Updated on 05.31.07

The Results of an Ultra-Frugal May

Trent Hamm

At the start of the month, I announced that my wife and I were attempting an ultra-frugal month where we would try out a number of highly frugal activities to see how it would go. Let’s go through each pledge to see how it went.

We will only drink water and milk at home. We did this, only excepting a bunch of free soda that was given to us at the end of a graduation party. Since the purpose was to reduce our expenses on beverages, I consider this a success.

We will only go grocery shopping twice the whole month. We mostly accomplished this goal. We took only two “real” trips to the grocery store, with one additional stop at the town grocery in the small town we live in to get some more milk for our son because we thought his whole milk was going bad before the expiration date – we are very careful with milk, smelling it and such before pouring any for ourselves or our son.

We will do all of our produce shopping at the local farmer’s market We accomplished this in part. We partook in everything available at three different local farmer’s markets, but many items simply aren’t in season in Iowa yet, so we did supplement it with a bit of produce from a local supermarket.

We will only do free activities (with a couple necessary exceptions) We did not pay for a single activity the entire month, not even related to graduations and family reunions.

We will read at least one hour per day as a family We averaged this, but we did not read that much every single day; some days we spent with family, and at least one evening we were at the park for more than three hours and Joseph was asleep before we got back home.

We will not use the clothes dryer This one didn’t go as well – several times, the laundry line was full, and another time weather prevented laundry line usage.

We will not eat out at any point (excepting meals related to the graduation and freewill meals) We nailed this one with only one exception, and that involved entertaining a friend.

We will not prepare a meal that costs more than $3 per person Success! Some meals actually were below $1 a person (homemade French toast, for one), which made us very happy.

We will buy no entertainment or hobby items I bought one single entertainment/hobby item the whole month – but it was a graduation gift for someone (The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, if you must know).

We will not run the air conditioner unless the temperature exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit This happened twice, and thus our A/C only ran twice, as far as I know.

We will not watch anything but broadcast television My wife watched The Colbert Report once without thinking about it; other than that, I don’t believe we watched any cable. According to my notes, the television was on seven hours this month, and four of those were devoted to Lost.

We will attend fifteen community meals We had a hard time finding enough freewill dinners to attend, because it turns out that many of the ones I knew of were actually seasonal ones and don’t happen during the summer. We didn’t even come close here, unfortunately, but it appears there are more regular ones in the town we’re moving to.

Although we didn’t quite make it on a few points, we still see May as being a very successful experiment. We are planning on trying July as a “no television” month (excepting testing cable connections and such after we move) because we’ll be busy with house stuff and other things.

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  1. Jennifer says:

    If you’ve already *paid* for the cable, how is *not* watching it more frugal? I mean, I can see this as a test to see if you can cut the cable in the future, but otherwise it’s sort of a waste of $$.

  2. kevin says:

    Lost. Good call.

  3. Kate says:


    One suggestion for your move into your new home. Rig up an indoor laundry line or two. That way you can always hang your laundry up to dry, rain or shine. If you end up doing several loads back to back in your household, you may need several lines. If you can limit it to one load per day, you should be able to manage in a small amount of space.

    We have two short (7′) lines in our laundry room. They are supplemented by a fold-away wooden laundry rack, and also the vinyl-coated metal wire shelving above the machines. I put our socks, undies and dish towels on the edges of these shelves with clothespins. I only use the dryer for a few minutes per load, after everything is already dry. A few minutes on the unheated fluff cycle makes the towels soft and removes lint and cat hair. And it costs close to nothing.

    If you don’t have space in the laundry room, consider the attic as a location for laundry lines, or a bunch of folding laundry racks in a guest room or office. The investment in a couple lines or racks is quickly repaid by not using the dryer to actually dry the laundry.

  4. Ted Valentine says:

    What’s the bottom line? Looks like you accomplished most of your goals, but did you measure $$ saved as a result?

  5. Canadian says:

    Jennifer, if you look at the original post you will see that he describes these things as a test run that will help them decide whether or not to adopt them on a more permanent basis.

  6. Jonathan says:

    I’m confused by the community freewill dinners. Do you mean meals at a place like a homeless shelter? I understand the goal of not spending money, but taking food from a truly needy person in order to achieve a new measure of frugality seems ethically questionable. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  7. alex says:

    I still maintain that ultra-frugality is going overboard. It may be fine to try for a month to test what you could do without, but ultimately the ultra-frugal life seems entirely too money-obsessive compulsive to be very fulfilling.

  8. HappyRock says:

    We all are interested on the actual effect on the budget.

  9. Mark says:

    Since when does it get over 90 degrees in May in Iowa?

  10. Mitch says:

    Iowa has all the seasons, and being in the middle of everything some years you get random snow in April, and some years you get 90 degree weather in May (with it getting even hotter inside). Looking at Lake Park at Weather Underground, it hit 89F on the 13th and 86F on the 19th, while the high on the 4th was 57. That is in NW Iowa; I do not know where Trent is based.

    Afraid I cannot use any contractions right now because my keyboard is in some inscrutable mode.

  11. Bill says:

    I pay under $10/month for channels 2-14 (analog channels 2-78 would cost $55/month)

    However, I recently tested a combo analog/digital USB tuner on my laptop.

    Using only an indoor antenna, I got 3 analog channels, but 12 digital channels.

    I am seriously thinking about putting up an small outdoor antenna (UHF, for digital channels) and dropping cable TV.

  12. Jennifer says:

    That sounds like a really good month you had. I would agree with the recommendation of indoor lines. I have been hanging my laundry to dry for years now and have actually never hung it outside. I have racks inside. I find them at garage sales sometimes. They are expensive at the store though. We might have to try an experiment like that, except we don’t eat out as it is and we don’t spend extra on entertainment and such (rarely, it would not be hard to not do this for a month). Great idea!

  13. Lisa says:

    My family does not pay for any extra tv stations. We do, however, have an account with Netflix and check out movies from the library. Our public television station comes in very clear and the other stations are nearly bearable. The poor reception actually encourages us not to waste our time watching mindless tv. The only time I REALLY regret the situation is during college basketball season and I occassionally will visit a bar/resturant that has HD. for a game. The new tvs and the extra cost for hd service is completely not worth it for my family now.

  14. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The community dinners mentioned above are something common in most towns. They’re dinners given by churches and community organizations in which people can come together, eat, find out about what’s going on in the community, and give a freewill donation to the cause if you support it.

    I am a big fan of these because it makes for a reasonably inexpensive meal (I usually drop in a $10 for my family), plus you get an opportunity to connect with people. I know all of the members of the school board and the city council and the mayor because of these meals and have made many connections for my computer consulting business.

  15. Mardee says:

    Maybe it’s an Iowa thing? I grew up in a small town in Ohio and we never had anything like that. We did have the occasional church fish fry or Kiwanis spaghetti dinner, but those were pay-as-you-go. Still cheap but you pay by the meal.

  16. Debbie says:

    Those are some awesome results, especially when you compare what happened to what would have happened if you had not had these goals, and not just to what would have happened if everything had gone perfectly.

    Have y’all decided to keep doing any of these things or rather to change your regular behavior in any way as a result of this experiment? I get the sense of what was possible, but no sense of what was difficult and what was easy or what was worse than before and whether anything turned out to be better than before.

  17. Jonathan says:

    Thanks for correcting me, Trent. I appreciate the clarification.

  18. fubek says:

    Laundry line: Bad weather is a lame excuse. You can have one inside your apartment.

    Other than that: congrats! How much did you save?

  19. Jodi says:

    This may be the wrong place to ask this question, but I’m starting to get into line drying our laundry. I LOVE the way everything smells comintg of the line. My only problem… crusty feeling towels. How can I solve this? Or can I not achieve dryer soft feelings from line drying?

  20. PF says:

    Jodi, You can throw them in the dryer for just a few minutes and the stiffness will go away. Maybe that’s cheating, but it beats putting them in the dryer for the entire time.

    Trent, don’t hook up cable when you move. It’s the perfect opportunity. You can do it. We’ve been TV free since 1992. Trust me, you will live without Lost. Watch it on DVD once it comes out at the end of the season.

  21. MVP says:

    We’ve gone without cable for a couple years now, and honestly haven’t missed it – except for the occassional sporting events (Olympics; Final Four, etc). We get 4-5 stations and that’s plenty to hog my time more than I’d prefer! We also subscribe to Netflix for $20 per month, so I routinely watch a variety of commercial-free TV shows on DVD, and my husband and I relax to some really great movies, old and new, on the weekends. But I’d like to cut back on watching the regular trash TV that generally consume my weekday evenings when I get home from work and just want to crash. I think we’ll start with a couple of TV-free (including Netflix) nights per week and go from there. I’d like to get more accomplished, especially reading and housework. About keeping towels from ending up bone-dry after line-drying, try using liquid fabric softener in the rinse cycle OR a cup of white vinegar, which is much cheaper.

  22. PF says:

    I’ve always heard that fabric softener and towels is a bad idea; it builds up and makes the towels less absorbent.

  23. SwingCheese says:

    I live pretty much where Trent does (same large city, different suburb), and I can attest to the fact that the heat went waaaay up here in mid-May. We ended up turning on our air a couple of times, too. 90+ is not incredibly common for May in Iowa, but it is not unheard of.

    On the cable idea, we also eliminated cable when we moved (3+ years ago) and, with the exception of Comedy Central, we have missed neither the stations nor the bill.

  24. Lynne says:

    Great experiment, but what habits will be changed as a result? Do you know how much you saved?

    Re: the milk was may be going bad: if you put a pinch of salt [the original preservative] in the milk when you open it, it will stay good for another week or so. There isn’t enuf to taste.
    Re: the laundry: I haven’t used a dryer for years [my DIL got upset when I got rid of one they had had after they moved to another part of the country then came back]. You can hang up clothes on the shower rod – haven’t had to iron for years
    Re: stiff towels: the vinegar works and the fabric softener does make the towel less absorbatent

  25. Darrell says:

    We got rid of our TV about a year ago and we wonder how we ever had time to watch it. Now and then when I see a few minutes of TV at a friends house, it seems really disturbing.

  26. daver says:

    I’m really curious about your meals; I easily spend $400 to 600 on food a month — for just me! Please give us some more details about the food aspect; what did you eat? What did you buy? I’m really interested in more ideas about meal planning and eating well without spending a fortune. And yes, I eat out a lot.

  27. Rob says:

    You can watch Lost on ABC website a day after it airs. Quality is great. You can also watch shows from Fox, CBS, NBC etc right on their websites.

  28. J. Scott says:

    For air-drying clothing I have found a wonderful product. Not only does it allow me to air-dry inside, it also has done away with the need for ironing. The product is called Outdry and I thank the website is outdry.net.

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