Monday, July 29, 2013

Saving Money in SF

My cousin, who's a writer for LifeHacker, has written plenty of great articles about how to save money. My friend Daniel was a finalist in a shopping competition and started his own website with tips on how to get great deals (http://notimetodeal.com). As new residents in the Bay Area who are trying to adjust to life here after living in Asia, I thought I'd share some of our thoughts and ideas for living frugally.
*Note - Some of these ideas are ones that we've tried or are currently doing, but not always by choice or intention. Some of these ideas are things we wish we could do or written merely for the sake of theoretical discussion
  • Use rewards credit cards in place of cash whenever you possibly can - Have multiple rewards cards and take advantage of the different promotions. The trick is to make sure you know which cards to use in what situations (or use the wallaby app) and always pay them off each month. Obviously, don't spend more than you make. Look out for new card bonuses or rewards cards with categories that can give 5% on stuff you have to buy anyway like gasoline or groceries. If you shop at Target, get the redCard, which gives you an instant 5% off. Check out Life Hacker for articles like this and more on how to get the most out of your rewards cards.
  • Don't have kids or pets - not only are they expensive, but they're pure evil, too. Just kidding. I like pets. (Update 5/9/14: we eventually got a cat, but it's not that expensive so far! Got him from a shelter for only $30 and our monthly cat expenses aren't that bad)
  • Take advantage of commuter benefits - Sometimes, companies offer benefits to employees who commute to work. For example, if I take public transport ten times a month, I get a $25 visa gift card that helps offset the cost of gas for those days I do drive. People who carpool get the closest parking spots in our garage. If you can bike, walk, or carpool to work, do it as often as you can. It may seem like a hassle to commute, especially if you've driven your whole life, but it's good for the environment, reduces wear and tear on your vehicle, saves money on gas, and helps you avoid dealing with idiot drivers. Plus, you can spend your commute doing something productive like reading a book or playing X-Com.
  • Don't eat out so often - Eating out is expensive, especially in the Bay Area. Add parking, gas, and the tip, do it for lunch and dinner 4-5 times a week and soon you'll be wondering where your money went. I'm not saying to shun restaurants for good, but it really does take a toll on your wallet when you eat out a lot. Try these tips:
    • Eat food that's cheap but still makes you full. For me that means eating cereal, oatmeal, bananas, or homemade sandwiches. These foods give me the most bang for my buck. They're generally healthier, too. By eating these things for breakfast and lunch, I avoid having to pay a lot for two meals of the day and don't feel as bad eating out for dinner. If you can't get full off of cereal, oatmeal, and bananas, then go on a diet!!! Move to Asia and let your stomach shrink.
    • If you do go out for dinner and there are leftovers, save it for later. Didn't your momma ever teach you not to waste food? As mentioned above, my stomach shrank while I lived off of smaller portions in Asia so now I can get full on half of an American-sized meal. The other half gets shoved in the fridge and eaten later, which means the money you spent at the restaurant goes twice as far by providing sustenance for two meals instead of one. Just make sure you thoroughly reheat your food.
  • Try not to pay full price for movies -  
    • Movie tickets are expensive. However, even without resorting to piracy you could still avoid paying $20+ for a movie ticket. Don't watch in 3D or IMAX unless it's Pacific Rim or some awesome visual effects extravaganza that would make it worth the extra cost. Most people probably won't notice the difference anyway. I know I usually forget about the 3D after a few minutes into the movie. Try not to buy theater food!! What a ripoff.
    • DVDs/Blurays are expensive. Borrow them from your friends who have huge collections, or only buy them when they're on sale. You could also watch at a matinee showing at a reduced ticket price. What's with our obsession with watching everything immediately?
  • Don't pay full price for furniture, clothes, or books. Use Craigslist, Ebay, Salvation Army, Goodwill, libraries, garage sales, etc.
    • Furniture - Everyone knows you can get cheap furniture off of Craigslist, but even Ikea has a bunch of cheap furniture that gets the job done if you're worried about crabs or bedbugs from previous owners. I once got a desk for under $20. You can probably do much better than that.
    • Clothes - If you're on a budget, don't spend $50 for a t-shirt. Go to outlets or Old Navy/Target or something. Try thrift shops.
    • Books - The funny thing about books is most people only read them once. So when they realize this, they try to sell them off at garage sales or give them to Goodwill. You can find books at a fraction of the price there. Don't forget about libraries too. They're full of books waiting to be borrowed, in case you didn't know.
  • If you don't mind living with others, share the rent/rent a room. Don't live in SF.
    • There's no shame in living with your parents. Okay, some shame, but you'll get over it.
    • Having your own place is nice but would you rather spend half of your income on rent or on a nice vacation?  It's your choice.
    • If you live in the city, you need to take into account how much a parking spot will cost, unless you enjoy driving around in circles looking for a spot.
    • The other side of this is, just live closer to where you work if possible. If you can walk or bike to work then that means less money spent on gas and public transport.
  • Cut your own hair or get someone else to do it for free - I got a cheap electric shaver from Best Buy and I've already made back my investment after two quick haircuts from my wife. It helps by not being picky about your hairstyle.
  • Don't get a TV - Ok, now we're getting into experimental, dangerous territory. Before you start yelling at me, think about it for a second. Do you really need a TV to survive? Think how much you save by not having one. You don't have to pay for cable, you don't have to buy DVDs/Blurays or videogame consoles. You won't have to get an awesome sound system to supplement your widescreen plasma, you won't need to buy apple TV or Roku.... People lived without this stuff for centuries so you'll get by without it.
    • Large screens are overrated. It's not like a huge screen is going to improve the plot of Transformers 2.
    • Even if you must have your TV fix, with online streaming services like Netflix, you can just watch on your computer screen and avoid paying for cable.
    • Update 5/9/14: we eventually caved and bought a large screen TV (on sale) and I got a game console. But we I got an older generation console (PS3) so I hardly have to pay anything for games since they're usually on sale or you can borrow ps3 games from almost anyone.
  • Don't pay for internet - OK, now we're talking crazy. Admittedly, this is something that I don't practice either but honestly when I look at how much time I actually spend on the internet, maybe this isn't such a bad idea. 
    • I spend my whole day sitting in front of a computer screen, so theoretically, if I could take care of all the internet-related tasks I need to do at work (while on break or outside of office hours of course!), then I won't have to waste time at home on the internet. 
    • Ok, assuming you still must have Facebook time, lets say you have a phone with a data plan. Think about how much you use your phone for surfing these days. For me, I hardly use my home computer for anything except for video/image editing. The rest of the surfing I can do from my phone. And with stuff like freedom pop or Netzero, if you're not a heavy internet user you could probably get by with their free plans just checking email or minimal web surfing. My wife and I survived off of our t-mobile 2GB data plans for our first couple of months in SF and we never had major problems. You could even tether off of your mobile plan to your computer. And without a TV or internet, think about how much time you could spend on your hobbies or doing real stuff outdoors?
    • If you can't do without internet and the convenience of it.. just get one of the cheaper internet plans. You probably don't need superfast data unless you're a gamer or a pirate. In which case, you've got other issues to worry about.
    • Update 5/9/14: we ended up getting AT&T internet at the introductory rate of $20/month but after one year it's already jumped up to $56/month. Now I'm eagerly searching for any promos or alternatives because I consider it pretty expensive. And now they're trying to convince me to upgrade to an internet/cable TV plan for just a little more when all I want is internet at a cheaper price.
  • In this day and age, maybe you can't survive without a cellphone, but you can survive without an expensive smartphone. Ditch your smartphone and expensive data plan for something cheap. Do you really need to check facebook every 5 minutes? Save all your surfing for when you go home, get a cheaper phone and a cheaper plan and you'll save a ton.
  • My final tip for living cheaply? Move out of the Bay Area.

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