Looking for ways to save money ? Ways that aren't too painful? Are you hoping to pay off a debt, build up a savings account, or just get enough cash in hand to treat yourself to something awesome?
I can't say how long it will take you to reach your financial goals, but I can share how I cut corners to keep us on budget even when our income is erratic.
We've used these money-saving techniques to not just save, but survive, when things got lean, and they always work:
*This post may contain affiliate links. Please read full disclosure here.*
1. Don't Eat Out
I don't mean cutting back on eating out. I mean we simply don't do it when money is short. When things are going well, we are usually happy to use that money for something other than food that will be gone in thirty minutes.
Exceptions: We eat out on birthdays, if we can manage it. If not, we treat ourselves to something we might not otherwise buy from the store and binge for less. (Bonus: leftovers!)
Note: Even when things were tight we did allow for my husband to be able to grab a quick lunch or breakfast when he was driving a truck, since he was always called in on very short notice and never knew when his lunch break would be.
When it comes to food, it is better to plan around your lifestyle than to stick to hardcore rules. You can' think when you are hungry!
2. Don't Subscribe to Anything You Don't Need
If you don't get as much or more out of it than you put into it, then cancel it.
For example, we ditched cable television, but kept the internet. Not only can we find a lifetime of free entertainment online, I have to have it for work.
Therefore, internet was more value for the cost than television.
This rule also goes for subscriptions to magazines and clubs too. You can always hook back up with them later when you are more financially stable.
3. Don't Shop
For things other than household goods, food, or items that are needed to maintain the home.
Chances are you already have plenty of make-up, jewelry, clothing, shoes, etc. Limit personal shopping to razors, shampoo, etc.
You can make your own skin care products in small batches with food items already in your home.
But it's okay to replace something that is truly empty or broken. (If you run out of eyeliner, buy ONE replacement eyeliner, that will work with every look, rather than 3 or 4 different versions.) Just look for bargains and don't go overboard.
I place a big emphasis on the difference between being overly frugal and just being a smart shopper. I don't believe in living without things once they run out, but rather replacing them only when needed.
Other people prefer to bulk shop for items they know they will need in the future, especially when they see them on sale. That's okay too, if it fits your budget and you have storage space for the surplus.
Stay away from online shopping sites too. Unless you are specifically looking for a deal on a needed item.
4. Buy All-Purpose Cleaners
Limit the amount you spend on household cleaning items (which can be pretty expensive!) by choosing one or two items that will clean multiple things.
My three go-to cleaners are bleach, furniture polish, and a mutli-surface cleaner like Windex. But I buy the cheapest version.
You don't really need special cleaner for the each different item in your home. Windex will shine your sink vanity, mirrors, faucets AND tub. If you want to kill germs, use an all purpose cleaner with bleach.
It will clean the tub and the toilet, as well as kitchen appliances. You can even use it as spot remover on white clothes.
The only reason I even bother with furniture polish is that it cleans the wood, leather, chrome and laminate surfaces.
My husband splits a can with me and uses part of it to polish up the bikes before he sells them. Way cheaper than the commercial stuff sold to polish motorcycles. Works in the car too.
So one can of generic Pledge can save us up to $20 on specialty products.
You can also save more money by using things like vinegar for cleaning. I just can't tolerate the smell.
5. Buy generic
Generic, off-brand, store-brand...whatever you want to call it. If it is cheaper (compare the tags closely) then try it. You may be surprised!
Brand loyalty goes out the window when we are broke. Not that I am very loyal to many brands anyhow.
With food, there ARE some items that taste different with generic labels. Bless them, no one has yet matched the perfection of Pop Tart brand brown sugar pastries.
So, I just don't buy them if I can't afford what I like. But I TRIED the generic ones.
That is so important because sometimes you find off-brand food that tastes as good, or even better. If not store-brand, it might be a lesser name-brand.
So, do try different brands, and then keep a list of things you simply can't go cheaper on. Then decide whether you can give it up for awhile or not.
With food that isn't prepared in any way, like eggs, brand really doesn't matter. All eggs come from...well, a chicken's butt. They will all taste just alike. No secret recipes to be seen there.
Even if you choose to be loyal to some brands (I will not ever relinquish my Diet Cokes.) you should still sample around. You might find more than enough savings to cover your more costly items.
Don't forget to try out storebrand items such as:
- Toilet paper
- Baby shampoo
- Kitty litter
- Trash bags
- Over the counter medications and first aid
6. Shop At the Dollar Store
They are usually a lot cheaper. Their own brand of products are WAY cheaper. And I've learned that Family Dollar paper towels are better than Walmart brand.
This is another place you can check out common items, including things like maxi pads and aspirin.
I've also found that kid's clothing and toys from the dollar stores hold up just as well (the clothing holds up mostly better) than the outfits from Walmart or Kmart.
Places like Dollar Tree are the right place to go for things like envelopes and other office supplies. You can also budget yourself $10-$15 a month there to get niceties like nail polish, candles, gift wrap and such.
7. One Light Bulb
There is a ceiling fan in all the bigger rooms of my house. Everyone of them takes 4 or 5 lightbulbs. All of our light fixtures combined come to a grand total of 67 light bulbs!
There is no way we could keep our electric bill under $100 with all of that plus our other electricity usage. And I can't quite get it through to my husband that when you turn on three lights that each have four bulbs, you don't have "a couple" of lights on.
So, I simply unscrewed light bulbs until the multi-bulb fixtures have ONE left.
You can also leave a dead bulb in the sockets if you don't want the fixtures to look weird.
8. Wash Laundry at Night
I always start laundry late at night. It runs while I sit up and write. This way, we aren't being charged the higher rate for peak hours.
We also don't use hot water for laundry. I used to only use hot water for my whites. Now I don't even have hot water hooked up to the machine.
When things are skimpy, I forgo fabric softener, but I buy some cheap dryer sheets to use for just the blankets and towels so the kids don't get zapped by static.
9. Don't Have Pets
I'm not saying pets aren't a joy. But they can be expensive. If it came down to a hard choice, I would choose my kids over any animal. Therefore, we agreed to live without pets for awhile. (we made the decision after losing our beloved dog.)
We do have one fish though, but he is hardly costly. All he needs is a couple of gallons of clean water every few weeks or so, and he is still munching on the food that came with him. (He had his supplies were all a gift from my mother.)
10. Trade and Thrift
You don't necessarily save money if you buy stuff you don't need from a secondhand store or yard sale. So I just don't go. Because I know I will come home with loads of books or cute owl knick-knacks.
I do thrift around for decent children's clothes for play clothes. And for items we need for the house. (Like when our old sofa finally fell apart).
We also swap stuff with neighbors or friends, or take any freebies they were going to dump off somewhere else.
My husband is a master freebie finder. And its just stuff he stumbles across. Like the time he found a brand new Zippo lighter in a remote patch of woods, or the fancy flashlight on the roadside while we were driving.
11. Walmart Savings Catcher App
I very rarely clip coupons. I never find anything for the items I was going to buy. That means I'm not "saving .30", I'm spending a $1 on something I wouldn't have bought anyhow.
If coupons work for what you buy, then go for them! They can help if you buy that stuff anyhow.
I prefer the Savings Catcher App. I only have to shop at one store (saves a lot on gas when you have to drive to three different towns to chase a bargain.) and I am refunded money when the app automatically scans local sales papers.
The only downside is that if you buy mostly store-brand stuff, it takes awhile to accumulate savings.
12. One Television
We have one TV. (circa 1998. I never have to worry about it being stolen!) Since our house is small, we can hear the television in all the rooms anyhow.
Everyone has to take turns picking DVDs from our collection to watch (or we swap with friends.)
I'm not sure whether this really saves any money on the monthly power bill, but I know we have not spent a fortune on televisions, players, and fancy sound systems.
I also keep the tv on a plug strips so I can flip off it off at night, just in case they are right and aliens really do suck kilowatts through our outlets while we sleep.
13. We Mostly Stay Home
I see lots of advice for getting out and having fun for cheap. And I'm sure those people are more interesting than I am.
What I have learned is that if we try to go out:
- We have to drive at least an hour to the city in order to find any entertainment.
- Once you get out, someone will inevitably see or think of something they want to do that costs money. (eat, get a souvenir, play a game, etc.)
- By the time you spend the whole day saying "Nope. No spending." the "fun" really becomes a drag for everyone.
We tend to be hobbyists anyhow. My husband works in his shop, I work on a variety of projects.
Instead of driving our kids around all the time looking for free entertainment, we try to engage them at home a lot. Like this spring when we decided to build them an enormous sandbox or teach them how to draw chalk murals on the end of the house.
We use our imaginations to come up with events we can do spontaneously at home, then we save our outings for local festivals that pop up every now and then and are free to attend.
14. Reuse and Repurpose
I won't go as far as my grandmother, who saved every plastic food container to reuse as storage for leftovers. But that is because I already have a very nice collection of plastic and glass food storage containers.
Technically, I would just be saving trash, not money, by keeping containers I won't use.
I do however sometimes hold onto a container that can be painted or turned into a holiday craft. (peanut cans make cute miniature jack-o-lanterns, for example).
I'm always on the lookout for anything that can be turned into a craft project, especially now that I have a preschooler. Preschool crafts don't really need to achieve any phenomenal levels of perfection.
I also take apart unwanted clothing at the seams, save the buttoms, and cut the cloth so that it can be made into fabric projects.
15. Do It Ourselves
We categorize our to-do list into four sections:
- Things we can do ourselves
- Things we can learn to do ourselves
- Things we can do with the help of a friend
- Things that actually need a professional.
My husband can do anything mechanical. He even took a piece-of-garbage mower that someone abandoned and got it to run. It looks horrible--no hood, seat held on by a bungee cord, all different colors...
But it mows the yard like a fiend.
I like doing the DIY makeovers around the house. We saved $8000 dollars just by redoing our own floors. (total cost of redoing the original wood floors in this house vs. the $8000 ebony flooring we were ogling? $180)
Bonus, now that the ancient shag carpet is gone, I don't have to dust twice a day AND we no longer have to buy allergy medication.
Neither of us are good at major carpentry, which is why our kitchen is a "work of art", until we can save up for a much needed full-scale remodel.
But between us we can wire, weld, plaster, paint, sand, strip, repair, dig, plant, maintain, and reassemble. Not to mention whip up a marbled manicure and a batch of homemade enchiladas.
Every bit you can save adds up, so discount your seemingly "useless" abilities.
16. Be Nice to Everyone
I'm a big believer in not judging books by their covers, or people by their reputations. We have friends on both ends of the social ladder, and everywhere in between.
Its amazing how if you are kind to people, and advocate on their behalf sometimes, it really does come back to bless you.
We had a man come to my husband's shop one day and spend hours helping him replace a transmission for free, just because my husband had talked with him at the gas station one day and given him a tip about some jobs that were hiring.
It can be hard to trust people, especially strangers. But if you use common sense, being nice to everyone (no matter how unimportant or weird they might seem at first) is one of the best investments you can make.
17. Learn to Say No
On the other hand, we have had people that borrowed money and never repaid it. Then came asking for another loan. Or someone we know will hit us up for a loan, but you see them on Facebook showing off new clothes or tools, or partying at several bars.
My husband is super-generous and kind-hearted. He would give everyone money who asked. But sometimes you have to say no and not feel ashamed.
Ditto for donations. If it takes away from your pocket money, then yes, you are doing a good thing. If it means you might not be able to pay your light bill, then no. You can always donate later when you have extra or donate your time instead.
18. Stealing Money
No, I don't hold up banks or anything. What I mean is "stealing" money from ourselves.
I started this when my husband and I first got together. He is the type who spends whatever money he has in his pocket, whether it is a few cents, or a $100.
I started "stealing" his pocket change a little at a time and putting it back. Now we both practice "stealing" our own money. (Including rounding up checks or using cash-back options at the check-out (only when the fee is low, and the amount saved is worthwhile.) We pretend that money has been spent and put it out of sight.
(Note: This does not technically earn or save money. It is simply relocating the money to a different container as a psychological trick to break the cycle of bad spending habits, and to remove temptation to overspend.
The actual SAVINGS part comes in when you have a strict no-spending rule for anything in your change bank, then moving it all to a savings account when you reach certain thresholds. Preferably with the same no-spending rule attached.)
You can read here how we apply the small change towards paying off small debts.
Other Things We Do To Save Money
There many more ways we try to cut our spending and pad our bank account.
We may not use these consistently, but we use them enough that it helps. We know they work when we need them too:
- Constantly compare and change insurance policies!
- Save and recycle any soda cans we find or use
- Caulk the house like crazy
- Replace older appliances frequently to keep up with new energy saving features
- Eat lots of beans (but not all the damn time. Because what's the point of living?)
- Make sure our water pipes are well insulated to prevent costly damage during freezes
- Properly winterize and store things so they don't have to be replaced often (tools, hoses, patio furniture)
- Split entrees if we are invited to eat with friends or family
- Let people know in advance if we can't give Christmas gifts and decline any parties where we have to bring something. It might not be polite, but its an emergency protocol.
- Be guinea pigs (free haircuts from a barber student for practice? Free photography sessions from someone setting up their portfolio? Sure. Bring it on.)
- Invest in good containers for dry goods so snacks won't go stale at the end of the week
- Keep the house well organized and labeled so we don't buy replacements for things we can't find.
- Hang out with people who are also unemployed, frugal or working to pay off debt. Never go anywhere with an impulse shopper who has lots of spending money!
- Switch meals (weird, but it works. We eat a heavier, dinner-like meal for breakfast. It lasts longer, than a cup of fruit and an egg, and you aren't binge eating by lunch. Make dinner the lightest meal, and sleep better!
- Home remedies first--Before we go to doctors, we try everything we can at home first, even Gramma's old scary cures. Home remedies first, then OTC, then doctor. Usually, we are cured before we get past the round of Vicks and Tylenol.
- Regift. When an item is new and we won't need or use it.
- Homemade gifts. We always make gifts to add to our kid's tree, and we make gifts for others too.
Those are my frugal living tips for the day. Grab the free grid journal printable below and get creative with your savings tracking!