Lyn Webster went to the bank four years ago to ask for a large business loan and was laughed out of the building. Her record was bad, apparently. She went home and took a closer look at what she was spending. She was horrified.
Her food bill was the worst.
She had never thought much about budgeting and for a family of three, it was pretty common for her to spend more than $300 a week at the supermarket.
Straight away, she put a limit on food shopping: a full week's groceries for $100 or less.
These days, there are two people in the Webster household and the weekly food bill has a limit of $35. No bull.
"If you were on the bones of your arse and suddenly you were forced to do this, you might feel a bit pissed off, but you should probably make the choice anyway," says Webster.
She admits $35 is extreme and unthinkable for people new to the budgeting thing, but encourages all of us to put a limit on the food bill and refuse to spend any more than that figure.
"It isn't easy at the start. It sucks a bit, but you do get into the groove quite quickly."
Webster is a convert, not just for the financial benefits, but the environmental ones, too.
"I would hate to go back now and live how we lived."
She uses baking soda to wash her hair, makes her own cleaning products. She cooks, she bakes. Looking back, she barely recognises her former consumer self.
So much so that, on a trip to Taranaki a few weeks ago, she decided to give herself a weekend of budgetless spending. Many of us would fly off the leash and leave the bank balance bleeding for months. Not Webster.
She had a few coffees out and found herself resenting that $3.50 brew.
"I should have taken a flask of coffee with me."
Webster's not a preacher about saving for a nest egg. She encourages people to treat themselves to a new dress or tickets to a concert. Her new book, Pig Tits and Parsley Sauce, gives tips on how to save money so you can spend it on what you want.
Here's an excerpt:
Baking soda and white vinegar
I went out flatting at age 18 and started buying my own groceries. I was 42 by the time I finally realised that I could have used baking soda for almost all my home cleaning and personal grooming needs.
That was 24 years of spending literally thousands of dollars on toothpaste, shampoo, soap and plastic bottles containing various cleaning products for bathroom, kitchen, windows, floors, tiles - you name it, I probably bought the cleaning product for it. If only I had known I could take care of those needs with 25kg of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) at $1 a kilo and some white vinegar at $1 a litre, while keeping my cash in my own pocket.
Advertising has had a huge influence on my buying decisions. TV commercials encourage you to purchase everyday things to fix problems around the home, such as keeping the place looking and smelling clean; or to solve personal hygiene issues such as body odour, bad breath and unattractive hair.
The advertisers say they have the perfect solution for all of our problems, and they go to huge expense to deliver their message to us. Like lemmings we flock to the supermarket and buy, buy, buy all the products that we have been promised will make our lives easier.
Many of the solutions are packaged in attractively coloured plastic bottles and sold under a brand name. They are formulated with pleasing fragrances that allure the shopper and woo the olfactory senses to encourage them to buy again. We use these in our homes and on our bodies and we spend thousands of dollars in our efforts to make ourselves and our homes look and smell nice. We are being led by the nose to buy chemical cocktails that we know little about.
But the good news is we don't have to buy these expensive products.
I'm kicking myself that it took so long for me to discover the joys of baking soda and white vinegar.
Actually, I am annoyed that I fell for all the marketing and branding hype and gave all my money away for all that time. The only saving grace is that I can carry on for the rest of my life keeping my hard-earned money in my own pocket instead of giving it away to the faceless manufacturers who have been ripping me off for years. And I can try to teach my kids the error of my ways so they don't fall into the brands and marketing trap.
Homemade cleaning products are not sexy. To be honest, I'm bored stiff with tips and hints and intense, hairy-armpitted women telling me to add a drop of eucalyptus oil to my laundry and some teatree oil to my all-purpose cleaner.
I'm busy. Housework is annoying enough without adding to the workload by having to make a whole lot of stuff yourself. I want to get on with life . . .
But it doesn't have to be like that.
When I first started taking an interest in keeping my grocery spend down to $100 a week, there was obviously no room in the budget for overpriced and overrated branded cleaning products. If we ran out of toothpaste, shampoo and laundry powder in the same week, then there was around $25 less we had to spend on food - and let's face it, when you are only living on $100 - or even $75 a week, you want to get as much food in as possible.
Wise people suggested to me that baking soda was a cheaper solution to most home-cleaning problems. Most people know you can clean some surfaces with baking soda, and some people know it gets rid of many odours - but baking soda has so many more uses than that.
Here's a list of some products we do not buy any more because we use baking soda instead.
A 25kg bag lasts us for over a year and, when you see all the jobs it does, you will realise what extraordinarily good value for money baking soda is.
Because I use baking soda to get the job done, I no longer buy:
❏ facial cleanser
❏ bathroom cleaner
❏ kitchen cleaner
❏ silver cleaner
❏ kitty litter
❏ fabric softener
❏ stain remover
❏ foot powder
❏ carpet cleaner
❏ toilet cleaner . . .
There is no need to learn fancy recipes or add drops of essential oils or fragrances - just sprinkle on the baking soda straight from the packet and get the job done. What could be simpler? Get a copy of Vicki Lansky's books, Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun & Frugal Uses You've Probably Never Thought of and Vinegar: Over 400 Various, Versatile & Very Good Uses You've Probably Never Thought of - both available from pigtitsandparsleysauce.co.nz.
For some reason, people try to make things more complicated than necessary. I say, keep it simple.
There is no point in throwing a whole lot of money at a simple home-cleaning problem. Try to solve the problem with a simple, cheap solution using baking soda or a similar ingredient. If it does not work, you have lost nothing. If it does work - and invariably it will - you have saved a packet.
Baking soda for washing hair
I have used baking soda instead of shampoo since 2009. Once you stop using commercial shampoo, you'll never want to buy it again. We are inundated with advertising selling us the virtues of various brands of shampoo. The models in the shampoo ads have impossibly beautiful hair, so shiny and lustrous and fake . . . No one's hair really looks like that.
We are trained to think our hair has individual needs that can be categorised into dry, oily and in-between. Flyaway, split ends, even the dreaded dandruff, all can be solved by throwing good money at a plastic bottle filled with man-made chemicals. The chemicals are disguised with pretty colours and fragrances which we put on our own hair and our children's.
Sometimes a hairdresser would talk me into a more expensive brand of shampoo; other times I would get it from the supermarket shelves. All came in a plastic bottle, which I would throw away when it was empty.
I have talked to some mothers who buy a range of shampoos: they have their "special" expensive version that the hairdresser recommended, the kids and husband have some cheap supermarket brand, and the teenage daughter has to have something else again. That is a lot of expense for clean hair.
The first time I washed my hair with baking soda, I thought I had lost my mind. I was rubbing this white powder into my wet hair, and of course it wasn't frothing up because it is only baking soda. It felt a bit weird, very different from using shampoo. It was easy enough to rub the baking soda in and massage it through my hair and scalp.
Once I rinsed it out, I could already feel that my hair felt clean and soft. I followed up the baking soda wash with a rinse of white vinegar, sprayed on using a spray bottle. The vinegar acts as a conditioner.
Once I had massaged the vinegar in, I could feel it was having that conditioning effect and my hair would be easy to style after washing. I immediately knew I was on to a good thing.
- Reproduced with permission from Pig Tits and Parsley Sauce, by Lyn Webster. Published by Penguin Group NZ. RRP $30. Copyright © Lyn Webster, 2013
Is it ever OK to complain about other people's kids?Related story: (See story)