Blogging the News

Hard Times, Hard Choices

It seems that every economic benchmark we have goes south each month, but according to the National Retail Federation, retail sales have increased for two months in a row. They are up .6 percent for February although that figure is still down .5 percent from a year ago.

Considering the number of stores that have closed in my area and what friends are telling me about many boarded-up shops in New York City, I find the numbers surprisingly low, but let's go with them anyway.

Back in early February, the same Federation reported on a survey conducted by BIGresearch about what consumers will and will not live without during our dark economic moment. Here's a list of the top items respondents found expendable:

  • Luxury handbags: 92.2%
  • Satellite radio: 90.9%
  • Specialty apparel: 90.7%
  • High-end cosmetics: 90.7%
  • Maid service: 90%
  • Facials: 89.8%

No kidding. In the best of times, the only one of those I occasionally indulged in was specialty (read: expensive) clothing.

The more interesting list is what the respondents said they cannot live without even in hard times - the “untouchables”:

  • Internet: 80.9%
  • Cell phone: 64.1%
  • Cable TV: 60.5%
  • Discount shopping for apparel: 43.0%
  • Hair cut and color: 40%
  • Fast food: 36.6%
  • New pair of shoes: 24%

One odd finding (to me) is that 57.8 percent of men report fine dining to be untouchable while only 12.3 percent of women feel so. It is no surprise, however, that 69.9 percent of young people 18-34 say they can do without a haircut and color, but only 57.8 percent of the 35-54 age group agree.

Hard times mean hard choices and when you're laid off work, the untouchables become luxuries to dispense with. For those of us who are retired and mostly on fixed (and in many cases now, due to the market crash, reduced) incomes, the biggest threat is inflation which, fortunately, has so far remained under control. But the future feels so unstable to me, that I'm becoming a penny pincher. I'd like to save as much as possible for whatever surprises the fates lay on us next.

With the exception of magazine subscriptions, of which I've let half a dozen of the most expensive expire, there are not whole swaths of expenses, as in the survey, I can cut entirely. I eat out no more than a couple of times of month. I have plenty of clothes and shoes, and never go to a hair salon.

Somehow I've cut my grocery bill almost in half although I'm not eating less or less well. I don't know how I've done that except that I choose the weekly supply of fruit and vegetables depending on sales and I've cut out all sweets (my gigantic sweet tooth is aching like a son of bitch).

I'm pretty sure I'll not renew my VoIP service when it comes due in June and live just with the cell phone. Several friends have been nagging me to get up to speed on Skype, so I'll use that too.

If times get worse, I can cut cable television, although I would miss the news channels a lot. But I'll give up eating before letting my broadband internet connection go.

So the question today is, as in the survey, what is untouchable for you, what is or has become expendable and how hard has it been to give them up?

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank M. Calibria has discovered that he is Becoming a Klutz.]


I have cut back on food and as you have done, Ronni, shop the specials. I used to enjoy more organic items, but have given up most of them, unless they're on sale. I am eating healthier, though, by eliminating treats.

Wanted to replace my 16-year old station wagon, but cannot this year. Will get some body work done, though. I refuse to drive a car with obvious rusting.

Rather than having to discontinue some magazine subscriptions, some publishers have done that for me by no longer publishing. I am still getting Ode and Newsweek and hoping they do not go under.

I cut my own hair (as well as my son's and grandson's). And if you'd see some of my haircuts, you'd know I am not a barber/beautician.

I guess my lifestyle is simple. The only thing at this time I would not want to give up is my computer and every 4 months a professional straightens up the hair clipping I do monthly. Clothes for my present lifestyle - I need nothing. I am in the process of downscaling and building a home 1/2 half the size I live in now. Going back to my small town. Have tried city living near children for 2 years.
Want to be closer to nature. Hopefully my present home will sell in a time I can handle

Interesting survey.My, how diverse we are!

We gave up TV a couple of years ago so our NetFlix subscription is untouchable. As is cellphone and landline. I'm trying to convert the family to Skype but it's slow progress. Obviously the internet service must stay. Magazines are going as their subscriptions run out. Groceries are becoming a smaller part of our expenses but only because we don't shop as often because we try to limit trips to town (20 miles - 1 way). Note; we have found that grocery shopping is just as much a social event as it is a food gathering event. We enjoyed our trips to the store and would go twice or more a week. Needed or not.

Dining out has slowed to once a month or less. And we only go to restaurants that provide a very pleasant dining experience. If we're going to spend the money, it has to be well spent.

We have done a number of things over the last few years to economize. I have bought very little in the way of needlework supplies relying on my stash for that. I have always referred to this 'hobby' as my therapy so getting rid of it entirely is out of the question. But I am finding ways to incorporate items that would have gone into the trash before. We choose our fresh vegetables and fruits in season and buy enough to freeze. We are expanding our container gardens on our patio to provide much of our summer foods. Our meats we buy on sale and only buy basic cuts, nothing fancy. We waste almost nothing because all left overs are recycled into other dishes. We eat out very rarely anymore. Almost everything we eat is made from scratch. We don't have to dress up so our wardrobes are more than sufficient and to replace any of our basics we will go first to the Goodwill shop nearby. (I have also found that they have sheets for $2 each if I need fabric for a project.) We cut out the phone land line about five years ago so cell phones are a necessity. So is the internet though there we can go back to the cheaper dial-up if necessary. But some form of internet is necessary--it is one of the major connections with friends and family. If either of our cars goes our we may not replace it.

I have had to cut back a lot, but like you, my internet has to stay!! I quit coloring my hair for several reasons, not the least of which was the cost. I still get a good haircut every 5-6 weeks, though. We don't eat out a lot, and when we do it is at reasonably priced places. I could give up cable TV easily, but it is connected to the broadband and one of our land lines. I'm hoping that the new google phone service will prove to be economical and I may cancel one land line and go with one number for all other phones. I seldom shop for clothing anymore and when I do, it is at discount stores.I cook from scratch, too, and buy fresh, local produce when possible. I have always clipped coupons and check for specials.
I want to move to a smaller home, but I can't seem to light a fire under mr. kenju.

I love these economy posts. I save in many ways. First, I buy 90% of my clothes, including boots & coats at Value Village. I find excellent brand name stuff in fine condition there. You just have to be patient and look on quiet days. We never waste food, say we eat a chicken, I make a crock pot soup immediately & get 6 containers. Delicious. I go to stores like Habitat Re-Store, which sells Home Depot leftover good condition things for cheap! Even carpets. We drive paid for cars & keep them in good condition by going to the right mechanic. I get hair cut at a place that charges $19.00, rather than the $45 with tip I used to pay. I'm creative in taking one object and using it for another purpose. I'm taking a perma culture home sufficiency program, & take the bus with senior ticket at least 2x/week. I make my own mint tea and drink coffee at home, or buy it at McDonalds where the coffee is good. I laughed when I saw winter boots priced at $300 plus & even now they are $100. Too much. I can afford it, but won't pay the price. I will shop and wait for sales until those boots are under $50.I call my smart miser shopping "sticking it to the man." I could give tours on where the good stores are in Montreal. It's a hobby. Come to Montreal and I'll show you around, then we'll eat poutine and laugh.

I enjoy answering questions like this because it forces me to think about the choices we are making.

When groceries began going up last year, I began coupon clipping, and have been doing this seriously since January. I shop specials and work our menus around the best deals. I always shop with a list. I am still finding it hard to stay w/in budget.

I cut way back on clothes buying, but shoes for me remain a difficult problem. I usually pay bigtime for shoes that are comfortable and that fit. I order shoes, and have decided that Zappos is the only way to go, because they do not charge shipping costs.

We finally have been able to get cable internet, and we will not give that up, ever! We use Netflix, and we are visiting the movieplex less and less.

I never have colored my hair. I have always cooked mostly from scratch. We always have driven our cars till worn out. So, it is hard to economize any more there.

But I did call a moratorium on all non-essential shopping from Jan thru Feb.

We contemplated replacing some furniture, backed out, and then our TV died. So, (at the end of my moratorium) we have been "stimulating the economy" by replacing TV, adding a receiver, and trying to upgrade our TV experience a bit over time. I also have been redecorating a guest room soley with second hand and old pieces. So, I have not been able to completely shut down our buying.

I have taken up thrifting, and oddly do fairly well for my husband's wardrobe, and lousy for me. And I'd rather shop Goodwill for the odd home accessory than the normal retail outlets.

We are using cell phones off contract, and which are quite old. We even replaced mine for another rebuilt one.

Today on the radio I heard a local piece that advocated selecting several local businesses that you don't want to die, and organizing a group to patronize them. Even if you don't organize to do this, I believe that we should patronize the small local guy now, particularly if you value his/her business in your community.

Born dirt poor, lived modestly most of my life despite marrying up and becoming rich by number of digits in pay stub, still live modestly...meaning wearing clothes til they wear out or don't fit, shoes ditto, buying new only at terrific sales and discounts (it's a hobby of mine to know where to go), stay busy with intellectual pursuits that are mostly free to totally free via the local university and the libraries, groceries are very economical since I eat mostly meatless. Would not like to give up my internet connection or computer, my sewing machine, my haircuts every 6 weeks or hair color every 3 months because the way I look affects the way I feel about myself more than it should. Since I never got used to living rich, I can now live poor and not even feel it.

The biggest for us is having to turn the cattle and sheep into a paying operation which it hasn't been some of the time. Last year, when he did the taxes, my husband said it cost us $5000 more to feed them than we made in selling the beef and lamb. We have been selling direct to buyers where they buy half or a whole animal and it is harder to market. We did that for the animals because to send them to auction in a block was too upsetting for their fear and the end of where they go which is feed lots. Unfortunately, unless we can find more buyers of grassfed meat, we will no longer have that luxury. We will sell what we can direct but we cannot afford to pay that kind of feed costs on SS and some unreliable income.

On other things I was never particularly into a lot of clothes, rare beauty salon visits, or other luxury items (cameras excepted maybe). My computer is old but when it gives it up, I will buy a new one. Computers and internet are the last things to go here (lucky I had just bought a new camera before our situation changed economically).

Something happened to the long thoughtful comment I made...I guess a webmonkey ate it up. It was far too long to repeat, but I did try. Enjoyed the post.

I can't cut back much further than I already have. I've lived on a very tight poverty level income for the past 10 years. I shop bargains in the thrifts and on eBay. AT&T gave me a pretty good package deal on my phone, cell and DSL. I eat as frugally as possible. I don't go out much. My biggest luxuries are my season
ticket to our symphony and my car and I'm not sure I can afford the to renew the former. Oh well. I pray I can keep the latter going because with my medical problems, riding the bus again would be difficult. Friends tease me about my frugality but I get calls asking where to get things cheap.

I'm used to living this way. It's almost become a game with me to see how little I can spend.

I looked at the complete list that they used for the survey and there were only five things on it that play any part in my life these days: the Internet, vacations,organic food, charitable contributions and magazine subs. The first three, I definitely would not want to give up. Though vacations can always be simplified if necessary by staying closer to home, camping etc. And we grow some of our own food anyway and save seeds, so we are unlikely to starve. Charitable contributions, I would simply cut down;I'd be unlikely to cut them out altogether unless things got really dire. Magazine subs are expendable and I've already gotten rid of several. And I've switched to online versions where possible, to save trees.

We are hanging on to:
*The internet, looking at dialup.
*Cell phones. When our contract is up we will switch to Trac phones.
*Books, although I go to the library more often now, wait for the $30 bestseller to show up.
*Really, really good chocolate. I'm a chocolate binger, 3-4 times a year.
*Wine - hubby likes a glass with dinner.
*Good shoes.(Bad feet. The saving grace is they last a long time.)

*Two cars, husband still works and I haul 1/2 dozen grandkids here and there. It would save a lot to get down to one.
*Cable TV. May go back to an antenna. Have Netflix.

*Eating out every week. Now once a month or less.
**No Coffee, especially drive through lattes etc.
*Going to the dentist once a year instead of twice.
*Big veggie garden, freeze excess.
*Daughter cuts my hair: I gave up coloring it.
*Clip grocery coupons & sales.
*Freeze small leftovers in container for soup. When it's full it's cooked. Yummy.
*Shop the Landsend, LLBean, sale and overstock pages, stock up on Christmas & Birthday gifts. Do it all at once to save on shipping.
*Shop garage sales, thrift shops for clothes, kids toys, pretty much anything sooner or later.

I read the commmentary as well as comments with interest.

I only had cable for a few months in the mid 90's and it was basic. No package deal so I found only a few shows I liked. When I look at a tv grid I see little I would want to see on cable but cannot afford it and have almost given up tv watching.

Internet is the communicator and it is dial-up. Sigh - but that is what is affordable.

Going out to eat - a thing of the past...not even for a slice of pizza.

Cutback visiting the bookstores for browsing and a coffee/tea. If we do it, it is now once a month and often without purchase of a beverage.

Cutback on groceries - no desserts and I started drinking tea/coffee without milk. Has brought milk to half-gallon a week. I live in an apt. complex otherwise I would garden to save on veggies - so have to work with sales. Purchase very little meat and only that which I can stretch when I do.

Clothing is from consignment or thrift shops. Fortunately, I have enough - no jeans though and I can do without.

I am careful with lights and appliances. Unplug that which is not used such as the CD player - kitchen radio. Listen to my CD's when I am on line with the computer CD.

I do not use the a/c except in the over 100 degree days. I have a handfan which rests on my monitor to use as needed. Fans are only for very hot days.

Still with all of this - it is more than tight with expenses that went up.

Steven, is getting pretty awesome if there are TV shows you miss. Easy to use and fast, fast fast. I've used it so far mostly to catch up on shows I've missed, but could see replacing cable with it eventually...

And must push again for book swapping -- it's been great for me and have gotten many books I otherwise wouldn't have gotten or perhaps even been able to find -- lots of out of print books available there. Unfortunately starting to be ruined a bit by the fussy collectors, but most people are still pretty great to deal with and not overly picky about book condition, etc. But the books have all been in really good shape for the most part. It's a fun social thing, too.

I have always lived rather frugally. I have never had a lot of money and I am considering myself fortunate lately that I was raised by people who lived through the depression. It does not feel so odd to be frugal. It feels (not always comfortably) familiar. Still I think it is easier for me to think in terms of discount and do without because of this influence and in times like these it is handy. I've can't live without food, paying my mortgage, the internet or my meds, pet costs, buying music from independent musicians and poets (who are REALLY hurting) or my little truck (though I rarely drive it). I moved specifically to a place to age where water and locally grown food is abundant and I was taught to can. My co-workers and I are planning on putting some things up this summer for winter 2010 use and give as gifts. I'm thinking that some of these harvesting skills might be interesting to younger people, as well. It is sobering to realize this influence should be recovered as a gift of knowledge and that it may be valuable in this way.

No one has mentioned oatmeal. We eat oatmeal for lunch several times a week. Nice and cheap ...

Somehow or other, I have not bought ANY clothes at all for almost 2 years. I wear casual clothes except for the occasional time I must dress to go out somewhere and then I have jackets and slacks (usually black) and shoes and handbags that work just fine.
We have not vacationed in 2 years either. Don't really miss it. I have extended my hair cut and color to 6 or 7 weeks instead of 4 or 5..

We cut way back on Christmas this year with gifts for the grandchildren only and not the adults.

I always frequent our library monthly book sale. Really good choices and some for only one dollar. Otherwise I utilize the library and check out books.

My car is a 9 year old Mercedes which is just coasting along and looks good as new.

I would give up premium cable TV before I gave up DSL internet service. I did cut out several premium channels and probably should cut out the rest of them also. We seldom go out to the movies but watch either a free movie on cable or pay per view on cable for newer ones.

I need to look into some way of getting our prescriptions at a lower price, (Costco or Walgreens maybe) we hit the donut hole Medicare part D every year about July and that is a BIG expense. I cringe everytime I allow myself to think how our Congress screwed the elders among us when they passed the Part D, refusing to allow the Medicare to negotiate lower prices like the VA does.

I just can't imagine spending big $ on a bag! That's the last thing I'd waste my hard earned money on. You can get very cool bags for under $20 and keep them a long time.

Won't give up: Maid, cable, and internet. Vacation. Books. And I am volunteering more.

Why? Without a maid we will have a divorce. Why Cable? We live behind a hill and TV is his chief no-computer entertainment. Internet and books....that's where life is lived even for us.

Will give up: Food out, New clothes instead buying only non-thrift store or discount store clothes of all kinds. Movies, cars, new computers....and mine is beyond an antique.

Nothing is bought on credit, or if we do this, it's paid off right away. We renegotiated all our CC's percentages. We bought a car that gets 41 MPG two years ago, so we are ok there. I've lined up a couple of part time, sit down jobs if I absolutely have to go back to work.

Hope this helps. :)

I have seen "inflation" in the price of groceries for past two years,clothing went up in Jan-Feb 2009....And gasoline is $.50 a Gal. cheaper in Oregon just 20 miles away....So I make that trip....No sales tax there either. Can't always afford to "support" my local businesses.

I have become one of those people who keep track of specials. Tuesdays, Sonic has half-price burgers, so, on Tuesday, I have a burger for dinner.

Cooking for one is impractical unless I make a large pot of something, and freeze it in single servings. Like many here, I have already cut back--dropped the daily newspaper, downsized the cable TV, ditched the land line in favour of cell phone. I am on my daughter's family plan, instigated when she was an employee of the cell phone company, so I have the best deal I can get, there.

Going out to eat is not much fun, alone, anyway, so I don't do much of that. I improved the efficiency of my clothes dryer (it's old and wasn't working well), which has cut my electric bill by a significant amount.

Note: venting a dryer through the roof is not very efficient. I got one of those boxes to put on the wall, to which one adds water.

The cats, after a long struggle, are putting up with house brand cat food.

My internet and computer are not negotiable.

I never cared about any of the listed expendable items before, so they make no difference to my budget. Show me a product and if the designer or mfg name is on it, I won't buy it. I'm not going to be a walking advertisement for them and if it's a status thing to other people, then I'm sorry to hear that.

Have been frugal most of my life, sometimes from necessity, other times because that way of life is comfortably reasonable. There's always been something I could enjoy having a little extra moola to plan for spending, or saving for myself or others. I was primed all my life to know there were "rainy days" and I've wanted to be ready for the unexpected. I hadn't anticipated it would be the economy we have, but thought in recent years it could be.

Have often used coupons, more extensively some times than others, but only for products I normally buy; have always eaten left overs and avoided wasting food; am content with clothes I have with little need for more presently.

When I had what I consider a better figure I could be extravagant purchasing more expensive quality-made clothes and shoes, but continue now to be practical in selections -- quality but fewer items -- comfort is and has been for years a major criteria for selection. I may have fewer pairs of shoes, but well made is still especially important as my feet are a very important body part subjected to daily wear and tear and deserve the best.

I continue to indulge having my hair shampooed, styled and blow dried weekly with a haircut as needed -- a treat I promised myself when I finished school and resumed working years ago. I'll skimp in other areas to do this.

My special senior reduced rate at selected times available at our communities new movie theaters and for refreshments allow me to attend those few latest movies I would want to see.

I do still eat out selectively, but mostly now when friends or family are along.

Owning books is one of my weaknesses, but I've accumulated so many I've not yet read during this one of several excesses in which I engaged after my husband died, that I will likely not buy more now. Same was true for CDs. I'm soon going to begin whittling down the number of unread books with a special plan.

I've not renewed magazine subscriptions despite receiving a reduced professional rate which will save money, plus I realize I don't find time to read most of them. I still subscribe to our local bi-weekly newspaper, the L.A. Times and one other local area paper -- the latter partially to help it keep going. I don't think it will last though.

I also am partial to some independent businesses other than chains in an effort to provide support. What little I spend may not make much difference, and I probably could buy what I'm getting elsewhere for less money, but I really hate to think of these stores going under.

Fortunately, I don't have that many prescriptions, so I can resist efforts to get me to transfer from my independent pharmacy. My husband determined it best he subscribe to his companies mail order plan for drugs. My original long term independent pharmacy suddenly closed several years ago, so they are an endangered species.

I've changed ISPs and have our areas new fiberoptic connection. I wouldn't want to give up my Internet connection. My land line with the same company allows me free local toll and long distance calls and a better rate since getting a different package deal. My cell phone luckily through a family member's work plan is probably more inexpensive than I could get on my own. A friend wants me to download Skype which I'm considering as had it once before, but not that many people with whom I'd use it.

I plan to attend some concerts throughout the coming year since I consider that worthwhile to scrimp for as need be, just as will be some possible trips.

The used car I purchased before my husband's death was expected to last at least as long as I lived based on the annual mileage I accumulate according to his figures. This model reportedly can last over 200K miles, so I'm not even half way there and have only put about 10K miles on it the past 3 years. Will be interesting to see if I outlast the car.

Besides the laptop and Internet service, which is my lifeline -- both socially and professionally, since I telecommute and research online -- I won't give up good (whole-grain) artisan bread, fresh Romaine lettuce, apples, and good coffee. I buy whatever kind of good bread and (non-mushy, crisp) apples are on sale in a given week. If it's a good sale, I buy two or three loaves and freeze them. I do not buy organic apples or salad, much as I'd like to (so I figure the health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables are canceled out by the pesticides).

I'm seriously considering giving up cable TV -- since most of it so sucks, and my disabled, demented husband who likes thrillers wouldn't know the difference if I played the same videos and DVDs for him over and over -- but I get it bundled with my internet service and land-line phone (a necessity for keeping in touch with him when I'm briefly out), and I'm afraid these things would just go up in cost to soak up any saving.

We made structural changes when times were good so that we'd better endure the tough times. So, we're relatively immune from the effects of the recession. I am 53 and wife is 50.

We consolidated to a single car 7 years ago. Our current car we bought used, so no monthly auto payment. We both walk or take mass transit to work. (We live in a city.) So, for the last 7 years we use the car only for pleasure trips. If we need a second car when family visit, we use Zipcar.

I don't shop for clothes much anyway, so this is no change for me whether the economy is up or down. I buy clothes only when they wear out.

We are both employed so we go out to eat MORE often now. To me, it's important to support the local businesses in our neighborhood, which are struggling. And, I still contribute the max to my 401-k.

Regarding TV entertainment, about 5 years ago we downgraded to basic cable ($9 monthly) and supplement that with NetFlix ($15 monthly) which combined is still far cheaper than Comcast's next available plan ($54 monthly).

Internet access is a necessity (DSL) since I write a blog. And, the landline is also a safety decision, even though my wife and I both have cell phones. (Remember, the current cellular network is built to ~35% capacity. During an emergency most cell calls won't go thru, hence we keep a traditional landline. During a power blackout, only traditional landlines will still work; not cable phones and probably not your cell phone.)

Regarding food, we have always avoided processed foods and shop at the edges of the supermarket (e.g., fresh fruits, veggies, organic foods, meats, etc.). So, that is not changing at all given the slumping economy.

Our mortgage is paid off. So, like I wrote above, we haven't changed any of our spending given this slumping economy. We are planning a 10-day vacation to an all-inclusive resort in Aruba for September. With the above decisions, we have already saved up money for this trip and will take it regardless of the state of the economy. Earlier this year, we vacationed in Key Largo.

My monthly expense for Tai Chi classes is a necessity. Maintaining good health is a priority. I try to walk whenever I can, which helps maintain good health and avoids using our car.

Like I wrote above, we made structural changes when times were good so that we'd better endure the tough times. I wish that our government did the same.

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