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Money & Policy

How I Finally Learned to Stop Bleeding Money

This retiree and her husband are saving an extra $500 a month


“Turn off the lights.” “Why would you go out and spend money for coffee?” I grew up middle-class in the 1950s with a litany of lines like that from my Depression-era mother. Usually, I didn’t listen to them. But now that I’m 70 and figuring out ways to budget in retirement in San Francisco, I’m taking my mom’s advice to heart.

It’s not easy.

But my retired husband Jim, who’s 76, and I have realized we needed to stop bleeding money. So, we’re getting better at it. And you might want to try some of our money-saving techniques, too, if you’re retired or will be soon.

Safeway charged $4.99 for a small pack of blueberries. But we now go to Trader Joe’s where we can get a much bigger pack for just $3.29.

Before retiring, I was a community college professor and Jim was director of a senior center. We’re now bringing in about half our salaries, from my pension, his Social Security, money I earn from teaching and writing and from renting out our home as an Airbnb. We still have a mortgage and a home equity line.

Saving an Extra $500 a Month

We’d been growing tired of renting out the house so much and moving to relatives’ and friends’ homes to make room for our Airbnb guests,  though. So, five months ago, we decided to Airbnb less and save more. We’re now saving an extra $500 a month — a significant amount.

How did we do it? Mostly through jam-jar economics.

That’s an old term, referring to putting into a jar for jam the cash that we can spend each week. Instead of a jar, Jim and I use a drawer.

After I know exactly what the bills will be for that month, I divide up the remainder into four weeks and take out cash each week and place it in the drawer. Jim and I might want to go to a restaurant or a movie one night, but if we’ve used up our stash, we know we can’t. Interestingly, we haven’t felt deprived. Our goal is to not have credit card debt and the drawer helps enormously.

We’ve been saving on our electric, gas and water bills by learning more about how to reduce them. I finally read Pacific Gas and Electric’s “How to Conserve Energy” bill insert and checked online exactly how and when we use energy at home. Peak times are more expensive.

Our major savings, about $60 a month in gas, has come from turning the heat way down at night, to 55 or 60 degrees. I microwave a neck warmer to put in the bed and we have our warm, fluffy dog, Ella, to help, too.

These days, we no longer do laundry during peak hours. And using cold water saves a lot of energy. To lower the cost of running the dishwasher, each day I use just one of our cups for water and one for coffee. I used to have a bad habit of scattering multiple cups throughout the house, which loaded up the dishwasher unnecessarily. We now have solar panels, which have cut our electric bill by about $50 a month.

Cutting Food Costs by Shopping Smarter

Keeping a lean and clean fridge also saves money, since we avoid unused leftovers or wind up finding green, moldy food buried in the back.

Jim does a lot of the food shopping and has an eagle eye for deals. Safeway charged $4.99 for a small pack of blueberries. But we now go to Trader Joe’s where we can get a much bigger pack for just $3.29.

We’ve also given up Peet’s Coffee for Organic Fair Trade at Trader Joe’s, saving around $5 a pound. We eat less meat and more beans and vegetables now, which are much cheaper.

I also got an Instant Pot for a holiday gift and plan on making my own yogurt. And I’m buying beans in bulk (not in cans).

All together, we’re saving about $200 a month on food.

I used to pass those Senior Sale day signs for people over 65 and felt guilty as the cashier rang me up when I shopped on off days. Now, with our drawer’s visual impact of what we have left to spend, I’m vigilant about sales at all types of stores.

Scooping Up Sales

Our organic market has 10% off on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Walgreens has 20% off for seniors the first Tuesday of each month, so that’s the day I now shop for toothpaste, toilet paper and coconut oil for my skin.

I recently drove the extra 10 minutes to Petco to use a 20%-off coupon for a huge bag of dog food. A year ago, I might have tossed the coupon.

I’ve found ways to save money through my work, too.

I’m part of a writing community and had been sharing an office with another writer in our office space downtown. To save money, but still be part of the community, I now write at one of the office’s outside desks and put on headphones. I also write more at home, cutting my office-rental cost. I’ve saved about $1,500 a year by making these switches.

Cutting Costs for Entertainment and Dining Out

We’ve found ways to save on entertainment and dining out as well.

Driving back from the East Coast last summer, Jim and I listened to Michelle Obama’s Becoming free of charge, for instance. That’s because we now get many of our books, eBooks and audio books through Overdrive, the public library app.

For my birthday this year, instead of going to a fancy restaurant, which could easily have cost $200, Jim and I took a walk on Ocean Beach with Ella. We had lunch at a dog-friendly restaurant for about $40. We did the same for Jim’s birthday.

We’ve also had people over for potluck parties, which my friends and family love, since they can bring their favorite dishes.

Oh, and that coffee out my mother warned me about? When my friend, Joan, wanted to meet at a café, I suggested she come to my house. It was lovely to have here over, make a pot of coffee and save a bit of money, too.

Louise Nayer
By Louise Nayer
Louise Nayer is the author of Poised for Retirement: Moving From Anxiety to Zen and a former English and creative writing professor at City College of San Francisco.

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