Thursday, March 3, 2011

Survey results, and how I furnished my new house for less than $1000

Thanks to everyone who filled out the survey! (It's still running, if more of you want to ante up.) Most of you wanted more cost-cutting tips/kitchen hacks; and the biggest surprise was that many of you requested more personal info/stories/more about me.

So, I'm gonna take a leap and tell you about my other blog, Two Blind Cats. It's just plain ol' me. I suppose I should take after my heroes like Pioneer Woman and combine the two blogs into one all-purpose one--and be assured I'm planning a major blog overhaul, so that may actually come to pass. In the meantime, I'll cross-post more often, and add more stories.

I'll start with my own struggles with broke-dom. Mostly it revolves around accumulating, and now trying to pay off, a crushing amount of credit card and student loan debt. How did I accumulate all that debt, you ask?

1. Getting my MFA at an Ivy League university, and financing it entirely with loans. Pro: a graduate degree from an Ivy League university. Con: that and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee.

2. Living in New York for a decade. Fully half my take-home pay went to rent; the rest went to student loan and credit card payments. Add in a NYC wardrobe (designer clothes and shoes), a penchant for travel, and a love for high-end restaurants. Keep in mind I was working in publishing/nonprofits, and making the crappy paycheck to boot. As an old theatre professor of mine used to say, "There's no profit like nonprofit."

So 100% of my paycheck went to bills. Literally. Rent, utilities, subway pass, student loan payments, credit card payments. That's it. Notice that list did not include food; travel; clothing; going out; medical expenses; savings; or anything else.

So the credit card balances kept growing, even though I was throwing big chunks of money at them every month.

Then when I got married, my husband brought his own credit card and student loan debt to the table. Plus a whopping child support payment.

And I had to take a 35% pay cut from my high salary in NYC, just to be able to work in California, because the economy there was so much crappier.

So once again, a good 95% of our COMBINED salaries was going to bill payment. Rent, child support, utilities, student loan payments, credit card payments. Not including food, gas, savings, 401ks, etc. Or our wedding.

Clearly that was unsustainable.

Fortunately, with the move to New England, we're both making better money. So we can afford rent on a house (a whole house in the Boston suburbs rents for only about 10% more than we were paying for an apartment in San Diego), car payments for two new cars (at 0% financing), and savings, and I'm able to budget food, gas, etc., in as line items instead of using whatever's left over at the end of the month.

But that still means almost all of our combined money is still going to debt payment. I'm paying that off as fast as I can, and I'm happy to say that I can see the (distant) light at the end of the tunnel. Not as fast as I would like, because life always gets in the way. We had to move cross-country; then we had to both get all-new winter wardrobes, since we'd moved from San Diego; then there was Christmas; I got a new job and we had to get an additional car; and of course, we had to outfit our big new house, as we jettisoned as much as possible before moving cross-country.

Which is why I run a tight ship around my house. I don't want to spend any more money than I absolutely have to on stuff I don't have to--so that we can pay off our debts faster, so that we can spend that money on fun things like travel, rather than on interest payments and electricity. I wash all our clothes in cold water; I turn the thermostat down to 58 at night; I wash out and reuse Ziploc bags; I'm the turn-the-lights-off Nazi; I quit buying paper towels, and soda, and fabric softener, and all those other things we don't need; I save all my vegetable scraps and use them to make broth. And so on.

"Yeah, okay, great, what's this about furnishing your house for less than $1000?"

So, given all that, when we moved into our new big (rental) house, we had almost no furniture with which to outfit it. We had a bed, a guest bed, a sofa, and my red leather chair, and that's about it. No desk, no bookshelves, no kitchen table, nothing for the guest room, etc.

That was the algebra problem. "Given available furniture budget is $0, and given we need all these things, how to acquire them and keep spending as close to $0 as possible?"

Answer: Don't pay retail. (And, keep your eyes open.)

Between craigslist, the Salvation Army, the local furniture consignment shop, and ebay, I got everything we needed. And then some. A piece at a time, and it's all good-quality stuff. No cheap Target pressboard furniture, only two Ikea rejects, and only one slipcover required. (See pics here.)

Let me tell you, the Salvation Army here is a treasure. A huge furniture section, and I've also scored some great board games with no missing pieces (okay, the clay in Cranium was dried out, but I can replace that with some cheap Play-Doh, and I only paid $2.50 for Cranium).

So if you need cheap (quality) furniture, do this:
1. Start by asking around. I got my grandmother's mahogany dining room table and six matching chairs for free this way. My husband got a free drafting table from a coworker, who was jettisoning some stuff in preparation for a move.
2. Scroll craigslist and Freecycle on a regular basis.
3. Trawl your local thrift shops, Salvation Army and Goodwill and the like. I wasn't expecting to find anything at the Salvation Army, but I scored a dresser, a desk, an ugly but very comfortable second sofa, and a solid cherry entertainment center for $200 total. AND, yesterday, I scored four brand-new pieces of Pampered Chef stoneware, on 50% Off Day, meaning I got all four for less than the cost of one retail.
4. Did I mention I love the local furniture consignment shop? I've found all kinds of great housewares here (including a Waterford decanter, a matching set of 8 martini glasses, and a vintage picnic basket) and of course furniture (including a mahogany china cabinet, a prep table for the kitchen, and a vintage 60s armchair). Which won't help most of you, I know, but the point is to keep your eyes open for places like this.
5. There's always Big Lots and TJ Maxx. (I found a bunch of great throw pillows recently at TJ Maxx for cheap.)
6. Yard sales. (Not an option in winter in New England, but an option I plan to exercise when yard sale season starts up again.) Here's a fun yard sale map tool.

Be creative when necessary. The $40 sofa I got at the Salvation Army was ugly as sin, but with a $20 slipcover and a bunch of cheap TJ Maxx throw pillows, you'd never know. The cheapest new Ikea sofa would have set us back at least $300. I'll need outdoor furniture when it warms up; I'd love a bunch of Adirondack chairs and a wicker dining set for 8 and a hammock, but I'll settle for a $30 table from the Salvation Army and a bunch of mismatched folding chairs for now. Nobody cares what it looks like but me, anyway.

So for my $1000 and a few weeks of searching, I got:
dining room table and chairs (free, plus $50 in gas money for my parents to drive it up)
two desks ($85 and $50)
four Ikea bookshelves ($125 total)
a dresser ($50)
a sofa (and slipcover) ($40 + $20)
a china cabinet ($150)
a prep table ($80)
a rug ($40 on ebay)
a chair ($60)
several lamps (some courtesy of Target, the rest Salvation Army) ($60)
an entertainment center ($70)
a treadmill ($120)
a drafting table (free)

Not bad, huh? For a few hours of effort, I won't have to worry about furniture again for...well, hopefully years.

"Which has what to do with a cooking blog?"

I have a larger point, I swear. Here it is: Saving Money Is Really Just About Paying Attention.

It all boils down to that. I could wax rhapsodic about cutting coupons or Quicken or free shipping at Amazon or the lost art of darning socks or what-the-hell-ever, it all wraps back around to Paying Attention To Where Your Money Is Going (And Where You Want It To Go).

I don't want to give the power company any more than $50 a month, so I turn off all the lights and the computers and unplug rarely-used appliances and lamps. Starbucks doesn't need any of my money, so I brew tea and coffee at home and use travel mugs. I don't want to spend $300 on a sofa when I could spend $50 instead, so I lurk through thrift shops on my lunch break. Because I'd rather have that $250 to spend elsewhere.

I DO want to travel more often, and have a comfortable cushion of savings, and eat out at fancy restaurants once in a while. In order to get there, I have to pay off the debt I have, which means buying credit card payments every month instead of buying paper towels and Doritos.

Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

My 25-year-old self would totally kick my ass right now.

Oh my God, I'm turning into my mother.

1 comment:

  1. Nice going. If you venture down to RI, check out Ocean State Job Lot - a better, more eclectic version of Big Lots. It's great for 'odd' food items (condiments, jams, olive oils) as well as housewares and hardware. I moved to the midwest in 2002 and still miss that place.