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How to be thrifty (in times of change)

I’ve learnt a thing or two on matters frugal since moving to Italy late last year. In the absence of a salary and a confident grasp of the language, the outlook was pretty bleak. Like many an expat my mother-tongue came to the rescue however, as I started teaching English a few weeks after arriving. But, compared to Ireland or the UK I was earning peanuts. A few months on, peanuts have become, er, cashews (?) but we’re still in a hand-to-mouth situation and life is far from stable. Having saved and sold masses of possessions before we moved here, including our car,  (I drew the line at the cat, though I admit I was terribly tempted to e-bay her) we didn’t feel too poor on arrival. However, as time went on, and more was going out the door than coming through it, thriftiness was order of the day. How could we make the most of not much at all, reduce our costs, and save something too…

To any of you on the cusp of change: a new life abroad, a year out, a return to study, or simply a long, lean winter in the offing, here are some top-tips on how to be thrifty and get through the skinny times – with your sanity well-padded.

*I feel I should mention that it is a pre-requisite of thriftiness that one must accept a certain inevitability of occasionally “feeling like a b****y student”. As much as I’ve tried to avoid the sensation, to embrace thriftiness as a character-building, soul-enriching exercise, there are times when you may feel, for example, that only retail therapy will do. Stay strong dear Thrifter – resist, and the urge will pass, and may even be replaced by something better than flashing the plastic (your suggestions as to what that might be would be appreciated…).

1. Do one large grocery shop, with a list, and make it last till next large-grocery-shop day. As in, dig out that can of borlotti beans at the back of the cupboard and find a use for it. No, there’s not a war on, but you kind of have to pretend there is in order to a)succeed as a Thrifter and b)find a use for that can of borlotti beans.

2. When cooking, use cheap cuts of meat to make stew – hearty, nutritious and delicious. Freeze the leftovers for a ready-meal another day.

3. Have a handful of economical, simple recipes under your belt, in other words know HOW to make said hearty nutritious stew, also soups – they are a cinch, and you can use up every last vegetable in the fridge. After all, you may occasionally feel like a student, but you don’t want to eat like one.

4. Never ‘just pop to the shop’: you will emerge with chocolate and chianti to console you on a  “feeling like a b****y student” day. Run out of milk? – this is when you crack open the UHT (you’ll find a carton in the back of the cupboard beside the borlotti beans). Grim, but it has to be done.

5. De-clutter. Paradoxically, the less you have the less you want. Plus the more you pull out of the attic the more you can sell, which equals cash in your pocket 🙂 See no.12

6. You do not need more clothes – what you do need is organisation & imagination! Make sure you can see/access your full wardrobe, hang as much as possible and group the same items together. Spend time putting outfits together and find new ways to wear an old favourite. Iron your clothes and polish your shoes and see how much better you feel! (ahem, anyone who knows me may well question whether I follow that last piece of advice…)

7. Manage your money – what’s coming in and what’s going out? Being aware of what your money is up to at all times is a bit like knowing the whereabouts of your teenager/toddler…ignore at your peril.

8. Go around your house gathering up all the loose change –  take it to the bank (or one of those change machines) and hey presto – you got big fat whole euros !

9. Next, BAN the loose change receptacles that hang around the house, and make a piggy bank (you are forbidden from buying one, really what would be the point of that?!), place it strategically and suddenly loose change is transformed into official ‘savings’. Here’s the piggy bank I used to save-up before our big move – an old gift box with a homemade slot, and the lid super-glued on!


10. While you’ve still got a salary… it! Set-up a regular standing order to a separate account that you never touch.

11. When/if you no longer have a salary, and find yourself living hand-to-mouth, keep the saving habit if at all possible. Even if it’s only a fiver a week. It’s not how much you have, but what you do with it that counts…yes I sound like your Mother, but you know it’s true.

12. While you’ve still got possessions…sell them! Anything you haven’t worn/used/looked at in a year, has to go. Be ruthless! The internet now offers zillions of places to sell off unwanted goods, I’ve found local buy&sell Facebook groups brilliant.

13. Waste not want not: now is the time to turn out the cupboards and actually use that shower gel you were given for Christmas. Even if you do emerge smelling like an artificial grapefruit. The unopened make-up, the cans of borlotti beans (oops, we already covered those). Everyone in the civilised world has a bathroom cabinet in need of a good clear-out: do it and use up the contents.

14. Avoid temptation. Don’t go to the shops, other than for your groceries. And avoid fashion magazines, they’ll only impart a sense of lack and inadequacy (they do this even in times of plenty).

15. There is always an alternative. Ok, so let’s say you had this fabulous skincare-regime in your former salaried life, and you cannot imagine how you will cope without this wonder-cream or that magical-hydrating-elixir….I hear you. But I’ll say it again- there is always an alternative. Yes you may have to compromise to some extent but probably 50% of that awesome skincare regime was the feeling it gave you and that, my dear Thrifter, is pure marketing. Ignore it and hunt around for a reasonably priced alternative that I assure you will do almost the same job.

16. Instead of bemoaning the fact you can’t eat out – find some fun in your packed lunch! You may be strapped for cash but it’s no excuse not to be creative…pork-pies on a park bench?- we’re dining alfresco! A seaside-sandwich?- would you look at that view, Petunia, it’s positively 5 star!

Ok, so this might not always be fun (though a sense of humour definitely helps). It takes time and effort to be thrifty, to chop onions rather than reach for the ready-meal, but so much of what we pay for is convenience. Thrifty doesn’t equal convenience, (though you certainly learn about self-sufficiency) but, it is ultimately rewarding as you get closer to your goal. So what is your goal for being thrifty? – be clear about it. It’s important to see an endpoint for all this thriftiness, as saying ‘no’ (I shouldn’t/musn’t/can’t) most of the time can be exhausting, particularly if it impacts on your social life and leisure time. And you don’t want to turn into Scrooge. Whatever change you are making, you are presumably making it in order to create a better, happier (and hopefully richer) future, so some short-term pain can only mean gain in the long-term.It may seem like a contradiction to be both thrifty and optimistic for a future less well, restrictive, but when you hold onto your goal, you can view your thriftiness as an investment in yourself.  And that is always money well spent.

So tell me, what’s your top tip for being thrifty?





    • Great Annette, it’s not easy when you’re used to one thing and have to adjust to another set of circumstances, hold onto that goal! Good luck!

  1. Clothes swaps with friends instead of shopping for a new outfit 🙂 depop is a great app to sell on and I love car boot sales. Love this post

    • thanks Mary! – Car boot sales in UK are brilliant, I lived for ten years in Ireland, and they just weren’t the same. What an exciting project you have, best of luck!

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