How should a cheapskate invest his money during uncertain economic times? Stash it in a mattress? Bury it in the backyard? I’m not going to give you advice about investing in stocks, bonds, gold or real estate. I don’t give investment advice, nor am I qualified to do so. I give advice about living a better life by spending and consuming less.
See also: Retirement planning for cheapskates.
But since the economy imploded and the value of a typical 401(k) has dropped faster than a cheapskate bending over to pick up loose change on a sidewalk, I have been thinking a lot about the investing side of personal finance. In this New Economy, I think the smart money is on investing in things that decrease your cost of living, as opposed to things that you hope will increase your net worth.
In the New Economy, maybe the question should be: How much will this investment save me? Not: How much will this investment earn me? Maybe it’s time to invest more in ourselves, equip ourselves to live more self-sufficiently, and take stock in ourselves, rather than continue to speculate and worry about the performance of our stock portfolios.
In this spirit of financial independence, here are six surefire investments that will save you money and make you more self-sufficient:
- Energy efficiency and generation: You don’t need to have a degree in economics to realize that energy — particularly petroleum-based energy — is only going to keep getting more expensive as supplies dwindle. Installing programmable thermostats at home, consolidating car trips to save gas are easy changes. You could spend more and buy a hybrid vehicle, Energy Star appliances, and solar or geothermal home energy systems. Investing in things that reduce energy consumption or help you generate your own energy are almost always smart money moves. And there’s a tank full of federal and state tax incentives to encourage consumers to do just that.
- Tools: I’ve always said that when shopping for tools, don’t be cheap. You should generally buy the best that you can possibly afford. Your do-it-yourself projects will be easier, more and enjoyable and turn out better if you are working with high-quality tools. Follow this rule for buying quality power and hand tools, kitchen knives, gardening implements and sewing machines. By making the frontend investment in quality tools, you’ll be motivated to take on more projects yourself and save even more. I’m seeing some of the lowest prices on tools and building supplies that I’ve seen in years.
- Education/skills: With unemployment hovering around double digits, skills and knowledge can make the difference between a paycheck and an unemployment line. Whether it’s going back to school to pick up some classes to bolster your resume, or just taking some non-credit classes to learn a new skill so that you can do more things for yourself, America’s 1,600 community colleges are likely to be where you’ll find the best value for your tuition dollars.
- Paying down debt: In my opinion, the greatest asset you can have in the New Economy isn’t something you own, but rather something you don’t own: DEBT. With the uncertain job market and current investment climate, I think paying off debt — including aggressively paying down your home mortgage — is the smartest investment you can make. Since the start of the recession, smart consumers have been doing just that. We’ve been borrowing less and we’ve raised the personal savings rate to a respectable 6 percent.
- Now that’s a growth fund: Here’s a prediction that you can take to the bank: Food prices are going to continue to increase. Start raising more of your own food by planting a backyard vegetable garden. If you don’t have space, look for a community garden in your area where you can tend your own plot. Or, try planting a few veggies in containers or alongside the petunias in your flowerbed. Invest in planting a few trees around the yard while you’re at it. Not only will they increase your home’s value, but according to the U.S. Department of Energy planting as few as three strategically placed trees in your yard can reduce your heating and cooling expenses by up to 20 percent.
- Health/fitness: Regardless of your views on health care reform, you can’t lose if you start taking better care of your own health. Getting and staying fit doesn’t need to cost a lot, and it can save you some serious money. Some of the healthiest foods you can eat happen to cost the least — often under $1 a pound — if you shop smart. And if you are creative about how you exercise, you can skip the expensive health club membership, which will save you even more.
There’s an old cheapskate saying: The surest way to double your money is to fold it in half and put it back in your wallet. Particularly in this New Economy, investing in things that save you money and make you more self-sufficient is the best way I know to protect your financial future.
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.