The secret to saving money--live below your means

Lynn O'Shaughnessy:

During much of the 1980s, I didn't have to wait until the yearly sale to buy a cute dress at Nordstrom. In my office, I was the person whom colleagues would ask for restaurant recommendations because I loved to eat out. My husband and I subscribed to Wine Spectator. Life was good.

But during the Christmas holidays in 1990, I found myself following my husband to San Diego for his better job opportunity. By the time the moving van pulled up to our house in a funky Los Angeles neighborhood, my career as a newspaper reporter had ended, as did my comfortable standard of living. While my husband and I struggled to live on one income after I became a stay-at-home mom, I began having to make the sort of financial decisions that never would have occurred to me when I was busy sipping Grgich Hills chardonnay. I don't know why this particular image remains with me, but I remember standing in the aisle of a grocery store wondering if I really needed to spend $1.30 on a can of frozen grape juice. I felt even more miserable at my local bookstore when I talked myself out of buying the hardback book that I was holding. I was living frugally because I had no choice.

I'm bringing this up now because I know there are thousands upon thousands of people who are faced with the same sort of nickel-and-dime decisions that I had to make. I know firsthand that these daily sacrifices feel lousy, especially when everybody else seems to be flush with cash. Who are these people who can drop $400 at Costco on the weekends and how come everybody else seems to already own a plasma TV?

When I look back on this period in my life, I realized that being forced into making painful financial decisions on a daily basis can ultimately be financially empowering. I can now buy any book that I want at Barnes & Noble, but I truly believe that the spending habits my husband and I were forced to adopt years ago have made us far better off financially.

In fact, I believe that if I had never left my well-paid job in Los Angeles, our net worth would be less today. Living through this period made me realize that frugality is a worthwhile pursuit, no matter how much you have in your checking account.

If you need motivation to put your spending on a diet, here are some of the strategies that work for me:

- Buy used. When I no longer enjoyed the luxury of buying everything new, I began hitting garage sales on Saturday mornings. Over the years, I probably bought thousands of kids' books - so many that I had to buy more bookcases - used ones - to deal with the overflow. My kids had wonderful clothes - OshKosh was my favorite brand - because I could buy outfits for a quarter or 50 cents. I kept my daughter, Caitlin, happy with tons of craft materials from bric-a-brac to felt to ribbon that I hauled home. And my son, Ben, who wants to be an engineer, spent countless hours playing with all the Legos, Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs that I picked up for next to nothing.

Meanwhile, through newspaper classified ads, and eBay, my husband and I have bought all sorts of stuff, including patio furniture (twice), an iPod, a dining room set (twice) and a Honda Accord with 21,000 miles on its odometer.

She has more tips. I am a big fan of Half Price Books, and Amazon also has a used book option with many of its selections. When you learn to live below your means you will have no problem saving money. While I have never become addicted to garage sales, I have found some significant bargains at Walmart when they get ready to clear some of their inventory.


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