The Little Things Do Matter: Twelve Little Hacks That Add Up To A Lot

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Look at these twelve little hacks and think about how simple they are.

Switch your savings account from your local bank to ING Direct. That’s the bank I switched to about a year and a half ago in order to get a higher interest rate (over 4%). They made the whole thing easy as pie – it took about five minutes – and I’ve never had anything but stellar customer service.

Drink one less coffee a week. Let’s say you stop at Starbucks – or your preferred coffee house – three times a week. Just trim it back to two. That’s it.

Call one credit card company and ask for a rate reduction. Just flip over your card and call that number on the back. Ask to speak to a supervisor if the first human you get won’t reduce your rate.

Stop by the library and check out some movies. Most libraries have a pile of movies available to check out. Stop in and browse their selection, then take some home for some viewing with the family.

Replace one light bulb in your house with a CFL. Many people complain about CFLs for general lighting, but they’re great to put in some places, like in closets, garages, and the laundry room where light quality isn’t that important. Instead of tossing in another incandescent bulb, put in a CFL instead.

Air up your tires. The next time you get your oil changed, ask for them to air up your tires if they don’t already do it. If you’re willing, do it yourself – most gas stations offer free air and your car’s manual explains how to do it.

Drink water instead of your usual beverage with one meal a day. Instead of having a soda or a glass of milk or a beer or whatever you might have, enjoy a glass of water with your meal instead.

Switch your checking account to Electric Orange. That’s the checking account I currently use. They pay 3.5% on your checking account balance and have a huge ATM network, including any Target in the United States.

Read a book. Instead of filling your time with other activities, curl up with a good book. Pick one off your shelf that you already have, get one from the library, or request one off of PaperBackSwap.

Write a grocery list before you go to the store, and stick to it. This keeps a lot of unnecessary stuff out of your cart.

Prepare one simple meal at home out of the cupboard instead of ordering delivery or take-out. Even if it’s something simple like a hamburger and macaroni and cheese.

The next time you make a casserole, make a triple or quadruple batch of it and freeze the rest for later. These meals are great for lazy nights when you would otherwise get some fast food, delivery, or take out – instead, just pull it out of the freezer, heat it up, and you’re ready to eat.

Those are all easy steps – all of them are reasonable for the average person to do. They’re tips that, in various ways, I’ve often mentioned on The Simple Dollar. You might already be doing some of them. How much do they save, though?

Switch your savings account from your local bank to ING Direct. If you have $1,000 in your savings account and your local bank is giving you 0.5% interest, moving it to an account with 4% interest means an extra $35/year.

Drink one less coffee a week. Let’s say your average coffee store shop costs you $5, all told – you get a scone sometimes, after all. You’ll save up a nice, tidy $260/year.

Call one credit card company and ask for a rate reduction. The average American household has $9,000 in credit card debt. Let’s say that call reduces your rate by 3%. That one phone call saves you $270/year.

Stop by the library and check out some movies. If you do this once a month instead of going out to a movie or renting movies, you’ll easily save an average of $10 a month. That adds right up to $120/year.

Replace one light bulb in your house with a CFL. An average light bulb is on 4 hours a day, and you’ll save 50 watts an hour with a CFL, equaling 200 watts a day, or a kilowatt hour every five days, which is $0.10. Over an average four year period, you’ll use one CFL or you’ll use eight incandescents, so over an average year you’ll save the cost of a normal bulb – about $0.80. Remember, this one’s easily multipliable because you can replace all of your bulbs, but just one bulb will save you $8/year.

Air up your tires. An average tire is around 6 pounds low on pressure. Filled to capacity, that will save you 3% on your gas mileage. If your car normally gets 20 miles per gallon, you drive 10,000 miles a year, and that gas costs $3 a gallon, you’ll save $46/year.

Drink water instead of your usual beverage with one meal a day. On average, this saves you $0.40 a day, as that’s the average cost of a meal beverage. Thus, water alone saves you $146/year.

Switch your checking account to Electric Orange. If you’re like me, your old checking account costs you $5 a month in fees and pays no interest. If you switch to Electric Orange, you get a 3.5% bump up in interest and the fees go away. If your average balance is $2,000, this move will save you $130/year.

Read a book. If you replace one $20 activity a month (going to a concert, etc.) with reading a book from the library, you save yourself $240/year.

Write a grocery list before you go to the store, and stick to it. I’ve calculated that a well-executed grocery list saves me about $15 a week for my family. That really adds up, to $780/year.

Prepare one simple meal at home out of the cupboard instead of ordering delivery or take-out. If you do this just once every three months and it saves you $10, you can save $40/year.

The next time you make a casserole, make a triple or quadruple batch of it and freeze the rest for later. If each extra casserole saves you $5, and you make a quadruple batch once a month, you’ll save $180/year.

This all adds up to $2,239 in a year – and it’s pretty easy to see that some of these are repeatable, which racks up even more savings. That’s a car payment. That’s a big piece of saving for a house down payment. That kind of money can eliminate a five figure credit card debt in just a few years.

What’s the point of this exercise? It skewers pretty cleanly the two biggest arguments against frugality: it doesn’t add up to real money and it’s too hard. Few would argue that these activities are hard at all, and I think it’s pretty challenging to say that $2,200 a year isn’t real money for most people.

Take the little steps. They will pay off.

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47 thoughts on “The Little Things Do Matter: Twelve Little Hacks That Add Up To A Lot

  1. I made about $100 interest last year after I opened ING Direct/Electric Orange accounts and several CDs. Free money. This is more than I’ve earned in a lifetime from traditional banks. And I agree, the customer service is exceptional.

    The water tip is great: many casual dining and fast food places charge up to $2 for a cup of soda. You could probably get 4-liters of soda for that much.

    Also I noticed that this list is…a little redundant?

  2. ING Direct is has really helped us, both with the high interest and the daily interest tracker. It’s a motivator to speed the savings along.

  3. Trent, I think you repeated your list, but it was so good it was worth posting twice! I’ve also had good luck with ING accounts, and have taken your “Read a book” advice to heart. I’m now reading about 1 non-fiction book a week – I used to read only one or two a year!

  4. On drinking water, you can save a great deal more than that! My family of five has a tradition of ordering water when we go out to eat and putting the money saved in a piggy bank. When it reaches $50 or so, we deposit it into a savings account.

    We started doing this several years ago, saving the money for a family trip to Disney World. The kids didn’t like it since they always wanted Sprite or some other soda, but over several years, we saved up $4,000 to pay for that trip.

    It really made a huge difference to be able to go, enjoy it, and not worry that you’re going into credit card debt.

    Your list is great, Trent. This is one to print out and share with the whole family.

  5. I disagree with putting CFLs in closets, garages, and the laundry room. CFLs are best for rooms where you’ll spend longer periods of time. From GE’s website:

    “Can I use a CFL in applications where I will be turning the lights on/off frequently?

    “Compact fluorescent light bulbs work best if they are left on for over 15 minutes each time they are turned on. These types of lamps can take up to 3 minutes to warm-up. Warm-up will probably not be noticeable from a user stand point, but the lamp needs to warm-up in order to reach the point of most efficient operation. Frequently switching them on and off will shorten the life of the product. If the life of the lamp is shortened significantly, you will not reap the financial benefits (includes energy & life of lamp), that are common to CFL lamps.”

    So, even according to the *maker* of the bulb, who certainly wants to put it in the best “light” possible, you won’t save money by putting CFL bulbs in your laundry room or closet.

  6. Great list!

    I love having my groceries delivered from Safeway.com. It’s almost always free (they send out coupons at least once a month, and RetailMeNot.com usually has an active code listed) and it ensures that I only buy exactly what I need and nothing more. It also means I don’t have to carry cat litter in from the grocery store, or even gas up my car to go. I don’t have to spend any time in lines or wandering aisles, so even if I do have to pay the $5 delivery charge from time-to-time, I’m still saving big in the long-run.

    Also, I made a huge discovery the other day. I used to drink one venti iced coffee from Starbucks each day. Brewing iced coffee at home is way too much effort and it tastes awful, and I find iced coffee to be far better than hot coffee because I can sip it over the course of five or more hours — hot coffee has a small window where the temperature is acceptable. However, I then switched to venti iced Americanos, which I soon realized were just *hot* shots of espresso poured over ice, with a little cold water added. That’s super-easy to replicate at home with any espresso maker. I now fill up a 32oz Nalgene with ice, pour four shots of espresso over it each morning, and I’m perfectly caffeinated all day. This switch is also going to save me $1,000 a year — literally. Best of all, I get MORE iced coffee for a tiny fraction of the price, and I don’t have to leave the house :)

  7. Instead of ING you might consider AmTrust Direct (www.amtrustdirect.com). I have used them for about a year and they consistently pay more than ING (currently at 5.11). You can link external accounts, similar to ING.

    Best Wishes,
    D4L

  8. Don’t waste that savings on a car payment, invest that annual savings in a Roth IRA. When you are 70, that car will be long discarded and forgotten but the IRA will have grown into your nestegg.

  9. I was -very- excited to read the comment about Safeway delivering. Alas, they don’t deliver in my area, even though there’s a Safeway store a block from my house. =(

    Before anyone calls me lazy, I don’t have a car. Lugging a 20 lb box of kitty litter up a hill and then up the stairs to my apartment is a major pain. At least it helps keep me in shape! ;-)

    Also, I think your estimate of having water with a meal is too low. Like a previous commenter said, drinks at restaurants can easily be $2 +. At those prices, give me water any day!

  10. I would love to move my savings to ING Direct, and actually tried to a few months ago (moving money from an American bank account to an ING CD)…unfortunately, you have to be an American resident for this, and we’re expats, so our money was returned to our bank account. ING was nice enough to also give us the $7 or so that accrued in interest in the meantime, though.

    Does Amtrust Direct allow non-US residents to open/transfer accounts, or does it contravene the Patriot Act?

    Off to finish “The Tightwad Gazette” now…

  11. Just for everyone’s information.

    CFL’s do absolutely nothing to save energy or the environment.

    They are actually more harmful to the environment when disposed of–and the manufacturing is done in the country who is responsible for the most pollution of any, not to mention all the energy it takes to get the bulbs over here.

    By the time you factor in everything, they’re worthless.

  12. Many towns have recycling programs for CFL’s. They are not useless. They also last far longer than ordinary light bulbs.

    I’d like to add my habit of picking up coins on my walks into town. I found 30 cents today. It’s a tiny little amount, but it’s 30 cents I didn’t have this morning.

  13. Not only have I switched to ING’s savings account but I’ve had it automatically deduct $5 a WEEK from my regular bank account. That’s $5 I won’t even realize I had – it saves me from blowing it on a random latte or even worse, some kitschy stuff while I’m waiting in line at Target. That’s $20 a month on top of regular savings transfers – and that equals up to $240 I’ve kept myself from spending on crap in a whole year.

  14. Funny you should mention making multiple batches of casserole. When I started living on my own, I didn’t know how to cook for just one or 2 people because I got used to mom’s way of making big batches of everything. I know now how to make small batches of meals but I still make multiple because, like you said, it turns out much cheaper! When I cook a stew, it usually lasts me and my spouse at least 3 meals!

  15. mgroves and frugal dad, the list isn’t repeated. First the ideas are presented then at the end each idea is reviewed explaining how much money it could save.

    Trent, thanks for the Electric Orange checking account suggestion. I had heard about it before but never understood it to be for checking – thought it was savings and I already have a high interest on line account. I’m going to look into that! :)

  16. @Ms Clear
    Picking up change is great. I go to high school, and I have a friend that’s a lot like me. We wander around the school during our thirty minute lunch, and pick up whatever we find. Yesterday at lunch, we picked up 7 cents, and two functional pens. Although not exactly an amazing haul, it’s 7 cents and two pens left than we’d normally have. We do this every day. Sometimes we don’t find anything, but sometimes we find more. It ends up being a great deal, because not only can we find money this way (which all goes into our college funds), but we get plenty of exercise (I spend about 60 minutes a day walking, between classes, lunch, and before and after school)

  17. I would recommend HSBC savings and Schwab checking. They are currently offering 5.05% on savings and 4.25% on checking. Schwab checking also has free ATM service anywhere and free checks and debit cards.

    I also agree that CFL’s can save a lot of money. I dropped our electric bill by $15 just by switching, and I agree that you shouldn’t use them in closets or areas where they will only be on a few minutes. You usually have to get one notch above the level of incandescents you use (i.e. one that they say matches a 75 watt bulb actually matches more like a 60 watt).

  18. I really don’t keep a lot of money in my bank accounts anyways since I pretty much transfer everything to stocks. I keep enough to only cover each months expenses +$1000 extra. I know, I’m supposed to keep this money somewhere risk free, but over the long term, stocks should do better than the risk free account. When I sell my house in a few years, I plan on putting $10K in savings and $10K in checking, just as a reserve. I plan on only putting 20% down on my next house, so I’ll be putting the rest of the equity to work.

  19. Hello Susan,

    I admire your tolerance for risk, and in the long term you should come out ahead. Do you worry about needing some of the money you have in the stock market for an emergency, and having to sell during a down time in the market? (Looks like you will have that covered better after you sell your house).

  20. Jim,

    I worry about that a little bit, but then I remind myself that I was putting money in the stock market for a while now and I am way way ahead of where a savings account would be right now.

  21. ING is at 4.1% while several other institutions are at 5.0% and over, even with recent rate drops.

    ING is consistently at the bottom of the rates among the online savings account offerings.

    ING is better than the brick-n-mortar mega bank downtown but otherwise, they are a poor choice when compared to other options.

    Editor’s note: I use ING for one reason alone: customer service. I’ve been with several online banks and I’ve had problems with every single one from using their interface, having deposits to the account show up in reasonable time, and at least twice, I’ve had the bank basically fight me if I tried to withdraw money. ING has been nothing but stellar with customer service, and that’s worth a fraction of a percentage in interest to me. Make your own judgment call, of course.

  22. For an alternative to ING Orange savings and Electric Orange checking, look into UnivestDirect. They offer a higher rate on savings, a higher rate on checking, and, unlike ING, allow for the use of paper checks with the account, if desired.

  23. Another great account is Emigrant Direct. If you keep a 10k balance in your savings then you get a 1.5% cash back reward on purchases you make via your credit card. If you just pick one item like gasoline the rewards plus the interest the account yields will ad up to a whole lot of free money for something you were going to do anyway.

  24. The High yield savings and checking is a great way to earn extra money. My wife and I got our tax statements from the bank today, she made $470 in interest, and i made $380. Thats alomost one of our rent payemts.

  25. Debate about the current impact of CFLs aside (which I think will even itself out as they become more common and handling them becomes more common knowledge), I have found that you can get CFLs for almost every fixture in the house too. I have replaced the recessed can lights in my kitchen with CFLs. I like them even better because of the warm-up cycle. When I turn on the lights when it’s dark, I’m not immediately blinded by the six (yes, six; that’s how the house came) bulbs blasting on me. I’ve replaced all of the ceiling fan lightbulbs and all of the mini-globes along with any “standard” bulbs.

    I can also buy the plain swirly CFLs for about the same cost as incandescants due to the rebates and subsidies from the electric company; even more savings there.

    I’m not advertising for anyone, but here’s an example I just stumbled across of the bulb types available: http://www.1000bulbs.com/Screw-In-Compact-Fluorescents/

  26. Hi, just found this and have been really pleased with all the interesting ideas I’ve been getting here. I have to say that definitely the Starbuck’s thing works. When our oldest son wanted to participate in a new activity requiring a monthly fee of around $56/mo I gave up my Starbuck’s “habit” (went once a week instead of 3x) and the money “magically” appeared. ;-)

    One thing I’d put on a list like this (replace the movie one– since we don’t really rent movies often) is to always take a snack with you when you go out, even if your errand is supposed to be a short one. This really cuts out having to stop and get something “small” if you start feeling a little hunger twinge. This will save you a lot…especially if you have kids with you.

    Sara

  27. Little things make a big difference. I find a great way of getting people to realise just how important the little things are is to ask them to look at how much pleasure something gives them and whether they would get more pleasure spending their money on something else or saving it instead. For instance, how much pleasure do most people get spending $7 on a magazine? How much more pleasure would that $7 give you if you spent it on coffee and cake with a friend, or the ingredients for a picnic lunch for yourself and your friends, or putting it in a separate account that you have set up for something you really want.

    Looking at the small amounts of money this way makes people realise just how much of the money they spend is either habit or impulse and how little return they get on that money in terms of either pleasure or practical usage.

  28. @Ms Clear
    @Pifreak

    I love finding lost money. A great place to pick up coins is at the bus stop.

    Several years ago, I found a paper bag full of bills in a city park. I’m sure it was lost after some drug deals. I donated the entire bag of bills (never counted it, but saw lots of hundred dollar bills) to a homeless shelter near my apartment.

    What goes around, comes around.

  29. Apt, welcome article! Very practical and neatly-compiled. I recently heard about the Simple Dollar from Josh, who commented on my blog when I suggested 7 great deals websites I enjoy.

    I agree wholeheartedly that many little things add up to BIG things in aggregate. :)

  30. My library charges for Video/DVD rentals
    The local milk store has gas cheaper, for $,99 you can get a delicious cappachino and a newpaper. It is 1 mile.

  31. HSBC is at 4.25% for savings today.

    Most gas stations in my area no longer provide free air, though some still do. I filled my tires last week, and felt immediatley like I was saving money on gas, and I was.

    I just bought two 3 watt CFLs. 3 watts! One I put on my front porch, and the second is being used as a night light in a bathroom, making turning on the bathroom lights (and therefore fan which draws out the heated air) unnecessary a lot of the time.

  32. You can get compressors for under $10 that you can carry in your car and check and fill your own tires regularly. Not only are properly inflated tires more economical, but they are a lot safer.

  33. I think the best place to find loose change is when you are at the front register of a store. If people drop some of their change an don’t immediately see where it went, they don’t make an effort to find it.

  34. I was going to mention my local library offers movies you can download on-line. Granted they are not new releases, its still pretty nifty.

    About the CFL’s not being good for rooms or areas where they will not be used long. I’ve found some screw in type LED bulbs @ http://www.ccrane.com/lights/led-light-bulbs/index.aspx

    I’ve also seen these on home depots website, I’m not sure if they carry them in the stores yet. I may just check today!

  35. Thanks for the hint on the high interest checking accounts, everybody! I will definitely look into that as we have house renovations going on that require substantial amounts to sit in the checking at some points….

  36. About the cooking, I’d add – While you have that big casserole cooking, why not make another dish? On a bad weather weekend, I’ve had as many as 4 different things going, a mix of stuff right to the freezer and things for the week. A homemade sauce that takes time to cook can be dinner on Monday and a different one on Thursday. Rice already cooked can be quickly stir fried (with other stuff) for a meal during the week. This strategy helps me save time and avoid the cost of takeout. As the cook in the house, and still working full time, the meals during the week have to be ready pretty quick. Just a thought to offer.
    JOE

  37. I’m glad you added the “easily multipliable” part about the CFLs. Changing one bulb is not enough. I just swapped out 60 bulbs in a house I moved into. There is an upfront cost, but the break-even time for CFL bulbs is around 6 months, so this is a no-brainer.

    Why is there always some wacko in the comments saying that CFLs are bad? Yes, the CFL bulbs should be recycled because they contain mercury. However, they use about 80% less electricity and last 6 to 8 times as long as incandescent bulbs. How does that not save energy? LEDs will be even better, when they come down in price.

  38. It helps immensely to write down how much I spend on a daily basis-from Sunday to Saturday. I will not allow another year go by and not accomplish my financial goals-I must be proactive and intentional about doing this. I have the knowledge, and I have the wisdom to use the knowledge, and so far I am joyful about it. I have made the decision to stick with My Total Money Makeover Plan by Dave Ramsey and rise above my doubts, disappointments and failures in 2008 and challenge myself to excel by making right choices to maintain Financial Peace.

  39. I replaced my bulbs with CFLs a few years ago. Then I started suffering migranes all the time. When you get referred to a neurologist for migranes, the first thing they have you do is get rid of all the compact florescent lightbulbs in your home. Worked perfectly for me, I’ve had zero migranes since I did that.

  40. I’d have to say getting groceries delivered is great, just shop once a month, get everything required (and you can actually just pop over to the pantry and check whether you really need that xxx item) and make it fit the budget, for some reason it is so much easier to put it back on the shelf when it’s only on the computer! Also (I don’t know if you get this in the US) my supermarket stores lists for me of everything I purchase, and I can save my own lists too, so 90% of the shopping just consists of ticking the items I want again, then I review all the discounts and figure where I can save more/have a treat … like this month, premium mini icecream treats half price :-)
    Plus, I nearly always cook for 6 (I live by myself) and freeze, that way I have a freezer ‘menu’ of different items to pick from for dinner. My sister was so impressed she decided she’d start doing it too after the night she came to dinner at short notice and got to pick from the menu!

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