Seven Reasons to Care About the Tiny Things (And Seven Tiny Things to Care About)

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Quite often, you’ll see personal finance writers talk about the big things – the single moves that will save you quite a lot per month. Downgrade your living quarters! Sell that car! Buy a used car! Change your insurance!

Those things are flashy because they can save you a lot of money with one action. Yet, they have several serious limitations (that I’ll get into below). Simply using a short checklist of these big things and calling it good enough will certainly help, but they only take you halfway to your big goal.

It’s the small things, the mountain of pebbles, that can really carry things over the top. Here are seven reasons why – and seven small things you can easily do.

There are many more tiny things than big things
Our lives are filled to the brim with choices. We choose what we do with our time and money virtually every second of the day, whether we’re at work or doing chores or sleeping or watching television or anything else we do. Those choices, as a whole, are very simple and minute, but on the whole they add up to a lot: our day, our week, our month, our future.

Almost all of those little choices have a financial implication. Do I make something at home or do I go out to eat? Do I watch television or do I read this book from the library? Do I flip the light switch on my way out of the room? They pop up over and over and over again throughout our day – we have many more opportunities to do the little things than the big things.

Tiny thing #1: Train yourself to flip off the light switch every time you leave a room. Every hour a single 75 watt light bulb stays on costs you roughly a cent. If a single switch can turn off several lights, it quickly adds up.

The tiny things usually don’t alter your quality of life
Yes, some of those little choices can alter your quality of life. Do I go out to eat or not? Depending on your values, the answer to that can certainly alter your life quality.

Many choices, however, have virtually no impact on our quality of life. Choosing to flip off the light switch on the way out of the room has no impact. Choosing a bulk purchase of laundry detergent? Minimal impact. Choosing to pick up a penny off the ground? Virtually no impact. Reading a book instead of watching television? No impact except possibly a positive one. All of those choices have a small but positive influence on your money, though.

Tiny thing #2: Drive the speed limit instead of five or ten miles over. It will improve the fuel efficiency of your car (a small thing) but also reduce your chances of a traffic ticket.

The tiny things help you get into a “money saving” mindset
As you grow more conscious of all of these little choices and start actively choosing the ones that save you money, this begins to feel like it’s the “natural” mode. The choice to save money rather than “living large” begins to feel like the normal option.

The end result of that? You make lots of little choices that save you money and it begins to add up quick. Of course, to get started, you have to start actively making little choices…

Tiny thing #3: The next time you go to buy something nonperishable that you use regularly, buy the bulk version.

The tiny things don’t require a lot of active thought
Most of the little choices in our lives are considered and done so quickly that we don’t even really consider them. When we walk by the light switch, the decision to flip or not to flip the switch is made almost instantaneously. The decision on which version of a product to buy at the store is made extremely quickly.

Compare that to the “big” saves, like selling your house or buying a used car. Yes, they make a huge impact, but the time investment is substantially longer, too. When you calculate both to an hourly rate, they’re often surprisingly comparable.

Tiny thing #4: On your way to the grocery store, go over what you’re going to buy in your mind. If you have someone in the car with you, make a list together. Better yet, make a list before you go.

There are many more opportunities to use the tiny things
You can only save money on a car purchase once every few years. You can use an energy saving trick once every few hours.

That adds up. Yes, by all means, save $500 on your car purchase. But you’ll be doing that once every five years. Alternately, you can save eight cents on something three times a day. 365 days a year. Five years. $450.

Tiny thing #5: Eat the fresh food in the fridge when you’re thinking about a snack. If you choose the preserved food, the fresh food might get old and spoil.

The tiny things often improve your skill set and your social network
You can either drive to the oil change place – or you can learn how to change the oil yourself. Either way, you’re burning an hour. Yet, the “hard” option is not only cheaper, but it also teaches you a useful skill, one that you can use elsewhere.

This pops up time and time again: cooking, landscaping, minor home repairs, and so on. Choosing the slightly harder path almost always saves you money, but more importantly, you learn something new. That new thing might later on come in handy in helping out a friend or building a new relationship.

Tiny thing #6: Buy unshredded cheese, then shred it as you put food on the table. The cheese is less expensive, plus it tastes a lot better since the cheese surface is fresh.

The time investment in most tiny things is miniscule
Most of the “tiny things” take very little time to do. Flipping the light switch? Half a second. Using a generic product? No time at all. Doing a price comparison? A second or two. Driving the speed limit? A minute or so.

If you make the choice to do the tiny thing to save yourself money, you’re usually not investing much time in it at all. It doesn’t disrupt your schedule or eat up a bunch of your spare time. It usually just takes a few seconds or a moment or two – and given the amount of idling in our lives, it’s often easy to fit these things in.

Tiny thing #7: Turn your tap off when you brush your teeth. If you do this for two minutes per brush twice a day, you end up saving hundreds of gallons of water a year, trimming easily from your water bill.

The little things really add up. Given the little effort they require, there’s no reason not to add a lot of them to your life.

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30 thoughts on “Seven Reasons to Care About the Tiny Things (And Seven Tiny Things to Care About)

  1. Again with the reading a book is better than watching TV… Can’t anyone [besides me] think of one or two TV shows that are better for your brain than some of the mindless books that are available?? Back in the olden days, reading books was often considered a waste of time–people were supposed to be working, making things, fixing things, etc.

    How about a column about “wasting time”?

  2. Good post. I would like to become a less wasteful person, even if the savings are not immediately tangible. You don’t have to do the math out to prove to me that it’s worthwhile. I have known people who just couldn’t hold on to their money, even though they didn’t seem to spending on anything huge. It’s the small stuff that makes the difference.

  3. I like it!! You are right, it is the little things that can make you or break you!

  4. Some of the tips could use tweaking….

    Buy in bulk… only if it’s cheaper.

    Often it’s not. Generic peanut butter- $1/(12 oz jar) or $3.50/(30 oz jar). 8.3 cents/oz for the smaller jar, 11.7 cents/oz for the larger. Maybe if mooch on my friend’s sam’s membership to get the 5 lb vat the bulk might be cheaper, but even then I haven’t always found sam’s to be cheaper per oz. I could list more. So pay attention! Usually the per oz price is printed in tiny letters on the price tag for those of you intimidated by the math. Also–use that cell phone calculator. Perfectly nerdy, but convenient.

    Drive the speed limit instead of five or ten miles over (your car’s ‘sweet spot’).

    “In general, smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic cars will get their best mileage at higher speeds. Bigger, heavier, less aerodynamic vehicles will get their best mileage at lower speeds.” — How Stuff Works

    Find your car’s range where it gets its highest gas mileage. That’s a more effective “tiny thing” than just going slower no matter what.

    On your way to the grocery store, go over what you’re going to buy in your mind… but be willing to adjust to sales.

    Sticking to your list and buying chicken is only so useful if chicken is $2.5/lb and pork is on sale for $1/lb. Lists are only so useful.

    I like the idea of this post, but following some of these “tips” to the letter can cost you money. But maybe broadening them makes things too complicated? I don’t know.

  5. The bulk size does not always offer the best savings. Check the unit price of the various sizes. Our stores tend to post the unit price, but you can easily calculate it too.

    In my local grocery store I frequently find shredded cheese for the same price or less than the block cheese (same weight).

  6. Per pound, the cheapest I’ve ever seen cheese was $1.79 per pound – a 5-pound bag of shredded cheese at Costco. That beats even the “really good” twice-a-year sales on cheese in my area.

    Also, tiny things may not each alter your quality of life much, but continually being in the mindset of “how can I save just a bit more money” definitely can. Ideally, one would fix the big things, set a budget, then review the plan yearly. If you’re on budget, you don’t have to focus on every penny of electricity. This frees the mind to think of more important things, and to be mindful of the moment rather than spending every minute of “now” preparing for “later”.

    A certain amount of planning is good, but too much money-focus can pull one’s life out of balance. That is what I feel like when I start to read “frugality tips”. They are captivating and I start to evaluate every piece of my life in terms of how to optimize it fiscally. I think that mentality is unhealthy. Money is merely a tool.

  7. I don’t watch much tv – there’s not a lot on there I find interesting. And I read a lot – maybe not as much as you, but more than most people I know.

    I definitely gain a lot from my reading, and I doubt I would gain anywhere close to that from tv in the knowledge/insight department.

    I disagree with you that there’s no downside to this decision, though. the main one is that I lose a major source of connection with my social circle. If everyone else is talking about who got cut on American Idol or what’s happening on Lost, I’m left out of that conversation entirely.

  8. The old farmer’s used to say, “A woman can throw more out the back door with a teaspoon than a man can bring in the front door with a shovel.” There’s a lot of waste out there, and if you cut your waste, you cut your cash outflow, and usually help the environment, and America’s balance of trade, buy buying less imported stuff, whether goods, raw material or oil. Think of ways to reuse what you’ve got. If a large heavy duty animal feed sack is empty because the feed’s used up, it makes a really sturdy trash bag, keeping me from buying flimsy, expensive, petroleum based plastic trash bags. Got kitchen waste? Compost, or now that it’s warm, dig a small hole in the vegetable garden every day and bury each day’s waste. Improves soil structure, keeps organic material out of the waste stream, and saves having to buy fertilizer. Also the trash you do put out is not smelly and won’t attract pests. Have scrap medal? Put it aside and when there’s a lot, including aluminum cans, take it to the scrapper and collect some cash.

  9. “Reading a book instead of watching television? No impact except possibly a positive one. All of those choices have a small but positive influence on your money, though.”

    Your preference for reading over TV is just that a personal preference or value judgment. You CANNOT directly correlate it with money unless you manipulate things – i.e. you check out your book from the library and watch TV on cable. This would affect your pocketbook. But if you watch network TV on an old TV, how is this any different financially from reading a used book or library book?

    Am I the only one tired of PF websites moralizing about TV? I guarantee the clever TV shows I watch stimulate my brain just as much as the new mass market paperback at your local Borders. Sure, neither is Shakespeare, but neither one is inherently superior either.

  10. For Jane @#11. Well, if nothing else, an old TV probably takes more electricity to run than a reading light.

  11. I thought this column was a good one – and about a topic I would like to see more. And guys, it is the intent. Taking it verbatim is never a good idea. It is the intent. The TV thing – you could take it literally. But it usually has been shown that TV leads to “wanting” more and being less satisfied with what one has. The rest – you need to think of the concept. It is the little things and I feel good that in general I do these things. Some – I need to be more concious like when raiding the refrigerator for a snack – go for fresh to prevent spoilage.

    I guess my first reaction to the column was “what a great column and I would like to see more”. I then read the comments because I thought there would be more ideas, not nik-piking Trent’s column. That was a downer.

  12. I have no TV because the programming is structured to be compelling and keep me sitting there all evening. Every time we stay in a hotel the truth of this is reinforced.

    There is also the constant wash of advertising. My kids don’t know all the stuff they could be wishing for.

  13. Good article Trent. I’m with ‘NMPatricia’. It interesting that some are feeling attacked and judged about the TV thing. Keep voicing your opinion Trent!
    Peeps- If you value watching TV keep watching the damn TV!

    On the idea front- I have been successful because I did a few big things to save money but than did a whole hech-of-a-bunch of small things. The big stuff got me going and the little things are daily frugal reminders!

  14. THE SHOPPING LIST – I could never remember all the items I need to buy at the store. The list is the only way. That way you have what you need when you need it. Put your paper on the fridge door with a magnet. And the paper; remember most paper is only printed on one side. The other side is the shopping list, the To Do list, etc.

  15. I love watching tv as much as the next person, and I am also an avid reader reading over 100 books a year – but what I think Trent may have been trying to address is that when you watch tv you are subject to tons of commercials that can afffect you subconsciously the next time you hit the shopping mall. Perhaps?

  16. I agree with $14 and #17. The numbers of commercials people watch yearly is amazing. By not watching tv and using Firefox I find that the things I am wanting are things I need and/or my friends actually recommend to me–not just some high powered advertising company.

    But mostly I don’t even want to go shopping! :)

    It seems like commercials are really interesting these days. Since I don’t see many of them anymore, I do find them interesting to watch when I see them (in a hotel, on a trip, at family’s house). Sometimes their logic is amazing, though (save 30% when you buy 3 pairs of shoes… as if you you’ve not just forked over $60-$100 to get those three pairs).

    Anyway, TV isn’t the bad guy, but the commercials are going to make a difference to you. If not, the companies are wasting their money (and you can bet that they don’t think they are!)

  17. I agree with NMPatricia – commentors are missing the point here by just nit-picking Trent’s speciafic ideas. It’s all about the intent in making small changes. The little things we do add up. Great post!!!

  18. Why is it either / or? You can read AND also watch TV (though, for me, not at the same time!).

    Both have value. Yes, there are mindless books that are the equivalent of junk TV shows (and yes, it’s all subjective but honestly most people know when they are vegging out via reading or TV as opposed to enjoying “active” –read mentally or emotionally stimulating– entertainment. I would argue that there is a need for both, although if one is constantly vegging out, one should be rethinking how time is being spent.).

    It’s true that network TV is mostly mindless stuff (we’re gonna miss us some Lost come May, however…hardly a show that is mindless), but there is some good stuff out there and not just documentaries or PBS. It’s about moderation. When you spend four or five hours a day in front of a TV…well, that’s something you might want to think about in terms of how you could be using those hours.

    Frankly, there’s nothing I’ve ever seen on TV that made me want to run out and buy it. If anything, it’s staying OFF the Web and canceling the zillion “bargain” e-newsletters one gets that will curb one’s spending. (But then, of course, you will also miss out on genuine bargains for things you’ve budgeted for.)

    To me the “small” thing is to constantly be aware of your choices and take a minute to think: Is this the best use of my time and energy right now? Is this a shadow comfort or something more?

    Just taking a moment to really think about what you are doing, whatever the action or choice is, is to me, the “small”/tiny detail that matters the most.

    Too many of us get into bad habits and live far too mindlessly.

  19. Maybe we’re all just in a nit-picking mood, but my beef is with idea 7. First of all, it only saves money if your water is metered. I pay a flat rate for water annually. On the other hand, it would never have entered my mind to leave the water running while I brush my teeth anyway. Wet toothbrush, fill glass with water to rinse mouth. Brush teeth. Rinse. Dump remaining water from glass over toothbrush. Run water for a few seconds while cleaning toothpaste off brush. It’s not rocket science.

    However in the interests of being constructive, here is my tip for saving tiny amounts that adds up. Check for patterns in gas prices. Around here at least, the price of gas is at its highest from about 11 pm through the following day and usually goes down anywhere from 1 to 4 cents through the early evening (after rush hour), often in one or two drops. I try to buy gas around 9 to 10:30 pm. (This was actually very convenient for me when I was working 3 evenings per week and heading home during that time frame.) I combine this with a points program through a gas station that occasionally allows me to use my points to get a card that gives me an additional 5 cents per litre off the next 200 litres of gas. Do I save a fortune? No. Realistically, it’s about $50 to $60 per year (based on my car and the driving we do). But I hate spending more than I need to on gas. I’d rather have that money to spend on something I both want and need.

  20. Some of the grated cheese around here is covered with some sort of white powder to keep it separated. This also keeps it from melting properly and it keeps it from tasting good. I buy sharp cheese, grate it myself (it does last longer ungrated, so if you don’t go through it quickly, just grate what you need), and use a little less because the flavor is so strong.

    @Michael Bash, I like to use the backs of old envelopes (if they are blank) for grocery lists. I do keep them on the fridge with a magnet so I can add things as I run low. And you can put your coupons inside. Another clue I need to learn: before leaving, double-check the pantry to see if I already have anything on that list. I have bought replacement ginger twice now, and I have a huge container in the pantry. Doh!

    Another of those tiny things I like is to take care of things right away instead of trying to remember everything. Pay bills when I get them (saves on late fees). Buy presents when I see something good for someone. Add things to the grocery list when I see I’m running low (saves on gas for small trips). Throw something in the mending pile when I notice a problem (a stitch in time saves nine; also reduces stress in the morning when I don’t pull clothes that I shouldn’t be wearing).

    Another tiny thing: get in the habit of doing something useful in front of the TV, such as knitting, mending, or squats and tricep dips. (I’m not as good at doing things when I read, though I do read on the bus and some read on a treadmill.)

  21. To those of you who talk about TV and the power of advertising, I see you point. But I have a DVR and literally never watch a commercial. I don’t feel attacked by Trent’s comment about the TV and don’t feel bad at all about watching TV. That’s not the point. It’s the assumption that watching TV or not is a personal finance issue rather than a values or preference one. I think many PF blogs conflate the two, and THAT is misleading.

    And how is dialoging about the spirit of an article nit-picking? I don’t even think Trent wants people to use the comments as a forum to pat him on the back all the time. What’s the point of a comment section if you can’t provide another dimension to a post or (gasp!) disagree with it?

  22. @IASOS “the programming is structured to be compelling” LOL. You must get different channels from those we get.

  23. One thing to remember about turning lights out is that if you have CFL bulbs and are returning to that room in 15 minutes or less, it’s more efficient to leave the light on.

  24. Sheila, the time for CFLs is actually much shorter: 3 minutes is more like it. The 15 minute rule is for standard fluorescent bulbs.

    For more info, check out Tree Hugger’s user guide.

    It is best to use CFLs in places where you’d use light for longer periods of time to maximize bulb life (that is, don’t put a CFL in the closet where you switch lights on for just an instant every time you use one).

  25. While it may be marginally more efficient to turn a CFL off if you’ll be gone more than 3 minutes, the actual savings we’re dealing with are minuscule. Consider this line from the article: “Every hour a single 75 watt light bulb stays on costs you roughly a cent.” So if all your fixtures contain 15-watt CFLs, then leaving one on for an hour will cost you one-fifth of a cent. Leaving it on for ten minutes while you leave the room and come back will cost you one-thirtieth of a cent. The savings is trivial. When it comes to energy efficiency, you’ll save a lot more money by focusing on the bigger changes (like switching from incandescent bulbs to CFLs) than the tiny ones (like switching off those CFLs when you’re gone for ten minutes).

  26. I’m with ya Jane @ 11. There are some great programs on TV. Also, comedy shows DO add something to life – a break from day to day stress and good laughs! I’m sick of people acting like “mindless” TV can’t be good for you in moderation.

  27. TV helps me clean my house. Yeah, it may sometimes be “mindless”–(which I don’t think it is; anything that’s engaging requires some type of thought process, whether it be TV, a book, a magazine, a sports game etc)–but how much thought do I need to put into doing dishes or sweeping?
    Sometimes I want to lie around and do nothing, but being the human being that I am, that’s not as appealing as doing nothing while watching tv.
    I’m not ashamed to admit that I love TV. As for commercials, I’ve never seen a commercial advertising something I didn’t already know about from billboards, word of mouth, or the internet. And I’ve never seen a commercial that enticed me to buy anything. I don’t buy anything unless it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
    Most commercials are about things that I buy anyway: tampons & birth control (which I already have my preferences w/or w/out commercials), beer (again…already drink, already have preferences), the grocery store (already shop there), dvd’s (If I like a movie enough to actually purchase the dvd, then I already know when it’s coming out and I’m getting it because I want to, not because of the commercial), vacations (I already know all of the places I want to go in the next years). There is virtually NOTHING on tv that makes me want to spend money.

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