It’s hip to be frugal

We must be in a recession because even Oprah’s cutting back. When the talk show maven scaled down her famous and extremely popular “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode last winter, it really hit-everyone, including celebrities, is finding new ways to save money in these tough economic times.

Although famous figureheads may have only recently jumped on the bandwagon, the frugal movement is not terribly new. Christine Escobar, an editor of Green Parent Chicago and Evanston mom, has been frugal for almost nine years since she was pregnant with her oldest child.

“I have always considered myself a resourceful person,” Escobar says. “When my son was born and I decided to stay home instead of go back to work it was tough. We hadn’t saved up much at that point. So I tried to make the most of what I have.”

But now with the stock market at its lowest level in years, frugality is all around us. All the latest magazines have tips on how to save. Vacation companies are offering vacations without really going anywhere. Foodie Web sites are offering up weekly menu plans so consumers only buy what they need at the store.

And just look at the New Oxford American Dictionary’s most popular words of 2008. At the top of the list? The term “frugalista, a person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc.”

No matter where you look, the message is clear: It’s hip to save.

If you’re newer to the frugal movement, however, learning to change your spending habits can be daunting. Sifting through coupons can be a chore and price comparison shopping is time consuming.

Since Escobar lives “green,” she comes by her frugalness naturally.

“When we shop, we purchase at thrift stores or resale shops, take advantage of friends’ hand-me-downs and use Freecycle ( as much as possible,” Escobar says. “When I purchase

something, I try to think: Is this replacing something broken, do we already own something similar, will this be useful in the long run and how will we dispose of it when we no longer need it?”

Sarah Bane of Chesterton, Ind., is using similar cues. When Bane had her first child, Asher, four months ago, she found her expenses increasing but her desire to spend decreasing. Bane then made a decision to drastically change her family’s lifestyle.

“My husband drives about 500 miles each week for work, so we decided to trade in our Altima for a Prius. We’re now only spending $35 in gas each week,” Bane says.

In addition, Bane hasn’t showered her new son with clothes and toys.

“I buy almost all of Asher’s baby clothes at a children’s consignment boutique. The rest are gifts or hand-me-downs; I’m lucky to be friends with some great moms of little boys.”

Living frugally can also mean paying attention to the small stuff.

Lindsey Gell, who lives in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, recently had her son’s third birthday party at the local Chuck E. Cheese and says she saved on the party’s expense by cutting coupons from the weekly paper.

“You can’t go to Chuck E. Cheese without coupons,” Gell says. “They are everywhere and we saved a ton.”

Moms are also scaling back their costs by cooking at home, doubling the recipe and then saving the leftovers, having more play dates at home and reducing babysitters’ hours.

“My husband and I aren’t going out as much on the weekends anymore,” says Patricia Blee, a stay-at-home mom of two in Chicago. “We cut our sitters’ hours in half to save more money. A night out, plus paying the sitter can cost over $200.”

When moms cut back on spending, though, it’s the retailers who cater to moms that feel the pinch.

Brooke Palmer of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, who owns My Little Pumpkin, a children’s clothing line, has seen a downward shift in her clients’ spending habits.

“We used to have people buy five items at a time who now are only buying two,” Palmer says. “We do a lot of gift business as well, and now people who would typically buy $100 worth of gifts in the past are only buying $75 worth. People are just cutting back where they can.”

But some retailers say moms are still spending on their kids.

Randi Valenta, a mom and co-owner of the popular Roscoe Village boutique Little Threads, says that “while we’re down from last year, children’s boutiques are a unique retail category. You still need to buy clothes for your kids.”

Valenta admits, though, that the spending isn’t what it used to be.

“Accessories are down at least 30 percent this year,” Valenta says. “Moms will buy the expensive dress but don’t feel they need the boutique tights to go with it. Even I’ll skip buying expensive pajamas and stock up at Target or Old Navy instead.”

But when times are tough and money is tight, everyone must re-evaluate what they do and do not need. And sometimes going frugal means going without.

“The one thing I really want now, but can’t justify, is a gym membership,” Bane says. “Maybe next year things will get a little better.”

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