Hacking Six Normal Life Routines to Save Time and Money

In my experience, many of the truly useful frugal tactics come about from little tweaks to one’s daily routine. If you can look at something that you do almost every day and find some little way to shave a minute off of it, you’ve saved more than six hours over the course of a year. If you can look at that routine and shave a quarter off of it, you’ve saved $90 over the course of a year. If you can do those kinds of changes to several routines in your life, you’re starting to look at some impressive savings.

I’m not talking about things that throw your routine to the wolves and force you to start over from scratch. I’m talking about simple little ways to alter a routine so that the expense of each run of that routine is a little less or the time involved is a little less.

Here are six examples of pretty normal daily routines in my life that I’ve managed to “hack” in significant ways over the years to save both time and money.

Doing Laundry

With two adults and three kids living under one roof, laundry is practically a daily occurrence around here. It eats up time and it definitely eats up money in the form of detergent and energy.

How I Once Did It

Once upon a time, I would simply buy a jug of detergent and a box of dryer sheets from the store. Whenever I did a load of laundry, I’d follow the instructions on the tags and also sort the clothes by color before doing a load. I’d use warm or hot water on the clothes, then use the dryer appropriately afterwards to dry the clothes.

How I Tweaked It to Save Time and Money

The first tweak I made was to make my own laundry detergent, a process that I described in detail here. These days, I actually just make powder detergent by mixing the soap, borax, and washing soda in powder form and using just a tablespoon per load. Making this laundry soap takes about five minutes once every two months or so and trims the soap cost per load from about $0.20 to about $0.02, adding up to about $64 in savings per year.

The second tweak I made was to only wash large loads. A washing machine only uses a bit more energy and a bit more water when you’re using a large load rather than a medium-sized load. Since I’d estimate that I do two large loads rather than three medium-sized loads, it’s a net savings of both time and money.

The third tweak I made was to use cold water for everything unless specifically directed not to do so by a garment tag. I’ve never seen any difference in terms of getting my clothes clean, so using warm or hot water just wastes energy and adds to the monthly energy bill.

The fourth tweak I made was to cut my dryer sheets into quarters. This takes about a minute to cut the sheets from a single box into quarters. The quarter sheets do a perfectly good job of softening my clothes and it reduces the expense of the dryer sheets by 75%. Most dryer sheets cost about $0.06 a pop, so over the course of a year, this quick cutting technique saves about $6 a year.

The fifth tweak is to do laundry late in the evening, just before bed. By doing this, we’re using the cheapest energy our energy company provides, which usually kicks in at 7 PM for us. Check with your energy company – off-prime hours are almost always cheaper for energy use and that’s when you should run your big appliances. This tactic works for other appliances like your dishwasher.

The final tweak worth mentioning is that we use a drying rack for many clothes items. Rather than just throwing everything in the dryer, I’ll hang up many of the items on a drying rack or a line in the laundry room. This makes for much smaller loads in the dryer without any additional time (it doesn’t really take any longer to put a shirt on a drying rack than it does to stuff it in the dryer) and a smaller load in the dryer means less energy used and less dryer time, too.

Making a Simple Breakfast

Every single school day, I have to make breakfast for my three children (and myself, and often for my wife who is rushing to get to work). It’s a routine that requires a healthy breakfast to be prepared and also really values using minimal time.

How I Once Did It

Usually, I’d wake up in the morning and make whatever I had on hand. This usually meant quickly cooking an oatmeal packet or scrambling some eggs or something like that. That procedure involved at least a little bit of prep time.

How I Tweaked It to Save Time and Money

My first tweak was to make a ton of breakfast sandwiches in advance. Homemade breakfast sandwiches are substantially cheaper than ones purchased in the store and don’t take terribly long to assemble. I usually do this as an extension of a normal breakfast on a weekend day, assembling fresh sandwiches for the family and then freezing a bunch of them. I usually wrap them in a paper towel, then put them in a pint freezer storage bag for storage. In the morning, you can just pull out the sandwich and microwave it for a moment or two and have a perfectly fine breakfast. According to my calculations, I can make a sandwich for $0.55 when similar sandwiches cost a dollar or so at the store (or at a restaurant). This saves some time in the mornings (mostly due to moving that time usage to the weekends) and also saves some money.

My second tweak was to make “overnight” oatmeal in a slow cooker. Rather than buying oatmeal packets, we just buy a large container of steel cut oats. Before going to bed, I put the steel cut oats and some water (and a bit of honey) in a small slow cooker and turn it on low. The next morning, we just serve the oatmeal, usually topping it or pairing it with some fruit. This is substantially cheaper per serving than oatmeal packets (my math indicates that we save about $0.15 per bowl) and it’s far quicker in the morning, too. I just toss the crock into the dishwasher when we’re done.

My third tweak was to buy discounted fruits. I watch the grocery flyer and when fruits go on sale, I purchase just those fruits and use them to accompany breakfast that week. Some weeks, my children enjoy bananas; other weeks, they enjoy strawberries with their breakfast. They’re cheap because of the sale and they’re very quick to prepare.

Washing Dishes

With five people in our home (and guests on a pretty regular basis), we find ourselves doing a load of dishes almost every day – and often two or even three loads in a single day.

How I Once Did It

I’d throw dishes in the dishwasher to maximize the number of dishes I could fit in there, then I’d close the door and start things up, using hot water to get them really clean and hot drying to avoid spots. I also used whatever detergent was on sale.

How I Tweaked It to Save Time and Money

My first tweak was to switch to a good detergent and buy it in bulk. The better the detergent, the lower the likelihood of dishes not being clean at the end of the load. Also, cheap detergents can slightly etch your dishes, reducing their lifespan. Adding those factors together, the cost of cheap detergent usually adds up to more than the cost of good detergent. I usually stick with Finish Quantum tabs, which are highly recommended by Consumer Reports.

My second tweak was to start using vinegar in each load. Most dishwashers come with a spot for a rinsing agent like Jet Dry, but for most dishes, a bit of white vinegar works just fine as a rinsing agent and costs about 10% as much as the commercial rinsing agents. I use vinegar in most loads.

My third tweak was to turn off the heat during the drying cycle. If you’re using a rinsing agent, you don’t need heat to prevent spots. The rinsing agent takes care of that, so you don’t need hot air during the dry cycle. Just turn off that setting on your dishwasher and never use it again – it’ll save energy. In fact, I’ll often just open the door if I notice it when the load is finished and allow the dishes to air dry.

My fourth tweak was to pay attention to how I load the dishes. Almost all dishwashers operate better if you load the dishwasher in a smart way. Load plates on the bottom rack with the plates facing the middle of the dishwasher (as best you can). Put silverware in the silverware rack with the handles down. Bowls and cups go on the top rack with cups facing down and bowls slanted downward. Most dishes that aren’t fully washed fail because they didn’t follow those simple rules. It doesn’t add any time in loading, but it does reduce the need for re-washing.

My final tweak was to use the short wash cycle. I once used the “pots and pans” cycle for almost everything until a friend showed me how silly that was. Now, I use the short cycle and virtually everything gets clean. The only key is to make sure that you’re not putting dishes in there that actually have food “chunks” on them – if there’s a chunk, rinse it off quickly in the sink. You’ll save a lot of water and energy this way.

Cleaning Out the Refrigerator

This is a task that needs to be done on a regular basis to prevent outdated items in your fridge from going bad and contaminating other items in there. I don’t particularly relish the task, but it’s something that needs to be done.

How I Once Did It

About once a month, I’d pull everything out of the fridge, evaluate each item, and put some of it back. I’d end up throwing away a significant portion of what’s in there. I usually needed to clean the racks at this point, too.

How I Tweaked It to Save Time and Money

My first tweak was to start a weekly rotation. This is really easy and only takes a few minutes. Just reach in the back, pull out the items that are furthest out of sight, and put them in the front. It’s incredibly easy and it brings attention to the older items.

My second tweak was to assemble a meal plan as part of that rotation. I got into the routine of doing that item rotation when I assembled my meal plan for the week. This would often inspire me to use those things in the refrigerator that needed to be used up – a half-empty jar of marinara sauce or a bowl of rice cooked two days ago, for example. Rather than letting these things go bad in the back of the fridge, I incorporate them into next week’s meals. These items get used rather than wasted, saving money.

My third tweak was to start using transparent containers when possible. I often miss leftovers when looking in the fridge, which again means that they wind up going bad in the back. By using transparent containers, I can see what’s in there, which means that I don’t overlook them and they actually get used, saving money.

My final tweak was to simply save a thorough washing until it needs it. Since I’m not pulling everything out all the time, I find that I actually don’t need to do that top-to-bottom cleaning as often. This saves me time over the long run.

These tips also work perfectly when cleaning out your cupboards or pantry. By just using a little bit of time frequently, you wind up wasting far less stuff, cut back on your grocery bill, and avoid having to do the “big clean” nearly as often.

Preparing Dinner

One of the central tenets of our family life is that, if at all possible, we eat dinner together around the dinner table (or at a community dinner). While that’s awesome, it does also require that a family meal be prepared every single night.

How I Once Did It

I’d go to the grocery store with a few vague ideas for meals in mind, then toss stuff in the cart to fulfill those meals. Each evening, I’d spend half an hour to an hour preparing a meal.

How I Tweaked It to Save Time and Money

My first tweak was to start using a meal plan/grocery list system for grocery shopping. It’s so simple, yet it saves a ton of time and money. Before I ever go to the grocery store, I pull out the grocery store flyer and look through the pantry and the refrigerator so that I can come up with meals that use the things that are on sale along with what we already have to make really cheap meals. I then make a list of the things I need to buy for those meals, then I stick with that list at the store. It makes grocery store visits way cheaper and also much quicker.

My second tweak was to make meals in advance. As with the breakfast sandwiches above, I try to take advantage of the process of making whole meals in advance and saving them for later in the freezer. Casseroles and soups work really well for this. The method I use is to make a quadruple batch of a meal on a weekend, using one of them that evening and freezing the other three. When I need to use them, I let them thaw in the refrigerator for twenty four hours (or so), then cook it as normal. This saves prep time on busy evenings, saves overall prep time (because you’re preparing the meals simultaneously on the weekend), and saves money because you can buy ingredients in bulk.

My third tweak was to use a slow cooker. This is an invaluable tool around our house as it allows us to prepare simple meals in the morning – I usually do this just after the kids leave for school – and then have a ready-to-serve meal on the table as soon as everyone arrives home. This is an incredible time saver for our family, moving the prep time from a period where my time is in high demand (when the kids arrive home from school) to a time where the demand is less (right after they leave for school). Plus, most slow cooker recipes are simple fare, which means that you’re buying relatively inexpensive basic ingredients.

My fourth tweak was to prep leftovers for lunch in two days. After a meal is finished, we’ll ideally have some left over for future meals. Sarah and I will both prepare future lunches out of these leftovers, putting them in containers for future use. Ideally, we eat that leftover meal not the next day, but the day after that. Doing that prevents “leftover burnout” where we don’t want to eat the same thing the next day.

My final tweak was to have “leftover night” every third or fourth night. Sometimes, Sarah or I won’t use our prepackaged leftovers or maybe there will be extra leftovers at the end of a meal. Every third or fourth night – Thursdays and Sundays seem to often be the dates for us – we’ll pull all leftovers out of the refrigerator and that’s what we’ll have for our family dinner. This allows everyone to choose among several different dishes so that they can eat more of what they liked and less of what they didn’t like. It’s very fast to prepare it and it drastically reduces food waste, saving us money, too.

Washing the Windows

Normal life causes your windows to gradually get dusty and a bit grimy. Eventually, they need to be cleaned, but it’s never a fun task.

How I Once Did It

I’d grab a spray bottle of window cleaner at the store. When it’s time to clean, I’d head to the windows with a roll of paper towels and that window cleaner.

How I Tweaked It to Save Time and Money

My first tweak was to fill my window cleaner bottle with my own homebrew. Instead of buying more window washing solution at the store, I took the bottle I already had and added two cups of water, 1/4 cup white vinegar, and a small squirt of dishwashing soap. I swirled it a bit before each usage then sprayed it as normal. It’s way cheaper and does a great job on our windows.

My second tweak was to ditch the paper towels and use a sponge and a few rags. The paper towels were very wasteful. Why not just use items you can clean and re-use? Now, I just spray the window down, use the sponge to clean it, then use the dry rags to wipe the windows dry. The sponge and the rags can be used again and again and again.

My final tweak was to do it during the right time of day. This seems surprising, but it’s much harder to wash windows when light is directly shining on them. There are more streaks and more problems when hit with direct sunlight, causing you to have to re-wash and clean up spots. I usually just wash the windows in the evenings.

Final Thoughts

Ideally, you’re already using some of these tweaks in your normal routines. Different people have learned different tactics along the way.

Having said that, the real value in this article is that there are time and money savings to be had from almost every daily routine. You can save money and time on your commute. You can save money and time on your lunch break. You can save money and time on almost all of your normal routines.

The key is stepping back and taking a look at those routines in your life that feel completely natural. Are there little changes you can make to shave a little time from those routines or save a few cents without adding effort? If you can find one or two little tweaks like that, you’ll end up saving a ton of time and/or money over the long run because of the sheer repetition.

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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