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Counting pennies in the digital age

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Taylor Saggio began blogging about living cheaply in Boston about two months ago when she realized her methods of saving money could benefit others. (Taylor Saggio/scrimpBoston)

For Taylor Saggio, reducing her fiancé’s large amount of credit card debt while living on the commission-based salary he earns as a mutual fund salesman put her on a mission to cut costs any way she could. It’s time-consuming finding new ways to be frugal while being the full-time mom of an 8-month-old, but she bakes her own bread, makes her own cleaning supplies and packs a brown-bag lunch for her fiancé, Mike.

“Everything he makes goes out the door, so I’ve been trying to save as much as physically possible,” says Saggio, 23, adding that the young couple canceled their cable TV subscription, bought a prepaid cell phone and recently started unplugging all the appliances in the apartment to save money.

But they have not cut their high-speed Internet service because along with everything else on her plate, Saggio is the author of scrimpBoston, a nearly minute-by-minute online diary of her quest to pinch pennies.

As purses snap shut across the country, there is a class of people addicted to iPods and the Internet who only knew the boom years and for whom budgeting is largely a foreign concept. It is the generation that grew up in the 1990s and probably expected to live like their parents, if not better. But they are coming to terms with the reality of a historic recession, and they are carrying what some experts estimate is the highest level of personal debt of any young generation. Their future is insecure, and their spending habits may someday more closely resemble those of their Depression-era grandparents.

But if living frugally is suddenly in vogue, then documenting thrift on the blogosphere is a way to be hip. Suddenly there is an abundance of personal-finance blogs written by and for 20-somethings that celebrate (or bemoan) living frugally and share tips on how to manage a budget amid job insecurity and massive student loans.

“These people are very comfortable with sharing their deepest and darkest secrets on the Web,” says Gary Rudman of California-based GTR Consulting, which monitors trends in young people. “They are taking something that’s old, making it their own and making it new again.”

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, director of the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity at the Institute for American Values in New York City, adds that the Internet is just a way for 20-somethings to connect to other people struggling with the same problems. “Feeling like you’re not alone and building a kind of generational solidarity makes you have less despair, more energy about doing what has to be done and feeling like you’re not in this mess and everyone else is fine,” she says.

Saggio started scrimpBoston (scrimpboston.blogspot.com) earlier this year as a way to help fellow Bostonians navigate high city prices and show that living frugally can be fun. She posts recipes and frequently writes about an outdoor market where she buys fresh fruit. One recent post featured a map marking her favorite stalls so readers could maneuver through the crowds more easily. She explains how much money can be saved by cooking at home and the advantages—fewer chemicals and a larger supply—of making tomato sauce rather than buying it. Helpful photos accompany many of the blog entries; one uses a dime to illustrate what size onions should be.

“People are set in their ways and don’t even know this is a way to save some money,” says Saggio, who also writes about how to entertain on the cheap with recipes like party potato salad. “I want to motivate them.”

After little more than a month online, Saggio says that she has six regular followers and gets many hits. She posted advertisements for about a week, but after clicking through them to see what she was selling, she decided that the products weren’t worth her readers’ time.

Two popular food blogs—$5 Dinners (5dollardinners.com) and Leftover Queen (leftoverqueen.com)—make the most of local sales and offer tips about how to turn last night’s leftovers into today’s haute cuisine. Both blogs have large followings but different missions. Erin Chase, of Texas, started $5 Dinners in 2008 to inspire people “to start making meals of your own that are not only frugal, but most importantly healthy.” The Leftover Queen encourages readers to cook from scratch and not throw anything away.

Brandi Evans, 25, of Blacksburg, Va., and her husband, Nick, 27, began scrimping last summer when gas prices spiked. Now they save because they are worried Nick won’t find a job after receiving a Ph.D. this spring. Evans started writing Branappetit (branappetit.wordpress.com) in January because people repeatedly asked her for healthy recipes. Now she writes daily about what she and Nick eat. Recently she posted a picture of a delicious-looking wrap made from leftover barbecue tofu and offered advice about how to freeze leftover portions.

Evans estimated that she spends about two hours a day on the blog. She has one ad but is more interested in sharing than making a profit. Although she started blogging mainly for friends and family, Evans says a growing group of regular readers keep her motivated to continue.

Not all the blogs talk about cutting costs by focusing on reducing grocery bills. Living Simple (simplelivingdiva.blogspot.com), a blog written anonymously by a woman who calls herself the Simple Living Diva, chronicles a young couple in the suburbs of Philadelphia as they struggle to get by on one salary while using the second income to pay down student loans. The blog details daily and monthly expenditures while talking about how to create a working budget. The couple, who married about 18 months ago, create a weekly meal plan from sale circulars and are participating in a No Spending Day challenge in which bloggers try to not spend outside their budget for 100 days.

For the Simple Living Diva, who agreed to be interviewed only if her anonymity was protected, blogging in great detail about monthly expenditures is a way to be held accountable for her spending without having to discuss the oft touchy subject of finances with friends and family. Instead, she has developed an online support group of young, anonymous bloggers who encourage one other to stay thrifty.

“I’ll read just to see where they’re at and offer support,” she says of the other bloggers, “because most of the blogs I read, they are in the same boat we’re in.”

E-mail: hf2198@columbia.edu