We live on a fixed income and have a strict budget for monthly expenses. Saving money is a paramount concern for us, and we’ve developed a few strategies. None of this is new or unique, but it’s what has been working for us.
Saving money really falls into two categories: discounts on something you are buying or avoiding a cost altogether. We try to maximize both. Very rarely do we recoup some huge amount all at once; instead, it’s the steady drip-drip-drip of 25 cents here and there. But that adds up to more than you can imagine in a very short time.
DISCOUNTS ON WHAT YOU’RE ALREADY BUYING
Pick your brands: I was never a brand snob before, but I generally chose name-brand items at the grocery store. I’ve made a real effort to buy generic or store-brand items since moving aboard, particularly with canned goods, boxed goods like pasta, and chips. I have to say I haven’t tasted a difference, and we’ve saved a bundle. If we only like a specific brand of a certain thing (such as coffee, mayonnaise, dressings), then we just wait until it’s on sale to buy it. Reading about food recalls, where the same lettuce or whatever is sold to forty different outlets from Whole Foods to Walmart, really drives the point home: it’s all the same stuff just with different price tags.
We eat lots of international foods, and often the same type of item is cheaper in the “ethnic” aisle or at a specialty shop. If you don’t believe me, look for seasoned black beans in the canned vegetables aisle and then look for them in the Latin foods aisle.
Being brand-savvy goes for boat supplies, too. We have a Seagull water filtering system for our drinking water, and it’s fantastic. However, a Seagull branded filter costs $114, whereas the Neo-Pure filter costs $75. We’ve tried it, and it lasts as long as a Seagull filter and has the same pure-tasting water. Done! But I would never buy anything other than a Racor fuel filter or 3M duct tape. You pick your battles.
Marine v. residential: On the same note, we have a running joke that if something has a “marine” label, it’s double the cost of the same item at a hardware store. If we can buy a similar-quality item from a hardware store, we do it. We do feel that there are some things that have to be for specialized for marine use, such as quality stainless steel fasteners, electrical components, wire fittings, sealants, and adhesives.
Loyalty cards: I know not everyone digs loyalty programs. I get it: you are trading your privacy for discounts. Of course, this is only true if you give your actual information . . . Just saying. I have loyalty cards from grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies, liquor stores (embarrassing, I know), and boat supply stores all along the East Coast of the US; I keep them on one key ring that I throw in my pack when I’m out.
Coupons: Before we moved on the boat, I was a Coupon Queen. I got more free and cheap products than I knew what to do with. However, that level of success requires consistent access to the internet, a printer, a Sunday paper, a variety of stores, and a car. So you can see how well that works for me now. In this life, you shop where you can, and many places don’t accept coupons anyway. Sadly, my couponing use has been drastically reduced.
I’ve come across two legitimate digital rebate apps that I use consistently. One is Walmart Savings Catcher; you scan your Walmart receipt QCR code with your phone, and they price match what you bought with local stores. You get your rebate back as an egift card, and I’d say I get something back about 25% of the time.
Walmart Savings Catcher–it’s so easy, even I can do it.
Another is Ibotta, which has a list of items that are eligible for rebates from multiple sellers. You pick the item that qualifies, take a picture of your receipt with your phone, and send it to them. Rebates are put in your account, and once you reach $20, you can cash out via Paypal.
Amazon Prime: We pay the $119 annual membership for Amazon Prime and find it is absolutely worth it. For us, the free shipping and streamlined process is worth its weight in gold. We buy scads of things from Amazon, from cleaning supplies to specialty foods to maintenance items. Insider tip: if your package does not arrive on time, call Amazon customer service and ask for a free one-month extension of your Prime membership. We’ve done this multiple times over the years with no hassles.
We’ve been hearing more complaints about counterfeit items on Amazon, so be careful about what you buy.
Boat US discounts: We are members of Boat US for the towing insurance, but many marinas and fuel docks give a Boat US discount. We are never shy about asking. I don’t care if it’s 5 cents off of a gallon of diesel; it all adds up.
Price matching: West Marine has historically not been our vendor of choice because of its ridiculously inflated prices. However, they have recently instituted a price-matching policy: they will match a price from any internet vendor except an auction site. So we pull up Defender or Amazon on our phone, find the product, and pay that price. You still get your West Advantage points and the ability to return the item to any West Marine. It’s awesome. I’m not sure how long it will last, but we’re making hay while the sun shines.
Boat show pricing: Many internet vendors will have sales during boat shows, and companies that have booths at boat shows frequently extend “boat show pricing” to items bought online during boat shows. We calendar the major boat shows and then buy expensive items during that time. It has saved us a bundle.
Rebates: Any time we buy a piece of equipment, particularly electronics, we check to see if there’s a manufacturer rebate. We’ve gotten them from iCom, Standard Horizon, and Mantus to name a few. It generally takes forever to get the rebate, but by then it’s like free money.
Buying in larger quantities: Some people go to CostCo and buy a truckload of stuff at a time. We are only two people, and we live on a 35’ sailboat. The cost-benefit analysis of bulk buying never works out for us. We’ve got nowhere to store huge amounts, and I get worried we won’t eat it all. There are some things that we buy in large packs because it’s cheaper and guaranteed to get used: paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates, Ziploc bags, and rice.
Vacuum sealer: This is one of those “you have to spend money to save money” entries. We have a no-frills Food Saver vacuum sealer that has been a workhorse for us. And, of course, I buy Ziploc brand vacuum sealer bags because they are cheaper but just as sturdy. When we do buy larger packs of items such as family packs of chicken, we can then break them into smaller packages and freeze them for later. The vacuum sealer bag keeps them frost-free in the freezer, so they aren’t wasted. We also use the vacuum sealer for protecting spare boat parts, filters, and all manner of other things.
Cook: I know this sounds silly, but cook your meals on board. I love to eat out as much as the next person, but it is so expensive. If you’ve just got to eat out, have lunch as it’s cheaper.
Repurpose what you’ve got: When something is no longer viable for its intended purpose, we try to use it for something else if we can. We replaced our sheets and halyards, and now we have emergency backups and lashing line. A couple of big plastic juice containers with great screw-on lids became my storage containers for bulk rice. Plastic boxes with missing lids hold my cleaning supplies under the galley sink.
Leverage your library: At a minimum, the library will get you air conditioning, free wifi, and free magazines and papers to read. Many libraries have a “Friends of the Library” section that sells books and DVDs for a dollar or two. We’ve been in several cities that offer either a free or low cost, time-limited library card. This opens up a whole world of DVDs, CDs, audio books, books, reference materials, and more. The Stuart library even offered free museum passes, a sewing machine, and a 3-D printer. If you’ll be in one spot for a while, libraries typically offer seminars and training sessions. I’m a library fan-girl.
Tier your costs: Many spending categories have tiers of costs; in other words, some choices are cheaper than others. Take, for example, transportation. Our first choice is always the free one; this can be walking, using a loaner bicycle, or taking a free shuttle/trolley/bus. Our second choice is paid public transportation or an Uber. Do the math on the Uber; depending on cost and number of riders, it can be cheaper to take an Uber than the bus. Finally, if we have a bunch of places to go or a large provisioning run, we may rent a car from Enterprise for the day. Enterprise generally gets our business because they will pick us up and drop us off.
Maintain what you’ve got: It is always cheaper to maintain something now than to fix it later. Service your engine every 100 hours. Spray your hand tools with Boeshield T-9. Flush your outboard with fresh water. Change your water filter regularly. Put additives in your diesel and gas. Run boiling water down your galley sink pipes. Polish your exterior stainless at the first sign of rust. Take care of chips in your teak finish before they become big inlets for moisture. The list is endless and boring and responsible and is the best investment you can make.
Expand your boat skills: Because I can sew and the Captain can splice, we never need to pay someone to do either unless it’s a huge job outside of our comfort zone. I varnish the teak and wax the boat, and the Captain services our engine and performs electrical, plumbing, and installation work. Taken as a whole, this means that we spent money on tools and equipment but are generally able maintain what we’ve got and to fix whatever’s wrong with no further expense.
Our cost-benefit analysis on tools and equipment is that in general, it’s cheaper to buy the tools and perform the job ourselves if we are competent enough. In the end, you get three things: a completed project, knowledge, and tools to use for other jobs. It’s an investment in our self-sufficiency.
Boat work done by other people: There will be times when you have to hire someone else to do a job. We always talk to the workers about what parts or supplies are needed and whether we can buy them ourselves. It’s cheaper that way because we price compare and shop sales; the yard will charge retail plus their markup. They may have a Port Supply account, but we can still find most things cheaper by doing the homework and legwork ourselves.
Also realize that when someone uses only part of an expendable supply for your boat, you are generally charged for the whole amount. For example, if a mechanic uses a dab or grease or sealant, you are charged for the whole tube. You can ask for the rest of the tube, but then you have an open tube to deal with. When we had our drive train worked on last summer, we saved hundreds by asking the mechanic to use our supplies such as paper towels, sealants, and greases. He was cool about it, and we kept costs under control.
Have a decent inventory: If you know what you have, you can plan for what you need. This is especially important in the “boat spares and expendables” category. If you know you need x number of Racor filters, you can buy a few of them when they are cheap and then store them. That filter gets expensive when you have to stay in a marina for an extra day because it’s Sunday and the only Yanmar dealer in town is closed, then take an Uber both ways the next day because it’s too far to walk.
Have a budget: I know, I know. Budgets can be soul-crushing. But if you don’t have a budget, you can’t plan for the unexpected costs that every boat is waiting to spring on you. I will do a post later on budgeting, but at a bare minimum, you’ve got to know what you are spending and in what categories. The categories are defined by you. It’s too easy to eat out a few times and then belatedly realize that you’ve spent $200—money that maybe you don’t have this month because you needed to buy some equipment or extra supplies.