Simple Preparation, Big Savings: 14 Ways to Spend a Bit of Time and Money Now to Save More Money and Time Later

On the back page of my pocket notebook for the last several months, I’ve been jotting down the little things that I’ve noticed or done in my life to save a few dollars here or a few minutes there without any real effort or change.

These little strategies don’t seem like too much on their own, but like all useful little life hacks, they end up adding up to a better life. A few dollars here, a few minutes there, and suddenly life feels more manageable than before.

Here are 14 of my favorite strategies from the back page of my pocket notebook.

Plant a Free-Range Herb Patch

This is about as easy as possible. There are several different herbs that grow almost without effort: basil, oregano, chives, mint, parsley, and thyme basically take almost no work at all.

All you have to do is get a packet of seeds and sprinkle them on the ground somewhere convenient for you in the early spring. We have a small patch by the steps of our back deck that we use for our “chive patch,” for example. Work them in just a little bit with a fork or something, just so that they’re below the surface of the soil.

There’s no need to do anything else. In a few months, some of those herbs will emerge and be ready for cutting. You don’t need very much to make this worthwhile and, with those hardy herbs, you’ll end up with a large bounty of herbs. Most of those herbs are perennials, too, which means they’ll come back in the same spot year after year. We’ve been enjoying free, fresh chives from the same spot for almost a decade with zero additional effort.

Buy Stationery on Sale and Pre-Address and Pre-Stamp Them

Whenever I see a discounted batch of blank stationery, I’ll always pick up a pack. I like to choose items with very simple and tasteful covers that work for a wide variety of purposes.

Then, when I’m sitting around in the evening, I’ll go ahead and put stamps on the envelopes of about 80% of the cards. I’ll also go ahead and put a return address on those envelopes with stamps, and I’ll stick the envelope inside of the card so I can see the cover.

That way, whenever there’s a reason to send someone a card – sympathy, thanks, congratulations, whatever – I can just pull out a blank card, write a quick thoughtful note, drop it in the envelope, write their address on the front, and drop it in the mail. No paying full price for greeting cards. No hunting for the “perfect” one at the store. No hunting for a stamp. Everything I need is right there in the stationery box.

Take Your Spare Change to the Grocery Store

I keep my change in a jar on my bedside table. Whenever I empty my pockets and find change, I just toss it in there.

Then, the next time I go to the grocery store, I’ll grab a cloth bag and dump whatever change I have in that bag – usually $5 or $10 worth.

When I’m there, I use the self-checkout (which I do anyway), and when I go to pay, I’ll dump the change that I collected into the self-checkout machine. I’ve done this at several stores with a self-checkout and they’ve all taken all of the change I’ve dropped without charging a fee of any kind. Then, I pay for the remainder of the bill with my usual method.

Not only does this provide an easy way to use my change without any additional fees, it also ensures that I’m using it on something smart.

Sort Online Reviews by ‘Newest First’

When you’re about to buy a new item that you intend to use for a while, you should rely on more than just customer reviews from an online retailer. More homework is in order – try looking at reviews from publications focused on that kind of item, for example

However, there is one incredibly valuable aspect of online reviews. They can quickly tell you if there’s been a change in build quality recently for an item that you’re interested in. For example, if a manufacturer has changed to a new facility in a different country and the items aren’t quite up to their previous quality, online reviews can let you know about this far faster than other publications.

So, how do you find this information? Go to an online store like Amazon that has a lot of reviews for the item and sort those reviews by “newest first.” Read those reviews, covering the last year or so. Are there any indications that the item isn’t made like it used to be made in the past? If so, that’s a great sign to avoid that item.

Avoiding a cheaply made new version of a previously well-regarded item will save you time and money over the long run.

Keep a Ready-to-Go Emergency Kit in Your Closet

Sometimes, emergencies happen in life. A family member dies. A friend needs you. A work trip suddenly becomes vital.

Whatever the reason, you have to leave – and soon. You’re probably in an emotionally fraught state, too. The result? As you’re packing your bag, you’re going to forget some things and forgetting those things is going to cost you time and money later on in the trip.

Instead, just take a bag, pack it with toiletries, clothes, medications and other materials for several days of travel. Include both nice and casual clothes in the bag.

That way, if an emergency strikes, all you have to do is grab that bag and go. You don’t have to worry about making sure you have the right stuff. You also don’t have to worry about the time or expense of having to find or buy things once you arrive at your destination. It’s all right there in your bag.

How should you pack it? Just pack everything as you would for a five-day trip that will require you to dress in at least business casual attire for some of the trip. That includes clothes, toiletries, medicines, cables, and so forth.

Disable Useless Animations on Your Phone

One of the biggest unnecessary drains on your phone’s battery comes from the useless animations that appear all the time during use. Things like background animations, the sensation of movement on the screen when you’re moving the device, and so on – it all eats battery life. The more battery life that’s eaten, the more likely you are to end up with a dead phone when you need it and the more you’re going to spend charging it.

If you have an iOS phone, you can turn off the most egregious animations by going to Settings, then to General, then to Accessibility, then look for the Reduce Motion option and turn it on.

For Android, go to Settings, then General, then About Device, then tap “Build Number” seven times. This will turn on developer options. Press back once, then go to the Developer Options menu. Turn off Window Animation, Transition Animation, and Animation Duration by setting those scales to zero.

These simple changes will help conserve the battery life of your phone by getting rid of animations that do nothing whatsoever but gobble battery life. This will help extend your battery life a little, reducing the chances of an inopportune dead phone and save a little bit on the energy cost of recharging the phone.

Keep Instructions with Your Jumper Cable and Your Spare Tire

If you ever find yourself with a dead battery (because you forgot to turn off an interior light or something) or with a flat tire, you know that you’re probably in for a long wait or an expense.

However, fixing stuff like this is actually pretty easy, and if you have a set of jumper cables in your trunk and the usual items that come with a car, you have all the gear you need to make these fixes yourself and save a lot of money and time.

If your car has an instruction manual with very clear and detailed instructions for jump starting a car or putting on a spare tire, then you don’t need this tip. However, many cars – especially older ones – are missing the manual and some have very unclear instructions for this step.

The best strategy is to just print off very clear instructions for changing a tire on your car as well as instructions for jump-starting your car. Find them online, print them off, and keep a copy in a Ziploc bag in your trunk near where you keep your spare tire and jumper cable. That way, you’re ready for whatever may come.

Keep a Small Power Strip in Your Travel Bag

The ability to charge up all of your devices in an airport or at a coffee shop can be really useful. Of course, the problem is that wherever there’s an outlet, there’s usually someone already plugged in there.

The solution is to have a power strip. Just pull it out and ask if you can plug in there as well, moving their plugin onto your power strip and allowing you to charge your devices as needed. This also enables even more people to jump in and charge their devices off of a single outlet as needed.

Not only has this enabled me to keep my cell phone, my Kindle, and my laptop simultaneously charged while in an airport or a coffee shop, it’s also saved me a few cents while out and about. It’s also helped me connect with people who are on my flight while at the airport.

If You Have Children, Buy Good Age-Appropriate Gifts on Sale and Keep Them in the Closet

I have three elementary school aged children. That means that practically every weekend one or another of them is invited to a child’s birthday party, or there’s a gift exchange at school, or some other event necessitating a small gift pops up.

Rather than heading out to the store to find some item at MSRP every single time that one of these events comes up, we just buy several age appropriate items when they’re on sale, as well as plain gift bags when they’re on sale. Then, when there’s a party coming up, we let our children choose from among the items we have for a gift for that event, pop it in one of the discounted gift bags, and they’re ready to go.

This saves us money by guaranteeing that our child’s party gifts are purchased at a sale price (along with the gift bag or wrapping paper), but it also keeps us from making redundant trips to the store, where we’re paying full price for the gift (and likely the wrapping) and usually winding up with unnecessary extra stuff, too.

Put Silica Packets in Your Junk Drawers and Toolboxes

Here’s the reality: Tools sometimes rust. Sure, they might say “stainless steel” on the package, but they still sometimes end up with a layer of rust that ends up corroding tools and making them less effective.

One solution to this problem is to make sure that your toolboxes and “junk drawers” are as dry as possible, and the trick to making that happen comes for free in many items that you buy. Those little silica packets that come in all kinds of different items are there to keep things dry, so simply take silica packets that you would otherwise dispose of and put them in a junk drawer or in your toolbox.

These little packets will help keep the humidity in those areas very low, which will inhibit rust growth.

In fact, you might also want to keep a packet or two off to the side in your refrigerator, reducing the moisture level in there and helping to inhibit (at least a little bit) bacteria and mold growth in the fridge. Since it’s basically effortless and costless to do this, there’s no reason not to give it a shot!

When Your Children Are Bored, Take Them to the Library or the Park

On lazy weekend days, you’ll often find that children complain of being “bored.” Even the most imaginative child can run out of things to do and when that happens, it can be really frustrating for a parent. The easy solution is to start grabbing things around the house for them to use or play with or make art projects from, but even those things have costs associated with them.

Our favorite strategy for these situations is to give the children a choice: We’re either going to a park or to the library. Within those two choices, there are a lot of options, too. There are multiple libraries fairly close to our home, as well as several different parks with a variety of things to do within a reasonable radius.

Sometimes, they want to go to the library and find a new book. At other times, they might want to go to a playground. At yet other times, they might want to go to a special event at the library. Sometimes, maybe they’ll want to geocache at the park. Maybe they’ll want to find a movie at the library, or maybe they’ll want to go on a hike at the park.

All of those things are basically free. They’re a great way to spend time as a family. They can also easily eat up a whole afternoon that doesn’t involve paying admission somewhere or blowing through a ton of art supplies at home or making a complete mess of the house.

You can prepare for this by getting to know the services available at the libraries and parks and recreation services near your home. Do they have children’s activities? What trails do they have available? Do they have a lot of geocaches to find? Do they have movies that you can check out? Do they host movie nights? Do your homework so that you’re prepared for a great free solution to a child’s “bored” afternoon.

When Buying a Used Car, Take It to Your Preferred Mechanic and Ask for a Pre-Purchase Inspection

I recommend that virtually everyone spend their car-buying money on late model used cars. Provided that the cars are in good shape, late model used cars are almost always the best “bang for the buck” in car purchasing in terms of the reliable miles you can get out of the car for the dollar you pay.

Still, whenever you buy a used car, there may be unexpected problems waiting under the hood. The best way to find out about those things is to go to the mechanic you trust the most with this car and ask for a “pre-purchase inspection.” This won’t cost you very much – some mechanics will even do it for free – and they’ll usually find any significant upcoming problems pretty quickly.

This very strategy kept me from buying a truck many years ago. The truck looked beautiful and seemed to run like a dream, but the mechanic pointed out upcoming brake issues and transmission issues and advised me not to buy. Instead, I wound up buying a different vehicle that lasted for several years.

The time and small expense spent on taking your car to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection can add up to a lot less heartache, headache, and expense later on.

Put a Sticker on the Back of Your Debit Card with a Fake PIN on It

This is one of my favorite protections against theft of your debit card. Just put a little sticker on the back with a random 4 digit number on it that’s not your PIN.

That way, if someone steals your card, they’ll see that sticker on the back and head off to an ATM. They’ll try to use your PIN a few times, it won’t work, and after the third failure, the ATM will eat your card, not giving it back to the thief.

Sure, this won’t work every time, or even the majority of times. However, given the simplicity of the trick, if it even works 10% of the time it’s worth the effort.

Just look for a little sticker that you can affix to the back of your card and write four numbers on it – maybe the four numbers on the next license plate you see. Just make sure it’s not anywhere close to your PIN.

That way, there’s a chance that the thief may just feed your debit card to an ATM and watch as the machine safely eats your card, keeping it away from the thief.

Make a Fake Email Address for Rewards Programs

Many stores offer customer rewards programs, which are great for earning points for your purchases or getting discounts. They’re never enough to get me to change my buying habits, but they can add up to some significant perks over time.

The catch is that such programs always want your email address, and with that comes a bunch of junk mail that I don’t want. My solution was to start a new email address just for signing up for such customer rewards programs. I use that email just for signing up for such programs.

That way, I can use that address (or my phone number) to look up my account when shopping there. I can also search that email address for special discounts whenever I know I’m going to a place for which I already have a rewards card, just to see if they’ve sent out any discounts. I also check it on my birthday because many businesses send out freebies on your birthday (of course, to get those rewards, you have to complete the full sign-up process for many rewards programs).

Final Thoughts

Many money-saving and time-saving strategies are simple things that you can do up front on a lazy weekend afternoon without much stress at all. Those little steps ripple throughout your life, turning a simple positive move one day into something that saves real time and money at a later date.

The more time you spend throwing little pebbles into the lake of your life, the more waves you’ll find springing up later on.

Take advantage of these opportunities now. Most of these things only take a minute or two and many can be done while you sit there at your computer, yet the benefits will be tremendous when the time comes.

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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