My cousin was commiserating with me recently about how hard it is to cover basic expenses: mascara, a haircut, beer. Last year I bought $20/pot lip gloss and a $60 haircut every two months; this year I’m using whatever tube of lip gloss is cheapest at Big Lots and gingerly cutting my own hair with my mom.
But like any event outside our control, this recession will be defined for each of us depending on how we look at it. Personally, I’m trying to focus on the joy of good companionship and the pleasure of finding a bargain, rather than what I can’t afford.
As a nearly-professional bum, I’ve gathered free and cheap resources rapidly over the past several months. This list focuses on entertainment and travel, both because they’re my obsessions, and because they’re the first expenditures to be cut from a budget.
- Photo Trip: Desperate to leave the house? Head someplace new with your digital, 35mm or disposable camera, and take photos! Often, we buy special food and gifty items when we’re sightseeing, to remember the place and our experience there. Photographing something feels like purchasing it, and we wind up with mementos, artwork, images to share with friends. I did this when in New York to keep my hands and mind busy so I wouldn’t be tempted to go on a mad big-city spending spree or even indulge in small whim purchases (whimchases) that add up fast. It worked! I spent five days in the city without buying anything aside from a pot of Carmex for my cold-cracked nostrils. Eww…
- CouchSurfing: If you decide to take a longer trip, save hotel money and surf couches instead. My friend José suggested this site, and not only am I in love with the concept of meeting locals when visiting new cities, I’m also in love with the website’s off-the-wall profile questions. I wish all social networking sites asked for your personal philosophy and what you love teaching or sharing with new acquaintances… Stories? Knitting patterns? Vegetarian casserole recipes? Whatever it is, there’s someone out there who’d love to hear your thoughts and share their living room.
- Help Exchange: At the risk of depressing everyone with references to the Great Depression, when unemployment looms, consider the path of the hobo. This website has quite a few farms and families looking for help in exchange for room and board. It’s not a career-builder, but what a fun way to ride out this cruddy job market or see new parts of the country.
- Craigslist: If you don’t use Craigslist to find rare bargains, jobs, and interesting people, you should be. The Free and Barter sections are particularly useful right now. When Marcus began to sound desperate about needing to see my face after I’d been back in the US for about a month, I turned to CL. A week later I had a webcam I’ve used ever since, given to me still in its original packaging from a nice gentleman who even brought it to my ‘hood. Free.
- Better World Books: Discounted paperbacks in a wide range of subjects, with extremely fair quality grading and free S&H! It’s like having an unlimited “Bargain Rack” bookshelf right inside your computer. Plus the email notifications are cute and part of the proceeds help various charities.
- PaperBack Swap: Even better than discounted books are FREE books, minus the cost of shipping. Easily post the books you no longer want, mail them to interested readers, then use the credits (one credit per book mailed) to pick out books of your own, which other members will mail to you. So far, membership is free and the community seems active and voluminous.
Once I found myself in England with six hundred US dollars in my bank account and not quite enough wages to cover my weekly expenses, finding low-cost ways to stay amused and stimulated became critical. My solution was to give in to a still-thriving internet addiction. Here on the web, I can read blogs, watch videos, collect gorgeous imagery, and find interesting conversations, for free. I could also, and do (thanks to my mom, since I’m a bum), buy my clothes second hand, stick to an amazingly drinkable $6.99 brand of Spanish wine, and borrow a DVD instead of going to the movie theater. I take long walks, photograph ice, and shop at Big Lots instead of Sephora.
But I have my mom, brother, Marcus, and friends to cheer and inspire me. I have Flip, a warm apartment, and a big bed. I have everything I need, which should be the definition of wealthy.
What do you have?