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9/3/2009

News

Work those dollars!
How to survive in Orlando on a lot less money

 

Welcome to the new frugality, folks, where bling is no longer the thing. It’s OK to be cheap and totally cool to negotiate deals, clip coupons and boast about how much money you just saved on your car insurance.

As a survivor of this sour economy, I’ve become quite the miser. Here now, I share with you my tips for getting a whole lot more for a whole lot less, from the basics to high-tech comforts. Thrill to the pain (and strange satisfaction) of only being able to spend $25 on groceries for the week. And enjoy that one-of-a-kind wisdom that can only come from living at grandma’s house.

Gimme shelter

For most people, their biggest expense is their rent or mortgage. You either pay it or you become homeless. But what about some sort of housing assistance from the government? Orange County residents hoping to make use of Section 8 housing assistance or tenant-based rental assistance programs are certainly out of luck. According to the Housing and Urban Development website, they are not even taking applications for the waiting list. Any gluttons for punishment interested in pursuing Section 8 help are recommended to check the county’s website periodically for updates. Have fun with that.

There are other options, however, such as my favorite: Take up temporary residence at a friend’s or family member’s house. Visit for a month or three, and while you are there, help out around the house (painting, weeding, washing the dog, Scotchgarding the carpets).

Just don’t expect your hosts to feed you. Negotiate laundry and shower accommodations; maybe you can buy the soap as part of your exchange. Always wash in cold water and don’t use electric dryers -– hang your clothes up to dry. FYI, Walgreens has the overall best deals on laundry detergent; sort-of name brands are always on sale.

For other household items – nothing you want, everything you need – the Dollar Tree is your new BFF. Go ahead and get to know your neighborhood outlet or facsimile. But just because a store has “dollar” in the name, it doesn’t mean everything costs a buck – I’m talking to you, Dollar General. That’s why I stick with what works. Dollar Tree is legit (they have a website and a catalog). At “the Tree” you will find a few name brands among the generic versions of just about everything (dandruff shampoo, drain cleaner, spatulas, shower curtain liners, three-pack pot scrubbers, dog collars, school supplies, full-sized mops and brooms). Hell, I even spotted Paris Hilton’s CD next to the coloring books. All for a buck. For the hard-core, the supermarket-sized Dollar Tree on Colonial Drive even has extensive refrigerator and freezer sections and a much larger selection of dollar goodies than other outlets.

Wherever you are crashing, limit your power use as much as possible. Unplug everything you can; just because it’s not turned on doesn’t mean it’s not drawing a small amount of power. Try setting the thermostat at 80 degrees or more. (I said try.) Hand-wash dishes. Use a cooler for essential stuff, begging ice along the way from friends. Not storing up items that have to be kept cold is one of the benefits of being economically challenged.

There’s nothing to stop you from turning off your power completely for varying lengths of time. I’ve seen recent reports on The NewsHour highlighting families who’ve started powering off the entire house for a whole day each week with great success. These purposeful blackouts – which can save up to 15 percent per month off the electric bill – could be planned around work schedules or grocery runs. Make sure to unplug everything and shut down things properly before cutting off the juice, otherwise it could harm your appliances.

Use natural light or shake-’em-up flashlights (the rechargeable emergency type). Candles are good too, but need attention or you will find yourself getting to know your local fire department.

To help cut energy costs, the Orlando Utilities Commission offers free online home energy audits for residential customers. Grab one or two of your most recent power bills and head to www.ouc.com/home/audit.htm to get started. They have a lot of tips on how to save. Be patient through the lengthy questionnaire and click-throughs required.

Health care

When you are broke and without any type of insurance, one of the first things to say bye-bye to are regular doctor visits, meaning all preventative care goes out the window. That puts your health problems into one of two categories: over-the-counter–meds manageable, or I-feel-like-I’m-dying trips to the emergency room. Of course, if it is an emergency, you should go to the emergency room whether you have insurance or not. But poor folks tend to use emergency services as their only available means of care, which puts a strain on the system and makes it cost more no matter who ends up picking up the tab.

There is another solution, albeit not a pretty one, if you are not used to the cattle call that is free or low-cost health care. Orange County offers residents something they call the Primary Care Access Network. PCAN is a brilliant collaboration between the county, primary care centers, hospitals, community agencies and other social service agencies providing health care – including dental – for the underinsured. The great thing about PCAN is that you pay (or don’t pay) depending on your financial situation. Check the county’s website for more details.

While all of this sounds magically delicious, the reality is not so charming. Following the guidelines for my personal status, I ended up at Florida Hospital’s Community After Hours Clinic. I arrived moments after the place opened up and was shocked to see 50 people in line ahead of me, all crammed into a waiting room smaller than a standard master bedroom. Considering there were only three and a half hours till they closed up shop, my pain suddenly seemed not so important.

Food

If you are disciplined and open-minded, you can cut your food bill by 30 to 40 percent while still observing proper nutrition. The secret? Kick the name-brand groceries habit and shop at discount chains like Aldi or Save-A-Lot. Both make their own grocery items and charge significantly less for comparable foodstuffs. Example: $1.39 for 18 ounces of peanut butter at Aldi, as opposed to $2.39 for the generic equivalent at Publix. Although both Aldi and Save-A-Lot feature fresh meats and vegetables, Aldi is slightly more hip to diet trends and the organic movement, offering items like Fit & Active Organic Soy Milk (chocolate or vanilla) for $1.49 per quart. Save-A-Lot’s current crazy specials include three pounds of bananas for 69 cents and two bags (eight servings) of iceberg salad mix for $2. (See shopping list sidebar.)

If you must shop at the full-price grocery stores, a Rain Man–like mastery of coupons can save you a significant amount off your bill. The Sunday Orlando Sentinel can yield $30 to $40 worth of coupon savings each week. (The rest of the paper is suitable for training that new puppy.) Religious coupon use, combined with buy-one-get-one deals (made famous at Publix), can add up to savings as much as 10 percent or more.

As for warehouse stores like Sam’s Club, everybody I know who shops there ends up wasting amounts of food worth far more than what they saved by purchasing that five-gallon jug of tartar sauce. A comparison of prices at Sam’s Club showed that buying name-brand items by the pallet was not cheaper than buying the equivalent house brands at Aldi or Save-A-Lot.

But what if you don’t have any money for food? For those who can keep a roof over their heads but have no money left for life-sustaining nourishment, food stamps may be the answer. Getting free food from the Florida Department of Children and Families is not easy; there are strict eligibility requirements. To qualify, a household may not own any assets (other than a place to live) worth more than $2,000 and must have a total gross income less than or equal to 130 percent of the federal poverty level and net income less than or equal to 100 percent of the federal poverty level – $10,830 for a household of one. And by household, they mean everybody who lives there. Also, healthy adults can only get food stamps for three months over a three-year period; that is, if they haven’t been convicted of drug trafficking and aren’t running away from a felony warrant. Due to the financial situation of the other people living in my house, I didn’t qualify. Check the Florida Department of Children and Families website to see if you do.

While growing your own has long been a dream for many, it’s a lot of work to plant a garden that can grow something good enough to eat. Where do you start? The Orlando-based nonprofit Simple Living Institute promotes organic farming techniques with monthly meetings and a resourceful website, www.simpleliving institute.org, to help get your hands dirty. Not only is gardening relatively inexpensive, the resulting crops are much healthier than grocery store produce.

Clothing

For inexpensive clothing, get yourself over to Thriftko in Casselberry or the Salvation Army near the Central Florida Fairgrounds – my go-to favorites – or one of the many other fine thrift stores in and around Orlando. You will find that $20 will buy you a week’s worth of fairly decent clothes. After being washed a few dozen times in super-hot water – and I mean boil that shit – these used items are as good as brand-new.

Have to have new? Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart all regularly feature clearance racks with shirts, pants and jeans for $5 or less. And websites such as Craigslist (which also has a promising bartering section), Freecycle.com and Freesharing.org connect you with others offering all kinds of free used stuff, including clothing. Plus, you’re saving the planet by recycling items otherwise bound for the landfill.

Transportation

Sell your car and take the bus. Seriously, try it. It’s liberating, a true breaking of the shackles. That is, until you actually have to go somewhere. Then you’re forced to take the goddamn bus. And, believe me, everybody on the bus has been forced. The bus is all business, baby. But think about it: No more car payments. Or insurance premiums. Or repair bills. And no more dates, either, because you ride the bus now.

Fifty bucks will get you unlimited LYNX service for a month (available at Amscot, Albertson’s and Ace Cash Express locations and online at www.golynx.com) versus the $2-per-trip fee, whichever works out better for you.

Walking? Riding a bike? Taking a scooter? Noble pursuits all, and I applaud anyone willing to brave the elements. But let’s get real: Florida is far too hot and rainy to regularly utilize uninsulated transportation, especially if you are heading to work or meeting friends.

Those of you who must have a car might want to try the latest eco-craze, “hypermiling”: the art of maximizing mileage to its full legal potential by using super-efficient driving techniques, performing proper vehicle maintenance and lowering the vehicle’s weight. People spend way too much time on websites such as www.cleanmpg.com talking MPG and swapping stories and tricks, which range from the mundane (coast to stops) to full-on insanity (ride in the trunk). These mileage maniacs claim they can push cars into 50- to 200-mpg territory. AAA dubbed hypermiling “dangerous,” which should appeal to the rebel in you.

multimedia

There is no need to pay for the Internet – free Wi-Fi is all around you, whether you use a corporate sponsor (Panera Bread, Krystal), a mom-and-pop connection (Stardust Video and Coffee, Bad Ass Coffee) or your neighbor’s unsecured wireless modem. Can’t find any free hot spots? Let www.wififreespot.com give you a hand, or pick up a hot-spot locator like Hiro’s 2.4GHz Wi-Fi spotter/signal detector ($29.99). Use it. Abuse it.

Talk is cheap, they say. Obviously “they” haven’t seen a phone bill. There are several free-over-the-Internet software apps that allow you to talk without dropping coins into a slot (if you can find a pay phone, that is). I’ve been using the MagicJack – yes, that tiny USB phone port for computers you’ve been hearing about on TV that costs less than $20 a year. All that’s needed is an Internet connection and a regular phone (remember those?) and you’re in business. The occasional drop-outs and clicking noises are fine for friends and family – or ordering a pizza – but not swell enough for business use. Skype is also an excellent choice for free talkie, if you’re the nerdy type.

Cable or satellite television can be one of your biggest expenses. And $30 a month for Dish Network or DirecTV isn’t really that bad if you watch a lot of it, but you don’t need that. Practically all of your favorite shows are available free (and legal) online via Hulu.com or through the various network websites. Or you can do what I did for two years and watch free network TV, which has improved vastly since the digital conversion. Most other free TV methods, such as illegal converter boxes or bribing the cable man, are for those with brass balls the size of Idaho.

Get out more often

Part of being poor is keeping busy, so you can’t spend a lot of time thinking about how miserable your life really is. Besides, there are a surprising number of free activities in and around Orlando to keep even the poorest schlub entertained. Some of them even involve free booze.

Search the Orlando Weekly online calendar using the keyword “free.” Hundreds of events pop up, including the VBBQ vegan BBQ at Ethos Vegan Kitchen, Wine Not Wednesday (free wine and food tastings at Dechoes on Edgewater Drive), a Creedence Clearwater Revisited concert (Oct. 3 on Church Street) and more art shows than you can shake a stick at. On OW’s Enter to Win page, sign up to get your hands on a fair share of free movie screenings, concert tickets, DVDs and other promotional swag.

Besides having millions of books (remember those?) and magazines to read, the Orlando Public Library hosts a mother lode of free activities and performances as part of its regular programming (www.ocpl.info). And there are special events like the Orlando Hispanic Film Festival’s preview of The Edge of the Sea, a film exploring the privatization of public areas and excessive coastal development in Puerto Rico, followed by a Q&A session with director Maria Jose Calderon (7 p.m. Sept. 17).

Join fellow citizens for a Wii bit of fun when the library hosts an hourlong jam session on the latest Nintendo, PlayStation and Xbox hardware (3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8). Stick around, because later that night is the Last Jam, featuring music performed by the recent Battle of the Bands winner plus games and dancing. And for a cool solution on a hot afternoon, catch the Paul Newman tour de force Cool Hand Luke (1 p.m. Sept. 16). All events are free, but have your library card handy just in case.

The library also has thousands of CDs and DVDs, all for free. The best stuff is usually checked out, but get on the waiting list and kiss your Blockbuster/Netflix membership goodbye. Or download stuff from their website right to your iPod. The Orange County library is so awesome they will even deliver some materials to your doorstep for free via their Materials Access from Your Library (MAYL, get it?) program.

As for the pricey theme parks, who doesn’t know about Disney’s 2009 birthday deal that gives Florida residents a free day at the park? Simply register online (disney parks.disney.go.com) and you’ll get at least one birthday present. But there are other, grittier poor-man possibilities. Try heading to Black Hammock Adventures, where the big treat on Sunday afternoons is watching the “trainers” feed gators, including a 12-foot, 650-pound showstopper known as “Hammy.” There’s also island-themed music at the Lazy Gator bar on weekends. Yes, 100 percent Florida and all 100 percent free.

All this discounted living cramping your style, man? Relax … it’s not permanent. As long as you keep your hair cut (find a scissor-worthy friend or hit the beauty school) and keep your look tidy (shave, you Neanderthal), you will be fine for job interviews or meeting up with that online hookup. In the meantime, challenge yourself to be a master of frugality, a wizard of the wallet. For now, find your reward in the small victories.

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