Updated on 11.30.08

Review: The Reader’s Digest Penny Pincher’s Almanac

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book.

penny pincherAs many of you know, I’m a big fan of PaperBackSwap. I use it all the time to trade books – I request ones I’d like to read and send out ones that I’ve finished reading so that others can enjoy it. It almost functions like a giant online library for me, except with no late fees – I can keep the books I get from there for as long as I wish.

One thing I use PaperBackSwap for is a “wish list” feature. If I happen to see a book that would be compelling to read over a long period, I just add it to my wish list on there and, if someone else decides to post that book, it gets sent to me automatically.

And that leads us back to the Penny Pincher’s Almanac. I was intrigued from the moment I heard about it – 2,753 tips for saving money? That sounded right up my alley – but I had some difficulty locating the book for a reasonable price. So I filed the book away on my “wish list” and promptly forgot about it until one day, out of the blue, it arrived in the mail.

I wish I hadn’t waited.

The Reader’s Digest Penny Pincher’s Almanac is pretty much exactly what’s described on the cover – “2,753 surprising ideas for getting the most value out of your money, home, and possessions.” Just leafing through it gets my frugal juices going, encouraging me to try out new things to shave a bit more off of my spending.

Let’s dig in a bit and see what the book has to offer.

A Peek Inside The Reader’s Digest Penny Pincher’s Almanac
The book itself is organized into dozens of brief sections centered around specific topics: food, beauty, cars, health and fitness, and so on.

Rather than going through each section, I took a bit of a different approach: I just tried a bunch of different tactics and marked ones that stood out to me. What follows are ten tips straight from the book that really stood out from the pack.

Use a giveaway canvas bag as a diaper bag for your child. (p. 151) My wife and I have fallen in love with reusable bags – our home has a lot of them floating around. One big use for them is short-term diaper bags. Instead of hunting up our old diaper bag and making sure it’s got the things we need, we just grab a cloth bag, throw a snack and a few diapers in it, and we’re good to go.

Swap services to get a gym membership for free. (p. 108) Many gyms will provide a free membership to people willing to teach a class there. So, instead of spending cash to get your workout three times a week, teach a class there, get your workout from teaching, and get your membership for free (and maybe a bit more as well).

Use sandpaper to keep sweaters and sweatshirts pill-free. (p. 61) I had a bunch of old sweaters and sweatshirts that looked very nasty from the number of little balls of lint that had appeared all over them. A bit of rubbing with some medium-grain sandpaper and those pills came right off, making the clothes look like new.

Check your local chamber of commerce for restaurant coupons. (p. 205) In many cities, the local chamber of commerce gives out coupon booklets for local businesses to encourage people to visit them. These booklets are often given out at community events, but quite often, they’re available if you just call and ask.

Host a “jam session” at your house. (p. 210) Want to get some of your friends together for an evening of fun? Know several that have musical ability? Invite them over and tell them to bring their instruments, then encourage everyone to play together and jam. Instantly memorable evening at very little cost. (We planned one of these, but several attendees fell through.)

Stay in a college dorm while vacationing. (p. 235) Many colleges rent out their dormitory rooms at very low rates during the summer in an effort to bring in a bit of extra income. If you’re vacationing in an area, give the local universities a call and see what they have available.

Run your dishwasher at night. (p. 271) Many energy companies offer lower rates at night, plus during the summer, the heat produced by the dishwasher will have less effect on your cooling costs than a dishwasher run during the day.

Buy a car at the end of the month, near the end of the year. (p. 280) Like today, for instance. Dealers are often anxious to meet sales quotas, plus near the end of the year, dealers are also anxious to make room for new models and want to clear out inventory. Hit the car dealer right after Thanksgiving or in that week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Look into medical school clinics for inexpensive but quality health care. (p. 310) Here in Iowa, we’re lucky – the University of Iowa Medical School runs a stellar clinic with reasonable prices, and it’s often considered the place for medical treatment in the state. If you need a medical checkup, see if there’s a clinic offered by a medical school near you.

Don’t buy spaghetti sauce by the jar. (p. 41) This is one of my favorite things to make on my own because it’s so easy. Just use a can of crushed tomatoes (or, better yet, fresh tomatoes that you mash a bit), toss in a good pinch of basil and oregano, a teaspoon of olive oil, and let it simmer for a few minutes. It’s just as good as pasta sauce from a jar and way cheaper. Plus, you can experiment with it to your heart’s desire.

Is The Reader’s Digest Penny Pincher’s Almanac Worth Reading?
If you’re into frugality at all, The Reader’s Digest Penny Pincher’s Almanac is a book you will get some value out of. The sheer spread of tips is wide enough that virtually everyone will find a good idea or two.

There is one minor drawback, though. With so many tips in such a thin volume, many tips aren’t given their due diligence and receive only minimal coverage in the book. There are a lot of good ideas here, but in places, the thoughts behind them aren’t fully formed. That’s why it’s useful to supplement this book with some good internet searching for more information on specific tips.

Having said that, this is definitely one worth picking up for reference’s sake. I was able to find it rather quickly for free via PaperBackSwap, though you may be less patient.

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  1. Julie says:

    I really, really wish Paperbackswap was available in Canada. Does anyone know of a similar service for Canadians?

  2. Excellent post, Trent. I’ve seen that book advertised, but could never find it at used book stores. I pretty much forgot about it. The tips about using sandpaper on sweater pills and checking your local chamber of commerce for restaurant coupons can be used immediately.

    One thing I’ve done over the years that has saved me money is to get my haircut by people going to barber school. (Since I am bald, they really can’t mess it up. Guys who have their hair styled might want to look at this a bit more strongly, though.) Also, I’ve had my vehicle maintenance done at the junior college automotive lab. Oil changes, tune ups, belt replacements, hose replacements cost only for parts. The students in there want to get an “A” and the instructor will check their work.

  3. Kimberly says:

    Love the idea of renting out dorm rooms, but be forewarned that all dorms are not created equal! I have gone to conferences that were held on college campuses where the attendees were placed in dorms. Some look like fancy one-bedroom apartments, with kitchen areas and amenities. Others have been bare-bones rooms with plastic twin mattresses, pillows no thicker than pita bread, and no amenities – no trashcan, no toilet paper, no phone, no clock, no nothing!

  4. NJK says:

    Sigh. Trent, your continued lack of support for working writers is short-sighted. As an aspiring writer yourself, you surely understand the revenue model. A writer’s career is built on sales, not swaps from the second-hand shop. So if people don’t borrow books from the library or — heaven forbid — buy them NEW, it adds up to a failure to launch. PLEASE urge your many readers to support writers buy using the library or, if they’re really keen to read something, buying a copy of their own. THANK YOU. (PS – Here is further info on the topic: http://www.ninc.com/position_papers/used_books.asp

  5. CreditShout says:

    I’ve actually seen this book around but never got a chance to read it. Looks like I’m gonna have to pick it up. I don’t know if I would go as far as staying in a college dorm when vacationing, but the money you can save by doing simple things like turning your hot water heater off during the day if your at work all day can really add up.

  6. Izabelle says:

    Julie, bookmooch.com covers Canada amongst others; however postage for books here is prohibitively expensive (shipping a paperback through Canada Post will set you back around 7 or 8 $). So I quit…

  7. I go to Chapters(it’s like Canadian version of Barnes & Noble) twice a week and browse all business and personal finance books. However, I never came across this book. Thanks for the review. 2,753 tips for saving money? – that’s a lot.
    A Dawn Journal

  8. Chris says:

    Yeah, I haven’t seen that one yet either- sounds like a good find! I recently talked to some friends who take orders for homemade cookies. They bake the cookies and send them out gift-wrapped as holiday gifts. This is not only a great way to make a little cash on the side, but is also an inexpensive gift if you’re trying to cut back on your holiday spending.

  9. Stephen says:

    As a note on the gym membership tip, 24 hour fitness will not only provide a free membership for the person teaching, but also one free family membership. Having taught various classes for about 2 years now, my wife now is teaching two classes a week which, if she weren’t teaching, she’d be going to anyway, so there’s minimal time cost. Getting the free membership for me as well means that the initial costs (training fees to be “certified” for the various classes — probably about $200 total) were offset in less than a year.

  10. Momma says:

    Wow, I was surprised to see we were already doing or had done several of the things you mention. Guess we are on the right track for frugality! :)

  11. nola says:

    Very good article!
    I wish I would have in my rented house the choice of day and nicgt tariff to let run washing machine and dishwasher overnight.

  12. Jessica says:

    I second the crushed tomatoes. We get tons of cans of crushed and diced tomatoes at Trader Joe’s in the winter when they aren’t available at the farmer’s market. It takes no more time to make the sauce then dumping out a jar really.

    I actually saw an interesting tomato sauce party idea in Real Simple that seemed really frugal. The hosts provide herbs, garlic, oil, cooking supplies, some pasta and some drinks and snacks. Each person or couple invited brings 5 lbs of tomatoes and everyone rotates jobs making tomato sauce. After a meal of pasta, the remaining sauce is divided up among the guests and host to freeze for the rest of the year.

  13. I love PaperBackSwap too. I have found so many interesting books, and have saved tons of money!

  14. Catherine says:

    Probably even cheaper in the long run than using sandpaper to remove sweater pills is to use a pumice stone. They are sold for this purpose (as “sweater stones”) for about $8, but I imagine any kind of pumice stone would work, and one can probably find a sale on that kind of thing with Christmas coming up.

  15. Saver Queen says:

    Cool! I never thought about the pumice stone or sandpaper – I had no idea that worked!!! I can’t wait to try it. I HATE how quickly this happens to my sweaters – I end up getting rid of them!

  16. reulte says:

    NJK (#4) I just read the position paper and, while I may not have gotten the entire concept (it’s somewhat legalistic for light reading late at night on a computer), I really found this (truncated) sentence not to my liking, “..neither the owner of a particular printed book .. may .. dispose of .. by rental, lease, or lending .. within two years of initial publication .. unless that .. person pays .. some fair percentage of the cover price”

    In other words, if I purchased a book, I’d have to read it aloud at communal gatherings to share it with friends and then store it for two years before I get rid of it through lending or re-sell and then paying the author another fee? Would I be allowed to discard it? Would someone else be allowed to remove it from my trash? Cops would cruise local yard sales checking for books published within the last two years, confiscating them and issuing fines.

    Haven’t writers figured out that all books swapped were originally purchased? Haven’t they figured out that most people won’t pay money on a new book by a writer they haven’t read before — unless it’s already on some best-seller list? That loaning books introduces people to new writers?

    While I’m an avid patron of the local libraries and read over 170 books in any given year, I haven’t purchased more than two books (those were textbooks) in almost a decade. The concept of getting rid of used book stores and bookswaps sends chills down my spine. I suspect that enacting NINC’s position would increase the price of books leading to a decrease in sales leading to fewer books and fewer authors published (actually increasing ‘black market’ lending) and drive some publishing houses out of business or at least over to China to decrease costs. I also think it could lead to more ebooks with more direct control by the author.

    It’s an interesting thought but leaves me with visions of the 15th century — printed books existed but only the rich had them and the vast majority of people were illiterate.

  17. Albert Swedret says:

    Great post, but Swaptree is a much better site. Why didn’t you mention that site??? Better interface, no point system, multi-way trades, and you can tradebooks, DVDs, CDs, and video games. I love the site (www.SwapTree.com).

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