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The Frugal Improvement: 15 Money-Saving Tactics I Ended Up Liking Better, Regardless of Dollars and Cents
One of the biggest reasons that I still like trying frugal tactics after many years of living a fairly frugal lifestyle is that finding a true “frugal improvement” still feels like a really big win to me.
So, what’s a “frugal improvement”? Frugal improvement is my term for any tactic I use that was originally implemented to save money but wound up being a noticeable improvement for non-money reasons. For example, let’s say I used to do something that cost $30 a month and I figured out how to trim it to $15 a month and I wound up being happier with the new way regardless of the money, such that if price weren’t a factor, I’d still choose the new way.
Here are 15 such “frugal improvements” I’ve brought into my life since our financial turnaround. Each of these has saved us significant money, but even if it were not for the money, I would not undo these changes because they’re strictly better than the more expensive option for non-financial reasons.
Switching to LED light bulbs
LED bulbs have hit a quality level such that they work well for pretty much every home use. I generally cannot tell the difference other than the slight pause that occurs right after hitting a light switch as an LED turns on – incandescents are instantaneous.
LEDs save money over incandescents due to their reduced energy use and long lifespan. A 60 watt incandescent bulb lasts about 1,000 hours. A 13 watt LED bulb has similar light output and lasts about 25,000 hours. If you assume that energy costs $0.12 per kilowatt hour, over the course of 25,000 hours, that single LED bulb consumes $39 in energy, whereas the 25 incandescent bulbs would consume $180 in energy. Even if an LED cost $100 you’d still save money on just energy consumption alone.
However, the big reason I’d stick with LEDs is time and convenience. Incandescent bulbs seem to burn out constantly – with a lifespan of only 1,000 hours, an incandescent bulb in a heavy use room burns out every few months. That means finding a new bulb, swapping them out, and disposing of the old one, and doing it every few months for years and years – a task that vanishes entirely if you use a LED bulb. This is even worse if the bulb is inconvenient at all to reach. Given this inconvenience, I’d stick with LEDs even if they didn’t save money on energy use at this point.
Making bulk meals in advance
Making a bunch of meals in advance and freezing the extras saves money because you can buy the ingredients in bulk and use them before they go bad. Tomatoes are on sale? Time to make lasagna with fresh tomatoes… and you can make a lot of lasagna with fresh tomatoes at that discounted tomato cost. That makes each pan of lasagna cheaper than it otherwise would be.
The real advantage, however, is that making a bunch of meals in advance and freezing them gives you the ability to quickly get a homemade meal on the table on inconvenient evenings. If I know that Thursday night is going to be really tight in terms of our family’s schedule, I can pull out a frozen lasagna on Tuesday and let it thaw for two days. Then, on Thursday, all I have to do is bake it for an hour – straight from the fridge into the oven, with no extra prep time. This reduces the meal prep time on that busy evening to virtually nothing – it’s actually easier than going to a restaurant at that point, with less time investment.
Make ahead meals are definitely a money saver compared to going out to eat, but it’s the time savings that makes it a real winner for us. I’d make meals in advance even if they didn’t save money.
Eating oatmeal for breakfast most mornings
When I was younger, I didn’t really like oatmeal much at all, and it turns out that the big reason for that is that I didn’t like the preprocessed “flavors” of instant oatmeal. They always tasted kind of off to me and thus I was unable to really appreciate oatmeal.
Fast forward to today and I eat oatmeal for breakfast most mornings. Sometimes I’ll just microwave a bowl for myself. Other times, I’ll make a batch of steel cut oats in the slow cooker for the whole family to eat for breakfast.
What changed? I figured out that the secret is flavoring it myself. “Fake maple” flavor is terrible – a few drops of real maple syrup is incredible. “Freeze dried” fruit bits are terrible – a bit of chopped-up banana is amazing. You can make your own things, too – I will often make a “savory” oatmeal with things like scrambled eggs and hot sauce instead of sweetener.
Oatmeal is now one of my favorite things to eat, period, and particularly for breakfast. It’s incredibly inexpensive, but it’s also healthy and tasty and has a lot of variety because it’s something of a food “blank slate.” I’m so glad that my frugal sensibilities convinced me to give it another chance.
Intentionally going back through my media collections (and Netflix series)
Over the last several months, I’ve slowly been re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in the late evenings while folding laundry. My oldest son and my wife have been slowly re-watching The Flash together.
One of my summer projects has been to pull out all of my old Pearl Jam CDs, accumulated since my high school days, and digitize and listen to all of them. This includes a lot of live concert CDs. I found myself listening to each album several times as I did this.
All of these things were part of media collections that have been around our house for a long while or part of an online subscription service that we use for other reasons. This slow practice of going back through those media collections have brought forth a new appreciation and a new joy for those things.
The thing is, this process has actually saved us some money on media expenses. We haven’t gone to the theater in months. We haven’t bought any new music in months and actually turned off our Spotify account. We finally “cut the cord” for our satellite not too long ago as well. Our media collection and our Netflix subscription sustains us because we’re recognizing how much great older content we have sitting around already.
Going on lots of hikes and walks
I used to view walking and hiking as a rather dull activity, but in the aftermath of our financial turnaround, my wife and I started taking lots of walks around our town, pushing our baby in a stroller. Soon after that, when he became a toddler, we started going to parks and hiking on trails.
For some reason, I found those things really peaceful. It was an opportunity to step out of the hubbub of life, get my body moving a little, and appreciate the natural world and the community around me.
Today, walking and hiking is a major part of my life. I go on a walk to clear my mind at least once or twice a day, and once a week I’ll go somewhere and go on a hike or a nature walk, spending a few hours in the woods with no distractions at all, just soaking it all in.
It started as something to fill the hours that didn’t cost anything. It turned into something that’s a big part of my life, refilling me in ways that many expensive hobbies simply failed to do.
Making an attempt to fix minor home repair issues myself before calling a repairman
After moving from an apartment to our current home, I was somewhat afraid to try to repair things myself. I used to just call the landlord for fixes, so the idea of doing something like fixing a leaky toilet or replacing a faucet or replacing a light fixture seemed really intimidating.
Of course, that meant that I would have to call in a repairperson to fix minor home issues – and that’s expensive. They charge by the hour and charge expensive rates for the items they use as well.
So… I tried to do it myself. I started with something simple – repairing a downstairs toilet that was constantly running at a very slow rate, which doesn’t seem like a big deal except for the constant noise and the constant water usage which amped up our water bill.
I watched YouTube videos, I assembled the tools and a couple of parts, I turned off the water… and lo and behold, I fixed it. It took me about half an hour, but that honestly is how much time I probably would have invested finding and contacting a plumber and paying them for the work.
This built some confidence, and then further successes built more confidence. This summer, Sarah and I have done a ton of little projects – replacing light fixtures, hanging doors, replacing faucets, dealing with a problematic pump, and so on.
Yes, sometimes I mess up my own attempted repair, but I can often recover from that, and when I can’t, I know how to turn off the water and the power so that nothing truly bad happens and I can always call a repairperson.
Even if it wasn’t for the money saving factor, I’d still try to do minor things myself. Why? It enables me to do them on my own time, and it makes me feel confident about doing gradually bigger and bigger projects around the house.
Using a cheap pump bottle for shampoo and conditioner in the shower
In the old days, if I had a bottle of shampoo that I bought at the store, I’d stick it in the shower. Then, when I needed to shampoo my hair during a shower, I’d grab the bottle, flip it over, squirt some arbitrary amount on my hand, put it back on the shelf, and wash my hair.
It turns out that this is actually an expensive way of doing things, mostly because of that “arbitrary amount” of shampoo. I’d almost always end up getting way too much, far more than was necessary.
I tried various ways of cutting down on the amount that I used, but they were more trouble than they were worth. Until, that is, I tried using a pump bottle.
The new process goes like this. When I need new shampoo, I buy a new bottle at the store. I get home and instead of just sticking it in the shower, I go in there, open up the shampoo pump bottle, and then turn the new shampoo bottle upside down, letting it run into my pump bottle. I let it sit like that, with the new shampoo bottle inverted and slowly pouring into my pump bottle. The next time I take a shower, it’s all poured out, so I screw the pump back onto the pump bottle and discard the emptied-out shampoo container from the store. Then, when I want to shampoo, I simply take a single pump from the bottle (it’s all I need for my perpetually short hair) and scrub down with it.
It takes just a little bit longer to “replace” a bottle, but it saves just a little bit of time when I’m actually in the shower, as getting a single pump on my hand is easier than grabbing the bottle and flipping it over. Given that this is a lot of pumps, it ends up being a time saver.
It’s also a money saver, because one pump of shampoo is a lot less than I can get straight out of the shampoo bottle from the store.
Still, even if it wasn’t for the money issue, I’d continue to do this because it makes morning showers more efficient, and since I’m often showering in the narrow window after my wife showers and before the kids are starting to get ready for school, a shorter shower is usually a good thing.
Using a slow cooker for a lot of meals
Our original driving reason to cook more meals at home was to save money. We fully believed that it was very time inefficient to make anything other than convenience foods at home, but that it was clearly a money saver to do so. We viewed this as an exchange of time for money – spend some time cooking supper at home and you save money compared to a restaurant. Easy enough, right?
Well, over time, we began to realize that the time thing isn’t entirely true. Going to a restaurant is a time commitment, even if it’s just a fast food drive thru. You are investing some amount of time there if you’re doing it. Similarly, cooking meals at home can often be really quick – I’ve made some stunningly fast pasta meals and other things at home.
The real game changer in this equation, though, was the realization that shifting the time for the meal preparation made a huge difference. As I noted earlier when talking about make ahead meals, by simply moving the work to another part of the day or the week or the month or the year, away from the super-busy evenings into the less pressured mornings and weekends, you end up really making cooking at home pretty convenient. Most of the time, on the really busy evenings, it’s far easier just to eat at home than to eat out if most of the prep work is done.
That’s where a slow cooker comes in. It moves the prep work from the busy evening to the less-busy morning (and even a bit into the night beforehand). I can just toss ingredients into the slow cooker in the morning, turn it on low, and supper is ready to go in the evening. I can even do some of the prep right before bed the night before – things like chopping up vegetables work well when I’m doing mindless chores just before bed.
Having a slow cooker meal ready to go whenever we need it makes evening planning on busy nights much easier, even easier than grabbing takeout or delivery. You just go home and serve it straight from the slow cooker whenever you want. That’s it. Throw everything in the sink and deal with it later.
This saves a ton of money over restaurant foods, but even better, it makes our evenings easier. Because of that, I’d still make slow cooker meals even if it didn’t save us money because of how the slow cooker smooths out difficult evenings for us.
Playing previous generation video and computer games
Rather than constantly buying new release video games and computer games, we wait around for four or five years and buy previous console generations and games for those consoles and buy top computer titles from a few years back instead of the latest ones. While video games aren’t a big part of my life, I do enjoy playing them on a rainy day or taking a turn in a big strategy game late at night every once in a while.
Doing this serves a bunch of purposes at once. For starters, it’s way cheaper than buying new releases. Games cost us more like $5 than $50. It’s the other reasons, though, that are real interesting.
Second, games that are mature have all of the bugs worked out of them. New releases often have problems and crash sometimes; those kinks are almost always gone a few years later.
Third, the games that are still respected and talked about several years later are almost universally great experiences. Mediocre games released with a bunch of hype are almost entirely forgotten three or four years later; great games are still around and they’re still great experiences.
Fourth, the system requirements for computer games that are a few years old are really easy to meet. I don’t need to keep upgrading computers to play games.
Finally, it’s really easy to find good strategic advice online if I want to find it when a game is mature. When a game is new, the info can be really shoddy and misleading; as a game matures, the information gets much better.
At this point, I don’t really even want to play new releases. Let the early adopters figure out what’s great and what isn’t. Let the kinks get worked out. Let the software age so I don’t need burning-edge hardware to play it. And, of course, let the price drop through the floor.
Shopping for many things at a thrift store or secondhand store first
When I need new clothes, I shop at secondhand stores and consignment shops first. When I need a minor kitchen appliance, I do the same. There are just lots of little things that I look for first at secondhand stores.
You might think that this is purely a money-saving tactic, but it’s not, particularly for the clothes. The biggest reason I do this is that I often find unusual stuff that I would have never found looking at a website or looking through the racks at stores I typically shop at. I actually get interesting things there.
Yes, you have to leaf through a bunch of crap to find it, and some secondhand stores are way better than others (shop at secondhand stores on the outskirts of expensive neighborhoods and you’ll find great stuff, for example). Having said that, two of my favorite shirts that I own came from secondhand stores where I dug through the racks for a while until I found something really interesting and nice. My single favorite sweater I own came from a secondhand store.
When I’m there, I usually look for other things, too. Our rice cooker came from there and it’s actually a better rice cooker than I would have bought for myself brand new.
You have to dig, but secondhand stores have treasures hidden away, and although money is certainly a motivation, there are many other reasons to shop there.
Buying a late model used car, then driving it until repairs become a problem
Growing up – and well into my twenties – my car-buying philosophy was to buy the nicest car you could afford and then swap it every few years before it “lost trade in value.” You should avoid driving an old car if you could possibly afford to do so.
The thing is, I would have never challenged that approach if it were not for my financial breakdown. This forced me to change my pattern, causing me to stick with my red truck for several more years than I intended. I then sold it for cash and bought an older SUV with cash.
What changed my perspective? I began to realize that the most important thing I got out of a car was reliability. If I couldn’t go out to the driveway and rely on that car to start, what’s the point? Cars exist, in the end, to convey people and things from point A to point B.
Does this car reliably get me to where I need to go? If yes, I’ll keep it. If no, it’s time to move on and get a car that will get me reliably to where I need to go for several years.
That’s the primary motivation behind our car purchasing strategy. I want to achieve that strategy with the lowest total cost possible, and the way to do that seems to be to buy late model used cars – the kind of cars that are recently coming off of leases or are cars put aside by habitual upgraders – and then drive them until they no longer seem reliable, then trade that in (or sell it) for a late model used replacement.
This is the strategy I would follow even if car prices didn’t matter. I would follow the strategy that kept a reliable car in the driveway and just do whatever version of that strategy made cars cost the least for me.
Sticking tightly to maintenance schedules
The obvious reason to follow a maintenance schedule for your expensive items (your car, your furnace, your big appliances, and so on) is that the cost of replacing a big item is pretty high and if, by following the maintenance schedule, you can postpone that expense, you’re saving money. That’s absolutely true.
However, the counterargument against that is that following a maintenance schedule takes time, which is why many people skimp on it and do the bare minimum.
I’ve found the opposite to be true. Every moment spent on preventive maintenance on anything – your car, your home, your appliances, yourself – isn’t a moment “wasted.” It’s a moment that’s more than made up for by delaying the experience of having to make a major purchase.
If proper car maintenance keeps my car running fine for longer and keeps it out of the repair shop for an extra couple of years, I’ve drastically reduced the amount of time dealing with repairs over the course of my life and also reduced the amount of time I’m shopping for a new car. I’m also reducing the time spent having to deal with the consequences of a car breakdown and of a major appliance breakdown. Those are big time wins.
Yes, maintenance takes a bit of time, but it’s pretty flexible time and it’s usually not much time. That time is more than recouped by not having to deal with repairs or replacements nearly as often.
I’d do maintenance even if it didn’t save money, just because it saves a little time and moves that time around to my convenience.
- Related: 11 Simple but Vital Home and Auto Maintenance Tasks People Often Forget About
Making a lot of staple foods
My family likes eating sauerkraut. Most of us love the stuff and we use it in a lot of things – on sandwiches, in salads, or even as a side dish.
Sauerkraut can be expensive at the store, but the actual ingredients are cheap – it’s literally just cabbage (about as cheap as a vegetable gets) and salt and about 20 minutes of your time with a month long break in the middle of that 20 minutes. That’s all you need to make a gallon of sauerkraut – it’s way cheaper than buying it.
But that’s not the real reason I make it. The real reason I make my own sauerkraut – and a few other staple foods – is because the homemade version just tastes better. My favorite method of making sauerkraut is to use about 10% radish to 90% cabbage and put in some black pepper and a bit of garlic during fermentation. It creates a flavor that I dearly love that I’ve never matched anywhere else.
I make sauerkraut at home, not because it’s cheaper (though this is true), but because it tastes way better.
The same is true for a few other staples. I love making a big pan of homemade marshmallows on occasion, and I’ll save them for the world’s most amazing s’mores. I love making my own hot chocolate mix. I love making my own cold brew coffee in large quantities.
Although those things are all far cheaper than just buying them at the grocery store, I make them myself because they taste better and, honestly, they don’t really take very long at all to make.
Riding a bicycle for nearby errands
I live about a mile from the post office, a little more than a mile from a library, and about a mile and a half from a grocery store. I can reach these places on foot in reasonable time, and sometimes I do that, but it’s not exactly speedy. A round trip to any of those places can eat up almost half an hour (or more).
Driving a car there is much much faster, but it’s expensive. Doing it eats gas and puts miles on the odometer, bringing maintenance closer.
For me, the best balance is to just take a bike there. I pack what I need to take in my backpack, bike to where I need to go (which is almost as fast as taking the car), do what I need to do, bike home (again, almost as fast as the car), and I’m done. Not only did I do it without spending any money, I got some exercise along the way and it essentially didn’t eat up any time.
I bike to the library and the post office and the park and the store quite often, just because it’s an efficient way to get exercise. I’d do it even if I wasn’t saving a little money compared to using the car.
Drinking tap water
Drinking water is a healthy choice. Bottled water generally tastes good. Tap water… well, it depends on location. Here, it has just a bit of a chlorine taste.
However, there are two big disadvantages to bottled water. One, it costs way more than tap water. Two, it takes more effort than tap water – you have to bring home lots of bottles from the store. The advantage? No real chlorine taste.
So, how do I move the scale even more on the side of drinking tap water? I use two main tricks. One, we have a water filter attached to our sink that gets rid of the chlorine taste – but that’s not the big one. The other thing I do is that when I’m boiling water for tea or something, I boil a lot of water, let it cool in the kettle while drinking my tea, then pour that cooled water into a reusable bottle and stick it in the fridge with a bit of lemon juice.
That boiled then cooled water with a bit of lemon is the best water there is. I would rather drink it than virtually any bottled water I’ve ever tried. There’s no chlorine taste and just the slightest hint of lemon – and it’s dirt cheap.
I don’t boil water for the sole purpose of filling a water bottle, but I do drink tea fairly often and when I do, I just boil a bunch of extra water while I’m doing it – it doesn’t take any extra time or effort. Then, an hour later or so, I fill up a water bottle and stick it in the fridge – again, minimal effort. That “bottled water” is amazing and is practically free. I’d prefer it even if it cost the same as actually buying bottled water.
One of the best benefits of frugality is that it convinces you to try new ways of doing things that you might never have tried before. The benefit of doing that is sometimes you discover that there’s another way of doing things that’s just strictly better than the previous way in terms of aspects that have nothing to do with money.
That’s what “frugal improvements” are all about. Sure, it saves money, but that’s not the real reason I do some of these things. Saving money might have started me on the journey, but it’s the taste or the time or the convenience that becomes the real reason for keeping that strategy around.
To me, that’s the best kind of frugality. It doesn’t just save money, but provides other benefits in your life.
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