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Live frugally and bank the unspent cash

Biking to work is one way to save money, and add exercise to a healthy lifestyle.
Biking to work is one way to save money, and add exercise to a healthy lifestyle. Modesto Bee

Remember when life was simpler, people cooked for themselves, shopped less, mended old clothes and ate food grown in their gardens? That's how they managed to save.

Some people still live that way, even pride themselves on frugality. In a tough economy, many people tighten their budgets by simplifying their lives.

In times like these, the best thing you can do is build a nest egg, said Terry Swehla, a certified financial planner at Waypoint Financial Advisors in Modesto.

"Just concentrate on saving money. Try to do whatever you can to cut back and save a reserve," he said. "I don't tell people how to spend their money. I focus on how people can reduce financial risk. You do that by having different pools of money."

Swehla suggests planning for short-term, long-term and intermediate needs by saving for each need separately.

Three pools of savings:

Short term -- This is an emergency reserve to get your family through three to six months in case you were to lose your job.

Long term -- Retirement

Future -- Big, anticipated costs, such as education or a new car.

"Decide what's a need today and what's a desire today," Swehla added.

The need to save, for example, is more important than the desire for new jeans or going out for drinks.

Just because your jeans are fraying doesn't mean you need a new pair, said Nancy Diaz, a single mother of two and self-proclaimed cheapskate.

"I never buy clothes for full price. They're always on sale or secondhand," she said, sorting through spools of discounted thread at a craft store.

"I couldn't sew before I had kids. I bought a sewing machine at a yard sale and played with it until I could sew a decent patch," Diaz said. "I use cute fabric and my kids think it's supposed to look that way."

Sewing, gardening and preserving foods are cultural norms that have largely died out in mainstream American consumer society, but they are still alive among new immigrants, said Jennifer Helzer, a geographer at California State University, Stanislaus.

"We have a very diverse group of people here who make things not just for show. One way to find out how to get by when times are tough is to look at those people. It's part of their everyday routine and something we've gotten away from," she said. "Once you break that connection, I'm not sure people know how to get back."

But Diaz, 27, of Modesto is proving people can return to traditions to save for nontraditional things, like her children's education. She concedes she ignored her Nicaraguan mom's sewing lessons and regrets not watching her Mexican grandmother make tortillas, but she's teaching herself -- out of necessity.

Others prefer simplicity and traditional methods because they are plain, old frugal. That frugality has gained them financial success.

"I found people who are really, really rich are really, really tight," said Peggy Gardiner, who teaches homemaking courses at Modesto Junior College.

Before teaching others simple cleaning tips and household organization, Gardiner was an estate manager for people wealthy enough to need that sort of thing.

She learned it's easy to stretch a dollar when you rely on basic techniques, such as cleaning with vinegar and baking soda rather than name brand cleansers.

People would find they can save a lot of money and be much happier with their lives if they just kept it simple, Gardiner said.

You don't have to learn to sew to save a few bucks, said Jennifer Root, spokeswoman of Los Angeles-based ByDesign Financial Solutions, a personal finance consulting firm.

"A lot of people are making small changes, and those add up. Some people stopped cutting their hair. They're just letting it grow out," she said.

But there are some things few are willing to touch.

"Cable is one of the last things to go, even though it's one of the biggest unneeded expenses," Root said. "And downsizing to a less expensive car. We get a lot of resistance to that."

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at

or 578-2382.