The Frugality List

Not too long ago, I sat down and tried to figure out how much time each week I spend on things that are primarily done to save money.

Honestly, it’s kind of tricky to figure out what the exact line is. Is cooking a meal at home primarily done to save money? I decided that it wasn’t. However, is spending time on prepping a bunch of meals at once primarily done to save money? That’s tougher… I eventually decided that it was, because those meals are often used only on nights when we would otherwise eat out due to time constraints.

Anyway, what I eventually concluded is that I spend somewhere between five and ten hours a week on things that are done primarily to save money. In all honesty, that type of steady commitment of time is not too different from a small freelancing gig or a part time job.

I don’t spend that time in a conscious job-like way. I don’t block off hours for “frugality,” though I do sometimes plan my days for larger money-saving tasks (like meal prepping). Still, the hours do add up over the course of a week.

This realization led me to another one: when Sarah and I were first diving into our financial turnaround, we did treat it like a serious freelancing gig. During the first few months of our turnaround, I would estimate that we spent about 25 hours a week on money-saving tactics. This lasted for a few months, at which point the time investment dialed back to something like our current five to ten hours a week.

The first question people might ask is why.

Why would a person sacrifice that much of their spare time? To put it simply, most of these activities are ones that we do with our family or do on a lazy afternoon or early evening when the kids are playing and supper is in hand. In other words, these tasks fill in the low-hanging fruit – time we would probably spend playing a smartphone game or channel surfing or web surfing. If you contribute half an hour here or an hour there, it adds up pretty quickly to 5-10 hours per week (or more).

Why not use that time to earn more money instead? This is a bit trickier question. First of all, the returns from frugality are bigger than you expect because the savings is post-tax. If you improve your earnings, it’s a pre-tax increase, meaning you have to pay income taxes on it. You don’t owe income taxes on the savings from cutting your own spending – that savings goes straight in your pocket. Second, the impact of frugality is typically immediate; you can spend ten hours this week doing things and immediately see the savings in your checking account. When you put that time toward improving your earnings, you usually don’t see any return on that money for a long while. Even if you work at a part time job, you have to wait for the paycheck.

To tell the truth, my threshold for frugal tasks these days is that the activity needs to be saving me at least $10 per hour (or providing some other benefit) or it’s not worth my time. Remember, that’s post-tax savings, so it’s the equivalent of making $15 an hour or so, depending on one’s tax situation.

It’s also nice because I can choose when I spend time on frugality and what specific tasks I choose to take on. For example, if I don’t feel like washing freezer bags and drying them out right now, I don’t have to; they can wait. I can choose a different task for the moment. Similarly, if I want to play a game with my kids after school today instead of taking on a frugal task, I can do so. If I happen to suddenly have a spare hour, I can fill it with money-saving tasks. (Honestly, in some ways, it’s not that different than how I write.)

Here’s a nice workflow for getting into the practice of treating frugality like a freelancing gig.

Have a Frugality “List”

The first step in this process is to start creating a big list of frugal tasks that you might take on. Any task you might do to save money should go on this list, whether it’s something you might do every day or once a year or one time only, or whether it takes one minute or five minutes or an hour. If it’s an idea you have for a frugal task that would actually fit in your life, it should go on this list.

I maintain my frugal “list” in Evernote. It’s just a single note with a ton of ideas listed in it for frugal tasks I might do, one per line with a blank line between them. Because it’s in Evernote, I can easily retrieve it almost anywhere that I happen to be.

Don’t worry about the order or about anything else. Just make this a collection of things you could do to save money.

Here are 100 ideas to get you started. Just copy and paste that whole list into Evernote, then start deleting the descriptions and the ones that aren’t relevant. You’ll likely wind up with a list of twenty or so items that really match your life.

Once you have this list in place, whenever you come upon a nice little frugal project, just add it to your list. If you’re reading an article on The Simple Dollar and think to yourself, “That’s a good little idea,” just stick it on your frugality list and it’ll eventually come up.

When You Have Downtime, Turn to the List

Whenever you find yourself with a free moment, just fire up that list and look at the top item on the list. Is it something that makes sense right now? Do you have what you need to pull this off?

If this is something you can handle right now, do the task immediately. Maybe it’s something like making a batch of homemade laundry soap, which will take about ten minutes or so. Maybe it’s something longer, like air sealing a window. Maybe it’s something shorter, like making a batch of cold brew coffee.

Whatever the task is, do that task, then either delete that task (if it’s something you can just do once or can’t do again) or move that task to the bottom of the list.

If the task isn’t something you can handle right now, do whatever you need to do to make it possible to do that task the next time it comes up, then move that task to the bottom of the list.

For example, let’s say “make homemade laundry soap” comes up and you find yourself without borax. You just add borax to your grocery list, then move “make homemade laundry soap” down to the bottom of the list.

If a really big task comes up, like a “meal prep day,” schedule it. Pick an upcoming day where you could devote a few hours to that task and literally put it on your calendar. In the current moment, take care of any prep tasks that might need to be done to pull it off, such as putting together a plan and a grocery list for the meal prep day.

Just keep repeating this, over and over, as long as you have time to devote to these tasks. Whenever you find yourself out of time, just set the list aside for the moment and come back to it during your next window of free time.

In all honesty, this isn’t all that different than how I handle my own freelancing work, except that I devote several hours a day to it. I have an ongoing list of things to work on – article drafts, brainstorming, and so on – and I work on that list in time chunks that flex around other things in my life, like getting my kids ready for school or greeting them at the end of their school day.

Final Thoughts

This simple little strategy – creating a “frugality list” and processing it during your free time – makes time devoted to frugality very, very effective. If you’re selective about the tasks that you add to the list, it can be pretty lucrative, too. Just make sure that the things that you’re adding are tasks that produce a lot of value compared to the effort – things like airing up your car tires or air-sealing your window or doing a meal prep day. Those things are big wins and can save you much more than $10 per hour of effort. That way, whenever you process the list, you know you’re getting good value for your time.

Good luck!