16 Little Frugality Tips That Make a Surprising Difference

So, it’s not a secret to anyone who reads The Simple Dollar that I carry around a pocket notebook and a pen with me most of the time. I use it to jot down little thoughts or things that I want to remember and then, each evening, I go through it and follow up on those thoughts and things.

One thing I often do is write down little frugal things I’ve been doing lately, things that I’ve tried that have worked out but aren’t really big enough on their own to write a post about. I save them and then, every once in a while, I go through that list and turn it into a post of little money saving actions I’ve been doing lately.

This is the latest batch of those items, 16 in number. I may have mentioned some of these before – maybe not. All of these are things that I’ve found useful in my life in the last few months as a way to easily save some money.

I hope you’ll find that at least a few of them are useful to you, too.

1. Buy a bunch of bulk cloths, keep them under your sink with a bin for used ones, and replace paper towels with them.

We have a big pile of cloth squares that we bought in bulk at a warehouse club (I think). We use these for everything – doing dishes, drying dishes, wiping down tables, cleaning up small messes, and so on. When one is used, we either toss it into the laundry room or toss it into a small bin in the kitchen to be washed later.

If you have a sufficient number of these – say, 50 or so – they effectively replace paper towels. They handle virtually every use that you would ever use a paper towel for, plus you can just wash them when you’re done. Even a ton of these little square cloths don’t make for a full load of laundry – we usually wash them with towels.

They’re better than paper towels, too. They’re far more absorbent, for one. You can also just wring them out, rinse them a bit, and use them again for a similar task rather than having to just toss the paper towel. They also don’t wind up in a landfill.

The initial cost of this is a little expensive, depending on your original source of the cloths, but if they replace 90% of your paper towel use for years, you’re going to make the money back and more.

2. If you’re taking off an article of outer clothing that’s still visually clean and smells fine, hang it up instead of tossing it in the dirty clothes.

For a long time, I used this approach just with my pants, but I find I’m doing it with outer shirts as well. If I take off an outer shirt or my pants and they stand up to visual inspection and a sniff test, I simply put them aside to wear again without washing them.

This not only saves a lot of laundry effort and cost, it also drastically reduces the wear and tear on those clothing items. The biggest source of wear and tear on almost all clothing items is laundering. They get rotated and smacked around in the washer and dryer for a long time, far worse than they get out of a typical day of wear on your body.

Thus, if you can get a second (or a third) day of simply wearing the clothes without a washing, you’re naturally extending the lifespan of the clothing item. This means, of course, that you replace clothing items less frequently and your annual clothing expenses goes down.

It’s simple, too. When you take off an outer article of clothing, just examine it. Are there any spots or odors associated with it? If not, just hang it up and wear it again next week.

3. Make a big batch of a staple food you like on Sunday, store it in a container in the fridge, and eat it throughout the week.

Think of a simple food or simple meal that you like. Perhaps you like having some rice with most meals and like to add it to your soups. Maybe you really like bean burritos. Perhaps you love reheated spaghetti (I do, actually).

Whatever it is that you like, just make a huge batch of it on Sunday. Make a ton of rice. Make a big batch of soup. Make 20 bean burritos. Make a huge pot of spaghetti.

Then, put everything you don’t eat on Sunday evening in the fridge in a few containers.

Throughout the week, dip into those containers regularly. Take spaghetti to work two or three days and have it for dinner a night or two, or do the same thing with the soup you’ve made. Have a couple of burritos for lunch each day. Add some rice as a side to several meals, and maybe put a handful in some soup you just made.

This achieves a lot of savings all at once. For one, it allows you to pay bulk prices for the ingredients of whatever it is you’re making. You can buy bulk tortillas or the bulk bag of potatoes or whatever you need to make whatever it is you have in mind.

For another, it cuts down on the cost of all of those meals you’re replacing. Instead of eating out a few times for lunch, you just eat that leftover soup or a container of that leftover spaghetti or whatever it happens to be. Instead of prepping dinner or getting takeout or delivery on a lazy or busy evening, you just eat whatever’s in the fridge to save time.

Those numbers really add up over time. Plus, there are few things better than reheated chili – it’s an example of a dish that’s better the second time because of the flavor melding.

4. Make three brown bag lunches at once and save them in the fridge.

This kind of follows the previous tip. Just make three brown bag lunches at once and store them in the fridge. Each morning, grab one. Boom – you’ve taken care of three days of lunches in a row.

You can do this with leftovers, as described in strategy #3. You can do this with freshly assembled foods, like sandwiches and cut vegetables (or whatever you like). You can throw in ready-to-eat items, like an apple. You can mix and match – whatever’s convenient for you.

The advantage of doing this kind of meal preparation is that, again, you can buy items for it in bulk, but more than that, it simply becomes convenient to replace eating out at lunchtime with your brown bag lunch. You just reach into the fridge and grab a lunch bag that morning and it’s already ready to go, and then you just eat the contents for lunch without having to go out or order anything or buy food from a cafeteria or anything.

The end result? You have more control over your lunches. They cost less because you can get some ingredients in bulk. Once they’re made, they’re more convenient – you literally just grab and go. They replace the cost of eating lunch at work. It’s just a series of wins.

5. Store sugar and/or dry rice in a half-gallon or full gallon milk jug.

This one’s easy. The next time you buy milk, buy it in a half gallon jug or a full gallon jug. Use up the milk, clean out the container, and let it dry. Then, pull out a funnel and fill the jug with the bag of rice or the bag of sugar you have in the pantry.

Why is this helpful? How does it save money? Well, in both cases, having the rice or sugar in a half gallon jug makes it much easier to dispense exactly how much you need. Rather than scooping it out or trying to get the right amount out of the bag, you just pour it until you have just the right amount. Dry rice and sugar both pour well, as do very small beans (like lentils). Plus, these jugs store really well in a pantry, as they take up very little “floor space.”

I found that when we started buying bulk rice, simply storing it in a gallon jug was the easiest way to go. That way, the only time that we needed to pull out the giant bag of rice was to refill the “rice jug.” A gallon jug full of rice weighs about 7.5 pounds, and the weight goes down as you empty it out. If that’s too heavy, use a half gallon – you’ll fill it twice as often, but it’ll never be more than 4 pounds at most.

6. Make your own broth or stock and save it in milk jugs, too.

You can do the same exact trick with broth or stock that you make yourself. Just pour it into a jug or two, keep it in your fridge, and pour it out as needed.

Making stock is easy. Just take any vegetable scraps you have (I save them for a while in a gallon Ziploc bag in the freezer) along with any bones you’ve saved from various meals (like chicken bones or beef bones). I also like to add some salt and some peppercorns and maybe a few other herbs and spices to experiment a little. Put all of that stuff in a slow cooker and then fill it with water so that everything is just covered with a couple of inches to spare. Then, let it cook on low for 12 to 24 hours. When it’s done, strain it and save the liquid; the other stuff can be discarded.

That liquid you’ve saved is magic. It works great as a substitute for water in almost any flavorful meal. It works amazingly well in soups, just straight up amplifying their flavor. If you store it in a jug in the fridge, it’s easy to pour whenever you need it, too. Just pull out the jug, pop off the cap, and pour. My only suggestion is that if you intend to store it for more than a few days, make sure it’s salty, which helps with preservation, or else freeze it.

This stuff is so cheap to make – it’s basically water and leftovers – and yet it adds so much flavor to leftovers. Putting it in an old milk jug in the fridge makes it super convenient, too.

7. Get involved in a community volunteer organization.

How does this one help save money?

First of all, it’s a way to spend some free time without any cost. If you’re doing volunteer work, you’re not spending money on activities or things. You’re just helping others.

For another, there are often little perks involved, like a free meal or something akin to that. I used to serve regularly at a very nice community dinner and part of that was a free plate for yourself.

The third benefit is that you end up building some very nice relationships with people. The people who spend their time volunteering are usually compassionate, thoughtful people, the kind of people you’re glad to have in your life and the kind of people you want to help when they’re down and who will help you when you’re down. These are the kinds of people you want to build relationships with.

I love charitable work. Not only is it time spent helping others, I almost always feel like I got at least as much out of it as the people I helped. I go in with the intent of building friendships and enjoying what I’m doing and feeling good about helping other people, and it costs nothing at all and occasionally gives me an additional perk as well.

8. Start keeping a water bottle with you all the time.

This is a trick that I picked up over the years from one of my closest friends, who seemingly always has a water bottle with him. Whenever he’s thirsty, he just hits a water fountain or some other place to dispense water, fills up his bottle, and then moves on with a free beverage in hand.

I keep one in my bag that I take with me most of the time when I leave the house. I also keep a water bottle in the car, which I’ll often refill at gas stations or rest stops while traveling (and I’ll usually try to fill it up before departing on a road trip, too).

Why do this? If you have an empty water bottle that you can conveniently fill, it makes the desire to buy a soda or another expensive beverage just to quench your thirst and have a beverage to carry with you far less appealing. Instead, you have that water bottle that costs nothing to fill up and quenches your thirst perfectly, and it’s usually faster to just fill it up than to buy a beverage somewhere.

That’s why you’ll usually find an empty water bottle in my bag and one laying on the floor in my vehicle. It saves money.

9. Make a list of books/DVDs you have up for swapping and list them on social media.

This is a neat idea that a friend of mine did recently. He simply went through his shelves and made a big list of all of the books and DVDs he had laying around. He posted the list on social media and said, “I’ll swap any of these books and DVDs with you for a while. Just let me see your list and we can work out some swaps!”

What happened? He ended up temporarily swapping about 20 DVDs and about 15 books. This gave him a bunch of movies to watch and a bunch of books to read for free, with the only cost being that he doesn’t have his old, already-read books on his shelf for a while.

This one is so simple. Just go through your shelves and make a list of all of the DVDs and books you’d be happy to loan to a friend for a few weeks. Post that list on social media, and ask friends to share their own lists. Look for anything they have that you’d like to watch or read, and ask them to pick out things you have that they’d like to watch or read, and swap them for a while.

It’s an easy way to get a bunch of good reading or viewing material, to meet up with a friend at least a couple of times, and then to have a bunch of books you’ve both read and movies you’ve both watched as common touchstones for conversation, and it costs nothing aside from loaning out a few items that would otherwise just sit on your shelf.

10. Check out the websites, particularly the activity calendar, of your local colleges and universities.

I often encourage people to check out the websites of the community they live in as well as adjacent communities, plus the parks and recreation department of each, when looking for free things to do.

Another great source for free things to do is to look at the calendars for any universities and colleges that happen to be nearby.

Universities and colleges host a lot of events that are open to the public and of interest to members of the community. They often host lectures and debates and athletic events and group meetings, most of which are completely free and completely open to the surrounding community.

Don’t be afraid to jump in. I’ve often discovered talks from authors whose books I’ve read, meetings of interesting groups, and even debates between people with interesting and differing viewpoints just by looking at the events calendar at local universities and colleges. All were free, and all were open to the public.

11. Get a short haircut, as short as you’re happy with.

A short haircut has a number of advantages.

First of all, a short cut means that you can wait a little longer between cuttings, which means that you’re spending less money at the barbershop or salon.

Second, short hair requires fewer hair care products. My (very short) hair requires just a tiny drop of shampoo and conditioner to stay soft and natural looking. It also holds up better to not being constantly washed. I simply spend a lot less on hair care products.

Another advantage of this is that, if your haircut is short, it’s very easy to maintain it yourself with basic barbershop equipment. I can maintain my own hairstyle with just clippers and a razor, though I do occasionally have it done by someone else because I think it’s starting to look awkward (I’m pretty bad at getting the back perfect).

Consider getting a really short, lower maintenance haircut the next time you get your hair trimmed. You’ll find that it saves you a lot of money.

12. Use a large pump for your shampoo, conditioner, and body wash in the shower and refill them in bulk.

The squeeze bottles that shampoos, conditioners, and body washes come in are convenient, but they also have rather large holes that make it very easy to dump out way too much of that stuff. A little squeeze can give you a fist full of soap when you only need a little bit, which means that the excess goes to waste and flows right down the drain.

The solution is to get a few large pump bottles. Think of pump bottles as being like a hand soap dispenser, but larger. You can sometimes get soap and shampoo in such containers, but you may have to buy them.

Once you have that in place, you can easily get your soap, shampoo, and conditioner one pump at a time, guaranteeing that you have a small amount appropriate for cleaning without a bunch of excess swirling down the drain.

Even better, having a pump bottle means that you can buy your shampoo, conditioner, and body wash in large bulk containers. You just refill your pump bottle from the big bulk container that you keep in your closet.

Together, these tactics save you quite a lot on your soap and shampoo. It allows you to easily buy it in bulk, plus you use far less per shower. This really adds up over time without any inconvenience and without switching brands.

13. Fold up a blanket and put it firmly in front of any place in your house where you can feel a flow of hot or cold air.

If you find that there’s a lot of air flowing under a doorway, the best long term solution is to get a weatherstrip and put it in place. That will block hot air from entering in the summer and cold air from entering in the winter, making it easier to maintain an ideal home temperature.

However, a weatherstrip isn’t free, and it also takes time to install it and a trip to the hardware store to get the items. That’s not always convenient in the moment.

What is convenient, however, is just grabbing a blanket or a big towel, rolling it up, and stuffing it under that doorway to block the flow of air. It’s not a perfect blocker by any means, but it’s a free blocker, and it will definitely slow down the flow of unwanted air.

That simple step will keep your furnace and/or air conditioner from kicking on nearly as often, which will show up in the form of energy savings. It’ll also help keep your feet warm in the winter, because cold air blowing through the gap in the bottom of the door can make feet cold in a hurry.

14. Haggle a little on any big purchase, especially at nontraditional retailers and on sale items.

Whenever I’m about to make a large purchase or I’m buying from someone that’s not a traditional retailer (where they can’t budge on the price of a bar of soap), I haggle at least a little. I’ll make an offer that’s lower than what the sticker price is, usually 15% or 20%, and then we start negotiating a little.

I find this works well any time you’re buying a very expensive item without a firmly fixed price (like a car) or an item that’s actively on sale, like a floor model. It also works well at nontraditional retailers, like a farmers market. It works far less often at big box retailers where you’re buying normally-priced items, to the point that I essentially don’t do this unless it’s a very expensive item.

Here’s the thing with haggling: The worst thing that can happen is that they say no, at which point you’re paying the original price anyway. If they say yes, you save a little money or get something thrown in.

In the last two months, I’ve drastically reduced the price of a car repair, scored a free board game expansion, and received a free cup of chili, all for just haggling for a second by simply asking for a discount or a throw-in. It’s easy, and it never hurts to ask.

15. Pretend to “cut the cord” for a month.

For any subscription service that you use in your home to save money, try pretending to live without that subscription service for a month.

Try living without your cell phone or without your data plan. Try living without cable. Try living without Netflix. Try living without any online subscriptions you may have. Just see what life is like without that service.

What alternative options can you easily find? What other things might you do with your time? Just try it and find out.

What you’ll probably find, for many of those services, is that your life goes along just fine without it. You either find other things to do or else you find a very adequate substitute for that expense.

For example, by going without cable, you may end up trying out over-the-air television options and discover that they meet your needs, or you may just find that you have other things to do with your time.

16. Be your own person.

Over and over, I find that a lot of purchases are, at their root, done to somehow impress other people and win their favor. In some way or another, people buy a lot of items to either “keep up with the Joneses” or to impress random people on the street or just to keep up with whatever their perceived idea of “normal” is.

I’ve had readers write in and say that they could literally never buy a store brand item because they would look bad to their guests. That’s an extreme example, but we all do things like this on a surprisingly frequent basis if we really dig into our reasons for buying things.

You shouldn’t stop caring what other people think, but you should strive to be your own person. Don’t buy things that you wouldn’t buy if you were the last person on earth – or at least think very carefully about such purchases. If there was really no one else out there to impress at all, would you buy this?

Again, naturally, you do want to keep up a nice public appearance, but you can do that with inexpensive clothes and cleanliness and hygiene and a nice demeanor. You don’t need expensive threads or jewelry or the latest gadgets or a shiny car to build a positive relationship or have people think of you positively. Frankly, most people won’t even think of you at all, no matter what you do.

Be your own person. Focus on things that you want, that truly matter to you. Think about why you’re buying things, and start severely cutting the value you give to what other people might think. You’ll always be happier in the long run.

Good luck!

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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.