Over the years, I have shared literally thousands of frugality tips on The Simple Dollar. Most of them are useful tips – they will save you money – but not every tip works for everyone. Many of the tips I’ve shared on the site are ones where I can see from my own experience how it does save money, but it didn’t work out for me for some reason or another.
Some strategies, though, have been utter home runs for my family. The dozen strategies in this article have flat-out made our lives better. They’ve directly saved us money without any additional significant effort or time investment or negative change in routine, and many of them save us time as well. Some of the tips have a positive environmental impact. Some of them make other aspects of our life easier or add quality to our life in some way.
Quite simply, these are my favorite “little wins.” They’re little frugality tips that, on their own, aren’t life changing, but they’re just simply better ways of doing things compared to what I used to do. In each case, they result in more money in my pocket, but they usually come with additional benefits, too.
Strategy #1: The Rag Drawer
We used to be avid users of paper towels. We’d buy them at the store and then we “graduated” to buying them in bulk at a warehouse club. Even at the best prices, though, we were still spending at least $1.50 per roll for decent paper towels with any degree of absorbency.
The problem, of course, is that paper towels simply aren’t reusable. If someone spills a drink, you throw several paper towels at it, and then you throw them away and the money is lost. They’re useful, no doubt, but every time you use them, it’s just gone.
Gradually, we switched to having a “rag drawer.” In our kitchen, we have a drawer that just has a ton of microfiber rags and other miscellaneous rags in there for whatever spills or cleanup jobs may happen. We just toss them in a small laundry bin after use and then we wash the contents of that bin the next time we have a small load of clothes and put the rags back in the rag drawer when they’re clean.
The rags handle everything. They’re super absorbent, so one rag can handle something that it would take a bunch of paper towels to deal with. You can just toss them in a bin when you’re done and wash them when it’s super convenient, so there’s almost no time involved in refilling the rag drawer, plus you’re no longer spending time on paper towel purchasing or storage any more, either.
This solution is also way cheaper, since you can get tons of rags for just pennies each in various places, even microfiber ones. You only need to wash them a time or two before it’s a cost savings over paper towels, and if you wash them a dozen times, the savings is tremendous. There’s also the environmental factor – you’re not filling landfills with used paper towels.
I have zero interest in returning to our heavy paper towel use of the past.
Strategy #2: The Perennial Herb Patch
If you walk out of our back door and turn to the left, you’ll see a little patch of herbs growing there. It’s pretty much constantly growing during the spring, summer, and fall. We never plant anything new there or do much of anything to care for it, but it constantly produces a variety of herbs for us. Right now, for example, it’s producing tons of chives, but at other times it might produce lots of fresh sage or thyme or oregano or tarragon or rosemary.
The only thing I do for maintenance on that herb patch is pull out a bunch of anything that’s threatening to dominate the patch. The chives tend to try to take over, so we’ll pull them out by the roots every once in a while. We sometimes water them a little, but they don’t need much, and sometimes I’ll spread some compost around in there – organic stuff like old bananas or vegetable peels or coffee grounds that’s completely turned into black compost by being left in a bucket for a month or so. I’ll usually compost and water at the same time once in the spring and then maybe once in the fall and then not worry about it for the rest of the year. If you don’t want to bother with compost, just get a small bag of fertilizer and use that instead.
Most of the time, though, we just do nothing at all with this little patch. It grows on its own and when we need some fresh herbs, we go out there while prepping a meal and cut them. It’s way way way cheaper than buying it at the store and it tastes miles better, too, and there’s almost zero effort involved once you have them planted. It requires maybe 30 minutes of effort a year – seriously – and it grows and grows every year without fail. That’s an amazing bargain, and it makes our meals tastier to boot.
Strategy #3: The Soup Vat
Whenever I make soup, I don’t just make a little soup. I make a giant cauldron of soup. I pull out our big stock pot and make an absurd batch of soup.
Why do I do this? The truth is that if I’m going to the effort of making a batch of homemade soup, it’s not much extra work to make a quadruple or quintuple batch all at once. I have to slice some more vegetables, but I already have the cutting board and a knife out to do that.
When we’re ready to eat, we just serve ourselves straight from that big vat, and then after the meal is over, I get to work. I’ll prepare some large reusable freezer containers with enough soup to feed all of us for a meal, and I’ll pop those in the freezer. I’ll also prepare some small reusable freezer containers with enough soup for a single meal, and I’ll pop those in the freezer, too. I label them with a bit of masking tape and a marker so I know what they are and when they were stored.
Then, when we need a quick meal, we just pull one out and warm it up. For the whole meal, we’ll pull out a family container. For just one of us, we grab an individual container. You can microwave it easily and it’s absolutely delicious; it’s often better the second time around.
Soup is a cheap and tasty meal. I can make a number of killer soups for maybe $0.35 to $0.50 per person. When they’re frozen and stored like that, they become very quick and convenient meals and the soups are often better the second time around because the flavors have melded. It saves us a ton of time over the long run and it’s so inexpensive!
Strategy #4: The Powdered Laundry Soap
For those who have been paying attention over the history of The Simple Dollar, you’ll know that I’ve tried a lot of strategies for cutting into the cost of laundry soap.
At first, we simply bought it in bulk, buying huge dispensers for the laundry room. After that, I moved on to a fairly complicated recipe which was definitely cheaper than the bulk detergent but required a fair amount of work. I kept tinkering with that recipe over time and eventually I got it down to something super-simple that saves a ton of money.
I just buy a bag of soap flakes, a box of borax, and a box of washing soda at the store. In a plastic container, I mix a cup of each of those things – I just put them in there and shake it around for 30 seconds or so. I then put a measuring tablespoon in there. When I go to wash a laundry load, I scoop out a flat tablespoon of the mix, toss it into the load, and then close up the container with the spoon in it again. When the container gets low, I put in a cup of borax, a cup of washing soda, and a cup of flakes and shake it up again.
That’s it. It costs about three cents a load, which is a fraction of the cost of buying laundry detergent, and it takes almost no effort. It’s also easier to just take a box of borax or washing soda down to the laundry room when I need a refill than it is to carry a giant jug of laundry detergent or a five-gallon bucket full of my early attempts at homemade stuff. My current method is just more efficient and way cheaper.
Strategy #5: The Reading Block
About two years ago, we started instituting a daily routine where one parent would spend 30 minutes reading silently with all three children (and, on good days, both parents would be there, too).
Our original reason for doing this was to improve our children’s reading skills. We wanted them to become very strong at reading and constantly encouraged them to read a mix of comforting and easy page turners and somewhat more challenging works, to keep reading fun but also intellectually challenging.
It seems like a noble goal, but how is it frugal? It’s frugal in a bunch of ways.
First of all, it cultivated our children to be readers. They love books now. They want books as gifts. When you reach a threshold where reading most things is actually easy in terms of processing the words and you’re reading fun stuff that interests and excites you, you want to read more and more. Reading books is now one of their favorite hobbies and they often way overshoot the 30-minute clock when reading and also read at bedtime and on road trips and often at random times during the day.
We channel that reading by going to the library every other week and checking out books to read. Everyone that goes simply checks out two or three books and returns the ones we checked out the previous time (or renews them, if desired). Everyone goes home with something they’re excited to read for free.
Even better, it’s cut down significantly on the amount of screen time they engage in. There’s less energy use around our home. There’s less clamor for us to buy new entertainment items. There’s more conversation.
Our 30-minute reading policy, sustained over multiple years, has paid so many dividends in our home. It’s helped financially, it’s helped intellectually, it’s helped empathically. I couldn’t really ask for anything more.
Strategy #6: The Lazy Thermostat
For a long time, we used our programmable thermostat heavily, as it did a really great job of keeping our house at a certain temperature. We let the temperature go up during the summer when we weren’t home and down during the winter when we were sleeping and it definitely saved us money. Over time, though, we came to realize that the heating and cooling would still kick on at times where it was completely unnecessary.
Now, throughout the year, we set the thermostat to have the heating and cooling “off” unless it actually feels excessively hot or cold in the house. We don’t try to keep our indoor climate at a specific temperature all the time and it varies by as much as 30 degrees throughout the year. We occasionally use the programming feature, but only when it’s absolutely necessary.
This usually only happens on really hot or really cool days, and even on those days, our first response isn’t to turn on the furnace or the air conditioner. On hot days, we close the curtains on all windows facing the sun and wear shorts and t-shirts and go barefoot around the house and take cold showers. If it’s still too much and people don’t feel comfortable, then we kick on the air conditioning. On cold days, we’ll just throw on a sweatshirt and some thick socks around the house and grab a blanket if we’re doing something sedentary and, again, if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable, we then kick on the heat.
In other words, we simply switched to letting our comfort guide things. If we’re comfortable in the house, we just don’t run the heating or cooling. It saves us money and it actually made us realize that we’re comfortable at home in a pretty wide array of temperatures, and figuring that out helped us to reach a much better and less expensive approach for heating and cooling our home. We basically just flip it off if it’s on and things are comfortable and then never touch the thing unless someone feels really hot or cold.
Strategy #7: The Multi-Pass Shopping Trick
Whenever we shop for clothes… or sporting goods… or school supplies… or lots of other things, we don’t start by heading down to the local department store. We start at Goodwill (or at other secondhand stores in the area).
We walk in there with a discerning eye and simply skip over 99% of the stuff there. It’s actually fairly rare that we find everything we’re looking for in a stop at a secondhand store. However, we almost always find one or two things that simply work. Someone dropped off a dress that looks basically new and is well made that perfectly fits my daughter and it costs $2.50. Someone’s selling some barely-used soccer equipment for one or two bucks, including some great goalie gloves for my son.
We might have 15 things we’re looking for and we find one at one store and two at another store and one more at a third store, but with about an hour’s effort, we’ve chopped a third of the items off of our list and saved $50 to $100.
Yep, 99% of the stuff we might find in a secondhand store isn’t of interest to us. So we ignore it. What we look for is that remaining 1% – the items that fit our needs and are well made but still carry a cheap price. Finding just one or two of those items per stop makes it well worth the stop, because it’s far better to spend $1.50 on a pair of barely-used goalie gloves or $2.50 on a dress than buying those gloves for $75 new or that dress for $50 new.
I like to call it the “multi-pass shopping trick.” We simply save up a list of important-but-not-urgent items that we need to pick up until the list is fairly long, consider the short term future to add a few more items to the list, and then start by shopping at Goodwill and a few other secondhand stores in the area. If we can knock just a few items off of our list by doing this, we’re saving a ton of money, and by shopping for all of this stuff together at once, we’re not really burning any extra time in doing so, either.
- Related: The Beauty of Buying Used Stuff
Strategy #8: The Magical Slow Cooker
Over the last several years, our slow cooker has become the absolute centerpiece of our family’s meal planning. Without it, we would be hard-pressed to eat low-cost meals at home and would likely often rely on much more expensive takeout meals and restaurant meals, which, for a family of five, would add up super fast.
Our preferred slow cooker recipes – the ones we come back to time and time again – are ones where we can toss in a bunch of ingredients at the start of the day and then have a meal that’s ready to eat when we come home. Usually, it just involves setting a timer (or having me flip a switch at 10 AM or something, since I work from home) so that it’ll cook for the recommended amount of time so that it finishes roughly at the time we expect to be eating.
We make all kinds of things in the slow cooker, from lasagnas to soups, from curries to chili. We’ve cooked whole chickens and pot roasts in there. We’ve made oatmeal and mashed potatoes and shepherd’s pie and taco filling. No matter what, it’s ready to go when we get home, as long as we spent 10 minutes putting ingredients in the slow cooker and setting it in the morning before the work day begins.
I’d estimate that we average two nights per week when we eat supper right out of a slow cooker, and then the remnants of that meal becomes leftovers for lunch for the next day or two for Sarah and myself. Often, this cuts the costs of that meal per person down to $1 or $2, which is far cheaper than virtually any option we might consume from the store.
Strategy #9: The Credit Card Deletion
I don’t store my credit card number at any online stores these days. I simply don’t do it.
Yes, it’s inconvenient. Yes, there are times when it’s way easier to buy things if I just keep my credit card number stored there. But hear me out for a moment.
By simply not storing my credit card number on websites, I put an obstacle in my way for online buying, and most online buying is pretty non-essential and impulsive. There are very, very few things that I need to buy from, say, Amazon, and the time I would spend typing in my credit card number is time I can spend reflecting on whether or not I need that item.
This is a shift from the way I used to shop online, where I kept my buying information stored in several different websites. This made impulse buying very easy, and there were times that my buying was so impulsive that I would actually be surprised when things showed up in the mail.
Simply keeping my credit card numbers out of websites has drastically cut down on the frequency of impulse buying, which has mostly just saved me from spending my hard-earned money on a bunch of stuff that I didn’t need at all and would have quickly forgotten if I hadn’t pushed the easy “buy” button. Not having my credit card information there has made it feel less inviting to shop online, so I spend less time at e-commerce sites than I used to and more time doing other things that are more fulfilling anyway.
Strategy #10: The ‘Money-Free’ Periods
Every so often, our family – honestly, mostly just Sarah and myself – will challenge ourselves to have a money-free weekend or even a money-free week. During that time, we pledge to spend no money on anything and thus must eat things that we already have on hand and entertain ourselves with things we already own or can access for free.
It’s pretty simple to actually pull this off for a weekend, and it’s not overwhelmingly hard to do it for a week, though two or three weeks can get tricky. Instead, all it really does is redirects our focus onto doing things that we might not otherwise do. We’ll assemble meal plans using only foods we happen to have on hand, so we won’t even think about the grocery store. We’ll look far more seriously at what’s going on in our town or in nearby towns for free. We’ll explore the offerings at local libraries, local community groups, and so on. We’ll check out meetups. We’ll dig things out of our closet that we might have just forgotten about recently that fill us with excitement when we pull them out again, like a box of paints or an unfinished kit project or a book of some kind.
These “money-free” periods almost always rekindle my interest in free or extremely low-cost hobbies. They almost always introduce me to something new in my neighborhood that I didn’t know about before – again, usually something free. They cause me to make meals that I might never have otherwise made and that sometimes causes me to discover something delicious that enters our low-cost meal routines.
In short, this kind of artificial limitation almost always has a very positive impact on my life after the challenge is over. I’ve discovered new things to do and old things to dig into again and new ways of doing things, and all of those things shape my life going forward. That’s on top of the fact that “money free” periods directly save us money. All I have to give up for that is a few of the ordinary routines of doing things for a few days. I consider that an amazing bargain.
Strategy #11: The Seasoning Mixes
This is such a silly tip, but it’s saved us a lot of money over the years and we use it all the time, so it makes sense to share it here.
We have a handful of meals that we frequently make. Crockpot lasagna (as mentioned above). Grilled black bean burgers. Spaghetti with marinara sauce. Grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. Scrambled eggs and pancakes. Each of those things require specific combinations of seasonings to really bring out the flavor.
Many stores sell those seasoning mixes. Italian seasoning. Burger seasoning. Chili seasoning. You get the idea.
What we did, over the years, is figure out seasonings that both Sarah and I like, then simply make them on our own. We’ll buy low cost basic ingredients – salt, ground black pepper, basil, oregano, and so on – and then combine them in equal proportions in a shaker. Then, we just copiously use that shaker with whatever we’re making. We’ll use the “Italian shaker” to turn a mix of tomato sauce and diced tomatoes into a great pasta sauce. We’ll use the “burger shaker” to turn a black bean patty into something mouthwateringly amazing.
The thing is, this lets us hone the recipe. For example, we had a (now defunct) seasoning that we loved to put on burgers, but we both liked to also put additional black pepper on top. Now, we put plenty of black pepper into our seasoning and we don’t need the separate black pepper any more. I can put tons of garlic powder into the “Italian mix” because we all like it.
This makes meal prep very tasty for us and very efficient. I can get a wonderfully seasoned pasta meal on the table very quickly if necessary, for example, or, if I have a bit more time, I can trim some fresh herbs from outside (as mentioned above) and cook them in with the sauce and try to hone it. Having all of these options makes cooking at home so convenient and yet so tasty and varied. These mixes simply allow me to make better meals at home than I ever otherwise would have, they’re cheaper and better than what I would have ever bought at the store, and that all leads to a much happier home chef.
- Related: The Power of the Spice Rack
Strategy #12: The Store Brand First
Whenever I need to buy a relatively inexpensive product that I’ll be using up over time, I generally default to buying the store brand version first. This goes for everything from hand soap to cereal, from milk to pasta, from trash bags to toilet paper. If that store brand product serves my needs without causing a calamity, I stick to it, and I only switch to different brands if there’s a genuine problem.
Why take this approach? It’s simple. The store brand is cheap. If it meets the needs I have from buying the product, why would I ever spend more money? There’s just no reason to do so. Of course, if I can find something wrong with the product, then it’s time to move on, but often there isn’t anything wrong, just an impression that another product might do the job in some “better” way that doesn’t really have much to do with the fact that the store brand takes care of what I need.
If a store brand doesn’t handle my needs, I’ll just go peek at Consumer Reports and try out their “best buy” recommendation as a replacement.
This isn’t how I shop for expensive items that I’m going to be reusing quite often. This is just a simple strategy for many basic food items and household items that I’m going to consume and eventually (theoretically) buy more of in the future. If I tried the store brand and it did the job, then there’s no reason not to buy the store brand again. If the store brand saves money, then I’m spending less with each purchase. If my grocery list is stuffed full of store brand items (and the humble grocery list is another powerful strategy), then I’m spending a lot less on each store visit, and that’s going to add up to serious savings over time.
Bonus Strategy #13: The Journal
Almost every article you read on The Simple Dollar starts off as either a question from a reader or an entry in my personal journal, and I attribute that journal to most of the good things that have happened in my life over the last decade or so.
I write in my journal almost every day. Whenever I’m struggling with something, I simply write it all down and then piece through what the solution is. Whenever I read some kind of powerful idea for self-improvement, I copy it down in my journal and see if I can figure out how it applies in my life. I use journal entries to review almost every aspect of my life on a rotating basis.
I try to examine the areas of my life where I’m unhappy and dig into why I’m unhappy and what I can do to improve it. I try to figure out what it is that I really want out of life and I do it for a while each and every day.
That process – looking at areas of dissatisfaction in my life, brainstorming solutions, trying out those solutions, reviewing what works and what doesn’t, looking at those areas I’m unhappy with, and repeating the cycle again – is something that has given birth to almost every good thing in my life over the last decade or so, and the core of it is making it into a daily routine and actually setting aside time for it and writing it down. The clarity that comes from that set-aside time and the actual process of writing down thoughts and reflecting on them as I write has been a literal life-changer.
It’s kept me focused on my finances when my attention wandered from it. It’s helped me figure out what works and what doesn’t work and why things work and don’t work for me. It’s helped me figure out solutions to every serious problem I’ve faced.
The amount of focus and direction that journaling has brought into my life since I really turned it strongly onto self-reflection rather than just listing the events of my day has been incalculable. It’s such a simple twist, but it’s helped me figure out that so many of my perceived needs are actually really just “wants” that I don’t need to follow up on. It’s helped me figure out strategies for spending less money on all kinds of things. It’s helped me prioritize what I actually should be spending my money and time on.
It takes about ten minutes a day, but it’s been a revolution in almost every spending choice, time use choice, and focus use choice in my entire life. I can’t recommend it more highly.
These changes are all pretty small changes. They’re all about choosing to do one little thing instead of another little thing. I buy borax and washing soda instead of a big jug of laundry detergent. I simply choose not to spend money for a weekend and see what happens. I reflect on things that dissatisfy me in my journal. I make giant vats of soup. I use our slow cooker like crazy. I shop at Goodwill after letting non-urgent purchases build up for a bit.
Here’s the thing: All of those little changes are, for me, almost strictly changes for the better. They result in spending less money and often spending less time and less effort, freeing me up to tackle other things in life. These changes aren’t sea changes, but they are all little repeatable improvements that are strict upgrades for me, and aren’t those really the best strategies, in the end?