Pre-Loading Frugality

One of the most useful strategies I’ve ever found for encouraging myself to be more frugal is something that I’ve come to call “pre-loading.”

The idea is really simple: I do things when I’m feeling very frugal such that it’s easy to make frugal choices later on when I might feel more inclined to make other choices that aren’t as frugal. For example, I might do something right now such that, when I’m making a choice later, one of the less expensive options becomes a lot more appealing or easy.

I’ve come to recognize that I do this all the time throughout all kinds of different areas of my life. Here are eleven ways in which I pre-load frugal choices.

Make meals in the slow cooker in the morning. If you get up in the morning, put a meal in the slow cooker, and turn it on low before you leave for work, there’s far less incentive to just stop for dinner at a restaurant or grab some takeout. After all, you know there’s a hot home-cooked meal sitting at home waiting for you — so, why go out to eat? Why spend more on such a meal?

This doesn’t have to be difficult, either. There are many slow cooker meals that add up to little more than just dumping some ingredients in the slow cooker and touching the “Low” button. You’re now pre-loaded to go home that evening and enjoy your slow cooker meal.

The next tip also supports this “dump it and forget it” strategy.

Do a lot of the “grunt work” for making a recipe a day or two early so that it’s easy to throw together a good meal. If you want to make a meal during the week that requires some cooked beans or some chopped vegetables, do those tasks a day or two early and put the prepared items in the fridge. You can do this with all kinds of simple prep tasks: browning ground beef, sautéing vegetables, cooking rice, making a sauce… it goes on and on.

Knowing that the “grunt work” is done for a meal makes it a lot easier to talk yourself into simply going home and finishing that meal. After all, it’s now easy to finish that meal, and if you don’t do it, those ingredients go to waste. You’re pre-loaded to go home and eat.

Buy store brand items in bulk so you’re making fewer buying decisions and locking in an inexpensive purchase. If you spend your money on a bulk purchase of a store brand item that you know meets your needs, what you’re effectively doing is “locking in” that purchase at a very low rate by buying it in bulk. Note, of course, that bulk buying doesn’t always give you the best pre-unit pricing, but it often does, and it’s often not even close.

If you just buy an enormous bulk quantity of, say, store brand trash bags or store brand hand soap or whatever, you’re not only buying a very low-cost version of an item you regularly use, you’re buying so much of it so that the choice of which one to buy is made already for the foreseeable future. You’re pre-loading the decision of whether to buy more of that item or which one to buy for quite a while, as you already have that item in your cupboard.

Invite people over for dinner parties and activities in advance so that the option of going out is less enticing. If you want to cut back on your expenses of “going out,” plan ahead to avoid it by inviting your friends over to do something that doesn’t cost money. Have a potluck dinner party and/or a game night and/or a movie night. Invite people and pencil it in on a night when you might otherwise go out and spend a bunch of money.

Thus, later on, when you’re considering what to do over the weekend, you’ve pre-loaded a frugal activity instead of an expensive one. Having friends over is about the least expensive way to have a social evening.

Buy cars based on fuel efficiency and reliability above all else. The decision to buy a car is a major one, and when people are shopping around, they often get bogged down in features that really have little to do with the bottom line, like the car’s color or whether it comes with Bluetooth audio and so on.

Rather than looking at those features, keep your eyes locked on reliability and fuel efficiency. You can figure out reliability by studying the car issues of Consumer Reports and examining the brand reliability data. You can figure out the fuel efficiency by comparing the fuel efficiency data for each car. Buying a reliable and fuel-efficient vehicle will save you money throughout the car’s lifespan because you’ll be going to the pump less often, you’ll be repairing it less often and you’ll get a longer lifespan out of it, all of which will save you money.

Make meals in advance and store them in the freezer. Whenever you’re preparing a meal that would freeze easily, like a pot of soup or a casserole, make some extras and put them in the freezer. Most soups store incredibly well, as do many casseroles, and quite a few of them are better the second time around (I think chili definitely is, for example).

By doing this, you are pre-loading future meal choices with an extremely low cost option. You’ve got a meal in the freezer that’s pretty much ready to go once thawed. That meal can often make it easy to just go home and eat instead of going out to eat somewhere, and it can also help you stretch out the time between visits to the grocery store.

Go to the library and check out several things that look interesting at once. Take a quick stop at your local library and check out a few books and a few DVDs/Blurays that you find interesting, even if it’s more than you think you can get through in the time that you can check them out.

That way, you actually have several options for free entertainment when you’re at home. In the mood for a rom-com movie? You have one. In the mood to read a thoughtful book? You have one of those, too. By preloading your entertainment options with a bunch of free choices you’re likely to love, you’re more likely to choose one of those free options and keep money in your pocket.

Get a short haircut. I keep my hair cut short for several reasons. The first, of course, is that I think it’s a reasonable look for me, but that reason is followed by several that are financially related. One, a short haircut is one I can do myself with clipper. Two, a short cut can tolerate a lot of growth before getting it cut again. Three, a short cut can require very little maintenance and care. All of those things reduce and spread out the costs of maintaining my hair.

In effect, the decision to cut it short is pre-loading a lot of your future hair decisions. It reduces the need for care and maintenance products, it spreads out the time until you need to cut it again, and it further opens the door to doing it yourself.

Commit to a volunteer schedule. Volunteerism is an incredibly powerful way to spend your time. It gives you a window to devote time and energy toward a cause you really believe in, filling that work with incredible meaning. It’s also a way to spend your leisure time at no cost whatsoever.

By agreeing to a schedule of volunteering with a charity, you’re pre-loading some of your free time with a commitment to something wonderful, but something that won’t cost you money either. You’ve committed to something that’s basically free, but something that will provide personal value to you, and that will take time away from other activities that might involve spending.

Cancel a service rather than putting off the decision. If you’re thinking about cutting cable or ending a gym membership or something like that, do it sooner rather than later. Do it now, in fact. It will save you money going forward. Better yet, it will pre-load your later decisions, as you can spend your time doing other things that don’t require a monthly fee or membership dues.

Over the last few years, we’ve cut our cable bill, we’ve canceled Sling, we cut our cellular plan and we ended a gym membership. Why? It wasn’t that they were bad services — they were all good. The truth is that we weren’t using those things enough to justify the price. By canceling them as soon as we realized that we weren’t using those services enough to justify the cost, we pre-loaded all such decisions regarding those services in the future. We didn’t have to hem and haw about whether to re-up our memberships or resubscribe or sign a new contract down the road. The decision was made, and then we could figure out later whether we had any needs that weren’t covered by what services we still had in place.

Delete your credit card numbers from online services. This one’s easy. Go to the e-commerce sites you use, log in and delete your credit card numbers from those sites.

This choice effectively pre-loads your decision about future purchases from those sites in the direction of being more careful with your expenses. Going forward, you’ll have to manually look up your credit card number and manually type it in to make a purchase, making it not worth bothering in many cases and giving you time to rethink the purchase in others.

Along those same lines…

Put your credit cards in a place that’s hard to physically access, or destroy them. If you’re struggling with credit card debt, consider putting your credit cards in a place that’s far out of arm’s reach or, even better, cutting them up entirely.

By putting your cards in a place that’s difficult to access, you’re effectively pre-loading your spending decisions against using credit cards. Often, that translates into not spending the money at all or using a better source for the money, like your checking account.

If you’re feeling frugal now, it’s often easy to make decisions and choices and take actions that will nudge you toward being more frugal later. In fact, it’s this type of consistent pre-loading of your decisions that helps to eventually build a much less expensive and much more financially sustainable standard of living.

Good luck!

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.