As many of you know, I’m constantly trying out little lifestyle changes and tweaks just to see if they’re something that actually saves money and if they’re something that integrates well into my life.
I’ll usually try out these tactics for a while and then do my best to assess whether or not it’s actually saving me money and whether or not it’s affecting my life in a positive or negative (or neutral) way.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: I have no interest in being miserable just to be cheap. For me, the ideal frugal tactic is one that doesn’t alter my lifestyle in a way that makes me uncomfortable, but it does save me money. That’s what this list is all about – simple money hacks that have added up to genuine savings over the years without introducing much “negative” to my life at all.
What do I mean by “simple” here?
One, it’s something that doesn’t require a lot of additional effort. I don’t like tasks that require me to spend a bunch of additional time and effort. I don’t mind spending a few minutes here or there on a money-saving task, but I am not a fan of spending hours on these kinds of tasks.
Two, it’s something that doesn’t result in a negative quality of life. If something makes my life worse in some significant fashion, it’s not something I’m going to stick with forever. I want things with a neutral or, if I can, a positive impact on my time, my energy, and my enjoyment of my day-to-day activity.
Three, it’s replicable. Other people can do this exact thing and also experience savings over the long haul. Obviously, there are some of these tips that you’ll likely already have as a part of your normal routine – skip those and focus on the other ones.
Let’s dig in.
#1: Start Using a Grocery List and Coupons
It’s a simple strategy. Before you walk into a grocery store, make a list of the items you intend to buy there, and check online for any coupons that may be available for those items. Take a look at the Simple Dollar Coupon Finder for hundreds of daily coupons and coupon codes for grocery and pharmacy items. The trick is to make sure you’re only printing and using the coupons you need–don’t buy extra useless items just because they’re on sale. When you get to the grocery store, just stick to the list you made while you’re at the store. For every minute you spend making the list and checking for coupons outside of the store, you’ll save two or three minutes while you’re actually in the store because you’ll be heading directly to items you need and won’t spend any time wandering, so it’s actually a time saver.
The real kicker is that it saves a significant amount of money, too. A grocery list directly cuts down on impulse buys. You know what you need, so your eyes aren’t wandering down the aisles to find unnecessary things. Your cart is filled just with things that you’ve thought about and planned for outside of the walls of the grocery store. Coupons allow you to become more deliberate and creative with your meal planning- buying and replacing items that are full-price with alternatives that are on sale.
How Much Did It Save? I started using a grocery list long before I started tracking my spending too closely, so recently I tried an experiment. Over the course of two months, I alternated between weekly grocery shopping trips with a grocery list and without one. I tried to control for everything else – I used the same store and skipped weeks with exceptional meal requirements. On average, a grocery list saved me $21 per trip. Add an extra $5 for savings using coupons per trip and that adds up to about $1,200 per year – no joke.
#2: Switch Light Bulbs from Incandescents to LEDs
Lately, I’ve been switching from incandescent light bulbs in our house to LEDs. The LEDs at the store are definitely more expensive up front, but the reduced energy use and much longer replacement cycle of LED bulbs make up the difference. LED bulbs last twenty times as long and use roughly 20% as much energy as incandescent bulbs.
This is a situation where a switch saves both time and money. It doesn’t take any longer to buy LED bulbs, but you’re only going to be buying and replacing them 5% as often as before. If you figure that buying and replacing a light bulb takes you five minutes all told, a single LED bulb purchase will save you about an hour and a half of buying and replacing bulbs over its lifespan.
How Much Did It Save? I replaced an incandescent lamp bulb with an LED bulb with roughly the same brightness and used a Kill-A-Watt meter to measure the energy use. The LED bulb uses about 13 watts, while the incandescent used about 60 watts. The LED bulb has a cost of $9.99 and a lifespan of 20,000 hours, while the incandescent bulb cost me $0.99 and has a lifespan of 1,000 hours. If energy averages $0.12 per kilowatt-hour, then I’m saving $122.61 per bulb replacement over the lifespan of the LED bulb.
#3: Raise the “Default” Summer Temperature By Five Degrees
During the summer, we used to keep our house at around 71 F. It kept the house nice and cool… but it was actually needlessly cool. We felt completely fine when the temperature would go higher than that, as we would experience during the fall and spring.
So, how high could we go? We found that our house starts to feel really warm on the top floor if our home temperature gets above about 76 degrees or so. So, we raised it to that level. Our programmable thermostat keeps it at that temperature during the day and turns off entirely at night.
How Much Did It Save? Our home was still comfortable, but based on our year-over-year energy use tables given to us by our energy company, we shaved about $30 a month off of our energy bill during each of the peak summer months (June, July, and August) and about $10 during the adjacent months (May and September), adding up to a savings of about $110 per year.
Naturally, that’s an estimate. There is a lot of “noise” in there from vacations (where we turn off the air conditioning), variation in temperatures, and our other energy-saving tactics. Our estimates of saving are our best guess after doing our best to eliminate the other factors.
#4: Drop the “Default” Winter Temperature By Five Degrees
In a very similar way to our summer experiment, we noticed that we just left our home temperature at about 66 F during the winter months, lowering it at night (as we’re all asleep under warm blankets). Why not experiment with that?
We found that a temperature of around 61 F worked well for us in the winter months. We don’t wear short sleeves or shorts in the house during the winter, so the lower temperature isn’t noticed too much except perhaps when we’re in the family room (which tends to be the coolest room in the house) just sitting still, at which point we’ll curl up under blankets.
It’s worth noting that I now sometimes drop our home temperature as low as 50 F during the day when I’m home alone and working. The programmable thermostat raises the temperature back up before my family arrives home.
How Much Did It Save? The temperature shift seemed to save us about $25 a month from November to March, on average, which added up to about $125 per year. As with the summer temperature, this is an estimate because there’s a lot of “noise” – temperature changes, other energy use, and so on. It’s not perfectly precise, but it’s pretty close.
#5: Make Your Own Powdered Laundry Soap
One of the most popular posts I’ve ever written for The Simple Dollar was my description of making homemade laundry soap. The recipe in that post saved me about 18 cents per load and took about fifteen minutes to make a bucket of gel-like laundry soap.
That was version 1.0 of the soap. Today, I make version 2.0, which takes much less time and focus. I can make the laundry soap in about five minutes while watching a television program. All I do is grate a bar of soap into fine powder (using the finest side of a box grater), then mix in half a cup of borax and a full cup of washing soda. You can multiply that recipe by two or three if you have a large container. Then, just keep that container with a tablespoon in it near your washing machine. You just need a tablespoon of the powder to wash a full load of clothes and that powder costs about two cents per tablespoon, saving about eighteen cents per load.
How Much Did It Save? Assuming I use this powder in 200 loads per year and I’ve been doing it for five years, that adds up to $180 in laundry soap savings. It doesn’t really take any time at all either – as I said, I can make it while sitting on the couch watching a television show.
#6: Air Up Your Car Tires Each Month
Your car is designed to run with your tires inflated to the recommended pressure in your car’s manual. However, over time, a bit of air slips out of your tires, gradually deflating them. As your tires deflate, they create more contact with the road, which means that it requires more force to move your car forward. That force is generated by burning more gas.
In other words, having deflated tires causes you to burn more gas. My experience has been that about 8 PSI per tire amounts to losing about 1% of your fuel efficiency. If all four of your tires are 8 PSI low, it’s costing you 4% of your fuel efficiency.
In my experience, my tires each lose about 5 PSI in a typical month, usually more in cold months and a bit less in the hottest months. That’s about 2.5% of my car’s fuel efficiency.
Let’s say my car gets 20 miles per gallon for fuel and I drive 15,000 miles per year. Let’s say I only get my tires filled up every three months (during car maintenance). That means, on average, I’m about 8 PSI low on each tire, adding up to about 4% of my car’s fuel efficiency. My car goes from 20 miles per gallon to 19.2 miles per gallon. Over 15,000 miles in a year – with fuel at $3.50 per gallon – I’m losing $109 per year just due to low air in my tires. Keeping them inflated gets rid of that loss.
All you need to do is get a simple tire gauge – which costs just a dollar or two – and keep it in your glove compartment. Check your car’s owner manual to figure out the recommended maximum pressure. Then, when you’re at a gas station with free air, wheel over to the air pump and measure the air in your tires using the tire gauge. If a tire has lower than the maximum amount, air it up to the maximum. That’s it – it takes maybe five minutes. I often do it when Sarah goes into the gas station because one of our kids needs to use the bathroom, which means I’m just doing something instead of sitting there waiting.
How Much Did It Save? Given my own driving habits, fuel costs, fuel efficiency, and other factors, I estimate that air refilling saves me about $70 per year in my car and saves my wife about $120 per year in her car.
#7: Delete Your Credit Card Number from Your Favorite Websites
Many popular ecommerce websites – I’m looking at you, Amazon – make purchasing far easier if you keep your credit card number stored on their website. While it’s convenient, it also makes it much, much easier to make an impulsive purchase … such as a Kindle ebook, for example.
In fact, it was this ease of impulsiveness that caused me to overrun my budgeted “free spending” amount more than a few times. I’d tell myself that I had plenty of money left in my “free spending,” click the “buy” button without thinking too hard about it, and then realize that I’d overspent when I started adding up numbers.
My solution was simple. I just deleted my credit card number from a few online sites so that it became much less convenient to order.
How Much Did It Save? Over the following six months, my personal spending dropped by about $50 per month, which adds up to about $60 per year. I didn’t really skip out on buying anything that wasn’t a lasting desire, either – I just skipped out on a bunch of impulse buys. I went from often going over my “free spending” budget item to never even coming close to it.
#8: Spend Five Hours a Week Trying New Free Hobbies
This was just a simple commitment I made to try new things without pouring money into them. There are lots of hobbies out there that you can try without dropping a dime on them.
So, one month, I decided to make a personal commitment to trying out new free hobbies. Each week, I’d try something new that didn’t cost anything and invest as much time in it as I could, usually targeting five hours.
Obviously, there were two outcomes. If I didn’t like the hobby, then I hadn’t invested any money in it and I at least knew that it wasn’t for me. If I did like the hobby, then I had something new that I enjoyed that didn’t cost much and would be a nice addition to my life.
In either case, I was now devoting at least some of my free time to a free activity that didn’t have any expenses involved.
How Much Did It Save? After I started doing this, my personal spending dropped about $15 a month on average. This added up to about $180 per year. Plus, I ended up discovering a few new hobbies that I really enjoyed that were of lower cost than previous ones.
#9: Eat Leftovers for Lunch on a Staggered Schedule
Eating leftovers is a pretty well-known strategy for trimming back on one’s food budget – but it’s not without flaws. For many people, leftovers from the night before often don’t make for a great lunch the following day unless it happens to be a meal that you love. Because of that, I’d often overlook leftovers and find something else to eat for lunch.
However, I found one simple trick that made leftovers work for me. Instead of just eating them the next day, I’d wait two or even three days before eating them. By doing that, the meal usually became fresh again.
I’m usually on a schedule of eating leftovers from two nights before. For example, on Wednesdays, I’ll eat the leftovers from our Monday evening meal. On Fridays, I’ll eat leftovers from our Wednesday evening meal.
That simple switch caused me to eat leftovers on a much more regular basis, switching from roughly three leftover meals a week to roughly six. I generally don’t eat leftovers if they’re not appealing to me, so that change did nothing more than make leftovers more interesting.
How Much Did It Save? If you assume that a normal lunch would cost me $8 on average and a leftover lunch costs me $2 on average, eating three more leftover lunches in a week saves me $18 per week, or $936 per year. That’s a lot of savings.
#10: Air Dry Some of Your Clothes on a Drying Rack or Line
One of my biggest regrets about our current home is that there is no good place for an outdoors clothesline. Very little breeze blows through our backyard except for the area where our children play most often.
So, once we moved in, we simply did all of our clothes drying in the dryer. Each laundry load would be matched with a dryer load. What did that cost us? My estimation is that each dryer load eats up about $0.60 in energy costs.
After a while, we started experimenting with this. For one, we found that if we hung shirts up on a drying line in our basement, they were less wrinkly. So we strung a line across our laundry room and hung items on them. We also started using a drying rack for some items.
This didn’t take care of all of our laundry, but it did take on about half of it. So, we started doing two loads in a row, which resulted in only one dryer load.
Over the course of a year, this saves us perhaps fifty dryer loads. It doesn’t take much longer than
How Much Did It Save? Fifty dryer loads times $0.60 per load times five years gives a total of $150 saved. That’s pretty straightforward.
#11: Drop Soda
In the past, I enjoyed two or three sodas a day – occasionally more. Sarah and I would usually buy twelve packs at the store for $4 or so, meaning that the daily routine was eating up roughly a dollar.
After a while, I began to see how much I was paying for flavored water over time. So, I kicked the habit. The first few weeks were painful (thanks to the caffeine headaches), but at this point, I only drink soda on social occasions. The beverage on my desk as I write this is cool, clear water.
Still, I like flavored beverages. I manage to enjoy a flavored beverage or two a day in the form of tea. I’ll heat some water, drop in a tea bag, and enjoy the flavor. During the summer, I’ll often make a gallon of sun tea by filling up a jar with water, tossing in a few tea bags, and then letting the jug sit out on the deck for a while. The cost is far lower than the equivalent amount of soda, plus it’s quite tasty.
This doesn’t even touch on the health benefits of largely dropping soda from my diet.
How Much Did It Save? Over the course of a year, dropping a $1 a day routine down to perhaps a quarter a day (for tea) adds up to about $300 in savings. That’s liquid gold, my friends.
#12: Close Unused Accounts
For a few years, I was an avid player of World of Warcraft. I played it enthusiastically prior to the birth of our first child and I stuck with it throughout his infancy. After that, I would still pop on every once in a while to catch up with old friends.
However, I began to realize that I was paying $15 a month for the ability to chat perhaps once a week with a few old pals. I could do that using other messaging software.
I cut my World of Warcraft subscription, then I started looking for other accounts that I rarely used.
How Much Did It Save? All told, I was able to drop about $50 in monthly accounts that I did use, but rarely. I didn’t really miss them once they were gone because I easily found other substitutes, such as text messaging and the like. That’s $600 a year. World of Warcraft’s cancellation alone saved $180 a year.
#13: Do All Holiday Shopping Two Days After the Holidays
Seasonal items like wrapping paper, graduation cards, Mother’s Day cards, Halloween candy, and so on can add up to a real bundle over time. Yet, mysteriously, these seasonal items vanish from stores within a day or two of the passing of the event. Many stores take whatever stock they have related to that holiday and put a big fat discount on it, sitting all of it in the back corner of the store.
Most of that stuff will work just fine the following year. Stow away those greeting cards in a file folder somewhere. Toss those rolls of wrapping paper into your wrapping paper box in the storage closet. Put the Christmas lights in the garage. Next year, you’ll pull them out when you need them and they’ll be perfectly ready to use.
How Much Did It Save? Last Christmas alone, we bought six rolls of wrapping paper at a 75% off sale and spent $7.50 on them, which means that the original price was $30. I also bought two strands of Christmas lights at 60% off, saving $12. At Halloween, we bought three bags of candy at 50% off, saving us $9 altogether. Those were just the receipts I could find for one year of post-holiday shopping, which adds up to $43.50. This easily adds up to hundreds across more holidays and more years.
#14: Renegotiate Every Single Bill
If you get a bill in the mail, chances are that one of two things are true about it. One, it contains a bunch of seemingly random fees that you aren’t sure about. Two, it consists of a bunch of specific purchases (i.e., credit card bills and bank statements).
Both of those types of bills are incredibly useful because they’re the key to unlocking a lot of savings.
For the bank and credit card statements, take a moment to pore through them and see if there are any charges that are incorrect… but also if any of the charges now seem pointless. Are you charging a subscription fee for something you rarely use? Cancel that subscription. Did you buy something that you now regret? Change your habits. Your statements can trigger those changes.
For the other bills, spend some time figuring out what all of the charges on your bill actually represent. Are they for services you don’t use? Are they extremely vague “fees”? In either case, a call to that company is in line. Ask for those unnecessary fees to be removed.
How Much Did It Save? The last time I did this, in 2011, it took most of a Friday afternoon. However, I was able to trim about $115 from our monthly bills, all told, without any change in our quality of life. That’s about $1,380 per year!
These fourteen strategies are just a small selection of the tools I’ve used to cut back on our family’s spending without interfering in our quality of life. I hope you’ll also find them useful.
However, all of these strategies are outgrowths of one simple thing. Whenever cash flows out of my pocket, I want to figure out ways to make less cash disappear without cutting into the quality of my life. How can I make this bill smaller? How can I make things less painful at the checkout? How can I get the most enjoyment possible from this hobby without overspending?
That’s the secret behind every one of these strategies: mindfulness about my spending. Let it guide you, too.