Family Finance: Putting frugal efforts to the test

NEW YORK (AP) ? There’s nothing like hard times to make you rethink some of your habits.

The fallout from the Great Recession has led countless Americans to replace their free-spending ways with more frugal measures. Although clipping coupons or canning vegetables may appeal for a short time, sooner or later, even devoted tightwads will wonder whether they’re really saving any money?

That’s where Trent Hamm steps in.

Inspired in part by a discussion on the Facebook page for his personal finance blog, “The Simple Dollar,” Hamm does the math so that you don’t have to.

For his “Saving Pennies or Dollars” column, he calculates the costs of steps that he and his frugal readers take to save cash. Does using a space heater and keeping the house temperature low really save money? Is it cheaper to print photos at home or have them done at a store? Which are more economical, traditional, compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs?

Hamm calculates the costs and compares the savings.

Sometimes, the results surprise him. For instance, is it more economical to use the dishwasher or hand wash dishes?

Hamm assumed washing by hand would be a lot less expensive. Although he found the extra cost of using the machine was about 63 cents per load of dishes, when factoring in the value of the time spent washing dishes by hand, the savings only amounted to about $3.80 per hour. That’s not, in his view, enough savings to make the time spent worthwhile. (He tends to set the mark for “worth-the-effort” around $5 per hour.)

Like many of these columns, his findings generated two dozen comments from readers debating their accuracy and telling their own stories.

Most of the actions he tests ? even rinsing and reusing Ziploc bags and making homemade laundry detergent ? turn out to be money savers.

“The only real question is, ‘Is that worth the time?'” he said. “If you’re only saving $1 for an hour worth of effort, most people aren’t going to do it.”

These days, it seems frugality has come out of the closet.

More than 275 personal finance bloggers showed up for a recent conference in Chicago, representing all walks of life from the self-taught to the professional money manager. Some of their sites have a narrow focus like mutual fund investing or healthcare savings, but a large portion simply aim to encourage readers to live low-cost and debt-free.

That’s a far cry from 1996, when Gary Foreman started his website “The Dollar Stretcher” before “blog” was a household word. Even five years ago, Foreman said, he didn’t have much competition.

Of course, before there were blogs ? a term coined around 1998 ? there were books and newsletters that emphasized frugality. Among the most popular was, “The Tightwad Gazette,” a newsletter by Amy Dacyczyn, produced from 1990 to 1996.

The big difference Foreman sees today isn’t so much in the advice, it’s the audience. When he was starting out online, the folks who sought thrifty tips fell into two categories: those who had fallen on hard times and those who saw frugal living as a movement.

“Now there’s a much greater interest at all levels,” he said.

In fact, it’s almost trendy to be a tightwad.

“People who wouldn’t be caught dead buying clothes in a thrift store five years ago now look at that as part of their lifestyle,” Foreman said. “Where we had conspicuous consumption, now we have some people who are conspicuously thrifty.”

The shift, of course, can be attributed to the economy. During the housing boom, Foreman said, “If you made a financial mistake, you just refinanced the house and extended your mortgage. Rising home prices covered all sins.”

With that avenue shut down and many households now searching for ways to cut back, these sites are drawing in a cadre of the newly committed thrifty. And these readers want to know which efforts are worthwhile.

Hamm devotes a portion of his site to telling his own story of transformation from a free-spending yuppie to a debt-free, stay-at-home dad. He said he finds it worthwhile to ponder almost every aspect of life that involves spending.

“If you don’t question all these little things in your life, you’re not going to change the big flow of your life,” he said.

That’s the real conclusion of his calculations, he said. “The big picture is that all the little things you do are worth questioning.”