I have a soft spot for books on frugality, so when I spotted America’s Cheapest Family on the new releases shelf at my local bookstore, I had to read it. Are there a lot of good ideas inside for how to reduce your financial footprint, or is it a bunch of self-promotion and hot air? This week, I’m going to dig into this book and find out whether it’s worth your time.
Chapter 6: Utilities – Shut the Door, Turn Out the Lights
The Department of Energy reports that the average American home spends 6%-12% of their gross income on utilities. That’s a lot of cash; even a 10% reduction in utility usage could save you 1% of your annual gross income. The chapter is split up into several subsections, each focusing on a particular utility: electricity, telephone, water, and so on. Most of them are great tips, but a few are kind of quirky: one family has a programmable thermostat that basically just turns on their central air at 5 AM and runs it nonstop until 9 AM, which is when the utility company raises the rates for the day to the higher daytime usage rates. At 9 AM, it goes off until the next day at 5 AM. During the day, they leave ceiling fans on to keep things as cool as possible, then in the evenings they cool off with a cold swimming pool or a cold shower. That’s one way to save energy!
Best tip in the chapter: Trick your toilet into saving more water by tossing a filled water bottle in the tank. My parents did this with a 32 ounce soda bottle. If you have a house with a lot of toilet users in it, this can save a substantial amount of water (multiple tanks worth over a day) and it becomes noticeable on the water bill.
Chapter 7: Debt – The American Dream Turns Into a Nightmare
This chapter features a nine step plan for escaping the debt monster. Here they are, in order:
1. Acknowledge the problem
2. Make your list and check it twice
3. Cut spending to a bare minimum (this is the tricky one, I think)
4. Put the cards away
5. Get more money (by selling stuff around the house you don’t need)
6. Earn more (ask for a raise)
7. The battle plan (like the debt snowball)
8. Communicate with creditors
9. The big payoff (plan a big celebration when you finish it)
Best tip in the chapter: If someone suggests paying for something by borrowing, just say no and wait. There is nothing in life worth going into debt for outside of education and a home. If you’re going into debt for anything else, you’re choosing to drown.
Chapter 8: Medical – Keeping Your Body Healthy and Your Wallet Happy
This chapter focuses on multiple ways to cut down on medical bills: good insurance (or at least knowing clearly what your insurance covers), prescription tricks, and preventative tips. I found the preventative tips to be the most interesting, but that doesn’t mean they pass for solid medical advice or that you won’t get sick. Mostly, it’s things like drinking plenty of water, keeping clean, and getting some regular exercise.
Best tip in the chapter: Ask your doctor for larger supplies at a time than just one month of a maintenance prescription; that way, you pay only one co-pay per period. I actually did this recently for a maintenance medication I take and my doctor wrote me one for six months at a shot rather than a month (probably because I’ve been taking it since I was two days old and he figured I wasn’t going to be stupid about it). This saved some decent money – but now I have a monster bottle on my dresser.
Chapter 9: Clothing – Looking Better, Spending Less
I really enjoyed this chapter – it offered a ton of tips for cutting down on clothing spending, from using thrift shops to avoiding items that need dry cleaning. They basically agree with my clothing philosophy: classic, basic styles that mix and match well, so you don’t need too many items to have a very diverse-seeming wardrobe. By the end of the chapter, I was ready to head out to Frenchy’s.
Best tip in the chapter: If you have kids and see an amazing deal on shoes that they won’t wear for years, buy them. When I was a kid, my folks did this once, buying a pair of Nikes that were no longer being made in 1982. I started wearing them in 1992; they had a ton of retro panache and they cost my parents two dollars more than a decade earlier.
Chapter 10: Entertainment & Recreation – Finding Fun for Free
This chapter is all about leveraging the free and cheap entertainment that’s all around you. The best starting point in your community is contacting town hall and asking for a community calendar, but this chapter is loaded with tons and tons of general ideas, like going on a hike, visiting the library, or doing some volunteer work. The thing that always amazes me about these lists is that they all seem like such common sense, yet so often I won’t even think of them when I think about entertainment.
Best tip in the chapter: Buy an entertainment book at the start of summer. At that point, they’re practically giving them away, but the coupons are all still good and you can do all sorts of stuff cheap during the summer, especially if you have kids who are now out of school for the summer.
America’s Cheapest Family is the seventeenth of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.