Writing

Canberra’s joyful frugalista – Sydney Morning Herald


Do you know how much cheaper it is to boil a jug that has only the minimum amount of water in it, as opposed to one that is full?

Serina Bird does because she’s done her sums. Lots of them. So much so the Canberra public servant  and former single mum is a millionaire.

And on her way to much bigger things.

“I want to be a billionaire,” she declares in her debut book, The Joyful Frugalista.

Serina Bird at home in Turner. The former single mum now has four investment properties.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

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The Commonwealth public servant has been doing media interviews from Sunrise to ABC Radio in Perth about her book, The Joyful Frugalista, revealing how to live large on very little. Explaining that the important thing is “not what you earn, but what you save”.

When explaining what a frugalista is, she says think of it as a variation of fashionista.

“Someone who lives the good life, the fashionable life, while still living frugally – someone who is mindful of the small things, avoids waste and lives consciously,” she explains in the book.

Serina Bird with son Austin, 9, and husband Neil Hadley. The family likes to go for a bike ride for a cheap day out. (Her other son Audie, 6, was a little camera shy.)Credit:Elesa Kurtz

“A frugalista prioritises things like reducing food waste and negotiating the best deals, and can identify what is a need rather than a want.

“A frugalista isn’t a slave to department store fashion and instead appreciates what they have and makes the most of it.”

Serina Bird gets most of her clothes from op shops. One of her best buys was an $8 ball gown.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

After the Sunrise interview, Sam and Kochy may have guffawed about Serina sharing a teabag with her husband Neil Hadley to save a few cents, but she is unashamedly an adherent to the old adage, “watch the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves”.

She has also captured the zeitgeist, the mood for less waste, for more meaning; for the undeniably satisfying feeling of doing something thrifty.

But while past generations, particularly inventive housewives, might have been frugal out of necessity, Serina makes it a conscious choice.  And she does it with a sense of joie de vivre.  Her idea is that living frugally is the means to an end, sometimes an immediate and glamorous end. It’s not a crushing weight around her neck.

“My frugalista lifestyle is not one of misery and deprivation.  Instead, it is one of fun,” she writes.

Serina Bird also makes her own washing powder.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

A mother to two boys and recently remarried to Neil, Serina, 46, lives with her family in a leafy street in inner-north Turner.

She says the success of the book has almost been like an out-of-body experience.

“I try to think of it sometimes that it’s a different person other than me because I still have my going-to-public-service-job life, writing talking points, doing normal Canberra things, being a mother,” she said.

“But I must say, it’s just amazing when you see if on a shelf. We were driving back from Brisbane the day after the release and you kind of think, ‘Oh, it’s out now but nobody’s going to read it’.

“We stopped at Grafton and I checked out Big W Grafton, and there it was. It’s very strange.”

Serina Bird with her husband Neil Hadley at home in Turner.. Sharing a teabag is just one of her thrifty habits.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

Bubbly and vibrant, Serina is really the millionaire next door.

She says she has a net worth of $1 million including four investment properties and hopes to double that net worth by 2020.

Becoming a billionaire is always a goal.

“I have no idea how I’m going to get there but I am a bit of a frustrated entrepreneur. Apart from my writing, I’ve always got ideas on the go,” she said.

So how do people get there? How do they save? Can all that money really come from re-using cling wrap? Is it all just about investing in property?

“No, not necessarily. I think the answer is to invest in what you understand,” she said.

“I love property. I’ve grown up with a mum who was big into property investment. I’ve done well from property.

“If you read The Barefoot Investor, he says property is not the answer at all, he recommends shares. Having said that, it’s been a terrible year for shares.

“I think with different investment classes, you have to understand it’s cyclical, there are ups and downs. So it’s a matter of understanding what’s happening.

“My personal view is that where you can do really, really well in property is when you invest in an area that’s about to boom, that’s about to have a resurgence.

The Joyful Frugalista is part handy hint, part investment advice, part entertaining memoir.

“I really like Queanbeyan at the moment and I’ve invested in Queanbeyan because I can see the council is doing a lot of work. So you’re looking at where there’s a bit of momentum, young people are moving in and there’s some change happening.”

The book is unashamedly Canberra-centric, with lots of tips for ACT residents. It is also a fascinating memoir, of Serina’s life growing up in Noosa Heads with her mother, fashion designer Lee Bird. She is also a domestic violence survivor and an advocate for women taking charge of their own life.

It is a book of tips and challenges and common sense. Of understanding that life is not about keeping up with the Jones. But also that a good life is within reach, within your means. The book also touches on Serina’s dating experiences before Neil and the one big rule she learnt from that.

“I think the big realisation was this sense that I’m golden, that I’m gold standard and to understand my worth and that I’m not going to settle for crap, in a range of things,” she said.

“But also understanding my own self-worth and my own bargaining power and to make a conscious effort to live with integrity, in everything.”

  • Want to know the answer about boiling the jug? “If you boiled a full jug four times a day for a year, it would cost $58.40. Boiling a minimum-filled jug four times a day for a year costs $19.27, so you could save almost $40 a year just by boiling less water,” Serina writes in the book.  That could be the start of your savings plan.

Serina Bird’s Top Thrifty Tips for Canberrans:

Kippax Monster Garage Sale – held twice a year. This is the place to shop for quality appliances, furniture, kitchenware, books, toys and bags of clothes. I literally furnished a whole granny flat courtesy of this sale. (Disclosure: I am part of the Kippax UC congregation and I moderate the Garage Sale FB page. That said, I genuinely buy a LOT. Actually, I started to go to church there after attending the garage sale for many years.)

Rotary Jamison Trash n’ Treasure. Run by the Rotary Club of Belconnen, money raised at these markets supports many community and overseas initiatives. The markets are a rich source of super-cheap deals, from people downsizing, to home-grown fruit and vegetables and plants. In season, this is one of the best places to buy cheap apples.

Serina Bird says ACT libraries are a fantastic source of free family entertainment.Credit:Jeffrey Chan

ACT Libraries. Canberra has some amazing libraries. They have moved on from the stiff, formal space of the past to venues that resemble coffee shops more than a government-run space. When my kids were young, we borrowed many CDs and DVDs from the library, which kept them entertained for hours. The library also has access to an impressive online eBook and audio collection. A little-known fact is that many magazines can be accessed for free online via the library.

Eating out in Queanbeyan. Head across the border and almost everything is cheaper. Queanbeyan used to be overlooked as Canberra’s poor country cousin, but no more. Now a mixture of multicultural history and a new Crawford Street precinct (including the Royal Hotel revamp) have meant that Queanbeyan is seriously cool. And good value.

Pubs and clubs. Canberra – and Queanbeyan – have great restaurants. But don’t forget their pubs and clubs. There is some seriously good food on offer, and special deals during the week to entice. Some of my favourites include:
* The Polish Club in Turner (fantastic pierogis);
* The RUC, Turner;
* The Southern Cross Club – pretty much any venue;
* The Leagues Club at Queanbeyan (they deserve special mention for spending so much time building my kids the ice cream sundae of their dreams)
* Irish Club Weston Creek (Friday night karaoke really goes off).

The Green Shed. You never know what you will find, and that is part of the charm. My best find, at their Underground store, was a Ted Baker dress for $45 (original value was close to $1000). I love finding odds and ends for creative projects at their Mitchell store.

Canberra Op shops. I could write a whole article about Canberra Op Shops – I think we have some of the best in Australia. Op shopping is my one big splurge. These are some of my favourites:
* Another Chance (Scullin Shops – hidden behind a medical centre, this shop is maintained meticulously by volunteers from the Mosaic Baptist Church. I once bought a ball gown from here for $8);
* Pandora’s, St Phillip’s Anglican Church, O’Connor:
* Salvation Army Queanbeyan and Fyshwick – great for furniture and big items;
* Salvation Army Phillip – the designer clothes selection is often good. I heard a rumour that they often have clothes donated from nearby diplomatic missions – I can’t verify this, but I know that the selections are always good;
* Vinnies Dickson (now open to 8pm on Saturdays), Vinnies Kippax (one of the few op shops open on Sunday), and Vinnies Mitchell (the big sorting centre);
* St John’s Anglican Church, Manuka (small church run op shop, which is little known and a source of great bargains).

Canberra free community groups. We have a strong community culture here in Canberra, and perhaps because of this, we have many online and other groups that help promote the free economy. I love my local Buy Nothing Project group. I gain hundreds of dollars of items every year, but more than anything, I have formed strong friendships with the people I meet. Freecycle Canberra, Canberra Freebies, Canberra Swap & Sell, Canberra bartering groups, 100.kilos org and others also help communities – and the environment – by promoting sharing rather than buying new.

  • The Joyful Frugalista is published by Murdoch Books Australia.

Megan Doherty is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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