It turns out that living in a two bedroom apartment near the beach in Sydney is a fantastic way to shock yourself into budgeting in a serious way. Sure, I could live somewhere cheaper to rent, but check out the pros: the greatest neighbours, beaches pretty much on my doorstep, fresh air, quiet streets (no rattling trains! no low flying planes!) and a light-filled, high ceiling-ed, wood floored apartment. Total heaven.
My apartment block has total old-school neighbourhood action: sharing home made cakes, ice cream and jam; minding each other’s gardens and pets while away; passing on clothes and toys that kids have grown out of; popping by for a glass of wine in the evening; babysitting each other’s kids; borrowing cups of sugar, bike oil and tools. I basically never want to move out.
However, in order to keep on living where I do, I had to take a good hard look at my total lack of financial nous. It’s just too easy in Sydney to spend a lot. These tips might not be for everyone, but they’re a few little things that are working for me:
1. Track spending.
The idea with this is to see where my money is going by writing down, each day, what I’ve spent money on. It was easy to see where the big bucks were going, and cut out that spending, but I was still running out of cash before the next pay day. Within just a few days, it was obvious that the little things I’d buy here and there were adding up: lunches, afternoon snacks, impulse buys and cheap stuff. No matter how cheaply the op shop or the discount store is selling something, if you don’t need it, you don’t need it.
2. Stop (the impulse buying), collaborate (with your goals) and listen (to your sensible inner voice).
First, as I mentioned above, a lot of my spending is (was!) on impulse buys – a dash into the bottle-o when I walk past on my way home after work, another book for Miss Joey at the discount book shop, a bottle of nail polish that catches my eye while standing in the queue.
Now I ask myself if I really need it: Couldn’t I mix in some nail polish remover to the half full bottle of my favourite nail polish that’s gone a bit gluggy? Can I whip something up from what’s in the fridge rather than buy more groceries (the answer is almost always yes)? Do I really need pears when there are bananas, oranges, apples and watermelon at home, even if I only feel like eating a pear? When it’s raining, do I really need to buy yet another umbrella when I already have four at home? Sure I’ll get wet, but a bit of rain isn’t going to kill me. Do I really need to buy that thing for the kid, no matter how cheap it is, when she begs me for it?
3. The wardrobe is full. Don’t buy anything that has to go in it.
I don’t need any more clothes. I really don’t. It’s cringeworthy to admit this, but shopping was, once upon a time, a fun thing to do on a weekend or an evening at home on the internets. What a past-time. There are so many better things to do with your time!
In light of my total lack of need for anything at all to wear, I’m pulling out the big guns and killing my clothes spending for A FULL YEAR. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. This is terrifying! It’s March 1st today. Check in with me on Feb 28th, 2017 to see if I really did this impossible thing!
To remove temptations, I’ve unsubscribed to all the online store and fashion newsletters, I don’t visit their websites anymore and I don’t go window shopping. And I breathe deeply and ride the temptation like a good addict does. Instead, I’m focussing on getting a high from watching my savings increase.
4. Eat my own food out of my own fridge.
Even the cheapest lunches ($5 banh mi, $7 salad, $10 bowl of ramen), twice daily coffees and 3pm sugar fixes add up. It’s pretty rewarding to see how much more cash is in my purse at the end of a week, now that I’m bringing lunch almost every day, cutting the coffee to one a day and making my own 3pm snacks. The bonus is, I’m eating much more healthily!
Then there’s brunch. Weekend brunch – any day brunch! – is the greatest. Because it’s so great, it used to happen at least two or three times a week in my old life. Not anymore. A four year old is completely underwhelmed by brunch and it’s just not enjoyable or relaxing taking her out. The result is up to $75 a week more in the purse. That’s $3,900 a year. Hello, holiday cash! Of course, I haven’t cut out brunch entirely (that would be cruel) but instead of three times a week, I do brunch maybe three times a month. That’s totally acceptable, right?
I am pretty much forced not to be able to go out for drinks after work or out to dinner, since there is no such thing as the impromptu catch-up with friends anymore. Going out has to be pre-planned and organised well in advance, because as a foster carer, I need to use a respite carer or babysitter approved by my agency. Sure, it makes life a little tedious and monotonous to be at home so much, but I tell myself this isn’t for forever and the one-on-one time with her, predictable routine and structure is just what Miss Joey needs.
5. Hit up the local library.
With Miss Joey’s developmental delays, having missed out on so much in her short life, and speech problems, reading stories is crucial to helping her catch up. Naturally, I headed straight to the big online discount bookstores to stock up before she moved in. A few hundred $’s later, you’d think we have an entire library, but not so. All of the books fit onto just one shelf!
Then I discovered our local library. I hadn’t been to a library for years! Ours also has a toy library (which doubles as a play room, despite all the signs not to play with the toys), a godsend on a rainy day when we go a little stir crazy stuck inside my tiny apartment. Plus, it means I don’t have to find a way to fit more toys into my tiny apartment. It’s perfect!
6. Close down streaming video and music accounts.
This was a super tiny saving, considering most of these services cost less than $12 a month. But there is no point having a couple of accounts when one will do.
7. Freeze the credit card.
I read an article recently that suggested literally freezing your credit card: put it in a bag of water and keep it in your freezer. Hilarious! At first I laughed. Now I am seriously considering it.
Having said that, I have two new rules for the credit card: keep it at home, not in my purse, and use it only for big purchases, like dentist and optometrist bills, health insurance payments, car registration, UNHCR donations and Plan sponsorships. If the money ain’t in my bank account, then I just gotta deal. I’ve found this change one of the most difficult (I hate saying no to myself and was used to spending whenever I felt like it) and still occasionally pull out the credit card.
8. Give up the drinking at home alone.
This tactic is about stopping the impulse wine buying as I walk past the bottle-o on my way home after work. Now, I may only buy alcohol for a Thing with friends, like dinner, cards night or a picnic.
9. Walk everywhere and ride the bike.
The walking bit is easy. I much prefer walking to the local shops for my weekend papers, bread and coffee, or strolling to the local beaches and playgrounds. Forget about trying to find a parking spot around here. It’s just not worth driving.
The bike riding …. well, let’s just say I have been putting this off far too long. Google Maps says that my work is only 10kms from home. I don’t believe it. But I’ve just purchased a kids bike seat to attach to my bike, so I can ride the kid to child care and myself to work. It’s going to be totally do-able. I think. Again, it’s just a small saving of maybe between $30 – $40 a week on public transport costs, but it adds up. I plan on using those savings for a little holiday to Byron Bay.
10. Make friends with the op shop.
My local op shops are a frugal shoppers’ bonanza! Gotta love an op shop in an affluent suburb. I always visit op shops in regional areas, when away and on Sunday drives. You can still find real-deal vintage in these remote shops, as well as incredible bargains.
11. Spend less on holidays, birthdays and gifts.
Sure, this one makes me feel like a total Scrooge. This Christmas, I just couldn’t afford to spend as much on gifts as I used to. The gifts I bought were cheaper, and there were less of them, but I tried to find other ways to give, such as baking treats. I also spent a lot less on groceries for Christmas lunch, and discovered that it was still delicious.
This Easter, we’ll dye eggs and decorate them like animals and maybe even try using lace for patterns. Reverse Garbage is a great place to explore for super cheap crafty bits and pieces. The kid doesn’t need a huge bag of chocolate. A couple of little chocolate Easter eggs, hidden around the garden for an Easter egg hunt, will send her wild with joy and a mighty sugar rush.
For birthdays, I’ve decided to give Miss Joey just one gift of her choice; we’ll visit a toy shop where she can pick the gift out. It’s all about the memories and experiences, not the stuff, right? She receives so many presents from her family, as their way of showing love, that she doesn’t need more.
Birthday parties don’t need to cost a lot either. Miss Joey’s birthday is in the warmer months, so I plan to hold her party outdoors at the local park, where the kids can run around and messy games can be played.
All the typical party games don’t need a lot of spending, if any at all. Here are a million ideas which need nothing at all, or you can use things you already have or buy cheaply: water balloon toss, pin the tail on the donkey (if you just print out the pictures rather than buy the game), hanging donut eating competition, egg and spoon race, pass the wet sponge, cotton ball race, bean bag toss (fill cheap balloons up with cheap rice or beans), beach ball pass, bunny or frog hop race (and when the kids are older, sack and three legged races), tunnel relay, Mother May I?, What’s the Time Mr Wolf?, whipped cream lolly bob, statues game and follow the leader. Being outdoors, you could also invent a little obstacle course using the park features, have a lolly hunt and hold a scavenger hunt that requires the kids to collect things from around the park.
12. Buy the cheaper options, use what’s in the fridge and stock up during the big sales.
I used to buy whatever fancy food I felt like eating, whenever I wanted. Not anymore, at least not regularly. Miss Joey’s childcare centre celebrates birthdays with a cake which the family brings in. I’d usually visit the cake shop with it’s amazing $40 cakes, but instead, we swung past the supermarket for a $4 cake. Four year olds can’t tell the difference.
Another cost cutting exercise is to cook with cheaper ingredients, like legumes. Hello, minestrone, chilli sin carne and black bean salsa! I found the Mennonite More with Less cookbook for only $1 – a price that is so incredibly fitting with the Mennonite philosophy of frugality. It was first printed in 1976 and it’s healthy eating advice is still completely relevant today. It’s hard to believe that now, 40 years after this book was published, health experts are still promoting the exact same themes in this book – to “eat more whole grains and more vegetables and fruits, with less meat, saturated fat, and sugars.”
The Community cookbook is a favourite in my kitchen. It’s jam packed with utterly delicious vegetarian recipes, which are satisfying meals in one. I lend it to whoever will borrow it from me.
And of course, it’s a no brainer to use up what’s in the fridge and cupboard instead of buying more. Once I started paying attention to this, I was pretty surprised (appalled) to see how much food I was throwing out each week.
After Christmas, supermarkets have huge sales. I had no idea just how huge! As I wandered the local supermarket halfway through January, I couldn’t believe some of the discounts and stocked up on things we use regularly.
13. Cut down on the glamour
Dr Spiller is my favourite moisturiser of all time. After more than 20 years of trying different moisturisers, I finally hit the jackpot. It’s perfect in Sydney’s slightly humid weather. But when it came time to buy a new bottle, my debit card just couldn’t go there, so I breathed deeply, listened to my sensible inner voice and went a supermarket option. And I’m ok. So is my skin. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my favourite moisturiser next time. I’m also being super careful about the amount of cleanser and moisturiser I use. I used to slap it on but now I use just the right amount.
Impulse make up buying, expensive shampoo, regular massages and the occasional facial have also been scrapped for using what I already have, doing my own pedicures at home and visiting my fabulously generous neighbour for free remedial massages! Win!
14. Grow your own veggies
Either grow them at home, or join a local community garden. Sure, there is a commitment involved. If you’re growing your own garden, it needs daily love and a working bee every weekend. I’ve joined my local community garden, which requires members to attend the working bees each month, do composting courses and show up in-between the working bees to take care of the plot or plants that are your specific responsibility (mine is two olive trees). As a single carer of a small child, I don’t have much of a social life any more, so it’s not too difficult to make the commitment. Plus, it’s a fun thing to involve children in. Miss Joey helps weed, water and tend the plants, and she loves it. It might be a lot of work and commitment but home grown veggies taste SO much more delicious!
15. Do the free version.
Find free things to do for fun! We visit local playgrounds and water parks, kids bike tracks, the beach and farmers markets. We take our own balls and other toys to play with, since Miss Joey is crazy for throwing and kicking balls around. Rather than buy from the market stalls or park kiosk, we always bring drinks and snacks from home. This also helps me feel like I’m doing the environment a favour.
Instead of joining a gym, I’ve found ways to exercise outdoors such as walking, yoga (using downloaded audio classes to follow along to), cycling, roller skating, hiking and swimming in the ocean. This is easy in Sydney, where the weather is beautiful and mild most of the year round, so that you can exercise outdoors even in the middle of winter. Let’s face it, a Sydney winter isn’t really winter at all.
There are plenty of free online classes, like yoga, pilates and HIIT sessions. From all the freely available workout information around, I’ve made up my own exercise plan, using a different set of exercises for each session. The idea is to do at least three sessions a week so that I can be sure I get an all-round workout.
16. Change who you’re using for car share.
I was using Go Get. Then I discovered Car Next Door. It’s cheaper, super easy to use and just as reliable and professional.
17. Exchange kids’ clothes, books and toys with friends.
This is a no brainer and obviously mums have done this since forever and you are probably doing this right now.
What’s up next?
Still on my list are those changes that require a lot of research and thought. Do I put more into my superannuation? What about health insurance – should I change companies?Should I get a different credit card? Once I’ve saved enough, is it wise to invest in stocks? So many of all the questions.
Obviously, all these tips are no-brainers and most people are probably sensibly living like this. I wasn’t, though, and it’s amazing to see how much I can save by changing my spending habits in such simple, quick ways.