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You can live well — on the cheap
The entryway of Anna Gehrken’s Martinsville home does more than just welcome visitors. It also demonstrates what can be accomplished on a shoestring budget. The cabinet cost $5, and the mirror cost $2. Gehrken sprayed silver paint over the geometric design on the mirror frame. To reduce the shine of the silver, she covered it with a dry-brush technique: She dabbed a paint brush in a dark varnish, then wiped the varnish off the brush. That left just a touch of color which, when painted on the mirror, gave a subdued effect. The cabinet had so much water damage most of its varnish was removed. That made it easy to sand down the cabinet before priming and painting it. The pair of lamps costs $7 at the Community Storehouse. The lamp Gehrken is holding has its original shade, and the lamp on the cabinet has a shade she bought new locally for $6. Being thrifty doesn’t apply just to furniture — Gehrken purchased the dress she is wearing at a local returned good store for just $2.80. (Bulletin photo by Holly Kozelsky)
You don’t have to make a lot of money to live well. You just may have to plan a little better.
That’s the message of Anna Gehrken, who took on a three-month experiment to see how frugally she could live. She organized her effort in four categories: groceries, health, home and clothing.
She was happily surprised at her results.
“If you put forth the effort, you can live a wonderful, frugal lifestyle,” Gehrken said — “and nobody would know it.”
That went for members of her book club, Entre Nous. She hosted their most recent meeting at her home, where she shared the results of her experiment.
To kick off the meeting, she announced that three of the women were wearing outfits that cost less than $3.50. The women all looked at each other, but none could guess who it was, she said. It ended up being Lynnie Mitchell, in a $2 dress from a local returned goods store, and Debbie Lewis, who has bought her Trina Turk dress for $2, on sale at a close-out store. The dress Gehrken was wearing cost her $2.80 at a local returned goods store.
“We had a ball,” Gehrken said, adding that the refreshments she served were made from ingredients purchased at super discounts.
Gehrken had to live frugally during much of her life, she said. She was a single mother with two children — and no child support or alimony.
For 25 years, Gehrken represented a number of textile mills selling their products. She started working at American of Martinsville and eventually was based out of High Point, N.C., she said.
She and her husband, Andrew, met through mutual friends. He is a urologist in Martinsville. When they married eight years ago, she moved back to Martinsville.
She and her husband now have a blended family of five children, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren.
In fact, their children were a major part of her inspiration to take on this project. Around Christmas, she began to wonder if they appreciated the value of things or took what they had for granted. That’s when she started looking closely at the value of the dollar, and how far it could be stretched.
“You can live a wonderful life on a frugal budget,” she concluded.
“There’s no shame in a frugal lifestyle,” Gehrken said. Rather, taking care in spending is a sign of responsibility. “We have an obligation of being a good steward, considerate of ourselves and our environment. When we don’t live within our means, we drive up prices for everybody else.”
Most people “would rather have something new and flashy rather than something they can afford,” she said. “My point is they can have both — they just have to work a bit harder to get it.”
At five months and 17 months of age, the two grandchildren have made Gehrken’s experiment a lot of fun. She has enjoyed trawling the aisles of Goodwill, Salvation Army and Community Storehouse to get them clothes, she said. Some of her great finds include a pristine Lilly Pulitzer dress for $3, some lovely smock dresses for $2, a Levi denim jacket for $3 and a Gap shirt for $2.
When it comes to herself, Gehrken is a fan of the Dillards close-out store in Oak Hollow Mall in High Point, N.C. She recently bought a $259 Trina Turk dress for $18. She also was delighted at near give-away prices on dresses for herself at the J.C. Penney Returned Goods store here.
Throughout the stately Gehrken home in Druid Hills are several pieces of furniture and accessories Anna Gehrken bought at local thrift shops for $5 or less. After some repainting and other touches, the pieces fit right in with her home’s stylish decor. Any visitor would be hard-pressed to figure which were the thrift-shop finds.
In her family room is a cheerful country-style shelving cabinet that serves double duty as a side table. A coating of red paint and a glass shelf turned it from an old floor-model TV she found in a trash bin into a lovely piece that contributes to the stylish yet relaxed look of the room.
The foyer is anchored by an ivory cabinet by the front door. It holds a flower vase, a collection of brass candlesticks and an antique-looking lamp. Above it is a large mirror. It makes for an impressive welcome into her home. The cabinet, mirror and lamp cost her just $18.
The cabinet was in such bad shape when she bought it that most of its finish was worn off. That only made it easier for Gehrken to sand down the cabinet before repainting it. The mirror’s frame had an ugly geometric design which was covered easily with a coat of paint. The lamp just needed a new shade to bring it from dingy to stylish.
Her tips on refurbishing furniture to suit your home:
• Prepare it to accept paint by either sanding it or wiping it down once or twice with mineral spirits.
• Paint the furniture.
• To give the furniture a distressed look (or to get rid of a glaring “newness”), lightly sand some of the edges to replicate normal wear. The look adds dimension and personality to pieces.
• It’s easy to paint both wood and metal furniture, lamps and frames with metal spray paint. To reduce the shine, brush a bit of contrasting stain (she used walnut stain) over it using the dry brush technique. That involves dipping a dry paint brush into stain, wiping the stain off the brush and running the brush over the surface. Alternatively, you could go over it with a glaze.
She said that it is acceptable to ask clerks at consignment stores if the price shown is the best deal or if they can do better. It’s important to be polite to the store employees and to tip whoever helps load your vehicle. Never argue with other customers over the same pieces, she added.
To get the real deals on groceries, combine store specials with coupons, Gehrken said. She combines newspaper coupons with those she gets online.
Getting the best deal with a coupon involves what you may think of as the opposite — using your coupon to buy the smallest size of a product allowed, instead of a large. That results in a lower price per quantity.
Accumulating a pile of coupons is called stockpiling. Take the stockpile to the store, and buy as much as you want or need. Leave any extra coupons next to the products they are for as a courtesy to other shoppers, she said.
That is part of the “lingo and an etiquette to couponing,” Gehrken said.
By becoming proficient in couponing, you can get used to prices such as $1 for deodorant, 75 cents for toothpaste and $1.50 for name-brand shampoo, she said. Here are some examples:
• Gehrken got accustomed to paying no more than $3 for detergents. She has 37 bottles and boxes of detergents stored in her basement.
• Gehrken’s experiment certainly fulfilled her coffee quota for the year. The brand she normally drinks, Eight O’Clock Bean Coffee, usually costs $6.99 at most stores and $4.99 at one local store, she said. She bought 44 bags of that coffee for $2.99. They are stored on her basement shelves, in a refrigerator and in a chest freezer.
• She also has plenty of deodorant in stock. She got small sizes of Suave deodorant at a local store which doubles coupons. When the deodorant was on sale for about $1, she used a 50 cent coupon — which the store doubled — to get the deodorant free. Her total receipt for five deodorants (the maximum allowed) was 13 cents.
• Coupons in last week’s newspaper took 75 cents off Colgate toothpaste. That was on sale at a local store for $1, “so my toothpaste cost 25 cents,” she said. A three-pack of Ivory soap costs $1.24, and with a coupon for $1 she got it for 24 cents.
• A brand of frozen vegetables Gehrken likes normally costs $2.19 per package. She got a coupon for 50 cents off two of those packages and shopped at a store which redeems double coupon value. That store had the vegetables on special at 10 for $10. After using her coupons, those $2.19 vegetables cost 50 cents each.
She pulled out other examples, such as name brand diced tomatoes, which normally cost $1.08, for 29 cents, and 59 cents for pre-packaged rice which normally costs more than $1. Her husband’s favorite Kashi cereal, which costs about $4, was purchased for $1.14 each.
Sure, it takes a lot of attention to coordinate the coupons with store specials. Fortunately, “the more you do it, the easier it gets,” Gehrken said. Her coupons are organized in a binder with clear baseball card pockets to keep them separated.
Gehrken said that once you get familiar with the cyclical nature of sales and specials, the savings become easier to predict. “Typically, store specials last two weeks,” she said. Also, in many categories, the major brands take turns discounting their products. Just hang on to the coupons for those products until it’s that product’s turn to be marked down.
This super shopper also has noticed that most stores mark down meat every morning at 9 a.m. They often do another reduction just before 4 p.m.
She made a list of the top 15 grocery items she buys each week. Normally, they would cost her $169.36. During the time of her experiment, she got them for $118.14. That’s a savings of $1,417.68 per year — no small potatoes for a family trying to make ends meet, she said.
Gehrken said that with a little homework, it should be possible to buy the medicines you need for lower prices.
“There is a coupon for almost anything,” Gehrken said, and prescription medicines are no exception. “Every major manufacturer of drugs has some kind of discount available that’s online,” she added.
Pharmacies do, too, when it comes to generic versions. Gehrken’s family uses a program at a local pharmacy which sells any of a long list of generic prescriptions for $11.99 for a three-month supply.
She compared prices: $25 per month for pills at a regular price adds up to $300 a year, whereas $4 per month for the generic version of the same is $48 per year. “That (difference) is huge for a family,” she said.
Gehrken suggests asking your doctor if the medicine you’re on is available in a generic version and, if so, to write the prescription for a three-month supply.
That program is “is for anybody,” she said. “It’s not need-based.”
Also, “many companies have a program where they will subsidize your medications,” she said. Just call the manufacturer and ask.
For dental care, go to a teaching clinic, Gehrken suggested. For years, she took her children to have their teeth cleaned at Guilford (N.C.) Technical Community College for just $5 each. It’s also possible to get braces at a clinic, she added.
In fact, many services, such as haircuts, can go through schools for a low price.
“If you can’t afford proper health care and don’t qualify for need-based assistance, there is somewhere you can go” to be taken care of, Gehrken said. “You just have to put forth the effort to find out.”