Stepping Back: Look at the Bigger Spending Picture

Even after all these years, I still enjoy reading (and still enjoy writing) frugality tip articles.

You’ve all seen them, either here on The Simple Dollar or elsewhere. They’re simply a list of tips on how to spend a little less money while still getting a quality result. Here’s a prime example.

The specific tips in such articles are often useful, but one drawback of many of the tips is that they’re incredibly specific and narrow. The tip describes one specific situation and one very specific way to handle it which will save money, but often won’t save that much money over the long haul.

For example, one tip you might see on a frugal strategies list is to buy store brand laundry detergent instead of Tide. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty good tip all on its own. Making that switch will save you somewhere around $0.10 per laundry load, depending on the specific store and the size of the packages you’re comparing. With no real change to your life at all, if you do three loads of laundry a week, you’re instantly saving about $16 per year. That’s pretty sweet.

However, as good as that tip is, it avoids the bigger spending question.

Let’s step back and look at it for a second. If you’re buying Tide and you’re realizing that buying store brand laundry detergent is going to save you $0.10 per load, or $16 over the course of a year, that’s pretty useful. However, aren’t there a lot of things that you buy in name brand form that you could be buying in store brand form? Pasta. Dishwashing detergent. Ketchup. Toilet paper. Garbage bags. Baby formula. Milk. Sunscreen. Canned vegetables and beans. Flour. Soda. Potato chips. Shampoo. Cereal. The list truly goes on and on and on.

A much better version of that frugal strategy, one that will save a lot more money, is to just buy the store brand version of everything and only switch back to the name brand if it doesn’t work for you. By default, buy the store brand version. There should only be a few exceptions to this rule depending on your specific needs, when you’ve found that a store brand version really doesn’t work.

That type of tip will save you hundreds of dollars per year, not just $16. It can be a real difference maker.

Another big advantage of stepping back on a frugal tip is that the specific tip might not necessarily fit your life, but when you step back, it might actually apply pretty well to your life.

For example, you might see a frugal tip like use mass transit to get to and from work to save on fuel, car depreciation, and parking. That’s a great tip, but it’s kind of useless unless you happen to live near mass transit.

So, step back. What is that tip actually saying? It’s saying “you can save money by figuring out a way to get to work without using your car.” Maybe you can carpool with someone. Maybe you can walk to work, or bicycle there. Maybe you can talk to your boss about telecommuting a day or two a week. It doesn’t have to be “use the subway or this tip is useless.”

The point is this: stepping back on a frugal tip not only makes that tip much more lucrative, it often makes more tips applicable to you than you might have thought.

Here are ten specific frugal tips I’ve shared in the past, along with examples of how to “step back” on those tips.

Frugal Tip #1: You can save money on printer ink by refilling your own cartridges and using a more eco-friendly font. Many retailers sell refill kits for ink cartridges where you basically use a needle to refill an ink cartridge. They’re quite easy to use and they can save a tremendous amount of money.

For example, here’s a kit that can refill a ton of HP ink cartridges for $14.95. Buying the equivalent number of cartridges would cost hundreds of dollars. I’ve used very similar kits with great success.

Another good strategy is to learn to print documents in a smart way using eco-friendly fonts that simply use less ink but are still quite legible. Using fonts like Courier or Century Gothic can save a large percentage of the ink one might use in printing an identical document with another font like Times New Roman. This allows you to refill black ink much less frequently than you otherwise would.

Stepping Back: Do you really need to print things? Do you really need a printer at all? If that tip appeals to you, ask the bigger question. Do you actually need to print documents at home? If you’re doing it very infrequently, maybe you could print them at a library or at a local print shop. If you just do photo prints, why not get prints at a local photo lab where they can often be found for $0.18 or $0.20, which is actually cheaper than you can print them for at home?

A home printer comes with a lot of costs. Paper. Ink. Energy. Eventually, device repair and replacement. Are you really getting enough value out of that printer to make it worthwhile? If not, use up the paper and ink you have, pull the plug, put it in a box, and move to printing documents at the library or the print shop and making photo prints at your local Walgreens or Target or photo store.

Frugal Tip #2: You can cut your cable bill by getting rid of premium channels you rarely watch or downgrading to a lower channel package. The average American household with a cable or satellite package spends over $100 a month on that service. Much of that money comes from things like super-sized bundles of channels and additional premium channel subscriptions.

Do you really need all of those, though? Spend some time considering what channels you actually watch with any frequency and cut down your cable or satellite package to just include those channels. Don’t worry about channels you rarely watch once every few weeks. Trim down to a package that includes only channels you watch frequently and you’ll save significant money each month.

Stepping Back: Do you really need cable or satellite at all in the era of Netflix? Rather than just worrying about the handful of channels on cable that you still watch sometimes, you should ask yourself the big question of whether or not you need those channels at all in the age of Netflix. What meaningful programming do you get on cable that isn’t replicated by Netflix and an over the air antenna that gets the major broadcast networks? If that batch of programming is very small, why even have cable at all? It’s a pretty expensive bill for two or three channels.

If you’re not sure about cutting that cord, give it a dry run. Watch just the major networks and any other streaming services you have for a month and see if that works for you. If it does, cut the cable. Buy an over the air digital antenna to pick up the major networks for free.

Frugal Tip #3: You can save on home internet by shopping around with various providers. While some areas are unfortunately monopolized by a single internet service providers, many areas (including my own block, which sits on the edge of a town in rural Iowa) offer several competing service providers. Take advantage of that competition and shop around a little.

Start by asking your neighbors and friends in the area what service provider they use and whether it works for them. Investigate the ones that have good feedback from your social circle and see if any offer lower rates than your current provider. If you find one, contact your current provider and see if they’ll match; if not, switch. In either case, your bill will be lower for the same service. The worst outcome is that your bill stays the same, so that’s a pretty good strategy.

Stepping Back: Do you need home internet if you have a solid data plan through your cellular provider? Many people not only have a home internet service, they also have a data plan through their cellular provider that offers far more data than they actually use. Why not just have one or the other?

The best approach, if you have a strong cellular signal at home, is to simply use that cellular data plan as your home internet service. Use your phone as a wi-fi hotspot and just connect to that for your internet needs. Note that this probably won’t work if you’re a very heavy internet user, but for most people, it works just fine for things like email, social media, web browsing, online shopping, and small amounts of streaming video.

Frugal Tip #4: Save money on your auto insurance policy by taking advantage of safe driver discounts; just contact your insurance provider. Many auto insurance companies offer safe driver discounts, where your rates are lowered if the people on your plan are never in an accident. Some providers offer other discounts, like discounts for younger drivers with good grades.

The trick is that to get these discounts, you often have to contact your insurance company, so spend some time checking your insurance company’s website for discounts that you might be eligible for and then give them a ring. You might end up seeing a nice reduction in your auto insurance rates.

Stepping Back: Can you shop around for better prices on auto insurance or bundle all of your policies for a discount? Rather than just considering a few discounts on your auto insurance, consider the bigger picture of your insurance. It’s worthwhile to occasionally shop around for auto insurance for less expensive rates. It’s also worthwhile to shop around for your other types of insurance at the same time, such as homeowners insurance, and bundle them together because that can create additional savings.

It’s also worth considering whether or not you might want to downgrade your coverage on your auto insurance by having a higher deductible or getting just collision coverage. Also, are there any cars that you may want to uninsure entirely because you’re not using them any more? It might be time to just sell a car and dump the insurance and

Making several of those changes at once can end up saving you a ton on your overall insurance costs each insurance billing cycle.

Frugal Tip #5: Use your own soda maker at home to save money on soda. If you buy large bottles of flavorings, a home carbonation system can actually save quite a bit of money if you like soda, plus if you have a backup CO2 cartridge in hand, you’ll always have soda available.

If you’re part of a family of soda lovers and everyone in your family of four drinks a single 16 ounce soda daily, a home carbonation system typically breaks even after about three months (depending on the system, that’s an estimate based on a SodaStream system with syrups purchased in bulk) and saves money thereafter.

Stepping Back: Could you kick your soda habit entirely by either drinking tap water or carbonated water you make at home? If you’re drinking a lot of soda, it may be worthwhile to consider just dumping the soda habit entirely. Not only does that mean that your beverage costs will go down drastically, it’s also going to be far better for your health over the long run.

Rather than buying a carbonator to save money on soda, try saving money on soda by cutting back on soda intake or, better yet, going cold turkey. This is a great thirty day challenge – just go without soda for a month to see how it goes. Trust me – the first week is the hard part, then it’s smooth sailing after that.

Frugal Tip #6: Order water when you eat out to reduce your bill. One of the biggest expenses on a typical restaurant bill is the beverages. Whether you’re drinking soda or tea or enjoying an alcoholic beverage, the price for that beverage is quite high and if you’re sitting at a table with several people, it can add up to a lot of money very quickly.

You can very easily cut back on that amount by simply ordering water with your meal. Water hydrates you and keeps your mouth wet while also clearing the palate so you can enjoy your food even more. It’s also far, far less expensive – it’s usually free.

Stepping Back: Why eat out at all? Why not save it for genuinely special occasions? The entire experience of eating out is an expensive proposition, and if you make it routine, it loses that certain something that makes it special. Make eating out less of a routine and more of a special occasion. Replace those meals with meals you prepare yourself at home.

This achieves two things simultaneously. First, it immediately reduces the cost of many of your meals because eating at home saves money. Second, by preparing meals at home more often, you become more adept at it and it begins to seem much easier to just eat at home. One of the big benefits of making myself cook at home a lot when I was first turning my financial life around was that I got really good at it.

Frugal Tip #7: Make a list before going to the grocery store. The simple act of preparing a grocery list before you go to the store means that you have something to focus on rather than the abundance of items on the shelves. If you go through the store without anything to focus on other than what’s on sale, you’re likely to drop all kinds of items into your cart that you didn’t intend to buy.

This doesn’t take as much time as you think, either. With a list to focus on, it’s much easier to just blitz through your shopping and get to the checkout in record time. Again, the less time you actually spend in the store, the less likely you are to buy things you don’t need.

Stepping Back: Why not plan meals based around inexpensive staples and things that are on sale? Why not make a meal plan before making that list? Why not plan out some make-ahead meals you can save in the freezer to further reduce food costs? Are you shopping at a discount grocer? A grocery list is just one piece in the larger puzzle of meal planning. If you sit down and actually consider what meals you’re going to make for the week ahead, particularly if you do it with a grocery store flyer nearby so that you can incorporate on-sale items, you’re going to not just have a list to shop by, but a sensible list.

Furthermore, if you consider the possibility of making meals in advance and saving them in the freezer for a later date, you can stretch this out even further, as you’ll have extra meals on hand at your convenience. You should also consider where you’re shopping for groceries – a discount grocer is the way to go to keep money in your pocket.

Step back and look at your whole meal planning practice and you might just find some things you can do better.

Frugal Tip #8: Install a programmable thermostat. If you leave your home empty during the day when you go to work, it’s very likely that a programmable thermostat can save you real money. Set it to allow your furnace (in the winter) or air conditioning (in the summer) to turn off during the day and only run in the hour or so before you get home and you save a ton of energy keeping your home at an ideal temperature during the day when it’s empty.

You can actually do the same thing at night, programming it to leave the furnace and air conditioner off during the nighttime hours unless the temperature goes in an extreme direction. This saves you the cost of having your AC or furnace working while you’re asleep.

Stepping Back: Why not be more aggressive with your thermostat use by keeping the temperature lower in the winter and higher in the summer? If you’re already considering changes to the temperature at which you keep your home, try experimenting with the temperatures all the time, including when you’re there. Try letting the temperature be a little lower in the winter months and a little higher in the summer months and let your body slowly acclimate to the change.

Those shifts will bring about pretty heavy improvements in your home energy bill. You’ll find that your air conditioner and furnace run significantly less often if you change temperatures even by just a degree or two.

Frugal Tip #9: Brown bag your lunch by taking a meal from home to work instead of eating out. If you want to save on your food spending, bring a brown bag lunch to work and eat that for lunch instead of eating out or getting delivery or something from a food cart.

It’s not hard to do this, especially if you make it part of your routine by prepping a meal the night before so that it’s ready to grab first thing in the morning as you’re hurrying to get out the door.

Stepping Back: Why not structure your meal plan to provide convenient leftovers for brown bagging each day? Step back and make brown bagging part of your overall meal planning. Not only could you plan for the ingredients for your brown bag meals for the week when you do your regular meal planning, you can take it even further and plan your meals so that they’re convenient for brown bagging leftovers.

For example, if you plan ahead when you make soup, you can easily make a little more and take a container of it to work with you. The same is true for most casseroles, stir fries, curries, and so on. Make this type of thinking into your new routine and you’ll find yourself saving a ton along the way.

Frugal Tip #10: Buy a slow cooker to make meals in advance. We live and die by our slow cooker. We have a meal cooking in there on many weeknights and often on the weekends, too. Without the slow cooker, actually having family meals at home would be really difficult and we’d probably eat out or order pizza far more often than we do.

A slow cooker enables us to put a bunch of ingredients in there in the morning, hit a button or two, and then there’s a hot home-cooked meal waiting for us when we get home, so we can go from walking in the door to eating dinner together in five minutes. That’s convenience, and it enables us to eat many more low cost meals at home.

Stepping Back: What else can you use a slow cooker for to save money? If you have a slow cooker, what else can you do with it besides prep dinner? It turns out there are a lot of things you can do with it.

I like using it to make stock. I’ll save vegetable scraps in a bag in the freezer and then, when I have a gallon or so of them, I’ll fill up the slow cooker with them, add enough water to cover all of the vegetables, add some peppercorns and salt and a few herbs and spices, and let it cook on low all day. I strain it after twelve hours or so and save the liquid. It’s amazing vegetable stock, perfect for soups and stews and casseroles and even surprising things like making really flavorful dough. This saves me from buying stock at the store, which means it saves quite a bit of money.

I also like using it to prepare dry beans. I just put a few cups of dry beans in the slow cooker, add a bunch of water, and let it cook on low all day until the beans are done. I strain off the liquid and put the beans in a big container in the fridge. Then, throughout the week, I can use those beans in recipes – red beans and rice, chili, burritos, all kinds of things.

I use it to make steel cut oatmeal for breakfast. I’ve used it to make yogurt. I’ve used it to make applesauce. I’ve used it to make baked potatoes.

The point? When you have a device in your home, consider all of the ways you can use it and you’ll probably end up getting far more value out of it.

Final Thoughts

Whenever you see or hear a great new frugality strategy, don’t just ask yourself whether it’s immediately useful. Stop for a moment, step back, and consider the bigger picture. If this tip saves money in a small way in this area of my life, maybe there’s a way to turn it into a big win instead.

You won’t hit pay dirt on every tip, but you’ll find that the bigger wins pop up often enough that it’s worth stopping for a moment to step back. There’s no drawback, either – even if there isn’t a bigger picture to be found, well, at least you have the smaller tip. In either case, you’re saving money.

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.