Probably nothing fills me with more dread than the words “personal finance.” I have written repeatedly in this space about the evil of miserliness and the wisdom of the Prophet: “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart.”
That said, I think there are plenty of reasonable ways for families with or without small children to save money and that many of the ones we have hit upon are too idiosyncratic to show up on the kinds of websites that usually publish such things.
1. Buy a TV-VCR combo and videocassettes
With the advent of Disney+, the House of Mouse has tricked people into purchasing their films for at least the third time in as many decades. The idea of Disney making another penny from The Lion King should fill all decent Americans with loathing. Which is why instead of agonizing about what streaming service to pay for (and having to worry about horrifying incidents like this one) the best way to give your children screen time is to pick up one of those old TVs with a built-in VCR. The unit itself should cost you about $10 at any thrift store, but if you look around you have a good chance of finding one left on a curb for the garbage truck. Meanwhile, the tapes themselves are almost free: An entire library of classic Disney and Spielberg films costs less than a single month’s subscription to Netflix.
Nor is saving money the only upside to the VHS strategy, which also makes it easier to limit the amount of time children spend in front of screens and to exercise strict control over what they watch while still allowing them to have some say in the matter. Besides: Rewinding builds character.
2. Get a side of a beef or a whole pig
Never mind the per-pound cost savings. The real benefit of purchasing meat in large quantities is that it means not having to go to the grocery store so frequently, which in turn means you are less likely to leave with things you don’t really want or, worse, to purchase food you end up letting go bad. Knowing that you have meat ready to thaw at any time also forces you to be creative in using up other ingredients lying around the house. “Hmm, what can I do with [checks notes] beef shank and some tomatoes I found in the drawer here?” Answer: lots of things, all of them delicious.
I should point out that buying part of an animal does not actually require having one of those enormous horizontal basement refrigerators. A side of beef fits comfortably in the freezer unit of our old white kitchen fridge.
3. Skip fast fashion and junk appliances
Our motivations for this are primarily ethical and aesthetic in that order, but it stands to reason that over time a family will save money by purchasing a handful of quality garments made with good materials by people paid a reasonable wage and meant to last, rather than a bunch of ugly and very likely toxic plastic clothes. Even if you don’t care about things like the horrifying reality behind the global supply chain that makes it possible for you to purchase jeans for $20 on Amazon, the truth is that clothes made by union workers in the United States will last four times as long as something from a sweatshop.
When it comes to appliances, all the same calculations apply. Believe it or not, Target is not selling that coffee maker for $20 because the company likes you — it’s are doing so because in a year the LED screen or some other stupid, unnecessary feature is going to break and you will have to purchase another one. Meanwhile our old Bunn machine (the same one you will see in any diner) will be making perfect cups of coffee when I am my grandparents’ age (I know because they have had theirs since they were younger than I am).
4. Drive a beater
One would hope it would go without saying, but nobody cares about your car. A vehicle is not there to function as some status symbol. It exists to get you from point A to point B. Unless you are Jay Leno or something, your automobile purchases are not going to impress anyone, which is why families should buy used vehicles in decent conditions and drive them until the cost of repair exceeds the value of the car itself. Our 2003 Lexus has 218,000 miles on it and is not going anywhere soon because it was well made to begin with and receives regular maintenance. When it finally dies, we have a very cool (and gigantic) 2004 Chevy van waiting to take its place purchased from a mechanic and amateur race-car driver who nicknamed it “The Shaggin’ Wagon.” (He removed the decal after signing over the deed, alas.)
5. Leave the city
This is obviously a far weightier proposition than the others I have offered so far, but I really do mean it. It has never been easier for professionals in any industry to do their jobs remotely, and regardless of your line of work, your money will go further in a smaller city or, better yet, in rural America. Why exactly people would pay $4,000 a month to rent two bedrooms in Manhattan when they could have a beautiful and spacious house with a yard and own it outright in two or three years’ worth of rent is beyond me.