Free is a very good price.
That homily, long a mainstay in the Pennywise universe, popped into mind recently when I discovered Freecycle. Over the course of a few weeks this summer, I obtained a paper shredder, a 28-inch Sanyo television, a VCR/DVD player with its original remote and manual, a like-new Indian cookbook, and a beautiful mahogany bookcase. All of them were free. All I had to do was pick them up.
If you don't know Freecycle (or as it's officially known, the Freecycle Network), it is a libertarian communist paradise of mutuality and freedom. Put less philosophically, Freecycle is a Web site that allows people in various localities to unload stuff they don't want, saving landfills from additional junk, and providing items to other people at no charge.
I don't know why I didn't get on Freecycle sooner. To have a mahogany bookcase is a good thing. To be able to tell people who admire it that you obtained it free puts it in quite another category of experience.
The joy of frugality may explain the immense enthusiasm with which The Chronicle's readers have responded to a question posted two years ago on the On the Money discussion forum. (Yes, two years ago. Bear in mind that two years is several decades in digital time. It is as if someone in 1987 posted a notice in a newspaper and a never-ending discussion had ensued ever since in those same pages.)
The question was, "What do you really do to save money?" That thread has been read more than 40,000 times and gathered 20 pages of replies. It is still high on The Chronicle's forum list, with fresh replies keeping it at or near the top. All credit goes to the poster with the handle Odessa for posing the artful question, apparently establishing the post in perpetuity.
Pennywise has already benefited personally from one reader's suggestion: Get prescription glasses online from Zenni Optical. Needing sunglasses, I entered data for two prescriptions, one for reading, the other for driving. Within a week, Zenni had filled my prescriptions. In the mail came tortoise-shell frames with perfectly corrected lenses.
The kicker: Together the two pairs cost only $39.75, postage included. For prescription sunglasses, that price is exceptional—and I could have gotten away even cheaper had I not bought frames slightly more expensive than the bargain-basement level. (Disclaimer: They came factory-direct from China, but what else is new?)
A kaleidoscope of practices and tips is contained in the replies to Odessa's original post. Wading through them all is an edifying time-killer, but here, as a service to busy readers, Pennywise digests a few of the best ideas, stripped of detours into zaniness (e.g., underwear) and obsessive compulsion (e.g., reuse dental floss, something Pennywise declines to do, thank you).
- Buy generic, not branded.
- Stop smoking. Curtail drinking (or buy booze in bulk).
- Don't buy magazines, newspapers, and books; use the library.
- Keep weddings simple. Don't have children. Or have them, but don't reward kids' impulse-purchase desires. Shop for clothes for kids and self at Goodwill or rummage sales.
- Walk, run, bike. Don't pay health-club fees.
- Vehicles: Buy used and fuel-efficient ones. Drive them until they die. Go no faster than the speed limit to save gas and avoid tickets. Consolidate meetings and teaching days to avoid commuting.
- Cook at home. Bake bread. Consolidate trips to the grocery store to save gas and reduce impulse buying. Shop at discount markets. Drink water, not soda. Brown-bag it for lunch. Go vegetarian (meat is pricey). Plant a garden and can the produce.
- A smaller-sized dwelling reduces bills and mortgage. In the winter, turn down the heat; wear sweaters. In the summer, turn up the temperature to save on air-conditioning bills. Use energy-saving light bulbs. Find a cheaper energy provider. Dry your clothes on racks.
- Pay off your credit cards in full to avoid paying interest. Have no cellphone or get a cheap (prepaid, family, or broadband-combined) plan. Use Skype.
- Buy only inexpensive cosmetics, or none at all. Cut your own hair. "I spend $7.99 on my hair color (thank you, L'Oreal) and get a lot of compliments. Just sayin'."
- Scavenge at curbs or nab discarded items on campuses populated by rich students.
Agreement does not always prevail in the comments. (Does it ever on discussion boards?) One reader wrote, "Never buy extended warranties. The store has already done the math to make sure it's a bad deal for you." Others retorted that laptops were the one exception, since they are so easily dropped.
Pennywise already follows some of the more abstemious suggestions, such as not having cable TV or a cellphone, but he felt some sympathy with the reader who wrote, "In general, I find that constantly skimping on small things makes me unhappy. ... I find that the big things—housing, car, and shopping for luxury appliances, etc.—are more important." (Cable and a cellphone would make Pennywise unhappy, so he feels no sacrifice in eschewing them.)
"I almost never impulse buy," wrote a reader. "If I see something I like, I wait a week. If I still want it, then I go and buy it. Most of the time I forget about it, but sometimes not, and then I feel good about getting this item I've been thinking about for a short while."
So much sound advice, so many excellent ideas, to which Pennywise adds but a single word: Freecycle. Feel free to add your own money-saving tricks to the original forum post or in the comments section below.