Updated on 03.14.16

Balancing the Value of Frugality and the Value of Time

Trent Hamm

An introduction to 'little-time' frugality and 'long-tail' frugality.

About a year ago, I wrote an article called Balancing Spending and Time: How ‘Time Frugality’ Can Save You Lots of Cash. The argument behind that article is a simple one: If time is money, then it makes sense to be frugal with your time, too.

It’s an idea I hold near and dear to my heart. I try very hard to be as frugal with my time as I am with my money. I’m diligent about using time management tools. I keep a to-do list and use techniques that help me to focus on the task at hand so that it gets done faster.

The goal of those methods is to maximize my “free time,” meaning time that I have in my life that isn’t committed to the basic requirements of professional work, housekeeping, sleep, eating, parenting, or being a good husband (and, yes, those things eat up most of my time in a given day/week/month/year). I can commit my extra “free time” to those things if I want, but I don’t have to.

Why do all of this? As I said above, time is money, at least in my eyes. We spend a lot of our time to earn money (and to save it), and we actually spend a lot of money to save time.

For instance, many of the things that I choose to spend my money on are effectively just time (and labor) savers. Almost every appliance and tool in my home simply serves as a time saver. It is far less time consuming to put clothes into a washing machine than it is to use a manual washer or to wash each garment by hand, after all.

The reverse is also true. There are some things that we spend our time on because the cost of paying someone else to do it is pretty wasteful unless you have incredible sums of money. Tasks that are a normal part of everyday life, like putting away your laundry, are in fact tasks that you could pay someone else to do, saving you time — but the cost of the time you’d save is simply not worth it for most people.

There are some things that save so much time for a reasonable cost that they’re obvious choices. Similarly, there are some things that save so much money for a little bit of time investment that just doing it yourself is obvious, too.

Somewhere in the middle, however, is a gray area. It obviously makes sense to invest a little bit of money to save a lot of time, or to invest a little bit of time to save a lot of money.

But what about situations where you can invest just a little time to save a little money, or vice versa?

This is what many people think of as “frugality,” for better or worse. They think of an investment of time and energy to save a small amount of money and, frankly, for a busy person, that can often seem like a poor bargain. If you’re already strapped for time, the remaining free time that you have has a bit of a premium value on it, after all.

It’s true: Quite a lot of frugal tactics tend to fall into the trap of “exchanging a little bit more of the precious little free time that you do have in order to save just a dollar or two.”

From that perspective, it’s no wonder that busy people often make choices that aren’t frugal, even when they’re in a financially tight spot. Frugal choices often have the reputation of having a significant time cost, and if there’s anything that a busy family has less of than extra money, it’s extra time.

For me, there are two real solutions to this problem.

‘Little-Time’ Frugality

The first solution to the frugality versus time problem that I like to use is what I call “little-time” frugality. To put it simply, I try to seek out frugal tactics that have an extremely low or nonexistent time requirement. Ideally, these kinds of frugal tactics are just direct substitutes for things I’m already doing, except that the dollar cost is now lower. Here are 10 specific tactics that fall into this category.

Buy Generics Instead of Name Brands

When I’m at the store, I simply choose to buy the generic or store-brand version of an item instead of the name-brand version. It’s just a simple substitution that saves me anywhere from a quarter to a few dollars per purchase.

Most of the time, the generic or store brand version of a product is functionally identical to the name brand version – many times, they’re produced identically at the factory. Sometimes, you’ll find that you don’t like a store brand as well and you can buy the “better” version next time, but most of the time you won’t even notice except that your grocery bill is cheaper.

Drink Filtered Tap Water Instead of Bottled Water

If you consistently buy bottled water, replace that habit with a handful of reusable water bottles and tap water. Then, instead of just putting a few bottles of water in the fridge, fill your reusable bottles and put them in the fridge instead. If you dislike your tap water, you can always add a bit of time to this and do a one-time install of a tap-water filter.

Duplicate Your Dinner and Freeze the Extra(s)

This is one of those tasks that seems at first like it might require a time investment, but it actually saves both time and money. You’re just moving the meal prep time from a busy time – weekday evenings – to an easier time – a lazy weekend afternoon.

All you do is prepare several copies of a meal when you make one copy of it, and save all of the extras. If you’re considering making one pan of lasagna, make five instead and freeze the other four. Since you’ve already got the “assembly line” set up to make lasagna anyway, it doesn’t add much time.

Then, on weeknights when you need a fast homecooked meal, you can just put the frozen lasagna in the fridge a couple of days earlier and then just pull it out and toss it in the oven when you need it. This allows you to buy ingredients in bulk and allows you to avoid eating out for many dinners.

Install LED Light Bulbs

LED light bulbs cost more than other lighting options at the store, but the benefit they have is savings over time. They last practically forever – on the order of 20,000 hours compared to the 500-1,000 hours of an incandescent – and use very little electricity – on the order of 12 watts instead of 60 watts for a 60-watt bulb. This saves you on both replacement costs and on the energy cost of the bulb thereafter, resulting in energy bills that are a bit lower.

Write a Grocery List Before You Go Shopping

Much like the above suggestion of making extra meals when you prepare supper, this is one of those “time-moving” strategies that save money but deceptively don’t cost you time, either. Here, you simply make a meal plan and a grocery list from that plan before you go to the store, then just stick to that list in the store.

That way, you can breeze through the store instead of having to wander the aisles trying to figure out what you need for meals, which ends up being about even in terms of time in my experience (I actually think it saves a little bit of time). It also saves a lot of money because you’re buying sensible things that you’ll actually use and you’re buying fewer unnecessary and unplanned things because you’re following a list.

Quit Smoking, Using Drugs, Drinking Soda, and/or Drinking Alcohol (or at Least Cut Down)

All of these things are completely unnecessary forms of consumption. They do not provide any real nutritional value to you, are quickly consumed, and leave you with nothing but an empty wallet and damaged health.

If you indulge in any of these things, make a concerted effort to cut back or quit. It’s not going to cost you any time (and will actually save you a little if you pull it off), but it can be challenging if you’re addicted to the substance or the routine.

Go ‘Book Shopping’ or ‘Movie Shopping’ at the Library

Whenever you’re tempted to go shopping for a new movie or a book, head to the library instead. Quite often, the library will have a movie or a book that interests you – often even including new releases – and if they don’t have it, it’s very likely that they can order it for you and you can get it quickly. Plus, it’s a great place to browse for books, DVDs, and audiobooks.

Buy Holiday Items Right After the Holiday

Whether it’s Christmas, Halloween, or the Fourth of July, many stores put their seasonal items on clearance right after the holidays are over, so it’s a perfect time to buy some of those items now at clearance prices and just hold onto them for next year.

Things like gift wrapping paper, decorations, holiday cards, and even candies in sealed packages can be purchased at a huge discount, put in storage for 340 days or so, and then pulled out just in time for holiday use.

Include the Community Calendar When Deciding What to Do

When you’re thinking of going out to do something, you might look to see what musical acts are at local clubs, what films are showing at theaters, and so on depending on your interests. The problem is that it inherently limits you to things that cost money.

Simply choose to add your city’s community calendar to the list of things that you check – I keep our city’s calendar and the calendar of a few nearby towns and cities bookmarked on my computer. Such calendars are often chock full of free and low-cost things to do. Even if you only find something free to do from that list just 10% of the time, that’s still going to save you quite a bit of money over the long haul.

Buy Staples in Bulk

If there are things that you know you use frequently and don’t “go bad” very quickly (or at all), buy those things in bulk.

Take dishwashing soap, for example. It’s exceedingly likely that you’re going to use all of the dishwashing soap that you have on hand eventually, so why not buy the giant container of it that costs way less per use?

‘Long-Tail’ Frugality

The second solution to the frugality versus time problem that I like to use is what I call “long-tail” frugality. To put it simply, I try to seek out frugal tactics that offer a “long tail” of savings without additional effort.

These kinds of tactics involve doing something once and then saving money thereafter because of that tactic. Here are ten specific tactics that fall into this category.

Air Seal Your Home

This simply means to going through your home and looking for places where air leaks into the outdoors, and then closing up those leaks.

During periods where your desired indoor temperature is much different than the outdoor temperature, the heat is going to be flowing through those leaks in a direction you don’t want, which is going to cost you in terms of heating and cooling. Instead, go through and caulk up air leaks in the windows and add weather strips to your drafty doors.

Have a ‘Meal Prep Sunday’

This is akin to the “preparation of bonus meals” suggestion above, but this is an independent project. You just devote a Sunday to making a bunch of meals at once, often with a lot of duplicates.

For example, you might spend a Sunday afternoon making tons of frozen burritos for breakfast and/or lunch for the coming months – dozens and dozens of them. Since the cost per burrito would be very low, especially compared to store-purchased ones, this will save you on meals every time you grab a burrito and pop it in the microwave.

You can do the same thing with almost any meal you can imagine – just spend a day making several different meals with lots of copies of each (enabling bulk buying of ingredients), label them, and freeze all of them for future use.

Switch Banks

If your bank is charging you to keep a checking account or isn’t offering you any interest along the way, consider changing banks. You should never be paying a fee for basic checking and most banks will offer you a little bit of interest to boot (it’s not much, but it’s better than a fee).

Similarly, your bank should be offering you a competitive interest rate on a savings account — and 0.05% isn’t a competitive rate. If another bank near you offers good rates, switch. It takes time, but it will save you and possibly earn you money.

Ditch Your Cable Package and Switch to Netflix plus Over-the-Air TV

Cable packages are quite expensive, averaging $100 a month. However, most people don’t watch even a tiny fraction of the content available to them.

Instead of sticking with that expensive proposition, consider dumping cable, subscribing to Netflix, and getting an over-the-air antenna for a free television signal that will give you 20 channels or so. Your cost goes from $100 to $10 a month immediately and you still have an overflow of programming to watch.

Buy Items with Reliability in Mind

If you buy items with reliability as a primary consideration in their purchase, you’re going to have an item that sticks around for a very long time, meaning you won’t have to go through the process of replacing it (which means time and money spent). Spend some time doing a bit of research before a purchase (I look at Consumer Reports for many items) and buy things that are well constructed and built to last.

A well-made car, for example, will run just fine until the mileage is extremely high. A well-made skillet, for example, will last for the rest of your life, not just until the Teflon peels off.

Install Light Sensing Switches in Rooms with Low Traffic

In rooms with high traffic, a light-sensing switch won’t save you money. However, in a low-traffic room that you rarely go into, a light sensing switch that turns off the light automatically when you leave (covering you in situations where you might forget and leave the light on for days without noticing) can save you quite a bit of money.

I ran the numbers in detail a few years back and came to the conclusion that one would save us a lot of money in our laundry room, for example, if it curtailed just one time a month where we forgot to turn off the light and left it on for, say, 24 hours.

Install a Programmable Thermostat

A programmable thermostat is one that adjusts the temperature automatically in your home according to the time of day, causing your air conditioner or furnace to run accordingly. Thus, you can program it to your convenience, allowing the temperature in your home to adjust naturally during nighttime hours and even during your daytime working hours and thus just paying for the cost of heating and cooling during the periods you’re at home.

Cancel Unused Memberships

Maybe you have an online membership that you never use. Perhaps you have a gym membership that you rarely use, too. If those memberships are set to auto-renew, cancel them. You don’t use them, so why pay for them? If you do decide at some future point that you need those memberships, you can always re-join at that point. There’s no need to keep throwing money away while you’re not using something.

Install a Deep Freezer

A deep freezer has been one of our best frugal purchases. We use it for meals we’ve prepared in advance, for seasonal items that we have in abundance for a little while, and for storing items that we’ve bought on sale. Those three things alone add up to plenty of savings for us over time.

Inflate Your Car Tires to the Maximum Recommended Amount

This is something that often happens at a regular checkup or oil change for your car, but that doesn’t meant that it’s “good to go” until your next checkup or oil change. What actually happens is that your tires slowly deflate over time, which actually hampers your gas mileage and increases the chances of a blowout or a flat tire. I usually inflate our tires at least once between checkups (if not twice).

It’s easy – just go to a gas station with free air, use an air gauge (which costs about $1 or $2) to measure the pressure in each tire, and fill it up to the amount recommended in the manual for your automobile. It takes just a few minutes, reduces the chance of blowouts significantly, and saves you on gas mileage to boot.

What About Other Frugal Strategies?

Is there a place for strategies that don’t fall into one of these groups? Absolutely.

For Sarah and myself, we found a great deal of value in pursuing strategies that were much less time efficient during the period when we were trying to jump-start our financial turnaround. During that period, we needed cash to pay off debt and we needed it quickly.

That’s the key: frugal strategies that are less time efficient often have the advantage of putting money in your hands very quickly, if not immediately. Washing used Ziploc bags, for instance, means that you’re not buying another box of them right away, which means that money immediately stays in your checking account.

It’s hard to say the same thing for other things you might be doing with your time. Even going to work for extra hours won’t earn you any extra money for a while. Doing things to boost your career or start a side business might take months or years to see any financial return.

If you need immediate value for your money, other frugal strategies make sense. When you need to pay bills or feed your family, dive into those things.

If you’re not pushed up against the wall like that, you may be better off using your time to build professional skills, take classes, build a side business, or do other things.

Final Thoughts

Frugality isn’t some sort of monolithic thing where you have to reuse paper towels or you’re not frugal. Frugality is simply looking for ways to maximize the value of your time and money use. That can mean radically different things to different people in different situations.

No matter what situation you’re in, however, both “little-time” and “long-tail” frugality can help you save some significant money without a big time investment or a major change in lifestyle.

Good luck.

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