Saving Money Under a Stay-At-Home Order

Many of us are at home riding out the days of a stay-at-home order. If we’re lucky, we’re working from home; if not, we might be receiving unemployment and waiting for an opportunity to get back to work.

In any case, it’s in the best interest of a lot of us to find ways to cut back on our spending, even under the restriction of staying at home. The less we can spend right now, the better, because the future is uncertain.

Here are some excellent strategies for saving money while under a stay at home order.

Remember, you’re naturally saving money by not going out and doing minimal shopping.

Almost everyone is spending less money right now than they did before a stay at home order began in their area. Simply put, a lot of businesses that might otherwise gobble up our dollars and cents simply aren’t open right now, and our own personal choices and restrictions might be keeping us from patronizing those that are open.

There aren’t any restaurants that are open in my area other than those serving takeout. I can’t visit any stores related to my hobbies — they’re all closed. I’m careful about trips to the grocery store and have zero interest in wandering the aisles there. I’m not going to coffee shops or ice cream shops or anything like that.

All of those changes are having a real effect on my spending, and that’s having a real positive effect on my checking account balance. There just isn’t any money going out right now other than money for essentials, and that’s a great thing.

Ramp up your cooking skills instead of relying on convenient foods.

It’s a familiar refrain, but it’s a truthful one: the more effort and focus you put into preparing food at home, the more skilled you become at it. The more skilled you become at it, the more likely it is that it will be your preferred option for meal acquisition going forward. Right now is an amazing opportunity to put more effort and focus into preparing meals at home so that you not only save money now, but you build those kitchen skills so that you’re a lot less tempted to grab takeout later on.

With our own family, there eventually came a point where we realized that it was easier and cheaper and produced tastier and healthier results to simply make almost all of our meals at home. We go out solely for special occasions, usually to a restaurant that prepares really high-quality meals that manage to greatly exceed what we can make ourselves or is in a specialty we don’t know much about. It’s a rare, special occasion for us. On extremely rare occasions, we eat out for convenience, but that’s usually a result of an unexpected event.

Why? Honestly, we can make pretty good meals at home rather quickly. They’re healthy and tasty and cost a whole lot less than meals eaten out. We got to that point by making lots and lots of meals at home.

The pushback against this strategy is that people always think they don’t have time to make a lot of meals and build up that skill, but a stay at home order is delivering you the time needed to build that skill. You have all the time in the world to make a lot of meals at home and build up some kitchen skills and confidence.

Want a strategy to follow? Make several of your favorite meals several times each. The first time will be rough and time-consuming, but each time, you’ll find that it gets a little bit easier to pull it off. You’ll figure out little tricks for doing things to make the meal tastier and how to make it turn out better and how to make the cleanup faster.

Then, when things return to normal, it won’t seem overwhelming to just go home and make dinner. The stuff you make there will probably taste better than takeout, it’ll certainly be cheaper, and it will probably be healthier, too.

Use up the supplies you have on hand.

Many of us have all kinds of strange things stowed away in our cupboards and pantries. Maybe you have supplies for a meal we intended to make in January. Maybe you have three or four half-boxes of pasta. Maybe you have six packages of ramen noodles left forgotten in a cupboard.

There is no better time than right now to go through all of those cupboards, pull out all of this stuff, and put it to good use. Figure out how to use it for meals and snacks going forward.

Not only is this “found food” essentially free, but it also stretches the time between grocery store visits so that you’re less exposed. Furthermore, if you don’t use it now, it’s likely to expire or at least grow overly stale.

As we’ve done this recently, we’ve had meals involving a big box of extra soba noodles and found lots of creative uses for preserved lemon and garbanzo beans. That stuff was sitting way in the back of our pantry, essentially forgotten, but now it’s seeing use and keeping our grocery bills even lower.

Evaluate your subscriptions and services.

I’ve mentioned this a couple of times recently, but it still holds true: this is a great moment for evaluating all of your subscriptions, services, and memberships. You’re likely not using many of them, and you might not be getting adequate value even out of the ones you are using.

Just go through all of the places where you might find subscriptions and services you’re signed up for. Check out your recent credit card statements and bank statements. Look at the subscription list in your Apple account, your Google Play account, and your Amazon account. Search your email for “subscription” and “renewal” and browse through the results.

As you find subscriptions and services and memberships, ask yourself whether these services are providing value to you right now. If you’re not able to answer that with an emphatic “yes,” cancel that subscription or service or, if that doesn’t seem right, at least put it on pause. If you’ve already paid for a session, simply turn off the option to automatically resubscribe to the service.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that, as you go through this, you find a few subscriptions or services that had completely slipped your mind. You’ll also find yourself really questioning whether or not a particular service is worth keeping around; for me, I decided that if it wasn’t an emphatic yes, I was canceling it. This led to a few services I’d forgotten about and several I hadn’t seeing the ax.

Another tip: if you decide to keep a subscription/service, lean into using it. Get value out of it. For example, if you have three streaming services, pick one and really lean in on the content on that service. If you decide to keep an online exercise service, make it a point to start using it each day. Otherwise, why are you keeping this service? If you’re not interested in using a service frequently, then it’s not worth keeping around.

Dig into your bookshelves and closets.

This isn’t so much for stuff to sell, but to find things to entertain yourself without spending money online and to help yourself from going a little stir-crazy.

Go through your bookshelves, your media cabinets, your digital media collections, your Kindle books, the contents of your closet, your garage, your storage areas, and so on. Identify everything you find that feels like something you’d want to do or read or listen to or watch. Make a big list of all of those things as you go.

Then, when you’ve gone through all of it, you not only have a long list of things that you want to engage in (in fact, many of them are probably things you’d completely forgotten about), you’ll also see a lot of things that you didn’t particularly value. Make note of those things, too, as they’re going to be great things to sell off once things get back to normal. If you find stuff that makes you wonder why you have it, then that’s something to add to the “to sell” list.

Let’s focus on that list of “things to do,” though. When you find yourself with idle time, just turn to that list and choose something. Put a little check by it on your list, then do that thing or read that book or whatever.

Because of this very practice, I’ve spent hours working on puzzles, preparing a roleplaying adventure for my kids, dug into a sci-fi novel I’d forgotten about, and many other things. I also have a list of things I want to dig into that fills up two entire college-ruled sheets of paper. It includes Netflix series, Kindle books, games on my Steam account, books from my bookshelf, items from my garage and board games.

This is now my “fun to-do list” for quite a while. If I ever get a feeling of being bored, I just need to turn to this list and there’s suddenly a ton of free things to do around the house for me to choose from.

This leads into my next suggestion.

Re-evaluate your hobbies and try some different low-cost things.

Most of us have hobbies and leisure activities we enjoy. Some of those activities are quite expensive, requiring a lot of fees and materials and equipment. While they may be fulfilling, if you can find other fulfilling leisure activities or hobbies, then you can enjoy life with a lot less financial pressure.

This is a great time to explore less expensive hobbies and leisure activities, though obviously within the constraints of staying at home.

I’ll give you an example: my oldest son has a hobby of solving rather difficult spatial reasoning puzzles (think Rubik’s Cube, but harder). Solving hard puzzles gives him a great deal of pride and joy, as does solving easier ones at a quick speed. Not only that, the hobby is really wonderful for his ability to focus on problems in the moment. He can easily do this at home and it only requires a few different plastic puzzles, which he keeps on his dresser.

Here’s my own example: I really enjoy playing really complex strategy games where a decision I make early in the game has really long-lasting consequences. I have a number of these on my computer that I keep coming back to. I also really enjoy solving puzzles, particularly hard ones that I have to chip away at slowly over time. I have a few puzzle books that I’ve worked at for years. I can work on both of these at home.

Another example: my daughter is learning how to beatbox, entirely on her own, using Youtube videos and tons of practice. This requires no equipment whatsoever and she’s gradually getting quite good at it.

The point is that there are lots of hobbies you can try out and dig into while at home right now, with minimal equipment. HobbyDB is a really good place to delve into ideas for this.

Re-evaluate your insurance policies, particularly your homeowner’s and auto policy.

Go through each of your insurance policies that you pay for out of pocket and consider whether or not a change would do you good.

One change worth considering is the simple act of shopping around and changing providers. Many insurance companies will offer you a great rate simply for switching to them, so it doesn’t hurt to shop around. You can get quotes from a lot of different insurers for your home and auto insurance online; simply check the rates for a comparable policy to your own.

Another option to consider is whether or not to make a change to your current policy. Is this a time to change your deductible in order to raise or lower your premiums? Is now a time to consider adding coverage or removing coverage on your home or auto insurance? Those choices can affect your premiums, meaning that your regular insurance bills could drop significantly.

You may want to consider both options together. There’s no reason not to shop around for quotes for the type of insurance you want to move to, then use those as a negotiating point with your current insurer if you want to change your current policy.

In the end, the goal here is to make sure you have homeowners insurance and car insurance that fits your needs at the lowest price available from a reputable insurer, and you have the time to tackle that project.

Build a water-drinking habit and routine.

Many of us have a routine of drinking a lot of soda, coffee or other beverages throughout the day. These beverages often aren’t all that good for us. They’re also pretty expensive over time.

This is a great opportunity to move away from those beverages and get used to drinking water, particularly if you live in a community with decent tap water.

Try playing around with it a little to see if you can find a way to get your tap water just the way you like it. For me, the real secret was just getting it really cold – it comes out of the tap not quite as cold as I like to drink it. Filling up water bottles with tap water and putting them in the fridge made our tap water a lot more palatable for me.

If your water is fine but a little chlorinated for your tastes, try doing something a friend of mine does. She boils a gallon of water at a time and then fills four water bottles with it and puts it in her fridge. She’ll drink that down in a day or two and then refill them. It costs a few cents in energy to end up with four big bottles of water that she really likes.

The key here is to find a routine that makes water from your tap into your primary beverage of choice, then keep going with that routine until it becomes completely normal and second nature to you. The less effort this routine requires, the better, but the key is to get into a habit of turning to water in your home as your primary beverage, which will save you a lot of money over the years.

Plan on thoughtful gestures instead of expensive gifts or events.

If you have a child or a partner with an upcoming birthday, or an upcoming anniversary, or any other special event you might otherwise celebrate with a special gift or an evening out on the town, you might want to use this opportunity to handle that occasion very differently.

Right now, what you have is time, and what you may not have is money, so lean into what you have and do something that’s a truly thoughtful gesture rather than a gift or a meal at a restaurant.

Write that person a letter. Make that person their favorite meal. Make a big batch of that person’s favorite snack. Go through your photos and print off enough to make a collage. Give that person a massage. Play that person’s favorite game with them.

The point is to really lean into being thoughtful with their special occasion rather than simply buying a gift and throwing money at the problem.

For example, one of my children is celebrating a birthday before we anticipate the ending of social distancing practices. We can’t have a party with his friends like normal, so what can we do to make it a special occasion?

Well, we’re planning an elaborate treasure hunt for his gifts. We’re going to make an amazing version of his favorite meal. We’re going to make a from-scratch birthday cake with the batter in his favorite color.

These aren’t perfect, but they do remind him that he matters to us and his birthday is a special moment, and it won’t be particularly expensive, either. Rather, it leans into the resource we have right now, which is time.

Break your vices — smoking, drinking or drug use.

If you find yourself consistently using a vice of some kind out of habit, whether it’s smoking, alcohol or drug use or even something like caffeine, this is an amazing time to break that routine. It’s already likely more difficult to acquire the source of that vice anyway, and you have the time at home to get yourself past any ill effects of dropping that vice (like headaches from breaking a caffeine addiction). If you manage to break that vice, it’ll save you quite a lot of money, too.

Just resolve to give up a particular vice that you know isn’t good for you. Now is the time to give up caffeine. Now is the time to give up smoking. Now is the time to give up alcohol.

You probably don’t have much of it at home anyway, and it’s probably difficult to get more at the moment, so lean into that. Make it your goal to walk away from this stay-at-home period without that vice hanging around your neck.

Experiment with different thermostat, ceiling fan and window settings.

There’s no better time than right now to really hone in on how to keep your home at a pleasant temperature with minimal energy use.

Start playing around with different settings for your ceiling fan (hint: if you stand directly beneath it and feel air blowing down on you, that’s the setting your fan should be in during hot months; there’s a switch you can flip to go between modes.) Try opening windows in your home and using fans to create a bit of air flow. Close your windows if you feel too cool. Keep in mind where the sun is and use curtains and drapes accordingly; keep them closed if the sun is shining in the window and it’s hot, and open them if the sun is shining on a cooler day.

Better yet, as you’re doing these things, turn the heating and cooling in your home completely off. See if you can keep your home in a nice temperature range using just windows and ceiling fans.

During the spring months, this isn’t too hard, but you might just learn how to really do this well so that you can keep things turned off in parts of the summer and winter as well, and that will save you quite a bit of money. Leaving the AC off on a warmer day when you have the ceiling fans open and the windows just right leaves your house feeling great and saves you a ton of cash.

Saving money at home, even during a stay at home order, offers a lot of possibilities.

There are many, many things you can do during this stay-at-home period that will save you money both now and moving forward. From reevaluating your leisure to addressing your vices, to changing your insurance to learning how to cut food costs, the things you do now can cut your expenses immediately and keep them low as stay-at-home orders begin to disappear.

Good luck!

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