99 Days At The 99¢ Store, WEEK FOUR: Buying Christmas Presents For 11 People On A Serious Budget

At this point, I’m a Picasso sketch of my former self. It’s grim -- I’m basically down to a big nose and a tweaked out left eye. I’m just hoping my family recognizes me when they scoop me up from the airport.

Dec 28, 2012 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

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Last week I was taken with the intoxication of holiday shindigs, swept up in the free-flowing merriment, but this week Christmas has kicked my ass. I had to do things that required much budgetary rumination -- gift shopping and planning my trip to Minnesota -- and there wasn’t a pick-me-up to be found.

I’m broken down. At this point, I’m a Picasso sketch of my former self. It’s grim -- I’m basically down to a big nose and a tweaked out left eye. I’m just hoping my family recognizes me when they scoop me up from the airport.

Before we unwrap my seasonal anxiety, though, I want to take a moment to recognize that today marks of end the 4th week in this 14 week challenge -- that’s almost a third of the way done! As a celebration of this milestone, I did some number crunching to compare these past 4 weeks of frugality to the 4 weeks prior to beginning this experiment.

This is what I found: 

  1. In the past 4 weeks on the program, my discretionary spending has totaled $597.07 from 31 separate purchases -- and that’s including presents, my half of a dinner party, gas, and etc.
  2. In the 4 weeks pre-experiment, my discretionary spending came to $1757.35 from 71 separate purchases. Basically, if I had the money, I spent it.
  3. Left to my own devices, my spending habits are horrendous and I should not be allowed in non-99¢ marketplaces unattended.

Essentially this project has amounted to a 66% reduction in spending. I also made 56% fewer purchases in these last 4 weeks, so I’m saving time as well as money. And the unsustainability factor was duly noted during the reconstruction of my spending for the pre-99¢ weeks.  

I’ve never been one to splurge on clothes or hairdos, but what I hadn’t realized is that spending exorbitant amounts on 7-Eleven purchases or eating out is just as frivolous and wasteful. The worst part is I’m not a trustafarian, there’s nothing upper crusty about my access to money -- I’m wasting my own blood, sweat, and tears here!

My parents are public school teachers, I have three younger brothers, and I grew up in rural Minnesota. I was well aware when I moved out to Los Angeles a little over five years ago that there was no monetary assistance available for me, that I was going to have to hustle my dreams into accessibility all on my own. Luckily, necessity is a terrific mother hen and I wound up getting really creative -- that, and working a lot of shitty jobs.

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Recently, L.A. was named the 4th least affordable U.S. city for middle class families by the Center for Housing Policy and Center for Neighborhood Technology. Now I’m not claiming that my dog and I fit their definition of family, but I can attest that this place does have a way of bringing people to their knees. (Cough.)  

Some of my survival ventures have been: guinea pigging myself out in the name of scientific research and a free Pap smear, background acting (the absolute worst movie experience one can have), putting myself in weird pseudo-sexual situations as a “promotional model,” managing an apartment building in exchange for a rent adjustment and perpetual migraines, and living in a closet-sized bachelor with my then-boyfriend for $420/month (cheapest rent in town!) and thereby bulldozing that relationship.

Much to my chagrin, this list goes on and on. And while each of these endeavors deserves its own article, the point is -- I’ve made my own way. I could save myself a lot of heartache on the employment end by just doing a better job of making sacrifices on the spending side, which I guess was the motivation for this challenge from the beginning.  

As promised, I’m living my life as frugally as possible. I’m not attempting to emulate poverty, though I support those challenges, too. My goal in this is to curtail extraneous spending in a reflective manner, and hopefully that will be a habit that has seeped into my bedrock by the end of these 99 days.

But back to the "present" task at hand -- showing your loved ones how much they mean to you through the gifting of material possessions, otherwise known as the source of my anxiety or more colloquially: fuck my life.

There were a few circumstantial perimeters to my gift giving. First off, I’ll be flying home and, to save myself 25 bucks, I won’t be checking a bag. Therefore, liquids over 3 ounces, breakables, and large items were excluded, which I found to be a significant limitation to my 99¢ Store options. I couldn’t just throw assorted items in a jar or a basket, toss a couple Christmas bulbs in the mix, and call it day. That would have been ideal were my family in L.A., but I had to consider what would travel well. 

Plus, my list of recipients includes the woman who bore me and the boy I make pillow talk with, obviously highly deserving of presents they actually enjoy, so I made a Christmas budget for myself based on rule #2: If a needed item is not available at the 99¢ Store, determine a creative economical solution. I needed to buy for 11 people -- my mom, dad, 3 brothers, 2 grandmas, grandpa, boyfriend, and boyfriend’s parents -- so I set the non-99¢ Store budget at $110, an average of $10 each.  

I also decided that in the name of this extra expense I would go through my closet and take a load to the secondhand store for some cash; however, that part of the plan did not go as I’d hoped. I took in a laundry basket full of what I thought were nice threads and I got a lot of rejection and $12.25 in return. AHHH, F*&#ING HIPSTERS!!!

 Anyway, I wound up spending $108.52, beating my budget by $1.48. I did some minor regifting, got a few of the items from 99¢ Store, and I feel really good about the outcome:

Mom & Dad: My parents love getting into serial TV shows, so I got them Homeland: The Complete First Season through Amazon. The DVD set was 53% off list price and I had it shipped directly to my parents’ house for free with their Super Saver shipping. I’m also regifting my mom a leather jacket -- I’d been lusting after a secondhand motorcycle cut and was given a blazer instead. I couldn’t quite make it work on me, but I know she’ll love it! 

Jordan: Professionally my brother is a first-year social studies teacher and personally he’s a longtime liberal hard-liner, so I got him a 1-year subscription to Mother Jones for a mere $9.95. 

Matt & Ben: I went to Amoeba in Hollywood and got my two youngest brothers each a previously owned DVD that I think they’ll be into. For Matt I got Born to Boogie, a T. Rex concert film, and for Ben, The Velvet Underground’s Under Review. 

G’ma Betty: This woman had nine kids! So most importantly, I’m giving her a public commendation -- everyone please take a moment for her and women like her. As far as tangible gifts, she’s getting a scarf (regift), fuzzy socks, and a Lady of Guadalupe candle. My own beliefs aside, it was fun to buy a Jesus candle for someone who will appreciate it unironically.

G’ma Marge: Fresh books are great, but used ones are even better -- reading "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" cemented my feelings on this matter. I already gave that book to my mom for her birthday, but I’m giving my grandma two others from my personal collection: "The Lovely Bones" and "The Giver." I also got her two bags of nuts from the 99¢ Store -- almonds and pistachios, her favorites.

G’pa Joe: My grandpa used to be a farmer and now he loves to tool around in his shed. I have no idea what type of wrench he’s been wanting, so instead I got him a nice Champion long-sleeved shirt for $11.25. This was another Amazon find, so I got the free shipping, as well.

Boyfriend: He’s been such a trooper, it’s unfortunate he’s getting the shaft on this. He has a birthday in April, though, and I’m going to make that celebration extra special. I can’t divulge too much on his ‘for now’ gift because we’re not exchanging until New Year’s, but he’s getting one 99¢ item and one thing homemade with love.

Boyfriend’s Parents: I went online and got his folks a subscription to Mental Floss. But since I’m not going to see them over the holidays, I wanted to give them something tangible, too, so I got the December issue and mailed it along with a card. I used a plain notecard from my stash and planned ahead enough in advance that I could send it via regular post. 

I hope I’m able to update you next week with how smashingly I did at playing Santa -- or, less enthusiastically, about my psychotic break and subsequent Klonopin prescription. In the meantime, enjoy "Love Actually," "A Christmas Story," "Die Hard," or -- for Christ’s sake go outside and do something active! It’s not just the season for eating! 

(Just kidding, pretty good impression of your favorite aunt though, right?!)

Follow me every penny-pinching step of the way on Twitter: @courtneykocak.

Posted in Issues, money, dollar stores