'Frugalista' Seeks to Marry Chic and Cheap Blogger Natalie McNeal, once a promiscuous spender, took a vow of frugality in February. When March 1 rolled around, she was delighted to find that she had saved $400. McNeal discusses her ongoing quest to save cash — and how she's managing without manicures, eating out, and clothes she wanted, but doesn't really need.

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Is 16 dollars for a blouse a bargain or a budget-buster? For the "Frugalista," blogger Natalie McNeal, her purchase hit a nerve for some of her readers. They've been monitoring McNeal ever since she took a vow of frugality a couple of months ago. She was, she confessed, a promiscuous spender. Dinner here, a manicure there, soda and chips from the vending machine. All of it added up to the point where she could barely keep up, much less save.

But after her first month of thrifty living, she found she'd saved 400 dollars. Excited by her success, Natalie McNeal decided to keep that vow of frugality going through March, but eased up a bit on her strict no-spending rule. Her savings after the next 30 days, 200 dollars. The same month when she bought that 16-dollar blouse.

A splurge or a bargain? Can chic and cheap go together? We want to hear your stories. What have you done to keep your expenses down and your lifestyle up? Our number, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Natalie McNeal joins us from member station WLRN in Miami. And nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Ms. NATALIE MCNEAL (Blogger, "Frugalitista Files, themiamiherald.com): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: How are you doing?

Ms. MCNEAL: Great, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Now, you're almost at the end of April now. How is your vow of frugality doing?

Ms. MCNEAL : It's going pretty well. After I had that controversy on the blog about buying a 16-dollar shirt, I renewed my vows and I've been cooking a lot more, and things are going really well. We're on track to save about another 200 this month. And if I'm better about cooking next month, I think I'll save even more.

CONAN: But you're having to learn how to cook!

Ms. MCNEAL : Yes, a process as we go. February was really very good, the first month I took the vow. And my cooking got a lot better, but I need to expand the repertoire and try some different things. So yes, it's a process.

CONAN: What do you miss the most?

Ms. MCNEAL : Sometimes you miss just the spontaneity of just going out with your friends and going out, you know, going socially, maybe drinking, doing different things without a care in the world. You miss that part of it. But other things, you don't really miss it. Things are good. I don't miss having my bank account go down each day, that's for sure.

CONAN: Yeah, I was going to say, you don't miss the heart attack when you open your credit card statement, yeah.

Ms. MCNEAL : Exactly. So when you go over your bills, you see that - you know, things are a lot calmer now. So I definitely am enjoying that a lot more.

CONAN: Now, you, as I understand it, went on a blog to become the "Frugalista" in hopes that by going public with this, your readers would monitor you and hold your feet to the fire.

Ms. MCNEAL : Exactly. I had the idea, I'd seen other people who'd done - other journalists who'd done a no-buy month, when they didn't spend a lot of money. So I wanted to try the same thing, and I wanted to try it through my company, and blog for miamiherald.com because I thought that'd be a good way to get a wider audience and have that accountability. Because on my own, I try to cut back here or there, but by taking it public, by blogging about it every day, you have reader interaction and people give you tips and ideas, and you're able to build a community and kind of support one another.

CONAN: But "blousegate," as you called it, did that take you aback? I mean, some people thought that this was just going too far. Not that the blouse for 16 dollars was such a bad thing, but that, in fact, it was a start of a pattern.

Ms. MCNEAL : Exactly. I loved the blouse. I thought it was a great buy. I kind of pride myself on being a good shopper and finding good quality things for, you know, low prices. However, the message is, when you're being frugal, there are other things that you can do so that you don't have to spend money. Like, maybe I could have worn a shirt in my closet, or done other things. So people are just worried about staying on the frugal path and really making sure you have to let go of your cash.

CONAN: Now, in addition to your blogging, you also have a day job, a reporter for the Miami Herald. And I have some experience, a reporter's life can be hectic at times. How do you avoid the - well, going out for Thai food for lunch, that sort of thing?

Ms. MCNEAL: Well, you definitely have to plan your life a lot more, and so, I'm still working on it, it's a process. But you have to plan, OK, this is what I'm going to cook for the week, make a grocery store run on the weekend and try to cook enough so that you have enough food for lunch the next day. I mean, you definitely have to plan it. It's worth it in the long run, but it's definitely hard because you do live a busy lifestyle and you do live a hectic lifestyle. And one thing I've done is, not as many, like, sit-down dinners, so when I do order out, I kind of get less expensive food. But that's still good.

CONAN: In a way, you're not just talking about controlling your spending. You're talking about controlling your life.

Ms. MCNEAL: It's a lifestyle. I mean, my motto right now is I think frugal can be fabulous. So I've been cutting back. I've been able to save money and there was a free concert that Erica Badu threw at the Delano Hotel, which is a major hotel in Miami Beach. You just have to be creative and find ways to have a lot of fun but just do it for free. So find free events. They are out there, if you scour the Internet, for you to do, so you can still have a social life, but still watch your finances.

I went to New York for the weekend and I got my one of my best friends to buy into the frugal lifestyle, and we went to the Museum of Modern Art on a Friday night when it was free and that was like a great Friday night excursion. There were a lot of young people there having a good time. So you just have to be thoughtful, but you still have to have a life.

CONAN: And you point out, at one point, instead of going into a bar after work and ordering a round for everybody in your party, just go in and sip on the free cocktails.

Ms. MCNEAL: Exactly. When you are going out socially, you probably need to go a little bit earlier, get the "happy hour" specials. Or if you are going to a nightclub, get there before midnight because parking's going to be cheaper. You have to factor that in, also. And, you know, club promoters want to get people into their bars a lot earlier, so go before midnight. You know, you have to be creative. You know, go to the free events. Do different things and always have money at the back of your mind. It's not that you become obsessed with it, but whatever you're doing, I bet that there's a way for you do it a lot cheaper.

And you just have to have the faith that you can do it and work with other people to try to get that done. And yes, when you go to the bar, you need to get the "happy hour" special, and that's it.

CONAN: We're talking with the "Frugalista," Natalie McNeal, and if you're a "frugalista" or "frugalist" out there, give us a call. 1-800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Linda's on the line with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

LINDA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

LINDA: Well, I have to admit, I usually spend my lunch hour either at Taco Bell or eating the sandwich that I made myself, sitting in a parking lot, listening to your show. And I just delighted in my 99-cent lunch, the water that I brought myself and my free entertainment. And I just have to say, thank you. I'm another "fruglalista."

Ms. MCNEAL: Yay!

CONAN: And we're happy to provide your entertainment everyday.

LINDA: Thank you. Well, I'm sitting in Phoenix with the top down in my car so it's not a bad way to go, but it's a 99 or less-cent lunch and you're really helping my savings program.

CONAN: It's a beautiful day here in Washington, D.C. I hope it's as nice in Phoenix.

LINDA: Well, it's about 88 degrees so I'm getting a tan while I'm listening to both of you.

CONAN: OK. Thanks very much.

LINDA: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And good luck. Let's go now to Paul, Paul with us from Columbus, Ohio.

PUAL (Caller): Hi Neal, how you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thanks.

PAUL: I have probably one of your less popular activities in terms of being frugal, but it is kind of - can be rewarding. Trash picking.

CONAN: Trash picking.

PAUL: Yes, as in, you go out the night before a municipality suburb, whatever. I mean most of them have assigned trash days, I mean, it's not hard to find out. And, you know, hopefully, you've got either a moderately good-sized car, a pickup is ideal. You just look for the stuff people throw away.

CONAN: There are two varieties of trash in this world. There is wet trash and there is dry trash.

PAUL: I'm looking for your dry trash.

CONAN: Oh, good.

PAUL: Yeah, yeah, I don't dumpster-dive, I'm not looking for half-eaten meals. But it is absolutely astonishing what you can find. Within five miles of your house, you don't have to drive hundreds of miles...

CONAN: What's your best find in the trash heap?

PAUL: Oh, my best find? Within the last year, was probably circa 1870 doll's carriage complete with a folding, you know, not the shield, what you call a cover, you know, with a full mechanism. Steel, or not steel, but iron and wooden wheels on it. The original wicker and, let's see, the original cloth. It was - except for the fact that I needed to put a couple screws in it and find out a way to get the hood to work up and down without tearing the fabric, I picked it up for nothing. Sold it for 105 dollars.

CONAN: Natalie McNeal, have you ever found treasures in the trash?

Ms. MCNEAL: That's not so fabulous, but whatever works. But what I have found is treasure in my friends' closet. One of the big things I'm into is closet shopping. Like, if one of my girlfriends was moving apartments, so I helped her move and she had a pair of shoes that she had never worn and she didn't want them anymore, so I was able to get a pair of wedge sandals. And I know a lot of people, a lot of groups of women and some guys are getting together and saying, look, these are all the clothes I have. Do you want to try this out? Do you want to try this? And that's even cheaper than going to a thrift store.

CONAN: Sure, sort of pre-trash.

Ms. MCNEAL: Exactly.

PAUL: A fine method of recycling.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much and good luck on your next trash run.

PAUL: I shall, it's tonight.

Ms. MCNEAL: Oh, wow.

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye. Let's talk with Renee. Renee is with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

RENEE (Caller): Hello.


RENEE: I'm just commenting, I recently quit my job to stay home. I had a baby, so I'm cutting back on my spending. But it's been very interesting getting calls from the Neiman Marcus sales rep wondering where you are and why you haven't been in the store and they're always so nice when you go in there. And I just miss that so much.

CONAN: Do you miss it, too, Natalie?

Ms. MCNEAL: Well, I believe that you can pamper yourself, but you have to pamper in moderation. For instance, I used to get my hair done every other week and that would run about 70 dollars a month. Instead, I get my hair done and get a total work over with all the hair color and chemicals every six to eight weeks, and that only cost 80 dollars. And the other times either I do my hair at home or I have a friend of mine do my hair. So you can splurge, but you can't do it all the time. So, if you're used to going to Neiman Marcus, I mean that's a little pricey but...

RENEE: I don't think they have 16-dollar blouses at Neiman Marcus, so...

Ms. MCNEAL: Yeah, exactly, that's pretty pricey there, so... But it all depends on what your budget can allow. I mean, it just depends on how - every so often - like, I had a reader on my blog who wanted to buy a 27-dollar candle, which is pretty pricey for a candle. But if you put it in your miscellaneous file in your budget, maybe you can afford to do that. Just if you buy that candle, you know that may not be able to go out to eat or you have to cook for the rest of the week. You have to find out what's important to you and just focus on getting it some of the time, not all of the time. It doesn't have to be a way of life. It it has to be a treat.

RENEE: I can't put a price tag on the time I'm getting with my daughter, so I'm enjoying it. But I certainly do - there are definitely times I miss a great deal of the pampering I used to get. Or not pampering, but like you said, just being able, like you said, able to be a little more frivolous and a little less planning things out, so...

CONAN: Even those of us who - and thank you, Renee.

Ms. MCNEAL: Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck with you and your child.

RENEE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with the "Frugalista," Natalie McNeal. She writes the "Frugalitista Files" for themiamiherald.com and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go now to Jay, Jay is with is from St. Louis in Missouri.

JAY (Caller): Hi there. You know, Frugalista, I made a New Year's resolution a couple of years ago to lose some weight and that was very successful for me. I lost about 20 pounds. Now this year, I made a resolution to spend less money and I'm gaining all the weight back. I gained seven pounds since January. I have mutual exclusive resolutions, what do I do?

Ms. MCNEAL: Are you cooking?

JAY: I cook at home and when I cook, I cook good because I miss my eating out. I miss the Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters of the world, so I cook with cream and butter and all the good, yummy stuff. And I save money, but I take those dollars and just stick them right onto my flab.

Ms. MCNEAL: What about exercising? Do you live in a warm climate?

JAY: Oh man, I hate to exercise. You know, I don't exercise enough, that's for sure, but is there any way to balance being frugal and eating healthy at the same time? It just seems like it's so expensive to eat a good, healthy way.

Ms. MCNEAL: You probably have to do a little more portion control. That's probably the main thing. And then exercise. Since I've been becoming more frugal, there's a bank right by my house, so I'll just walk to the bank instead of getting in my car and driving there. There's a grocery store and if I don't have to get a lot of things, I will just walk there. So there's a little ways to help the environment by using less gas and saving on your gas bills, so maybe you can walk a little bit more, and then exercise can help, too. And then portion control. I'm not one to tell people, no, don't do this, don't do that, at all. I just believe in moderation.

JAY: Have you found what kind of things do you find that you like to cook that are cheap, that are still good for you and don't add to your pounds?

Ms. MCNEAL: Well, everything I cook - I don't cook a lot of pasta and I don't cook with a lot of cream, so that's what helps me out a lot. And actually, when I was cooking at home every day, I lost about four pounds so I'm sort of surprised your gaining weight. But what I've been cooking is a lot of stir-fry. I have a wok and I pretty much put everything in a wok, so that helps out a lot. And you know, a lot of chicken is pretty nice. I like a lot of seafood, so that's easy to deal with and, you know, it's not heavy. Salmon is good, fish. Chicken and fish is kind of good. That works out well, too. So I haven't had a problem. I'm kind of surprised your gaining weight. But I mean, do you need some more activities? Has cooking become like a sport to you? Do you need some other activities to sort of fill your time?

JAY: I have such a good time doing it and the food tastes so good when it comes out, I just can't quit eating.

Ms. MCNEAL: Do you invite friends over?

JAY: That's what I should do.

CONAN: There you go.

Ms. MCNEAL: Yes, invite your friends over so that way you can't eat up all the food and when it's gone, it's gone, and afterwards you all go for a walk.

JAY: I'll invite them and share my portions and then we'll all exercise together.

CONAN: Jay, sounds like a plan.

JAY: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And let's see if we can go to a last caller. This is Mariah, Mariah with us from Alameda in California.

MARIAH (Caller): That's right, hi.


MARIAH: Well, I'm wondering if you have a couple simple steps to get started becoming a "frugalista," because I would like to be and I am very much not. So I was wondering if you could help me just with a couple of steps. I often find it gets a little overwhelming because I feel I have to change my whole lifestyle, so what are a couple of ways to get going?

Ms. MCNEAL: Well, for me, and I was just like you, where I would try little things for a while, it would work, it wouldn't work, then cooking would get to be too much, so that's why I did a blog. And there's a lot of bloggers out here who - there's like a whole industry of bloggers who blog about trying to watch their finances. I find that that helps a lot. They don't even necessarily have to tell their name. They have their own persona online, so that's a good way to meet other bloggers who are doing the same thing. It's a supportive community.

Also, if you can enlist your friends and family and tell them, this is what I am going to do, this is what I want to do, I bet you that they'll probably buy in and say, you know, we've been wanting to cut bac, too. It's kind of trend going on right now. Even the affluent people are cutting back from giving their kid - their dogs spa pampering or, you know, instead of buying a 100,000 dollar car, they are buying a 50,000 dollar car. So everybody is kind of doing this now. So if you get more people on team with what you are doing, then I think it will help out a lot.

For me, though, honestly, going cold turkey, maybe you don't want to do a month. Maybe you should go a week where you're saying, look, I'm going to cook every day. You know, you can drive your car but you're just going to be thoughtful about where you drive and you're not going to shop. Like, before I did my 16-dollar blousegate splurge, I hadn't shopped since I took the vow of frugality, so maybe you should try that. Just try to go a week without buying any clothes, cooking every day and being thoughtful about where you drive your car, and I think you'll notice a difference right away.

CONAN: Mariah, thanks very much for the call and good luck.

MARIAH: Thank you.

CONAN: And Natalie McNeal, thank you for your time, and good luck to you.

Ms. MCNEAL: Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Natalie McNeal writes the blog, the "Frugalista Files" for themiamiherald.com She joined us from the studios of member station WLRN in Miami. Tomorrow, Ira Flatow's here with Science Friday. Lynn Neary is in on Monday and Tuesday. We'll see again Wednesday from the Newseum here in Washignton, D.C. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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