Perhaps you've just moved to a new community, and haven't yet had a chance to familiarize yourself with the area. Or perhaps you've lived in the same place for years, but have never fully explored all the resources and bargains available around you. Either way, it's never too early (or too late) to inventory your community, and compile your own customized Resource/Bargain Directory.
You'll need to gather a few simple tools to start conducting and recording your research. You'll need an area phone book, a community map (if you don't have one already, you may be able to pick one up for free at a local Tourist Information Bureau or Chamber of Commerce), any local free newspapers, and a small spiral-bound notebook.
If you are a brand new resident, start your research by introducing yourself to the neighbors. If you're feeling a little shy about marching up to a stranger's door, find some pretext. Ask for directions to the local library or the name of the kid who hires himself out to cut grass, and then let the conversation go from there. Getting to know the people who live around you is an important part of learning about and becoming integrated into your new community. If you're lucky, it could also be the beginning of a mutually beneficial economic relationship. Think swapping babysitting if you and your neighbors have kids, or trading house or pet-watching responsibilities if you're both seniors who travel occasionally.You'll have to gently feel out your new neighbors for their "frugality factor." If it becomes obvious as you talk that they love a bargain as much as you do, then rejoice! You've hit pay dirt! Ask where they shop for groceries, where they buy gas, where the best bargains in town are hidden. If they aren't the bargain connoisseurs you were hoping to meet, you'll have to carry on with your own diligent research.
If you're new to the area, you might want to consider inviting your local Welcome Wagon hostess for a visit. She may not know where the rock bottom bargains are either, but she'll bring free gifts and special offers from local merchants. She should also be able to answer some general questions about your new community.
Now that you've gotten through the basic introductions, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get down to the real research. Divide your notebook into categories, such as food, clothing, home furnishings, services, entertainment, and health and beauty products. Next, use the yellow pages and your map to compile a list of businesses and organizations in each category that are within a reasonable travelling distance from your home. You may continue some of your research from home using the phone (comparing prices for specific products or services for example), but most of your research will be conducted out in the field.
When researching businesses under the food category, don't limit yourself to grocery stores. Start with the big box stores if you like, but check out the other alternatives as well. In my community, the big box stores offer the best bargains on certain staples, but other items are cheaper on sale at the mid-size grocery stores. I buy most of my fruit and vegetables at a nearby produce market, and I stock up on and freeze bread from a local bakery outlet. Asian specialty stores offer bargains on some spices, noodles and vegetarian foods I like. Make notes on what you find at each store to guide you on future shopping expeditions. (Don't forget to make a note of each store's hours and phone number as well).
When conducting research in the clothing or home furnishing categories, you might want to investigate factory outlets, liquidators, second-hand stores, consignment stores, and charity thrift stores. Doing some in-depth, exhaustive research in this category could pay you back handsomely. When you're in a thrift store, ask other shoppers if they know of any other stores worth checking out. I've found some of my best bargains in two local hole-in-the-wall shops that aren't advertised anywhere except by word of mouth. Remember, all second-hand stores are not created equal. In my town, there are a number of places where you'll find amazing steals if you're willing to wade through piles of rubbish to find your treasure. There are also stores that cost a little more, but offer a consistently high quality selection. Over time, you might also want to make a note of annual or semi-annual clearances at department stores, or really good rummage sales at churches, schools or other community organizations.
When researching services (hairdressing, automotive, dentistry, etc.), it pays to do your research in advance. In addition to looking for recommendations and doing price comparisons on conventional providers of these services, you might also want to check out local schools and training organizations. In my town, it's possible to get your hair cut and curled, your fingernails manicured, your teeth cleaned, or your brakes checked by students of vocational programs. They get practice and experience under the guidance of an instructor, and you get a significant discount. You might also want to list any bartering possibilities. I baby-sit a friend's children periodically, and in exchange, she cuts and highlights my hair.
The library is my first listing under the entertainment category. I'm a bookworm, and I use my library's request system constantly. I look up the books I want to read from the comfort of my own computer, request them on-line, and then wait for a call from my local branch when they're in. I've also made notes on which video stores have the cheapest rentals, and which move their movies from the more expensive "new release" category to the 7-day rental category the quickest. Your notebook might also list matinee specials at local movie or live theatres, schedules and special discount sessions at community swimming pools or skating rinks, and cheap or free community events.
And the list goes on. Depending on your circumstances, you might want to check out who has the lowest prices for pet supplies or mis-tinted paint, where you can get generic drugs, or who offers the cheapest garden supplies. And as you're driving around doing your research, don't forget to check out gas prices in different parts of town.
When you're finished compiling the information you've collected, you'll have an invaluable directory to the best deals in town. A well-organized copy of your directory would make a wonderful gift to a frugal friend or the next new family in your neighborhood.
Rachel Muller is a freelance writer and the former author of two newspaper columns, one on frugal living, and the other on grassroots environmental issues. She lives with her husband and three school-aged daughters on Vancouver Island, Canada.
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