TIMES are hard in many households but Jennifer O'Connell talks to three women who have made saving money an art form and, not only that, they've found ways to have fun and reconnect with their neighbours at the same time
Most of my wardrobe comes from designer discount stores. I pool my accessories with my mum. And my house is furnished almost entirely with junk-shop finds. I thought I had a beady eye for a bargain, but that was before I met Caitriona Redmond, Maire Garvey and Amy Gaffney.
Dubliner Caitriona manages to feed a family of five on €100 a week -- including nappies for baby Fionn, soaps, detergents, the lot. She grows her own vegetables, conducts professional-style stocktakes on her kitchen cupboards, and has been known to get 10 dinners out of a side of ham. Amy freezes sandwiches, and Maire asks for a discount everywhere she shops.
They are among the new breed of superscrimpers; women whose lives have been turned upside down by the recession, and who have had to dig deep and discover thrifty genes they didn't know they had.
"I haven't always been like this -- I used to work in property and had a great income and a fantastic standard of living. I wouldn't have thought twice about takeaways twice a week or buying shoes on a whim," Caitriona says.
"Then, three years ago -- when my eldest boy, Eoin, was six months old -- I got made redundant. I had to fall back on the tips and tricks learned from my mum and grandmother. I remember my mum stretching meals and using coupons, and my grandmother teaching me how to cook and bake. I realised I was going to have to learn to do the same."
The fact that Caitriona was already careful about money made the challenge even greater. "We already had good deals on our insurance and energy bills. So we had to be more creative.
"I have small kids, so the house has to be warm in winter. So what I did was turn the thermostat to between 17 and 18 degrees, and leave the heating on constantly. It's far more efficient -- now our heating bill is €70 a month. You'd need to wear a jumper, but it's fairly ambient."
Caitriona has an allotment and produces enough to meet the whole family's fruit and vegetable needs. "It takes half an hour or an hour every day -- it's great for you and it's great for the kids."
The family could no longer afford to go on holidays, so they decided to bring the holidays to them.
"We haven't had a holiday abroad in over three years, and loads of our friends and neighbours are in the same boat. So now we run a two-week summer programme for the local kids. We do things like trips to the farm and the water park. It's run on a volunteer basis with other parents, and we charge a nominal fee for the kids."
One of the unexpected upsides to her frugal lifestyle has been rediscovering the power of community.
"Before, I used to work such long hours, I'd never see my neighbours from one end of the year to the other -- let alone one end of the week to the other. The support that we've found in our own community is the best thing to come out of this.
"We all pass around plastic bags full of clothes and toys, so no one ever has to buy anything new for a baby or a small child."
But it's in grocery shopping that Caitriona really comes into her own. "I do as much of my shopping as I can in the local butcher's and the farmers' market. I buy all my meat for the month in one batch and freeze it. I don't waste anything -- I'll get four dinners out of a roast chicken. I once bought a 5kg side of ham on special for €9 and got 10 dinners out of it.
"I also do regular stocktakes of my kitchen cupboards. I've been able to feed the family for a whole week on what's in the larder already."
No-one is more surprised than Caitriona to discover she has such a knack for superscrimping, and now she has set up a website, wholesomeireland.com, to share her tips.
"There are days when it's so hard I'm tearing my hair out, but it has also been wonderful in some ways. I don't think I would go back to how my life was before."
Maire Garvey, from Sligo, has had to rediscover the joys of thrifty living since she gave up full-time work to concentrate on setting up a charity, Dip In The Nip (dipinthenip.eu).
"I've gone from a really good standard of living -- I was earning around €46,000 with no children and no mortgage -- to €188 a week. It's a case of cutting the cloth according to measure. I'm a great fan of the lattes and the lunches in the local deli, so that had to go. I make soups and bring it in, and make my coffees at home."
Maire's biggest tips are to pay with cash, and be brazen about asking for a discount.
"My bank account is for paying bills, and I only ever use the cash that's in my wallet -- when it's gone, it's gone. Card transations cost 3pc, so I will often ask for a discount for paying with cash. You need to ask with confidence. Don't apologise for it."
Her other big tip is to save all your €2 coins in a moneybox that has to be opened with a tin opener. "And only open it when you want something really special. You'd be amazed how quickly they add up."
Meanwhile, Amy Gaffney, a mother of three who runs a small plumbing business, is the queen of the freezer. She buys everything on special offers, freezes it all -- from milk to lemons and sandwiches.
"Bulk buy when items are on special. This sounds sad but I actually estimated the amount of toilet paper we use annually, and then when it was on special I bought heaps. It worked out at 35 cent a roll.
"Another tip I learned is to find a supermarket range that you know you like, and then try the next one down. So if you like Tesco Finest Lasagne, have a look at the other Tesco ranges, and try the next one down. If you find this product great, then try the next one down again, until you find the one you like to use for the least money. Of course if you don't like the product then you simply go back up one."
Shop around for better deals for all your bills, she says. "I've managed to cut the cost of nearly everything we buy. It's just a shame you can't negotiate your road tax."
If anyone can, my money's on these three women.