01 April 2010

How to Get a $6 Beer for Free, and Other Tips for Saving Money

It’s April, the first true month of spring in Austin, as we remember how we spent the remainder of March hiding indoors from the unexpected arctic winds. The bluebonnets are rampant, the pigeons and grackles are mating, and everyone is clamoring for the outdoor patio tables. And taxes are due. If you’re like me, you get a refund every year, but if you end up owing, I have a few year-round tips to help you recover. First, go to an Irish pub downtown, during an extremely busy tourist season (say SXSW) and order a $6 pint of Guinness and a plate of fish and chips. Then contemplate the following:

Very few people – if any – will notice you wore the same pair of pants three times this week, or that you wore the same black shirt twice. (As long as they are clean.) If you are suffering from an abundance of items in your wardrobe and you can’t stop expanding it, ask yourself: Do you really need it? How often will you really wear it? Settle on a few basic outfits that best flatter your stature or figure, and stick to that style. These days, anything can be fashionable. I would bet you a $6 beer you only regularly wear a small percentage of clothes from your closet, and when you do wear that trendy skirt, you’re uncomfortable all day anyway. What you don’t wear often, sell at a yard sale or donate to folks in need. (Classy outfit: $1 shirt from friend's yard sale, free pair of jeans worn 2 or 3 times a week received from friend cleaning out closet, free pair of cowboy boots worn every day received as a benefit of working for Future Farmers of America.)

Beans and rice aren’t just for Mexicans. I may be undercover, but I have not lost my instincts. There are so many ways to make beans – cowboy beans, curried beans, refried beans…the list is endless. They are high in protein, fiber, inexpensive, delicious, and a pot will go a long way. As far as the rice, brown is the way to go, but wild rice is even healthier. And neither contains gluten, which has increasingly become suspect in causing anything from mild fatigue to seriously adverse digestive complications. Although this topic of gluten is controversial, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Your air conditioner and heater don’t need to run as high as you think you need. I keep my heater at 65 in the winter, and the air conditioner at 85 in the summer. If you’re cold, exercise or clean the house to get your blood flowing. Sleep with a ton of blankets. Bake cookies. Buy a chimenea and have a fire in the backyard. Invite your friends over for hot cocoa and marshmallows. If you’re hot, go swimming or spend the afternoon in the library. Turn on the ceiling fans. Invite your friends over for grilling and cold beer. (Exciting evening: free heating source courtesy of wood scraps and brush clippings, priceless lifetime entertainment provided by $40 ukulele and $100 accordion.)

Borrow instead of buying when you can. I’m not saying you should ask your next door neighbor every other Saturday if you can use the lawnmower. But think about items you buy but only use once: books, DVDs, or a fondue pot for that one Valentine’s Day dinner party. You can borrow books and movies for free from the public library, and you save yourself from carrying heavy boxes every time you move. The library might not have that latest Hollywood, Oscar-winning hit, but you’d be surprised at what you’ll find. Besides, almost all the best films were made before 1975.

By the time you’ve finished considering all these ideas to help you become more frugal, about an hour and a half has gone by at that Irish pub, and because the kitchen is supposedly backed up, your fish and chips have not yet arrived. Even though the table next to you, who ordered after you, already has their food, and no one else in the pub seems to be eating. So you ask the waitress if you can just pay for your $6 Guinness and skip the food, and she feels bad for you, and lets you have the beer for free. Stomach growling and light-headed, you then go to a taquería, which would have been much cheaper in the first place. (Frugal cultural experience: innards of Cathedral of Junk in South Austin - admission is a suggested donation of whatever you can afford. Amazing art is built from free thing-a-ma-jigs, doo-dads, knick-knacks and garbage.)

Not that I have anything against the Irish. Even though not economical, I am still craving those fish and chips. And besides, the Irish and the Mexican formed an alliance during the Mexican-American war in the mid-1800s. But that history lesson is for another time. ¡Viva los San Patricios!

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