Embracing the conserver lifestyle

The conserver:  someone who carefully thinks about their financial purchases, whether they are needed, good for the environment and makes decisions based on personal ethics; who rebels against the economic slavery being imposed on society by financial institutions and the greed that guides the decisions of the 1% at the expense of the common man.

Wow, that’s heavy.  Serious way to say, “hey, do you really need another sweater?” before you dig out your Visa.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick of money.  Sick of earning it, spending it, feeling depressed when there’s not enough, trying to save it, watching it get drained from my bank account every month.  After a few years of trying to budget, I’ve pretty much tossed as much of the whole mess as I can and not be homeless.  I’ve been trying to get out of debt since 1992 and it is a never-ending spiral that feeds on itself and never goes away, so I’ve decided to set metaphorical fire to the whole thing and watch it burn, so something good can have a chance to rise from the ashes. 

Here is my list for cash-sucking “essentials” that I will no longer be spending my hard earned money on.  If not gone already, they’re on their way out as soon as I can get rid of them without incurring penalties and surcharges.

1.  Cell phones

For five years Rogers Wireless was the bane of my existence.  In three years I went from one, $45/m cell phone to five phones and a bill hitting $350/m, occasionally made worse by kids who kept unintentionally signing up for ringtones and games.  I’ve had monthly charges of $450, $850 and once, after an identity theft episode, $3200.  I even got charged a roaming fee once when we hadn’t even left the country – turns out if you lean too far out over Niagara Falls, your phone magically attracts American satellite transmissions and makes Rogers think you’re picnicking in New York’s Central Park.

I never intended to buy cell phones for my kids. Giving a 15 year old kid who can never find her homework, brush, clothes or bus pass a $600 cell phone is just stupid, a lesson in entitlement that does nothing to prepare her for the real world.  I work full time yet can’t afford an iPhone, so why the heck should my kids expect one?  Then one day I realized that there were no payphones anymore.  The girls were going out on their own and had no way of contacting me if they missed their bus or, God forbid, needed help.  So I got them phones with Rogers’ promises of deals, low payments and phone costs spread out over three years.  All lies.  The worst one was when I specifically asked if getting my kids’ phones would start new contracts and was assured they would not, that they would all go on my existing contract.  Bullshit.  I ended up with five separate contract cancellation dates.  My cell phone bill was double my electric bill; half my grocery budget.  Cancelling the contract meant shelling out over $1000 for the privilege.  I couldn’t even begin to figure out how to argue with them because the phone bill is sixteen pages long.

By contrast, Public Mobility offers a flat rate of $25/m for unlimited text and calling.  No contract, no fees, and they only sell five phone models with a price range of $50-$150 – no $650 Samsung-Apple-Blackberry bullshit.  Even five phones is only be $160/m, and never any surprise on the bill.  Their phone selection isn’t great and sometimes there is interference on the line, but so what?  My kids are teenagers; they don’t call, they text.  When they have a job they can buy any phone they want.  While I’m paying our huge stack of bills it is either Public Mobility, or two tin cans and a string.

2.  Thousand Dollar Christmas Gift Extravaganzas

Besides the phones, my kids each have a laptop and an iPod, procured over the last three Christmases (not bought by me).  I have no intention of replacing any of it with the latest model just because it’s got a larger screen, or a better operating system, or comes in a new shiny shade of gold.  They will use that laptop, and that cell phone, and that iPod, until they die (the gizmos – not the kids).  Glass cracked and scratching your fingers?  Allow me to introduce you to duct tape.  One kid’s laptop won’t even turn on because she downloaded programs piggybacking viruses every ten minutes and never ran her updates – it finally crashed.  Even her software engineer father can’t fix it.  And we should get her another one?  I don’t think so. 

3.  Furniture

0% interest.  No money down.  Don’t pay for a year.  Promises, promises, all designed to make buying that $8,000 dining room set sound like a good idea.  $8,000 for a few chairs and a flat piece of wood with four legs.  You aren’t paying for a table and chairs, you’re paying for a look, a name, a style, an image, when all you need is a place to sit and eat meals with your family.  Go buy a picnic table, drop it in the dining room and let your kids paint it.  You’ll have a cherished family heirloom instead of a fancy lacquered Queen Anne table the kids are afraid to touch.


China cabinet and 6 seat dining set – both free.


Hand-me-downs and used stores have fallen out of fashion, but it is high time they lost their bad image.  People toss out entire living room suites, or all their kitchen appliances, simply because they’ve repainted or redesigned and their old stuff no longer matches the decor.  The last time I went to the Goodwill they had a sofa, loveseat and chair finished in pretty green tartan upholstery, with frilly dust ruffles and polished oak along the arms and back, for $75.00.  That same set at a place like the Brick would have been around $1500.

I haven’t bought any furniture in 9 years.  My old boss redecorated and gave me her dining table set, two bookshelves, and two carpets – total value, about $10,000.00.  Then they retired and gave me two desks, a computer, a monitor and a shitload of office supplies – total value, probably around $3,000.  I found twin beds on Kijiji for my kids, one for $25 and one for $50.  I’ve got a butchers block rolling caddy in the kitchen that someone put at the end of their driveway for garbage – nothing wrong with it; new in store would have cost me $200.  I have also scored two free dishwashers and a chest freezer from driveway deposits, and an IKEA coffee table I’d wanted for years. 


Free dishwasher someone threw out – it’s been running for 3 years for far.


Many people can’t be bothered trying to sell their old stuff – they just want it gone.  They will put their old dishwasher outside with a sign that says “still works.” 90% of the time this means they simply redecorated and bought a new one in stainless steel, or a better model.  I’ve also found three barbeques, a picnic table, an entire driveway of brick interlock and some outdoor toys for my youngest. 

4.  House

An average house used to be a little 1200 square foot bungalow with two or three bedrooms, a bathroom and a basement that may or may not have been finished.  Siblings shared a room and no-one said boo.  Now we have gargantuan houses with four or more bedrooms, main floor laundry, fireplaces in the bedrooms, walk-in closets and Jacuzzi tubs as standard packages, target marketed to young professionals just starting a family.  It used to take a family twenty years or more to build a portfolio of material goods that impressive.  Now we charge it in our 20s and spend the next 40 years paying it all off.  The dream house, dream car, dream vacation – they’re called dreams for a reason, folks.  In the old days, such a standard of living was a dream, and remained so, for the majority of the populace.  The Donald Trumps of their day had the mansions with the fancy fixtures, and the rest of us sat in our 1200 square foot wooden house and read about the lives of Hollywood stars and robber barons in the news and bitched about their excesses while secretly envying them.  Now we have our mini-mansions that keep us house-poor and short of cash for basic necessities, working full time and then some to cover the cost of having it all before we’ve paid for it.  And you’re going to be paying for it for a long, long time.

FYI; the “low income” required to qualify for a Habitat for Humanity house is $50,000.00 a year.  When I was a kid the family who earned $50,000 a year had a BMW in the driveway.

5.  Vacations

Taking the kids to the local beach in the family car just isn’t good enough anymore.  Disneyland, cruises, African safaris – you’ve got to leave the country, it has to be educational and now it also has to be green.  I’m not knocking travel.  I love it and everyone should do it, if they can.  It broadens the mind and reminds us that we all want the same things, no matter where we’re from.  But there’s thousands of things you can see in your own country that are driving distance, cheap and/or free, and you don’t have to fly to foreign lands to meet fascinating people with cool accents – go to Newfoundland.  Or Gatorland.  But if the only way you can get to Africa is to put a $10,000 vacation on your Visa, stay home and watch the National Geographic channel.   

6.  Clothes

I usually only own one pair of jeans at a time.  When they wear out, I go buy another pair.  I spend less than $300 a year on clothes.  I don’t have a closet full of stuff.  I buy something I love, use it regularly and enjoy it.  I will eventually get tired of looking at it, or it will wear out, at which point I treat myself to something new.  I would rather spend my money on opportunities for culture, intellectual growth and fun with my kids.  I don’t want “she looks hot in that dress” to be all I am ever known for (cue sound effect – a fake sneeze that sounds like “Kardashian!”)

Used kids clothes are everywhere.  You can buy them by the bagful on Kijiji and kids love digging through the bags to see what treasures might be inside.

 7.  Extracurricular activities

Parents today spend enough cash to float a small country on their progeny.  Hockey, dance lessons, music lessons, art lessons, space camp, tutoring – they take out second mortgages to pay for it all too.  That used to be reserved for the rare family who actually had a budding genius/awesomely talented youngster, while the rest of us, while acknowledging their justified pride, felt a little sorry for them and the financial sacrifices they were “forced” to make.  Now we blow all the money we should be saving for our retirement on our kids’ activities, regardless of talent or ability.  The chickens haven’t come home to roost yet, but I foresee a future where the parents need care and can’t pay for it, and their spoiled kids aren’t going to want to care for them either.

I have a musically gifted daughter who wanted piano lessons.  Pianos average $7,000 and up, plus tuning, plus the piano movers who charge several hundred dollars to get your piano home.  A piano, even a used one, should be totally out of my reach without a credit card.

Guess what I discovered?  Pianos are a pain in the ass to sell; people literally can’t give the damn things away.  I placed an ad asking if anyone had a free/cheap piano they would like to give to a musically gifted teen whose mother had been out of work for a year.  I got almost 20 responses, mostly for pianos that were over a hundred years old and hadn’t been tuned in decades.  Nice for antique dealers, but not practical for regular use if you can’t afford to fix it up.  I eventually spoke to a young woman who did not want her piano anymore, and since it had a bit of humidity damage she didn’t feel right asking for money.  It was only 10 years old and had last been tuned a couple years ago, and the “damage” turned out to be nothing but a bit of peeling of the white coating on the front of the keys.  It plays fine. 


I now have a beautiful glossy black Yamaha piano in my living room that cost nothing but the $60 it took to rent a Budget truck to pick it up.  My husband and his buddy simply rolled it down the hall, out the sidewalk and up into the truck and strapped it securely to the side.  Piano movers, my ass.

8.  Transportation

This one’s tricky.  Most people need a car.  The only ones who don’t either live in a city with good public transportation, or they don’t have kids.  The cheapest cars today still cost more than what my parents paid for their first house.  I first bought a used van, decent price, $200/month, but we couldn’t afford the repairs and without regular maintenance it became too decrepit to drive.  I replaced it with a new Dodge minivan and paid for the six year warranty.  No repair bills and the payments are only affordable because they’re stretched out over eight years, but it will hold seven people and we can use it to help my husband haul tools and materials to his work sites, which means we don’t need a second vehicle.  And when the kids are grown, we can take out the back seats and turn it into a mini-camper.  If I didn’t have kids, however, I’d be taking the bus.  $330 a month for something that will just slowly rust and die and be thrown away sticks in my craw.  I still think used is better; if I hadn’t been blowing my cash on debt repayment instead of car repair I’d still be driving it.

9.  Food

Yes, I no longer buy food.  Seriously though; when the food bank staff processed my application last May I was advised that the allowable amount for groceries for a family of five was $1,200 a month.  I laughed because I have never had that much money to spend on food.  When I was making $55,000/yr my grocery budget was only $600/m – my debt repayments were so high it was the best I could do.  Since being laid off it fell to an all-time low of about $300 a month, more or less – often less.  You know what – we’re not really missing out on much.  Turns out a lot of that money goes on fast food and crap.

The Basic Cook course I took has made a huge difference.  I buy almost no processed foods.  My pantry now holds flour, oatmeal, cornstarch, a variety of oils, chocolate chips, etc. 




My two pantry shelves; this one, and the microwave on it, were free.  The other was $24.99 at Target.


It takes a bit of time to make things from scratch, but not as much as you’d think once you know what you’re doing.  I can whip up a basic béchamel sauce in less than 15 minutes – the same amount of time it takes to cook Kraft dinner.  Add shredded cheese, some macaroni and leftover veggies and voila – a homemade, fresh vegetarian dish.  I buy no packaged juice or fruity beverages except 100% pure orange or apple juice, and only as a treat.  This is pure strategy on my part, because if the kids have no drink in their school lunch, they have to drink water from the fountains at school.  This ensures they drink at least some water every day, and they get an apple or an orange in their lunch anyway, which is much more nutritious than juice.

Plant a garden.  This does not have to be that hard either – I actually hate gardening.  You will need one day to break up the earth, and another day to plant the seeds, but you don’t have to fuss much beyond that.  Our backyard is hard and rocky, with lousy dirt, and is overrun with squirrels and rabbits, yet we still get more berries, tomatoes and lettuce than we can eat.  We use no pesticides or chemicals of any kind.  All plants, once done producing, are left to rot back into the ground, which enriches the soil for next year.  Steve built a greenhouse out of two old windows he had in the garage.  They sit on frames about 8 inches high, which are nothing but four old boards nailed together, and are slanted to let in the sun all day as it crosses the sky. A 10 year old with a hammer could put these together.  I haven’t bought lettuce in 18 months.  And this is Canada, baby, yet I’m picking lettuce in -15 degree weather (that’s 5 degrees Fahrenheit south of the border). 

Once you get past the idea that everything has to be done a certain way, or have a certain look, it’s amazing how easy and cheap things can be.


Our house is a rental; the kitchen cupboards were falling apart and the landlord refused to replace them.  So we took them down and replaced them with shelves I found on Kijiji for $50. Even new, those shelves would have cost about $250 – way, way less than new cupboards.


Financial freedom doesn’t come from being rich – it comes from keeping your money, whatever your salary is.  If you make $35,000 a year, then you can’t afford a 5,000 square foot house with marble tubs and rainforest showers no matter what the realtor or the bank manager tells you – deal with it.  Stop reading Architectural Digest and take your kids to the (free) park.  Make them mom’s hot chocolate in your tiny kitchen and tuck them into bed at night with stories and lullabies in their unorganized bedrooms with nary a decorating theme in sight.  They won’t even miss it.  And if you’re not dwelling on what you don’t have all the time, neither will you. 

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