How America’s Thriftiest Families Save Money

photo by Sister72

Yesterday’s edition of Parade magazine that came with our Sunday paper had an interesting cover story:  How America’s Thriftiest Families Save Money.  I enjoy reading about how other families are saving money, and was eager to read through the story.  Like most things, I found a few points to agree and disagree with, but for the most part it sounded similar to our own family’s plan to learn how to save money every month.

Things We Have in Common With the Heinz Family

The Heinz family also apparently likes to hit the $1 movie theater, and when they do, they like to sneak in a few treats.  Whether sneaking candy into a theater qualifies as frugal or cheap was the subject of a hot debate here at Frugal Dad just a couple weeks ago.  We’ve done it ourselves on occasion, but the last couple times we saw a movie we just ordered a popcorn and drink to share.  It’s hard to beat movie popcorn, and no more frequently than we go it isn’t exactly a budget-buster.

Near the end of the article Mrs. Heinz lamented not being able to afford to send her kids to science camp.  In the past we’ve made some tough decisions about skipping summer vacations (which we’ve done this summer), passing on trips, etc.  While I admire their frugality, I must confess sometimes I wonder if we are making the right decision.  After all, think of the memories created on family vacations, summer camps, etc.  Life is to be enjoyed, and despite the costs, we should all stop and smell the roses from time to time.

Where We are Different

They got a $4,000 tax refund.  According to the article, the Heinz family “purposefully overcontribute to get a yearly windfall” in the form of a tax refund.  No way we are loaning the government $333 a month interest free just to get a “windfall.”  That $333 could be used to pay down debts or saved and invested.  Both of the these approaches would yield higher returns than sending it to the government for 12 months.

The Heinz family rescued a television from the trash.  We haven’t been that lucky in trash finds, but it isn’t like we have gone looking either.  I just don’t like the idea of going through other people’s trash.  It feels like an invasion of privacy.  I recognize that is just a hang-up on my part, and if the people are willing to throw it away they probably don’t care who looks at it.  Still, I am just not into dumpster-diving as a way to save money.  I did retrieve three pair of roller blades in fairly good condition from a neighbor’s curb once.  Unfortunately, they didn’t fit anyone in our household, but three of my wife’s cousins were happy to put them to use!

The differences between the Heinz family and ours are a good example of a philosophy I share with Dave Ramseypersonal finance is personal.  What works for well for one family may not work so well for another.  You know your family’s situation best, so take any advice you read or hear and scrutinize it to make sure it fits with your personal situation.  There is no shortage of people willing to share ideas on how to save money, but ultimately you are the one that has to live with yourself and your decisions.


  1. I read that Parade article as well. I thought the article could have given some more examples of what families do to save money, but overall helped to continue to motivate my family in living the frugal way!

  2. I’m with you on dumpster diving. Not my idea of a great time, still, what you said is spot on: personal finance IS personal.

    Nice to see that Parade is highlighting something like this.

  3. Is it THE Heinz family?

    hehe…just joking.

    Still magazine articles like this will certainly be useful to some others. Open their eyes to tactics used by other families to cut costs and waste.

  4. I am planning to sit down and read that with my morning coffee. I can’t imagine overcontributing to get a windfall- that is one thrifty measure that doesn’t seem thrifty to me- but I would love a windfall too 🙂 Thanks for the reminder about that article.

  5. I enjoyed this post… diverted to here from simplemom’s link. Great post! I agree about the family vacations… while getting into deep hock over a fancy getaway doesn’t make sense, there are many ways to make a cheap holiday great, while splurging on a few fun things. I think the key is a balance. To create memories, sometimes you have to be deliberate, and just go.

    We happen to have a great town dump… it’s clean and is an excellent place to scavenge for things like scrap iron for my DH’s projects, tires for trailers, even our BBQ! It pays to keep your eyes open and your pride in check. Dumpster diving would be a bit of a stretch even for me.

  6. Depends on where ya live. Apartment Complex/Highrise.. yea dumpster diving is pretty unpleasant. But not always necessary. I’ve gotten some serviceable furniture from -next- to dumpsters when living in an apartment.
    Recycling other folk’s trash is ALOT easier in suburbia. Practically every stick of furniture and major appliance I own was picked up off someone’s driveway. People in my neighborhood regularly throw away pretty good couches, chairs, TVs, microwaves, washer/dryer sets that require tiny repairs, entertainment centers, computers I can salvage for parts…just to name a few.
    Heck, it’s practically an industry here. The garbage men won’t pickup un-destroyed large items. But there is a Junk Man who roams once a week or so to pickup large metal appliances. I don’t bother to recycle my massive usage of beer cans, but the Can Lady is more than happy to do that for me.
    I think the main aversion to ‘garbage recycling’ is you worrying about what other people will think of you, rather than..eww nasty garbage. But I usually find this to not be the case. It’s not like yer searching for food or stale beer. When my roommate and I went to pickup some items that were in ambiguous locations…not sure if it was free for the taking…and we were drunk and it was after dark and we needed an alibi for why we were walking down the street with a handcart and a waterheater(Yes, we did get a free waterheater once). We’d ask the homeowner and they always loved us for getting that crap off their property. Most time they even tell us what’s broken, how to possibly fix it, and why they’re not bothering to do so. The garbage dudes love us for taking smaller items like microwaves and TVs cause they don’t havta pick it up, they got plenty. Since they don’t pickup furniture, the homeowners are always happy when we cart it off their front lawn.
    Guess the moral is: Take any free stuff you can find, cause there is alot out there for the taking. Specially if you have big dogs that tend to destroy things 😉

  7. Two points:

    1) Depending on where you live and the local statutes, going through someone’s garbage may be illegal. The items aren’t yours, it’s on someone else’s property and many times isn’t technically considered “garbage” until it is placed in the dump or landfill. Fortunately, many people don’t worry about the laws surrounding garbage in the same way they don’t worry about coming to a 100% complete stop at all stop signs. (Don’t deny it, we’ve all done it.)

    2) Activities and vacations for the kids are one of those expenses that should definitely be considered heavily. A child’s life and possible direction in adult life is greatly shaped by their experiences during childhood. Speaking from experience, I really wish I could’ve played sports or a musical instrument as a child, but my parents couldn’t afford the equipment and (possible) insurance fees. I can’t say what I would have done differently because of it, but who knows. A science camp or other educational recreation could be setting your child up for a great career choice when they reach adulthood. And for many people, some of the best memories they have are those crazy vacations to see wonderful things.

  8. In New York City it’s very common to salvage good furniture that has been left on the sidewalk. I’ve done it, and I’ve left stuff out for others. Of course, there are hygiene issues with some furniture — particularly with the bedbug problem in NYC — so it’s best to be very discerning. But if I were to see a nice lamp or end table on the curb near my building, I wouldn’t think twice about rescuing it from going to the landfill.

  9. Instead of going to the dump, have you ever heard of Freecycle? *much easier* Check it out – it’s a local Yahoo! group based network of people offering stuff they no longer want for the purpose of keeping it out of the dump!

    Hit or miss but my wife finally really “got it” when she picked up a complete mint condition wood bed and mattress for our 2yr old toddler. She only had to paint it…

  10. I think pulling cans from someone else’s recycling and bringing your own snacks to the movies are both, technically, not cheap, not frugal, but stealing. Most, if not all, theaters have rules that you can’t bring food in. Cities make a lot of money recycling cans … oftentimes, money that helps fund other recycling programs. (Our city has explicit statements on the recycling carts that you may not scavenge in others’ bins for cans, etc.)

    Trash picking, well, barring legal concerns — it’s a GREAT way to find and reuse items others no longer need. We have a fire pit, front porch bench, fancy clock, folding table, cement, planters and I don’t know what else, taken from trash or “free” piles left out for that purpose. If in doubt, we ring the doorbell and double check with the owner to keep it ethical.

  11. I enjoyed reading this article and seeing what measures other families across the country are taking to save money. However, I do think that some of the actions of these families can be classified much more accurately as being cheap as opposed to practicing simple living and frugality. There is a big difference. And I think that paying too much in taxes to get a big check in April is absurd and a poor financial decision overall. It’s funny that a family that can save so much daily through being frugal has to employ this method in order to actually “save.”

  12. I use Freecycle all the time. It’s pretty popular in my town and so is the group for my county. I am going to get an older yet perfectly working tv for my basement rec room today from a fellow freecycler so I can vary my home workouts on hot days.

    I also have my son go to camp 3 days a week as well as preschool and I can use my husband’s flexible spending account to pay for it and save 20% because I work part time for myself the days he is in school/camp.

    I would rarely skimp on a learning experience for my son, there are ways to get around paying full price for many programs if you qualify financially, use flex spending or find free or subsidized mini-camps. I feel what you learn as a child stays with you throughout life. Maybe it’s my area I live in but I can always find fun, free events to go to as a family or even free camp or music days for my son that are geared for his age.

  13. LOVE your blog! I happened over by way of Simple Mom and your “guest spot”. I will be back!!!


    Frugal wanna Be!

  14. I was excited to see the topic covered in the national media as well, and I thought the article following it about “Bargains that aren’t” was also interesting. I’m a fan of Freecycle as well, but have gone to what was affectionately referred to as the “town mall” to check out things that were given a second chance with another family. This town was a wealthy one next door to ours, and you could often find useful treasures there. Love your blog!

  15. Hi! I recently moved from the town that Thrift shop (in the photo) was in. They closed down, but it was a really cool thrift shop. How cool to see it in your blog. -Becky in NJ
    (Time & Again was in Atlantic Highlands, NJ)

  16. I have the same hangup with dumpster diving (or rather, curb cruising). I really feel like I’m stealing someone else’s stuff and invading their property as long as it’s still in front of their house.

  17. there should be a better term than dumpster diving, I’ve known quite a few people who have managed to salvage loads of good building materials from the dump. Why buy new when you can get if for free???

  18. I am glad you mentioned your decision to get the WII. Being smart about money doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life, it’s just about priorities and not wasting it on things that don’t matter.

    I just struggled for a month about getting the new 3G iPhone and this post helped me get some peace with it. There are so many features that will increase my efficiency, and allow me to be paperless, and I will really enjoy it. And after going down to basic cable, clipping coupons, and carpooling, I can afford it.

    Cutting out the waste allows you to have some things that you and your family can enjoy. I think it’s okay to splurge if you can afford it!

  19. I read the article and the 8 pages of comments and comments on the comments (slow Sunday afternoon) one theme came out consistently. Sneaking food into a movie theater is stealing and I don’t understand that at all. I commented that it’s a very American (and Canadian) thing to do! Like most people I always buy the movie popcorn, usually a medium size (which is too big anyways) and the Wife and I share. Is that stealing too?

  20. I am trying to figure out why they only got $4000 back from income tax? They have 4 kids which are automatically $1000 each, then because of their household income they qualified for the child tax credit, they are married and of course their standard deductions. They also overly contribute to get the windfall. So why aren’t they getting more money. They should get about 6k to 8k back. I am married with 2 boys, dont contribute, do not get the child tax credit, married, standard deductions, no extra contributions and I get $4500 back. Something isnt right.