Over the many years I’ve written for The Simple Dollar, I have tried a ton of different frugality tactics, and I’ve written about a lot of them. Often, I’ll hear about or read about an idea, wonder if it actually works well and saves money, and then try it myself to find out. If there’s something interesting enough to make a full article about it, I’ll write about it — sometimes there is and sometimes there isn’t.
The thing is, I’ll often try tactics and then end up discarding them after a while because some problem or another pops up, something that I didn’t initially notice. I’ll just shrug my shoulders and go back to my old way of doing things.
However, quite a lot of the things I try stick around. I might adjust them a little over the years, but they prove themselves to be simply better ways of doing things. They save money without any additional effort or quality of life reduction, or in some cases, they actually save money and time or save money and produce better results or, once in a while, all three of them are true.
Here’s a list of sixteen of the frugal changes I’ve tried over the years that have really stuck with me because they simply work. As always when I share frugal ideas, not all of them will match up with your life. Rather, choose a few that seem like they might click well with how you live and try them out for yourself. As for me, every one of these things has worked incredibly well for me over the years and I stick with it to this day.
1. I buy almost everything I can in store brand form.
If you take a peek in my grocery cart, you’ll see a ton of store-brand items. Basically, if it’s not store brand, it’s either fresh produce, something from a very local producer so the money stays local, something on sale, or there’s not a comparable store brand version. If it’s not one of those four things, it’s basically a store brand.
I used to buy heavily into the store brand “stigma” until I actually made a conscious decision to try lots of different store brands and I found that, in the vast majority of cases, I couldn’t tell the difference. Even when I could tell the difference, it was either something that I didn’t care about or, in a few cases, the store brand was better.
I admit that I did hold out for a long time on trash bags, as the first couple of store brand trash bags I bought weren’t good. Readers encouraged me to give store brand trash bags another try and now that’s all we use.
2. I get almost all of my books from the library or Overdrive.
I get a ton of value out of our local library. I read tons of books from there and often check out movies and audiobooks as well, and I’ve gone to a bunch of different group meetings and lectures and special events there, too.
The library also offers a lot of books in e-book form via the Overdrive app, so I actually read a fair number of books on that app on my phone, too.
I do still buy some books, but my pace is perhaps 10% of what it used to be and many of those are discounted e-books. The ones I buy are ones that I feel confident that I’m going to re-read in the future, too, usually after borrowing the book first and reading it.
3. I cut my own hair with a simple, low maintenance hairstyle.
I use an Oster Fast Feed motor clipper with a 1/4″ guide comb on the sides, a 3/8″ on the top, and a run with the blending guide around the edge between the two to smooth it out. I do this about once a month.
This not only reduces the cost of a haircut down to a few cents (plus the prorated cost of the clippers, which has to be down in the $1 range at this point), but it saves time because I’m doing it at home when it’s convenient.
It’s a simple cut, but I’ve practiced enough that it looks pretty good. I have a standard short hair look that I like and that I stick with.
Another advantage is that, by keeping my hair short, I have minimal need for other hair care products. There’s really no need for much more than a drop of shampoo and conditioner for the short hair on my head, and no styling products are needed.
I occasionally get my hair cut by a professional, mostly when I feel like I really screwed up trimming the back (which I can’t see really well) and I want them to fix it to the best of their ability, but this happens less and less frequently as I become more practiced at cutting my own hair. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been inside of any kind of barbershop.
4. Sarah and I make almost all of our meals at home, rarely eating out or getting takeout.
Sarah and I used to eat out or grab takeout several nights a week. We rarely ate at home, in fact.
We nudged ourselves to start cooking more at home when we decided to take our financial life more seriously because it was obvious how much money we were spending on food. At first, we weren’t very good at it — it felt laborious to even make something like scrambled eggs and we often messed up the things we made.
The trick was sticking with the easier stuff and repeating it until it became easy to always get it right. We got really good at things like scrambled eggs, pasta with sauce, grilled sandwiches, and simple soups. After a fair number of tries, we could just nail all of that stuff with ease, and then we started varying those things a lot, and then we started trying new things.
Now? We use those simple meals as emergency fill-ins when our schedule is crazy, make a wide variety of meals on other days, eat a lot of our own leftovers, and very rarely eat out. Our kids view eating out at a restaurant as a rare and special treat… because it is, for us.
5. I keep our home temperature cooler in the winter than I used to, and warmer in the summer.
I used to want our home’s temperature perfectly climate controlled, no matter the season. If I felt a little cool in the winter, I raised the thermostat. If I felt a little warm in the summer, down went the thermostat.
Nowadays, I do things differently. If I feel a little cool in the winter, I go put on some socks or a big hoodie. If I feel a little warm in the summer, I go drink some cold water with some ice in it or go barefoot around the house.
I also do little things like adjusting our ceiling fans so they turn in the right direction for the season and then run them quite a bit, as they do a surprisingly efficient job of stabilizing home temperatures. I also try to block drafts as much as possible, preferably in a permanent fashion with weatherstripping and caulking around windows.
6. We don’t have a home cable or satellite service.
In late 2018, we canceled our home cable service and haven’t had one since. It was actually a surprisingly smooth transition for us, as it turned out that we found easy replacements for most of our viewing habits on streaming services.
Now, we merely subscribe to one or two streaming services at a time and rotate them when the content feels “tired,” circling back to them in a year when they have a bunch of fresh content. This strategy gives us more stuff to watch than ever before. Our monthly bill for video entertainment went from about $120 a month to about $15 a month.
The amazing thing? I can’t think of anything that anyone in our family strongly misses. We still get tons of programs we’re excited to watch, both together and individually.
7. I have a pretty strict laundry routine (and a few other routines).
One thing I learned over time is that if there’s something I do at least once a week, it’s probably worth my time and money to tease it apart, figure out the most efficient way (in terms of time and money) to do it, and stick with that optimized routine.
I have optimized routines for lots of things – doing the dishes, making a number of common meals, getting ready for the workday, my afternoon routine, my before-bed routine, cleaning certain areas of the house, and so on – but the one I wrote about in detail was my laundry routine.
By simply spending an hour or so really investigating my laundry routine and how to maximize the efficiency of what I’m doing and the efficiency of our washer and dryer, and then maybe a couple more hours deliberately practicing much more efficient ways of folding and hanging clothes, I shaved a notable amount of both time and money off of every single load of laundry that I did. I use less water, use less energy, and spend less time doing it than I used to.
Now, replicate that for every routine you have around your home. I’ve basically improved almost all of those routines by spending a few hours thinking about how to do it the best way possible and practicing it intentionally. In each case, I recouped that time surprisingly fast and, in most cases, I do it faster and cheaper now.
The key is to be willing to spend the time to really re-think and re-train some of those routines. If you can do it to several routines, you’ll have noticeably more free time and spend less money, too.
8. Every single bulb in our home is an LED bulb.
Why? In terms of the total cost of ownership, LED bulbs are a great bargain compared to incandescent lights. They last far longer and consume far less energy than pretty much any other household lighting option, which more than makes up for the higher initial cost.
We started migrating to LED bulbs early on for the energy savings but were dissatisfied with the light quality of the earliest LED bulbs. However, LED bulbs today have such variety and light quality that they replace normal bulbs quite well.
We’ve basically “standardized” all of the bulbs in our home to two types and were able to buy bulbs of that style in bulk during a sale a while back. This makes it easy to replace bulbs — if a bulb ever burns out or has some other issue (I think this has happened roughly once), we go to the closet, grab an identical one, and replace it.
We spend less money on our energy bill and less time on changing bulbs. They just work.
9. If I want something impulsive, I either pay for it with a small amount of pocket money or it goes on a “wishlist” for 30 days.
This is a habit that I had to work to build over time, but it’s one that has saved me a ton of money.
I came to realize that almost everything I bought on impulse was something that I ended up at least feeling indifferent about and often entirely regretting when I looked back at that purchase a month or so later. When I’d go through credit card bills and look at each purchase, it was always those impulsive ones that made me disappointed.
So, as a 30-day challenge, I simply gave myself a small amount of pocket money for the month to spend on impulse items, then everything else went on a wish list for at least 30 days before I made the purchase. This 30-day challenge became a 90-day challenge, then a permanent shift. Over time, I made a few little adjustments, bumping up the pocket money a little and setting a clear hobby budget for myself, but I’ve stuck to this overall practice ever since.
If I see something I want but don’t need, I just throw it on a wishlist somewhere. I’ll write it down in my pocket notebook, put it on my Amazon wishlist, or something like that. I date it, then wait. If I come back to it later and more than 30 days have passed, if I still want it, then I allow myself to buy it. If not, I delete it. The amazing part? 95% of the things I save are things that I really can’t see any good reason to buy when I come back to it. The other 5%? Those are completely fine.
10. I buy almost all household supplies and a lot of non-perishable foods in bulk.
Let me clarify what I mean by “in bulk.” What I mean is that almost all of the time, I’ll buy whichever item has the cheapest cost per unit, which is usually (but not always) the largest one. I’ll usually do mental math to quickly figure this out whenever we need something.
That being said, if I notice a big sale on an item we use frequently, I will buy a lot of it. I’ve joked before that I’m the reason that some sale items at my local grocery store have a “limit 10 per customer” sign on them because I will grab a lot of them if the discount is steep. For example, our local store had boxes of store brand spaghetti for $0.49 on sale not too long ago and I bought up to whatever their limit was one day, then reloaded on another day when I was near the store.
We have plenty of room in our house to store those items. We have a large pantry and a pretty large closet that’s mostly used for household supplies. We might as well use the space to keep costs low.
11. I do (almost) all of my grocery shopping at a discount grocer.
I spent some time figuring out which store reasonably near our home had the cheapest prices on the 25 or 30 items we buy the most often and two stores came out as the clear winners above the others — Fareway (a local discount chain) and Aldi. Aldi is just a bit cheaper than Fareway overall, but Fareway is substantially more convenient by location.
Because of that, Fareway became our default grocery store, chosen primarily for price. I became really familiar with their regular prices and can identify sales there quite easily.
Fareway’s selection isn’t endless, so I do supplement a bit with purchases at Hy-Vee (a more expensive local grocer), Target (more convenient than Wal-Mart), and Sam’s Club (more on that in a minute).
12. We keep a warehouse club membership mostly for the gas savings.
A while back, I did the math on the annual cost of fuel for our vehicles and I came to the conclusion that by buying all of our gas at a local warehouse club, we save more than enough over the course of a year to pay for our membership. The only warehouse club near us is Sam’s Club and the fuel costs are around $0.08 to $0.10 per gallon less than any station nearby. Thus, over the course of a year, if we fill up each car twice a month there, we save enough to pay for the membership. Since I also use it for things like mower fuel and snowblower fuel and we sometimes fuel up more than that, the membership actually saves us money before we even go into the store.
This opens up the warehouse club as an equal comparison tool for shopping since the membership is subsidized. We find that it’s worthwhile on a few bulk buys, while our discount grocer is better on others. It’s also a good comparison point for some larger purchases, too.
13. I buy late-model, used cars, keep up with the maintenance schedule, and drive them until problems consistently pop up.
With the exception of my wife’s commuting car, a hybrid bought when there were several tax incentives involved, all of our cars bought since our financial turnaround has been late-model used cars (one of them was even purchased off of Craigslist). Each car has followed the maintenance schedule pretty strictly and has been driven until the repairs start to mount.
When we buy a car, we tend to stick to brands with great reliability history (mostly Toyota and Honda thus far). We have a great local mechanic that we trust that does our maintenance for us and is very familiar with Hondas and Toyotas. He has established a great track record for us in terms of pointing out problems that are coming and actually encouraged us when it was time to move on from two of our cars as they both had several expensive necessary repairs looming.
So, here’s the key: buy late model used reliable cars, stick to the maintenance schedule, and use a trusted mechanic loyally for all of the work so that you can take them at their word when they start pointing out lots of upcoming repairs (which is the time to replace it).
This has been our pattern since our financial turnaround and it has kept our car costs quite low. We’ve had multiple vehicles go over 250,000 miles without skipping a beat.
14. I try repairing things myself before calling in a repairperson or getting rid of an item.
My tendency in the past was to simply call a repairperson if something wasn’t working right and if that didn’t make obvious sense, to just junk the item and move on to a new one. Now, in both cases, I give a serious shot to repairing it myself. I go to Youtube, watch some videos, read a few guides, and see what I can do.
As a result, I’ve replaced faucets, replaced toilets, fixed electrical issues, done minor car repairs, and fixed countless toys and electronic devices and mechanical devices. I’ve stitched up clothes, glued many things back together, tightened screws, and fixed hinges. In each one of those cases, I saved us the cost of replacing an item.
Here’s the kicker: the more things I actually do in this vein, the more confident I feel the next time. There are a lot of things that used to be intimidating that are now easy. There are a lot of things I would have never dreamed of tackling several years ago that I fix on my own, like a furnace issue just this winter and a washing machine issue in the fall.
Even a conservative counting of the savings over the years registers into the multiple thousands of dollars, and because of that experience, I feel ready to tackle all kinds of things.
15. I drink a lot of water and very little of anything else.
I used to be an absolute soda addict, quaffing Diet Cokes and other sodas all throughout the day. Over the last several years, I’ve cut that habit drastically.
Most days, I’ll drink maybe one or two cups of cold brew coffee in the morning, maybe one cup of tea in the afternoon, and all of my other beverages are water. Perhaps twice a week, I’ll have a craft beer. Perhaps once a week, I’ll have a soda.
The savings have been tremendous, as have the health benefits. I feel better than I did ten years ago and I attribute that, at least in part, to the beverage switch.
16. I use a meal-plan-to-grocery-list grocery shopping strategy every single week.
Back in the day, I’d go to the grocery store without any real plan in mind, hoping meal inspiration would strike as I browsed the aisles, grabbing all kinds of items as I went. It worked in terms of cobbling together meals, but I ended up with a lot of extra items and snacks and ended up spending a ton of extra money.
Nowadays, I use a pretty straightforward process almost every week for meals and groceries. I look at the grocery store flyer, come up with meals for the entire week based on what’s on sale at the store and write it all out on a whiteboard, figure out what we need to pull off those meals and make a grocery list accordingly. Then, I head off to the store and stick to that grocery list.
Focusing on the list means that my eyes aren’t roving the shelves any more other than to look for a specific item I have in mind. The impulse buys have dropped to practically zero. Furthermore, I find that my list almost always magically includes a bunch of items that just happen to be on sale, which is the result of making a meal plan after studying the grocery store flyer.
Afterward, I just follow the meal plan. If we’re having one-pot spaghetti and salad on Wednesday, I make one-pot spaghetti and salad on Wednesday. If we’re having “leftover buffet” on Thursday, I pull out all the leftovers on Thursday evening and let people make their plates.
Effective frugality is really about changes that incorporate easily into your life.
Over the years, I’ve read about thousands of frugality strategies and tried hundreds of them. Only some of those stuck around in my life as a truly permanent change. One might see that as a failure, but here’s the thing: the ones that stuck around were the ones that folded easily into my life. They made my life better because they incorporated easily into the other things that I valued in other aspects of my life. They folded nicely into my hobbies and interests and how I spent my time and the relationships I have.
Everyone’s life is different. The key is to keep learning about and thinking up new strategies for better living, trying out the ones that seem promising, and keeping the ones that live up to that promise of making things work just a little better. The ones that click for you will probably overlap a little with the ones that click for me, and some won’t overlap at all, and that’s okay. What matters is that you keep seeking a better life and a better way of doing things.