The Packet Drawer – and 15 Other Little Frugal Strategies from My Social Circle

I was visiting an old friend of mine who wanted me to sample a jar of pickled cucumbers. While he was opening the jar, he asked me to grab a couple of forks out of one of the drawers in his kitchen.

I opened the wrong one.

That drawer was stuffed with condiment packets. Salt. Ketchup. Pepper. Mustard. Hot sauce. Tons of them.

His explanation was simple. When he eats out anywhere, he asks for condiment packets and then pockets the ones they give him. He tosses them into that drawer when he gets home, then when he’s dining alone, he just uses those condiments. When he has guests, he’ll serve them condiments from the fridge… but he can’t see any reason to use those himself. Why not just use the free packets instead of paying?

It was a little quirky… but it also made a lot of sense. He didn’t advocate for grabbing packets by the fistful, but for simply pocketing whatever packets were given and using them at home.

This inspired me to tap some of my other friends for some of their little frugal strategies. These were among my favorites – some of them are quite smart, a few are pretty quirky, and some manage to be both at the same time.

Strategy #1 – Poach Eggs in the Microwave for a Very Quick and Tasty Breakfast

One of my friends does this literally every morning before he leaves for work. He pops a piece of toast (or an English muffin) in the toaster, pulls out a coffee mug, and fills it about halfway with water. He cracks an egg right into the water, covers it with a saucer, and microwaves it on high for about a minute and fifteen seconds (the exact time might vary a bit depending on the microwave – for his microwave, this is the point at which the yolk just gets hard). When the microwave dings, he pulls out the cup, pours off the water, then the toast pops up out of the toaster. He puts the poached egg on the toast and is out the door. The whole process takes less than two minutes from beginning to end.

It’s a breakfast that requires no silverware, one he can eat in the car on the way to work, and doesn’t leave behind any mess at all other than a toast crumb or two. It provides a big boost of protein in the morning, but doesn’t add up to too many calories. The best part? It costs him maybe a quarter in terms of ingredients. He’ll often take a banana or an apple with him to eat when the “sandwich” is finished, which costs perhaps another quarter.

It’s so efficient, so inexpensive, and gets his day started off right.

Strategy #2 – Don’t Turn Left

Another friend of mine basically avoids turning left whenever possible, even if it means going around the block. This saves her both time and money.

How does this work? Whenever you’re turning left onto a roadway, you have to wait for two lanes of traffic; turning light means you only have to worry about one lane, which means you get out on the road much quicker. Whenever you turn left at a stoplight, you’re usually stuck in the turn lane idling for quite a while before you turn, whereas when you turn right, you can usually turn very quickly, even on a red light in most jurisdictions.

In other words, turning left means that you spend a lot of time and a not-insignificant amount of fuel just idling and waiting to turn, while you spend far less fuel and time when you turn right.

Thus, my friend simply plans her travel so that she turns right as often as possible. She’ll think ahead about her route and plan things so that she turns right instead of left. She’ll even drive around an additional distance to avoid left turns on a busy street or intersection. (She’s not the only one who employs this strategy: Shipping giant UPS also tries to minimize the number of left turns its drivers make, particularly on busy roads, in the name of efficiency.)

Strategy #3 – Use Gift Bags and Save Them

A couple that we’ve been friends with for many years always gives gifts in nice gift bags. If someone decides to use the bag to transport a gift, it’s not a problem, but if the bag is left behind or thrown away, they’ll keep it. They also keep every single gift bag that they’re given.

Why? They hold onto those bags. In one of their closets, they have an enormous pile of gift bags in great shape, ready to be reused. They use an end roll of blank newspaper (picked up for just a dollar or two from the local newspaper office) or newspaper comic pages as tissue paper for the gifts.

This almost entirely eliminates their expenses for wrapping gifts. Occasionally, they have to pick up a gift bag or two to replenish their supply, but that’s apparently a pretty rare occasion.

Strategy #4 – Dumpster Dive at Apartment Move-Out Times

One of our friends lives near a college campus that has many, many apartment buildings in the surrounding blocks. The landlords in that area usually offer annual leases that all expire on July 31st of each year.

Thus, from about July 29 to August 1 of each year, she’s on the hunt. She drives from complex to complex, watching the curbs and dumpster areas, to find what items the students are throwing away.

Sure, most of it is junk, but you’d be shocked at the high quality items some students just toss in the dumpster, particularly students that are about to leave the country and have no way to take items with them. She has collected huge amounts of new and nearly-new clothing and shoes, completely functional Bluray and DVD players, and many other items. Her favorite find? An in-shrink iPad Mini. Yes, some college student just tossed it.

Strategy #5 – Change Your Own Oil

I do this myself sometimes, but one of my best friends is absolutely adamant about changing his own oil. Not only is it far less expensive than using an oil change service, he’s convinced that they do a relatively poor job.

Why? What’s wrong with an oil change service? For one, they don’t let the oil drain for a long period of time. The best way to get all of the junk oil out of your car is to simply slide an oil pan under the car, open up the oil gasket, and let it drain for a long time – an hour at least. After the first minute or so, the flow of oil slows drastically, but what comes out at that point is the worst oil – the sludgy stuff that doesn’t flow well. Letting it drain for a long time lets a lot of that bad oil escape, which doesn’t happen with a quick oil change. This extends the life of the car.

For another, they’re almost always overcharging you on the oil compared to the price you can get on oil from an auto parts store. He usually buys oil in five quart containers, which is perfect for filling up his car, and changes his oil filter each time (which is also very easy if you have an oil filter wrench). A car’s manual explains each step and all of the oil and the filter can be bought for less than $20, which is a lot cheaper than an oil change place. Plus, you can go do something else at home while the oil drains.

Strategy #6 – Negotiate Hotel Room Rates on the Fly

If you’re willing to add a little bit of flexibility to your travel, you can skip reserving hotel rooms in advance and instead reserve them on the fly on your travel date.

Simply find several hotels near your destination and call each of them while you’re traveling to that destination (this is a good task for a passenger in the car, for example). Simply state that you’re staying in the area and that you’re calling several hotels for the best rate.

One good tactic to use here is to call the hotel that you suspect will offer you the lowest rate first, then use their quoted rate as a bargaining chip with the other hotels. For example, if you’re calling up a local Best Western, you might want to say that the local Super 8 offered you a room for $45 a night and you’ll stay at the Best Western instead if they can match that rate.

This might not be the best strategy if you have specific needs when traveling, but if you’re flexible about the hotel you use and don’t have any special needs, it can save you a bundle on the road.

Strategy #7 – Hone Your Disposable Razors to Get More Uses

Quite often, people toss disposable razors and disposable razor blades not because the blade isn’t sharp any more, but just because the blade is no longer honed. Imagine that the blade itself is just bent or curled a little but it still has a sharp edge that’s just curled out of the way. If you can simply un-curl it, you can get a lot more use out of the blade, right?

Well, a friend of mine showed me a great way to hone a disposable razor. Just get your forearm wet and soapy and then run the blade slowly backwards on your forearm, in the opposite direction of how you would shave.

This helps hone the sharp edge of the blade and can get you a lot more shaving before you have to toss the blade. I now do this as a matter of course after each shave, as it costs nothing, requires no extra equipment, and definitely has a strong positive impact on the life of the blade.

Strategy #8 – Make Your Own “Cold Press” Coffee

Rather than worrying about the expense and hassle of a coffee pot and a coffee filter each morning, one close friend of mine uses a somewhat different tactic. He buys whole bean or coarsely ground coffee, then puts a cup of the ground coffee into a Nalgene quart water bottle. He fills the bottle with water, shakes it up, then sticks it in his refrigerator where it sits for a couple of days.

When he wants the coffee, he simply pulls out a fine mesh metal strainer and pours the coffee through it, collecting the strained coffee on the other side in a cup. If there’s coffee left in the Nalgene bottle, he puts it back in the fridge; otherwise, everything goes in the sink or dishwasher. If he wants hot coffee, he just microwaves the strained coffee for a minute or two.

This saves a lot of expense from the coffee pot and makes mornings more convenient to boot. You can easily adjust the strength by either adding more coffee beans or by letting it sit for longer.

Strategy #9 – Use Old Toothbrushes as Household Cleaners

This is a great strategy that I’ve used faithfully for years, so I’m glad to hear that others use it, too.

Whenever you wear out a toothbrush – to me, that means whenever you go in for a new dental visit – just take the old one, clean it well, and put it in a junk drawer instead of throwing it away. It becomes a great little cleaning tool.

You can use such a toothbrush for all kinds of household tasks, from cleaning grout and other tight spaces to applying wood glue to tricky corners. When the toothbrush becomes too beat up for those tasks, you can just toss it, knowing you got plenty of use out of it. It also keeps you from buying brushes or other little tools for uses that an old toothbrush can easily fulfill.

Strategy #10 – Clean the Back of the Fridge Once a Year

A refrigerator works by taking advantage of some basic chemistry to use the relatively cool air in your kitchen to cool down some relatively warm coils, then reducing the pressure in those coils to make it even cooler, which cools down your fridge. It’s a neat trick, but it only works efficiently if the coils on the back of your fridge are exposed to air and not insulated.

Guess what? Over time, dust builds up back there and effectively insulates the coils. That means that your refrigerator has to run for a lot longer since the gas isn’t cooling down as fast on each cycle. That “dust insulation” makes your refrigerator run longer, which gobbles up a lot of electricity.

The solution is easy: every once in a while – say, once a year – pull out your fridge and dust off the coils on the back of it. Most refrigerators can slide out relatively easily and a thorough cleaning back there can not only make your refrigerator run more efficiently (saving you money on electricity), it also means less wear and tear on your refrigerator parts, saving you money on replacements since your fridge will last longer.

Strategy #11 – Check the Schedule of the Nearest University

Two or three times a week, a couple I’ve been friends with for a long while heads over to the campus of the local university. There, they go to speeches by well known authors or to free concerts by talented musicians. These types of events are going on constantly at the university and they’re virtually always open to the public.

There’s no harm in checking out the university calendar to see what kinds of speeches and presentations and art performances are coming up in the near future. Many are completely free and even if just one out of ten are of interest to you, that still means something interesting and free is probably happening two or three times a week or so.

During my post-graduation but pre-children years, I used to enjoy many such events at our local university. These days, I don’t quite get the same opportunities that I once did, but I still recognize the value of the local university.

Strategy #12 – Start a Podcast

One of my closest friends recognized how much loved sitting around with his buddies talking about sports, so he started a podcast that ran for almost four years. It actually built a pretty nice audience for a while and it gave my friends a chance to talk to each other about the sports they loved, tell jokes, and share it all with like-minded people.

What did it cost them? Nothing. What did it give them? It gave a lot of laughs, helped sustain friendships, and built a few new ones, too.

A podcast is a really great way to turn the joy of sitting around with friends talking about a passion you enjoy into something that can build new friendships, sustain your current friendships, and even possibly make a few bucks. All you really need to do is record those conversations and share them. My friends just recorded themselves chatting around a laptop, added some images of what they were talking about using a free movie making tool, and put the results on Youtube. It’s fun, it’s free, it can build friendships, and it can make you some ad revenue, too.

Strategy #13 – Have a Weekly Meal Menu

One of our busiest friends handles meal preparation for her family by having a rather strict meal plan that she just follows over and over. They have a certain meal each Monday, a different one on Tuesday, and so on.

Her meal plan does include a bit of variance in the meals – her “casserole” night has a fair amount of variation to it, as does her “soup” night and “grill” night – but each of those things follows the same general structure for the meal. Her soup recipe is the same with just substituted ingredients.

This saves her money in a number of ways. First, she can shop insanely quickly without distractions because she knows exactly what’s needed for the week. She can bulk buy ingredients if she discovers they’re on sale without skipping a beat. She can also prepare the meals incredibly quickly because they’re so familiar for her and her family.

Strategy #14 – Invert the Pantry

Another strategy for inexpensive meals from another friend is to spend an hour or two “inverting the pantry.” Basically, he just pulls everything out of his pantry and puts everything back in in reverse order. All of the stuff near the front goes to the back and vice versa.

This process usually gives him a ton of ideas for meals using what he has on hand. It also ensures that he uses ingredients that he has on hand before they go bad, converting something that might have become trash into something useful. It also usually cuts directly into his grocery shopping for the week.

If you find that your pantry or cupboards build up over time, just invert the whole thing. You might be surprised at the useful stuff hanging out in the back.

Strategy #15 – Buy Large Jugs of Store Brand Handsoap

Rather than just buying a new small soap dispenser each time you run out of hand soap in the bathroom, stick with one that works and just buy a large jug of handsoap to store under the sink. Better yet, make it store brand handsoap.

By cutting out the purchase of small soap dispensers or containers by simply reusing one of them (or using a long-lasting permanent one that matches your bathroom decor), you save money regularly on your bills. By buying the soap in a large jug and using that jug to fill a smaller container you already have, you save more by buying the soap in bulk instead of in smaller batches. By buying a store brand soap, you save even more due to the “store brand” discount.

Just keep the dispenser you like and start refilling it with store brand handsoap. Your hands will be clean, your dispenser will work like a champ, and you save money, too.

Final Thoughts

These techniques involve simple little life changes that take very little time or effort to pull off but can easily save you a few bucks. Choose the ones that work for you and toss the rest.

Remember, if you can make an effortless change that doesn’t degrade your life in any way, it’s pure savings. It’s money that stays right in your pocket, right where it belongs. That’s definitely a frugal win.

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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