When to Sweat the Small Stuff

One of the big tricks of frugal living is to know when it’s worthwhile to sweat the small stuff and when it’s better to just let it be. There are times when paying attention to a few cents can end up making a big difference, and there are times when paying attention to a few cents is a complete waste of your focus. The challenge is being able to instantly tell which is which.

At this point, I’ve developed something of an “instinct” for being able to tell when the pennies are really worth my attention or not, so I don’t even have to think about it. I just run subconsciously through a series of criteria to decide whether it’s worth my time and attention or not. Here are most of the criteria that I use.

If I have to give away personal information, it’s not worth it. If something is demanding my phone number or my address or, even worse, my Social Security number or my driver’s license number, it’s not worth saving a few cents or earning a few cents in interest. I’m just not going to give my personal data away to a company in exchange for a very small amount of money. Not only does this increase the likelihood of things like spam calls and junk mail, it also raises the risk of identity theft. I’m not on board for any of that.

Thus, I don’t switch bank accounts to get another 0.1% or 0.2% interest on my checking. I don’t hop from credit card issuer to credit card issuer. I’m extremely picky about who I give my info to, and there’d better be a big win in exchange for that data.

If it affects something I do constantly, I’m going to pay more attention. I use electricity almost all the time. I do dishes at least once a day. Sarah or I do a load of laundry at least once a day. I use the fridge constantly. I eat three meals a day. I use the bathroom several times a day. I drink water or some other beverage several times a day. I drive my car at least a few times a week. I exercise at least a few times a week. If a frugal tactic affects those things – or other things I do on a very frequent basis – I’m probably interested, as long as one of the other rules below doesn’t eliminate it.

For example, I drive frequently, so money saving tactics like keeping my tires at the maximum recommended pressure and sticking with the maintenance schedule are big values for me. I drink beverages throughout the day, so training myself to drink lots of water is another big money saver.

If it affects something I do rarely – less than twice a week – I usually don’t pay attention. This is the flip side of the above rule. If this frugal strategy affects something I don’t do very often and it only saves me pennies each time, it’s probably not worth worrying about. I don’t worry about saving pennies on things like coffee shop visits because I virtually never go to coffee shops. I don’t worry about saving pennies on riding the metro because there isn’t a metro near me, thus I virtually never ride it. Those tactics simply aren’t worth my time or energy to investigate further, so I don’t.

For example, I generally don’t pinch pennies when I go out to a coffee shop or a restaurant because I do it so rarely. I generally only go when there’s a good social reason to do so – I’m meeting an old friend or we’re celebrating a perfect report card or something. I don’t pinch pennies when I’m out and about in a new city or country because I do it so rarely. I plan ahead for such trips so that I can explore the new area without being constantly cost conscious.

If a tactic takes very little time investment, meaning it’s just a replacement for another routine, I’m interested. Ideally, if something’s saving me only a few cents, it’s not worth it if it takes much time investment at all. On the other hand, if it requires exactly zero time and energy investment going forward, or such a small amount that it’s trivial (like grabbing an item off of a different shelf at the store), then it’s something I’m interested in.

For example, switching to a store brand takes no energy or effort or time at all, but it saves some pennies every time you’re buying a store brand instead of the regular name brand you perhaps previously bought.

If a tactic only requires a single up-front investment of time to consistently save small amounts of money going forward with no further effort, I’m interested. This is a pretty broad category, as it includes things like making energy efficiency improvements to one’s home, calling around to get your cell phone bill reduced, and doing a zero interest balance transfer on your credit cards. If I can spend fifteen minutes or an hour or even a couple of hours doing something now that will save me money in drips and drops for a very long time, I’ll almost always do it.

For example, I’ll happily make a batch of powdered homemade laundry soap once every few months, enough for 100 loads or so. Each load saves about $0.15 compared to a name brand laundry detergent and about $0.08 for the no-name cheap laundry soap, so the savings doesn’t come immediately, but rather gradually over time. I’ll happily switch to more energy efficient light bulbs everywhere I can, not because it’s cheaper up front (it usually isn’t), but because of the long tail of energy savings and not having to replace bulbs so often.

If a tactic requires continual time, energy, or thought to only save pennies, I’m not interested. Things that require me to constantly remind myself to do certain things or to take on a whole new routine just to save a very small amount of money aren’t things that I’m going to incorporate into my life. It is not worth it to me to take on an extra minute or two of effort every day to save a bit of pocket change.

For example, I’m not particularly interested in washing resealable food bags as a way to be “frugal.” It’s far more cost effective to me to get better microwave-safe and dishwasher-safe containers for leftovers. Another example: it’s not worth it to me to clip coupons, because I save a pretty small amount per coupon I clip as virtually all coupons are for name brands and I buy most things in store brand form, so the savings is often zero and typically only a few cents per coupon.

These principles handle virtually every frugal strategy that comes my way. It’s usually immediately obvious when it falls under one of these rules, and I really only have to think about it when it falls under one “yes” rule and one “no” rule (though usually the “nos” win out).

These rules exist to keep me from investing too much time and energy into frugal tactics that won’t really save me much money. Time and energy have a financial value – I don’t want to invest time and energy and focus into things that don’t give me a good return on that time and energy and focus. In general, if I can’t make a clear case that I’m saving more than at least $10 an hour (and preferably more) for my time invested in it, I’m not going to do it. While I could calculate out the exact amount I’m saving for the time invested, it’s not really worthwhile to calculate every single thing I might be doing. What I’ve found is that these rules help me figure out which little things – the things that return only pennies – are actually worthwhile and which ones aren’t. I’ve applied them so often that they’re now basically instinctual – a frugal instinct, in other words.

That’s the approach you should take with these rules – consider them and use them often enough so that it becomes second nature to just instantly apply them and decide whether a frugal tactic is worth your while.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.