Cutting back, reducing overheads, tightening the belt, watching the bottom line; there would appear to be as many ways to do it as there are metaphors and clichés about it. While the words are easy to say, the actual application is somewhat more difficult and in reality it is all relative. Do you buy less in the more up market, better laid out supermarket or do you abandon comfort and convenience and opt for a stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap outlet that brings little joy and very long queues with a ‘you don’t expect service as well do you?’ attitude. Maybe you expend more time and energy than actual cash and shop in both places.
In all this talk of spending less has anyone actually done a study on the time versus money versus energy versus quality cut off? There is always a point at which some supposed do-it-yourself budget savers are actually just frustrating, time consuming madness. The money saved is not worth it and will only be spent on drink or drugs at a later date to help you cope with your now miserable life due to all the cutbacks! What we actually need is a cultural mind shift and not just some cost reducing exercise.
The problem with attempting to reduce cost from a purely financial perspective is that it inevitably reduces overall quality of life. This is dangerous for health, mental and physical, and will in turn impact on everything else. For example it is cheaper to buy two full packets of digestive biscuits in a particular supermarket than it is to buy two apples. If you are a cash-strapped young parent and have hungry little children to feed on a very limited budget what would you buy? Faced with a 1 litre carton of a high end smoothie drink retailing at over €3 and a 2 litre bottle of supermarket soft drink for 49cent, what would you do? You can run the same comparisons right through different food choices and it becomes instantly apparent why people are forced to eat unhealthily in tough times. The above is all about saving on hard cash, but isn’t at all conscious of health or the long term associated costs. What we need is an education in how to eat inexpensively but healthily and many other lost skills as well.
While there are plenty of people to blame for the current situation, it is what it is and we have to get on with it. The difficulty is we have lost our creative budgeting muscle. The Celtic Tiger took it with him as he left and there is a whole generation left floundering. Meanwhile the older generation is struggling to remember the skills of their youth; the skills that raised a great nation through many years of hardship on, as the old saying goes, ‘the skin of an oil rag.’ There is an irony in that while the big cat roared there was always someone remembering the ‘good old days when we walked barefoot to school and got a single orange for a Christmas present and were delighted with it.’
In fact only a few years ago I remember rugby pundit and broadcaster George Hook commenting on the excess that he saw with his own grandchildren one particular Christmas. He said a good dose of poverty wouldn’t do them any harm at all. He’s actually right, poverty isn’t such a bad thing if you know how to handle it, but that’s the problem, we no longer have the skills for it. I wonder if George and the other ‘good old days’ folks would now step forward and give us some practical advice. Since the crunch actually hit I haven’t heard any of them coming up with solid, good ideas. Surely now is their time to shine and lead the way. The problem is that the good times impacted everyone’s memories. Left to our own devices the only thing we seem able to do is buy cheaper stuff. This is not a solution.
As a society we barely know how to cook our own food, let alone grow it even though there have never been as many celebrity chefs as there are today. How many have Mrs Beaton’s skills of rustling up a second meal from the leftovers of the first? Today’s cooking skills are of the sexier Nigella and Jamie variety. They call for exotic, internet purchased, fancy ingredients. Cooking became an up-market hobby; a fancy pass time, not a necessity.
In today’s society if your clothes look home made, it is a sure sign of an expensive, avant garde designer. Most of us couldn’t turn a hem without an iron and that sticky stuff, ‘Wonderweb’ and how many homes still own a darning mushroom! (Now of course this is where I go back to my time versus energy versus quality argument. Why would you spend an entire evening darning a sock when the darning thread and the packet of needles probably cost more than a new pair of socks?) We also need to relearn the skill of haggling, bargaining and negotiation; in short, horse trading. Bartering could also be a very useful modus operandi into the future and might prove to be a great deal of fun. The thing is if we had all of the above skills and enjoyed them we wouldn’t even notice the recession. The problem is that while we can do some very complicated things with our mobile phones we are stumped when it comes to a simple packet of lettuce seeds.
However before you cut off the broadband and sell the computer there are some fantastic websites with great financial advice and good ideas (as well as the many frugal living tips that are to be ignored apart from their hilarity value). Spend an hour or two and you will be amazed at the great information and step by step budget plans that are available for free. There was solid advice for young families particularly. For example; if you have a friend with children of a similar age it suggested that you get together and bulk buy the items that you both use. Together you can take greater advantage of special offers, particularly on perishables. Likewise it suggested that friends, neigbours and families could get together for other bulk purchases such as wine or big ticket items like electricals. Let’s face it if you buy three washing machines or three televisions then the retailer will offer a decent discount. Avoid the sites that show you how to make your own shampoo or shoes from old carpet and the ones that show you how to do your own dental and medical procedures are not for normal people.
But then again, who am I to tell you whether you are being mad or thrifty and I suppose the true test of being frugal as opposed to crazy has to be the happiness factor. If you enjoy making your own shampoo then go right ahead. However if you feel desperately deprived by having to do it, stop the madness!
By the time you are reading this the latest budget will have been released. While they have promised it will be painful I refuse to suffer. I’m going to approach it with a mind shift rather than a scalpel and I reckon that by looking at it all a little differently the cuts won’t be so sore. By the way if you do manage to make a successful attempt at a pair of shoes from some old carpet, let me know. It could be the start of a whole new trend.