Evaluating Savings the Frugal Way

Let’s say a reputable friend came up to you on the street and said, “If you make this one simple change in your life and follow it every day, I’ll give you $365 in one year’s time.”

You’d probably be interested in that offer. $365 is $365, after all. That’s a healthy paycheck for a lot of Americans. You’d probably want to know what that little change was.

Let’s say you like soda. Would you drink two fewer sodas a day for that $365?

Let’s say you leave your computer on all the time. Would you turn your computer off each night and before each trip for that $365?

Let’s say you commute to work. Would you spend the time to find a route that shaved a mile each way off your commute for that $365?

Let’s say you buy groceries twice a week. Would you cut that down to once a week or three times every two weeks for that $365?

The thing is, making those little changes will get you that $365 just by making the change. You don’t need a friend to give it to you.

Those little changes will save you a dollar a day (more or less, depending on your lifestyle). If you keep those changes up for a year, you’ll have your $365.

The challenge with many frugal options is perspective. When you look at a little change like reusing bags and see that each usage will only save you $0.05, most people simply won’t care. $0.05 is not enough money to get their attention.

Take each of those exchanges. Even for a dollar, many people won’t make those changes. They won’t turn off their computer at night or drink two fewer sodas for the dollar it saves them in the moment. “It’s just a dollar,” they think.

Yet it’s those little changes that easily add up to a car payment or a big chunk out of your credit card balance. They’re just easy to overlook because we’re comparing a single action in the moment to the amount it saves, not the amount that a behavior change will bring us over time.

Let’s take homemade laundry soap and laundry detergent, for instance.

The amount of Tide laundry detergent one uses in a single load of laundry costs about $0.20. With my homemade batch, I only need to put in $0.02 worth of ingredients to make enough soap for a single laundry load.

Eighteen cents is not a lot of savings. If you look at that number as the sole guidance for the activity, then it’s probably not worth it to you. It’s much easier to just pour in some Tide than to make a batch of it, right?

Well, when I make a batch of homemade laundry soap, it takes about fifteen minutes and I make enough for fifty loads of laundry. We do about a load of laundry per day, on average. Thus, over the course of a year (I’ll round down to 350 days), I’ll make seven batches of this soap, taking me an hour and forty five minutes spread out in fifteen minute patches over the course of the year.

I save $65.70 doing this. That’s enough to take my wife out on a reasonably nice date, cover part of a car payment, or buy half of a week’s groceries.

The $65.70 is what really matters with frugality, not the $0.18. I’m not making a homemade soap batch just to save $0.18 on a load of laundry. I’m making a behavioral change that is netting me about $70 a year.

It’s all about perspective, in other words.

When you do this with several different things in your life at once, it adds up to a lot of money. Let’s say I found fifteen different little changes I could make in my life that saved money at the same rate as the laundry soap. Suddenly, I’m saving $1,050 a year. That’s three good car payments (and maybe more) or a mortgage payment on a house or a moderate family vacation (it’s not much different than our travel budget for the coming summer, actually).

The interesting part is that this money usually appears in ways that you don’t directly notice. You’ll find yourself paying your bills one day and see that you have more in your checking account than you usually do at the end of the month.

The key thing is to look for changes you can make that you can just take in stride without diminishing whatever it is you value in your life. Different people value different things, and thus frugal tips that are perfect for one person don’t mesh with another. Dig through lots of tips and find the ones that work for you – and simply discard the rest of them. They’ll work for someone else.

It’s easy to make a big deal about the big changes, but they’re often very hard. It’s the little changes – the ones you barely notice after a few days – that really add up, often without you even noticing a real change at all.

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