Eight Useful, Frugal Projects You Can Do to Save Money

It’s been my experience that if you leave yourself too much idle time, you usually end up doing things you regret. Perhaps it’s just as simple as wasting away the hours watching random television programs and movies, or maybe it’s something destructive and wasteful that you’ll regret. Whatever the case may be, a sudden abundance of time can lead to some bad routines.

A much better approach is to find useful ways to fill that time, particularly in terms of making things, learning things, or optimizing things for later.

Here are eight projects to take on during moments in life when you have more time than you expect and are struggling to find worthwhile things for idle hands to do.

Maintain your appliances.

There’s really no better time than right now to go through each of the appliances in your home and give them some maintenance love.

The easiest way to do it is to look up the manual for each of your appliances online and see what they suggest doing for maintenance. Which appliances? Your refrigerator, dishwasher, stovetop/oven, microwave, washer, dryer and AC unit. There’s a nice checklist to get you started.

Almost every manual in the world will suggest maintenance and cleaning steps for those appliances. Follow those instructions as closely as you can. You’ll be doing things like leveling the washing machine, dusting behind the fridge, cleaning out little holes in your dishwasher, and so on.

Why do this? Whenever you do a maintenance run on your appliances, you’re extending their lifespan significantly. That means, during the time in which you live in this home, you’ll have fewer appliance replacements. Plus, you’re likely to get these appliances to run more efficiently as well, which could save you a little money along the way.

Make stock.

Stock is the liquid backbone of a ton of different soups and many casseroles and other dishes. There are countless uses for stock — whenever you would use water or bullion in a dish, stock will improve the flavor substantially. The best part? Making it yourself is free, but it requires some planning ahead.

What you need to do is save every vegetable scrap that you have, either raw or plainly cooked. If it’s a bit of extra vegetable that’s edible, but you skipped it for some reason, use it. If it’s a vegetable that’s on the verge of going bad, use it. If it’s some leftover steamed broccoli, use it. If it’s an outer layer of onion that you peeled away, use it.

All of that stuff can go in a large container in your freezer. A gallon-sized freezer bag is perfect for this.

Along with that, save the bones and cartilage and scrap bits of meat from any meat that you cook. Did you cook a whole chicken? Save the bones and cartilage and scraps. Did you cook a roast? Save the bone. Do you have leftover plain meat? Save it.

You’ll want to save individual kinds of meat — save the chicken bits in one-gallon freezer bag and beef bones in another.

When you have a gallon bag full of scraps, you’re ready to make stock. Pour all of those scraps into a pot. You can mix one type of meat scrap with vegetable scrap, or just do them alone if you want vegetarian scraps. Cover the scraps and bones with water, add a tablespoon of salt and a tablespoon of ground black pepper (or some peppercorns), and then simply simmer it on low all day long in a pot with a lid. You can do it without a lid, but you’ll want to add some water during the day. Twelve hours of simmering should do it. You can do this in a large slow cooker on low, too, and that allows you to safely leave it overnight.

When you’re done, strain the liquid. It’s the liquid you want to save, not the mushy scraps. That liquid can be stored in a big jar in the fridge or frozen in a freezer-safe container. It’s the basis of amazing soups and amazing casseroles. It’s amazing when you use it to cook rice. It’s basically liquid flavor for almost anything where you want to impart that kind of flavor.

Make your own bread.

Homemade bread is a little denser, far more filling, more nutritious, and makes absurdly better toast than the bread you buy at the store. A humble homemade loaf is like $10 bakery bread rather than the $2 loaf you normally buy, but here’s the kicker: it doesn’t even cost $2 to make, and your grocery store has all of the stuff (even if you don’t have it on hand). Not only that, making it yourself is a great kitchen confidence builder.

It’s really easy to do, too. All you really need is flour, water, sugar, yeast and an oven. A loaf pan is nice to shape the final loaf — if you don’t have one, you can get an inexpensive one at the grocery store for a dollar or two.

All you need is a packet or a tablespoon of dry yeast, 2 1/4 cups of warm water (it should feel nice and warm but not hot to the touch), 3 tablespoons of sugar, a tablespoon of salt, a small bit of oil for greasing the pan and 6 1/2 cups of bread flour. This will make two loaf-sized dough balls. You can wrap one in plastic wrap and store it in the fridge a few days for when you’re ready to bake another loaf.

Mix the yeast and half a teaspoon of sugar into the water and let it sit for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the salt, the remaining sugar and half the flour in a really big bowl until it’s thoroughly mixed. Then, add the water and stir — it’ll be like a soup. Add the rest of the flour, half a cup at a time, until you have a big dough ball you can handle with your hands without sticking to them.

Clear a spot on a table, put a little flour down, and knead the ball until it’s smooth. This will take about 10 minutes. Add a little flour if it starts to get sticky again.

At this point, split the dough ball in half and wrap up half of it to stick in the fridge. Take a bowl, rub a bit of the oil all over the inside of it so nothing sticks, and put the other dough ball in there. Let it sit for a couple of hours in a warm spot, covered with a towel.

After that, just punch down the dough and form it into a loaf shape. Rub a bit of oil all over the inside of the loaf pan and fit the dough in there. Cover that loaf again and wait another 90 minutes or so for it to rise.

Then, heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, pop in the loaf and wait 30 minutes. It’s done when you tap the top of it and it sounds hollow inside. Remove it from the pan and let it sit on a wire rack (or anything you can find that will elevate it from the table and let air flow under it) for a while to cool to room temperature. It’s ready to eat and should be good for several days. The toast is to die for.

When you want to use the other ball, take it out of the fridge, put it in an oiled bowl, and cover it. Let it sit for 3-4 hours and it will start to rise, then jump into the procedure above where you’re punching down the dough.

Not only does this make amazing bread, but it’s also pretty inexpensive, it’ll make your house smell amazing as you cook it, and if you do it a few times it’ll seem really simple, which will encourage you to bake other things yourself. Most basic baked items are similarly easy. It’s mostly mixing together flour, water and yeast, kneading for different lengths of time, adding another ingredient or two, and shaping it differently.

Fix a damaged article of clothing.

Most of us have an item of clothing with some minor issue. Maybe a button is missing from a dress shirt, or maybe a pair of pants is a little too long and needs to be hemmed.

Most of us also have a small sewing kit at home, with a few needles and a few different colors of thread in there. It’s one of those things we pick up over the years as a housewarming gift or in an emergency and then stick in a drawer for later.

Now’s a great time to pull out that garment with an issue and that sewing kit and actually fix it.

Sewing on a button, for example, is a very simple project to get started with. Here’s a great Youtube video that will walk you right through the process.

Other projects will require more work, but they’re all doable with a little time and some needle and thread. You can repair a torn seam. You can sew a patch on a uniform or a jacket. You can hem up a pair of pants.

The first few times you do these things, it’s going to be really awkward and slow. The key is to work through that awkward and slow phase, and this is a perfect time to do it.

Check your windows for drafts and bad caulk spots.

Go to every window in your home and inspect the edges around the window slowly, along every line of caulk (it’s the rubbery stuff at the edges of windows). Look for any spots where caulk is missing or looks damaged and make a note of it.

If you do have access to equipment to seal them (caulk, a caulking gun, and a putty knife), then by all means, seal those windows. These are items that many people have in their tool chest, so you may be able to just tackle it right now. However, springtime is a time of the year when you’re least likely to need to run air conditioning, so this part of the project can wait.

If you make a thorough catalog of all of the places with inadequate caulking right now, actually fixing it later will be a pretty easy task. You just get a caulking gun and some caulk and a putty knife and head straight down the list, going from spot to spot to fix the issues.

Why is this useful? Those spots where the caulk is missing from your window are spots where warm air is leaking out of your home in the winter and hot air is getting into your home in the summer. Fixing those spots will save you quite a bit of money over the long haul.

Make some homemade laundry soap.

Homemade laundry soap costs about $0.03 per load and does a pretty good job. On almost all loads, I find it’s almost exactly the same as Tide or storebrand detergent at a tiny fraction of the cost. It’s also easy to make it — you can get the items the next time you need to visit the grocery store.

All you need is baking soda or washing soda, borax (likely found next to cleaning supplies or laundry supplies), and a couple of bars of non-glycerine soap (Ivory or a generic brand works just fine). You’ll also need a container of some kind to keep near your washer, as well as a measuring tablespoon, and you’ll need a box grater. You’ll likely have most of that stuff already at home.

First, take the bar of soap and the box grater and grate the soap into fine flakes. You essentially want to turn the bar of soap into powder. This will take a little while — maybe 10 or 15 minutes — but you can do it while listening to a podcast or watching a TV show as long as you pay attention to your knuckles so you don’t grate them.

If you have baking soda instead of washing soda, put one or two cups of baking soda onto a baking tray and bake it in the oven at 400 F for one hour. The heat will turn the baking soda into washing soda.

Then, pull out your storage container and put equal amounts of washing soda, borax, and soap flakes in there. If you have a big container, two cups of each is great; if it’s smaller, aim for a single cup or a half cup of each. Shake the container and mix the powders together for a few minutes, then pop the measuring spoon in there and you’re good to go.

All you need is a tablespoon of this mix for a normal-sized load of laundry. Just sprinkle it around evenly in the load — don’t just dump it in a clump. It does an impressive job of getting clothes nice and clean.

If you use a cup of each substance, you have three cups of homemade laundry soap, which, if you’re using a tablespoon at a time, adds up to 48 loads. If you add up the cost of the ingredients, your cost per load will end up somewhere in the $0.03 to $0.06 range. If you compare that to the cost of normal laundry detergent per load, you’ll be pretty impressed by the savings.

Consider this a nice “trial run” to see whether or not homemade laundry soap works for you. It works pretty well for me!

Make a “refill” list.

This is actually a project I’ve done myself in the last few days. I typed this up, printed it, and laminated it.

It’s simply a list of the 40 or 50 things around our house that we consistently use up and need to replenish. The items on that list are things that we’ll always stock up on if we notice them on sale, and if we see that we’re running low, they get added to the list. Rather than just writing “dishwashing detergent” every few months on the grocery list, now we can just put a star by “dishwashing detergent” on the “refill” list.

Just go around your home, looking in your various cupboards and pantries, and identify all of the household supplies and nonperishable food items that you always want to have on hand. You’re looking for things like toilet paper, dishwashing detergent, flour, bar soap, shampoo, pasta and so on. The exact list will be different for everyone, depending on age, family size and specific requirements, and you’ll find that your first draft is probably missing several items.

What’s the value? Like I said, having a list like this with a dry erase marker handy makes it a lot easier to take note of the regular stuff you need at the store, so that you don’t forget something essential and have to make an extra trip. Notice toilet paper missing? Just draw a quick star on this laminated sheet, then check it the next time you’re about to go to the store. It’s as easy as that! Sure, it’s a new routine to get used to, but it’s a super simple routine, and it can easily start saving you trips to the store.

Review your subscriptions.

Many of us have subscriptions to services and publications and other things that we completely forget about most of the time. We’re subscribed to a magazine or two that comes in the mail that we don’t read that gets automatically renewed. We’re subscribed to an annual service on our phones that we were really into a few years ago but now it just gets re-subscribed without a thought.

There’s no better time than right now to sit down and go through all of those subscriptions and evaluate which ones are worth retaining and which ones aren’t.

There are several ways to find the things you’re subscribed to.

One way is to go into your email program and search for “subscription” and “renewal” and see what comes up.

Another way is to use your phone to find your online subscriptions. Here’s how to do it on iPhone and how to do it on an Android device.

Another place to look is your Amazon account. Here’s where you should go to check your subscriptions through Amazon.

It’s also worthwhile to look through your credit card and bank statements for the last several months, identifying any automatic charges and renewal charges that appear there.

You might also want to examine your magazine rack and any other spots in your home where magazines accumulate.

This isn’t a call to cancel everything, but rather to review everything and cancel things that clearly aren’t giving you enough value.

This whole process will take a little while, which is why it’s a nice project to take on when you have the time for it.

Make tomorrow better.

The goal with each and every one of these projects is to use some time today to make tomorrow better – a little less expensive, a little easier to navigate, and so on.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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