This morning, when I woke up and went through my usual morning routine that revolves around getting myself awake, getting the kids ready for school, and getting myself ready for working, I noticed that there were little frugal tweaks everywhere. I kept noticing all of these little changes I’d made over the last several years that shave a few cents or a quarter or a dollar off of the activities of my morning routine. These little tweaks don’t really change the nature of the thing I’m doing, but they do mean that my normal daily routine is less expensive than it once was.
I thought it might be interesting to walk step by step through a typical morning of mine, starting at the point that I wake up and ending at the point when I start my actual workday, and point out all of the little frugal tweaks along the way.
Before I get started, it’s worth noting that I work from home, which means that I don’t have the cost of a commute nor the cost of a professional wardrobe. Most days, I work in inexpensive, comfortable clothes – a well-worn soft t-shirt and worn blue jeans, usually. Thus, I won’t be talking about ways to save money on a commute, but I’m instead focusing on the other elements of the morning routine that most people who work and have kids have to face each workday/schoolday. I asked Sarah about strategies that she uses to save on her commute and I’m sharing some of those at the end of this article.
Let’s dig in.
Pretty much the first thing I do when I get out of bed is grab a refillable bottle of water out of the fridge and start drinking it. Rather than just buying jumbo packs of bottled water at a store, I just have a handful of water bottles that are filled and kept in the fridge for anyone to grab. I’ll usually refill this bottle a few times during the day, meaning that my beverage costs are really low.
I then usually spend some time reviewing my day and calming my mind. I usually start with reviewing my calendar in Google Calendar, which is free. I use it to track every time-oriented event in my life. If it’s something where I or someone in my immediate family needs to be somewhere at a certain time, it’s in this calendar, and I check it each day just to have a good mental picture of what the day is going to look like. I moved to Google Calendar a few years ago, dropping a paper planner, as I found that things that are just information storage and retrieval, not things I have to think critically about, are best stored digitally.
If I’m up early enough, I’ll do a free flexibility routine from Youtube. It lets me stretch out my body and I find it not just physically enjoyable, but mentally relaxing, too. I also like to do mindful meditation for ten or fifteen minutes while listening to white noise. Again, this is something to calm and focus my mind and it’s free, but it’s worth noting that unlike the stretching, it’s not something that has immediate benefits; it tends to build slowly over time if you repeat it each day. I usually spend some time writing in a journal, usually in the form of just dumping out what’s in my head so I can focus on the day.
At this point, depending on what is on the meal plan for kids for breakfast and how early it is, I either start breakfast prep or settle in to read a book for thirty minutes.
If I’m reading a book, I’m typically reading something I checked out from the library for free; currently, that’s Dodge by Neal Stephenson.. I’ll sit in a comfortable chair, finish off my water, and go through a bunch of pages in the book.
If I’m doing breakfast prep, I could be making any number of things. Here are a few examples.
One common cheap breakfast is oatmeal. I put some water on to boil, then grab a container of quick oats from the cupboard and another container that has a mix of cinnamon and brown sugar in it (6 parts brown sugar to 1 part cinnamon). I put a half-cup of the oats in each bowl, then a tablespoon of our brown sugar mix, and then I mix it. I then chop up some fruit into each bowl, whatever’s on hand – a banana, an apple, whatever. I then pour about half a cup of the water (boiling or near boiling) into each bowl, stir it, and microwave it for another 30 seconds and serve. Easy and dirt cheap.
Another common quick breakfast is scrambled eggs. I’ll just crack ten eggs into a bowl, add some salt and pepper, and thoroughly whisk it, then put just a bit of butter in a skillet over medium heat and when the butter melts and coats the bottom, I pour in the eggs, keeping them scrambled as they cook, and then serving equal amounts to everyone (two eggs’ worth for everyone if Sarah is still home, two and a half for everyone if she’s already gone).
If I think of it the night before, I’ll often make “Swiss breakfast.” Basically, I take three cups and layer rolled oats and fruit in those cups with a bit of honey in each layer. I’ll put in perhaps 1/8th cup rolled oats, top it with a tiny bit of honey, put in 1/8 cup fruit, put in a few drops of honey, and repeat twice more. Then, I’ll fill the cup up with milk until it’s just above the top of the top layer of fruit and put it in the fridge overnight, covered. In the morning, I just pull it out and serve it with a spoon. This is about the same cost as our morning oatmeal, but has a much different taste and feel.
I also make yogurt-fruit smoothies, fruit salads, and other things for breakfast. On extremely rushed mornings, we do have a box of cereal on hand because there’s almost nothing faster.
The point is to keep breakfast simple and cheap but also healthy and nutritious.
Anyway, right as the kids are getting up, I want to get a brief digest of the day’s news, which is about the only time I really pay any attention to current events. Rather than turning on cable news to get my morning news, I just give a cursory glance at Allsides to get a brief summary of the news (free) and then turn on NPR (free) on the radio in the kitchen. Those are far cheaper options than having a cable subscription.
After breakfast, I’m mostly putting out fires for ten or fifteen minutes as the kids get ready for school. There’s always something to find or some paper to fill out or a shoe to recover from a dog’s hiding place or something like that, so I leave at least a ten minute gap, if not longer, for those things.
Once the kids leave for the bus, I usually take a shower. I use pump dispensers for liquid soap and shampoo so that I’m not using more than I need, thus avoiding waste, and I try to take a quick shower to avoid using up all the hot water and so I can get to work quickly. (I use these.) The soap and shampoo I use is usually whatever’s on sale at the store; right now, I’m using some jumbo bar soap that cost $1 each at a big sale where I think the store was liquidating stock (it’s Duke Cannon soap, and the bars are enormous) and I’m using Suave for Men shampoo/conditioner combo that had a nice sale on the jumbo-sized bottle. The same is true for other toiletries – I use generic heads for my toothbrush, use free toothpaste from the dentist or whatever’s on sale at the store, and so on. As mentioned earlier, I dress for work in a comfortable, well worn t-shirt and jeans.
At this point, I usually start a load of dishes and a load of laundry, if needed.
If I’m doing laundry, I usually run a load using homemade laundry soap (I just mix a cup of borax, a cup of washing soda, and a cup of soap flakes in a container and leave a measuring tablespoon in there – one tablespoon of the mix is good for any load) and using cold water for both the wash and the rinse setting, which cuts down on the hot water cost. When I dry my clothes, I usually just use the permanent press setting by default; the clothes don’t come out warm, but a lot less energy is used.
When I’m running a load of dishes, I usually either use whatever kind of dishwashing soap is on sale or, if I’ve had some spare time lately, my own “dishwasher packets” made of salt, washing soda, baking soda, powdered lemonade, water, and a bit of liquid dish soap. (I’m currently using this recipe.) In either case, it’s way cheaper than just grabbing whatever dishwashing detergent you first see at the store.
After that, and after doing a few more minor household tasks, I get ready for the work day.
The first thing I do is make a big cup of green tea. I am often gifted tea, so I’ll usually use that, or I’ll use some bulk tea I bought. I usually make several cups at once and keep it in a large cup that keeps it warm for several hours. I boil a quart of water and use an appropriate amount of tea leaves or bags to get it just right, then stir in a bit of honey.
At the same time, I pour myself some cold brew coffee from the fridge. Cold brew is about the cheapest way to make coffee at home that I’ve found and it turns out delicious. I have a cold brew coffee maker very similar to this one in which I just put some grounds in a mesh filter, put that filter in 32 ounces of water, and stick it in the fridge. After 24 hours, it’s amazing; I’ll just pour all 32 ounces in another giant cup and take it with me, starting another batch immediately.
At this point, when I have my coffee and tea ready to go, I’m ready to start my day. I turn off most common distractions – turn off notifications on my phone, close the door to the area of the house where I work, turn on a piece of software that blocks some distracting websites on my computer – and then set myself up to focus by turning on some focusing audio, like the white noise mentioned earlier. Then, I’m good to go.
At the end of the day, living frugally isn’t about radically changing your lifestyle. Sure, you can make some big changes to save money, and that’s often a good idea to do so, but the day to day routine of frugal life really is about finding small efficiencies that don’t reduce the quality of living but do save you money, time, and energy.
So, what about Sarah? Sarah works outside the home as a teacher and has a daily commute. I asked her about some of the things she does during her commute to save money and jotted down many of the things she shared with me.
First of all, she spent a lot of time optimizing her route to minimize driving distance. Shaving just a couple of miles off of her commute means less frequent fill-ups, less frequent maintenance, and a longer lifespan for her car. Each time she’s changed positions and we’ve moved, she’s studied the optimum commute using tools like Google Maps, found some candidates, and tried them out. From where we currently live, Google Maps actually does point her to the best route, but at our previous residence, there was another route that she discovered that shaved three miles off of her commute each way, and that really added up.
She likes to drink some coffee on her way to work but her mornings are busy, so she has a very tight routine for making her own coffee at home so she’s not buying it on her way to work. She prefers hot coffee and has a drip coffee maker that she’s had for many years, and she basically has this down to an exact science so that she can leave the house with a full coffee mug of coffee made at home, just as she likes it. This is far less expensive than stopping for coffee along the route each day.
She has carpooled in the past with another teacher that lived in our area. They would alternate driving to school and had a set time when they would leave each day. This cut her commute time in half. Unfortunately, the other teacher retired, so they’re no longer able to carpool, but she actively looks for people to carpool with each year out of the new hires at her school.
She drives a late 2000s Toyota Prius and intends to drive it until it no longer runs well. It currently has near 200,000 miles on it. It gets approximately 45 miles per gallon, which means that, since she drives it about 15,000 miles a year for commuting, it saves her about 267 gallons of gas per year, which adds up to about $700 in savings just from gas alone. She’s interested in replacing it with a low cost fully electric car (think Nissan Leaf) after doing the math on the costs, provided that the market develops a little more before she rotates car.
She typically fuels up at a warehouse club. The only warehouse club convenient for us is Sam’s Club, so she uses that for fuel most of the time. The only exception to this is when she has accumulated points in the customer rewards program at a local grocer, which are actually used at a gas station chain in the area. We usually use this to fill up our van, though, which means one fill-up of our big vehicle at a cheap rate.
She knows how to change a flat on her own. If she ever gets a flat, she can just get it off the road, change it herself, and get to work without calling an expensive service.
The simple truth is this: no matter what your morning routine contains, there are likely ways to shave off a bit of that expense without changing the nature or quality of what you’re doing. A move that saves $0.10 per day on your workday morning routine, repeated 5 times a week, 50 weeks a year, adds up to $25 saved. Make ten of those little tiny changes and that’s $250. Make some bigger ones and you’re quickly looking at four figures in savings per year.
There are really two ways to see the power of frugality. One is the big changes – moving to a cheaper house, eliminating a service, renegotiating a bill, and so on. The other is finding a cheaper way to do something that you do all the time without losing the quality. If you do something every day and can find a way to do it a little cheaper, that savings is going to add up enormously over time. It won’t have the big splash of the singular move, but what it will do is give you breathing room all throughout your financial life and making it easier to take a step like contributing more to retirement or starting a 529 for your kid or even making a challenging career switch.