A frugal new year: Ideas to help offset rising housing and food costs

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Sarah Hesjolin, a Tri-Cities resident who teaches budget lessons, knows that recent high prices for groceries can put a strain on family spending.

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

“I just left,” said Hysjulien, STCU’s Community Development Officer. I thought, ‘I can’t spend that for a chicken. “They were free hens, granted, but still, there were only two in the case, and that’s the price they cost.”

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

Sticking to a budget may seem daunting, but Hysjulien argues that a lack of money is a real stressor. If food prices are high, rents and other costs are rising, track expenses for a month to find “leaks,” like streaming apps you meant to cancel or buying coffee daily, she said.

Many banks and credit unions offer online budget support. You do not have to be a STCU member to use this free online budget tool. Hysjulien said you can find many free budget apps for your smartphone.

NerdWallet recently listed the best budget apps which include Mint, Goodbudget, and Fudget.

“When I was younger, I used to think budgeting dries all the sun from the sky when in fact it’s quite the opposite,” Hesjolin said. “It makes you freer because you’re not under that burden the whole time of financial duress.”

Think of a budget like a cross-country roadmap for getting home — getting to the end of the month with money — and then keep spending diaries for several months. Cut back on small “wants, not needs” purchases like lunches to save up to $100 in savings. Build an emergency fund slowly.

“Statistics show that 47% of Americans cannot afford a $400 emergency without putting it on a credit card, borrowing from family, or selling something,” Hesjolin said. “That’s nearly 50% of Americans living on the brink of disaster because they don’t have emergency funds.”

frugal ideas

• Rely on Washington State University extension programs as well as libraries for a wide variety of resources, including topics on how to better store and freeze foods, prepare frugal meals at home, and other budget-increasing ideas.

• Use free trade groups like Buy Nothing on Facebook created by neighborhoods to capture the balcony. Oftentimes, people offer extra gifts, household goods, pantry tools, or even freshly grown produce.

• Make it a family game to see how many days you can go to use the food in the pantry and freezer before shopping. “Anytime you go to the store, you’re going to spend money,” Hesjolin said. You wouldn’t go to Costco without a menu and mindset to avoid buying rushes.

• Try strategies like meat-free Mondays, extra helpings for dinner, and leftovers at lunches.

Preserving and growing food

You can find ways to grow food as well as tips for making groceries last longer through the WSU supplement, said Anna Kestel, education coordinator for Spokane.

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

One example covers the best tips for freezing fruits and vegetables.

Kestell is now taking requests for gardening lessons.

There are tips for growing food indoors if you’re short on yard space, such as small, year-round greens that use potting soil, seeds, and a small pot or shallow plastic container with drainage holes. After the sprouts appear, they can be kept indoors near the window.

“A family in an apartment with a balcony wouldn’t grow all their food, but they could certainly grow a tomato plant and a bowl of lettuce in their kitchen.”

The office, at 222. N. Havana, plans to have in-person support and lessons in the spring and summer, including sessions on how to preserve what you plant or buy. Between classes, “Start Gardening” begins in early March. Each three-hour semester costs $15.

Start vegetable seeds, and servings begin later in March. You can also look for seed sharing in libraries or between neighbors, Kestell added. “If you buy a bag of zucchini seeds, that’s enough for your entire area.”

Some families buy or borrow FoodSaver to seal bags to freeze food. This helps if you find meat on sale and have room to freeze, Kestell said. For produce, consider canning or drying.

Plus, master gardeners teach classes in libraries for free, so check library calendars. For general questions regarding plants, you can call Master Gardeners at (509) 477-2181, Kestell says. The group’s factory clinic is now closed but is expected to open from March to October for attendees.

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

Free in the library

A forgotten library card sometimes means free access to bestsellers, cookbooks, newspapers, guides to home repair and DIY projects. Look up the word “thrifty” in the Spokane County Library’s county catalog to find several pages, said spokeswoman Jane Baker. For comparisons of cost and quality, she said, you can click on Consumer Reports.

Becker said the service to borrow items from its “library of things” was temporarily pulled during the pandemic and then to update the reservation system, but it will be back online early this year. You can borrow items such as sewing machines, instant pots, telescopes, and upholstery tools.

Other sources:

• Hoopla for streaming movies, music, audiobooks, e-books, comics and TV shows.

• Flipster for popular magazines.

• Digital versions of car 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 assistance.

• The Seed Library allows people to view vegetable and flower seeds.

• Internet service; Mobile hotspots.

• Workshops on Medicare and Small Business, along with lessons on hobbies and personal interests.

Hesjolin said she’s seeing more people seeking to thrift in economics and budgeting.

“A lot of people have been out of work in the last couple of years, so they realize how quickly life can change, and I think they want to be more active,” she said.

“Look at home prices now. Young people will have to start saving money every month. They need to start thinking about it very early.”

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