Ten things Americans do to save money..

I subscribe to many blogs and newsletters. One in particular I often find very interesting, partially because it is from Tawra Kellum & Jill (last name unknown) at  Livingonadime who also publishes: a newsletter, blog and e-books (which they do have physical copies they can mail to you [in the USA]) called Living on a Dime. The most recent email I received from  LivingOnADime.com described 10 Things I Do to Save Money, which I have listed for you word for word (in italics) with the addition of my own opinion on the point at the end of each point because I thought it was an interesting American perspective.

What I mean is that Americans are more in  debt, living more with their credit and debit (ebt – electronic benefit transaction, here in Europe) cards. One of the strangest and most unexpected things I had to get used to when I moved to Germany was the number of places that wouldn’t take debit cards, even if it had a Visa or Mastercard logo, plus the number of places that do not take credit cards period. It was either cash or a German (European) ebt card, which was very frustrating for me in the beginning. Now I actually like it. Actually having money in my wallet really helps me consider if I actually need something, or if I need many things from a shop, but only have a little bit of cash on hand, it helps me prioritize the items I am buying, so I can think to myself, “do I really need this right now?”

Americans have a lot of debt…

In other words:

To put it another way, because I am all about the American Dream (in Europe):

I too am a part of this mess, as is my husband. We honestly struggle to pay our student loan debts that at least I consciously took on because I really honestly thought I would have a career when I completed college. As it turns out, too many universities around the country, but especially in Oregon, were turning out graduates and Education is a very popular profession. The only problem was that very few schools or districts in Oregon were actually hiring, so many of my friends left town to find work. That is when I was offered the opportunity to move to Europe, originally for a year, but then my husband was able to get a job and now here we are. Life isn’t perfect and we have to budget pretty much everything, but we make it work.

I also think that this list is very American because many of the things on this list do not necessarily seem like things Germans like to do. Read on…

1. Find it free.

If I need something, I always, always ask friends, family and neighbors first to make sure they’re not trying to get rid of the thing I need. When we move, we sell almost all of our furniture.

Here are some things I’ve gotten free:

  • 2 sets of tables and chairs
  • cabinets
  • shelves
  • rugs
  • beds
  • coffee tables
  • end tables
  • shipping table (for our books
  • couches
  • chairs
  • desks
  • tons of free kids clothes and shoes

The house we moved into was in a new development. Just by asking the workers, we’ve gotten:

  • free sod leftovers for our back yard
  • free cement slab for our shed
  • free wood for our shed
  • rocks for our landscape
  • containers for my plants

If we see something that we need sitting on the curb, we go up to the door and ask if they are getting rid of it. So far, they’ve said yes every time! So ask and you might get it for free!

My take on this in Europe:

This one in particular I wish I could find more here. Germans have a recycling day, or what I like to call a “dump day” where specific areas or streets can put all their furniture and large housewares in front of their homes and buildings next to the street. Apparently, it is illegal to sort through these items and take what you find most useful for you, but both my husband and I get very excited when we see this nearby our house. We have been able to pick up kitchen cupboards, dining chairs, shelves, and a bathroom medicine cabinet with mirror. We have found many things for our kitchen on such days because, for some reason Germans traditionally don’t like to use the previous tenants kitchen. I have yet to uncover why, but I am always on the case. The most recent that I have heard about this strange phenomenon is that it is becoming less common among the younger generation. It boggles my mind why you would remove or replace a decent (and custom) kitchen when you move into a rented apartment that you will not likely be able to take with you to your new place when you move. Strange!

2. Buy used.

We buy ninety percent of the items we buy at thrift stores, garage sales or off of Craigslist. When I can’t get it for free, I buy most of my furniture used because I have four kids and kids are hard on furniture. If the kids ruin a $50 couch, I don’t feel nearly as bad about it as I will if they damage a $500 couch! We also buy all of the kids’ clothes used. Why pay $15 for a pair of jeans when you can get them for $2, especially when they grow out of them quickly! Buy used and it will save you thousands of dollars each year!

My take on this in Europe:

I know where almost all the used shops are in my town and I can count them all on one hand. I am always looking out for more, especially good ones, but those are even more rare. We do have two charity shops in town where people take housewares they feel are outdated or just simply no longer want and needy people, as far as I am aware can either have the items for free or at a great discount. Those establishments seem to be looked down upon with the people that I have met. Not necessarily on purpose though. The people that I have asked about it here have said they appreciate that these shops are open, but that they don’t shop there because they just don’t need to. I really, really (really) miss Oregon thrift shops.

3. Don’t go out.

Entertainment is expensive. We rarely do activities where we have to pay. We usually only go to one or two movies in the theater each year. We also don’t go to plays, ballets or concerts, which often cost $80 or more per person. This saves us hundreds or thousands of dollars each year. I know those things can be fun but, if you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t be going. My husband used to get free tickets for a lot of these events. It was amazing how many people seemed to get stressed out about the event because of how much they paid for the tickets, especially when their kids didn’t enjoy the events as much as mom and dad expected.

My take on this in Europe:

Living in Portland, I wanted to go out all the time. There was always so much to do!! Here, the more people we befriend, the more there is to do outside our house, but we understand that there are other things we would rather do instead. We often have people over to our place and make dinner, watch films and play games. We even installed a disco ball, so we could have our own legitimate dance parties if we felt like it. We go out to see American or English language films and sometimes to see speakers, but other than our language class we are rather adult and boring. It seems that Germans really like to spend their nights doing activities like yoga, painting and the like. Usually though this seems to only ever take up one possibly two nights a week. Germans very much value their free time, even if that means staying at home and working on the  yard.

4. Stop eating out!!

American families will easily spend $300-$400 per month just eating out. I know a lot of people who spend WAY more than that! Stop eating out! If you have to buy convenience items and use papers plates, it’s still much cheaper than eating out!

My take on this in Europe:

When I was at college, I actually rarely ate out. I drank out, but rarely ate out. Then I met my husband and that seemed to be all he did. In the years I have known him and perhaps especially since moving to Europe we don’t actually eat out often. Maybe once or twice a month. I also try to send him off to work with a lunch of leftovers most days. Once a month we go on a major food run and buy every thing we will need for the month, minus the fresh things that we will use up or spoil. Then the rest of the month we only buy fruits, but generally vegetables and milk (for coffee and baking) as we need them, often only perhaps two or three times before the next big run. I think most of my friends  either go to the shops weekly or twice monthly. This is one area where I think we are especially American, because when we go shopping in the beginning of the month we pack our fridge and shelves full, but I also usually plan out the meals I will make too. The Germans I have talked to seem to not eat out often either, in spite of the restaurants seeming often brimming with guests. It must be all the tourists.

5. Stop shopping!

Only go to the store when you actually need an item. Don’t go to the store just to browse or entertain yourself. When you go to the mall, you can easily spend $40 just feeding your family, not to mention the hundreds of dollars that most people waste buying things they don’t really need. My oldest child is 14 years old and my kids have been to the mall four times in their lives. You will save thousands of dollars if you only shop when you actually need something.

My take on this in Europe:

I have made a  promise to myself and my husband that I would not buy any more clothes until I lost the weight I wanted to because I have enough clothes here, they just don’t happen to entirely fit right at the moment. I work from frequently home, so I sometimes feel that if I leave the house I am doing so to spend money – sometimes mindlessly, so why leave. If I want to go running, I do try to either go with a buddy or go before the shops open so that I am not tempted. I can’t tell exactly if the number of people shopping in the city center where I live is any more or less than it would be in the US. Just like in America, I see more youth with shopping bags than anyone else though.

6. We don’t often travel or take vacations.

We took the kids to Silver Dollar City for three days for the first time in 2010 when our oldest son was 12. That was the first “real” vacation our kids have had. We had a blast and loved the vacation but, up until then, we just couldn’t afford to pay cash for a vacation. When we lived in Kansas, we spent most of our vacation time visiting and staying with family in Colorado. The $5000-$10,000 that many families spend on vacations, trips and weekend outings each year can go a LONG way toward paying off debt. (Of course, if your finances aren’t tight and you don’t have to borrow, there is nothing wrong with taking a vacation.)

My take on this in Europe:

We live in Europe, are you kidding? As I have stated before, when we moved after we married we agreed that we would travel once a month, even just for a day trip to explore. In the second year of our marriage, paying off the debt is more important so we are taking far fewer trips than we did last year. Many Germans seem to like to take trips to see family regularly, but only take big vacations once or perhaps twice a year. These trips could be adventurous and international or more local, depending on who you might ask, their profession and what not. Camping along the river is very popular here. During the summer all the camping spots filled with people who set up their camp trailers or tents for the summer in one place and just hang out.

7. I cut the boys’ hair.

My daughter and I do have our hair cut professionally, but each month I cut all four boys’ hair and I color my hair. The 20 minutes I spend cutting the boys’ hair once a month saves us $720 each year! Beauty schools are a great place to go for inexpensive hair cuts and perms, especially if you are afraid to color or perm your own hair. Yes, you can perm your own hair. Years ago, almost everyone did. 

My take on this in Europe:

My mother used to cut my hair when it was long, while I was in high school. Then I shaved it and as it grew out I preferred to get it cut once a month. Now it is growing out again, so I wait until girlfriends come to visit and ask them to cut my hair straight across at the back. It is so long and so little is usually cut off that if my friends were to make a mistake I don’t think it would be that noticeable. I also help my husband cut his hair, sometimes it isn’t perfect. However, the cost of the barber for either of us is exorbitant. I can’t say how common this is here, because there are so many salons in my town, but they are never filled with too many people.

8. We don’t drink alcohol, soda, juice or milk.

I rarely buy juice and milk just goes on cereal. As a general rule, we don’t drink juice or milk on a regular basis. I might buy juice five or six times a year and our two year old will drink three or four half cup glasses of milk per week, but that’s it. I knew one family with a mom, dad and an 18 month old and the family drank one gallon of milk EVERY DAY!!!! Really?? That adds up to over $1000 a year just for milk!! 

My take on this in Europe:

We drink alcohol, but rarely drink soda or juice. We have milk with coffee or müsli. We buy it though to keep on hand for guests more than anyone else. Germans seem to drink a lot of wine, beer, juice and sparkling water. In fact I might argue that they seem to drink more sparkling water than any other drink!

9. No Starbucks.

None! If you spend $5 a day at a coffee shop, that adds up to almost $2,000 a year!! For coffee???? Hello??? And how many Starbucks lovers think nothing of grabbing a muffin to go with that coffee?

My take on this in Europe:

Many Germans seem to love Starbucks. Part of that might be because it doesn’t seem as common here as it is in the US. We don’t have one in our city, but I did hear we might be getting one. We do have enough tourists. We have one fancy coffee shop in town that serves frilly and expensive coffee drinks. We also have other cafe’s that serve various types of espresso and it is generally reasonably priced and does a good job of hitting the spot. Germans love their coffee and breads, and that is what they eat when they pause. If you come, you should try it and then you might understand why it is so popular!

10. If you can’t pay cash for something, don’t buy it.

Period! Really! Yes, we do use our credit cards but we make sure we have the cash on hand before ordering something and we pay it off right away. If you can’t pay cash for your vacation, new car, clothes, kids activities, school fundraisers, new furniture, cable, food and eating out then DON’T BUY IT! PERIOD! If you don’t have the cash on hand, you shouldn’t be going into to debt to buy things. Resisting the temptation to borrow is the biggest money saver of them all!

Go back to the old way of working and saving for something you need instead of charging something and then frantically working, hoping you can make enough to pay for what you have already spent. Don’t believe that little voice in the back of your head or anyone else that might tell you that you simply can’t live debt free these days and that you must use credit cards because “things are different”. They aren’t any different. The same basic principles apply. You always have to pay the piper. Just choose NOT to pay the piper with interest!

My take on this in Europe:

My husband and I attempt to do this, especially here in Europe since both of us went a little overboard as individuals with our cards in the US. We are doing all right. It makes me feel good that we don’t spend beyond our means. Outside of our rent the second biggest expense is food an student loans, and I don’t necessarily feel to bad about that because I am proud of the education I received. From the people I have spoken to here, they seem to have little to no debt as many of them pay off their bills each month.

So, once again, I thought this was interesting because many of these points might feel like revelations in the states at this point, even though my parents have been living by this for a long time. Here in Europe (Germany) I think only one or two might come as revelations here, specifically points one and two, which are potentially the most American?!

Here is a visual about European debt, by nation (created by OANDA):
Sovereign income, debt, and credit by region

Here a map of the world with all the major nations national debt listed:

2 thoughts on “Ten things Americans do to save money..

  1. I try to stick to most of those items on the list – some of them are harder since moving to Europe, some easier.

    It’s way easier to eat at home and waaaaaay more expensive to eat out. Like, triple the cost. No brainer. And there’s no Starbucks (well, just one in the whole city) and nearly all coffee is crap, so that temptation is gone.

    I’m boggled at the amount of waste when it comes to clothes and housewares, and the subsequent lack of 2nd-hand stores. Belgians just haul everything down to the dump. We don’t even have a pick-up day for scavenging. And wearing 2nd-hand clothes is almost universally looked down on. Once I caught Jan shoving a whole pile of t-shirts in the trash because he didn’t wear them anymore. Perfectly thrift-store-worthy. Crazy.

    What puzzels me is this: we have the highest tax rate in the world, Belgians are some of the best savers in the world (savings account are at an all-time high), and yet they walk about in brand new clothes, eating €20 salads on terraces all over the city. I guess they could all be tourists, but there it doesn’t seem like it’s that big a percentage… How do they do it???

  2. I think that thrift stores are one of the things America does get really right and I just don’t understand why Europeans seem so against it. Mind you this pro-thrift store (second-hand shop) idea is probably very dependent upon where you live in the US. I remember my friend from Alabama, who came to my high school graduation, was blown away by the thrift store. He had to buy a second suitcase to put all of the clothes and extra things he bought in Portland so he could take it all back home with him.

    I think that thrift store here would be great to pick through because so many Europeans drop a few on their clothes and seem to really like name brand items. There is a “second-hand” shop near me that only sells designer duds, but not really for thrift store cheap. I remember my mother finding two Luise Vuitton travel bags at our favorite thrift shop in Oregon a few years ago, for a total of $50, for BOTH! We checked them out, they were legit, I made her buy them, which she wasn’t initially happy about because they were $50 and this was a thrift store after all! She gave them to my sister later, who had a complete and utter meltdown when she received them. I don’t think my mother ever told her that they were bought second hand. They were like this but bigger: http://www.ioffer.com/items/removed/145687365. Amazing!

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