Updated on 08.24.10

Frugality and Organization

Trent Hamm

Save everything.

Buy in bulk.

Find second uses for everything.

These are all powerful frugal tactics and they’ll all save you money. I’ll give you five examples.

1. Got an old t-shirt that’s worn out? Toss it into a “scrap cloth” bin and save it for times when you just need a big piece of cloth to clean up a mess or protect something else from getting too messy.

2. Collect canvas bags whenever you can find them. Take them with you to the grocery store. You’ll save $0.05 on your bill per bag at many stores, the bags are much more sturdy (and less prone to bags ripping or other accidents), and it’s better for the environment, too.

3. Want to save money on pretty much any household product? Keep an eye on the price per unit and buy the version that has the lowest cost with that regard. You’ll pay less per use, but you’ll often wind up with fifteen bars of soap (or similar levels of excess).

4. Your vegetable scraps from the kitchen make brilliant compost. You just need a small compost bin out back. Toss the scraps in there and harvest the black compost months later. It’s spectacularly powerful on your garden.

5. Buy any holiday supplies you need in the days after the holiday passes, then store them for next year. You’ll get enormous discounts and the stuff will be just fine in storage for eleven months.

What do these four tactics have in common? They all save you money over doing things the “typical” way. But each one of them takes up valuable space in your home or on your property.

To put it simply, frugality and free space work hand in hand. It’s much easier to pull off bulk buying and things like a “rag bin” if you’ve got space for those items.

Of course, at the same time, frugality works hand in hand with being in control of your possessions. You’re far better off having one high-quality television than four cheap ones that will just fail every few years. You’re far better off just owning a handful of your favorite books and a handful of unread books than mountains of books you’ve read and will likely never touch again (sell them, already!) and piles of books you might someday read (use the library for that!).

These two ideas combine together with one word: organization. Having a place for everything you own and not having more stuff than you can actually realistically use in the next year work together towards not only freeing up money (by selling off the excess stuff, you can pay off debts or start an emergency fund) but also freeing up the space you need for a lot of frugal projects.

It’s surprisingly easy to organize your house. It only takes several hours, three baskets, and some patience. When you’re done, you’ll have a big pile of stuff to get rid of, as well as a sensible home for every item in your house.

Get three baskets and go into a room. I often use laundry baskets when I decide to do this, but you can use any sort of large tub that you wish. What you’re going to do is go through every single item in that room and put the ones that are not in the right place into one of the three tubs.

One tub is for stuff that should remain in the room but is out of place. Don’t worry about putting it back in the right place yet – you should do all of that when you’re done. For now, just collect the stuff that you are sure will stay in the current room.

Another tub is for stuff that should remain in your home but is in the wrong room. If it should be in another room in your home, it needs to go into this tub.

A final tub is for stuff that you no longer wish to keep. As you go through each item, ask yourself honestly if this item needs to be kept. If you don’t have a definite “yes” as a response, put it in this tub.

When you’ve put everything in the room that can be moved into the tubs, it’s time to deal with each one.

Put all of the stuff in the first tub where it should be in the room.

Put all of the stuff in the second tub into the room where it should be. You can just put the items on the floor in that room if you so wish, but if you’re going back into a room you’ve already finished, you should put the item away.

Put all of the stuff in the third tub in a place where you can go through it later. The garage is a good place for it.

Then, just move to the next room and repeat the procedure with the three tubs. When you’re done, your house will feel a lot more organized and roomy.

The final step, of course, is to deal with all of the stuff you decided to get rid of. Ignore your second guessing here. You will likely think, “Well, I can keep this now that I have room,” but don’t fall into that trap. Trust your initial instinct and sell off or trade away that item.

The best thing to do is to have a garage sale with all of those items. Put up a sign in a couple of weeks, price everything, put up some tables, and arrange all the stuff. Your goal is not to make a mint, but to sell off a lot of the items.

You may want to sell media items at a media shop or trade them online. Both will earn you some cash from your excess items.

Keep in mind that this is an ongoing process. You may wind up starting over before you complete all of the rooms, but if you do that, the rooms you’ve already done will go much, much faster than before. You’ll probably also come across projects that need to be completed along the way – just use your own judgment with them, but the key is to keep moving forward with something.

What’s the end result of all of this? You have money from the stuff you cleared out. You have time because you’re not hunting for stuff all over the place. You have space for other frugal steps that will, in the end, save you more money and time.

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  1. Molly says:

    Re: rags. I’ve found that if I don’t cut up tshirts or socks before putting them in the rag bin, they magically make it back into the dresser… so make sure you *know* what’s a rag and what isn’t. But they do sop up plenty well, and I don’t feel bad about using as many as necessary to get the job done (whereas with paper towels I feel the need to conserve them, and it doesn’t work so well).

  2. Katie says:

    I don’t know, I suspect buying or renting a smaller residence is, in most locales, likely to save you more money than getting a place big enough to have a lot of storage space for rag bins and bulk products. (E.g., since I’ve been pricing them lately, the average difference between a studio and a one bedroom in my area seems to be about $300 per month – you’d have to make some pretty incredible bulk purchases to come out ahead with the extra space. An extreme case, perhaps, but still.)

  3. valleycat1 says:

    I’d say the easiest (& to me the best) thing to do with unwanted stuff is to donate it to one of the local charity resale shops, as we try to purge on an ongoing basis instead of one or two huge cleanouts a year.

    And I’m pretty much with Katie on the space vs. saving things. Where do you draw the line on saving things to eventually repurpose vs. items you can/should get rid of to make the space to keep the other stuff?

  4. Jane Sanders says:

    You’re dead on with organization being the key to all these frugal actions. Organization and forethought are the antithesis of the impulsiveness and desperation that leads people to bad purchases and inflated prices.

  5. Rebecca says:

    In regards to valleycat, what we do is have a designated area for things that we are currently storing but not using for a while, or need to be repurposed. We keep a few shelves in the basement for this. I also go through this area at least once a year to get rid of the excess.

    I also agree that as soon as I have a small bag of stuff to donate, out it goes! I don’t want that clutter hanging around waiting for a yard sale. We donate at least a bag a month.

  6. Brianne says:

    Good luck with the canvas bags. I rarely get the discount because the cashier doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. Then they act unbelievably put out that they have to use my bags instead.

  7. Matthew says:

    Having a smaller residence is a great way to save money if you want to have a smaller residence, but many of us do not want that. My wife and I view ourselves as frugal, but we also both enjoy living in a large condo and using all the lifestyle benefits it gives.

    I agree with Katie and Valleycat1 that it may not be worth buying/renting a bigger place just to be able to store items for the future. For those of us with the space to put into it however, stockpiling can be a powerful tool for frugal living.

  8. Roberta says:

    These are great tips. Sadly, however, I can’t save everything. Doing this leads me to poor organization as in “let me save this for something someday” neither of which ever comes. The key for me is knowing WHAT to save, and as the post says, having a place to store it. I really like Peter Walsh’s book “It’s all Too Much,” which I checked out from the library and read this summer. It helped me to differentiate those things worth saving and storing and those things to release.

  9. Greg says:

    From my experience, I disagree with the “Save everything” rule. Last time I moved house, I found myself with hundreds of plastic bags in various sizes , dozens of cardboard boxes (for sending stuff I sell on ebay), a dozen broken electronics items (for geeky DIY projects), two bicycle frames (to be made into spare bikes for guests), diskettes in all sizes from 3.5″ to 8″, and so on — all waiting in vain for their day to come. In the end, all of these were either thrown out, sold on eBay or donated to the thrift store.

    On the other hand, I have been very successful with saving and re-using screws, packaging materials, envelopes, and all sorts of cables.

    Nowadays, I apply a variant of the Stranger Test do decide what to keep: if a stranger knocked at my door and offered me the item for free, would I happily take it, or would I send him to hell?

  10. Greg says:

    I have encountered situations where you are better off buying just-in-time than buying in bulk:

    * you over-estimate your needs
    * prices go down
    * the situation changes

    Over-estimation of needs: we bought a large stock of nappies (cloth nappies did not work out for us), and then our daughter unexpectedly started using the potty at the age of two. We ended up giving the nappies to friends who just had a baby. With food, you have to be careful about the expiry date — will you really use that much in the given time? Moreover, your tastes may change: a wine that you really loved at the first tasting may become less attractive after you have had the 30th bottle.

    Falling prices: In the 1990s, I bought hundreds of blank CD-ROMs for my company in what appeared to be a fantastic deal. A few months later, the prices had dropped much lower even for small quantities.

    Change of situation: In the end we used far fewer CD-ROMs than planned because all our customers became connected to the internet, and we could distribute information and software through our website, instead of mailing CDs through the postal service. We would have been better off just buying the CD-ROMs we needed for the next 3 months.

  11. Katia says:

    I go by my Dad’s favorite saying…When in doubt, throw it out!

  12. Gretchen says:

    Veggie scraps alone do not a compost make.

  13. reulte says:

    Greg – I never heard of, but really like, the Stranger Test.

    The final step isn’t going through all the stuff you no longer want, it’s realizing that you’ll have to do the whole thing again in a few weeks/months/years.

    Buying/renting a smaller place is probably more cost effective but there are a lot more criteria than square footage that goes into moving into a place. Like rural/urban/suburban or moving near family or work or the school district you want. Currently we’re fine in less than 500 sq.ft. of living space, but at my next move – due to where I’m moving, the smallest place available for my criteria will be almost 3 times that size. It won’t be so I can ‘store’ stuff, it will be because I will be closer to work and outdoor spaces like parks/woods. Although I’ll be buying the smallest house that fits my criteria, it will still be a lot larger than what I currently have AND that means I will have space to store stuff (good!) and space for lots of clutter to gather without being noticed/underfoot and in the way (bad!).

  14. DivaJean says:

    The other concern about storing so much extra is that you may miss its window of usefulness. My example of this is the clothing we circulate among friends/family for kids. (I’ve posted about it a million times here). We ended up with a larger than usual amount of clothes for 3-4 yr old boys and no one else in our circle needing that. We stored these in our basement and took out what we thought we had for spring/summer- but missed a big box of shorts and ended up buying more.

    And not to mention the window of usefulness (ie- expiration dates) on pantry items like packaged foods. I try to go through every other month and check the dates. If its getting too close (ie within my next two months) and I don’t foresee us finishing whatever it is, it gets donated to our church neighborhood food pantry for immediate use.

  15. valleycat1 says:

    I’ve carried reusable shopping bags for at least 20 years. Back in the day, some stores would refuse to let me leave without their logo plastic bag, but most stores are with the program now & it’s no big deal. If the cashier starts putting my items in a plastic bag, I’ll often help with the transfer to mine. I would use the bags even if no one gave the $ back on them – it’s all about not toting home a gazillion plastic bags & then deciding whether to keep or recycle them.

  16. Wayward says:

    I, too, do the clothes-to-rag bin routine in my house. Though, after a while, even the rag bin needs to be purged.

  17. kristine says:


    What else do you need? You knowledge appreciated. I knew there was a reason my composting was not composting!

  18. Frugality, organization and time management–the three go hand in hand

    You gotta de-clutter at least once every six months too.

    Re use or donate or toss, one of the three.

  19. Jane says:

    You need “brown” material to break down with your “green” kitchen scraps. Some brown materials are any yard waste, cut up cardboard, newspaper or shredded paper. Dirt or compost can also be used. You need a decent amount of nitrogen as well to get it all to break down. Things high in nitrogen: grass clipping, blood meal, most of your kitchen scraps, manure, coffee, etc. You can also add red worms to speed the process. I have them in my regular bin. I used to vermicompost (w/worms), but that was too much work.

  20. Kate says:

    You know you are a dedicated composter when:
    You are staying overnight in a motel and want to bring the coffee grounds home instead of having them go in the trash.

  21. PF says:

    I have garden/compost envy. We live in bear country, so compost bin=bear trough, garden=elk food. LOL! We do compost at work, though!

    Regarding kids cloths. We get tons of kids clothes. I use labels on black plastic bags to keep it all sorted. I’m constantly sorting through new clothes to ensure that everything ends up in its proper gender/size and to ensure that we don’t miss anything. I have to do it about 6 times a year. I keep a box marked “donation” in the laundry room so things that are too small go straight from the dryer to that box.

  22. Gretchen says:

    Most of your compost pile needs to be brown. Leaves are the best source. I can’t imagine how long cardboard would take to decompose.

    I tried vermicomposting but the worms all died on me. I could not keep it dry enough for them.

    As far as getting rid of yard sale stuff, I just donate it. Stuff sitting around waiting for a sale where I might make $20 is not worth the chance it’ll work it’s way back into my home.

  23. Kate says:

    Corrugated cardboard breaks down very quickly, especially if you tear it into smaller pieces. Worms seem to especially love it. I compost all of my paper towel and toilet tubes but no cardboard with a “slick” side.
    My frugal compost container is a 5 quart plastic paint bucket with a top from Lowes and a recycled Cool Whip container (generic :o). I gather scraps in the Cool Whip container and at night I dump them into the paint bucket. When the bucket is full, I bury it in my compost pile and rinse out the bucket with the hose. It is lightweight and easy to carry because of the wire handle.

  24. littlepitcher says:

    Most living space is not used as storage space, but as empty space or display space. A smaller dwelling with a larger storage space will save you big money. Storage solutions in-house (one closet dedicated to usable bulk buys, a pantry for home-canned goodies and empty jars, storage ottomans and chest/coffee tables, are tangible financial assets. Organize living space effectively and keep open storage space in case of bargains. Not all bargains are bulky–markdown spices, the boxes of pricey herb teas, toothpaste, and mason jar lids I purchased for .50/ea, reconditioned or sale portable hard drives, memory cards, and flash drives to save on paper, certainly qualify.

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