thrive on the bits of carrot, and, Hermann reports, her five-year-old thoroughly enjoys watching them.
Hermann uses credit cards, favoring those that give rewards, and likes to put big purchases on store cards that offer 12 month no-interest promotions. She warns, however, that choosing a no-interest option of longer than 12 months can damage a credit rating. Besides, she says, “If you can’t pay for something in 12 months, you can’t afford it.”
Both Hermanns, who put 30 percent of their combined salaries into savings accounts, have second jobs. “I work online as a freelance librarian for Q&ANJ.org 30 hours a month,” says Hermann. “I work from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. I can do it in my pajamas while I’m watching television. It’s good money. It’s our fun money.” More extra cash comes from Ed Hermann’s second job. “He gives music lessons,” says his wife. “Guitar is his passion.”
Despite the extra income, there will be no vacation this summer. “We were thinking of Myrtle Beach,” says Hermann. “We have the money, but we don’t want to spend it.” She is willing to spend in other areas, though. “Alex is going to the ESF Day Camp at the Lawrenceville School,” she says. “I feel safe with him there. I won’t send him to a discount camp. I have to know he is well taken care of.” Likewise, she is determined to keep him in “the things he wants,” which currently include gymnastics and swimming.
She is also willing to spend more for fresh, local produce. “I like to spend $125 a week on groceries,” she says, “but lately it’s been more like $150.” To help make up for the high cost of produce, she has “dropped soda altogether.”
High on the Hermann’s list of must-haves is a gym membership, but she has switched from a full-service gym to Retro Fitness in Lawrence. It’s no frills, but it’s half the price. This was not a big sacrifice, she says, because “we didn’t have time for the classes anyway.”
The family’s plan for rock bottom media costs — everything from books to DVDs — is no surprise. “We use the library,” says Hermann.
With three kids aged 17, 13, and 10, Sarah Unger, development and communications director of Crisis Ministries in Trenton, and her husband, Michael, chief administrative officer of the Atlantic Foundation in Hamilton, have visions of college bills dancing in their heads. But while Unger says they are in a good position because they have never lived beyond their means she actually hesitates to cut back too much.
“When a household tightens its belt, others feel it down the line. There’s always a consequence to that: a service provider, manufacturer, or restaurant is being affected in some way. We’re sensitive to wanting to support local businesses,” says Unger. “It’s one thing to cut back; it’s another thing to do it so severely you’re actually hurting the economy.”
She notes that both she and her husband have short commutes to their jobs, so that cuts down on gas use. “We don’t have an enormous house to heat or cool. We’re very content with the feel of our neighborhood and our friends, instead of the size of our house,” says the Ewing resident. The Ungers don’t have to spend lots of money to go out to eat or have a social life, because it’s right in their backyard. “We live in a neighborhood where potlucks rule, it’s very much a patio kind of neighborhood.”
She says a weekly grocery shopping excursion is a thing of the past. “Instead I shop more on an as-needed basis so less goes to waste.” She can be found at Trenton Farmers Market on a Saturday, which she says is “extremely economical.” With what she calls a “one-two punch” she then pops into Halo right next door and nails her best bargain: antibiotic- and hormone-free milk for a mere $1.10 a half-gallon. It would be $3.69 a half-gallon at the supermarket. With three kids, the family drinks 8 to 10 half-gallons a week.
Unger says Crisis Ministries has seen a 30 percent increase in the number of people coming in for help over the last 12 months. “We’re at a new normal.” A couple of weeks ago, on the first day of the weekly Wednesday farmers market the nonprofit holds at its East Hanover Street headquarters, it served more than 200 families in three hours. To qualify client families must demonstrate financial need. The market offers fresh produce, donated by Whole Foods and Philabundance, a food rescue agency. “We’re starting to get offers from people who want to share the excess from their backyard gardens,” says Unger. Call 609-396-9355 for more information.
“Because of the state of the economy people are appreciating what they have, at least with regard to our supporters,” Unger says. “People are definitely taking seriously the needs of others; people are still very freely sharing. I think the economy has crystallized that.”
And while Unger cuts corners by buying less red meat and visiting the library more often, there’s one thing she will not give up: cable. “I gotta watch my Law & Order. I’m an addict. I watch all of them.”
‘We started to feel the effects of the recession in 2007 with higher gas prices and higher food prices,” says Robin Johnson, director of legal and governmental affairs for the New Jersey Higher education Student Assistance Authority in Trenton. She and her husband, Greg, an attorney at Wong Fleming, at 821 Alexander Drive, live in Lawrence with their two children, Matthew, 15, and Paige, 11.
Johnson says she and her husband hide nothing from their kids when it comes to budgeting. “We have a very forthright approach with them about finances and about life in general and the impact the rise in costs will have on our lives. We talk about it in ways that our parents never did. Greg and I are both the youngest in large families, and we both lost our fathers at a young age, and so we had some very harsh realities that we had to face very young.
“The best gift we can give our children is to be honest and direct, not to scare them or make them insecure but to make sure they are aware of what’s gong on in our lives. Our parents thought the best way to keep us safe was to keep everything from us, which has an overall negative effect in terms of security — you know something’s going on but you don’t know what. Kids are sensitive to the dynamics of the home.”
After two years, Johnson says the recession just seems like the norm now, “making the kids aware, OK, we have to tighten our belt, cut costs when necessary.” Johnson says it’s essential to know your prices. “I may find myself going to two or three supermarkets to get the best prices.” Wegman’s, for example, is not always more expensive. “The Wegman’s house brand of peanut butter is cheaper than ShopRite’s. And their produce is outstanding and priced competitively. I try to be watchful and know my prices.” The Johnsons have a family meeting every Sunday to compare schedules, plan menus for the week, and shop accordingly.
“My kids love to say so-and-so has the newest phone. I say, I don’t care what that person has, I don’t know what their budget is. I know what the Johnson family budget is’ For special items we delay gratification until we have extra discretionary funds. I’ll say, That’s not in the budget this week.”
She says she has made sacrifices so that her kids can attend Art Youniversity in Hamilton for theater and dance. “It is a great experience for them. The whole artistic side develops them more wholly.” She says that her daughter really wanted to go to an expensive sleepover camp this year. They’re doing the camp but as for the rest of her summer, “we’ll have to figure it out,” Johnson says.
Johnson won’t give up her gym membership — or some of her magazine subscriptions. “This was such an historic year for African-Americans, I wouldn’t give up my subscriptions to Ebony and Jet. We grew up on that and it was really critical that we maintained those subscriptions. We gave up others. It was really important for us as a family to have those magazines in our home at this time.”
The Johnsons have cut back on going out to breakfast, which they enjoy, and now typically just have a Sunday morning brunch after church, which Johnson says is a nice way to connect with friends. “While it’s a challenge sometimes trying to prioritize all the things that are important, in the long run I think we’re setting an example for our children that just because there are some financial difficulties that this whole country is facing you can respond in a way that’s healthy and not doom and gloom.
“With preparation and cooperation, people can find that middle ground.”
Some people we spoke with have been bargain hunters all along, it’s just that now it’s almost chic to be that way. Suzanne Nelson, a real estate agent with Prudential, Fox, & Roach in Princeton says she and her husband, Kevin, associate director of field development for Bristol-Myers Squibb, who moved to Plainsboro eight years ago from Kansas, have always lived that way. “We always try to spend the least amount for the best quality. It’s just a philosophy.”
In the midwest, Nelson, who has three children, now 19, 16, and 14, got hooked on yard sales for her children’s clothing. “I just got a bunch of those Rubbermaid bins and labeled them with different sizes, so I could buy ahead. My friends and I were finding things that still had the tags on them.” The Nelsons mastered the art of the yard sale, culling a mailing list for future sales by having people fill out postcards, and holding wine and cheese preview nights before each sale. “This was way before eBay. We were flipping things then, even before flipping was fashionable.”
Her top two sources for bargains are Craig’s List and the Red, White, and Blue thrift store in Hamilton. On Craig’s List she got a Century (one of the Cadillac brands of furniture) down-blend sofa, ottoman, and chair for about $700 (the sofa alone retails for more than $2,000) from a woman in Freehold who was downsizing. Nelson simply rented an Enterprise cargo van to pick it up. She got a three-year-old Ethan Allen set — sofa, two chairs, and ottoman — that normally retails for $4,500 for $500. “I just happened to see it and I was the first one to E-mail them. Kevin got our John Deere riding mower on Craig’s List from the Grover’s Mill neighborhood and drove it back.”
Perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in the area is the thrift store Red, White, & Blue at 2055 Nottingham Way in Hamilton (www.redwhiteandbluethriftstore.com). It is a giant space, and it’s not unusual to see BMWs and Mercedes parked in the lot (how do you think rich people stay rich?) “It is the best, it’s just very fun,” says Nelson, who could find a bargain at Tiffany’s if you gave her enough time. “You have to know that 6 out of 10 times you go there you won’t find anything.” But when you do find something, it’ll make you feel like you live in 90210. “Some of the stuff is so high-quality.” She got a Mackenzie-Childs (an upscale china and home furnishings store on 57th Street in Manhattan) iced tea pitcher and three tall glasses for $10. A Juicy Couture track suit for $9.95. A North Face down ski coat for $20. A $300 pair of Stuart Wietzman women’s shoes for $2.97. “There’s tons of Abercrombie & Fitch. And there are always Uggs.”
Even when Nelson pays full price for something, there’s savings involved, and often savings in time and money. For example, she bought two $100 Brooks Brothers tailored Oxford shirts, but thanks to a special ingredient in the fabric she never has to iron them or dry clean them. “I just pull them out of the dryer and they’re perfect, every time.”
Her home ec classes back in middle school have served her well. A superb seamstress, Nelson dolled up a vintage dress for her 16-year-old daughter for the prom this year. Her daughter’s friend gave her the dress, and Nelson decorated the hem with rickrack and added netting underneath to make it fuller. “She wanted a very expensive $100 swimsuit this year. I said, you wear that dumb prom dress one time; you wear a bathing suit a million times.” After she started work on the dress, she happened one day to toss an old vintage hanky on it from a pile that was on the table. “The dress literally began to come to life. I made a collage of a bouquet of flowers from the hankies, and it was amazing on her. I saw all the girls in their dresses and nobody had anything like it.”
Her husband, Nelson says, “is the big coupon man. He says it’s like he’s making one-third more on his paycheck. He cuts them from the Star-Ledger or gets them online. Mostly for food, toothpaste, paper towels. I refuse to do that. I don’t have the patience. So that’s his realm. Kevin doesn’t believe in buying a store brand or generic; get the good brand on sale and pay less. The kicker is that it gets down to the point — what with doubled coupons and sales — that they’re paying you to take it out of the store, they somehow take it off what you owe them. That’s how we end up with 13 jars of barbeque sauce. I had to give away jars of barbeque sauce when we moved here because I didn’t want to pack them. We have excessive amounts of food here. Pasta, for example. We could not go to the store for the rest of the summer except for milk, bread, and eggs.”
What also helps is Kevin’s huge vegetable garden. “Kevin has always had a garden, ever since I met him over 20 years ago. He grows asparagus, mixed greens, snow peas, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, cilantro, potatoes, and onions.” They compost, too. “You just figure everybody’s doing it, it just becomes what you do.”
They switched from Comcast to FiOS, which saves them $100 for the first six months, and then $60 a month after that. Nelson gets on the Mazda dealer website before she takes her car in for servicing and almost always finds a coupon (“all dealers do this but they don’t mention it”). But she won’t give up sending the dogs to the groomer. And she won’t give up her cleaning lady, although now she says she can only afford to have the first floor of the house done.
“I never really understood why someone would brag about how much they paid for something. I think it’s more fun to brag about how little you paid.”
Coby Green-Rifkin, director of marketing at Grounds For Sculpture, says one of her best-kept secrets for dining out inexpensively is right there at work. Rat’s restaurant offers a $38 prix fixe menu, with appetizer, entree, and dessert. “You sit on the patio and you are on vacation eating delicious food. You’re not in Hamilton, NJ, anymore.”
Green-Rifkin, who is single, lives in Kingston. She says she has cut back on her landscaper, and is now doing the lawn every two weeks instead of every week. She is planning to buy a reusable water bottle to cut down on bottled water purchases and she’s reduced her weekly mani-pedi’s to a pedicure every three weeks at Nail Zone in the Windsor Green Shopping Center. For $30, she says, “When I sit there in the massage chair, the polish on my toes becomes irrelevant. It’s the experience of being pampered for a half-hour or if they’re not busy, for an hour.” She does her fingernails herself.
One trick Green-Rifkin is happy to share is her wine-buying tactic. She goes to Joe Canal’s, and asks one of the wine-expert employees to put together, say, a nice mix of six or eight bottles of Pinot Grigio, each for under $15. She also says she’s doing more hand-washing of dry cleanable clothing. “And I’ve rekindled my love affair with Loehmann’s (in East Brunswick),” where she recently scored three Cynthia Steele dresses, which normally go for about $300 each, for $40 to $60 each.
What won’t she give up? Like many people we talked to, she won’t give up her FiOS. Nor will she give up her once-a-month massages ($80/hour), or her gym membership at Princeton Wellness and Fitness ($79/month).
‘When boneless chicken is on sale for $1.99 a pound, I’m there,” says Helen Patterson, an attorney assistant with the Attorney General’s office in Trenton. “Buy it, put it in the big freezer.” Patterson lives with her husband, David, who also works for the state in the Department of Transportation, and 13-year-old son, also David, in Lawrenceville. Their daughter, Elizabeth, is in college.
“Elizabeth buys her textbooks on half.com or buys them used. I told her to be a deal-maker on campus, that’s an order. She makes jewelry and I’ve advised her to sell it on campus. People will buy it.”
Patterson’s friend turned her onto the website retailmenot.com. “I’m all over that. They list restaurants. For example, you can look up Uno’s, and see if there are any coupons. That helps with rationalizing that it’s OK to go out. I’ve gotten coupons for Kohl’s, Borders.”
Not only has she given up Blockbuster, she’s also given up NetFlix. “I won’t rent movies because I’m frugal. I go on the Mercer County library website and look up what I want to see. If the library doesn’t have it, they’ll order it. And you get to keep it for a week. The Lawrence Library is enroute from my work to my house, so I’m not using any more gas.” Patterson is very conscious of gas use. “I won’t just jump in my car and go to Wegman’s anymore. If Elizabeth is visiting a friend in the area, I say, stop at Wegman’s on your way back and pick up whatever it is that we need.”
They are scaling back on red meat and drinking less wine. When son David wanted to do a summer program for the bass guitar for $1,000 at Princeton School of Rock, where he has been taking lessons, Patterson knew she needed an alternative. While in Music & Arts, a store in Mercer Mall, she mentioned her dilemma, and discovered the store offers a summer program of weekly lessons culminating in an end-of-summer concert, for just $100. “I’m seriously considering it,” she says.
She has also cut way back on charitable giving. While she had freely written annual checks in the past to organizations such as the Vets and Special Olympics, she says she doesn’t give nearly as much now. “I said no a lot this year.” She is adamant about supporting the arts, however, and is a subscriber to Passage Theater in Trenton. She and her husband recently attended its annual gala, and paid $75 a ticket. “Even though that’s not a lot for a gala ticket, I really had to think that through.” What she won’t give up is concert and theater tickets — she recently enjoyed “Movin’ Out” at the State Theater. “That gives me joy.”
While people who are employed may say they have to cut back to make ends meet, what do the unemployed do? Rosi Schwarz recently lost two jobs, almost back to back. First she was hired in a temp to perm job assisting in the executive director’s office at the Foundation for New Jersey Public Broadcasting at NJN. But when NJN lost a lot of funding, many employees were let go, Schwarz among them. One of Schwarz’s co-workers who was also let go became the president of the Rita Allen Foundation and asked Schwarz to help set up the foundation’s first permanent office. Again, it was a temporary position and Schwarz felt it would have become permanent. But the organization’s auditors advised the president to hire someone with a strong financial background instead.
Schwarz’s unemployment has run out, and she was not working long enough to be eligible for funds from the economic stimulus package. “They keep pulling rules out of the woodwork,” she says. Single, Schwarz is trying hard to hold onto her home in Ewing. “I stopped buying clothes, period. I shop at Sam’s Club, and everything I buy gets preceded by the question: do I really need this? Makeup, anything that could be considered impulse purchases, are gone. I’m not eating meat at all.”
Schwarz says she has to have her printer for sending out resumes but has found a way around the high price of printer ink. Even the multi-packs at Sam’s are too expensive. She now buys ink online and refills her cartridges. She used to have three telephone lines — one each for home, office, and fax — and is now down to one, with a $60 switching device that differentiates the rings for phone and fax. She consigns clothes at Second Time Around, a consignment shop in Pennington where she volunteers. She has cancelled all magazine subscriptions and switched from dealer repair to gas station repair for her Subaru.
For stress relief, Schwarz says she walks and does other exercise, listens to music (much of it borrowed from the MercerCounty library system), eats right, and spends time with her cat. She also credits support from her family and “a great group of women I met through the NORWESCAP Career and Life Planning Center (www.norwescap.org) in Flemington. “There is a lot of energy floating around these days, and I just keep trying to latch onto and generate positive energy and avoid the negative.”
Richard K. Rein
Time is money, U.S. 1 editor Richard K. Rein likes to say, and he evokes that cliche often as he spends money here or there in pursuit of his impossible dream of a newspaper that edits itself.
So when the hot water heater at his house went on the blink, the decision to replace it rather than trying to make repairs was almost a foregone conclusion. (“Almost” because four years ago, when both of the air conditioner units at his house konked out and the repairman made two fruitless — but expensive — attempts to fix them, Rein decided to forego air conditioning. Since then he and his family have survived with window fans and an attic fan.)
But the hairshirt existence does not extend to cold showers for the parsimonious publisher. A contractor was summoned and offered an estimate of $2,200 for a replacement unit. At that point Rein did the previously unthinkable: He decided to get a second opinion — a reaction that he now realizes was a total product of these recessionary times.
“Normally I’d say, ‘sure, maybe I can save $200, or even $500 on the heater. But if the new one lasts as long as the old one, 14 years, what’s the savings per year? And how does that compare to the cost of scheduling appointments, getting home to open up the house for estimators, and all the other stuff that’s included in ‘shopping around’?”
But in 2009 the suddenly budget-conscious editor and publisher decided to shop around. The result: Two trips during the work day from the office to the house and back and numerous cell phone calls. The process also included sorting through one apples and oranges aspect to the estimates — one contractor said that the venting system in the basement might be in violation of the construction code and based his estimate on that fact; the other said it would not be a problem, but promised to make any changes necessary at no extra cost to make it compliant. “It was a crazy day,” says Rein. And at the end of that day Rein had saved — drum roll, please — about $100.
Rein claims to have no regrets. “If I hadn’t done it I’d still be losing sleep for spending more than $2,000 on a hot water heater.” And who would wish a sleepless night on someone in a house with no air conditioning.
‘We weren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses,” says Wendy Pearman. “We were the Joneses.” In her former life, before a divorce, Pearman lived in an 8,000-square-foot home, vacationed in Caribbean hideaways, and bought anything that caught her eye. “If I saw $300 boots I liked in Macy’s, I would buy them and then call the New York store and tell them to send me any other color they had in size 8.”
Her marriage to a central New Jersey developer was not happy, as she writes in her new book, “Better Not Bitter” (available at www.iuniverse.com), but it was a marriage in which budgeting played no part.
Now, 14 years later, Pearman, who had never worked before her divorce, is assistant to Tom Szaky, founder and president of Terracycle. She is also something of an expert on living on less — much less. She devotes part of her book to tips on doing so.
Her employer is the clever Trenton recycling company that gives discarded materials new lives as all manner of hip products — flower pots from fax machines, book bags made from juice containers. Pearman says she got the job “because I am Terracycle!”
“I reuse everything,” she says. When she eats out she comes prepared to cut her meal in two and put half into a container that once housed another meal. She indulges a taste for high quality organic food by keeping freshly ground $17-a-jar cashew butter on her shopping list. “But,” she says, “I eat every last bit, and then I reuse the container.”
For the legions of people suddenly facing living on less, Pearman has some basic advice: “If you’re looking to get through this period of your life with less stress, you are going to have to be — or become — low maintenance.”
She has done so, and sums up the results this way: “I stopped coloring my hair,” she says. “I’m gray, and I’m fine.” In addition, she counsels, “If you need to shop, go to a consignment store. You can get an Ann Taylor for $2.95. Every Ann Taylor in my closet is from a consignment store.” Pearman advises against lingering in any shopping venue. “Stay away from the mall,” she says. “Every time you walk in to get your hair cut, you’ll walk out with impulse purchases.”
Even more important than her low maintenance advice, is Pearman’s counsel to be relentless and creative in getting what you really want — for little or nothing.
This is how she made her way into the job market. “I never pay for a class,” she says. “If I need to learn Excel or Outlook, I go to a temp agency, where they teach you for free.” While she was doing just this a couple of years ago, a temp agency owner asked if she was comfortable enough with Outlook to take a job with Princeton University. She was, and she worked for the university before landing the job at Terracycle. A Rider University graduate who earned her degree while raising her three children, she has also worked for the state. The benefits were great, she says, but as a single woman she need to earn more, and hopped from job to job until she found one she loved that paid a good wage.
Pearman, who lives in Pennington with Paul Chiaverini, a remodeler, loves to travel, and “we travel well,” she says. Some trips are funded through her part-time job with Mary Kay. “People laugh,” she says, “but it’s $3,500 a year, and I get my make-up half price.” Other trips come as a result of volunteer work. “I was a coach for the American Stroke Association,” she says. “I worked with couch potatoes who wanted to run a marathon. It started out as volunteer work, but then I got a stipend.” She took on the work partly out of a passion for the sport and a desire to help others achieve the high of running a marathon and partly “so I could travel.” She went with her runners to races around the country.
Reaching even further, she went online to look for Habitat for Humanity home building projects abroad. She was hoping for something in Africa, but came upon an undersubscribed trip to New Zealand at the end of 1999. “No one wanted to go, it was Christmas,” she says. But she quickly realized that taking part in building four homes for poor families would mean that she could see the very first sunrise of the new millennium. She sent emails to friends, soliciting help to her get there. The donations came in and she was able to spent 19 days in New Zealand.
Pearman is as passionate about her home as she is about running and traveling. “If you love your home, you don’t have to go out all the time.” Her house is small, she says, and is furnished inexpensively — Paul just made a new light fixture from pipes — but she thoroughly enjoys being there.
Still she is not about to give up dining out altogether. She cuts the cost not only by taking home half of her meal, but also by bringing her own wine, which, she says, cuts the cost of enjoying good wine by some 75 percent.
Her guiding philosophy is: “If I can’t afford it, I don’t buy it.” She says that she is far happier in her new life than she was when she was spending with abandon. Says Pearman: “It’s a lot of work being the Joneses.”
Business is better than ever for Mary Bennett, a CPA with a private practice in Lawrenceville. “I’m getting a lot more referrals,” she says. “No one trusts anyone anymore.” Loyal longtime clients are sending their friends to her, and many are now old enough that they are sending their children as well.
“Honestly, I have a decent income,” says Bennett, who has two grown sons. “I have the money to buy from catalogs, to buy clothes and knick knacks. But I don’t. My savings are down to two-thirds of what they were. I’m going to be 60 soon, and I’m worried.” She says that she is constantly coming across economic doom and gloom stories, and she believes them. She thinks that preparing for an uncertain future is imperative.
“It’s time to be careful, to be accountable,” says Bennett, who began to work on economizing just about one year ago. She is looking at all of her expenses — big and small. “I re-financed the house at a really good rate,” she says. A competitive master diver, she cuts her utility and water bills a bit by showering at the pool. Her book budget, once $40 to $50 a month, is down to zero. “I love to read,” she says. “But now I use the library.”
Overspending on food has never been a problem. “I eat peanut butter and eggs,” she says. “I’ve always been conservative in what I eat. I eat at home. I make chicken on the weekends and have leftovers.”
But Bennett is not about to cut down on travel. “I travel three to four times a year,” she says. She has recently been to Scotland, and visited New Zealand not long ago. Many of her trips are connected to the diving meets. She will not cut back on them, but she is now searching for cheap hotels. “The last time I stayed at the official meet hotel, at $100 a night,” she says. “From now on, I’m staying at the Motel 6.”
The money she saves can go toward paying for the one expense Bennett absolutely, under no circumstances, will cut. “I am not giving up my cleaning lady!” Bennett exclaims. “She adds so much to my quality of life.”
Tanisha Nash Laird
‘There’s no shame in the dollar store,” declares Tanisha Nash Laird, executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association. She is full of smart shopping tips as her household adjusts to a new income level while her husband, Roland Laird, transitions from a job on Wall Street to a new life as an author, publisher, speaker, and developer.
Funny as she tries out frugal, Laird says of one economy measure: “I made some household cleaner — with mixed results.”
Other strategies have been home runs. “I have set up a separate Gmail account just for coupons and offers,” says Laird. The idea occurred to her when a store offered a 10 percent off “just for giving my E-mail.”
Not wanting to clog up her main account, she added the new discounts-only account. She checks in on the offers a few times a week, and has reaped big savings. Recently she found an offer for 80 percent off designer jeans. At about the same time another retailer was offering its E-mail customers an even bigger discount on blazers. “It was a splurge,” says Laird, “but I got six blazers for $140. My new look is jeans and jackets, and these are ready to wear to work.”
Embarked on a new fitness routine that has her at the gym at dawn, Laird says she’s putting much more thought into wellness. “If you’re sick, that costs money,” she says. “There is a connection between wellness and money.” Her family, which includes three-year-old Imani, eats out much less, tries to avoid fast food, and enjoys fresh produce. “My toddler loves fruit mixed with vegetables,” she says. “I buy what’s in season and make a nice smoothie. She loves it. It feels like a treat.”
Family vacations are now woven into Roland Laird’s speaking engagements whenever possible. The author of “Still I Rise: A History of African Americans,” he speaks around the country, and when possible, his family joins him, exploring free and low-cost local attractions, and scouting out budget hotels along the way. Closer to home, Laird says, “We’re doing things we should do anyway. We’ve always had museum memberships, but now we’re actually using them.”
The Lairds are now scrutinizing every expense. “We’ve downloaded Google Doc’s budget template,” says Tanisha Laird. “We have taken a cold, hard look at what we’re withdrawing, and where it’s going.” They have cut subscriptions they were never using, including at least one that each of them was paying for, unbeknownst to the other.
Cutting out the unused and duplicate subscriptions was easy, but the biggest budget cut was a tough one.
“I wanted my husband to give up his season tickets to the Sixers,” says Laird, “but I didn’t want to ask him to do it. He loves basketball, and I know he wanted to pass the tickets on to Imani someday.” But Roland Laird made the decision on his own, saving the family “thousands of dollars,” says his wife. She knows how hard it was. “I’m so proud of him,” she says.
The family is feeling good about its tightened budget.
“We’re blessed,” says Laird. Speaking not just for her family, but for many central New Jersey families, she says, “we went through a time of endless abundance.” There was heedless spending, driven in part by severe time deprivation. Now there is more thought attached to every purchase.
But new frugality or not, some things are still firmly on the “must have” list. Laird pays more for a full service gym, where she watches movies her husband has loaded onto her iPod, thereby, she points out, saving the expense of DVDs. And, she adds emphatically: “I will not give up my pedicures!”