Two or three times a month, Nicole Ladera of Norfolk, Va., gets together with other moms to talk bargains. "Before, it was a faux pas to discuss trying to save money," said Ladera, the founder of FrugalAndFabulousMoms.com.
As the recession rages on, however, Ladera has seen a boom in area moms interested in joining her penny-pinching group to seek out the best deals in town.
In the wake of the economic crisis, Americans are becoming cheap and, increasingly, proud of it. Instead of bragging to friends about luxury purchases, the new U.S. consumer takes pride in being frugal and is no longer self-conscious about saving.
"There's been a culture shift here in attitudes about thrift," said Barbara Whitehead, director of the Center for Thrift and Generosity at the nonprofit Institute for American Values in New York. A recent Gallup poll showed 59 percent of Americans now say they enjoy saving money, compared with 48 percent in 2001.
"It's no longer socially unacceptable" to want to save money, according to self-proclaimed "Coupon Mom" Stephanie Nelson. "Couponing used to be really nerdy. I know that look people used to give you at the store when you took out your coupons … now everyone else in line has them, too."
The trend is prevalent across the economic spectrum.
"People that I know that spend money like there's no tomorrow … are coming to me for advice," said Kristen Krause, who writes TheFrugalGirl blog.
This new love of thrift is likely here to stay. A survey by the business advisory firm AlixPartners found Americans plan to save 14 percent of their total earnings once the recession ends (Americans saved 1.6 percent of their total earnings in 2008 and 1.4 percent on average for the decade prior). Now that it's officially OK to embrace your inner penny-pincher, how on earth do these people do it? Here are the top "expert" tips to the frugal life:
From the brands you buy to the stores from which you buy, open your mind to avoid opening your wallet. Americans are increasingly learning that it's OK to buy used.
"I'm no longer getting the reaction of, 'Ew, that's gross, I can't believe you do that.' Now, it's, 'Oh, where do you go?'" said Katy Wolk-Stanley, the "Non-Consumer Advocate" who vows to only buy used items (with a few exceptions).
Higher quality items bought used will often outlast the cheaper brands purchased new. Used items are also a particularly great way for parents to save money.
It's OK to Buy Used
"With kids items, it's especially OK; I mean, they are just going to wreck them anyway," said Gina Lincicum, founder of MoneyWiseMoms.com.
Check out local opportunities for swapping goods. Sites like Freecycle.org or Freepeats.org make it easy for one person's trash to become another person's treasure. Advertise what you need on these sites and more often than not, someone in your local area may be looking to get rid of just what you need.
Looking to clean out the closet? These sites are also great ways to get rid of your used items while also giving back to others. "It goes back to that basic sense of community," said Lincicum, who uses the sites often.
Libraries are also an amazing source for saving money on everything from books to movies and music and may be a good place to turn for family activities as well.
Step Away From the Mall:
Serious savers will never be caught in the mall on a Saturday afternoon. They just don't do it. If you stop viewing shopping as a social activity you won't feel like you're on a diet when you trim your spending.
Get to Know Your Stores:
From buy-one-get-one-free deals to rewards programs, your local grocery stores may offer some amazing ways to save cash.
"Know how your [grocery] stores' sale programs work," "Coupon Mom" Nelson said.
In terms of clothing, thrift stores and consignment shops are some of the penny-pincher's greatest resources. You'll be surprised, not only at the deals available, but also at the quality of the products available in many of these stores.
Embrace the Coupon:
Most bargain-hunters rely on coupons to some degree and, in these tough times, coupon use is on the rise. But these aren't your mother's coupons. These days, you can clip them, print them or download them. Just like most things, coupons have gone digital. In one month, Nelson's subscribers printed 4.6 million from her Web site CouponMom.com -- that's up from just 200,000 printed in the same month last year.
In addition, sites like Coupons.com, RedPlum.com or SmartSource.com are great go-to sources for printable coupons. And despite the popular belief, coupons aren't just for processed and unhealthy foods. Mambosprouts.com, for example, offers coupons for healthy, organic brands. Several grocers now allow shoppers to download coupons directly from the stores' Web sites to their shoppers advantage cards.
And sites like Cellfire.com let you download discounts to your mobile device. But don't overlook the traditional print coupons that come with your newspaper. According to Nelson, 85 percent of coupons used are the old-fashioned kind.
If a store has a sale or if there is a great buy-one-get-one-free deal, go ahead and splurge. "It never hurts to stock up," Nelson said.
Lincicum, who feeds her family of five on as little as $400 a month, waits until she finds a good price on meat and poultry and then buys in bulk and either freezes the meat or pre-cooks a few meals for her family.
While this does require a certain amount of freezer space, ultimately, it will save you money. "On those nights when everything is just crazy and we want to call for pizza or get takeout, I reach for the freezer instead," Lincicum said.
Show Off Your Kitchen Skills:
In addition to using up your stockpiled groceries, cooking for yourself and your family will help save your wallet and your waistline. You know the drill: bring your lunch to work, pack lunches for kids and avoid the take-out.
Also, remember to always make too much. Whip up an extra batch of waffles on Sunday morning and avoid paying for the pricey frozen ones later in the week. Instead of one lasagna, make two and freeze it for later.
Don't Go Overboard:
While all this can sound very time-consuming, even the pros don't spend hours clipping coupons or cooking extras in the kitchen and running around to every bargain store in town. "It really is about [balance], I want to enjoy my life," Wolk-Stanley said.
Remember that many coupons are valid for several months, so there's no need to rush. In fact, holding on to coupons until there's a sale may help you ultimately save even more money.
Saving doesn't have to mean sacrificing.The brand names that you love may be cheaper with a coupon or on sale. Saving doesn't necessarily mean you have to buy the store brand or go to wholesale retailers or shop at discount stores. Be deliberate.
"Instead of doing your grocery list first, look at the sales first, instead," Nelson said.
Try second-hand stores or reaching out to your neighbors before you hit the shops. It's all about "conscious frugality," Wolk-Stanley said, "trying to live frugally and spend very little, but being very deliberate … Sometimes, I could save another dollar here or there, but I choose not to."
Do What Works for You:
"It has to be practical for people," Nelson said.
Don't think you have to go overboard -- small changes can make a big difference and a little penny-pinching can add up in the long run. The experts suggest you begin by paying attention to how you're spending your money and what you're spending it on. They promise you'll be surprised.
Next, keep an eye on sales and consider buying those items, perhaps throwing in a few coupons. Visit your local thrift store on a Saturday afternoon.
"If you do enough of those small things, it will honestly make a difference," Lincicum said, "but look at what fits your lifestyle. ... If you're a single person living alone, stockpiling cereal boxes under the bed may not make sense, but if you have a family to feed, it may be worthwhile."