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​Saving money becomes a compulsion

How a little motivation curbed my spend-it-as-you-get-it habits and turned me into a saving machine

I’ve never been good at saving money … that is, until the housing market crashed, and I was forced to start paying attention to my spending. I’d gone from having a total mortgage that was a little less than what I could sell my house for, to having a house I’d be lucky to sell for the price of a late-model car, with a total mortgage almost four times that amount.

Of course, I shouldn’t complain—there were and are millions of people who were hit much harder by the financial crisis, and millions more struggling to make ends meet long before.

Rudely awakened, I now had a target: paying down my mortgage to get back above water. I quickly morphed from an indifferent money-waster to a money-saving fanatic.

Probably my biggest influence to start saving came from the book “Your Money Or Your Life,” by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. Not everything in it applied to me, but one piece of advice really helps.

It goes like this: figure out how much you earn per hour as take home pay, then use that figure to determine how many hours of work it would take you to “earn” the item you want. I started doing this all the time; it became a game. How much could I not spend this month?

It was kind of scary how quickly saving money—even a few dollars—went from being an afterthought, to a habit, to a compulsion. I’m not saying all of these suggestions will work for everyone, or that I haven’t slipped up now and again. But for the most part, they worked for me:

  • Seek out free (or cheap) entertainment—Generally speaking, if I spend an afternoon hanging out in a record store, chatting with people about, say, what the music scene would look like today if Cliff Burton or Jimi Hendrix were still alive, I’m going to come home with a lot of records and a lot less money. And the thing is, I already have plenty of records to listen to. But I like finer art forms than rock and roll, too, and 10 minutes from my house lies the renovated Cleveland Museum of Art, one of the best in the country. Find something you enjoy doing that’s free or cheap … and dive in.
  • Eating (and drinking) in—An obvious one, but not easy if you’re used to Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast, going out for lunch, and hitting the local bar and grill for dinner on your way home. My first month was very difficult, especially since I find cooking and preparing food ponderous … but I changed my tune after saving more than $100 my first week.
  • The book’s better than the movie, anyway—I was a bookworm long before I became a movie buff, and if you ask me, there are only a few exceptions to the “book is better than the movie” adage. Plus, to paraphrase my favorite writer, Stephen King, books cost almost nothing compared to the hours of enjoyment they bring. And there are still these wonderful things called libraries that loan books out for free; movies and music, too.
  • Multitask, and improve your health, too— I’m not a smoker, but if you are, the monetary benefits of quitting are staggering. But, I have an addiction to something that causes major health problems, too: sugar. I figured, why not improve my health by “quitting” sugary foods and unhealthy snacks, and reap the savings? I’ve spent quite a lot over the years on cookies, chocolate, more cookies, chocolate cookies … you get the picture.
  • Gas moneyI did some research and found a credit card that offered five-percent cash back on gas from any station. Then I got an app called Gas Buddy, which uses crowd-sourced data and your smartphone’s GPS to find the cheapest gas near you. Finally, unless it’s sub-zero weather, I’ll drive until I’m running on fumes if it means waiting an extra day to fill up when (hopefully) the prices drop a bit. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose at this game, but overall, I come out ahead.
  • Cut the cable, keep the ‘net—Getting rid of cable was difficult at first, I won’t lie. There’s a meditative sort of addiction to aimlessly flipping through dozens of channels, stopping here and there but never really landing on anything meaningful. I get that. But since I kept my Internet service, I still was able to stream most of the movies and shows I wanted to see on Netflix, for a fraction of what I was paying each month for a hundred channels I barely watched. The rest I got from the library, or borrowed from friends.
  • Shop for better deals on everythingI’ll admit that even though I work for Progressive and have a policy with the company, I still shopped around for a better deal. I lined up a few competitors whose rates were as good or better than what I was getting, then called Progressive to see what they could do. They bundled my Home and Auto policies for a discount and set me up with a Snapshot device. Similarly, with my Internet bill, I called and said I wanted a better deal, or I’d switch to someone else; they gave me a new deal, no problem (that was easy). For utilities, I started paying attention to those utility programs that aggregate your natural gas or electric bills—and found a program that would save me money.
  • Thrift stores + a good washing machine = extreme savingsIf you don’t already know about this one, you’re spending way too much money on clothes. Get over the “eww” factor of not knowing who wore those jeans before you did, trust your washing machine, apply some hand sanitizer and enjoy the savings. I often find never-worn items with the tags still on them, anyway. Also, most thrift stores have a weekly “half-price day.” If you go on one of these days, get there early (and bring extra hand sanitizer).

So that’s my not-quite-all-inclusive list of savings tips. Over the last five years or so, doing these things helped me drag my mortgage not only back above water, but also within fighting distance of paying it off entirely.

And the weird thing? Even now, I’m still saving. Maybe I go out to eat a bit more often than before (I may have grown to tolerate cooking, but I’m not that good at it), but aside from that, I still ask myself—is that material item really worth the money? Do I really need it? Or could that money be much more handy spent somewhere else?

I’d be interested to hear what other ways to save you’ve unearthed … so tell us about them!