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We knew we'd found a kindred spirit in Mary Hance, also known as the infamous Ms. Cheap of The Tennessean in Nashville, when she wholeheartedly embraced our first impression of her new book, 99 Things to Save Money in Your Household Budget, as the best-ever bathroom reader for budget living.
"That's what I really intended," Hance laughed. "To have little snippets. No single one of these tips will save you thousands of dollars on its own."
As in marketing, where the law of seven applies to the number of times a consumer needs to see a message or a brand before it resonates with them, frugal living practices are the product of repetition and of revamping one spending or saving habit at a time. The best part of reading the no-frills 99 Things was the ability to pick it up, flip through it, and much like the inspirational bathroom reader 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, scan the pages and find one thing to feel empowered by or inspired by for that moment or that day.
"Some of these things not everybody wants to do, including me, but at the same time, they make you think," Hance said. "We're bombarded day in and day out with people who want you to overspend, and this book hopefully helps you to find that happy medium. Some people are cheaper than others and some are more spendthrift than others, but so many people are in financial trouble right now, it just kills me."
Hance is no stranger to the realities of frugal living — of what works and what doesn't — having spent the past 15 years writing popular frugal consumer newspaper columns and several money-saving books under the alter ego Ms. Cheap.
"When I started my column 15 years ago, it was more for people who were smart with their money, not just people living on the edge," Hance said. "Now, I think we're all living on the edge, not just because of unemployment but because so many of us spend 130% of our income. I think I'm one of the few people the recession has helped, because more people are reading my column than ever. I have people asking me how to coupon who have never done it before and I'm like, 'Get some scissors?'"
Other than hitting the Sunday circulars, here are some of Ms. Cheap's top money-saving tips:
Beware of shrinking packaging.
Most card-carrying cheapskates know to avoid the end-aisle displays in grocery stores, but many of us forget to keep a careful eye on the cost per unit — and marketers are banking on that. "People may realize that things like ice cream and dog food and toilet paper don't go as far as they used to, but you have to be on your guard," Hance said. "Even things like paper napkins, which I know aren't as green as they should be, but I needed them for something and I got them home and put them into my container and even they've gotten smaller. You feel like you've been duped, and I hate that feeling. Especially when they're labeled 'mega' or 'bigger and better.' It's definitely a buyer's economy right now — buyer beware. It's so important for consumers to know what things cost and what they should cost."
Surround yourself with spendthrifts.
When we're trying to save money, it might be scary to spend time with our friends who love to shop, but, with willpower, the truly thrifty can use the situation to their advantage over time. "I know so many people who have a network of other cheap firends who help each other out, but by that same token, you may as well be the bottomfeeder," Hance said. "We've gotten really nice things that way from a spendthrifty neighbor: a keyboard; a racing bike; and other things that we just never would have bought but at a fraction of what he paid for them."
Face the reality of your buying habits.
In tip #3 in her book, Ms. Cheap borrows a practice from financial planner Stacey Johnson of Money Talks, where he has clients walk around their home with a pen and paper, writing down everything that they don't need, use, or wear -- including what they paid for that item. "It's not fun to do that, but it's so important," Hance said.
Be proud and free with your frugality.
Everyone, Wall Street banker or window-washer, is pretty much in this belt-tightening mess together, so why aren't we supporting each other and being forthcoming, not embarrassed, when something frugal is really working for us -- like a tip from Ms. Cheap's book. "I think it's really important to have something to bring you back to the frugality," Hance said. "We really are just inundated with advertisements that tell you things will make you happier, and it's just important to have those reminders that these things will not make you happier. It used to be so embarrassing to be cheap, and now it's at least accpetable if not fashionable. Why spend more than you have to on things that are not important?"
Play the "Money Game."
"One of the things I love is people who play money games with themselves," Hance said. "Say if they want a jacket, they ask themselves: 'How many hours would you have to work to pay for that jacket?' Or the people who price out the cost per wear in order to put it in perspective. I have a 25 year old daughter, and if she had money, she'd be dangerous, but that sort of mentality has helped her out a lot. Another story I love is from a friend, whose dad would always go to the flea market but would never buy anything. One day, my friend asked why and his dad said, "I just love to see what people would rather have than money."
For more of Mary Hance's veteran money-saving tips and tricks, check out her Ms. Cheap blog for The Tennessean or pick up a copy of 99 Things to Save Money in Your Household Budget ($9.99, Amazon.com) for yourself or someone you love.
Copyright 2009 Shoestring, LLC. Photo courtesy of Mary Hance