When we were first seriously considering downshifting as an option I thought that this part of it, the 'living within a budget', would be the part that I would find hardest to do. Although we'd lived on less before I can't exactly say we'd lived well and I was plagued with thoughts of deprivation and being forced to 'go without'. For the past few years I had enjoyed having my own income and being able to buy, within reason, what I liked. Over time, though, one family can amass an awful lot of stuff and, even with a big house like ours, the time comes when you run out of places to put it all. If your purchases were made by credit card, there's also the uncomfortable task of paying the money back long after you've ceased to enjoy the things you bought. I began to realise that if we paid off our debts, we would actually need much less money to live on. I had discovered the website Money Saving Expert some time ago and we followed Martin Lewis's advice on dealing with debt. First we transferred our credit card balances to 0% interest cards and stopped spending on our credit cards altogether. Then we cut down on all unnecessary expenditure and used what we saved to pay off the balances on the cards. Once these were cleared we costed it out and found that we could actually manage on one income.
At the same time as we were having our 'should we/shouldn't we' debate I read something that completely turned my fears of going without on their head. It comes from Rebecca Ash's book, The New Spend Less Revolution, a book I will refer to often. Within it she has a section called 'Cultivate an enjoyment of elegant frugality' in which she suggests that instead of spending whenever you like, you make not spending your aim instead. The phrase 'elegant frugality' does not conjure up an image of sackcloth and ashes but rather buying fewer good things at a lower cost - living well on less. She encourages the reader to, "enjoy being thrifty. Make it an obsession. Make it something to inspire you and be proud of". Once I realised that we were not talking about a massive reduction in our standard of living, but rather about giving ourselves the option of living comfortably within our means, I began to view our budget as a challenge. I so admired the phrase that I have borrowed it for one of my category headings!
In January, I began writing down everything I spent (other than direct debits) in a little notebook as soon as I returned from shopping. At first it seemed like a chore to remember but it very quickly became a habit and enables me to check each week if we are sticking to our budget. Much more importantly for my morale, is that when I have made significant savings - say, by buying well in the deli reductions at Tesco - I record the savings I've made, too, and this gives me a real buzz of achievement! Money left at the end of the month is transferred into a savings account for things we really want or need.
The following suggestions are just some that I have tried myself and found useful. They are not exclusively for downshifters but if you are reading this blog then it's likely that you have an interest in downshifting. These are my thoughts on how to pay less for things and still get good value for money:-
- paying less in supermarkets - our nearest local one is Tesco and they have items on a reduced shelf everyday that are coming up to their sell-by date. Meat can be a good buy here and I take it straight home and put it in the freezer, if it's not forming the basis of our evening meal. It's also worth looking out for the buy-one-get-one-free and other special offers but remember that it needs to be something you will actually use. The Off Your Trolley section of the website Mad About Bargains lists all the current special offers at all the major supermarkets and tells you what savings you are making, too.
- permanent reductions with constantly changing stock -if there are items that you really need and you want decent quality then I go to TK Maxx. The stock can vary tremendously - from fantastic to dire - but it's worth persevering with. If you are a recovering spendaholic like me only go when there is something you really need, avoid all other temptations and be prepared to leave empty-handed if they haven't got what you went for on the day. I buy all my husband's shirts for work there. The black and white checked one in the picture at the top had been £90.00 at its full retail price and we paid £19.99 for it; the Ted Baker silk tie was £12.99 instead of £34.99. In my experience, these better quality shirts wash better and are much easier to iron.
- end-of-season/every-so-often sales- Martin Lewis has a maxim for this; ask yourself, "Do I need it? Can I afford it?" If the answer is 'no' to either of the above then leave it for someone else. Once again, it will not be a saving if you will never use it/wear it and you will not be happy with it afterwards if you've blown half the housekeeping on it. Julian Graves had a sale between Christmas and the beginning of January where their entire stock was reduced to half price; I was able to bulk buy items I would normally buy anyway - such as crystallised ginger - for half the cost. I tend to earmark items before the sale starts. If they're not reduced when the sale starts then I ignore them. If an item is reduced but still beyond your budget then you could gamble with waiting for it to be reduced further. Lucy and I did this with a pure wool coat from Laura Ashley after Christmas; we eventually got it for half price but we risked letting it go altogether to get it for that price. Boden make good sale reductions; so do Laura Ashley and Designers Guild and their products are (in my experience) of excellent quality.
- loyalty cards - our nearest supermarket, Tesco, gives Clubcard points for every pound you spend. Twenty pounds worth of price reductions or twenty pounds worth of full price goods still net you twenty points. We get extra points by buying petrol from Tesco and through our gas/electricity supplier. You can also get extra points by taking along your own shopping bags to use, instead of taking Tesco plastic ones. These are 'green' clubcard points and worth one point per bag. I thought that one point was a bit mean till I realised that you normally have to buy a pound's worth of goods to get that same point! Not all checkout assistants remember to add the point(s) on for these so I always make a point (excuse the pun) of reminding them as I put my purchases on the conveyor belt. They soon mount up, too; I think I had about 77 last quarter for using vastly less plastic and for spending not a penny extra! They are issued four times a year and can be spent in store as money off your shopping bill. However, the most profitable way to use them is to exchange them for Clubcard Deals. These are listed in a magazine that comes with your vouchers or you can view them online at www.tesco.com/clubcard/deals . Used this way they are worth four times their face value. I get my magazine subscriptions effectively for nothing by using up my vouchers in this way and my husband has just secured RAC breakdown cover for a quarter of the list price with his vouchers.
- shopping in local markets and independent shops - these are nearly always cheaper than buying pre-packed fruit and veg in the supermarket and where they are selling local produce (like the eggs I buy) they will have incurred less food miles and are likely to be fresher. If you go to them regularly the stallholders/shopkeepers will get to know you and what you buy and may tip you off about special offers and goods in limited quantity. Try and go to markets early; they can have sold out of the best buys in fruit and veg by lunchtime.
- be prepared to shop around - in this month's Good Food magazine two books are recommended to readers, both of which I have seen in The Works for a great deal less money. The Internet can be excellent for getting goods for less as long as you remember to factor in the postage costs; I use Amazon regularly for books and postage is free on most items if you spend over fifteen pounds and choose super saver delivery. I find clothes and shoes more difficult to buy online as you can't try them on first. Another thing to watch out for is the price of things per kg or 100 grams, which is marked on all supermarket goods, under the price. Received wisdom suggests it is always cheaper to buy in bulk but this is not always the case. I went to buy Scott's Porage Oats from Tesco recently. They had two boxes, one at 1kg and the other at 1.5kg. The 1kg box cost 11.9p per 100 gms - £1.19 per box - but the 1.5kg box cost 15.4p per 100gms - £2.31 per box. That's 3.5p per 100gms more expensive and you would pay that difference on an additional 500 gms in the larger box. Keep checking, though, as supermarkets have a horrible habit of changing these prices without warning!