America’s Cheapest Family: Chapters 1 – 5

America's Cheapest FamilyI 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.

In each chapter, I’m picking out a “best” tip. This isn’t the most money-saving item in the chapter, but the one that stood out to me as being quite interesting.

Chapter 1: America’s Cheapest Family
The first chapter is basically just an introduction to the book and to the general idea of frugality and how it fits into the overall scheme of personal finance. Some of my readers eschew the concept of frugality for various reasons, mostly because it’s not fun and it doesn’t get you “rich.” Well, if you’re interested in getting rich rather than getting your finances healthy first, this book probably isn’t for you. As for the “not fun” part, I agree with the authors that it can be quite fun if you turn it into a game where you win if you figure out ways to save a bit of time or a bit of money, and all of those little wins add up to some serious cash over time.

Best tip in the chapter: If you actually buy a book to learn from it, don’t be afraid to mark the thing up, take notes, etc. I generally find that if a book is good enough for me to want to do this, it’s a keeper, one that I’ll probably return to several times in the future, and it becomes more valuable for me if I do that. This book has huge outer margins so that you can scribble notes all over the place, something I actually did in places.

Chapter 2: Groceries – Savings by the Bagful
The real frugal advice begins in chapter two. An average family of four in America spends $8,513 a year on groceries, about $709 a month, or $177 a person. If that same family could knock out 20% of their food bill, they could bank $1,702 a year.

It turns out that the biggest money gobbler in the grocery store is impulse buying – things that people buy that they didn’t plan for when they walked in the door. Their biggest tips for reducing that are to reduce the number of trips you take to the store to as little as once a month (they recommend starting off with just weekly visits), careful meal planning so that you know what ingredients you need, the development of a shopping list from that meal plan, selecting coupons that match the shopping list, and making and utilizing leftovers for future meals. As for us, we actually use Excel for our meal planning and ingredient listing, but we often end up assembling our actual grocery list by using Remember the Milk.

Best tip in the chapter: Buy bread at a bread outlet store and stock up big when it’s cheap (even freezing excess loaves). I wish we had a good bread outlet nearby; we have one, but every time I visit they’re either basically empty or their prices are almost the same as the grocery store, so it’s not worth the time.

Chapter 3: Budgeting – The Cornerstone of Family Finances
I basically believe that religiously following someone else’s budget plan is a sure way to failure, and I basically advocate that when people start out on the road to financial recovery that they not create a budget for a while, but instead look at ways to reduce spending and also record every single dime they spend for a while. Thus, when I read the title of this chapter, I expected to disagree with much of the content. Interestingly, the authors actually agreed with my philosophy for the most part – they don’t present a ready-made budget for people to follow, but instead guide people towards how to create your own budget. It’s very straightforward, but it’s a good “how-to” for budgeting if you’ve never built one for yourself before.

Best tip in the chapter: If you make “guesses” to estimate how much you spend on a category in a given month, it’s usually way off. I know this was true for us – we overestimated our food spending, but vastly underestimated our entertainment spending. It became clear very quickly where we needed to trim some fat.

Chapter 4: Cars – Cutting Car Costs
It boils down to this: buy a late model used car, pay cash if at all possible, and never lease. Basically, the general philosophy is that you keep driving a car until you can write a check for the next one, then sell off the old car (don’t trade it in). This method basically ensures that you’ll maximize your dollars with a car and you’ll always have flexibility and options. For me, I have no personal qualms with driving my current vehicle into oblivion, and until then I’m parking some cash away to pay for the next one.

Best tip in the chapter: If you’re trying to sell your own car, park it on a busy street corner with a “For Sale” sign in the window and contact information. It’ll sell quickly. Just make sure it won’t get towed.

Chapter 5: Housing – Home Sweet Home
The first part of this chapter deals briefly with the home purchasing process, but the meat of this chapter is written directly for homeowners, juggling property taxes, home improvements, and the like. Their general advice is to pay off a home as quickly as possible, something I find myself agreeing with more and more as our home purchase draws closer. Owning a home and no longer having monthly housing payments makes life a lot easier and gives you a lot of flexibility.

Best tip in the chapter: If you’re looking at getting central air installed, the best time to bid is in the late fall, when business is really slow for air conditioning dealers. You can often get an amazing deal because it’s so out of season.

America’s Cheapest Family is the seventeenth of fifty-two books in The Simple Dollar’s series 52 Personal Finance Books in 52 Weeks.

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