Updated on 02.03.09

My Own Private Frugality

Trent Hamm

I really enjoy reading big collections of frugality tips. Books like The Complete Tightwad Gazette and web pages like 100 Things to Do During a Money Free Weekend are resources that I enjoy browsing through, looking at ideas and imagining how they might fit in my own life. That’s a big reason, actually, that I enjoyed writing my first book, 365 Ways to Live Cheap – it’s essentially a big collection of these tips.

Here’s the interesting part, though: I quickly discard at least 95% of the tips I read – and I don’t even implement most of what’s left. Most of the money-saving ideas that I read simply do not click with me at all – they just don’t fit into my life. They either require too much time, they’re centered around behaviors or activities that I’m not engaged in, they require a living situation that I don’t have, or they just generally sound unappealing.

Given that, it’s not surprising at all that many people find sharing frugality tips to be a big waste of time. If one were to read through a list of 100 tips and find that 97 of them are either useless or redundant, most of the time you’d toss that list straight in the trash can, right?

If I go through a list of 100 tips and find only two that click with my life, that time spent reading the list was well worth it. I spent, say, ten minutes browsing the list, and if I find two tips from that list that really click for me, then it’s been a worthwhile time investment.

Here’s the kicker, though, and it’s the part I really find interesting: the two tips that I find on that list that are interesting and useful to me are likely completely different than the tips you would find that would be useful to you. Our lives are different.

Do you live in a 2,000 square foot house in a rural area with two kids under the age of four? Most likely, you do not – however, you can likely name several attributes of your own life that don’t apply to my life. That doesn’t mean we can’t share ideas, but there are going to be ideas that I have that don’t work for you and ideas that you have that don’t work for me.

This brings to light three useful things when it comes to maximizing frugality in your own life.

First, you don’t have to do everything. Some people tend to see a list of frugal tactics and try to implement all of them, and they then feel like a failure (or blame the list) when they find that most of the tactics don’t really work. Here’s the truth – you don’t have to use all of the tactics you hear. Instead, you’re a lot better off just seeking out the small handful of new and interesting tactics that actually fit your life.

Second, you shouldn’t feel guilty about tips left unused. I know from reader emails (and my own experiences) that people can often make themselves feel bad about not practicing frugality. They’ll see a situation in their life and know that they could be making a better choice to save more money, but they don’t always choose that frugal method – and they feel guilty about it later. In a nutshell, don’t. If you’re actually focusing on not wasting money, yet you occasionally don’t make the optimal choice, you’re not making a mistake, you’re just balancing the values in your life. Take our situation, for example: we often choose to spend much more on food than we could because we value things like organic produce – it may not be the optimal way to save money, but it does match a certain value in our life.

Finally, the most surprising (and useful) ideas often come from people living in very different situations from you. I might find that almost all of the tips shared by a single person living in an urban environment (like, say, Sharon Harvey Rosenberg) don’t apply to me, but suddenly they’ll have one tip that I’d never considered before that really, really clicks for me. That’s why it’s useful to try to gather tips from a wide variety of sources – and it’s why I review personal finance books so often.

The money saving choices you make in your life are based on your life, not mine and not anyone else’s. Your best bet is to always see what others are doing to save money and cherry-pick the tactics that work well in your own life. Don’t use a long list of money saving tactics as a checklist – instead, use it as an idea resource and just pull out the handful that work well with your life. You’ll be money ahead without stress or guilt.

Good luck!

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  1. Madam says:

    This post really resonates with me. I have friends who give me great frugality tips, but I can’t use them. For example, most food shopping tips require you to buy whatever meat or produce is on sale at whatever supermarket, but because we are committed to eating local, mostly organic produce and local, organic meats (we actually have a butcher in our neighborhood), we do not buy whatever chicken (who knows what that chicken has in it) jumbo pack is on offer. On the other hand, we don’t own a car, which our friends think is completely nuts, but we don’t mind at all. Good post, thanks for this reminder to just keep doing what works for you.

  2. Shelley says:

    I think this post hits the nail on the head. I think the important thing for people to remember is to try to implement something and don’t get overwelmed by all the tips. Even one tip can save significantly and it gets one into the habit of looking outside of their normal routine or habits to see what other “tips” will work for them rather than not recognizing them for what they are worth to them personally.

  3. leslie says:

    It makes me sad that all this had to be said. I couldn’t even imagine trying to implement all the things listed on a 100 item frugality list. Does “being frugal” mean we lose our common sense filter?

    And if you feel guilty for not being frugal in a specific area, then some goals need be readjusted. Instead of saying, “I want to spend less on groceries,” I say, “I want my grocery shopping to be more affordable while still maintaining my healthy lifestyle.” Which means I’m not going to go out and by the cheapest crap food just because it’s cheap. But I also won’t blindly purchase anything that appears healthy.

  4. Oskar says:

    Very good post. Just because it is so hard to always be frugal me and my wife work with an allowance system..other then the money for bills we get a sum of money (not very much but still) that we can each spend on anything we want. This is my best frugality tip since with this system we tend to think before we spend and when we spend it is on the few things that really matter anv very little on the other stuff…

  5. Anastasia says:

    When I first started looking up frugal tips online, it seemed like I was swamped with things that would help large families. At the time I was living alone, in a small apartment. Things like making your own cleaning products would not have saved me more than $2 a year. I couldn’t implement any of the tips to make my place more energy efficient, as I was not the owner. And buying in bulk was more likely to result in wasted food than money savings.

    Over time I have managed to learn a frugal trick or two, but I think many of them came from trial and error more than tip lists.

  6. Charlie Park says:

    “Do you live in a 2,000 square foot house in a rural area with two kids under the age of four?”

    Actually, yes. Yes I do!

  7. Charlie Park says:

    “Do you live in a 2,000 square foot house in a rural area with two kids under the age of four?”

    Actually, yes. Yes I do! (And I love your tips!)

  8. Charlie Park says:

    Oops. I also apparently don’t know how to post comments to blogs. :)

  9. frugalcpa says:

    Excellent explanation of how to get most out of the personal finance/frugal living network (and other sources). It’s all about realistic expectations and gleaning what you can out of all the things out there.

    @ Charlie Park – lol

  10. Mike says:

    I think one of the biggest values to reading these sorts of lists aren’t the tips themselves, which as you mention are generally not applicable to broad parts of the audience, but the act of focusing on frugality itself. I’ll occasionally get a tip that proves to be good but often I don’t- if that tip saves me a measly $2 a year over the course of my life it is well worth the 10 minutes spent reading it.

    I love to read debt reduction blogs and how to get out of credit card debt- I haven’t had credit card debt in several years and reading these posts and tips helps me keep it that way.

  11. Mike says:

    Wonderfully written post — thanks!

    I subscribe to the RSS of this blog and always look over the titles and usually skim the posting. I really appreciate how this post has encouraged this behavior. We don’t always line up together, but on somethings we have clicked — I started square foot gardening in my little backyard because of your gardening posts.

  12. EngineerMom says:

    This post resonated with me, too.

    The philosophy mentioned applies to many areas of life, not just frugality. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was pregnant with my son came from my mother:

    “Trust your decisions. Only you and your husband will truly know this child and your family situation. Only you (two) can make the best decisions for your family.”

    That piece of advice was incredibly helpful for everything from when to take him to the doctor, when to stop breastfeeding, etc. It has also been useful in making decisions about work, shopping, and our general lifestyle.

    Thanks again for the great blog!

  13. Sharon Harvey Rosenberg a.k.a. The Frugal Duchess is not single. She is married with children but I’m sure she appreciates the mention anyway.

  14. Mary says:

    Wonderful post, it really gets to the heart of the matter. Frugal strategies change as our circumstances change.

    Some of the frugal strategies I use now as a single working mother with one teenage child at home are different than the strategies I used as a stay at home mom with 3 young children and a working husband. Buying in large bulk worked well when I cooked everyday for 5, but now because there are only 2 of us I no longer buy 50 lb bags.

    I’ve noticed Trent uses this approach when he reviews books and it is one of the things that drew me to this blog. Just because you don’t agree with everything the author writes doesn’t mean you should dismiss everything they’ve written. Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

    P.S. EngineerMom’s mother rocks!

  15. Amanda says:

    I love that this post led me back into your archives where some guidelines for “100 Goals in 1001 Days” was waiting for me. I’m sitting down this Saturday & writing them out. It’s like a little ray of hope waiting for me. What a difficult year for everyone!

  16. Brent says:

    I think I’m the target for this article. I’m single, rent a small apartment, mostly cook for myself and have always been frugal. The ‘Latte’ factor of regular, but needless spending was never a factor. But I have been reading about frugality and always looking to save a couple more bucks. What I’m already doing.
    High interest savings, no debt, no cable, buy non-perishables in bulk, shop by a list, hardly ever buy new clothes, pay off the credit card every month, own my fuel-efficient car, Buy about 1 video game a year, drink filtered tap water, cook 90% of all my meals, brown bag lunch 90% of the time, CFLs in all the sockets, shop at the local farmers market, high deductibles, save the max in my 401K

    Still todo: buy a small home, learn how to do car maintenance, sell my less used stuff.

  17. Spot on Trent. I try to get my info from a wide variety of sources. You never know when some random idea is gonna be a real gem for you.


  18. Pop'sWallet says:

    I completely agree with your assessment that 98% of tips are worthless, but it’s still worth your time reading about them because the 2% that you may use can save you enough money.

    I also find that reading lists like that, or gathering tips from others serves as a bit of motivation. I feel that if someone else goes through such odd work to save a buck, then surely I can pack my lunch today. That’s another reason that I gather and share my frugal tips.

  19. kit says:

    I certainly agree! Especially this summer, most tips that were out had something to do with reducing gasoline usage and since I don’t have a car it was an exercise in tedium.

    I will admit that as a childfree person, one of the most surprising and useful things that I found from your blog was the mention of your wife sewing hems on smaller bits of flannel to stick in the diaper bag. I had some scrap flannel and did this myself, and now always have a soft, reusable napkin/hanky wherever I go.

  20. Even if I don’t take home any tips and apply them, I find that reading frugal material helps to keep me in a frugal mindest. For example, no matter how many times I read The Tightwad Gazette, I’m still not inspired to make a hammock out of six-pack rings. But, after I read that book, I AM freshly inspired to keep on living frugally.

  21. Anne says:

    I agree 100% with Kristen. Even when I don’t find a single useful tip I still love reading the lists just to keep me from slipping into a spendthrift mindset. It keeps my own internal needs vs. wants calculus honest and, I think, keeps me creatively looking for things that do fit my life.

  22. Saver Queen says:

    I was at the public library today, and it was not surprising to see that a lot of frugal living books were already borrowed! In fact I am second in the queue for The Tightwad Gazette.

    I browsed through a few other books on money saving and the biggest problem i noticed was how old so many of them were. They were outdated, primarily because of technology – saving on things like postage stamps, long distance phone bills, banking fees, etc, are problems that have long been solved.

    I love finding new tips though, and as Kristin and Anne say, even if you don’t use every tip, it puts you in a frugal and creative mindset. I enjoy it from a crafty point of view if nothing else.

  23. Sandy says:

    I love reading frugal tips, even when there are so many that are just part of routine now. There are many things that overlap in my interests, too. Like, I probably wouldn’t go to the extra effort of washing out baggies (the reality is, I’m only saving a couple of dollars a year). But, I also do what I can for the environment (those things never break down in a landfill). So, I meet 2 needs with 1 action. Same with hanging out laundry, indoors and out. I likely save, dollar wise $150-200 per year in electricity (not a lot) but I like knowing that I’m not blowing up a mountainside to dry my clothes. (BTW, IKEA has a great standing rack that will hold 2 loads of laundry, and you fold and put behind a door when not in use).
    My fav new tip (after looking for tips for over 20 years) is the baking soda as underarm deodorant.
    What a geat idea! Cheap and works great! Thanks, Trent, for keeping us all in a frugal mindset!

  24. Jean says:

    I am really enjoying getting your updates each day. I agree with your attitude, take away only the tips that apply to your life and situation. If you try and do everything right from the start you will become dicouraged and most likely give up. You can always add a new tip as time and need arise.

    thanks again for all your hard work!

  25. Shevy says:

    I figured out this trick of cherry picking tips several years ago when I got paid to attend various day-long training seminars on time management and organizational strategies.

    Out of a full day seminar I would usually come back to the office with a workbook, a lot of written notes and one or two changes that would really make my life easier.

    Sometimes the best thing I learned wasn’t even *new* to me. It’s just that I was finally ready to absorb it and really implement the change!

  26. My brain doesn’t work well enough for me to be able to do more than one or two things at a time, so I guess I have always thought that way. Great Article.

  27. I’d love to hear which tips you find take too much time and don’t click with you.

    Right off the bat, the first that comes to mind is the making of your own detergent. That, to me, takes too much time.

    Your tips can tend to me very detailed and very time consuming, so I’m guessing the tips you find are “too much” are way over my head.

  28. Sheri says:

    You are right on the money (no pun intended) with this post. Even finding 2 or 3 helpful ideas out of a list of 100 is always a good thing. Every little bit really does help. I never get tired of reading lists of tips. Sometimes it happens that I might find nothing I can apply to my life exactly, but one or two may get me thinking, and then it will snowball from there. With some tweaks and adaptations I can make something work that seemed at first quite irrelevant to my lifestyle. So keep those lists coming!

  29. Amanda says:

    I liked the idea presented that you don’t have to do all the tips. I live by myself in a small apratment that’s close to work. So buying in bulk, out. Biking to work, in (at least when its above 45 degrees). I also find I had made a to decisions that worked for me and resulted in some frugality. I cancelled my cable, largely because I never watched it. A year later I joined a gym, its major appeals; pool, whirlpool, sauna, work-discount, between my apartment and work. Recently discovered bonus, when there’s something I really want to watch on TV, I go to the gym and hop on the treadmill. Not a tip for everyone, but maybe someone.

  30. luvleftovers says:

    I read this site and others to keep a more frugal mindset as well. As a single person in a small apartment with no yard and I don’t own a car, 75% of tips are usually not applicable to me. Still, clip a few coupons and I can save 5-10 on a grocery bill. CFL lighting has cut my electric bill significantly. Trent’s reviews can save me money from buying a book that wouldn’t help me. (I never get to a library, so I usually buy used online or through paperbackbookswap). If I know or suspect it’s a keeper, I’ll sometimes buy new.

    Annnnd, someday I may own a car or have a house somewhere and I’ll already know many ideas on how to save without even having to think about it!

  31. Dawn says:

    A few of my ideas- I buy coupons on ebay for all major purchases and some minor ones. I buy lots at yard sales (books DVDS etc) and then donate or resell on internet when we finish. Ocassionally we have “food swaps” with friends. Each family makes a large batch and we swap. Anything I can’t use a take a photo of and post for free on craigslist and others come and haul away (*recently it was an old gas grill)-

  32. Heather says:

    I just stumbled onto your web site the other day. I love the way that you tell people do what you can for your family. You don’t have to “keep up with the jones” even when being thrifty. Because I shop with coupons I can stay home full time with four kids. Thats the best benefit ever.

  33. Egirl says:

    I’ve been a Simple Dollar reader for several years now and I always find at least 1 great nugget of wisdom in each post, even if the subject as a whole doesn’t directly apply to me. I’ve tried a lot of the tips and most stick. If they end up not working as I thought they would I simply stop. For example, over two years I was able to reduce my spending by over $15K (yes, that much!) by eliminating unnecessary expenses and spending less on the rest. Before I put it in writing (well, an Excel spreadsheet) I honestly had no idea I was spending so much. The one thing I’ve added back is my (almost) daily iced mocha. I budget for it and enjoy this little treat after a long day of working/commuting. Some might cite the Latte Factor here, but I choose to cut other things to be able to keep this expense in my budget.

  34. Tamara says:

    In comment #4, Oskar shared my top frugality tip. I feel luxurious with a set amount each month to spend on things I select, some off a shopping list, some impulse. *Cash money.* And when it’s gone, it’s gone. Absolutely gone, even though the bank has money, I have the real knowledge that I spent my bucket of cash money. (When you use a credit card, $500, $50, and $5 all feel the same; try this with cash?) So I have to make choices, and over time I’ve found high-value lower-cost options for just about everything.

  35. Thordar Gregbeard says:

    A tip that helps me, is to put snacks in a grocery card where a baby sits. That way I can see how much I have and estimate easily how much it all costs.

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