Simple ways to save
Here are the new — old — rules of home economics, thanks to the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in New Jersey. And Grandma.
• Use cash instead of a credit card.
• When you do use your credit card, pay it off promptly.
• Consider generics rather than name brands.
• Conserve energy. Turn off lights, turn down thermostats, buy energy-saving bulbs, weatherproof windows, close off rooms you don’t use.
• Use products seasonally. Don’t buy strawberries in January, when they’re twice as expensive.
• Consider renting expensive items. Don’t pay for a floor polisher you’re only going to use once every two years.
• Pass your clothing on, don’t throw it out.
• Sew buttons, patch pockets.
• Plan vacations in order to take advantage of the midweek or weekend specials.
• Consider going to a restaurant for lunch, rather than dinner.
Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. You remember. And perhaps you also remember the house.
Plastic slipcovers on the furniture. Mothballs in the closet. And in the cupboard: a little ball of string, scrap tinfoil or balled-up rubber bands.
Grandmother’s habits were formed during the Great Depression, where thrift was paramount. Furniture, clothes, food — whatever it was, it had to last as long as possible.
And you smiled as she balled up each bit of string, thinking how tough it must have been to grow up in an era before credit cards, throwaway products and throwaway income.
Well, somewhere up in heaven, Granny is laughing her head off.
The current economic crisis is sparking the return of habits — even institutions — long thought dead and gone. The layaway plan — that antique form of consumerism where you actually pay for the goods before you take them home — has made a smash comeback, with stores like Kmart, T.J. Maxx and Burlington Coat Factory offering step payment plans this holiday shopping season.
Meanwhile, homemaking experts are coaching the current generation of spendthrifts on how to mend instead of discard, how to hoard instead of waste and how to save their pennies for the rainy day that now, finally, seems to be upon us.
“We’re a throwaway society,” says Pat Brennan, a certified financial planner who teaches adult-education courses with names like “What to Do in Scary Economic Times” for the Rutgers (N.J.) Cooperative Extension.
“We don’t repair anything anymore,” Brennan says. “We don’t repair appliances, we throw them out. We have built-in obsolescence. That’s kind of like a public policy.”
Consumerism, for the boomers and Gen-Xers, has become a civic virtue — just as “blood, toil, tears and sweat” were for our grandparents. “I encourage you all to go shopping more,” said President Bush in a December 2006 speech. And two weeks after 9/11: “Get down to Disney World in Florida.”
It was a very different world when Anita Rejmaniak, 88, was growing up.
She was 9 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929; during the Depression and the world war that followed, she was taught to squeeze a penny — so the saying went back then — until Lincoln grinned.
“We couldn’t be frivolous and just get something and throw it away,” Rejmaniak says. “If you didn’t have the money, you had to save up for it, so much a week. I remember ... there was a dress I liked — it was $5. I had to wait five weeks. I saved up a dollar a week.”
Others could tell you stories, too, of belt-tightening and penny pinching; of Christmas decorations made from construction paper; of table settings collected, one piece at a time, at the “dish night” of the local cinema; of “oleo margarine” that had to be kneaded by hand.
“It came in a plastic bag,” Brennan recalls. “There was an orange spot in this lump of lard, and you pressed it to release the color, and you kneaded it to look like butter. It was too expensive to get real butter.”
There’s no question that most of us will be seeing difficult times in the months ahead. And now might be the time to revisit some of those quaint habits of our grandparents that might not be so quaint after all.
“It’s a lot about going back to basics,” says Barbara O’Neill, financial management specialist for Rutgers Cooperative Extension. “When you’re buying run-of-the-mill things, pay cash for them. What a concept.”
Teaching cash consumerism to three generations of Americans used to bingeing on credit cards is a daunting prospect, O’Neill says. Though the modern credit card was introduced in 1950, it was not until the 1990s that “buy now, pay later” really got out of control, she says.
“In the decade of the 2000s, the average household credit card debt is over $9,000,” she says.
In her co-authored book “Small Steps to Health and Wealth,” and in classes she teaches for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, O’Neill promotes the small behavior changes that can lead to a better — and more frugal — life. Turn down thermostats. Buy generic brands. Balance your books. And don’t be in such a rush to throw everything out.
“If the couch or chair is structurally sound but with worn-out upholstery, you could have it reupholstered, or buy a colorful slipcover,” she says. And collecting bits of string?
OK, maybe things aren’t quite that bad yet.