Jennifer writes in:
You often talk about how spending less doesn’t have to make your life miserable. Yet, most of the ideas you give seem miserable to me! What ideas do you have that won’t make my life boring?
Given that everyone’s life is different, it’s hard to point to a list of things that’s guaranteed to not be boring for everyone. For example, I find things like making a batch of laundry detergent to be fun because I can get the kids involved with it, but I recognize that others might not enjoy such things.
So, I made a list of twenty one spending reducing suggestions that I felt either didn’t have any impact at all on quality of life (things you can do once and benefit from for a while) or, if they’re repeatable, are inherently fun.
1. Get rid of stuff you don’t use.
Take a trip through your home and look around for things that you simply don’t use – and do something about it. Collect together things you rarely use and will probably never use again. Sell them off, give them away – just get rid of the clutter.
Why do this? For one, it makes your home less cluttered and more enjoyable. The result of this is that it’s more enjoyable to spend time at home – and to invite people over (see point #6). For another, you can take any money made on the items you’ve sold and apply them to your debts. This reduces your monthly debt payments and helps you get rid of entire debts more quickly.
Both of those come in exchange for just getting rid of stuff you don’t use. Sounds like a good deal to me!
2. Do some basic energy efficiency around your living quarters.
Replace your light bulbs with CFLs and LEDs – each bulb replaced adds up to at least $15-20 in energy savings over the lifetime of the bulb. Install a programmable thermostat to replace your current one, then program it to have the heating and cooling shut off when you’re not at home, saving you the cost of running it. Spend a couple of days air sealing your home, using this really handy guide from the Department of Energy, which can reduce your energy bill by about 20% every month with no additional upkeep work at all (it’s a great weekend project). Turn the temperature on your water heater down to 120 degrees F (or about 50 C).
Each of these tactics are things you can do once and result in a drastically lower energy bill every month thereafter without changing the quality of your life one iota. After all, a 40% lower energy bill each month means a wad of cash you can put towards other goals, like paying down your debts.
3. Unless you’re a heavy cell phone user, switch to a pay-as-you-go phone.
I use Skype for the vast majority of my phone calls (even when I’m out and about). Thus, I use my cell phone less and less, and given that I’m under contract, I’ve made the decision to drop it and go to a pay-as-you-go plan for the few minutes a month I use it.
If you use your cell phone less than a couple hours a month and send and receive infrequent text messages, a pay-as-you-go cell phone can be substantially cheaper than a cell phone plan. Look into some pay-as-you-go plans and see if any fit your usage needs and add up to significant savings over what you already use – in my case, pretty much all of them do, so I’m comparing reviews to see which one offers the best bang (reliability) for the buck.
4. Buy in bulk the staples you use all the time.
Quite often, people march through the store, buying things without careful consideration. They’ll either buy everything at the size that’s the cheapest per unit – even if they rarely use it and much of the item will go to waste – or they just grab the most reasonable size of each item.
The best approach is somewhere in the middle: get the best deal you can without wasting stuff. The best way to do that is to buy items in bulk if you’re sure you’re going to use all of it in reasonable time or before it becomes unusable. Think household supplies – toilet paper, dishwashing detergent, laundry soap, and so on. Everything else, don’t buy it in bulk unless you find yourself buying a smaller (less expensive) version of the item quite often.
Does this mean you should get a membership at a warehouse club? It depends entirely on how much you buy in bulk. It might be worthwhile, though, to share a membership with your best friend (many memberships issue two cards), halving the costs.
Don’t change what you buy. Just do it a little smarter, and you’ll save money without changing your day-to-day life one iota.
5. Get some exercise.
Exercise? How does that save money?
For starters, most exercise is free or at least very inexpensive. Long walks around the neighborhood are free. Jogging is free. Squats are free. Jumping jacks are free. Situps and pushups are free. Even simple weight exercises are really inexpensive – buy some hand weights and that’s all you need. Many simple sports have minimal equipment and have all you need in your neighborhood – soccer just requires a ball, basketball requires just a ball and a hoop (available in many neighborhoods), and parkour requires nothing at all.
Thus, if nothing else, exercise is a way to spend time without cost.
But there’s another benefit. Regular exercise reduces your weight, often not directly, but by raising your metabolism. For most Americans, this is a great thing – it improves your long-term health (reducing your medical costs) and improves your day-to-day energy level. It can also help improve the state of ongoing conditions like diabetes.
Overall, it sounds like a great way to regularly spend an hour, regardless of the financial benefits.
6. Invite some friends over.
Yes, invite a bunch of friends over and revel in the savings!
How does that work, you might ask. Quite often, when friends come over, they devour a meal and snacks and beverages, leaving you footing the bill.
Here’s the thing, though. If you invite some friends over, likely those friends will offer an invite back in the near future, where you can go and hang out and devour food and beverages without cost. Not only that, you’ve built up some friendships that will come through for you time and time again.
But what about that initial cost of inviting friends over? For one thing, you’re at home, which means you’re not paying the high prices of appetizers and meals eaten out. The food is simply cheaper, as are the beverages. Even spread across a lot of people, a simple dinner and beverages won’t break you much more than a meal or two eaten out will.
Even better, you can buy (and cook) the items for the meal in bulk for that purpose. You can stock up on things like “buy one, get one free” on buns or get a large piece of cheese for a homemade pizza at a much lower per-pound rate. Thus, your meal becomes much cheaper, even though you’re covering for a lot of others.
Plus, the entertainment’s really cheap. Bust out the movies or video games you already have. Pop out a board game. Sit out on the deck and enjoy a glass or two of wine with friends. All quite entertaining, all very cheap (or free).
7. Unplug electronic devices you’re not using.
Many plugged-in electronic devices eat up a small amount of energy, even in standby mode. This can seriously add up – if you leave an XBox 360 plugged in in standby mode for a month (using about 0.02 kilowatt hours, according to my measurements), it eats up about 15 kilowatt-hours of energy use, which is about $1.50 (and that doesn’t include the cost of the heat the device blows into your home, which makes cooling less efficient). If you have several such devices that you rarely use, like a coffee pot you only use when guests are over or entertainment devices you don’t use very often or so on, unplugging them can save you a significant amount of money on your energy bill each month. Just unplug ‘em, forget about ‘em, and just plug ‘em back in when you actually need them (of course, if it’s too long, why bother keeping that item at all?).
Obviously, if you’re a regular user of a device or it’s extremely hard to unplug it, it’s not worth it, but if it’s a matter of just reaching a little bit to unplug a device, it’s certainly worthwhile.
8. Use refillable water bottles and keep them in your fridge.
Almost all of us grab quick convenience beverages out of our refrigerator and gulp them down. For some of us, the drink is bottled water – for others, it might be soda or something else. Whatever it is, it’s pretty expensive.
Try this, instead. Keep an eye out for high-quality reusable water bottles – it’s often easy to get them if you participate in lots of community events and other things. As you acquire them, fill them up with water and stick them in the fridge. Then, when you need a drink, grab that reusable bottle and chug down the water.
How does this save money? For starters, tap water is far, far cheaper than pretty much any other beverage you can drink. You’ll be able to refill that bottle dozens of times for a penny – compare that to buying any beverage. For another, water is a lot more healthy than many other beverage options.
What if you’re addicted to soda, or you crave something sweet? Just mix up something tasty in the water bottle. Get a big bottle of lemon juice and put a few drops in the water bottle after you fill it, along with an optional small pinch of sugar, then shake it up. It’s a quick, simple lemonade that costs you maybe a cent or so, and it’s just as convenient as popping open a bottled beverage (and likely healthier, too).
9. Step up to the plate for a cause you’ve always cared about.
Almost all of us are touched in our lives by a cause of some kind – a charity that can really use our help. Perhaps it’s the local food pantry. Maybe it’s the loneliness of senior citizens in retirement homes. It might be keeping the parks and trails in your town clean. Maybe you wish you could help a foundation that fights a disease or promotes public education.
Whatever it is, why not allocate some of your time towards making that thing happen? Why not spend an afternoon a month or so engaged with a cause that really tugs at your heartstrings? Just call up an organization in your area that deals with such charities and ask how you can help one Saturday a month.
How can this save money? First of all, it’s a way to spend an afternoon without spending money. More importantly, though, doing such things helps you to feel better about yourself. It raises self-esteem and naturally makes you more resistant to the influences of others – marketers, for example.
10. Switch to a bank that respects you.
Do you regularly get dinged with fees at your local bank for every little thing? Is there a “maintenance fee” you have to pay? Are you getting no interest at all on your checking account? Or a very low interest rate on your savings?
Start hunting around for a bank that respects you. See what banks are available in your local area – and don’t forget ones that offer full service online, like ING Direct. Find one that doesn’t charge you ridiculous fees, has solid customer service, makes online banking easy and accessible, and offers some interest on checking and solid interest on savings (in my opinion, banks lacking this are essentially charging you another fee).
Switching banks can save you $20 a month and make absolutely no difference at all in your day to day life – or maybe even make it a bit easier, with good online banking or a more useful debit card and ATM network. Sounds like a plan to me.
11. Sign up for the customer rewards programs at the places you already shop.
Most customer rewards programs just result in free stuff. At many grocery stores, they’ll automatically find coupons for you, reducing the cost of your bill with no effort at all for you. At many chain stores, the customer rewards program will result in discount certificates mailed to you – things like $5 off your next purchase – which you can just hold onto until the next time you go there.
Some people hesitate to do this out of privacy or out of laziness. For the privacy concern, just make up a name and start a new email account to collect the emails. If you’re just being lazy, you’re missing out.
So, next time you’re standing in line somewhere that has a rewards program, sign up. It’ll take you a minute or two at most, result in free stuff coming in the mail, and also possibly result in discounts for you right there at the checkout. Awesome deal, all around – you don’t have to change how or where you shop at all.
12. Figure out your most cost-effective grocery store and shop there.
This takes a little bit of up-front work, but the rewards over the long run are really worthwhile. To put it simply, all you need to do is figure out which grocery store available to you has the best prices on the staples you normally buy all the time, things like milk, fruit, eggs, vegetables, fruit, your favorite cereal, and so on.
Here’s what you do. Make a quick list of all of the grocery stores near you where you’d be open to shopping regularly – don’t include stores that are inconvenient or you don’t shop at for other reasons. Whenever you go for a normal “big” grocery trip where you’re picking up most of your staples, go to a different store on your list and save the receipt.
When you’ve gone through all the stores (and figured out any that you won’t shop at because of item selection or other reasons), get out those receipts and compare them. Figure out the items you bought at all of the stores and add up the prices on those items at each store. So, if you bought milk and bread and eggs and cereal and cheese and sauerkraut at each stop, get the price for these items from each receipt and add up the total for each store.
The cheapest store is where you should shop regularly, and by shopping there, you’re naturally spending less on your food bill. Just make that store part of your routine and buy the stuff you normally would and you’ll be spending less money each week – no change except for the money you save.
13. Check your cupboards and fridge before you hit the grocery store.
You know you need milk and something for dinner the next few nights, so you decide to hit the grocery store on your way home from work.
Before you go to work that morning, spend a minute glancing in the fridge to see what you have. Then make a quick list of the things that are missing – and the things you’d like to have for dinner or have on hand for the next several days.
it’ll take you just a few minutes and it’ll save you money in multiple ways. First, you’re much less likely to realize you’ve forgotten something and have to make another trip to the store. That quick list will save you time and money by not sending you back to the store. Second, having a list to focus on means you’ll buy less random things at the store. That makes your bill at the end of the trip lower than it would be otherwise.
That little list, prepared in just a couple minutes before you split for work, will save you money and is likely to save you time as well without influencing your buying choices one whit.
14. Whenever you make supper, if it’s reasonable, make twice as much and freeze the extras.
Or three times as much. Or more.
If you’re cooking a pound of loose ground beef, cook three pounds of it and put the extra two pounds into two separate one pound freezer containers. If you’re making a casserole, make two of them and freeze the second one at some appropriate point in the preparation. If you’re preparing vegetables, chop up some extras and put them away for soups or stews in the future.
The possibilities are endless.
Doing this saves money and time. In the here and now, it only adds a small sliver of time to your preparation (and even that’s arguable, considering you’re only picking up the item once at the store instead of two or three times), but later on, preparing a second meal just got a lot shorter. Even better, though, is that you can buy items in larger quantities, often grabbing savings, and having a very easy to prepare meal at home means you’re much more likely to do just that, meaning you’re not ordering takeout or delivery and instead eating a lot cheaper.
You don’t have to change a bit about what you eat – instead, you just make it a bit quicker and a bit cheaper, too.
15. If you’re married, talk to your partner about where you want to be in five years.
Sure, this seems like a good relationship tactic. After all, it’s always useful to make sure you’re on the same page.
However, doing this regularly has another significant impact: it helps both partners to set goals together that they’re both committed to. During such a conversation, people tend to find the things they have in common, the desires that they share. When those desires become clear, quite often the conversation and thoughts move towards how to actually make them happen.
Making those dreams happen usually revolves around better financial control – but you’re not in this alone. Your partner will be supporting you to some degree, ideally to a strong degree. You’re in this together, and you’re working toward something you both want. That makes difficult choices quite a bit easier, as you have a partner that understands what you’re doing and encourages it.
16. On a lazy afternoon, do a maintenance run.
Spending a lazy afternoon at home? Why not spend it doing a maintenance run?
What’s a maintenance run? Basically, you just spend a few hours going around to all of the major appliances and equipment in your home (including your car) and doing the little maintenance tasks that need to be done to keep them running well. Here’s a big checklist of such activities.
For starters, it’s a free way to spend an afternoon, since most maintenance just costs you a bit of time. The big benefit here, though, is that by doing this maintenance, you’ve made things last longer and made them run more efficiently. Cleaning the coils on your fridge makes it run a bit quieter and with greater efficiency and a greater lifespan. Emptying out your hot water heater (and getting rid of the sediment that comes out) means it’ll run more efficiently and longer. And so on.
You can get lots of these tasks done in a lazy afternoon. Suddenly, your home is a bit quieter, a bit more energy efficient, and the equipment there is bound to last a lot longer, too.
You can pretty much do this whenever it fits. It’s a great way to fill a lazy afternoon, but there’s no need to give up any sort of activity for it. Keep living your life as it is and just do this some afternoon when there’s nothing else going on.
17. Shop for Christmas supplies on December 28.
Most people buy all their Christmas supplies – wrapping paper, cards, and the like – in the month before Christmas, paying prices like $5 for a roll of paper. A much better approach is to buy it on December 28 or so, where you can get that same roll for $0.50.
What do you do with it, then? When you take down your Christmas decorations and store them, store the Christmas items you bought along with them. Then, when you pull them out next year, you’ll pull out the cards and paper and bows that you need, already ready to go.
This can be done with lots of events where you regularly spend money, like Mother’s Day or Halloween. Buy the items just after the holiday, then put the items into storage along with other items associated with that day. You can save a huge amount by just shifting a regular shopping trip a few days, not by doing anything else differently.
18. Keep a notebook on hand.
If you walk through life with even a hint of observance of what’s happening around you, you’ll see all sorts of little opportunities and hear many different ideas. Keep a notebook with you, in your pocket or purse, and when these ideas present themselves, write them down. Perhaps you’ll hear of a tremendous sale on something you need, or a friend will tell you about someone who’d be happy to give you an old desk, perfect for your needs.
A little notebook makes it very easy to jot down the information that you need to remember later to take advantage of it. Then, once a day or once a week, leaf through that notebook and clean up.
You don’t have to do anything different, other than to just slip a notebook and a pen in your pocket. Then, when an opportunity comes your way, jump on board. Write down that coupon code that gets you a free rental. Jot down the location of that sale. And enjoy the benefits.
19. Ask around about your job benefits.
When I was a boy, one day, my father came home from work with seven tickets to Six Flags. Obviously, me, my older brothers, and my cousins were enthusiastic about these, but where did they come from? He got them through a work program that he’d only heard about via his foreman – not a widely advertised one. The tickets came with a huge discount and we enjoyed one of the few vacations of my childhood.
Not too long ago, I had a similar opportunity at my previous job, collecting four free tickets to a local minor league baseball game.
An unusual benefit? Perhaps. But many jobs offer a lot of little benefits that the employees rarely know about or indulge in, from straightforward things like health savings accounts to little things like travel discounts.
On a lazy day at work, why not browse through your employee manual or the HR website? Or perhaps even stop in at the HR office and read the bulletin board? You might discover something really financially useful to you.
20. Consolidate your debts, particularly your student loans.
A great technique for college students: if you have several student loans from different sources out there (as I did after college), do some research into student loan consolidation as well as automatic payment plans. Quite often, loan consolidation can net you a lower interest rate and lower monthly payments. Even if that’s impossible, many student loans offer a plan where if you sign up for an automatic payment plan, they’ll knock off 0.25% of the interest on your loan.
What’s the result? You still have to make your student loan payments, but the amount you pay will be a little bit less, allowing you to keep a little bit more money in your pocket while still chiseling away on your loans.
You may be able to consolidate other debts as well via personal loans or other such mechanisms. Stop by your local credit union and see what they have available for you. Again, a good consolidation simply reduces both your interest rate and your monthly payments, doing nothing more than saving you money.
21. Stop by the library the next time you want to read a book or rent a movie.
Thinking about renting a pile of movies this weekend or curling up with a fresh new book? Hit the library before dropping cash at retailers. Many libraries have extensive DVD collections which you can check out for free, as well as a huge number of books available.
Since switching to using the library heavily for my reading needs, I’ve been able to read a ton of fresh new bestsellers in hardback and watch a lot of interesting films for free. I can request them online from the convenience of my home and just stop in and pick them up within the next day or two, simply stopping in, picking up my packages, using my library card, and walking out without paying a dime.
Sounds like a great way to trim some spending to me.