Over the last several years since I started The Simple Dollar, I’ve found myself trying out literally thousands of money and time and energy-saving strategies in order to seek out the best “bang for the buck” life that I can have. Some tips just didn’t work at all. Other tips were okay – saving a little bit of money or time or energy, but not resulting in a big win.
However, there have been some strategies that have just absolutely knocked things out of the park for me, becoming a strictly better way of doing things than the methods I was using before.
Recently, a reader wrote in and asked me if I had a list of the “best” strategies I’ve ever found and I realized I didn’t have a great article that covered just that. My tips tend to be spread out over lots of different articles.
So, I sat down to answer the reader’s question and I came up with 15 very practical things I’ve changed or done in the last 10 years or so that have had a profound positive and direct impact on my finances, my time, and my energy.
You’ve probably seen many of these strategies mentioned before, spread out here and there on The Simple Dollar. I’m mentioning them again because they work. In terms of time efficiency and “bang for the buck,” these strategies are well worth your time and energy.
Negotiate every single bill you have.
Virtually every bill you have is something that can be negotiated. Your cable bill. Your energy bill. Your internet bill. Your credit card bill. Your cell phone bill. All of them have at least some room for negotiation in them, and by negotiating, you’re going to clear off a bunch of extra charges and save yourself money every single month.
The exact strategies for negotiating each bill are different. For bills with competitors, like your cell phone bill or your cable bill, call them up and simply say that you’re going to be switching to a new service soon and see what they can offer to keep you as a customer. Ask for any perks for new customers. For other bills with less competition (like your energy bill), look carefully through your bill for line items that seem unnecessary and then call them up to have some of them removed (remember, removing one $3 line item from your energy bill is $36 a year in savings for the foreseeable future – little savings add up).
If you’re negotiating a credit card interest rate, remember that they’re mostly interested in helping “good customers,” and by that I mean customers that carry a balance but also keep their bill paid. If that sounds like you, you have some leverage for a better interest rate, especially if you mention you’re considering a balance transfer to another card.
Negotiating can be tricky, but it can almost always save you money on your regular bills. It almost never hurts to negotiate, especially if you have competition to leverage against and you’re a good customer.
Do an annual ‘possession purge’ and sell everything untouched since your last purge.
Once a year, spend a few days digging through your closets and the various “collecting” areas in your home and purge them. Get rid of everything you haven’t touched in a year – ideally, since the last time you did this. Try selling it, if possible, by having a yard sale – it’s a good idea to do this in the spring so you can have a nice spring yard sale – or by selling it online via Craigslist, Facebook, or eBay. Purge your shelves, your drawers, your garage, everything.
If you’re not sure you should get rid of it, put that item in a box and put the date on that box. Then, put that box off to the side somewhere. Over the next year, if you need something and you suspect it might be in that box, dig in and see if it’s in there and, if it is, pull it out and use it and then put it in the correct place in your home. At the end of that year, get rid of everything still in the box.
This keeps stuff from accumulating in your home (which makes it much harder to move and to keep things organized and to find things when you need them) and enables you to turn unused items back into some money that you can use to right your financial ship. It takes some time, but this kind of annual purge of your possessions will repay that time throughout the year (because it’s much easier to find stuff and takes much less time to clean and organize) and turn some of your completely unused possessions into money.
Check every window edge and door frame in your home and seal up any that have air flowing through them.
This is one of the best “bang for the buck” projects you can do around your house. Air leaking through the edges of your window or around your doorframe is just money lost to the environment during the summer and winter months. Whenever you have your air conditioning on or your furnace on, every drop of air leaking out of your home is expensive.
One big part of preventing this kind of leaking is insulation, but updating your insulation can be a major project. On the other hand, caulking windows is a super easy project that requires just a putty knife with a rounded corner, a caulking gun, and some caulk. You just look for spots on your window edges where you can feel cool or warm air coming through and then caulk them. Putting weatherstripping on a door is a bit harder, but it’s still a pretty simple project that kills air flow around the edges of your doors.
Those projects can eliminate a ton of energy loss through those little cracks in your home, and that will make a profound positive difference in your energy bill as long as you live there. The first step? Go check the edges of all of your windows and doors and see if you feel any hot air coming in (assuming you’re reading this in the summer) or cold air coming in (in the winter). If you find such spots, it’s time to get to work.
Whenever you make a big meal, make several extra batches, freeze them in individual meal-sized containers, and then eat them later.
This is something I do whenever we make a casserole or a stew or any sort of dish with beans and rice in it. I’ll just make multiple batches of the meal, then pack away individual meal-sized containers in the freezer with a label on them so that I have a quick lunch later (or we can grab several for a quick supper).
Let’s say I’m making a pan of lasagna. It’s not that much more work to pull out several pans and just cook a bunch of noodles at once and assemble several pans of lasagna at once. I can then cook one pan for dinner and freeze the other pans, or else cook all of the pans and divide them up to freeze them as individual meals for later on.
This is my solution to the idea of the “make ahead meal.” Sometimes, I’ll make a huge batch of “make ahead meals” at once, but usually I just make a lot more of whatever we’re having for supper and then save the rest for the future. I tend to use inexpensive Gladware for this as they can be reused a ton of times but it’s not an expensive problem if one of them is damaged or forgotten somewhere. I just stick a masking tape label on the container saying what it is and when it was originally made so I can identify what’s what when digging through the freezer.
Make a big pot of soup this weekend and then freeze several containers of it in individual meal containers. It’s so easy to do this and it provides a ton of very quick meals for the future. There’s no better way to get started with this.
- Related: Meal Prep Day: Simple Beans and Rice
Keep busy at work, minimize the drama, and look for solutions to problems rather than just pointing them out.
When you’re at work, stay busy. Unless your workplace is in dire straits, there’s usually something you can be doing, whether it’s cleaning up code or sweeping the floor or fixing displays or talking to customers. Do something. You’ll find pretty quickly that keeping busy is a great strategy for keeping yourself in everyone’s good graces. Plus, you have plausible deniability if others are trying to shift work onto you – you’re already busy, right?
Stay out of drama. If you hear people talking about others behind their backs, avoid it. Just go on about your tasks. Join in instead when the talk is positive, like when you’re discussing something good that happened or talking about a pop culture moment. Build your relationships at work on a backbone of positivity.
If you see problems at work, think about a solution to that problem and when you bring it up, bring that solution with you. Don’t just dump problems on your boss’s lap. Instead, come in there with a solution to that problem – you’ll look less like a malcontent and more like a problem solver.
These are good strategies in virtually any workplace you’ll find yourself in, yet so many people don’t do those simple things. If you just do those things, you’ll be miles ahead of others.
Keep a whiteboard in your kitchen and use it to keep a running grocery list and meal plan on it. Copy that grocery list and fully trust it when you go to the store.
Right next to our kitchen, you’ll find a whiteboard that lists about a week’s worth of meals on it. It indicates what we’re having for each meal on each day so that whoever’s around to prepare that meal knows that this is a meal for which we already have items, so that person can just get down to the business of prepping it.
Whenever someone notices that we’re running low on something – milk or eggs or bananas or whatever – that person just adds it to a running grocery list on that board. Easy enough.
When the week wraps up and we’re at the end of that meal plan, one of us starts a fresh one, erasing most of the message board and starting with the current day at the top and listing the next several days below it. From there, some meals are planned out – when I do it, I usually glance at the grocery store flyer, see what’s on sale, and plan some meals using the on-sale stuff. Then, once some meals are planned out, I look around to see what ingredients we actually need for those meals and add all of that stuff to the list. Then, I enter that list into my grocery list app (Sarah usually just takes a picture, but I like having a checkable list that’s already sorted by area for me, which Paprika does) and head out to the store.
At the store, I follow that list like it’s the gospel. I just go down the aisles looking specifically for whatever’s next on the list, and try to get out of there as fast as possible. Doing that minimizes the number of incidental items that I put in the cart and makes up for the time spent meal planning. In fact, the meal plan itself is a money saver because it already has the meal decisions for each busy day ahead of us figured out.
This system saves us at least $50 per week compared to the more haphazard food planning that we once did, and there’s no need for clipping coupons or anything else.
Keep a pocket notebook with you, write down anything that you think you might want to remember later, and then review that notebook once or twice a day.
This little strategy has saved me money and time and relationships more times than I can count. It’s also helped me build my income and my relationships, too. It’s helped me be a more reliable person and it’s helped me be far more productive than I ever thought possible with my creative work.
It’s easy. Just carry around a pocket notebook. I like Field Notes because they stand up to a pocket beating, but any kind will do. Carry around a pen, too – a decent one that won’t leak, like a Uniball Signo with a micro or ultra micro point. Whenever you hear something or think of something that you’re going to want to remember in the future – whether it’s something you need to do or something you need to remember or some idea you have or anything – just pull out the notebook and jot it down.
I jot down ideas for Simple Dollar posts. I jot down people’s contact information and their name and the reason I’m wanting to touch base with them. I jot down something I want to get at the grocery store. I jot down a book I want to read that I hear about on NPR and jot down as soon as I park the car. I jot down a quote or a lyric or a moment I want to remember.
And then, once or twice a day, I go through that notebook and I do something with each thing in it. I create a new document for that Simple Dollar article idea and add any extra notes I have. I contact that person that I met with earlier and follow up. I add that new item to my grocery list. I look up that book and reserve it from the library.
If I jot it down in my pocket notebook, I won’t forget it. I also don’t need to spend my time trying to remember something all day (and then still forget it half the time).
Use that pocket notebook to write down every expense (and stuff your receipts in there), then tally them up at the end of the month.
Why is this a useful strategy? To put it simply, I have never found a more useful way to dig through one’s expenses and get a real picture of what your spending looks like while, at the same time, forcing you to rethink all of your dumb little spending choices.
Whenever you spend a dime, write it down in your pocket notebook. Write down what it was and how much it was. Stuff a receipt in there.
When you get home and go through that notebook, record that expense in a piece of budgeting software – I like PearBudget’s free spreadsheet as a free and secure option, or you can do your own thing with a simple three column spreadsheet describing each thing you bought, a category for it, and the dollar amount.
At the end of the month, total up each category. You’ll probably be shocked at how much you spent on some of your worst spending categories, and it will fill you with resolve to do better. After that, writing things down in that pocket notebook will fill you with a bit of dread – you won’t want to write things down in there, and that will be a strong nudge to you to simply not spend that money.
- Related: Why You Should Track Your Spending
Also, use that pocket notebook as a ‘wish list’ and then use the 30-day rule.
Whenever we want something badly, it occupies our thoughts and our focus until we do something about it. It’ll shout and dance and keep distracting us until we take action, and with online shopping and the ease of credit cards, it’s often way too easy to take action in a way that’s financially destructive. The worst part? You probably won’t even want the thing two days later.
So here’s what you do: whenever you want something bad, write it down in that pocket notebook. Stick a date beside it. In one month, if you still want that thing, go for it. Use this for every spending impulse you can.
What you’ll find, over and over again, is that the action of writing down that “want” takes the edge off of the desire. You’ve taken some action on it, and that’s often enough. Then, when you look back at it a month later, that desire will probably seem silly, a reminder of some fleeting thing you wanted then that’s irrelevant now.
Don’t eat unless you actually feel hungry. Then eat (largely) whatever you want (as long as some of it is plant-based), but eat slowly until you no longer feel hungry. This doesn’t mean ‘feel stuffed’ or ‘feel full.’
This strategy will save you a ton of money on food and it will (eventually) help you get close to a healthy weight if you’re not already there, provided you stick to it.
The thing is, this strategy pops up all the time in a given day. It pops up literally every time you’re considering putting food in your mouth. Are you actually hungry? If the answer is no, don’t put food in your mouth. If the answer is yes, make sure what you’re about to eat is at least somewhat plant-based (meaning fruits and/or veggies and/or legumes and/or nuts), then start eating slowly and pay attention to how you feel. When you no longer feel actually hungry, stop eating. I also recommend drinking a big glass of water slowly while eating.
Just make that your normal routine. If you do this when going out to eat, just take the leftovers home with you, because you’ll probably have leftovers, and eat them for lunch the next day in the exact same way – when you’re hungry, slowly, and with water.
You’ll save a bunch of money on food and, if you’re the average American, probably improve your health significantly, too.
Set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account that goes off each week. Don’t touch it again. Use the money in your savings account when a real emergency happens that you can’t financially deal with.
That’s it. Just go to your bank and ask if you can set things up so that $20 each week (or maybe more, depending on your life) moves automatically from checking to savings. Then, live as normal out of your checking account and forget about it.
When an emergency comes – your car breaks down or you need to fly home for a funeral or someone gets really sick or a hail storm damages your roof or you have a big flat tire something – and you can’t make ends meet, then turn to that emergency fund that’s sitting there for you in your savings account and you will have the money – or most of it, anyway.
All that you lose by transferring that $20 a week is the dumbest of your purchases, the most forgettable of things, the kinds of things that you buy at a convenience store. You won’t give up anything that matters thanks to that $20 a week transfer.
Instead, you gain a certain peace of mind and the ability to keep yourself out of debt when something goes wrong.
Watch less television, check social media less often, read more books, and spend more time outside.
Watching television, particularly in long stretches, leads to feelings of loneliness and depression. Heavy use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, etc.) is linked to feelings of anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, reading a book improves brain function and reduces anxiety, while the physical and psychological benefits of spending time outside, particularly in nature, are almost overwhelming.
In other words, if you want to feel better about the state of things in your life without spending money and without making radical changes, cut back on the time you spend watching television or looking at social media, and increase the time you spend reading books and doing things outdoors.
Instead of binge-watching yet another series on Netflix, call up some friends and go have a picnic in the park. Instead of thumbing through social media on your phone, delete those apps, put Overdrive on your phone instead, and read a few pages of a book from your library.
- Related: The Financial Value of a Media Diet
Find every excuse you can to walk more.
Simply moving around more has a ton of health benefits, which is going to drastically reduce your long term health care costs and quality of life. The easiest way I’ve found to move around more is to simply find more reasons to walk, even if they’re a bit artificial, and find settings in which I enjoy walking.
For example, when I go to the grocery store, I park on the far end of the lot. This means that I have further to walk to get to the grocery store. It’s a simple thing, but it’s a good way to move more. When I go to a meeting or an appointment, if it’s on anything below the tenth floor or so, I take the stairs. If I have an errand to run that’s within a mile or so of my house and doesn’t involve carrying anything too heavy, I walk it instead of driving.
On top of that, I usually set aside time at least once a day to walk around my neighborhood just to get out of the house (that outdoors effect mentioned earlier), and at least once a week I go on a nature walk or hike at a park somewhere. (This is sometimes rough in the winters, but I do the best I can.) I’ll just stroll along at whatever pace I feel like and appreciate the environment around me.
This helps with genuinely feeling good most of the time. This helps with my long term health costs. Plus, aside from the dedicated walks around the neighborhood, it takes little time.
More intense exercise is certainly a good thing, but if you find that dreadful or can’t find room for it in your life, just find more opportunities to walk. You’ll feel better and you’ll cut your long term health care costs, too.
Open up and contribute to a Roth IRA.
A Roth IRA is simply an account that offers a ton of tax benefits if you’re saving for retirement. When you put money in a Roth IRA, it’s going to start earning money for you, and if you have it open for five years or more, any earnings that you make within that account that you withdraw at retirement age (59 1/2 or older) is tax free. No taxes at all, period.
This works much like the advice above for an emergency fund. Just sign up for a Roth IRA somewhere (say, Vanguard), turn on an automatic transfer that transfers a small amount of money each week ($100 a week gets you to close to the annual limit, so that amount or lower, depending what you can handle), and then just forget about it until you’re 60.
Peek at it once a year or so and then just don’t worry about it at all. The money you transfer will be easily forgotten in the bustle of life and then you’ll have a big bundle waiting for you when you retire. It’s such a no-brainer move.
- Related: Best Roth IRAs
When you’re about to buy anything, hold it in your hands (or pause in line) for several seconds and think about why you don’t need this or where you could get it for less before actually buying it or putting it in your cart.
I do this for every purchase I make aside from things directly off of my grocery list and it works like a charm. I talk myself out of so many silly unnecessary purchases by doing this.
I first ask myself whether or not I really want or need this thing. Is this just a pure impulse, or is it actually serving a purpose? That alone talks me out of things like getting coffee at the kiosk inside the store or buying a beverage in the checkout aisle. Then, I ask myself whether this is something I absolutely have to get right now, and if it’s not, I write it down in my notebook, as mentioned above. After that, if I still have the unplanned item in my hands, I usually ask myself if there’s not a place I can get it less expensively or borrow it or something, and if I can’t strongly answer “no” to that, I put it back on the shelf.
Does that mean I’m never spontaneous with spending? Nope. Sometimes I blow right through those questions and still make the impulse buy because it really feels like the right thing in the moment. However, asking those questions tends to kill most of my impulsive purchases, particularly the ones that aren’t truly important to me, and those are the ones you really want to kill. Why spend money if it’s not adding much value to your life? Keeping that money around lets you get out of debt faster and that leads to lower stress and a better life all around.
Each of these little strategies has been a huge hit in my life.
They take up very little time or energy, yet they result in some enormous positive successes in my financial life and my personal life and professional life, too. They’re the kind of tips that produce far, far more than what you put into them.
The key, as always, is to stick to them. Grab one or two of these and focus on making them your habit over the next couple of months. Adjust your thinking so that these things become habit – let them be the new normal in your life. As for the ones that are more project-oriented, just spend some time this weekend doing one of them. You’ll find that the benefits are well worth the time invested. Every single one of these things has been an enormous unquestionable net positive in my life.