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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Frugal new year: Ideas to help offset the rising costs of housing and food

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 18, 2022

Sarah Hysjulien, a Tri-Cities resident who teaches budget classes, knows recent higher prices for groceries can put a squeeze on household spending.

About a week ago, Hysjulien went into a store to buy a free-range chicken and found only two, for $16 and $17 each.

“I just left,” said Hysjulien, a STCU community development officer. “I thought, ‘I can’t spend that for a chicken.’ They were free-range chickens, granted, but still, there were only two in the case, and that’s what they cost.”

Hysjulien said there still are strategies to spend less despite inflation, and even save a bit. Grocery prices rose 6.4% over the past 12 months ending in December, the largest increase since 2008, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics index of prices.

Sticking to a budget might seem gloomy, but Hysjulien argues that lack of money causes real stress. If stretched by food prices, rent hikes and other costs, track expenses for a month to find “leaks,” such as streaming apps you meant to cancel or daily coffee buying, she said.

Many banks and credit unions offer online budgeting supports. You don’t have to be a STCU member to use its free online budget tool. You can find several free budget apps for your smartphone, Hysjulien said.

NerdWallet recently listed top budget apps that include Mint, Goodbudget and Fudget.

“When I was much younger, I used to think that budgeting just drained all the sunshine out of the sky when in fact it’s just the opposite,” Hysjulien said. “It makes you freer because you’re not under that weight all the time of financial duress.”

Think of a budget like a cross-country road map to get back home – getting to month’s end with money – then keep a spending diary for several months. Cut purchases of small “wants, not needs” such as lunches out to put in savings toward $100. Slowly build an emergency fund.

“Statistics show 47% of Americans could not afford a $400 emergency without putting it on a credit card, borrowing from family or selling something,” Hysjulien said. “That’s almost 50% of Americans are living on the edge of a disaster because they don’t have emergency funds.”

Frugal ideas

• Lean on Washington State University Extension programs as well as libraries for a wide range of resources, including topics on how better to store and freeze foods, make frugal meals at home and other budget-stretching ideas.

• Use free trade groups such as Buy Nothing on Facebook that are set up by neighborhoods for porch pickups. Often, people offer to gift extra clothes, household goods, pantry items or even fresh produce they’ve grown.

• Make it a family game to see how many days you can go using food in your pantry and freezer before you shop. “Any time you go into the store, you’re going to spend money,” Hysjulien said. She won’t go into Costco without a list and mindset to avoid impulse buys.

• Try strategies such as Meatless Mondays and to make extra helpings for dinner and eat leftovers for lunches.

Preserve and grow food

You can find methods to grow food as well as tips for making groceries last longer through WSU Extension, said Anna Kestell, a Spokane education coordinator.

Lately, “Mostly, what I hear is how to take care of what I buy at the grocery store?” Kestell said. “They’ll bring home some produce and ask, ‘What is the best way to store it so they don’t have to throw it away?’ We have all kinds of informational handouts.”

One example covers best tips for freezing fruits and vegetables.

Kestell is hearing requests now for gardening classes.

There are tips to grow food inside if you lack yard space, such as microgreens year-round that use potting soil, seeds and a small pot or shallow plastic container with drainage holes. After sprouts show, it can be kept inside near a window.

“A family in an apartment with a balcony is not going to grow all their own food, but they certainly can grow a tomato plant and a lettuce bowl in their kitchen.”

The office, at 222. N. Havana, plans to have in-person support and classes this spring and summer, including sessions on how to preserve what you grow or buy. Among classes, “Beginning Gardening” starts in early March. Each three-hour class costs $15.

Vegetable seed starts, and classes, begin later in March. You also can look for seed sharing at libraries or among neighbors, Kestell added. “If you buy a pouch of zucchini seeds, that’s enough for your whole neighborhood.”

Some families buy or borrow a FoodSaver to seal bags for freezing food. That helps if you find meat on sale and have freezer space, Kestell said. For produce, consider canning or dehydrating.

Additionally, master gardeners teach classes at libraries for free, so check library calendars. For general plant questions, you can call master gardeners at (509) 477-2181, Kestell said. The group’s plant clinic is closed now but is expected to open March-October for walk-ins.

For food safety or food preservation questions, check the website, call Kestell at (509) 477-2195 or email her at anna.kestell@wsu.edu.

Free at the library

The sometimes forgotten library card means free access to bestsellers, cookbooks, newspapers and guides for home repair and DIY projects. Search “frugal” in the Spokane County Library District catalog to find several pages, said spokeswoman Jane Baker. To do cost and quality comparisons, you can tap Consumer Reports, she said.

A service to borrow items from its “Library of Things” was temporarily pulled offline during the pandemic and then for a reservation system update, but it will return online early this year, Baker said. You can borrow items such as sewing machines, Instant Pots, telescopes and upholstery kits.

Other resources:

• Hoopla for streaming movies, music, audiobooks, eBooks, comics, and TV shows.

• Flipster for popular magazines.

• Digital versions of auto repair manuals and small-engine repair manuals. The Home Improvement Reference Center does the same for homeowners.

• Help Now is a free program with live tutoring for students from elementary school through college. Job Now offers online job coaches and resume help.

• A seed library allows people to check out vegetable and flower seeds.

• Internet access; mobile hot spots.

• Medicare and small-business workshops, along with classes on hobbies and personal interests.

Hysjulien said she sees more people seeking frugality and budgeting.

“A lot of people were out of work in the past couple of years, so they’re aware of how life can change quickly, and I think they’re wanting to be more proactive,” she said.

“Look at the prices of homes now. Young people are going to have to start setting aside money each month. They need to start thinking about it quite young.”

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