15 Things I Did This Year to Save Money

As we’re about to close the books on 2017, I thought it might be interesting to look back over the year and see what things I did differently this year in order to save money.

Some of these strategies were simply all-around wins, saving money while not negatively altering my life in any way. Some of these things turned out to be time savers as well as money savers, while others set me up for saving money down the road, and still others turned out to have additional benefits.

If you want a smart way to use these tips, consider using them to fuel your frugality list.

I started meal prepping in earnest. Meal prepping simply refers to the process of making several homemade meals in advance, freezing them until you’re ready to use them. This provides a number of benefits, but the three big ones are that you’re able to synergize a lot of the meal preparation tasks (like cooking a ton of rice or a ton of pasta at once instead of in smaller batches and assembling meals in an assembly line style), you’re able to buy ingredients in bulk, and you have homemade meals on hand for convenient cooking on busy evenings.

I started experimenting with meal prepping last year, but really dug into it in earnest early this year, when I wrote a guide to successful meal prep strategies and a step by step guide to a simple meal prep of rice and beans. I’ve done meal preps for quite a few meals since then, filling our freezer with soups and lasagnas and casseroles that can easily be cooked later on when things are busier.

I also made a number of fermented foods and stored them. Last year, as a holiday gift, I received a large fermenting crock, which made it possible to make larger batches of things like sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi. I dove into fermented foods this year, preparing all kinds of different things in the large crock and in smaller bubble-locked jars.

My best output was a small batch of radish sauerkraut, which consisted of about 90% cabbage and 10% radish, all shredded, and soaked in a brine for a few weeks in a container with a bubble lock with weights holding the vegetables down below the brine to keep them from turning bad. This stuff was so good that it didn’t even make it to the freezer. I think I ate it on everything for the next few weeks. Considering that it required only a head of cabbage, a few radishes from the garden, and some salty water, it was extremely cheap sauerkraut, too.

Late in the year, I made a sourdough bread starter in a smaller jar. I just put a cup of flour and a half cup of water into the jar, mixed it, put a loose fitting lid on it, and let it sit for 24 hours. Then, I threw away half of the mix, added a cup of flour and a half cup of water, mixed it, and put the lid back on. I repeated this for about two weeks, during which it smelled fairly bad (think dirty socks) but after the dough became more acidic and “sour,” it began to smell like a mix of bread dough and sourdough – delicious! We used this as the basis for some mind-blowing bread this year.

I started making cold brew coffee. This was another splendidly successful food experiment this year. I received a small cold brewing coffee kit for Father’s Day and started using it in earnest.

Basically, the kit consists of a fine metal sieve that sits in a pitcher of water. You put a certain amount of coarsely ground dark roast coffee into the sieve, close it up, put it in the water, put the pitcher in the fridge, and wait about sixteen hours. Boom – you have cold brew coffee.

This eliminates the need for coffee filters and the need for an expensive coffee pot. It also uses less electricity, because the water is usually cold to start with and it doesn’t add much load to the refrigerator at all compared to the energy use of heating the water in our old coffee pot.

I actually prefer drinking the coffee cold and black. It’s very mellow, so it goes down smoothly without needing to be heated and without having to add a bunch of stuff to mask the sharpest flavors.

I switched almost entirely to a discount grocer for our food. Prior to this year, there wasn’t a truly convenient discount grocer for our shopping needs. The three closest grocery stores were ones with an amazing selection but without great prices. I would sometimes shop at a discount grocer about fifteen minutes away from home, but that was an irregular occurrence. It was just very inconvenient to do so.

Late last year, a discount grocer opened fairly close to our house, close enough that it became our routine grocer over the course of a few months. During this past year, approximately 70% of our grocery spending was at that store, and according to my quick math, that saved us a few hundred dollars.

We started preparing many meals with low cost household staples. The real genesis of this switch was our acquisition of a high quality rice cooker (a Zojirushi) at a very deep discount. Once we actually opened the box and started using it, we found it to be really simple and friendly to use, so we started using it all the time.

Over time, we found that we were eating more meals with rice in them, which is a very low cost meal, plus we were often making steel cut oats for breakfast, which makes for a low cost breakfast for our family if bought in bulk.

It’s hard to really estimate exactly how much money we saved by adding more rice and oatmeal to our diet, but it was definitely a reduction in food cost. I now often buy rice and oatmeal in bulk, which means that many meals are falling below $1 per person per meal for our family.

I expanded my library use and turned it into a weekly appointment. In the past, I visited the library irregularly.

In the past year, I’ve changed that routine dramatically. I now go to the library every third Wednesday with my children in order to pick out books for us to read for personal enjoyment and enrichment; I return the previous books each visit. This is penciled in on the calendar.

In addition, almost every Thursday, I actually work at the library. I take a notebook and a pen to the library with me, gather up piles of books, and start taking notes from the ones that seem interesting with an eye toward practical things I can try or information that might fuel future Simple Dollar articles. I find that having a straightforward brainstorming session, where the output is a bunch of article ideas and several article outlines, is a great tool.

On each of those visits, I dig deep into the free resources available at the library. On Wednesdays with my family, we hit the fiction pretty hard and often walk out with an armload of teen and YA and adult novels. We also often check out movies, and if there’s a road trip coming up, we usually snag an audiobook, too. On Thursdays, I plow through piles of magazines and nonfiction works, taking notes left and right, and I usually use the library’s free wi-fi extensively.

The free books, movies, audiobooks, and other resources have added up to substantial savings this year, primarily because we’ve made them into such a routine.

I cut down on my computer gaming hobby (almost eliminating it) and replaced it with self-improvement and reading. This year, I have cut my computer gaming spending by 92% compared to last year. I purchased exactly one computer game, which was on sale, compared to the dozen or so I purchased last year.

What changed? Two things. First, I made a commitment to play some of the less-played games that I already had. Second, I spent less time – significantly less, actually – playing computer games, replacing that time with other things that have less of a cost and actually get me moving around more.

I continued last year’s trend and used my clothing budget on a small number of very long lasting items. This year, the only clothing I purchased was a replacement pair of denim jeans and a few pairs of socks. However, in the case of the socks, I purchased Darn Tough Socks, with the intent of not having to replace any socks for many years.

As time moves forward, the goal is to have a minimal wardrobe, something akin to Project 333, but I’m not moving there radically. Instead, I’m just wearing out items as I go along and not replacing them until I need them within a smaller wardrobe. This was the case with the socks, as I finally purged a lot of old socks that were well worn and developing holes.

The end goal is to have a very small wardrobe with clothes that are well made and will last. This year was a great step in that direction.

I planned our least expensive (per day) summer vacation we’ve ever taken as a full family. This year, our summer vacation was a camping trip to Yellowstone, and more than ever our efforts in planning a low-cost trip paid off.

Some of the tactics used on this vacation include:

+ We relied on travel guides from the library for all of our trip planning.

+ We camped every single night of our trip (excepting a single emergency night when we were blocked from our campsite by a blizzard so we had to find emergency lodging).

+ We used a free National Parks pass that was acquired through the Every Kid in a Park program. This enabled entrance to several national parks and monuments.

+ We drove the entire trip in a single vehicle.

+ We packed much of our food for the trip, and what we didn’t pack was purchased from grocery stores away from the parks.

+ We chose almost entirely free activities, leveraging that park pass for all that it was worth.

Combined together, our family vacation cost around $85 per day. That includes fuel, feeding five people three meals a day, lodging, and all activities. It’s pretty difficult to have a fun family vacation on less than that.

I used our social network to get a few things we were looking for as freebies, and gave away a few things we didn’t need anymore to people who wanted them. During the year, rather than searching for items that we might have purchased, we simply asked for them on social media by asking if any of our friends happened to have such an item for sale or available to borrow for a while. In each case, a friend popped up and simply gave us the item. We acquired a bread maker and a few tools this way.

This started a mini-trend in our social circle of friends doing the same thing, and we ended up passing along some unused items from our garage. We passed along some toys for toddlers and some sporting goods.

Not only did this practice save us money and save our friends money, it gave us a convenient excuse to actually see a few friends. The items were all exchanged during a dinner party at someone’s home, which turned the exchange into a social perk, too.

We built stronger sharing relationships with our neighbors. We repeatedly shared child care tasks with the family across the street from us, who have two children roughly the same age as ours. We shared countless tools and other items with them. We made each other food when our families were ailing. We took each other’s children to countless practices and performances. Every single one of those things saved the other family time, energy, money, and headaches.

Not only that, we began to really expand that sharing to other families in the area. We took lots of children to lots of practices, and our children were ferried around by others. We gave away tons of produce and received quite a lot back, along with some canned goods.

What we found is that every time we took the effort to be helpful for a neighbor or a parent of one of our children or just someone in the community, we were usually paid back in spades. Not directly, of course, but in returned favors and easier relationships down the road.

We chose to keep using things. Rather than replacing several expensive items, we came up with creative ways to continue to use them.

My cell phone is now several years old, and I intend to keep using it until I literally can’t update it. I replaced the battery myself.

We didn’t replace either vehicle, even though they’re approaching 200,000 miles each on their odometers. Instead, we stuck to the maintenance schedule on each one. We’re sticking with them until our trusted mechanic tells us that there are serious problems coming down the road.

I’m using a six year old desktop computer for most of my work, and, again, I’ll continue to use it until I can no longer update it or there’s a hardware failure.

Our only television has a noticeable screen flaw. Rather than replacing it and dumping a bunch of cash on a new one, we’re simply living with it until it becomes unwatchable.

Rather than replacing something for a minor issue, we regularly chose to keep on going with what we had this year.

I cut my own hair. Rather than going to the barbershop once a month and dropping $15 or $20, I simply pulled out the clippers and followed the same pattern that the hairstylists used – very long clippers on top, short ones on the side, and an edger near the separation between the two.

I did this for almost every haircut I had in 2017 and no one noticed. I simply did it out in the yard and picked up most of the hair when I was done, depositing it straight into a garbage bag.

I saved somewhere around $150 doing this. Again, no one noticed the difference.

We cancelled most of our print magazine subscriptions. We simply started keeping an “unread” pile of magazines on our side table and if a renewal notice arrived and we saw more than one issue of that magazine on the table, we cancelled the subscription.

That simple move saw our current subscriptions drop from six to two (Consumer Reports and Smithsonian remain), although we do subscribe to a couple electronically.

We estimate that this shift saved us about $50 this year and cut down on our quantity of mail as well.

Many gift-giving occasions within our immediate family involved lots of handmade items or experience items. When our family gave gifts to each other this year, they were often of the homemade and handmade variety, with individual effort and thought going into the gifts.

Art, food, confections, and other such items were gifted amongst our family members this year, as were well-planned “days together” that involved doing things like going on a hike in a favorite state park together or going to a local free art exhibit together. We gifted each other “coupons” for shared experiences and many of them were used.

Perhaps the best gift of all was a handmade “travelogue” from our children to their mother which involved lots of pictures and thoughts as they tried to find a great birthday gift for her. The gift turned out to be individual days spent with her, largely inexpensive but carefully considered.

In other words, rather than just buying things for each other, our gifts took on a more thoughtful and homemade approach, which not only added meaning but also reduced the cost of just acquiring more “stuff.”

These tactics collectively saved us thousands of dollars over the course of the past year. Each one was a little move on its own, not something that really upset the course of our life in any meaningfully negative way, but quietly put money back into our pockets.

That’s the power of frugality. It’s not about making your life worse just to save money, but to find a genuinely better way of doing things. It’s not about going without, but about figuring out what abundance really is. That, for me, has been the real lesson of frugality this year.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.