As I see it, there are two different modes of frugality. One mode is the big action, the one where you do one thing and it saves you a lot of money going forward. I’m talking about things like cancelling a bill or moving to a more cost-effective place to live or making a big energy improvement to your home or switching to a far more fuel efficient car or ditching a car entirely. Those moves are great things to do and they can make a huge and immediate difference to your finances going forward.
In the end, though, there are really only so many of those big things you can do. You either have to start looking at progressively smaller and smaller “big moves” or just say that it’s good enough and move on with life.
A much different approach is to optimize those repeated little things you do that have financial impact. Rather than doing one big thing that will save $200 this year, you focus on modifying something that will save you $0.50 each time you do it, but you do that thing every day, so that it adds up to about $200 a year in savings.
I use an approach that I like to call the “minimal day.” The “minimal day” simply means that on an ordinary day, I try to keep my expenses and resource consumption as low as possible.
This serves a couple of purposes.
One, it means that most days, I’m not spending much money at all. My “minimal days,” which are most days, are quite inexpensive in terms of how much money I’m spending and how many resources I’m using.
Two, it means that on days where I am doing something out of the ordinary, it feels genuinely special, even when it’s something that might feel ordinary to others. I eat a really simple lunch at home most days, for example, so when I actually go out for lunch, it’s usually with someone and it feels like something special, even if it’s just a fast casual lunch with a friend.
One big part of making this “minimal day” idea work is that I look very carefully at things that I do every day, or almost every day, and then I try to figure out ways to make that element as inexpensive and smooth as I possibly can. I take very ordinary life routines, things that I do over and over and over again, and I try to hone them down to make them as cost-efficient and time-efficient and resource-efficient as possible.
For me, it is well worth investing an hour or two now in deeply investigating a normal routine and finding everything I can tweak about it in order to shave 30 seconds off of the task and $0.50 off of the cost of the task every time I do it forever afterwards. I will take that trade every time, because if I can do that across all of the ordinary things that I do in my life, then I’m going to wind up saving a bunch of money and a bunch of time in my ordinary life compared to how I used to do things.
What kinds of normal routines am I talking about? I’m referring to things like doing a load of laundry, doing a load of dishes, my morning routine with my kids before school, my workday routine, the lunches I eat, the family dinners we have, taking kids to activities, taking a shower and doing basic hygiene, cleaning a room, doing a “meal prep” (where I make a meal and then make three or so extra copies of it to freeze for the future), go grocery shopping, and so on. I could make a very long list of these routines. Ideally, if I can squeeze 10% of the time and 10% of the money out of each of those routines, it’ll make a profound change in my everyday life.
I actually rather enjoy doing this as a project when I have a couple of spare hours. First, I break that routine down into the tiniest baby steps I possibly can. I go through the routine step by step, taking note of every little thing I do. What buttons do I push? Where do I do sorting? What modes do I select? I try to spell all of it out in detail.
Then, I do some research into each of those things. I look into things like the effectiveness of cold water versus warm water versus hot water, and the cost of each. I look at the manual for any appliances I’m using to see what they recommend as the most efficient use of the machine. I make sure I’m following the maintenance routine for each of those appliances, too, and I do it if I haven’t done it lately. I look at all of the materials I’m using for this, particularly anything that gets used up (like soap or water or heat), and I make sure I’m using the right amount of that material.
In the end, I usually end up finding ways to shave off a few steps from each routine, which saves time, and also how to use fewer resources in doing so, which saves money. I might have burnt two hours really looking at the details of how I do some mundane daily task, but now I’m doing it in significantly less time and spending significantly fewer resources in doing it, so going forward, that routine is going to be cheaper and more efficient forever.
If I do that with every routine in my life, then I’m making my “minimal day” require less resources and money and time, and since most of my days are “minimal days,” that adds up to a real impact on my finances and my life. I spend less time doing mundane tasks, spend less money doing them, and thus have more time for the things I want to do and more money with which to build my financial future. Even if it’s just a minute or two and $0.25 or $0.50 for each routine I evaluate, that routine is repeated each and every day, adding up to several hours and a couple hundred bucks over the course of a year, and if I can do the same with every routine, that’s a life-changing difference.
Let me give you a few examples of the kind of analysis I do of ordinary routines at home.
Washing a Load of Laundry
The basics of this routine are simple. I bring a basket of laundry down to the laundry room, dump it in the washer, add a bit of soap, start a load, and wait forty minutes, then move it to the dryer and let it tumble dry for an hour, then I carry the basket upstairs and fold the clothes and put them away. Easy enough, right? That’s a normal routine.
Yet, in that routine, there are lots of little steps that can be tweaked.
The size of the load What’s the most efficient size of a load of laundry in our washer that makes sure it all gets properly clean? For this, I need to look at the manual for the washer, which gives clear recommendations. Our manual actually gives diagrams for the optimal amount of clothes for each setting and suggests that if you have a lot of clothes, you should use one specific setting and put in clothes that fill the basin up to a certain height to get the most clean clothes for the amount of water and energy used. We use the “large load” setting and fill the basin with clothes up to a particular level.
The temperature of the water Is there any reason to use warm or hot water for the wash or warm water for the rinse? Those choices cost money – you have to heat up that water, after all. Is there any reason not to use cold-cold for the water setting? In general, there are only three reasons not to just use cold-cold for everything: when clothes or other items are deeply dirty, when a particular clothing item requires a particular temperature, or when the weather is well below freezing. Outside of that, use cold-cold and you’ll be just fine, saving you a little money on every load.
The type of soap The choice you make here can make a difference of as much as $0.25 per load. For most of our laundry, we use a homemade mix that’s equal portions of washing soda, borax, and soap flakes, mixed together in a small tub with a tablespoon-sized measuring spoon. On occasion, we use store-brand laundry detergent, but the homemade powder is significantly cheaper. The only side effect we’ve noticed with the homemade soap is that
Drying the clothes The most cost-efficient thing to do is to hang clothes up to dry, but that only works if you have space to do so and some extra free time to hang them. We sometimes hang lines across our laundry room to hang some garments, but we often just use the dryer. It turns out from studying our manual that for most clothes, it’s most efficient to use the permanent press setting, which gets clothes dry but doesn’t leave them overly warm when you pull them out of the dryer. It balances the actual purpose of the dryer – getting them dry – with the energy cost, shaving off about 20% of the cost of a tumbled load.
The fabric softener We simply don’t use it. The benefits of it compared to using nothing or using a few wool dryer balls is small enough that we simply don’t bother with any form of fabric softener. Part of this may be due to the water quality in our area, but you should experiment with not using fabric softener or dryer sheets and decide for yourself.
The efficiency of the appliances Both the washer and the dryer have suggestions for maintenance and efficient running in their manuals, so it’s worthwhile to take the time to actually follow those instructions. Tasks like getting behind the dryer to make sure that the blower outtake is completely free of lint are not only going to extend the life of the dryer, but also make each load more energy efficient and water efficient. I keep these kinds of maintenance tasks on a schedule in my calendar, reminding me regularly to do them.
The efficiency of folding I actually worked quite a bit to become super-efficient at folding clothes. I do things like using the two second technique for folding t-shirts, which takes some practice to pick up but makes it a breeze to fold a big pile of t-shirts once you have it down, and I basically just tuck pairs of socks together. To make my laundry as efficient as possible, virtually all of my socks and underwear and jeans are identical, so making pairs and folding clothes is about as efficient as can be. Most other clothing is simply put on inexpensive hangers and hung in the closet. I learned that doing this on the large table near our laundry room is about the easiest place in the house to do the folding, and simply having a good technique down has cut the clothes folding time down to a fraction of what it was years ago.
These tweaks, all added together, have shaved significant time and significant money off of the normal routine of a load of laundry, and most days at our house involve at least one load of laundry (yeah, that’s part of having two adults, three children, and a messy puppy in one house together).
I may have spent several hours of my life optimizing that routine (research, maintenance, and so on), but it now saves me a good 5-10 minutes per day and probably $0.75 per load compared to the methods I used to use. If I repeat that daily for ten years, the time and money savings are tremendous, and I haven’t reduced my quality of living in any way.
Doing a Load of Dishes
In many ways, the efficiency of doing dishes has a lot in common with the efficiency of doing laundry. Many of the same specific elements come into play.
Keeping the dishwasher running efficiently This means doing basic maintenance on your dishwasher, as per the owner’s manual. This means occasionally running an empty load with two cups of white vinegar, making sure any food traps are empty, and making sure that the holes on the sprayer aren’t clogged (and unclogging them as needed with a toothpick or pin). Your manual will tell you what to do. Doing this will ensure your dishwasher lasts a lot longer and also will ensure that when you run it, it runs well.
Optimizing the modes used Your dishwasher likely comes with an array of different cycles. Again, simply knowing what those cycles are and figuring out which ones to use depending on what’s in the dishwasher is worthwhile. Do you need things like a heated drying mode? Maybe, but probably not.
Loading the dishes effectively In most dishwashers, knowing how to load the dishes efficiently and directing them so that they’re going to get clean is going to save you time and effort in terms of re-washing and also enable you to run the dishwasher fewer times.
Using cost-effective dish soap As I mentioned before, I like using homemade dish soap tabs when I have a few minutes to make them. They’re far cheaper than the ones at the store and do a great job. Here’s what I wrote:
Mix a cup of baking soda and a quarter of a cup of salt. Add two teaspoons of liquid dish soap, then a teaspoon of lemon juice. This should form a thick slush that you can easily mold – if it’s too dry, add a bit more lemon juice, but if it’s too wet, add a bit more baking soda. Push this mix into the wells of an ice cube tray, then let it dry for 48 hours. After that, just pop out a “cube” and use that to wash your dishes.
They’re dirt cheap, and using them regularly eliminates the need to run a “cleaning mode” in your dishwasher because of the lemon juice. However, it does take a bit of time to mix up a batch and you do need a place to store them that won’t get wet.
If I don’t have time for those, I honestly don’t see much difference between the different types of dishwashing detergents at the store, so I just buy the cheap store brand detergent. As long as the dishwasher remains clean and there’s no soap residue buildup (meaning I either use homemade soap sometimes or I do an occasional “vinegar load”), they work great.
Having efficient places to store dishes Unloading the dishwasher is a lot faster if most of the items you unload are close to the dishwasher. Things that you wash in the dishwasher frequently should be stored close to the dishwasher, with other items stored further away. A few quick changes in kitchen cabinet arrangement can cut a surprising amount of time off of dishwasher unloading.
Again, little tweaks like reading the manual for proper operation and efficiency, performing maintenance on the item, using inexpensive soap options and keeping the cost of the water and the heating low, and practicing efficient methods for loading and unloading make every load of dishes more cost efficient and time efficient, meaning you have more time and money for other things. If you can shave a minute off of each dishwasher load and $0.20 off of the total cost (by optimizing soap and heat and water usage), that adds up to six hours and $70 over the course of a year and 60 hours and $700 over a decade (not including extending the life of your dishwasher). That’s worth an hour or two of figuring out best practices.
The number of tweaks you can do to make grocery shopping more efficient is almost infinite, and they add up to a huge impact on your food costs.
For example, my old routine of going to the grocery store would involve stopping at an upscale grocer after work with a vague notion of two or three meals I might want to make, loading up the cart with a bunch of things bought on more or less the spur of the moment, grabbing a lot of unplanned snack items along the way, and spending a bunch of extra time in the store.
That can be tweaked all over the place.
Do I have a meal plan?
Did I use a grocery flyer and the bulk items in my cupboard when putting together that meal plan?
Am I planning meals that can be efficiently prepared in the time I have available for them?
Am I shopping at a discount grocer where the average prices are low? Am I sure the store I use is the one with the best average prices in the area? (Aldi and Fareway are two discount grocers near me and they’re the two I use most of the time.)
Did I make a grocery list from that meal plan with only the stuff I actually need on it?
Am I stocking up on nonperishable staples that are on sale at the discount grocer?
Do I have a list of things that I’ll buy at the warehouse club the next time I go there?
Is my list organized to match the layout of the discount grocer that I always use and am familiar with?
Am I synergizing my shopping trip with other errands that need to be run outside the house?
Am I using the ten second rule when putting anything in the cart that’s not on the list? (The ten second rule just means I pause for ten seconds and think about why I shouldn’t make an unplanned purchase.)
When I put stuff in the cupboards and refrigerator and freezer, do I group items by meal so the stuff is easy to grab when I need it for food preparation? Spending a few seconds here can save minutes in a few days.
Stepping back and looking at your grocery shopping routine like this not only makes the whole process much more efficient in terms of time and money, it actually improves the efficiency of your meal preparations later in the week.
When you look at optimizing the routines of your “minimal day” with things like optimizing your laundry washing routine or your dishwashing routine or your home temperature or your grocery routine or your morning routine or your lunch routine or any of the other routines that make up an ordinary day, it can seem like you’re worrying about a minor detail. And the truth is, you are.
What makes the difference here is that the little detail you’re worried about is repeated countless times, far more than you probably realize, and figuring out how to tweak that little detail just a little bit can make a huge difference over the longer scale of your life.
I genuinely believe that part of the reason I’m able to spend big blocks of time on my hobbies most weekends is because I made my normal routines more efficient in terms of time. The elements of my “minimal day” take up far less time than they used to, which means I can take on more things in a typical day, which means I have less things clogging up my weekends, which means a nice leisure block on Sunday afternoons.
In terms of cost, I don’t see the savings directly. Rather, what I notice is that over a long period of time, my energy bill and water bill and food bill are lower than they used to be and that shows up with a gradually larger surplus in our checking account. It’s not a miraculous sudden change, but rather a gradual thing, one that leads us to the ability to automatically contribute to a Roth IRA when we were just unable to do so before.
The thing is, those positive changes really have no negative impact on my quality of life. Getting six daily chores done in two hours rather than just getting five done in two hours doesn’t change the fact that I’m spending two hours on chores – it just means that I now have one fewer chore to worry about this weekend, which gives me more free time.
Doing the laundry in a way where the cost of water, soap, and heat costs $0.25 less but it doesn’t impact the results or the time spent just means that we spend $5 less a month on household supplies and our energy bill is $2 less each month. Over a year, that means about $100 more in our checking account, quietly building up over a year, and that money makes it easier to make a nice end-of-the-year contribution to a Roth IRA or a 529 plan that wouldn’t have otherwise happened.
It’s all about making the minimal day as efficient as possible in terms of resources used, and that requires breaking down all of the things you do in an ordinary day and asking yourself what it is you’re trying to achieve and how you can get that thing done as efficiently as you can. Sometimes you’ll save money, sometimes you’ll save time, often you’ll save both.
Make your default day into a minimal day. Not only will you save a lot of time and money, you’ll also find yourself greatly appreciating the trappings of the days that aren’t so ordinary.