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Myriad ways to save money raise a question: Are they all worth the time?

By Eileen AJ Connelly
Associated Press / December 21, 2011
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There’s nothing like hard times to make you rethink your habits.

The Great Recession’s fallout has led countless Americans to replace their free-spending ways with frugal measures. Clipping coupons may appeal for a short time, but sooner or later, even devoted tightwads will wonder whether they are really saving money. That’s where Trent Hamm steps in. At thesimpledollar.com he does the math so you don’t have to.

For his Saving Pennies or Dollars column, he calculates the costs of steps his readers take to save cash. Does using a space heater and keeping the house temperature low save money? Is it cheaper to print photos at home or at a store? Which are more economical, compact fluorescents or LED bulbs?

Sometimes, the results surprise him. For instance, Hamm assumed washing dishes by hand would be a lot less expensive. He found the extra cost of using the machine was about 63 cents per load. But factor in the value of the time spent washing dishes by hand, and the savings amounted only to about $3.80 per hour. That’s not, in his view, enough to make the time spent worthwhile. (He tends to set the mark for “worth-the-effort’’ at about $5 per hour.)

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.’’

It seems frugality has come out of the closet.

More than 275 personal finance bloggers showed up for a recent conference in Chicago. Some of their sites have a narrow focus, such as mutual fund investing or health care savings, but many simply aim to encourage readers to live low-cost and debt-free.

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, published from 1990 to 1996.

The big difference Foreman sees today is not so much in the advice, but in the audience. When he was starting out online, the folks who sought 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.

“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,’’ Gary Foreman said. He runs the Dollar Stretcher blog. “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.’’

Eileen AJ Connelly writes for the Associated Press.

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