Updated on 09.19.14

My Ten Biggest Money Savers

Trent Hamm

Today is the four year anniversary of The Simple Dollar. Rather than just lauding myself by posting a big pile of my favorite articles from the past, I decided to just cut straight to the heart of the matter and offer up specific useful tactics that have helped me to save money over the past four years.

What follows are the ten specific things that have had the biggest positive impact on our day-to-day finances over the past four years (in no particular order).

Ten Things With the Biggest Positive Impact on my Finances

1. PaperBackSwap

I have, quite literally, received hundreds of nearly free books in the mail thanks to this service. Considering that I’m an avid book reader, devouring three books a week when I’m really rolling, that’s a tremendous savings compared to my earlier habit of buying piles of books at Borders and from Amazon.

PaperBackSwap is really simple. You sign up, list ten books you own that you don’t want, and pledge to send them out to any member that requests them. This earns you two “credits” on the site. For a credit, you can request that any book on the site be sent to you (and there are millions of them). You can earn more credits by fulfilling the requests of others who ask you to mail them a book that you’ve listed – it costs about $2 to send one via Media Mail. That’s it – you’re basically getting access to an enormous used book library for $2.

2. The library

I love my local library. It’s that simple.

Most people see the word “library” and think “books.” Books merely scratch the surface of the free stuff available there: magazines, audiobooks, CDs, DVDs, children’s programs, adult discussion groups, community messageboards, meeting rooms … the list goes on and on. All of this stuff is just sitting there waiting for you to use it.

3. Learning to cook well at home

Once upon a time, my wife and I ate out several times a week. Why? In our minds, it gave us an opportunity to talk while someone was making a meal for us.

After my financial meltdown, we started making more and more food at home. At first, it was a money saving tactic, but at some point, we realized that we were making some really good meals at home. Plus, we weren’t really missing out on the conversation, since we were often making the meals together and talking while we were doing it.

4. Keeping a pocket notebook

How can this be a big money saver? Easy. I use it to jot down prices on items for comparison shopping. I use it to note sales. I use it to note gift ideas that people mention. I use it for shopping lists.

I also use such a notebook to earn more money, too. I use it to record ideas. I use it to make very rough outlines of posts. I use it to make note of important things I need to get done in my own life.

I use it for so many things that have a positive effect on my finances (and my broader life) that I could scarcely live without it.


On Tuesday, we’re losing our cable box. The biggest reason, honestly, is Netflix.

Why? For $9 a month (way cheaper than our cable bill), we get a giant mountain of commercial-free entertainment that we can watch on our television. We choose what we want, wait three seconds, and it’s showing. Plus, we get new movie releases in the mail.

It’s drastically cheaper than the $60 a month or so that our cable bill is and we don’t feel like we’re missing out on much, especially in conjunction with over-the-air signals.

6. Used video game trading

My late-night-when-everyone-else-is-asleep hobby is usually video games. Once upon a time, I had accumulated a massive video game collection. What I’d usually do is buy (or be gifted) lots of new games over the course of a console generation, then sell all of it off to buy a console and a few games for the next generation.

What I’ve started doing instead is simply trading my already-defeated games for new titles that I haven’t played. This has pretty much killed my new game purchasing habits. Now, when I defeat a game or two, I go down to the local used game shop, trade them for something I’ve not played before, head home, and enjoy something new.

7. Craigslist and thrift stores

We bought our wonderful 2004 Honda Pilot off of Craigslist, paying cash and getting a tremendous deal. That alone saved us a big fist full of money.

Beyond that, though, I’ve picked up quite a few items off of Craigslist, including a recent acquisition of a big pile of barely-used high quality kitchen implements.

Beyond that, I go thrifting fairly regularly and am constantly finding things like nearly-new great board games for $0.50, nearly new shirts for a buck, and countless other things like that.

8. Forcing myself to be more social

When I force myself to be more social, I find my social calendar filling up. My wife and I have things to do pretty much every evening. Here’s the interesting thing, though – most of those evenings are free activities, and sometimes they’re free meals, too.

Being really social goes against my basic nature. I like being a quiet homebody. However, I’ve found that evenings at home often add up to more spending. I’ll rent a movie. I’ll finish reading a book and desire to pick up a new one. However, if I have an exchange of dinners with a friend, I’ve spent two evenings without spending a dime – I make one larger meal one night, but then get a free meal another night, and the entertainment is usually free or close to it.

Not only that, this expanding social network also gives me lots of opportunity to save money in other ways. I hear about good deals that are out there. I have more sources of advice and suggestions when I’m making a purchase, which can often lead to big savings. I also have people to rely on during my moments of need.

9. Board games

Five years ago, a social evening would have involved a night out on the town – eating out, seeing a movie, maybe getting some drinks. That can get expensive if you do it regularly.

Instead, my wife and I often just play board games, either with each other or with a small handful of other regular friends. We meet at someone’s house, often have dinner together, and just play whatever games we have on hand. If a game isn’t getting play, I find someone online to swap it with, giving us something new to try.

Board games have become a part of many of our social events, offering us something to do while actually conversing with each other (instead of just ignoring each other while watching a movie or attending a concert). Even better, they also offer my wife and I something to do together in the evenings while we talk about our day or the ongoing issues in our lives, cementing our own relationship.

10. Volunteerism

I volunteer as a secretary for one community group, as financial chairman for another group, and as a basketball and soccer coach. I’ve volunteered for political committees, charities, and civic groups.

What do these things have in common? For one, they’re all fulfilling ways to spend time without any cost – and they better the community. For another, they’re a great opportunity to meet like-minded people.

The time I spend volunteering not only helps me to grow as a person, it keeps money in my wallet instead of finding ways to spend it.

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  1. BirdDog says:

    Happy Anniversary Trent! I appreciate all of your efforts in making this site what it is. I started reading your site in 2008 and you’ve helped me make some much needed changes and improvements in my own finances.

  2. Sheila says:

    Happy 4 year anniversary!

    Regarding the library, one of the things I do is go to Amazon.com, find out what new books some favorite authors have written, go to the library website and put that book on hold. Sure, it may take a month for me to get it, but I don’t have to pay a penny to read brand new books. We used to buy hardback books just to be able to read the most current book, then switched to waiting for the paperback edition, then finally went to this system.

  3. Happy fourth anniversary, hope to be there someday. You have contributed much to my financial journey. Thanks.

  4. George says:

    Wouldn’t touch Craigslist with a 10 foot pole. There have been too many crimes around here from Craigslist, including an entire family murdered in a house invasion that came from selling something on craigslist.

    It may be cheap, but it isn’t worth the risk.

  5. Andi says:

    What do you do for local news? I’ve thought about giving up our satellite but we live too far out to get any local channel any other way.

  6. Happy Anniversary! Wow, four years!

    When we gave up TV we really appreciated Netflix, too :) It has saved us quite a bit as well, and as you mentioned, it’s commercial-free. There are also great classics and documentaries available 24/7…. no more complaining that there’s “nothing on.”

    Love your list!

  7. I’m quite surprised you even still have cable. Trust me, you won’t miss it.

  8. con says:

    It’s funny to me how people always brag about giving up t.v., cable, etc., yet are still on the computer all the time. I can see where it saves you money to not buy cable and just internet hookup. But as far as a time waster, cable vs. computer…not much difference. And I second that about Craigslist. I’m too scared to have people coming over to my house to pick stuff up. Different than a garage sale where there’s lots of people around. Yes, happy anniversary. You work hard on this site and should be proud.

  9. Liz says:

    Happy Anniversary! I have been reading your work only about a year, but have find some useful ideas.
    I am new to Netflix. We have never had cable; fortunate to live in a city with TV stations so get over-the-airwaves quite well.
    You are so right, the library is a great source for many things other than books. I get audiobooks downloaded through one of my library’s partners, for free.

  10. Bonnie says:

    @#8 & #4-re: Craigslist, Trent was talking about BUYING on Craigslist saving him money, not selling. That said, if you list something on Craigslist, you never have to have someone come to your house. You could just meet them in a public location w/ lots of people around. Of course, if you live in an area where even that’s not safe, then perhaps you shouldn’t be using Craigslist. But I live in a location where it’s perfectly safe to do so.

  11. 8sml says:

    @#8 con: “I’m too scared to have people coming over to my house to pick stuff up.”

    It’s not necessary to have people come to your house. You could also arrange to meet them at a local coffee shop on your lunch break, for example.

  12. con says:

    Thank you, #10 and #11. That’s a good idea for sure, but I have a dining room set I would like to sell that would require them coming to my house to look at/pick up. I guess I could just try to have some friends over then. And I guess I did miss the point, in that Trent was talking about buying.

  13. Happy Anniversary!

    I prefer being a quiet homebody as well. However, being more soical also you to build more “contacts” which can come in handy in the future—i.e. future business opportuntities, experts in other areas, etc.

  14. Kelly says:

    Happy 4th Anniversary! I’ve gleaned many money saving tips from reading your blog! I’ve started to use my library more, joined paperback swap and started a budget!

  15. valleycat1 says:

    It’s been interesting to see the differences between your 4 anniversary lists.

    #5 – for local news, we just access our local newspapers online.

    #8 – I’ve been thinking the same thing lately. In the old days, if someone gave up TV, they were truly going electronic media free. Now, if they’re giving up cable, it isn’t to go media free, it’s just a switch to an alternate – the computer, netbook, the DVD player, the DVD player in the car, etc. And virtually every person I’ve ever heard say they’ve given up cable or their TV have also admitted they will find a way to watch it occasionally (at a friend’s, relative’s, or a sports bar) – which to me is an admission that TV is not evil.

  16. Deborah says:

    Happy 4th Anniversary!! Wishing you many more successful years of blogging. Thanks for all the wonderful tips, reviews and advice. Keep up the good work, Trent.

  17. andrew says:

    I think some of you are missing the point — the giving up of the TV is not about the horrors of television and media consumption, it’s about finding a cheaper and possibly more convenient way to do so.

  18. Jeanette says:

    RE: Craigslist concernc

    I live in a major city, in an apartment. I have both bought items off craigslist (picked up from the seller, and asked them to bring the item downstairs where possible) and sold items (in some cases requiring folks to come to my apartment.)

    In both situations, I’ve gone alone to pick up an item or been alone when something was picked up.
    However, I had a superintendent in the building and I kept the apartment door open during the visits (absolutely no problems but I had spoken to the people first and vetted them a bit. You can sometimes tell if someone is a bit “off” for lack of a better word.) I also had my cell phone in my hand.

    a lot to do with what you are selling and where you live. (I’m sure if I were living in a luxury apartment it might be more of a concern; but I do not and don’t have anything valuable to steal anyway. Plus, I already had tons of information about the potential buyers that had been checked out. I ruled out any “flakes” who would not identify themselves.)

    Worried? Bring/have someone with you. Bring several people with you. And if I lived in a home, I’d definitely have one or more adults with me before I let anyone in. I’d also ask for ID upfront and note car details before I let them in.

    You can also alert your neighbors. You can also make it clear that you are meeting them at a certain time and that you will be leaving for an appointment, etc.

    If you’re concerned about meeting someone else, meet in a public place. If they balk, that’s already a sign.

    You can get mugged, robbed or attacked anywhere.
    Parking lot, work, shopping, etc.

    You have to use caution everywhere.

    Somebody wants to hurt you? They have a thousand ways to do it without you using craigslist.

  19. con says:

    Andrew, I think I conveyed that in my message…maybe not paying for cable is the better option for some. However, some say they cut t.v./cable and brag about it, but subscribe to Netflix and are obviously on their computers, so what’s the difference? If you need an internet hookup for your job anyway, yeah, I see that.

  20. mary Scott, RPh,CGP says:

    Happy Anniversary,Trent and many more!
    I love Paperback swap,too although I don’t read as much as you do-have too many books to catch up on that I’ve put my account on hold so I’m not tempted to get any more for awhile!

  21. Mia says:

    Yep, I love Paperback swap as well and I believe I learned about it from your site. If I pick up nothing else, the money I have saved using Paperbackswap has been well worth the time reading this blog. Thanks!

  22. Michele says:

    to #12 con- you could contact a local consignment store and they would take care of the sale for you. Sometimes they will even pick up the furniture…then you have the space you need, and will get anywhere from 65-75% of the sale. It’s worked very well for me and I live in a small rural town in Oregon- we have two consignment places and this weekend they picked up my furniture!

  23. KCDesi says:


    I do this too. I use NPR as my source for new books. When I hear about an interesting book, hit Amazon to get the ISBN details and head to my library website to put a hold on it..


  24. Karen says:

    Happy Anniversary!!!

  25. My top ten:
    Amen on dropping the cost of cable. ($720/year)
    Dropping the land line ($360/year).
    Couponing, chasing grocery sales, and stocking up on sale items ($3,000/year).
    All inclusive smart phone plan ($600 over 5 years).
    Avoiding car loans ($1,200 a year at least).
    Dropping collision insurance ($300 per year).
    Internet banking ($200 per year).
    “Three days to think about it” rule on purchases over $50 (hundreds if not thousands every year).
    Using free photos on my blog ($250 per year).
    Returning cans & bottles ($100 per year).

  26. Briana @ GBR says:

    I’m slowly but surely inching closer to scrapping the cable box since we have Netflix and getting a digital video box like Roku to fix our television needs. That’s an extra $100+ in the savings account, especially since we watch the same channels (no where near the 100 or so offered to us)

  27. Have you tried the settlers of catan board game yet? Hours of great fun! :-)

  28. Fawn says:

    Netflix is awesome! Especially if you have means to stream from the internet and watch instant movies/shows on your tv. We Have been doing this for almost two years, and we don’t miss regular tv at all! :D

    Nice post, Trent!! Hope there are many great years to come! :)

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