Updated on 02.14.11

I Don’t Have the Time to Be Frugal!

Trent Hamm

“So, what’s The Simple Dollar about?” people will ask me when I tell them what I do for a living.

“Oh, it’s mostly about getting your life straight with money as a big part of the equation,” I say. “I talk about things like frugality and how you can use them to pay off your debts and get some freedom in your life.”

They then look at me like I’m from another planet and often follow that with, “I don’t have time to be frugal!”

Whenever I hear a statement like that, I immediately rewind to an earlier time in my life and I quickly recognize that such a statement usually points to two major problems in a person’s life, both of which can be fixed to create a much more worthwhile life for anyone. Let’s look at both of these problems.

Time management problems
This is simply the “I don’t have time” part of the equation. If you’re finding that your schedule is so full that you have the inability to even attempt something simple that may be helpful to you, then you’ve got some time management concerns that some simple techniques can help to alleviate. Here are five such techniques.

Say “no.” Many people are afraid of doing this, so they keep adding more and more to their plate until they can’t handle all of the tasks at hand. This is a dangerous situation to be in because it means that you’re going to start letting people down, which is far worse than saying “no” in the first place. When someone comes to you with yet another thing that simply seems like too much for your schedule, just simply say no.

Eliminate the chaff. Look through the activities and responsibilities that you have already on your plate and cut some of the less important ones. Simply resign from a committee, step back from another year of being a Scout director, resign from your league basketball team, or ask to be removed from a project where your skills aren’t being effectively used.

Focus. When it’s time to get stuff done, eliminate distractions. Pull the ethernet cable out from your computer. Turn your cell phone completely off. Disconnect your office phone. Pull the blinds. Close your door. Actually get some work done, instead of just working for a few minutes and then bopping over to the latest distraction.

Keep a list. Whenever you think of something you have to do or something you want to think about later, add it to the list. Then, when you’re done with the task at hand, just turn to the list instead of wandering off and trying to think of what you need to do next.

Make routine tasks as efficient as possible. If you can figure out how to shave a few minutes off of something you do every day, then you suddenly will find your time multiplying. Three minutes saved doing laundry can make the difference in convincing you to load the dishwasher tonight instead of going to bed. The clean dishes tomorrow mean one less task to worry about, giving you the space to take care of something else in your life (like one of the frugality tasks below).

Not understanding frugality
On the other side of the equation is the “time to be frugal” part of things. The assumption here is that frugality must be a time sink because the first thing or two they imagine a frugal person doing seems like a giant time sink. In truth, many frugal tactics end up being time savers as well over the long run, in addition to saving money. Here are five examples.

Install a programmable thermostat. Once one is installed and properly programmed, you’ll basically only have to touch your thermostat a few times a year. Not only that, because the furnace or A/C unit in your house is running less (assuming you programmed it sensibly, with the heat and/or the air conditioning turning off at night), you’re saving money as well.

Install long-lasting energy efficient bulbs. In areas where you don’t need perfect lighting, install CFL and/or LED light bulbs. Both will last for far longer than normal bulbs (meaning less time spent changing bulbs), plus they’re much more energy efficient, meaning your energy bill will drop with continued normal use of the lights.

Wire your entertainment center to a master switch. If you have an outlet in your family room that is wired to a switch, then just plug your entertainment center in via that outlet. Then, when you’re ready to go to bed, just flip the switch and everything loses power. No standby devices sucking down energy, plus it’s much easier to turn everything off at night.

Make double/triple/quadruple meals. When you’re actually making a homemade meal, such as a casserole, make doubles or triples of it and sock them away in the freezer. The next time you come home, feel lazy, and are just tempted to order something for supper, pull the ready-made meal out of the freezer and toss it in the oven. Instant homemade food, much cheaper than delivery.

Purge your overstuffed closets. Getting rid of unwanted stuff via yard sale or eBay means more cash in hand. It also means it’s quicker and easier to actually find the closet items that you want or need.

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  1. Elizabeth says:

    I don’t think many people are going to give up volunteering or social obligations to clip coupons and make their own laundry soap. However, giving up some TV time is another story…

  2. Des says:

    Yeah, I second Elizabeth’s point. If you don’t have time to do the things you love because you are too busy pinching pennies, THAT is a time management problem.

    Also, I love frugality, but right now I am “that guy” that just doesn’t have time. Why? We’re prepping two rental houses and it is all-consuming as far as time goes. It would be inane to skip that in favor of making laundry detergent or installing new thermostats. Those properties will net several hundred dollars a month. No amount of coupon clipping is going to trump that.

  3. Katie says:

    To your point, Des, this is also true of many of my friends with very highly paid jobs – they truly don’t have time to do much outside of work except try to maintain their personal relationships and keep their life in some semblance of order. But the money they make at said jobs more than compensates for the money they’re not saving other places. Completely worthwhile from a financial standpoint. (From a personal life standpoint, I’m not convinced.)

  4. Rachel says:

    Two weeks ago I was in Disney with my daughter and her family. I received a call on my phone from my sister. “Mom told me you were at Disney. I guess all that coupon clipping really pays off.” Well, only partly. I did not pay for the entire trip with money saved from coupon clipping. I actually paid for most of it with money I recieved for a Christmas gift from my father, and yes, my sister recieved the exact same amount of money. But here is the difference. I have a husband who works full time. I have worked on and off throughout our marriage, but the majority of my time was spent stretching money and saving money. And still is today. Yes, life is expensive. Yes, we all need health insurance and retirement. If my husbands job did not provide these things, I would probably be working as well. I cut coupons, shop at Goodwill, cook at home most evenings, am willing to wear my clothes one or two years longer than most folks. Everything that happens in my life is not an emergency that I need to throw money at. There actually are very few emergencies in life. You know Christmas is coming, you know you will need to buy a home to raise your family in. You know that signing on the dotted line for that brand new car means 60 or more months of car payments. My sister in law was recently here for a visit. We are both avid readers. She is now on her second e-reader. She was telling me what a great deal it is, she buys books for ONLY $9.99 each! That’s a great deal? I get my books from the library. They are free and my time invested is about 30 to 40 minutes every three weeks to return and check out a new stack. I don’t believe in total deprivation. If I did I would have never traveled to Disney. But I don’t want the rat race of going to a job I don’t like every day. so I am willing to make the changes necessary to have the life I want. I have to stretch our household income to the max. I just recently made homemade Valentines and baked two cakes as gifts. Just think how many people will drop a ton of money today doing what is “expected” of this holiday. And most of the recipients of the roses, boxes of candy and expensive cards would have been just as happy with a homemade card and a box of cookies or fudge. I ask myself every day how i can meet that days needs on the least amount of money.

  5. Teresa says:

    @#4 Rachel – I agree 100%. I too shop at Goodwill, use coupons, go to the library. I do love to read, but I usually get my books from thrift stores or yard sales. And you don’t have to spend all your time cooking or clipping coupons. It is just as easy to cook two cups of rice when the recipe only calls for one. You can then put the rice(or whatever) up to use later in the week and then guess what, you’ve already chopped the prep time on your dinner down.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Rachel (#4) makes a very good point. Being frugal allows flexibility that may not be possible for free-spenders. People who do not have time to be frugal may also not have time to do some of the things that make them happy. For some people a high paying job that comes with prestige but little free time fits in with their priorities. For others, living a frugal life that provides flexibility and low stress fits with their priorities. The only time I see either choice as an issue is when people have not really determined where their true priorities lay, and choose a path that makes them unhappy.

  7. rosa rugosa says:

    Frugality can also save time for those who engage in a lot of “recreational shopping.” It takes a lot of time to buy all that stuff you don’t need!

  8. Tammy says:

    I think Rachel you sum it up perfectly! it really is all about the choices and making frugal choices is not for everyone, but for those of us that do make those choices it is a priority so we do make the time for them.

  9. Johanna says:

    Eh. In my experience, “I don’t have time” (especially when uttered defensively) usually means something more like “I don’t want to.” Or “I’ve never actually thought seriously about how to incorporate that into my life, because it’s not important to me” – which is just another way of saying “I don’t want to.”

  10. Kate says:

    For me, being frugal actually SAVES time!
    I don’t waste time shopping for clothes. When something needs replacing, I either do a quick tour through the local thrift shop, or get into my fabric-and-patterns stash and make it myself (I get a much better fit that way too!).
    I don’t waste time grocery shopping. I know the layout of the store, go in with my list and coupons, get what’s on the list and get out fast.
    I don’t waste hours sitting in overpriced restaurants or coffeehouses. I don’t waste time standing in fast-food lineups. I make and freeze a month’s worth of work lunches in about two hours once a month instead.
    Buying in bulk takes a lot less time than shopping for small amounts of the same thing every week.
    Cooking in bulk cuts a lot of cooking time down to the same cooking time for one meal and a minute or two of microwave time for several more meals.

    In other words, I’m frugal with my cash AND my time :-)

  11. Jamie says:

    I’m surprised that the first two people who posted comments interpreted the blog as “You should stop volunteering so that you can stay home and clip coupons.” I think the more accurate interpretation is that when people say, “I don’t have time,” they really mean, “I choose to do other things with my time than be frugal.” Trent is pointing out that this is a choice.

    If you are in debt and not making enough money to live and are finding yourself so busy that you have to pay other people to do your personal work (i.e., food, cleaning, babysitting, etc), I’d say that you might want to CHOOSE to stay home from your volunteer work/recreational clubs/ etc so that your volunteer work doesn’t continue to be an extra expense.

  12. Sonja says:

    There is also the “ant and the grasshopper” syndrome at work here. Some people don’t want to be frugal. It just doesn’t sound fun!

    I hear the same things from friends who admire my fitness routine but say they “don’t have time” to exercise. C’mon, really?! Everyone can find 30 minutes a day to work on staying healthy. The fact is, they don’t WANT to exercise.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    @Jamie — Actually, in the “eliminating the chaff” point Trent does suggest giving up volunteer activities. He doesn’t mention giving up TV time or surfing the internet as being “chaff” yet giving up being a Scout leader is?

  14. Elizabeth says:

    @Sonja — I think people don’t understand how easy frugality or fitness are :) I think it’s a lack of energy too. It’s easy to sit down in front of the TV or computer (as I’m doing right now… eep!) than it is to do more “work” like frugal strategies or exercise.

  15. valleycat1 says:

    I don’t see being frugal as something additional to my other activities – more as a mind-set that I approach the things I do (whether they’re ‘have to’s’ or ‘wants’), with the thought of getting the most value for my money or the most satisfaction out of the activity.

  16. Michelle says:

    Agree with Johanna – “I don’t have time” = This is not a priority for me, I chose not to spend my time doing this.

  17. Leah says:

    @Elizabeth, I think Trent mentioned other things because, every time he mentions TV, people write lots of comments about how their TV watching isn’t so bad (which it isn’t, as long as it’s your choice).

    For me, instead of cooking quadruple meals, I like to cook meal parts and freeze them. Every time I cook ground beef or chicken breasts, I cook a few extra. Then, they go in the freezer (chicken goes in cubed or shredded). It’s then much easier to put together some yummy dinner without spending time cooking the meat. I also chop up lots of veggies if I’m doing it for dinner one night — if I have to chop half an onion, why not chop two whole onions and have onion ready for the rest of the week?

  18. Courtney20 says:

    Eh, I agree more with the first three comments. I’d rather go to a yoga class instead of making my own soap. Basically what it comes down to is we all have limited resources, and we make decisions about how best to use them. After a quick skim through the comments: I bought an e-reader too. Except now I can check out e-books from my library during a commercial or on my lunch break. No time spent driving to/from the library, no late fees because they automatically expire. I don’t waste time at the grocery store because I order my groceries online and have them delivered ($7-$10 delivery fee 2-3x a month). I don’t waste time shopping for clothes because I can order online from a few inexpensive places (Old Navy, Kohls, JC Penney) where I am familiar with the fits, and get free delivery.

    We have good jobs, minimal debt (no credit card debt), retirement and regular savings. And we went to Disney last year too. So if I’d rather pay $10 to gain an extra hour a week, especially if that hour is after I’ve worked and gone to the gym and driven home, who cares?

    When we have enough additional disposable income, I plan to have someone come clean my bathrooms too :-P

  19. kristine says:

    It’s all balance. I typically make my lunches for the week (I like a hot and healthy meal) on Sunday- it takes 2 hours, and comes out to 1.20 a serving. Now I am covering for 2 other teachers in addition to my part time load, tutoring, wrapping up the yearbook, and helping my daughter with scholarship apps. Much as I like making my own food, and enjoy it best, for the next 8 weeks I’ll have to buy diet meals and bring them if I want hot food for lunch. It will cost me an extra 12 bucks a week- about 6/hr for my food making time. I have to give it a rest for the time being- this Sunday it was stressful drudger on top of the huge must-do list. Once I realized that I was only saving 6/hr, I figured I can do this for the short term sprint. But I’ll switch back- I like to cook if not stressed, and I prefer homemade. My frugality enables me most of the time, but when it becomes a hardship, I do reconsider specifics.

  20. Amanda says:

    People like my mom, who says she doesn’t have time to be frugal, also has no time to go through clutter (i.e. hoarder). Hoarder’s think their items have value and can be sold on ebay, etc as Trent mentions, but they never do it because something in their head messes up the supposed monetary value with emotional value.

    People in this situation just need to throw out their junk. (It is usually valueless junk) This saves money because there is less clutter and they can find items they need (i.e. scotch tape) instead of going to costco (to save that value-on 50 rolls of tape) and spending money they don’t have on it.

  21. Kevin says:

    The “make a list” thing works amazingly for me. I use an app on my iPod touch (“Remember the Milk”) to manage my task list, and it’s helped me dramatically improve how efficiently I use my time.

    Also, regarding the CFL light-bulbs. We use them in high-use rooms, but it doesn’t make economic sense to just blanketly replace them throughout your whole house. We have rooms we don’t use very often (spare bedrooms, basement storage, etc.), and it just don’t make sense to replace a $0.25 light bulb with a $8.00 one. Chances are, the light will be on for less than 500 hours in total, ever, so the $0.25 light bulb will not burn out in our lifetimes. Just something to think about.

  22. Kevin says:

    @Sonja: “Everyone can find 30 minutes a day to work on staying healthy. The fact is, they don’t WANT to exercise.”

    Sonja, I don’t mean to single you out, but that type of comment has always annoyed me. The truth is, it takes more than 30 minutes a day to exercise. If I pack my gym bag, walk to the gym after work (5 minutes from my desk to my locker), get changed, stretch, shower, get dressed again, and walk back to my desk, that would take 30 minutes.

    Note that I omitted any actual “exercise” there.

    Just the ancillary tasks alone would take 30 minutes. The exercise itself would add at least another 20 minutes, for just a bare-bones, “get-your-heart-rate-up-then-stop” workout. A real, worthwhile routine would take an hour (plus the 30 minutes of supporting actions).

    Don’t get me wrong – I exercise every day. But I’ve learned that when you add it all up, it definitely takes more than 30 minutes.

  23. Hannah says:

    I think when people say they don’t have time for frugality, it is probably not that they can’t physically squeeze more tasks into their day. Most people mean “As much as I would like to have more money to do X, I’m stuck in a rut doing Y, and I don’t have the energy to change it.”

    Even if someone is spending hours a week watching TV or unwinding other ways, they don’t feel like they have time for new things because that unwinding time feels essential. Rather than telling someone where they can find more time, they really need to find their energy and motivation. That’s a much more difficult process.

  24. Telephus44 says:

    I think that there are three main issues that can be addressed.

    First, not all “acts of frugality” take the same amount of time. It may only take 30 seconds to turn the thermostat down at night, but it make take several hours to do OAMC. It’s not that all frugality activities are time intensive, because many of them aren’t, but there are some that are. To ignore that is foolish.

    Secondly, there are different perceptions of time. For someone that has more unstructured time, they have a different perception of time costs. If you are a SAHP, taking an hour out of your day may not seem like much time to you – whereas if you work 80 hours a week, then taking an hour out of your day may seem like a lot of time.

    Lastly, there’s a definite bias towards frugality (on both sides) that leads to exagerating or minimizing time costs. To glean from the comments, someone says “exercising is only 30 minutes a day” and someone else says “no, I have to change clothes, drive to the gym, shower, stretch – all that adds a lot more time to that 30 minutes.” A similiar argument can be made about most frugal activities. Someone can say coupon clipping only take a few minutes while you’re watching TV in the evening, and someone else can say it takes an hour to clip them, sort them, file them, and match them up to 6 different sale flyers. It’s easy to see that each comment has it’s own bias in it – if you’ve already decided that it’s worthwhile, you are going to emphasize how little time you spend on it. If you’ve already decided it’s a hassle, you will emphasize how much time it takes.

  25. Matt says:

    I have to say that I really liked the time management advice in this article and I think that advice could have stood well on it’s own. When this article tried to bridge to frugality, I think the bridge seemed a little disjointed and redundant. I think you have a lot of great ideas, and I really enjoy your blog, but please feel free to stray from frugality posts from time to time.

  26. Rebecca says:

    SAHP’s don’t necessarily have more time, unstructured or otherwise. Between caring for my kids, husband and home I work over 13 hrs a day without taking more than 20 min for myself. I don’t even have an hour of the day not filled with other things.

    I don’t know where the idea comes from that SAH parents have all this “free” time? We are some of the hardest working people I know, and we don’t even get “paid”.

  27. Telephus44 says:

    Rebecca – that’s why I said “unstructed” time and not “free” time. I have been a SAHP and a working one. I understand that it’s not “free” time. However, I am willing to bet in your 13 working hours, you are doing some frugal activities. Maybe you spend 30 minutes of your 13 working hours clipping coupons, or a hour cooking from scratch – all of those are frugal activities that you are fitting into your day. I’m NOT saying that you don’t “work,” but rather than you have more control over the structure of your day.

  28. MattJ says:

    #26 Rebecca:

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I get the idea from my experiences with SAHP’s, particularly my stepmother and my several babysitters while I was growing up. My recollection of being ‘babysat’ was that I would play with the babysitter’s children in their bedrooms or the back yard while the babysitter was inside watching game shows and soap operas. When I was 4-5, my weekdays with my mother typically went like this: She drove me to the babysitter in the early AM and dropped me off so she could go to nursing school, then picked me up at around 3pm to take me to my grandparent’s house (where we lived), and she would go work a shift at K-mart and maybe wake me up to kiss me goodnight when she got home at 10:30.

    My stepmom, who was a stay at home mom, had way more free/unstructured time than that. As did my aunt, who was also a SAHM, as did my mother’s cousin, also a SAHM, both of whom were my babysitters at different times until I turned 8 and my mother remarried.

    Can you choose between taking your kid(s) to the park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, taking them over to a friend’s house for a playdate, or hauling them to the thrift store to shop for their clothes? That’s unstructured time. It may not be free, but you can often choose what to do with it, and those choices can be frugal ones.

  29. MattJ says:

    I should also mention that as I got older, the same held true for the SAHM’s of my friends vs. the parents who worked. At age 10-11, all my buddies knew whose mom would be around on a summer day to give us a ride somewhere. Or to refuse our request, if she preferred to (or had to) do something else. The flip side of that is that everyone knew that my mom, or my friend K’s mom, would be at work and unable to take us to the pool.

  30. asrai says:

    @Kevin you are focusing on exercise taking place at the gym. I can go for a walk with my children and it takes me 5 minutes to get in the house and 5 to get back in. I can throw in a DVD if it’s too cold to go out and exercise in my living room. So, nope, that it takes too much time to exercise is only true if you can only exercise at the gym.

  31. Jonathan says:

    Kevin, where are you buying these $8 CFL bulbs? With almost no effort I can find CFL bulbs for less than $2 each.

  32. Nan411 says:

    @ MattJ… how much free time a sahp has also depends on the age of her/his children. A young infant needs to be fed and changed every 3 hrs. Toddlers require constant supervision as they might get into something dangerous or choke on something. Young children require much more time and attention than school age children.

  33. Nate says:

    This whole “I don’t have time to be frugal” makes no sense to me. It is easy to cut out all the excess crap we buy-cappuccinos, clothes, electronics, and baubles. That being said there are people out there who truly don’t have “time”. I think back to my college days when I was out of the house 9-9 every weekday and 9-5 on Saturdays and Sundays were filled with laundromats, grocery stores, homework, etc…I didn’t have time do anything except survive. Even now 4 days a week I work 12 hours, my husband works 10-12 hours everyday, and while we don’t go on spending sprees it is hard for us to come home and then start dinner or go about cleaning the house. How do I find time to do frugal stuff like cooking up a bunch of meals beforehand? I don’t want to wait around for it to thaw and then spend another hour or two in the oven as I’ve seen on Once A Month Cooking websites. I wish Trent would do a post super quick meals because I don’t have time to cook.

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