Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Frugal Writer

Much is made every spring of the average taxpayer’s frantic efforts to meet the April 15 filing deadline for federal income taxes. However, for those of us who are self-employed and who pay quarterly estimated taxes, January 15 is a much bigger deal. (This year, it’s January 18 since the 15th was a Saturday and yesterday was a holiday.)

Even before some of us have packed away the Christmas decorations, we must spread out our receipts and tally up how much we made as writers, and how much of what we spent during the previous year can be counted as business expenses. In effect, we must prepare our tax return three months earlier than everybody else, because we have to know how much to send the IRS for our fourth and final quarterly tax payment.

How well did we estimate our business income and expenses for the year? Did we send enough in April, June, and September? Will we owe a huge amount in January?

When I’d sorted through all my business records for 2010, I discovered that I’d made only two-thirds as much money last year as I did in 2009. It was nothing to do with the Great Recession—fault lay entirely with my Grand Obsession. I spent as much time as possible in 2010 working on WATERSPELL, my fantasy trilogy. Whatever paying assignments came my way, I accepted, but I spent no time beating the bushes for work. Hence the steep drop in my income.

The good news: I’d used my 2009 income to estimate how much to send Uncle Sam for my first three quarterly tax payments (April, June, and September 2010). It turns out that those payments actually covered my entire tax liability for the year, so I didn’t owe the IRS a dime for the fourth payment that was due today, January 18.

The bad news: I’m pretty well broke.

When all is said and done, however, what does a writer really need in order to write? Just ink, paper, electricity, and a brain. So here are my tips for saving money on these four essentials.


Buy your toner and inkjet cartridges at LaserMonks.com. They have the best prices around. During their recent 60-percent-off sale, I bought a toner cartridge for my HP LaserJet 1022 printer AND a black-ink cartridge for my ancient Epson color inkjet for just $36.63 (shipping included). My discount on the two items was $46.02. I’ve been getting my ink and toner from LaserMonks for years now. The quality is excellent, the prices are bargains, and my purchases support the monks in their good works.


Office Depot gives me $2 for each empty ink or toner cartridge that I bring in for recycling. They used to give $3, and for a short time--through Jan. 22--they’re offering $5 each. Gather up those empties and go recycle them while you can get five bucks apiece! Considering that (full) cartridges only cost $6 or $7 at LaserMonks, and you can get from $2 to $5 back at Office Depot for the empties, that’s pretty cheap ink. I then use my “Recycling Rewards” to buy paper at Office Depot. Their house-branded copy paper is nicely bright and good quality, and they often put it on sale. And recently, I used an Office Depot coupon to buy reams of HP paper for just $2 each. Watch the sales and use the coupons they e-mail to regular customers, and you can save a bundle on cases (and on single reams) of paper.


I used to assume that signing a two-year contract with TXU Energy would get me the best price, but then I discovered that their contractless, month-to-month MarketEdge plan was by far the better deal. MarketEdge, they say, “automatically lowers your monthly price when natural gas prices fall and gives you the option to choose another TXU Energy plan for free if natural gas costs rise too high for your comfort level. This plan is indexed to the NYMEX price of natural gas, which changes monthly.” Not much, it doesn’t. I’ve stayed with MarketEdge, month by month, for years now, and my average price per kWh is never more than 11 cents, and it’s usually under 10 cents -- quite a bit less than their locked-in rate for customers who sign contracts with them.


I was skeptical of supplements that claim to sharpen a body’s brain, but I’ve come to believe that lecithin actually does. Plain old soy lecithin, 1200 mg softgels, in the cheapest generic “economy size” bottle, is far less expensive than many supplements. And since beginning to take one a day, I’ve noticed a real improvement in my ability to concentrate. As I revise my WATERSPELL manuscripts, I feel that my wits are sharper and my insights deeper. Walgreen’s has regular buy-one, get-one-free sales, which make it really economical to take a brain pill daily.

So there you go: Cheap ways to get writerly essentials.

Oh, I almost forgot--a writer also needs TIME. Which is something I seem to be wasting right now ...

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