Neofrugal fun: finding value in entertainment

Anyone reading along or even checking over some of the titles of past posts knows my current situation: I’m not in a financial position I’m comfortable with and I’m working to change our habits and establish sustainable values that will make my family and I financially comfortable.  The first steps aren’t always that much fun: stopping spending habits, even when you realize that they’re simply habits and not a part of your long-term goals or values, often feels like a sacrifice and a punishment.  Particularly when you consider the low-hanging fruit of budget austerity: eating out, buying entertainment, attending events: you know, the things a lot of people associate with living a full life and having a good time.

I was one of the original crop of videogamers: the first Atari 2600, now referred to in collector’s circles as the “Heavy Sixer,” that arrived in our living room the very first Christmas it was available (with the Combat cartridge that came in the book-style box) was actually the fourth videogame we owned.  Lost somewhere in the garage sales of time was our Odyssey, the very first cartridge videogame system whose graphics largely consisted of plastic overlays that clung to the tv screen by static alone.  Having yet to shake my collector mentality, I still own consoles from Atari, Magnavox, Coleco… and later generations from Nintendo, Sega, and Sony.  My “newest” console is a dated and beginning-to-get-cantankerous-about-reading-certain-discs Playstation 2.

I feel like a terrible father, nigh-on abusively forcing my kids to grow up with generation-old videogames.

And for them, that’s something we intend to address.  There’s a Wii on our “to get when practical” list… both because they have friends and relatives with Wiis and already have favorite games on the platform (old computer hardware chestnut: buy the machine the runs the software you want), and because of the Wii’s trend toward family-oriented games (reminding me, incidentally, of playing four-paddle Video Olympics on the 2600 with my own sister and parents).

But let’s face it: if I didn’t have kids, I wouldn’t be saving up for the Wii for my personal gaming.  In fact, at this point, I’m likely not to to be saving up for a game console for my personal gaming ever again.  There’s just too much available for a platform that I already own, Mac OS X, for me to pother with another piece of hardware.

It’s true, there was a day not so long ago that games on the Mac were often late-arriving and more expensive versions of Windows games.  Things have changed, enough for me, anyway: between Java games, online games, and indie games, there are more games available to me than I will ever have time to play.

Many of these games are free, at least to try for some time period or some number of levels.  There have been virtual festivals for indie programmers where several games are offered for a bargain price.  And every once in a while, you find something that you break out the PayPal for.

It’s happened to me: I’m fallen victim to Minecraft.  If you haven’t heard of it yet, wait a few days: it’s gaining some of that internet virality that is the YouTwit generation’s gift to marketing.  Which is well and good, but it’s not why I sent them $13.77 (the current US equivalent of Minecraft Alpha’s 9.95 euro price).

First off, it’s a clever, addictive game… the kind where you get involved with exploring and the next time you look up it’s 3:37 in the morning.  The graphics might be described unflatteringly as cartoonish and blocky by some, but to a gamer my age, they’re retro-pixelated goodness.  Playing this game gives me the kind of joy I got playing BoulderDash in the eighties… playing BoulderDash in three dimensions.  Where you get to build stuff out of the diamonds you picked up.

I mentioned this was Minecraft Alpha: it’s an unfinished work in progress.  The current pricing is half of what the game’s author is going to charge once the game goes Beta, and who knows about general release.  If you buy the Alpha, you are promise all future releases at no charge.  The author sends out updates with improvements and additional gameplay features on Fridays.

The author has sold over 300,000 copies… to the tune about 4 million US dollars.

The author is named Markus Persson, and is a Swedish game designer who quit his job to work a project that interested him.

This is something I can get behind: doing something you’re passionate about, doing it well, and being rewarded.  I was happy to drop my thirteen bucks, my drop-in-the-Atlantic, into his pile, because this is my own dream: figure out what it is that I am “supposed to do” and then do it… and let rewards take care of themselves.

I mean, I don’t even need $4 million bucks… but I’d feel like a better dad if I could get the kids their Wii.

You can find out more about Minecraft, download it, and purchase the Alpha at minecraft.net.

Great Value: True or False

Let me be clear up front: I think Wal-Mart, ultimately, is a Bad Thing.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s an impressive bit of business, and it’s swell that some folks are making a lot of money for putting it together.  In the long run, though, I’m not a fan of putting all our eggs in one basket, nor a one-size-fits-all, lowest-common-denominator philosophy.  I do think Wal-Mart can get too big for all our good, and arguments can already be made that it’s happening.  I believe that supporting certain businesses is worth a certain amount of extra cost; indeed, a big part of NeoFrugal is determining what you value and what you don’t, and being conscious of where you spend your money and why.

But sometimes we find ourselves in a place where we do not have that luxury.  My family hasn’t yet arrived at NeoFrugal, we’re still at forced frugal.  And the truth is that buying stuff at Wal-Mart is very often cheaper than buying it somewhere else.  This is particularly true for Wal-Mart’s house Great Value brand.  When buying the Great Value product instead of the name-brand product equals the difference between having enough food for four days rather than just three days, you do what you need to do.

Buying the cheapest alternative can be eye-opening, and products end up falling into one of four categories.

Because when you’re financially strapped you tend towards buying the basics, anyway, it turns out that quite a few Great Value products are indistinguishable from their name-brand counterparts.  All-purpose flour, sugar, salt, and butter are the items that jump out at me as products that I am not ever again likely to pay any extra for a brand-name.  Gelatin desserts and fruit juices all pass my taste tests, and perhaps more importantly, those of my kids.  The breakfast cereals we normally eat (the analogs to Rice Krispies and Grape-Nuts) are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same products as their more expensive counterparts.

There are some products that don’t stand up quite as well, but are passable in a pinch.  We like the taste of Jif chunky peanut butter, and other peanut butters, including Great Value, just aren’t the same.  The GV peanut butter wafers with chocolate coating snacks simply do not have the same texture as Little Debbie’s Nutty Bars.  The blend of tea in the tea bags is not as tasty as Tetley or Luzianne.  When there is any leeway in the budget at all, even now we tend towards the higher-priced products we prefer.

Every so often, you run into a product that is simply inferior.  The things Great Value puts into boxes beside the Pop Tarts are basically inedible: medicinal tasting filling in a bland, dry-to-crumbling excuse for a pastry shell.  The garlic and lime salsa is difficult to tolerate, much less enjoy.

A rare treat is the GV product we actually prefer to the name brand.  GV’s heavy whipped cream aerosol can provides a denser, creamier whipped cream than Reddi-Whip.  The black bean and corn salsa, in stark contrast to the garlic and lime variety, is very tasty.

Of course, there’s a certain amount of personal preference in this… my wife can’t tell any difference at all between, for instance, the whipped creams and the tea bags, largely because they simply aren’t as vital a part of her diet as they are mine.  The real value in our Great Value experiment has been the opportunity to to widen our horizons beyond the choices advertising has taught us, and judge the product behind the label.  Sometimes the “cheap stuff” really is just as good or better.

The Goals As They Stand

Neofrugal Family

I want my children to understand the relationship of money and saving and value.
I want to get the most out of our family entertainment/recreation/vacation budget.
I want all members of my family to understand their values and respect our values.
I want my children to value experiences more than materials.
I want my children to get as much as possible from their education.

Neofrugal Food

I want to avoid harmful chemicals in my food.
I want to support local food production.
I want to eat a greater variety of fresh food… with my kids.
I want to lower my food costs.
I want to improve my health through diet.

Neofrugal Finances

I want to waste less.
I want to earn more.
I want to make the most of what I’ve got.
I want to give back.

A quick list of the things I’m visualizing in NeoFrugal Notebook.  Although when this started, I had a more traditional “save money” slant in mind, I’m coming around to the idea that the real key to NeoFrugal is understanding what value means to you as an individual and as a family.  One of my favorite bloggers, Trent at The Simple Dollar, has mentioned more than once about spending on what truly makes you happy, and saving on the rest; again, you have to have the insight to know what truly makes you happy.  In a song from, wow, must be fourteen or so years ago now, I wrote “your passions turn to clutter there in front of your eyes,” revealing the underlying issues I’ve had of identifying what was really important to me.

Off we go trying to fix that.

Still just regular frugal

To me, one of the biggest pieces of the neofrugal idea is that there are some things that are worth spending significant money on… that getting the most of what you value sometimes means paying more than the minimum possible price: figuring out what is important to you and being unafraid to invest in it.

That’s not where we are, yet.

I’m working for a big company again, with the regular paycheck that entails, but we’ve still got some ground to make up from the past couple of months.  Our personal austerity program is still in effect… although I am admittedly eyeing our competing shovel-ready spending programs.  It’s time to look at the cutbacks and see what is to be added back in.

We made a lot of choices and changes to make it through, some better than others.  I’ve made a few notes on why the methods may or may not be a part of neofrugal.

Home and vehicle maintenance

When it’s not clear whether you can afford gas, you’re probably not going to get the oil changed.  It’s never really a conscious decision to put off maintenance, it’s a cumulative effect of looking at the money pile each week and maintenance funds simply not being there.  You let things slide, make do, hope it’ll hang together until the pile grows.  Obviously this is extreme frugal; frugal taken to a ridiculous conclusion.  It was necessary, I’m glad the necessity is passing, and routine maintenance on vehicles, systems, and appliances is clearly a neofrugal value.

Vehicle expense

We were a two-car family, but have been operating with one vehicle for several months.  Although we had little choice in the matter (if you neglect your vehicle maintenance long enough, this decision will eventually make itself), there are benefits to acting like a one-car family even if you don’t have to.  Having only one car forced us to plan ahead better: instead of being able to run out to the store or a drive-thru if we ran out of something to home, we had lists and minimal regular shopping trips; reducing gas, time, and impulse spending opportunities.  We’re definitely going to get a second vehicle running, but we’re keeping the attitude that less driving is best.

Landline phone, cable tv, trash pickup, internet

For a while, we simply cut every service we possibly could.  The internet has already made its comeback, landline and cable, not so much.  Cutting the landline was completely painless, and the library made cable surprisingly easy to do without, even before the return of the internet brought streaming tv back into our lives.  The local waste management center (I guess they’re not “dumps” anymore) is not far away, just off the main loop we already use for grocery, department store, bank runs.  We did find that it was a true hardship for us to do without an internet connection at home… even though we both had internet at work and at plenty of local free access points.

Restaurants, brand names, processed foods

Cutting out restaurants and drive-thrus was hard, but made a huge difference in our food budget.  We will certainly be adding restaurants back to our routine, Suzy and I are both foodies, but it’s clear there will be some changes in the frequency of particular destinations.  I’ve been in it too long to do it anymore: I just can’t bring myself to pay the premium at big chain restaurants.  Most of the places we really like to go are the proverbial mom and pop operations.

With very few exceptions, we have found generic and store brand products to be equal quality as name brands.  Sometimes a difference is not one of quality, but one of relatively small variations of flavors and textures; we actually prefer the non-name brand product, on occasion.

We’ve also been buying less processed items, more staples.  This has made avoiding brand names easier, too, as well as being generally cheaper, healthier, and better.

We didn’t have any choice when we cut these expenses, even though we’d come to think of them as basic parts of our lives.  The lean times have helped us look at expenses from the other direction, to examine what we really get from the purchase, and if it’s worth it compared to the other possibilities.

NeoFrugal, what and why

Consider the following the hyper-ultra Cliff’s Notes version of my NeoFrugal story.  I turned fifteen and got my first part-time job about a month before Ronald Reagan took office: I became a part of the American economy about the same time as did Reaganomics.  I started to learn real financial lessons in college… when I jokingly filled out one of the mass mailings I’d been sent while working as a waiter, and American Express sent me a Gold Card.  I went to college just because I was supposed to, eventually got a “real” job in industry and materially enjoyed my success during a time of seemingly unbounded growth by considering the concepts of frugality to be antiquated reminders that my grandparents survived a financial dark age.

I was losing my taste my the corporate world at about the same time the industry where I worked was hard hit by the post-9/11 recession.  My family had to make some significant life changes, but we persevered with part-timing and freelancing to the point we felt we could make the jump to running our own business full time.  This was around September of last year… approximately three weeks before the economy collapsed.  Again, my family made some significant lifestyle changes to try and persevere, but recently I have returned to working for a large employer.

What all this means (other than I have a pretty lousy sense of timing when it comes to making risky financial decisions) is that I never learned some important lessons about handling money back when it might still do me some good; that a family of four can live for a year, say, 2008, for instance, on less money than a single guy spent on travel, bars and restaurants, movies and concerts, media of types, and collectible toys comics and computers in, say, 1999.  That he term frugal was associated with personal concessions that had to be endured when times were bad.

Now that it appears things are changing (I project the checking account about two months ahead, and we’ve enfrugaled ourselves to such a degree already that only a few weeks of steady employment will catch us up… leaving us in the position of making decisions on where and how to expand our budget for the first time in ages), I’m starting to look at frugality in different ways.  Although there are plenty of better or worse suggestions of what items to add back to our lives, there’s a significant number of items that I just can’t imagine spending money on, anymore.  And I’ve identified some items that are simply so much better than their alledged substitutes that I’d rather just go without them than go with the cheaper option.  Thinking about the future, frugality is becoming a set of choices about what is genuinely important… and a new economy built on new business infrastructures has, at the very least, made fascinating new choices into possibly viable candidates for genuine importance.

NeoFrugal means getting more from your life by reducing waste, understanding your values, and recognizing opportunities.  NeoFrugal isn’t about spending less, it’s about doing more with what you spend.  NeoFrugal isn’t about limiting choices, it’s about making good choices.  NeoFrugal is about looking at your kids and wanting to give them, when it might still do them some good, some of the knowledge you still wish you’d had… back when it might still do you some good.

So that’s the big picture what and why is NeoFrugal.  This weblog will be partly a journal of my new choices, partly the financial instruction manual I always needed, partly a clearinghouse of frugal possibilities, and partly a database of my own experiences of value.  Eventually, the hope is it will be partly a forum for other people considering new frugal possibilities and sharing results and opinions.

Thanks for reading.

Welcome to NeoFrugal Notebook

Hello, welcome to my new weblog, NeoFrugal Notebook; a resource for changing financial lives.  I’m Jeff, I’ll be discovering practical ways for imperfect people to change their financial situations for the better.  I’ll be curator of information, oftentimes serve as a cautionary tale, and typically be the guinea pig “imperfect person” trying to change something.

I’m quite sure there are people using the term neofrugal to mean something specific: I admit I was shocked to see I could buy the neofrugal.com domain.  But since I could, I feel free to establish my own definition.  For me the new frugality has three aspects: eliminating waste, maximizing value, and enlarging your life.  Eliminating waste is pretty obvious, the most similar to traditional thriftiness.  We’ve all been made aware over the years that some bargains aren’t really bargains, but maximizing value is also beginning to incorporate the notion that some things are worth an extra expense.  Enlarging your life is a concept that will become more clear as we go, but in a nutshell it’s the recognition that “some things are worth an extra expense” for reasons that extend beyond your own life and preferences.

Which begs the question of how this is going to be any different from any number of other personal finance blogs out there.  I’ve written professionally in the past.  I’ve confronted some uncomfortable realities of my own situation, have maintained a sense of humor about it, and am willing to dish on myself in the hopes that a bad example can serve as a lesson.  I’m determined to make a set of changes in my own life, and am willing to document methods and techniques that succeed and fail for me.  All of which, it seems, still fails to clearly differentiate me from the herd.

What it’s really going to come down to is whether or not I’m able to reach someone new with my efforts.  I have to make a change in my own financial life, and if I can help someone also make a change in their financial life, so much the better.  I hope my experiences can educate, my struggles can warn, and my successes can inspire.  And I hope you enjoy it.