12 Ways to Turn Frugality Habits Into a Game

I love playing games, and I’ve found that one of the best strategies over the years for getting me to do anything is to turn it into some kind of game. I’ll find ways to keep “score,” keep track of my best score, and then try to break it, and I’ll do this for all kinds of things. I actually have a bunch of notes on my phone that keep track of my “high score” on a bunch of different things in life.

For me, this serves as a very good motivator, particularly when the game gives me plenty of breathing room to try new strategies to see how they work.

A lot of those “games” have little to do with personal finance. For example, one game I like to play is “maximum number of pushups in three sets” and another one I like to play is “shortest time solving a Rubik’s cube,” which is kind of a mental dexterity thing.

However, quite a few of the challenges are all about personal finance, particularly in terms of being frugal and keeping my spending low. Here are 12 of the games that I play.

Please note that I’m not cutthroat about these “games” and don’t use them as a reason to make others miserable; rather, they challenge me to make good, efficient choices.

I see how low I can get the grocery bill for a week’s worth of groceries.

This one requires a few ground rules. The meals have to be reasonably healthy — I can’t just feed my family junk, but I wouldn’t do that anyway. I can rely on whatever we have in our pantry and whatever’s coming up in our garden. However, other food that we buy, like eggs from a local farmer or a CSA share, would count toward the groceries. Also, this must include seven full days of meals, not counting school lunches. That’s in line with how I shop for groceries, which is usually once a week on Saturday or Sunday.

My record is $38.22, according to the note on my phone. That consisted almost entirely of fresh produce and a gallon of milk.

Given that I’m feeding five people for three meals a day for seven days, it is very hard to approach that record. I usually try for that record on weeks when there are some very flexible low-cost produce items on sale, but even then, it’s very hard to get close.

You can get started by taking note of what you consider to be a good week of grocery shopping. Take note of what you spent, then aim to beat it next week. Eventually, if you get into the game, you’ll start trying out techniques to beat the record. I find that the grocery store flyer is essential, as is meal planning, so that you can plan meals that really leverage dirt-cheap stuff from the flyer. I also find it’s easy to approach those low numbers in August or September, when we have a lot of garden produce coming in.

I try to get our energy bill as low as possible, and I include seasonal records.

Again, a few basic rules apply. I can’t do things that negatively interfere with anyone’s quality of life. If someone’s cold, the heat goes up in the winter. I’m not turning off devices people are using. You get the idea.

In general, my best months are the spring months along with September and sometimes October. During those months, we run very little heating or cooling for our house; temperature is mostly regulated by opening and closing windows.

Because spring and fall have such an advantage, I also keep records for the winter and summer months. What’s the best energy bill that covers a period that’s mostly winter days? Summer days? This really incentivizes figuring out ways to maximize heating and cooling efficiency in our home.

What I’ve discovered is that over time, even with a slow rise in energy costs, our energy bills have gone down as we’ve slowly made our home more efficient over the years. However, getting the energy bill as low as possible requires some good active decisions, too, like minimizing oven use in the summer, using ceiling fans and windows in an intelligent fashion, keeping lights turned off when not in use, keeping devices turned off when not in use, and so on.

I see how many days I can go without buying any food prepared outside the home.

I make exceptions to this for “special occasion” meals where we go out to eat when visiting someone or for a particular planned event or celebration, but the real goal here is to avoid eating out, getting takeout or delivery just for convenience. If I’m halfway organized with my food planning, I can make all of our meals and snacks at home, even ones we eat out and about.

Obviously, doing this saves money directly, because paying others to prepare food is expensive, but what it also does is trains me to be more adept at preparing all kinds of foods and figuring out novel ways to bring them with us. There’s also a bit of a willpower element because part of this is saying no to things like a coffee or a soft pretzel when we’re out and about.

Quite honestly, these streaks usually end not because I screwed up my own meal planning, but because I did something without really thinking about it or ate for entertainment’s sake rather than being hungry — not a particularly healthy choice.

The most valuable thing this “game” has taught me is that it’s a good idea to have snacks in the car. I often have a container of nuts that I keep in the car because nuts are really tasty and they’re particularly good at taking away food cravings.

I see how many books I can read before buying one.

This might seem like a strange challenge, but consider that I read somewhere between 70 and 100 books a year and the challenge takes on a new light.

For many years, I’ve kept a list of books that I’ve read each year and the date I finished them, so this is actually a pretty easy challenge to work on. I just make a little mark if I buy a book, and the next time I buy one I can just count back to the last mark.

I actually do a similar thing with board games, as I track which games I play and when. I’ll try to get in a certain number of plays before acquiring a new board game and I consider it good to make that number of plays nice and high.

In reality, this game is about keeping my hobbies aligned more toward “doing” than “acquiring stuff.” This challenge is all about maximizing my time spent reading rather than my time spent buying books, or about playing games rather than buying them. The more books I read without buying or games I play without buying, the more I’m spending my time participating in the hobby than buying stuff.

I maximize my fuel efficiency between fill-ups.

As I’ve mentioned before, I use the app Road Trip to keep track of the fuel efficiency of my car as well as keep track of my maintenance history. It’s easy – as I’m fueling up, I just enter my current odometer reading, the type of gas I’m putting in, the price, and when it clicks off, how many gallons I put in.

The nice thing about this app is that I can see the fuel efficiency of my car since the last fill-up, and I challenge myself to get that number as high as I can. How? I try to drive in a fuel-efficient manner.

Fuel efficient driving largely means minimizing rapid acceleration and trying to avoid braking as much as I can. I try to accelerate lightly, only use cruise on very flat sections of road, and don’t accelerate hard out of stoplights and slow gradually as I come toward them (while still being mindful of traffic). I also make sure that my tires are properly inflated and use the most fuel-efficient gas (the premium stuff gives a better basic fuel efficiency, and that’s enhanced with good driving tactics).

I can easily get our van to be 30% more fuel-efficient than my wife without sacrificing much time at all on a typical drive, and by striving to keep that number high, I’m “programming” myself to be a fuel-efficient driver.

I see how many days in a row I can go with just drinking water, black coffee, and plain tea.

This one’s very straightforward. I try to avoid drinking any beverages besides water and black coffee and plain tea that I make at home. Anything else is avoided for both health and financial reasons.

I don’t actively resist other beverages if they’re offered to me or avoid social situations or anything like that, but if I have options at all, I choose water. If a friend offers a drink at their house, I’ll ask for water. If I’m ordering at a restaurant, I choose water.

I’ve made it for multiple months at a time without drinking anything other than water and not only has that challenge saved me a lot of money, it’s also been a definite benefit for my health. I’ve also noticed that if I essentially eliminate everything but water, coffee, and tea, the flavors and aromas of foods “pop” a lot more.

I go on online shopping sabbaticals, stretching their length as much as I can.

How many days can I go without making an online purchase of any kind? I can usually pull this off for stretches of multiple months during the spring and summer, though it gets a lot more difficult as the holiday season approaches. My record is 90 days, when I actually pulled it off as a 90 day challenge, but I’m currently riding a pretty long streak without any such challenge involved.

This game obviously saves money by keeping me from spending money online at all and making me go to physical stores to spend it, but it also goes a long way toward cutting out truly frivolous expenses, too. Often, my online purchases are non-essential and less considered than face to face purchases, and simply aiming for no online purchases for a while does a great job of tempering those temptations.

Three things typically break these streaks. One, I find some absurdly cheap deal online somewhere on something I’m looking for. Two, I find something that’s a limited time offer. Three, I just don’t think about the streak. The third one is the one that I’m really working on these days, as I’m working a lot on being more mindful of my spending.

I see how long I can go during harvest season without going to the grocery store.

Each spring, Sarah and I plant a pretty nice vegetable and herb garden, and it usually comes to fruition throughout August and September, flooding us with vegetables. We do some vegetable swapping with neighbors and, as a result, we wind up with tons of vegetables in a wide variety.

During that period, I often try to see how long I can go without going to the grocery store at all. We make a lot of meals that really lean into all of these vegetables, pairing them with items in our pantry that we’ve bought in bulk in the past (like pasta and rice) and items I make myself (like bread).

Three years ago, I managed to avoid the grocery store for 24 days, and I haven’t come close since.

Again, I’ve learned some tricks about how to maximize this streak, mostly centered around looking ahead and buying household supplies and non-perishable foods in bulk when the price is right. These tactics save a lot of money when they’re used throughout the year because, well, they keep me out of the grocery store while also securing low prices on things I know we’ll use.

I see how long I can go without adding another non-consumable item to our home (other than replacing broken items).

I take this on as an irregular 30-day or 90-day challenge; I managed to make it through a 90-day challenge once doing this, so my record is 94 days. Basically, I just decide that I’m not going to buy any non-consumable items for 30 days or 90 days and do my best to stick to that pledge, though it can be quite hard.

For me, the most powerful tactic when I’m on a “no new stuff” streak like this is to simply curb my media time, or at least be more selective about what I listen to or watch or view. If I spend less time reading or listening to “news” articles about the latest products, I’m a lot less interested in buying the latest products.

So, when I start on a new challenge or streak of days like this, I usually purge my media subscriptions. It’s a good opportunity to go through the podcasts I’m subscribed to and drop several of them, as I’m constantly sticking my toe into new podcasts to listen to. I’ll also purge what I’m following on social media, dropping things that mostly seem to exist to convince me to buy things.

Reducing those sources of temptation helps a lot when I’m committed to not buying any new permanent physical items for my home.

(It’s worth noting that I don’t include swapping in this. I do a lot of board game swapping and book swapping and I consider those things, which are mostly one-for-one trades with friends, to not be an acquisition of a new item.)

I see whether or not I can fill the entire deep freezer with prepared meals.

I’ve never been able to completely do this, though I’ve come close, filling all but one shelf with finished soups, casseroles, burritos, and other items.

I’m usually motivated to do this in the week or two before the fall and spring soccer seasons. Both of my sons are really into soccer and they play in both fall and spring leagues, which means that March through early June and late August through early November involve a ton of soccer practices and games.

In the month before those seasons, I start stocking the freezer with lots of extra completed meals that can easily be finished off when the time comes. I’ll make big pots of chili or other soups that freeze well and freeze them in 32-ounce containers. I’ll make lasagna and tuna casserole in pans that can be covered and frozen. I’ll make tons and tons of burritos stuffed with rice and refried beans and cheese, wrapping them individually and freezing them.

That way, when the soccer seasons get rolling along, I’ll pull out Thursday night’s dinner from the freezer on Tuesday evening, let it thaw in the fridge for two days, set it out on the table to approach room temperature on Thursday afternoon, and then either Sarah or I can pop it in the oven at the right moment so that it’s ready to go during that tiny 20-minute window when everyone’s at home and we can have a family dinner together.

Each season, I aim to fill up the freezer as much as I can, and I’ve come very close a few times. By the end of soccer season, we’ll often have nothing in reserve. However, because we were still able to bank on so many home-cooked meals along the way, we were able to have some logistically crazy weekday evenings while still eating meals together, which is great.

Speaking of which, I’d better start figuring out how to fill the freezer.

I see how long I can go without driving.

From where I live, I can walk or bike to the post office, to a hardware store, to a library, and to a grocery store without much trouble at all. If I take along my largest backpack, I can easily get a couple days’ worth of groceries on a bike trip to the store, and if I use pannier side bags on my bike, I can get a lot of groceries in there.

Because I also work from home, I’ve managed to go quite a few days without driving my car at all – my record is 11 days. The thing that almost always interrupts these streaks is social gatherings, not a need for any particular item. If all of my friends lived within a couple of miles of my home, I could easily go for several weeks without using an automobile.

Minimizing automobile use means that I’m not spending money on gas or maintenance for either of our vehicles during that time, plus I’m getting exercise as I go around town. A trip to the library or a trip to the grocery store is powered by my own two feet, either by walking or pedaling a bicycle. It’s a health benefit and a cost savings.

I see how many days I can go without spending money on anything non-essential.

This is probably my oldest attempt at gamification of my finances, and it’s still one I turn back to over and over again. I’ll sometimes try to go for as many days as I can without spending money on anything that isn’t an urgent necessity, like medical care. If I buy food, for example, when I still have food on hand, then I’ve failed at this.

Again, the reason for this is to both recognize that I don’t need to buy stuff to have a pretty good life and also to improve my ability to plan ahead. It nudges me toward buying food staples in bulk that I can make lots of different meals from (things like rice, pasta, canned tomatoes, spices, and so on) and buying household supplies in bulk. It also shows me that I can be flexible with what I have on hand to achieve almost anything I might want to get done.

My longest streak for this has been twelve days, which I’ve done a few times. Inevitably, something comes up that requires an expenditure of some kind, and that something is usually unexpected and outside the realm of planning. A child might need something for school, for example, or something at home breaks and needs a part or a tool or a repairman to fix.

It’s fun to try to beat the “high score,” but what’s really valuable is really exercising the strategies needed to get there.

For things like this, it’s not really the game itself that provides lasting value. It’s the fact that I need to really focus on a few particular strategies in order to break my old record, and when I focus on those strategies, they become more natural and normal in my life.

If I spend two weeks not using my car, getting around town without it seems much more normal and doable, which means that I spend less money on gas and car maintenance by default.

If I manage to avoid the grocery store for three weeks, I’m making myself become more flexible in the kitchen.

If I manage to avoid hobby spending for a couple of months, I’m nudging myself away from just buying things to fulfill a desire for leisure time and instead finding ways to have actual leisure time in my life.

Making it into a game just makes the challenge of learning those skills and integrating them into my life a bit easier, like a bit of sugar helping the medicine go down.

Perhaps you can apply some of these “games” to your own explorations of frugality. Remember, however, that the real value comes from learning a more efficient way to live; setting a new “high score” at a game is just a bit of icing on the cake.

Good luck!

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.