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Money-saving strategies taken to the max

Katy Wolk-Stanley from Portland, Ore., hasn't bought much new in five years. She did it by shopping at thrift shops and using store credits, and explains how being frugal helped her pay off $20,000 in credit card debt

What’s more extreme than buying a cartful of groceries with nothing more than a few bucks and a sheaf of coupons? How about not buying food at all — for an entire month?

 "In January, I don’t spend any money on food," said Beth McAfee-Hallman, who blogs about her adventures in extreme savings at OneFabulousMama.com. Buying baking supplies in bulk and preserving her own fruits and veggies gives her a stockpile, and she barters her baked goods for wild turkey, venison and eggs. "So if I have to scrap my grocery budget, I can do that," she said.

Kristen Cross of the blog TheFrugalGirl.com said that when her family was in what she termed "stay-afloat mode" several years ago, deregulation had her scrambling for a solution to skyrocketing utilities bills. "I spray-painted gallon milk bottles black and filled them with water and put them on my deck in the sun ... and I used that for the kids’ bath water and washing dishes," she said. "The water actually got pretty hot." 

Could you go 5 years without buying anything new? This mom did

This might sound radical, but for some Americans, it's a way of life. Extreme couponing is practically an Olympic sport these days, but frugal living bloggers are playing the X Games of savings.

The guiding principle of the extreme saving community is “The Compact.” Started by a group of friends in 2006, it’s a pledge to refrain from buying anything new for one full year. There are a few exceptions like food and "non-couture or ornamental" underwear, but it's a pretty radical departure from typical American consumption patterns.

Extreme savers draw a distinction between themselves and hard-core couponers. Although both groups aim to save money, they take opposite paths to reach that goal.

"Deal blogs are kind of like, 'Buy this, buy this' — really, you don’t need to go shopping," Cross said. "It's sort of a more pared-down, less consumer-y way of saving money."

"My most intense efforts lie in trying to stay away from buying new stuff," said Katy Wolk-Stanley, whose website TheNonConsumerAdvocate.com has the tag line, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without." 

"I’m totally fine having two pairs of jeans and five pairs of shoes," Wolk-Stanley said.

Some extreme savers have frugality ingrained into them from a young age. Growing up, "There was very little to go around," said McAfee-Hallman. "The image of Little House in the Big Woods, as the family prepared for winter and their attic was stocked — that made a lasting impression on me as a very hungry little girl," she said.

Other frugal living devotees came into the notion later in life. 

Katy Wolk-Stanley thought she could go a month without buying anything new. Five years later, she's continuing her "non-consumer" lifestyle, based on borrowing and buying used. NBC's Kristen Dahlgren reports, and Stanley talks about how her frugality has affected her life.

Finding herself $20,000 in debt in February 2008, Natalie McNeal swore off discretionary expenditures like dining out, hair appointments and manicures. “I saved $400 and a light bulb went on,” said McNeal, who launched the blog TheFrugalista.com and later followed up with a book about her embrace of the frugal-living lifestyle.

 It wasn't always easy, she said. "Before becoming a frugalista, I never cooked at home ... I knew maybe like two dishes." To keep her commitment, McNeal said she wound up eating tortilla chips and salsa for dinner some nights.

Eating at home and shopping at thrift stores are just the tip of the iceberg for extreme savers. Even when most Americans would probably relegate something to the trash, they practice the art of salvaging.

 "Say one of my kids came home from school and their binder had broken," said Sara Tetreault, who blogs at at GoGingham.com, "We'd take out the cardboard and the metal spine, because those components get recycled ... instead of just automatically thinking 'I need to throw this in the trash can.'"

When McNeal's bed, which had been damaged by movers, collapsed one day, "I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I can’t pay to have it fixed,'" she said. "I went to Lowe's and got a $3 cinder block so I could prop up the corner, and you’d never know."

 "I used to waste a lot of food and I had these piles of food in front of me and I was like, 'I’m so embarrassed,'" Cross said. She started taking pictures of her weekly fridge clean-outs, hoping that sharing her piles of wilted veggies and abandoned leftovers would motivate her to waste less. 

Tetreault took an an even harder line against trash for her family of four, paring back garbage pickup to once a month. Although the cost difference with weekly pickup is "negligible," Tetreault said she saves on the back end because the question of what to do with the packaging deters her from buying new things. 

Monthly trash pickup? People who take a commitment to living frugally concede that the "ick" factor is an occupational hazard.

"In the hot months, our garbage gets really smelly and I do think, 'Oh man, why do we do this again?'" Tetreault said.

"I would always buy generic diapers," said Amy Suardi, blogger at Frugal-Mama.com and mother of four kids. "Yeah, sure I had to clean a lot of blowouts, but I thought that was just part of being a mother of a baby … That's a lot of what frugal living is — it's doing it the hard way."

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