Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Save Money, But Don’t Waste Time

There are plenty of reasons you might want to save money these days. The realization that the banks could cut off your credit cards with a single keystroke, even by mistake, makes it an urgent matter to spend less so you can pay off the credit cards and some some money for an emergency — and that is just one common scenario this year.

To help you out, people are trotting out the same old money-saving tips, some of which date back to before the Great Depression. And there is a problem with many of these tips: they can use up a lot of time. That is a problem because whenever you need to save money, you need to save time too.

I know not many people are falling for the old grocery-coupon scam, in which you can spend hours slicing up the newspaper and poking around the supermarket for a few dollars in mostly illusory savings. But what other tips don’t make good use of your time? There isn’t a simple answer because it depends on your skills and preferences, and you have to consider the amount of money that’s involved.

One of the hottest penny-pinching tips this year is “brew your own” — coffee, that is, although the same strategy could just as well be applied to beer. Yes, it is possible to make your own cup of coffee, but should you? If the extra work at breakfast makes you late for work, or if your coffee tastes terrible, or if you end up drinking extra coffee and feeling extra jittery, then the dollar you save won’t mean that much. Of course, if you really had to save money, you could drink water instead of coffee, but I will leave it to you to decide whether the times are that desperate.

Cooking supper is a great way to save time and money, as the time it takes to cook a meal is usually less than the time you would be waiting at a restaurant. Yet this assumes that you have a workable kitchen and can keep at cooking long enough to get good at it — and these are assumptions that won’t work for everyone.

Some people hate to wash the dishes, and you can get around most of that chore by using disposable plates and cups. Someone would point out, of course, that paper plates are a cost you could avoid, but if the thought of washing the plates makes you want to go eat at a restaurant instead, then the penny you would have saved on paper plates won’t amount to anything.

Most old-time money-saving tips focus on the trade-off between time and money: make your own soap, change the oil in your car yourself. Now that everyone is squeezed for time, a more fruitful area to consider is the ways you can save both time and money while compromising something like style or entertainment: postponing a haircut or cash wash, or watching old video tapes instead of renting a movie. The compromises take some of the fun and flair out of life, but compromises like these have to be made sometimes, because nothing takes the fun and flair out of life like the realization that you are out of money and out of time.