12 Unconventional Ways to Save Money During the Pandemic

What’s inside? Here are the questions answered in today’s reader mailbag, boiled down to summaries of five or fewer words. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.

Starting with this week’s mailbag, I’m moving to a somewhat different format in which all of the questions in the mailbag for the week have a connecting theme. This week’s theme is — you guessed it — frugality. I’ve collected a bunch of questions about money-saving tactics in everyday life and I’m answering a bunch of them here.

I have a bunch of specific topics lined up for the coming weeks. The order of them will depend a lot on the questions I get and how I can sensibly group them together.

On with the questions!

In this article

    Q1: Free streaming services?

    Surprised you haven’t mentioned a number of free streaming video services out there like Crackle. It has ads and a less impressive selection than Netflix but it’s free and you can just watch what you want and move on.
    – Anna

    I’ve tried several of these. In general, I’m at the point where I find ads so annoying that their presence is often a deal-breaker for me, but if you are more tolerant of ads than I am, here are a few worth trying out.

    The two that have probably been used the most at our house are RetroCrush and Crunchy Roll. I know my kids have binge-watched a few things on both services. They feature a ton of older anime series, some with English dubs and some with subtitles. Crackle has a wide variety of movies and series on it. There seems to be a lot of series that were fairly popular in the 1990s and early 2000s on there. Tubi is a good free service if you’re looking for obscure, indie, and foreign films.

    When we used a Roku (we had to replace our TV a while back and the new one has streaming services built-in), we used to watch The Roku Channel sometimes and it had a few good things. If you’re willing to dig through these services, there are a lot of worthwhile things to watch for free.

    Q2: Frugal spa alternatives

    I used to go to a spa once a month with my sister. We’d get a facial, get our nails done, get a massage, etc. During the coronavirus shutdown, my husband and I looked at our finances and realized we needed to make some changes. The spa bills added up to more than I thought over the course of a year!

    Trying to come up with some frugal alternatives for the experience. Thanks!
    – Jane

    The answer here really comes down to defining what it is that you loved about your spa days. Was it primarily just the time spent with your sister? Was it the actual things you did at the spa? Was it the location? The trick is to really define which elements were most important to you.

    If it was just a day with your sister, then find something else to do for a day together that’s inexpensive or free. Maybe take a day-long road trip to see something interesting together within a few hours of your home, which would be way cheaper than a spa day. Maybe go on a hike together. Maybe just mix it up and not do the same thing every month. If you enjoy the spa activities a lot, try taking turns hosting a spa day. Get a bunch of towels, both of you wear a bathrobe and maybe make a facial mask for both of you. Just look up low-cost alternatives for the things you enjoy about the spa day and see what you can reasonably recreate at home.

    Talk some of these ideas over with your sister and see what clicks with her. You might also want to consider maybe doing a “spa day” once a year or so and rotating other much less expensive activities throughout the year instead.

    Q3: Is moving furniture worth it?

    We are moving in a month or two and are trying to decide what furniture to take with us when we move. The more furniture we take the more hassle there is in moving it and the bigger the moving truck we will have to rent. We intend to do all loading and unloading ourselves so the cost of hiring movers isn’t an issue. What’s the right balance here?
    – Brenda

    For me, it would depend a lot on the quality of the furniture and how much longer I intended to use it if I took it with me. If the furniture is pretty cheap stuff or is already getting quite worn, I wouldn’t bother with it. I’d sell it locally before the move or just leave it behind.

    If it’s nice furniture that you’d be happy to have for a long while yet, I’d probably take it. My guess is that you’ll have a mixed bag of those things. Some things are probably more cheap and worn, while you probably have a few nicer things that have a lot of years left in them. Take the nicer things and leave the rest.

    Of course, there will be some stuff you’re doubtful about. My tendency would be to leave it, actually. Try to sell it off before you go. Then, after you’ve moved into the new place, assess what furniture the place actually needs and pick up low-cost things, then upgrade them from there.

    I tend to think that expensive furniture isn’t a good investment until you’ve moved to a place that you know you’ll be in for a long time. The expense and effort of moving expensive furniture — and the risk of damaging it — means I’m generally against the idea until I’m in a spot where I probably won’t move again for a significant period of time.

    Q4: Overpriced used stuff?

    Maybe it is just me but isn’t used stuff getting a lot more expensive to the point where it’s not worth it anymore? I go to secondhand stores and yard sales and watch Craigslist and it seems like lately everything there is priced like it’s almost new. I might as well buy the new thing if I’m only saving $5 or $10 buying the used version! Someone was on there selling a used Nintendo Switch for more than a new one!
    – Mari

    I’ve noticed this as well, to an extent. There have always been people that drastically overprice their used stuff, but it does feel a little more prevalent lately.

    I do agree with you that if you’ve made the decision to buy something and you’re looking for a used version and the price isn’t much lower than a decent new version of that item, just buy the decent new version.

    For example, my son had saved up enough money recently to buy an iPad. He had originally intended to find a used one in good shape, but every used one in good shape was almost as expensive as a new one of similar processing power and memory, so he just saved for another few weeks and bought a new one. (He loves the thing, by the way.) I think that if you’re less picky, there are still a lot of used bargains. The big issue is that people have gradually become pickier with what they buy and thus there are a lot fewer lower-end items to be found, and people expect more money when selling off something that isn’t low end.

    It still pays to buy used, particularly when you’re just wanting to try something new, like a new small appliance or a musical instrument, and you’re not too picky about the exact model or brand.

    [Read: The Challenges of Buying Used and How to Overcome Them]

    Q5: Frugal room painting strategies?

    My son wanted his room painted orange for his birthday as orange is his favorite color (think of a shade like a creamsicle, a lighter orange with some white in it). We have never done this before. We went to a paint store and were just overwhelmed with things that they recommended. I have been reading guides to room painting but it is still unclear what is actually necessary and what isn’t.
    – Brenda

    First of all, I’m going to assume that there is currently a light shade of paint already on the walls in the room. If there isn’t, you will want to prime the walls first with a white primer or else it will be difficult to cover the underlying paint. A gallon of primer should cover a 10-by-10 bedroom. If there is light paint on the walls, you should be able to paint over it without primer with no problem.

    You will want to coat the walls twice. Again, you’ll need about a gallon of paint to cover a 10-by-10 room once, so I’d get two gallons of paint if that’s roughly your kid’s room size. If the paint is latex, you will be able to clean up brushes and stuff with water and soap, so no extra cleaning supplies are needed.

    Assuming that the room is a pretty typical room, you’ll want to get a paint roller, a small 2-inch brush, and a paint tray. Trying to dip a roller in a paint bucket is a really bad idea that will result in a lot of extra difficulty and mess — and by mess, I mean paint in lots of places. That should take care of everything you need to paint. If two of you will be painting at once, you’ll probably want two rollers.

    You’re going to want to have some painter’s tape to cover up things on the wall that you don’t want the paint to get on, like any moulding. I suggest getting at least one jumbo roll of painter’s tape, and you may end up going back for more. You’ll also need a drop cloth or paper to protect the carpet so that there’s no paint on the carpet. I’m telling you right now, don’t trust that you’ll avoid getting paint on the carpet. I guarantee you there will be drips.

    Go cheap on everything except the 2-inch paintbrush (you don’t want to start losing bristles while painting with it) and the paint itself. The paint is the one thing that is worth spending some extra on, because you want it to stick to the wall well. not fade over time and be easily cleaned (it is a kid’s room, after all).

    Shops will try to up-sell you on all kinds of stuff and point you to all kinds of extras. They’re really not needed for painting a child’s bedroom.

    Good luck!

    Q6: Inexpensive pet for child

    My son wants a pet of some kind. He really wants a dog. I don’t think we have the money to really take care of one. Don’t want to get a dog and not be able to really take care of it. Trying to think of inexpensive pet options that will give him some companionship but not have a lot of maintenance cost.
    – Dennis

    Honestly, I would consider a guinea pig or a rabbit. My daughter has two pet guinea pigs and my oldest son has two pet rabbits. They both have a really strong bond with their pets. My daughter sits in her room and talks to them a lot and often smuggles them out with her in the pockets of her hoodies. My son spends time each day with his rabbits.

    In particular, guinea pigs are very inexpensive. Once you have a cage for them and one or two interior items, the upkeep is pretty inexpensive. It’s also not that difficult to do, meaning that it is a chore that your son can probably handle himself before long (unless he’s very young). For a guinea pig, you need a spacious cage, water bottle, hayrack, food bowl, litter box and a place for them to hide (like a flower pot turned on its side). Most of those items besides the cage are a couple of bucks each at a pet store, and even the cage isn’t too bad.

    After that, you’ll need to make sure they have litter, hay and food. A big bag of each will last a very long time with a single guinea pig. Your kid will probably also want to get them a few treats and some chew toys. The full initial setup might run you $60–$80. After that initial expense, there is extremely little cost with a guinea pig. They don’t produce a whole lot of odor, either, unless the cage gets in really bad shape. It will need some cleaning sometimes, but the tasks are simple enough that even a pretty young child will be able to handle them.

    The only thing I would note is that it can take a while for a guinea pig to feel safe around a kid. The child needs to be quite calm around the guinea pig, especially at first, with lots of calm words in a calm voice and lots of soft petting. They scare super easily, even when you’re not remotely intending to scare them.

    Q7: Not all store brands equal

    Not all store brands are good. Some store brands have good stuff like the Sam’s Club and Costco ones but some of that stuff from Kroger is dodgy!
    – Charlie

    I don’t have first-hand experience with every chain in America, but I will say that in my experience, most store brand items at every store I’ve tried are pretty good. The issue is that sometimes a particular store-brand item at one store might be great, but that same type of store-brand item at another store is awful.

    I learned this with trash bags. I bought some store-brand trash bags a couple of times when I was first becoming more frugal and they were disastrously bad. I swear that every other bag split at the bottom, dumping scraps and trash all over my kitchen. It was so bad that I literally stopped using them halfway through a box and gave them to someone, replacing them with a box of name brand bags. (I’m not 100% sure what store I bought the store brand bags from, so I won’t name names here.)

    Many years later, I decided to give them another shot, buying some at Sam’s Club because Member’s Mark products are pretty highly regarded. They were great. They work just as well as name brand products. I’ve tried Target store brand bags as well and they’ve worked great.

    I am with you on the store brands from Costco and Sam’s Club, though. Those products are almost universally good. I don’t have a Costco particularly close to me, but when I go to Sam’s Club, there is usually a lot of Member’s Mark stuff in my cart.

    [Read: Optimizing Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping]

    Q8: No middle ground for furniture

    We have been gradually replacing our furniture over the last few years and the process is frustrating. There’s just no middle ground between particle-board Target, IKEA stuff and expensive furniture. Everything is either $100–$200 or $1,000 and there’s just not much in the middle there. I don’t want particle board items but I don’t need hand-crafted stuff either.
    – Diana

    I agree with you about the particle-board stuff from Target and Wal-Mart. IKEA is a mixed bag. I think that you should give them a closer look and look at the higher end of the types of things IKEA sells.

    For example, we ended up buying the table for our game room there and it is a really nice sturdy piece of furniture — not particle-board in any way. It cost quite a bit more than a lot of their other table options, but it was almost exactly what we were looking for. I also really like some of IKEA’s bookshelves.

    I think IKEA gets a reputation for being “particle board that looks slightly better than big box stores for just a little more,” but its range of products goes quite a bit higher than that. It’s not handcrafted furniture, but it does actually have some pretty good stuff if you look around.

    Q9: Switching to cloth napkins

    So growing up we always used paper napkins and paper towels to wipe our faces and hands at the dinner table so I just kind of copied that as an adult. I have been reading frugal books and advice and several places swear by cloth napkins, but how does that even work at home? Don’t you have to buy lots and have lots of laundry loads?
    – Tessa

    The initial expense of cloth napkins is high, but if you have a system in place, it’s not really a big deal. I think it’s a good idea to switch to this in concert with using just cloth kitchen towels and kitchen rags because it’s all basically the same system.

    You buy a whole bunch of cloth napkins and designate a particular drawer for clean ones in your home. You grab the ones for each meal and, when they’re used, you toss them in a wastebasket that you keep somewhere — in the pantry or under the sink or wherever. You do the same thing with cloth kitchen towels and cloth rags — have a drawer for them, use them and put them in the basket under the sink.

    When that basket is full, you wash all of the items in it and put them back where they belong. For us, this happens once a week or every 10 days. This is because individual kitchen rags and cloth napkins are pretty small, so a single load of them is actually a lot of items.

    The only drawback with this system is that you make a big initial investment in napkins. You’re going to want dozens so that you’re not constantly running out of them. Also, white ones are generally not good for home use, especially with kids, because they will accumulate stains, so something that hides some staining is a good idea. You can shop dollar stores for cloth napkins; I like these. One option is to just get a bunch of super cheap ones to start — white ones are fine — and then gradually move to nicer ones as you need to replace badly stained ones.

    Q10: Difference between frugality and minimalism

    What is the difference between frugality and minimalism? Feels like people basically use them interchangeably now.
    – Stef

    I think the problem here is that everyone defines those words a little differently, and since those words include a lot of the same practices and ideas, it gets pretty muddy.

    For me, frugality refers primarily to minimizing the resources you invest in acquiring and using things — mostly money, but also time, space and energy — while minimalism refers to minimizing the things you own to those that provide a large amount of value.

    The joke I like to use when comparing the two is that the biggest difference between a frugal person and a minimalist is the state of their garage. A minimalist will likely have a pretty empty garage, with only a small number of items in there. A frugal person will likely have lots of items — empty cardboard boxes put aside for later, a big pile of wrapping paper bought at a 90% off sale and more.

    A minimalist is likely to buy the minimum amount of wrapping paper they need for a particular moment at that moment, minimizing possessions and waste, while a frugal person will find a huge bargain on enough wrapping paper to last for five years and buy it all, saving 90% on the price. A minimalist is likely to acquire just enough packaging for their immediate use so as to not clutter their home with unused packaging, while a frugal person will save every decent cardboard box they can until their garage is half-filled with them.

    These two approaches are trying to achieve many of the same goals; they’re just addressing them differently. They both want to minimize waste, but the frugal person approaches it through the mindset of buying bulk items and using them for a long time and finding uses for boxes, while the minimalist approaches it by buying very few items.

    Quite often, the frugal and minimalist strategies overlap. I think both would think that it is a really good idea to buy a high-quality long-lasting version of a daily use item, for example, and they would both think it was silly to buy items just to show off or that you weren’t really sure you needed.

    If I had to identify one thing, I think the frugal approach is more anticipatory and the minimalist approach is more “in the moment.” A frugal person, in my experience, tends to place more value in minimizing the cost of preparing for things yet to happen, whereas a minimalist person tends to aim and minimize possessions and costs at the moment. They’re both valid approaches depending on what you want out of life.

    I think most people practice a mix of these things and find themselves falling somewhat on the spectrum between them. I know I do.

    Q11: A beginner’s guide to frugality?

    Is there a good “beginner’s guide to frugality” anywhere?
    – Monique

    This would make an outstanding article, and I would expect it in the coming weeks.

    For starters, I would point to my article listing 100 ways to save money, which overlaps somewhat with my first book, 365 Ways to Live Cheap. I’d also recommend checking your local library for issues or compilations of The Tightwad Gazette.

    For me, the most basic step of frugality is just thinking about every dollar that leaves your life. If I’m spending it on something, I just ask myself if I really need it or I’m getting enough value out of it, and whether there’s a way to get those things I need and value without spending so much. I literally mean every dollar. That does not mean living like a cheapskate, because there are definitely some expenses that do provide real value in life, but giving that kind of thought to every dollar with the intent of cutting that expense down to what’s really meaningful.

    Q12: Inexpensive sources for pocket notebooks

    Looking for an inexpensive way to get a whole lot of pocket notebooks, like a lifetime supply of them. I like Field Notes but I am open to similar ones. They are expensive by the three-pack especially since I go through one every two weeks or so. Got any suggestions?
    – Damon

    If you are willing to buy in sufficient quantity, you might want to consider contacting the manufacturer directly. I don’t know exactly how many you’re intending to buy, but you go through 100 per year by my count, and if you buy several years worth, you’re looking at several hundred notebooks. That may be large enough for them to sell to you at a wholesale rate or work out some other arrangement.

    Another option is to buy some lesser quality pocket notebooks in bulk, like this offer of 48 pocket notebooks for $28. I’ve tried notebooks like these and while they’re not as good as Field Notes, they will do the trick.

    You might be able to get a few hundred made from a local independent print shop at a good rate if you go in and talk to them. If you stick with blank, simple notebooks and show them what other things you’re considering and ask if they can match it, they may be able to do so.

    Good luck!

    Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

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    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.