I have been a penny pincher for a very long time (click here to see how my wedding in 2004 cost only $9k). I have had some financial ups and downs, but even if I have enough money, I tend to live like I don’t. My husband and I have been fortunate in recent years, but rather than bumping up to a bigger house or trading in for a more expensive car, we remain in our starter-sized house and we’ve had the same car for years. Last year, after much scrimping and saving, we paid those suckers off. Now that we’re debt-free, we’re saving more aggressively for our daughter’s education and for our eventual retirement.
Since I try to live frugally regardless of my financial situation, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the ways I save money on a regular basis. I don’t expect anyone to do ALL of these things – I realize that it might seem a bit extreme – but maybe you’re already doing some of them and are looking to add another savings tactic or two to your arsenal. Or maybe you pay full price for everything and don’t know where to begin. In either case, I hope my best practices help you in some way!
What’s in my wallet?
Some financial experts will suggest that you pay for everything in cash. I get the approach, but if you pay in cash, you can’t take advantage of all the great benefits your credit cards can provide. So, I use credit cards for just about everything, but I only buy what I can pay off in full each month.
Here’s what credit cards I use and why:
- United Explorer Mileage Plus from Chase: This is my primary card. It has a $95 annual fee, but I get 2 miles for every $1 spent on United purchases & restaurants, and 1 mile for every other dollar spent. I also get one free checked bag for each United flight, $100 TSA Precheck reimbursement, priority boarding, 2 free United Club passes per year, travel insurance, no foreign transaction fees, purchase protection, and cardmember offers. Use my referral link to receive 40k bonus miles after you spend $2000 in your first three months.
- American Express Blue Cash Every Day: I use this card mostly for business. It has no annual fee, 2% cashback on gas, 3% on groceries and 1% on retail purchases. It offers car rental protection, a free Shoprunner membership, and American Express rewards at select retailers. Use my referral link to receive $150 if you spend $1000 within your first 3 months.
- Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Card from Chase: I use this card for my Amazon and Whole Foods purchases. There is no annual fee, and some of the benefits are 5% back on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases, no foreign transaction fees and 2% back at restaurants, gas stations, and drugstores.
Buy only as big as you need
One reason we were able to pay off our home is that our home is fairly small. The other is that we benefited from the New York City housing bubble on our two previous residences. Our house has 3 bedrooms and one bath. With just three of us and a guinea pig, do we really need more than that (although with a teenage daughter, sometimes we wish for another bathroom!)? My husband and I both work from home, and instead of buying a bigger house, we’ve put money into our house to create comfortable workspaces for us both.
Pay twice. It’s nice.
For years, I’ve been paying half of our mortgage payment every two weeks instead of once per month. Over time, you can save thousands in interest this way without paying a penny extra. I’ve also paid extra towards the principal whenever we are financially able. When things are going well, I add more to each payment.
Buy the car you can afford
We don’t have any car debt, either. When money was tight, we bought used instead of taking on more debt than we could manage. When our finances started improving a few years ago, we treated ourselves and bought a new car but one that was modestly priced. We just didn’t see any reason for a Jaguar F-Pace (starting at $45k), when a Mazda CX-5 (starting at $25k) is perfectly fine—plus it has an excellent MPG, Bluetooth, handles beautifully, etc.
Keep the change
In addition to contributing to a Roth IRA and a SEP IRA each year and adding to our daughter’s college fund, I have an Acorns account. I connect Acorns to my debit card (which I rarely use) and credit cards, and every time I use them, Acorns takes the “spare change” from each transaction and invests that money for me. I also set automatic withdrawals for my Acorns account, adjusting the withdrawals depending on my financial situation. Using an account like this is an easy way to save without feeling much of a pinch!
Save somewhere else
It’s also good to have some cash on hand, just in case. If you have trouble keeping your hand out of the savings account that’s linked to your checking account, consider moving your savings to another bank. There are several FDIC-insured online savings banks, like CIT, Synchrony and Goldman Sachs Bank USA, that offer better interest rates than your traditional bank and require no minimum balance. You should be able to easily transfer funds from your regular bank, so no excuses!
Find a new home for your credit card debt
I hope that you’re paying off your credit cards each month, but if you’re carrying balances, please take a few minutes and look for a new credit card that offers zero percent APR on balance transfers. These offers only last for a limited time, but if you’re carrying balances, you’ll be glad for a temporary break on those finance charges. As you pay down your credit cards, may more towards the one with the highest APR and move down the line from there.
Save any extra money
I know… It’s exciting to receive a tax refund, a commission check or a bonus, and it’s even more exciting to spend it on a shopping spree. But if money is tight, treat yourself a little bit with that extra cash and then sock the rest away. You won’t miss it for long and those savings will come in handy in a time of need.
Ditch the little luxuries
No matter how little or how much money you have, you are probably treating yourself to something that you could do without for a while. You may have heard of the “Latte Factor,” which has become an unpopular cliché in the personal finance community. The Latte Factor essentially means that you bring coffee from home and save the money you would have spent on pricey coffees.
I don’t see a problem with this approach. My husband and I tried a more aggressive version of this several years ago, bringing our own coffee – or tea, in his case – and lunches for a year, which bought us a scuba diving trip to Honduras, And if $3.75 lattes or $8/pound salad bars aren’t your weakness, maybe manicures or car washes are.
Dial back the vacations
We work hard. We deserve vacations. But, if money is tight, those flights to exotic places and 5-star hotel rooms (or Disney, which is a fortune) should be added to the bucket list.
That’s not to say you can’t take trips with your family. For those of us living in the States, did you forget how big and beautiful our country is? When my family and I are trying to watch our spending, we’ll take road trips with some camping or clean-but-unfancy hotels. Bottom line, if you can’t pay off your trip when your credit card bill arrives, you’ve spent too much.
Pay your kids instead of the pro’s
My husband and I hate to pay other people to do anything, which is why we now know how to paint, plaster, re-finish, etc. This alone has saved us a lot of money. We also have a 13-year old who needs spending money, so we “hire” her to do things that you could pay someone to do, like cleaning the car, raking leaves, and cleaning the windows. She’s much less expensive and it allows her the opportunity to earn her own money.
Spend what you can
Try not to get caught up in what other people are spending. Everyone’s financial situation—and spending tolerance–is different, so you do what works for you. Just because your great aunt spent over $100 on a beautiful sweater for your birthday, doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate on her gift.
Save on online shopping
Before I buy anything online, I always do some digging to get a sense of pricing at different retailers. I find that the easiest way to do this is simply Googling the item, but I also like to use browser extensions, like Invisible Hand, which alerts me to better prices elsewhere as I shop.
I also really like cashback browser extensions. My favorites at the moment are Rakuten (formerly eBates) and Swagbucks because they are partnered with so many etailers and offer generous cash back. As I shop, I receive a pop-up notification if there are cash back offers. I click to accept and keep on shopping! After a time, I receive a payout in the form of a gift card or a check.
Skip the dry cleaning
A nice way to save long-term is to buy washable clothes. Obviously, if you wear a suit every day this is not the hack for you, but for the rest of us, there are so many beautiful styles available in washable fabrics. Imagine how much you could save if you weren’t dragging a pile of clothes to the dry cleaner every couple of weeks?
DIY meal planning
Are there certain prepared foods that your family eats a lot of? Could you make these things instead of buying them? I realized a couple of years ago that my family goes through hummus and granola like water, and it so happens that those two foods can be pricey. It also so happens that they’re pretty easy to make and for a lot less than purchasing them.
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably seen posts about my thrift store finds. Checking out thrift stores has become a tradition for my husband, daughter, mother-in-law and me. We have saved thousands of dollars buying used instead of new. And if you’re environmentally-conscious, you’ve probably heard about what buying new clothes – especially fast-fashion that doesn’t tend to last – is doing to the environment.
Now, my quirky vintage style is not for everyone, but most thrift stores have clothes from ALL the recent decades, so there’s really something for everyone. Give thrifting a try!
- I work out at home using free YouTube videos. All the weights, kettlebells, yoga straps and mats I needed cost less than a couple of months of a gym membership.
- Our Christmas tree is artificial. Rather than spending $60+ on a tree every year, I bought a beautiful artificial one on clearance for about $80 a couple of years ago.
- I refuse to buy my daughter designer clothes or shoes (unless they’re reasonably priced). She is welcome to use her own spending money for things like that or add them to her Christmas or birthday lists, but she’s very much my daughter, so she doesn’t. 😉
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