Furloughed Federal Workers: Here Are 5 Ways to Cut Spending Fast

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When a regular paycheck suddenly disappears, you've got to make some quick adjustments. Here's what to do.

If you’re a furloughed federal worker or anyone who’s lost a job, your best approach to staying solvent is to systematically rethink your spending. Your new guiding principle: Spend as little as possible until you’re working again and are back on your feet financially.

Here are six ways to get your new spending habits on track:

1. Postpone big purchases

No big expenditures, no matter how long they’ve been in the works. It can be hard to switch gears and let go of a long-planned treat, whether it’s a vacation, a new appliance or a new kitchen. But remember: You don’t have to let it go. But definitely put it off for now.

If you’ve made commitments — booked a builder’s time or made a down payment, for instance — call, explain your situation and ask what your options are. You may have to lose a place at the head of the line or relinquish a good deal you had lined up. But weigh the consequences carefully if you go ahead. Pull out if your gut says, “Stop!”

2. Haggle

If you must buy, haggle. It’s a time-honored tradition, one often kept alive in the U.S. by immigrants from countries where no one expects to pay list price. Consumer Reports tells you how to do it. Ditching your discomfort can earn big savings:

Eighty-nine percent of those who haggled were rewarded at least once. Successful furniture hagglers saved $300 on average, as did those who questioned a health-related charge. Those who challenged their cellphone plans saved $80.

3. Buy only what you need now

  • Reverse your thinking. You’re probably used to shopping sales to stock up on good deals, whether on pet food or a new TV. That can be great if you truly need those items. But not now. Now, walk as gingerly through the grocery store as you would through a swamp full of alligators. Try making several small trips instead of one big weekly stock-up. Use your steely nerves to ignore sales, unless the sale items fit into your weekly meal plan. It may help to know that the average American family spends $151 a week on food, according to this Gallup poll. Eight percent spend less than $50; 10 percent spend more than $300 a week.
  • Use a list. Prepare before hopping in the car to do errands. Buy nothing that’s not on your list. 
  • Use prepaid cards. Tame spending by loading a prepaid card with only the amount you can spend. For example, set a weekly budget, load up the card and when you’ve reached the limit you’re done spending until next week.
  • Grab a basket. Stop automatically taking a cart when you enter a store. “If I can’t carry it out of the store, well, I simply don’t buy it,” reader Darlene Watson wrote in response to this U.S. News & World Report article on cutting spending.
  • Avoid the aisles. Prepared foods on the inside aisles of grocery stores are vastly more expensive. They’re also less healthy. Focus on pantry staples like dried beans and rice.
  • Manage temptation. Cancel all email alerts you’ve signed up for. Carry sale notices and catalogs directly from the mailbox to the shredder or trash can.

4. Trade time for money

Time is one thing you’ve got now that’s scarce when you’re working. Use it to cut costs. For example:

  • Clip grocery store coupons.
  • Keep kids and pets home from day care if possible.
  • Do your own garden and yard care.
  • Launder delicate clothes by hand instead of dry cleaning. (Real Simple tells how.)

5. Cook at home

Do we have to tell you to avoid restaurants? Naw, you knew that.

  • Slow Food USA has lots of resources for eating well on $5 per person or less. Check out the cooking tips and links, community meals near you and tips for hosting a dinner or potluck.
  • Make these winning recipes. Try Food52‘s “Your Best Dirt Cheap Dinner” contest winners (scroll down for the recipes). Try recipes from NPR’s “How Low Can You Go” family supper challenge.
  • We have our own Frugal Family Feast recipes for dinners you can make for $15 or less to feed a family of four — and have leftovers.
  • “Shop” at home. Prepare meals from boxes and cans of food already on your kitchen shelves. Make a game out of making great meals from what you’ve got on hand. CookWithWhatYouHave has ideas and recipes.

Bonus tips

Cutting spending will help, but so will earning some extra income. Capitalize on your newfound time by cleaning out closets and cupboards. Finding records, furniture, clothes, books, music and household items to sell makes the job fun. Line your pockets with small profits at:

  • Consignment stores.
  • Book and music stores.
  • Your own garage sale.

Looking for more ideas on how to make some extra money? We have 50 ways to make a fast $50.

Also, look into whether your bank or credit union is cutting furloughed workers a break by waiving fees or allowing them to delay making loan payments. A number of them are.

If you’ve been furloughed or have lost a job at some point in time, tell us how you were able to make ends meet on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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