Updated on 06.05.08

Making Frugality a Game

Trent Hamm

If you have a spouse or a close friend and you’ve both recently made a commitment to saving money, why not try making it into a competition?

First, a big disclaimer: my wife and I are naturally competitive with each other. We compete at the most absurd things – who can blow up a bigger balloon without it popping, who can win the most in a series of twenty five board games (yes, seriously), and who can eat the most “El Gordo” burritos in one sitting.

I lost that last one. My wife has a hollow leg, especially for such a small woman.

Anyway, the point is that if you can turn frugality into a mutual challenge, you can turn something that you might otherwise view as drudgery into something quite fun.

Five Examples of Frugality Competitions

1. Starting from zero, who can have the lowest credit card balance at the time of the next statement?
This challenge forces all competitors to not just bust out the plastic for all of their needs and instead carefully plan their purchases.

2. Over alternating weeks, one person is in charge of the meals for a week. Which person can spend the least preparing enjoyable meals for everyone?
Want to learn how to cook cheaply? Doing this will teach both of you how to shop for inexpensive foods and prepare them in a delicious fashion. It’s through competitions like this that my wife and I have discovered the delicious and inexpensive nature of the humble bean.

3. Who can go the longest without spending a single red cent on entertainment?
My wife and I went for months doing this. We read through our entire book collections, watched every movie we own, and devoured the contents of the library like ravenous wolves. I finally broke down and spent money to re-subscribe to a magazine, but it taught us both how little you really have to spend on entertainment to enjoy yourself.

4. A great competition to have with someone else: who can make the most homemade stuff to save money?
Homemade laundry detergent, homemade oatmeal packets, home-grown food – doing stuff yourself saves quite a bit of money. Start a friendly competition with a neighbor or a friend to see who can find the best home do-it-yourself savings. Share ideas with each other and see who can come up with the best stuff.

5. Who can make the most at their yard sale?
A yard sale is a great way to spend a weekend, clean out unwanted clutter, and earn a few bucks from the stuff you don’t want. Why not make it a competition? Make it a challenge with a friend of yours: have yard sales on alternating weekends and see who can earn the most? It’ll challenge both of you to clean out your closets and take a serious look at downsizing those unwanted possessions – plus put cash in both of your pockets.

A race for the prize? If you want, you can add some sort of prize to the competition. My wife and I have competed for book store gift cards before. Perhaps you and your yard-saling friend can agree to ante up a portion of your yard sale earnings in an effort to make you both try a bit harder.

The key thing here is to make saving money fun and interesting by turning it into a social situation. A friendly competition where you both end up with extra money in your pocket and perhaps a better idea of ways to save money is something that benefits everyone involved.

Even better, you might discover how cheap and tasty beans actually can be.

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  1. Lola says:

    If I don’t like competing with strangers, I won’t enjoy competing with my husband. But this reminded me of something: a few years ago, I noticed we were spendidg too much on groceries, so I set a limit. We wouldn’t spend more than, say, 60 dollars a week when buying anything at a supermarket. If we reached that limit and we needed to buy something urgent, we would have to spend less the following week. It worked, and soon we started spending even less than the stipulated amount. So it becomes a competition with yourself really.

  2. Lise says:

    I love these ideas! One thing I keep wanting to try at home is a Cupboard Cooking Challenge – see how long we can go without going grocery shopping, eating meals out of what’s in our cupboard. But my husband’s not so hot about this idea :)

  3. Shanel Yang says:

    My boyfriend and I used to tease each other about who could go longer without going out to eat. (A couple of years ago, we both loved to dine out and did it 4 – 5 times a week!) But, last year, we finally cracked down on this huge money drain by starting a friendly competition about it. I think I won, but it was really a win-win situation!

  4. Andy says:

    I really like this idea. It adds both motivation and accountability, without being too serious. I think I’ll have to try something like this with my girlfriend soon. Thanks!

  5. margo says:


    I wouldn’t be so hot about that idea, either, because it would mean no fresh fruits and veggies for a long time, and we buy and eat lots of those.

  6. I always compete with myself and try to save as much money as I can on every purchase. Everytime I pay less than retail (which is pretty much always) I win!

  7. Katy McKenna says:

    A twist on the competition would be to choose a charity–either together or each separately–and the “savings” from whatever contest you’re having for a specified period of time could be donated. Whoever is able to give the most “wins.”

    Of your games, I think I could beat my husband at the entertainment game. I keep ancient Victoria and Country Living magazines, and if I’m ever bored, I love looking through them all again.

    He likes to drive buckets of balls and see Indy Jones movies when they FIRST come out. :)

  8. Paul says:

    @ Cortni (comment #6),
    Wow, somebody else who plays that game! Whenever my wife and I go to buy something, our mantra is “never pay retail.” I love to get things at Target on clearance and then use a coupon as well.

  9. Noah'Dib says:

    Wife and I used to eat out every other day after work. It’d always be fast food, or “mid-priced” take out. But when ever we wanted a nice evening out at a somewhat nicer place to eat we’d always say we couldn’t do it because of the expense. We’d spend all our money on fast food, go well over our overall monthly budget, and never truly enjoy a nice meal out. Call the fast food a “latte factor”, I suppose.

    So what we did to fix this was set a stern limit to what would be spent on food (dining and groceries). If we had left over at the end of the week, we’d put it aside in a jar so we could see the amount visibly increasing. Every week we started fresh with the pre-designated amount on food. After about a month or two we had enough in the jar to eat out some place nice.

    We kept ourselves under budget this way….probably ate healthier this way due to less take out….and finally, after maybe a year or two of denying ourselves a nice night out, were able to eat out at a nice place!

  10. Maray says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who is competitive with my spouse. GREAT IDEAS!!!!

  11. Lise says:

    @margo: Well, I never said it was the *healthiest* idea… ;)

    (My husband is probably right. He often is. And he makes tasty pizza, so I don’t argue).

  12. liv says:

    I don’t think these games apply to me. I guess I’m not fun about saving, unless I find awesome coupons…but that isn’t really a competition in any way against my boyfriend.

  13. Megan says:

    I set up a net worth spreadsheet for my boyfriend a couple of months ago. He usually gives me a hard time for being a monetary micro-manager with all of my spreadsheets, but I got him hooked on tracking his net worth, and it’s turned into a friendly competition to see who can increase their net worth the most from paycheck to paycheck. It helps that we make about the same amount of money, otherwise I don’t think that game would be much fun at all! :-)

  14. That’s a pretty good idea to do for a relationship. I guess I would have to say I have an edge in this game because I have a habit of re-reading my books over and over.

    How would the reward for “winning” work?

  15. This is great! I’m much more inclined to do things if they are fun!

    I like Katy’s “donation” spin on it, too. Another idea might be to have 10% of the “profits” from everyone’s collective savings go to charity or a group cause, such as the local school system sports teams.


  16. Great post Trent. What my wife and I do is give ourselves an “allowance” on a monthly basis for discretionary spending. Sometimes we like to have competitions to see who has the most “allowance” left at the end of the month.

  17. Lisa says:

    Our local paper featured a woman who blogged about eating everything in her pantry. She was allowed to purchase fresh produce, and I think a few other things. It was eye opening, and now she writes that her food bill is much lower.

  18. kellykelly says:

    I had a yard sale and I made a whopping — $27.

    I don’t really buy much stuff. I had a lot of books at one time and I donated them to the library. So nothing much to sell at a yard sale.

    Dave Ramsey always tells people to sell things to build their $1,000 emergency fund and I am always amazed. I looked HARD at my housefull of possessions and really, truly, there is not much to sell.

    In the past, when I had a lot of discretionary dollars, I spent them on DOING stuff. Travelling, camping, having parties. I didn’t buy things.

    Just my .000002.

  19. These are great ideas! When it is time to plan a vacation, my boyfriend and I always compete to see who can find the better vacation package, including meals and activities. Then we both save as well as educate ourselves on frugal but fun time off!

  20. Amie says:

    Ever hear of the TLC show Clean Sweep? They would always pit husband and wife against each other in a yard sale to see who could sell the most. At stake was an item of each person’s that they loved and the other person hated. The winner got to keep their item and the loser’s got sent off to charity wih the rest of the leftover yard sale stuff.

  21. Lenore says:

    Last night my partner picked up two loaves of brand name bread at Walmart. They were literally twice the price of the generic version, and he knows you can’t tell any difference once they’re out of the bag.

    We had a tiff over it, and I stormed off with visions of new shoes dancing in my hot little head. Luckily I didn’t find anything I liked in my size, and we made up on the drive home.

    I wish I could think up a game to help us spend less at stores. Arguing wastes energy and only makes us want to splurge more. Trent, do you have any more concrete suggestions for friendly competition in retail settings? I bet you could save relationships as well as dollars.

  22. Brad Schultz says:

    I am trying to subscribe. When I had the auto reply on for work you suspended my subscription.

  23. Caroline says:

    I live in far away Africa! I cant remember how I stumbled on your blogspace but I got hooked afterwards.
    Considering how hard it is surviving in this part of the world, I must say your articles do come in handy. Keep up the good work. Your ideas are simply great!

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