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5 Ways to Simplify and Save

Written by Shirleen Holt

The economic crisis is forcing us to to slow our purchases or at least think about whether we need all that stuff.

As George Carlin would say, I need a place for my stuff.

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My closets are crammed with clothes for every season and every diet; the space under my bed is filled with Christmas decorations and my kitchen storage closet is so packed I had to put my George Foreman grill on top of my Italian coffee maker.

Am I richer for this stuff? No, I'm hostage to it. I'm gone 12 hours a day to earn the money to keep the house to hold the stuff. I'm not alone. There are millions of us who spent like drunken monkeys, only to wake up with a hangover of debt, guilt and pasta makers.

Perhaps this explains "simple living," the cultural movement that has us shedding our materialism in favor of a cleaner, cheaper life.

Watch this video of Stephen Covey on life priorities.

Actually there are two trends: the pious voluntary simplicity movement, which involves an element of austerity, poverty and deprivation, scolded one follower on an Internet message board); and "simple living," a concoction of Madison Avenue aimed at selling us more stuff so we can live simply. Think a $7,000 Akoya pearl necklace or antique tree stumps for eqully exhobitant prices.

Most of us fit between the extremes. We realize our lumbering SUVs were a gross waste of money, but there's no way we're giving up The Sopranos to save a few bucks on our cable bill.

So for the semi-committed, here are FIVE things that can make life simpler and cheaper.

1. Bag the clutter

A pot with a lid makes good rice. I discovered this when my rice cooker broke. Since then I've been on a tear, tossing into a donation box a mini Cuisinart, which never did chop right; an electric grill; a hand stick blender, which is different than a hand mixer, which I also tossed after buying an outrageously expensive KitchenAid mixer.

These things were supposed to make kitchen work simpler, but after pulling them out of the cupboard, plugging them in and then cleaning all the parts, the gadgets soon became, well, complicated. Instead I kept them in the cupboard and paid rent on the space they were taking up.

Out goes the second TV, an unnecessary luxury. I'm not advocating getting rid of television entirely. I'll leave that to the VS zealots. Out, too, is the desktop computer, a space-waster considering the laptop has the same functions.

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I even went through my photographs, which I've kept in processor envelopes for 10 years. Iget rid of the clutter to get clarity got rid of the blurry pictures, the unidentified subjects, the seven different shots of the Capitol building. I put them in photo albums and gave my desk drawers some breathing room.

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The beds-in-a-bag must go, although I cringe to think how much money I spent "saving money" on the cheap comforter sets, every one of which got ripped during the first washing.

The size 9 clothes are bagged and ready for Goodwill. If by some miracle I returned to that size, I had to face it: I'll never again wear high-waisted bell-bottoms with rainbow patches on the pockets.

2. Get a library card

I used to spend about $60 a month on books and another $40 renting movies. The books filled up my shelves and spilled onto just about every household surface.

You can justify holding a place for, say, a leather-bound collection of Shakespeare's tragedies or even The Lord of the Rings. But buying another bookshelf to hold Monica's Story, American Rhapsody and three different accounts of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster is even sillier than reading them.

Library cards are as cheap today as they were when we were kids, but now they give you access to enormous computer databases. So besides the wealth of books, you can download for free the kind of arcane articles that only used to be found through expensive Lexis-Nexis searches.

Most libraries are now on a computer network, allowing you to log on at home to see if the book you want is in. You can also renew via computer, saving an extra car trip.

Some libraries also let you check out videos. The selection depends on the branch, of course, but some progressive systems carry modern movies of all ratings but X.

3.Start an herb garden

Even if you rarely cook, you'll spend less money and time maintaining an outdoor herb garden than you will making those three trips to the store for fresh basil.

And you don't even need a yard. Some grocery stores, like Trader Joe's, sell mixed herbs in a flower pot that hangs outside. Unfortunately, I didn't repot the thing and all but one plant died.

Perennials like thyme, oregano and chives have a long growing season, provided they get a lot of sun (about six hours a day) and good soil drainage. Basil, dill and marjoram have a short growing season, which means you'll need to harvest and freeze or dry them at the first cold snap.


4.Borrow and barter

Communities have some great grassroots programs like skills banks and toy lending libraries that can save you money and hassle. You'll have to do your own homework to find if your town has either of these, or you can start one yourself.

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Toy lending libraries, in which parents donate the toys their kids have grown out of and check out others, are a good alternative to the Weeble graveyard in your kid's closet.

A skills bank is a clever way to barter services and get to know your neighbors as well. It works like this:

If you're a car mechanic, for example, you promise the "bank" you'll deposit, say, 20 hours of your services a week. In exchange you can withdraw 20 hours (or the dollar equivalent) of gardening, housecleaning, whatever, from another member, even if it isn't a direct swap.

I lived in a small town that had a vibrant skills bank. One single woman got her Volkswagen repaired by one member, which she repaid by sewing stuff for someone else. The volunteers liked each other so much the bank turned into a social club as well.

Skills banks, which are essentially barter exchanges without a profit motive, can be community wide or limited to a neighborhood, homeowners' association or club.

One caveat: The IRS considers barter income the same as cash, which means it's taxable.

5.Shop online

This isn't always cheaper than shopping the old-fashioned way, but it gets major points for convenience and thus, simplicity.

The time I used to spend banking, filing my taxes and shopping has been compressed into a few hours a month sitting in front of the computer. I pay bills online, shop for groceries, order gifts, send Christmas cards. I've even bought two cars online.

Grocery shopping through a service such as Fresh Direct is considerably more expensive than, say, Safeway and you don't get the benefit of coupon specials. Because your groceries are delivered to your door, however, you also don't have to give up a precious Saturday waiting in a checkout line.

Buying a car online is usually cheaper than buying it at a dealership and infinitely more pleasant.

If you've already test driven the car you want and you know the options you want, it takes about 10 minutes to order it from dealers online and another hour or so to complete all the paperwork. The company delivers the car usually within a week.

I calculated and filed my taxes online this year using TurboTax software and the Quicken Web site. Even with a lot of itemized expenses and deductions, it took four hours to fill out the federal and state forms and file them electronically. I got my refunds within 10 days.

I've had less luck shopping for clothes. In fact, I've ended up returning more items than I kept. They were too big or too small; the fabric all wrong; the color flat. Most online stores have generous return policies, but until they're willing to pick up the box from my doorstep, it's too much of a hassle to meet the simplicity rule.