Survival tips: Coupons, clothesline, a savvy cell phone plan

June 9, 2009 at 7:47 pm Leave a comment

Asbury Park Press – Asbury Park,NJ,USA
Shannon Mullen • STAFF WRITER • June 7, 2009
When her salary was frozen and her husband’s income was slashed 15 percent, Kathy Esposito followed their employers’ example: She cut expenses wherever she could.

She switched to a cheaper cellular phone plan, talked her satellite TV provider into lopping $20 off her monthly bill for a year to keep her as a subscriber, and started running her dishwasher and washing machine at night to take advantage of lower, off-peak electricity rates.

She also began spending more time surfing the Internet for coupons, doubled the size of her vegetable garden and set her laundry out to dry on a clothesline strung up in her backyard.

“It cuts down on my natural gas usage because I’m not running my dryer,” explained Esposito, 46, of Howell, who calculated that the clothesline alone saved her $123 last year.

Such thriftiness used to be part of the woof and weave of American culture. Now, on the heels of a heady era of conspicuous consumption, frugality is in vogue again, a byproduct of the worst recession in decades.

Coupon use has exploded, shoppers are flocking to discounters like Walmart, and more “consumers” are morphing into “savers.” In April, the savings rate surged to 5.7 percent, the highest level in 14 years. A recent survey of about 1,000 U.S. adults by SunTrust Banks found that nearly 9 out of 10 had made a change to their daily routine to save money.

Meanwhile, people are flooding the Internet looking for ways to stretch their dollars. In February, use of the search terms “get out of debt” on the Yahoo! search engine spiked 600 percent, and searches for “free printable online coupons” soared 3,600 percent, said Laura Rowley, a New Jersey-based columnist for Yahoo! Finance.

“People are sort of obsessed with being frugal at the moment,” said Rowley, of Maplewood, author of “Money and Happiness: A Guide to Living the Good Life” (Wiley, 2005) and a blog by the same name.

“Frugality is definitely “in,’ ” she said. “What I think is funny is hearing women from Short Hills say, “I’m doing my own nails now to save the 25 bucks.’ ”

Even today’s teens are adapting to an altered economic landscape. Viral advertising, meaning word-of-mouth shopping advice, is all the rage.

“It’s very, very hip to be the guy or the girl who found the thing that everybody wants at a better price,” said Gary Rudman of GTR Consulting, a San Francisco-based market research firm that tracks the habits of young consumers.

Esposito said she was thrifty before the recession hit, but not to the extent she is now.

“I can’t rely on getting (more) money from the employers anymore,” she said, speaking for many workers who have seen their earnings stall or shrink in the past year. “I’ve got to be able to cut and cut and cut, wherever I can.”

As the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, she said the challenge is finding inexpensive or free ways to have fun. Among her discoveries: Lowe’s, the home improvement chain, offers free weekend workshops for kids — her daughter Stephanie made her a planter for Mother’s Day at one — and the Chick-fil-A restaurant near her home in Howell has a free craft and storytime for children every Tuesday night.

“People are looking more and more for things to do” that don’t cost a lot of money, said Lynn Humphrey of Eatontown, who runs a Web site and publishes a free newsletter packed with listings of community events in the Monmouth County area.
“Most of these are free,” said Humphrey, 56, who is in the process of expanding her business, called BizeTurtle: Events in Monmouth. She’s found deals doing that, too, like the 250 free business cards she got from VistaPrint.com, an online printing company.

To be sure, the recession is forcing frugality on many Americans, about 5.7 million of whom have lost their jobs since the start of the downtown more than a year ago. Rowley, however, said the economic turmoil is prompting many people to reassess their priorities, and she believes at least some of the lifestyle changes they’re making will be permanent ones.

“Pricing power has shifted from retailers to consumers,” she said. “Consumers are learning they don’t have to pay full price . . . (and) now you have all these intermediaries on the Web showing you how to save money.”

That’s not to say that clotheslines are sprouting in Esposito’s neighborhood — not yet, anyway — though she said some of her friends and co-workers seem intrigued by the idea.

“One of my girlfriends has been needling her husband to put a washline,” she said in her backyard the other day, as her bath towels swayed in the breeze. “It really does pay off.”

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