The first comment on our last post really got me thinking. Were we those people that had too much? Did having a house and buying Christmas gifts for 11 kids make us people could not relate to? Then I started thinking about the money we make, the money we spend and the money we don’t spend. I’ve talked about the way we budget (here and here) but maybe I should talk about the way we spend and don’t spend. Maybe people would understand our position and why we are where we are.
To give you rough idea of where we sit income-wise, I’ll say that together, we definitely make under $100k and we both have Master’s degrees and each between 5-7 years of professional work experience.
Ok, let start with taxes. We live in the State of Washington where we DO NOT have a state income tax. We only pay federal taxes. After I finished the course work for my Master’s degree, I moved back the DC area to finish up my thesis. I took a job that paid $35k a year. I was living in Virginia and paying state income tax. When we moved back to Seattle after we both received our MAs, I took a job paying $35k. I should have negotiated for more, after all, I did have an MA and 4 years of work experience but I didn’t. I knew I wanted to get my foot in the door at a Global Health Non-Profit and I knew that it would feel like I was making more because I wasn’t paying state income taxes any more. Think about how much more you would have if you didn’t pay state income tax.
Washington collects its money though gas, tobacco and sales tax. We don’t smoke, so we don’t pay that.
I don’t know if we’ve mentioned it before but we’re a 1 car family. Micah had the car before we met. It’s about 9 or 10 years old so insurance is pretty reasonable and has actually gone down in the last year because we now have a garage and don’t park on the street. I don’t pay for any public transportation. My employer provides me with a pass that’s good on buses, commuter trains, lightrail and trolleys. It’s pretty awesome. Micah has the same transport pass plus a subsidy for his vanpool. So we don’t drive a ton. We fill the tank on our Honda Civic about 2 or 3 times a month. When we lived on the East Coast (him Brooklyn, me DC) we each spent at least $120 on public transport a month even with discounts and subsidies. Our gas still pretty pricey considering we have one of the highest gas taxes in the country but we don’t feel it as much because we don’t drive everywhere.
Sales tax is a whopping 9.5% in Seattle. This where the city/county/state pays for stadiums, public transit and bunch of other needed stuff. If you buy things online, you are only charged sales tax if the online retailer is based out of Washington (like Amazon) or has a store or affiliate store in the state (like the Gap and everyone else). So if you buy things from Overstock.com or West Elm, there’s no sales tax. When purchasing anything, I always spend a lot of time checking prices online. I always look for free shipping and coupon codes on sites like Retail Me Not. I always try to stack as many coupons as I’m allowed. Also, I always check to see if I can get cash back for my purchase by accessing the retailer through Ebates. We get a check for at least $60 every quarter just for our purchases through Ebates. I know it’s not a ton, but that almost a week’s worth of groceries or a month’s worth of gas we don’t pay for.
We also buy a lot of things though Amazon subscriptions. The price in bulk is always cheaper to start, plus you get an extra 15% off for subscribing and shipping is always free no matter the amount spent on the item. Sometimes there are even coupon codes you can stack in there. I think we once paid a little over $10 for a 24 pack of Pop Chips because of the coupon code and the subscription discount. They usually retail for $24 the 24 pack.
I buy a lot of things through Ebay. You get Ebates money back and it’s always cheaper even after shipping. I do make sure I buy from reputable sellers though. There’s an amazing board game, Ticket to Ride, that I want to get my sister for Christmas that retails in stores for about $50. Amazon has it for $40 and I’ve seen it on Ebay for $33 including shipping. If I go the Ebay route, I don’t pay tax and I can take advantage of Ebates. The other thing I like about Ebay is the Make an Offer option on some items. If I’m buying more than one of a particular item, I can usually negotiate a better price. It’s not uncommon that all the girls ages 4-6 get the same new book or toy at Christmas. It’s cheaper and prevents fighting.
We buy things like vitamins, over the counter meds (allergy pills, aspirin), cleaning supplies, toilet paper, coffee, etc. in bulk. It’s cheaper and we know we’ll use it. We didn’t use to buy a ton in bulk because we didn’t have a ton of storage room. We even buy huge pieces of pork loin when they are on sale for $12-15 instead of $25-30 and cut them up into 4 or 6 manageable pieces and freeze them. We also sometimes split bulk items, particularly produce, with my parents. A case of mangoes for $6 is way too many for just us but 6 mangoes is doable.
I coupon clip. I admit it. I’ve done it for years. I browse store circulars to see what’s on sale and try to plan meals around what’s in season and meat and seafood prices. I also go to no fewer than 2 stores every week. I buy everything but produce and ethnic food items from Safeway and then go to the vegetable stand a mile or so away and buy all our produce. We have a great stand not too far from us. What I buy for $12 at Macpherson's would cost me at least $25-30 at Safeway. I don’t even buy onions at Safeway. This last weekend I spent $20 (the most ever) on produce and came home with 3 very full bags that included turnips, parsnips, 2 lbs of pears, 3 varieties of onions, a bunch of herbs, pomegranates, bananas, apples and bunch of other stuff. It’s an extra 30 minutes every week but totally worth it. I also only buy my Asian and Hispanic ingredients at Asian grocery stores (that serve a Hispanic population). Coconut milk at Safeway is at least $2 a can and at my local Vietnamese market it’s $0.79. I stock up on a bunch of other items there too like Asian condiments (oyster sauce, soy sauce) that I know are double the price elsewhere. It seems like a lot of work but this is the way it’s always been for me. When I was growing up, large “American” grocery stores sold very few of the Asian produce, cuts of meats or varieties of seafood my parents cooked with. Momager ALWAYS shopped at two stores. Doing it the same way is a no brainer. Now it’s more about price than it is about selection.
We also buy generic or the store brands most times. In most cases, there isn’t a huge difference between name brand and what we buy.
In total, we probably save $50-60 every week shopping the way we do.
The Gift of Dadtractor:
Since Dadtractor is in the biz, we know how to get the best deals on home improvement materials, appliances and services. Sometimes it comes back to bite us in the ass, but sometimes it’s super awesome. Our Architect was super cheap and a friend of my Dad’s. Big box stores like Lowe’s always give us good discounts and a heads up on products because Dadtractor has been buying there for 20 years and is a great customer. When we need something fixed, we can just call Dadtractor and he walks us through the process over the phone or will come by and fix what’s broken in exchange for lunch or muffins. It’s a good trade.
Boozing it Up:
We don’t go out to bars much anymore – maybe 2 or 3 times a month and usually only at happy hour. We have access to the coast guard station, so we buy our booze tax free. It makes a huge difference here where the state runs all the liquor stores. We buy most of our wine at the Wine Outlet. It’s classier than it sounds. They buy in bulk and get great deals on really good bottles of wine. We’ve purchased wines there for $8 and seen the same wine elsewhere for at least double that. Every year they do a huge warehouse sale where you can get $10 bottles of wine for $3 or $4. That’s when we stock up for the rest of the year.
We don’t have season tickets to anything mostly because we can’t commit to all the games but also because of the cost. We don’t go to shows/concerts as much as we used to. Maybe a 3 big acts a year. We mostly see friends play. We don’t buy books. Seattle Public Library is amazing (and in need of funds). It takes a little while to get a popular book but it’s free. If we do buy, we buy from Goodwill. Paperbacks are $0.79 and hardbacks $1.99. We find bestsellers there all the time and in almost new condition. If there is a book we really want fast, we’ll get it from a used bookstore, ebay or Amazon. Same goes for CDs. Actually, Micah buys CDs but out of his own money. We do have quite a few magazine subscriptions but we always get them at a discounted rate here or during an Amazon sale. Real Simple for $5 a year? Yes please.
We also don’t really buy DVDs. I think we have maybe 10 or so. Most of them we bought used or got as gifts.
We only really go to fancy restaurants on special occasions or during restaurant week.
Shopping in General:
Most of our shopping happens at Nordstrom Rack, TJ Maxx, Ross or Marshalls. We do hit up Macy’s and other mall stores during sales but a lot of what they sell can be found at the discounts stores for a lot less. We also buy season basics like shorts and swimsuits right after the season is over. Christmas items bought in January or Thanksgiving items at Christmas. I love Christmas ornaments but would never pay full price for them. Actually, there are very few things we’d ever pay full price for.
I also coupon clip for non grocery store purchases. Michaels, Jo-Ann Fabrics, Borders, Aaron Brothers (for framing) and Bed, Bath and Beyond always have 20%-50% coupons online you can use in-store. It’s embarrassing but sometimes I print out two coupons and make Micah come with me to buy fabric for a project.
Don’t forget how much we love Craigslist for furniture.
We have a ton of miles because of the travel I do for work. We use the Name Your Price feature on Priceline as much as possible and shop for hours over weeks before buying flights. We also use Ebates when using Expedia, Priceline or Hotels.com. Before we travel, we check online for pre-purchase deals. Before we went to San Diego a few years back, we found out that if we bought our tickets to the Zoo ahead of time, we could get $5 discount off each ticket admission.
When we travel with a group, we also opt for renting a house we can all share through VRBO. It’s so much cheaper and you can cook your own food because you have access to full kitchens.
We’re both employed and both provided with health insurance by our employer. We each cover ourselves which means we pay no premiums, just co-pays. Also, I get a $25 gym subsidy every month paid quarterly which makes my gym membership about $15 a month. That’s an extra $300 a month we save.
The only debt we have is the mortgage and Micah’s grad school loan. I went to grad school in England where graduate school was significantly cheaper. My British degree is recognized in the US and equivalent to an American one. I paid my grad school loan off a 2 or 3 years ago and even then I think I only owed $10k to start with. We owe a manageable sum on our mortgage (under $300k) and don’t carry any credit card debt. Remember, we had the land so we’re only paying for building materials and very discounted labor.
So this is it. I can see how help in some big categories like transportation, state income tax and debt, make a lot of room in our budget for other things like traveling, home decorating and lots of Christmas gifts. I mean think about it, how much would you save if you didn’t pay for transportation or state income tax? I do think a lot of money we save is from choices we make (shopping at more than one store for food) and the research we do.
How do you keep your budget manageable? Any discount sites you visit?