Despite the relatively high closing levels on the stock market, and assurances from Washington the recession is officially over, most Americans are feeling the squeeze more tightly than ever. The days of swinging by Home Depot to spontaneously renovate a bathroom, cruising through the mall on a spur-of-the-moment shopping spree, or sampling the latest restaurants every other night is a thing of the past.
Let's face it, living on a budget is hard, saving is stressful and wondering when the tides will turn strains even the staunchest optimist. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of making change in life fun, and living with less is no exception.
Financial strain ranks as one of the highest stressors out there along with divorce and death. Clearly some stressors cannot be helped, but part of the stress of living with less is adjusting habits and expectations. We want to get the new G4 phone -- like, today. We NEED to have an iPad -- really? Many of us remember growing up with less "stuff" than we have now, and doing just fine.
Ratcheting down consumer expectations and mindless habits of spending money as entertainment is a very real issue. The temptations are everywhere. We have far more strip malls than parks, and the temptation to buy something mindlessly is a common way to spend a day. Many children expect to buy something every time they get in the car.
We should take a few tips from the Europeans, who spend their leisure time strolling through the park, or enjoying a single cup of coffee at a local café for hours; entertaining themselves for very little out-of-pocket cash. Americans race here and there to places like Costco and BJ's Warehouse, lug home giant shopping bags of stuff to shove in our houses, and then flop down exhausted in front of the TV to recover.
Penny pinching, however, can be fun -- and current trends in homemade, or do-it-yourself are popping up in almost every industry. Reduce, reuse and recycle is IN, and waste is out -- not because we have become high minded -- but because we can't afford not to.
Everyone is in a similar boat, so why not explore a few fun and creative ways to ease the stress of living with less -- and have a good time to boot. Here are some tips to help curb excess spending, and improve quality of life all at once.
Create a realistic budget. Look at some of the easy "trim" you can take right off the top of your weekly spending. Starbucks lattes, dinners out, or that extra pair of shoes you really don't need. Often it is easy to justify low cost items as inconsequential, but they add up.
Put less cash in your wallet. If it is not in there, you are less likely to spend it. Decide how much cash you need per week, and once that is gone, go home.
Stop buying all bottled beverages. At $2.50 a pop for sugared water, make a vow to prepare all your beverages in a reusable water bottle. Make your iced tea, lemonade or iced coffee at home and take it with you. Saves a bundle in the wallet, and in the landfills.
Start making dinner at home. Even if it is for one or two people, the saving are substantial to make a pot of soup and bread for literally about $10, and have leftovers to freeze, or share at the office.
Grocery shop with a list, and stick to it! I am the worst at this. Do not shop when hungry, as it leads to throwing in extra bags of cookies, snacks and items you don't really need. Figure out a menu and purchase only those things. It is a healthier way to eat, and will save money.
Consignment shopping is hip! Whether you have access to the coolest shops in Greenwich Village or live in the Midwest with boutique strip malls, consignment shopping is a blast. There is something triumphant about finding a favorite label for a fraction of the price. Bring in those skinny jeans and earn some money to buy a new scarf or sweater.
Consolidate errands. Stretch out a tank of gas by consolidating all errands together. Throw the dry cleaning, library books and Good Will items into the trunk and incorporate them into a single trip. Park in one central place, and walk to the various stores within a mile radius instead of driving from one parking spot to another. Don't tell me you don't do this! I know you do!
Trade in the gym membership for a pair of sneakers or a bike. Let's face it, gym owners are not stupid. They know most people pay their monthly dues, and only a fraction of die-hards actually go. If you are not using your local gym more than once a week, ditch the membership and get outside. The stress relief from a daily walk offers mental therapy as well as exercise.
Have a "potluck re-gifting party" with neighbors. Have a potluck evening where everyone brings leftovers to share, and any re-gifting items taking up space in their closets. Put everything in an open living room and have a swap! Grab a new pan, neck tie, band saw or crock pot. A fun theme evening sure to pack in a lot of laughs, and totally free!
Make your own beer or wine. For mere pennies per pint, homemade brew is the new hobby de jour to save on the alcohol bill, and have more fun than a Corona can ever offer. Check out simple recipes and How To's at the Brew Your Own site, and save a bundle on the your beverage budget. Have a blast sampling new recipes as a great way to de-stress from the office. Great for those who do not spend much time in the kitchen -- brewing hops and barley could be quite an adventure!
Trim down the activities for the kids -- they'll thank you for it. All those cute little ballet lessons, soccer uniforms and lacrosse sticks can add up to a bundle. Teach the kids the value of a dollar, and give them some time off with fewer activities. They will discover how to fill their time, and the unscheduled hours can be funneled into something creative if the screens are off limits.
Living with Less can be a great excuse to get out of things you don't want to do. Being on a budget forces not only simplifying life, but also choosing only to invest in those things that have the greatest meaning. There is something very freeing about this, and allows permission to unhook, stay home and restore ourselves with quiet activities our overactive lives are craving.
What do you say, HuffPo readers? How are you trimming your pocketbooks these days? Any fun tips to share? Drop us a comment below and join the conversation.