Has the holiday season left you terrified about logging in to peek at your credit card account and thinking about drastically cutting back on spending? It’s common to start a new year feeling debt’s bite. But there’s no need to abstain from fun altogether.
If December’s charges have turned into January bills, put away the credit cards and turn to cash, suggests Jen Dotson, who blogs at “Thrifty Northwest Mom,” a site focused on frugal deals.
To put your plastic on hiatus, write down your projected expenses in a notebook or on a categorized spreadsheet and set aside cash for each category. “We have been using a cash system for the last year and it has helped us to become debt-free,” Dotson says.
And while you’re paying down post-holiday debt, try these 7 ways to spend smarter. You’ll reduce expenses without denying yourself much or racking up new account balances.
Libraries don’t just offer the books we remember from our childhood. Today, they also are sources of money-saving fun for all ages, says Isra Hashmi, who has written about going from fancy to frugal in her blog, TheFrugalette.com.
Libraries offer a frugal entertainment alternative with their extensive music and DVD collections. Children and teens alike can be kept busy with library story-reading, craft projects and singalongs.
Some libraries even offer passes to museums and attractions. These passes can be checked out, just like a book. “In Boston, just for having a library card, I’ve gotten free passes to the aquarium and zoo,” Hashmi says.
While admonitions to quit dining out sound wonderful, few of us stick to beans and rice at home every night.
Hashmi’s family members will often eat something light before dining out, such as a small salad or half of a sandwich. At the restaurant, they order an appetizer, which is often less expensive than an entree but still full-size. Or, if they do order a full meal, they ask the waiter to “take half to go,” and are served only half of the portion at the table.
“Restaurant portions are huge,” Hashmi says. It’s also better for your health and pocketbook to scale back.
Or take a cooking class to learn to saute and flambe. “Learn a skill that will end up paying for itself,” says Stephanie Ann Welbes, the author of “The Cheap Diva’s Guide to Frugal and Fabulous Living.”
Community colleges are good sources for affordable, noncredit classes that boost your knowledge without depleting your bank account.
Want to try something fun and new? Check out geocaching, says Lynn Colwell, co-author of the book “Celebrate Green!”
“Geocachers” use GPS devices and clues to discover caches (boxes or cylinders) hidden in parks, in the wilderness or on city streets. The caches contain a log for you to document your find, along with a trinket or 2 for swapping.
The Seattle-based company Groundspeak helps to manage geocaching hide-and-seek expeditions and offers a free app to help you find caches.
Geocaching is a frugal way to discover your city inexpensively. “I love discovering places I’d never normally find — the streets I’ve never been down and little nooks and crannies in parks,” Colwell says.
Just because it’s January doesn’t mean the fun needs to stop. You can invite friends and family over for gatherings but still be frugal.
Choose a daytime get-together, such as a brunch or luncheon, to celebrate birthdays or other occasions. These tend to be less expensive because you can skip the alcoholic drinks, says Stephanie Nelson, who blogs at CouponMom.com.
“Invite fewer people and keep it casual — chili and hamburgers rather than beef tenderloin,” Nelson says. If you want to do a dinner, don’t offer multiple side dishes. Instead, go for 1-dishers such as enchiladas or lasagna. Watch for menu items to go on sale in the weeks before.
“Guests always remember whether or not they enjoyed the company at a get-together, not necessarily whether it was a white tablecloth affair or not,” Nelson says.
What’s going on this weekend? Give it a second thought and be creative, fun and frugal, suggests Karen Hoxmeier, blogger at MyBargainBuddy.com.
The Hoxmeiers also participate in unusual free things such as touring new model homes. “When my kids were younger, they would immediately run to the bedrooms to claim theirs,” Hoxmeier says.
Hoxmeier’s teenage son enjoys bike rides. “To make it more fun, I let him lead, and he does his best to get us lost in our neighborhood,” she says. “My daughter has the job of getting us back home. Besides being great exercise, it helps develop their sense of direction.”
Ugh, did a Santa in your life give you the gift of music or a movie you already had? Or did you receive another set of garden tools? Plenty of websites allow you to sell or trade books, CDs, DVDs, apparel, electronics and even unused gift cards.
“It’s a great way to recycle those not-so-favorite holiday gifts for stuff you actually want,” says Jeff Bennett, the former CEO of Swap.com, an online consignment store.
Historically, swapping and resale sites have seen a surge in activity during January as people trade gifts they didn’t want and clean out their closets for the new year.
Offline, you could start or join a trading club in your neighborhood with an existing moms’ group or other organization.
Is the winter-break vacation to Hawaii or Mexico just not in your budget this year? Visit your local tourism bureau’s website to find frugal ideas for a staycation. Tourism sites often offer inexpensive festivals, events and free entertainment picks such as municipal-sponsored concerts.
For something different, author Welbes suggests the FactoryToursUSA.com website to find out whether any factories in your area offer tours.
“If you look for factories that make food products, you might end up getting free food samples,” she says.
Local volunteering is a way to participate in entertainment that might be out of your budget. For example, you could volunteer to usher at the local theater or symphony, or to collect admission tickets at a designer house show.
“The important thing to keep in mind is that you must volunteer for a position that requires you to be on hand for the event if you want to enjoy the entertainment,” Welbes says.