Using Scorekeeping To Build Financial Success

Frugal living often has a nice “honeymoon.” People dive in deep, find lots of ways to spend less money, and revel in the amount left in their checking account at the end of the month. The problem, of course, is that such behavior is often unsustainable. After another month or two, many of the new frugal practices start to wear on you and there’s a strong temptation to revert back to old spending habits.

One effective way to keep frugality present in your life is to turn it into a game. You set a “high score” by minimizing spending in a particular area of your life for a month, then you try to break that “high score.” You can reward yourself for doing so (ideally in a non-financial way), or simply enjoy the success of a new high score.

This is called scorekeeping. It’s simply setting a “score” over a particular period of time — a month is a great target — and then aiming to beat that “score” in the next period of time. It’s something we use to keep up frugal habits in many areas of our own life.

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    Why practice scorekeeping?

    The biggest advantage of scorekeeping is that it gives you a short-term goal for frugality that’s always present in your thoughts, but it also strongly rewards long-term frugality strategies.

    For example, you might find that by modifying your own spending, you’re able to get a particular area of spending in your life down to $200 a month, but it’s hard to get below that. If you want to beat that high score, you’re going to need to come up with some better long-term strategies. For example, maybe there’s a project you can work on over a weekend that will permanently lower that bill by $10 a month. Then, the next month, you’re able to hit $190 with that bill.

    The advantage is that even if you take a month or two off from scorekeeping, those kinds of long-term projects you completed will still keep your spending lower than it otherwise would have, and scorekeeping provides the short-term motivation.

    Another benefit of scorekeeping is that it encourages budgeting and careful tracking of one’s spending. After all, that’s how you keep score. By practicing budgeting and tracking your spending, you get much more in touch with where your money is really going, and that knowledge can encourage smarter choices.

    Four examples of scorekeeping

    Monthly food costs

    Here, you keep track of every food item or beverage item you buy in a calendar month. At the end of the first month, your total spending in that category is your “score,” and then you aim to beat it. Your aim is to continue to enjoy food and not feel miserable, but keep trimming costs by trying new strategies.

    In the short term, you can eat at home more often, especially when you prepare meals with simple inexpensive ingredients. A slow cooker meal with lots of beans and rice is going to get you there! Eating leftovers, whether for lunch in the next day or two or as a “mixed plate” for dinner in a few days, will also keep costs low.

    In the long term, the strategies that will help you consistently set high scores are “meal prep days” (where you prepare and freeze lots of meals at once for easy cooking at home), putting good procedures in place for leftovers, buying core non-perishable ingredients in bulk (like big bags of rice), and simply cooking more at home so that it begins to feel much easier.

    Monthly energy costs

    With energy costs, your goal is to get your home energy bill as low as possible. The best strategy is to compare your monthly energy bill to the bill for the same period a year before, as that accounts for variations in weather.

    In the short term, when you’re just aiming for a low-energy expense this month, energy saving steps like turning the thermostat down in the winter or turning it up in the summer can really help. On days when it’s cool, wear warm clothes in the house; when it’s hot, open a window instead of turning on the air. Run your ceiling fans throughout the year in a seasonally appropriate direction.

    In the long term, there are lots of steps you can take to permanently lower your energy bill, or at least lower it for the season. Add more insulation to your home or install weatherstripping. If you really want to kill it, consider things like geothermal heating and cooling or solar panels.

    Monthly entertainment costs

    For entertainment and hobby costs, you simply track all money you’ve spent on those types of expenses per month, then compare that number to previous months. Easy enough!

    In the short term, choosing to enjoy less expensive options is a great strategy. Hit the library instead of the bookstore. Use something you already have instead of buying something new.

    In the long term, try some new hobbies, ones that won’t have as much of an ongoing cost. Keep trying new things until you find ones that click. You might try going on hikes for a month by doing trail walking at a local park, or you might try disc golf, or you might try knitting, or you might try reading. Those are all low-cost hobbies that can replace much more expensive ones. Don’t just stick to one because it’s “cheap,” though. Try lots of “cheap” ones until you find one that really clicks.

    Monthly transportation costs

    How much does it cost in a given month for you to get from one place to another? What about fuel, maintenance, insurance and parking? You should also include depreciation of your car’s value. Don’t forget things like Uber and bus fares and plane tickets. The lower you can get those costs, the better.

    In the short term, the most effective way to keep costs low is to drive less and use your feet, a bicycle or mass transit more often. All of those options are less expensive than driving to and from your destination. There are also lots of tweaks you can do to minimize car expenses, like avoiding hard accelerations.

    In the long term, see if you can cut out one of your cars entirely, which eliminates ongoing costs like vehicle registration and insurance. Try to identify more efficient commuting routes. If you like biking, consider investing in a pannier bag that enables you to use the bike for things like grocery store trips.

    How we use scorekeeping

    We use scorekeeping from time to time in each of these categories, but my biggest focus is with energy costs. I’m constantly trying to lower our home energy use without making anyone uncomfortable.

    Over the years, I’ve added weather-stripping to doors, figured out the optimum temperature for our thermostat so that everyone is comfortable during the various seasons, installed ceiling fans, and countless other tweaks. Even with energy cost increases, we now spend less on energy in an average month than we did during our first year in this home and that’s after adding on a room as well, and almost all of the changes are completely invisible.

    A desire to beat our energy cost “high score” helped fuel this, and it’s saved us many thousands of dollars over the years.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.