Pinching Pennies: The new austerity. Savings can mean sacrifice – or serendipity

By Errol Castens / NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau


Current downturns in income and concerns about future financial security have spurred Northeast Mississippians across the economic spectrum to find new ways to cut costs.
Especially for those who were struggling even when times were flush, lowering expenses is usually a matter of sacrifice, whether it means giving up cable TV or selling a beloved home.
For others, though, the effort to save money is a challenge to find ways to spend less while maintaining important elements of their lifestyles – homes, travel, hobbies, clothing or entertainment.
Tupelo poet Patricia Neely-Dorsey advises friends to be “Divas on a Dime” by shopping at thrift stores, consignment shops and garage sales.
“When I was younger, I spent crazy amounts of money on clothes,” said the former mental health worker. “In my 20s, it was nothing for me to spend $100 on a blouse or $150 on a sweater.”
Neely-Dorsey, author of “Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia,” said now her upper limit for even an evening gown is $10, but she aims to buy most items for 50 cents to $2.
“Most times I’ll be clothed from head to toe – dress, jacket, shoes and all – for less than $10,” she said.
Neely-Dorsey said it was years after she’d furnished her college apartment at garage sales that thrift clothing finally got her attention.
“I didn’t think of the clothing thing until I was in my church in Memphis. My friend would have clothes that were phenomenal, that she got at yard sales, and she’d paid something like 50 cents or a dollar,” she said. “Once you start, you really feel sorry for people who shop regular stores.”
The Tupelo native regularly features her finds on Facebook and has been urged to offer her “Diva on a Dime” insights as a book or a seminar.
“Thrift shopping is totally guilt-free shopping,” she said. “If you decide you don’t really like something after all, you can give it away; at 50 cents a shirt, you can afford to buy for your friends. And you’re usually supporting a good cause.”

Other life necessities
Grocery shopping hasn’t changed drastically with the economy, said Bob Knight, owner of Todd’s Big Star in Tupelo.
“People have got to eat,” he said. “Our sales have not fluctuated much in the past couple of years.”
One difference he suggested is perhaps even more careful use of specials, store brands and coupons by customers.
“We double coupons up to 49 cents, and we get pretty aggressive on (pricing) meats and perishable products,” he said. “Our brand is Best Choice, and we’d put it up against any national brand. We try to match the big boys on price and selection, and we have our own niche in the meats.”
Home repairs and remodeling are another area in which some people are saving money. David Shaw of Sneed’s Ace Hardware in Oxford sees a constant flow of homeowners coming in for tools, supplies and do-it-yourself advice.
“Do-it-yourself is kind of where the core of our business is,” he said. “I wouldn’t say people are doing so many big projects themselves, but more people are doing their own small projects.” He noted that after the recent cold and snow, some homeowners are repairing or protecting pipes who never had done plumbing before.
Sneed’s recently expanded its space and added a more complete, national-brand paint department.
“That’s attracted a lot of customers,” Shaw said. “We’ve got a lot of people redoing their houses by repainting the interior; it’s a good way to make a big difference without spending a lot.”
One “business” that’s booming from the economic pinch is libraries, both for entertainment and for business.
“We have seen some tremendous increases in our usage numbers over the past couple of years,” said Dee Hare, head librarian at the George E. Allen Library in Booneville. “Where we were averaging 6,000 items a month before 2009, now we’re averaging 9,000 or so.”
Fiction is especially popular among patrons.
“When titles come out at $30 or more, they’ll just wait and get them here for free,” Hare said. “More people are getting their movies from us, too.”
Computer use and wireless Internet connections draw many customers.
“Most points of the day we have a waiting list of people to use our computers,” Hare said. “And that’s not just for entertainment or education: A lot of people are using them to put in job applications and market their resumes.”

Hobbies, luxuries
Even in lean times, luxuries remain important to many people. John Juergens, a wine consultant from Oxford, said wine lovers simply change gears with economic changes.
“People are not drinking less; they’re just dropping down a notch,” he said. “If they’ve been drinking $20 wines, they’ll move to $13 or $15 bottles.”
Juergens, a retired pharmacy professor, said a glut of high-dollar wine can mean bargains in big-city shops and online.
“During the recession there have been a lot of websites set up to sell wine,” he said, noting 60 percent discounts. “They’re going to these wineries that have these backlogs of wine and buying them for pennies on the dollar.”
Juergens said some out-of-state winesellers ship to Mississippi since a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case overturned some other states’ wine-shipping prohibitions. The Department of Revenue, however, insists such shipments remain illegal in Mississippi.
When money is plentiful, many winebibbers relish the challenge of guessing which wines will age well and buying those for long keeping. Now, the pursuit is often of less expensive wines made for present-day enjoyment.
“Some of the big conglomerates in France and other parts of Europe saw this coming, and they started cranking out some really robust wines from Rhone, from Italy,” Juergens said. “They’re not made to be aged, but they’re really drinkable.”
Another luxury sensitive to the economy is travel. People still get the bug to go, but they’re finding ways to spend less. Camille Barkley of Barkley Travel says the New Albany-based tour bus company is seeing shorter charter trips in the past couple of years.
“They are going places closer to home,” Barkley said. “School groups are tending to go to Memphis and Birmingham instead of Disney World and Six Flags.”
The retail tours that Barkley Travel advertises to the public tend to be shorter and fewer while people are in an economizing mood. On a trip to Mackinac Island, Mich., for instance, “We’re cutting down the number of days and cutting a couple of attractions we would usually go to,” Barkley said. “The signups for our retail tours are still going pretty well. I think people are hungry to get out and travel again.”
Jeff Lambert of Global Travel in Tupelo is seeing similar phenomena with air and cruise destinations.
“In the last year, Disney has done everything from free parking to free gate passes to get people in,” he said. “Carnival cruises out of Mobile and New Orleans have picked up in the last two years. People can easily drive down instead of flying.”
When Lambert visited New York in December 2009, he noticed crowds were down and discounts were up. At the same time this year, “It was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, everywhere you went,” he said.
“It’s like some people are saying, ‘OK, we didn’t travel for a year, but now we’ve just got to go somewhere,’” he said. “Now, maybe they’ll take a cruise ship out of Mobile instead of flying to Jamaica (as) before. They may not be spending as much or going as far, but they’re traveling again.”

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.