16 Ways to Kick-Start Frugality

by Aaron Crowe on 16 April 2013 28 comments

One great thing about being frugal is that once you start doing it, it kind of snowballs.

I've been frugal my whole life, partly because I believe that saving money is just as good as making it, and I don't like overpaying for something. But what really kick-started my frugal lifestyle was being laid off in 2008 from the newspaper industry. Without a fulltime job, I no longer had benefits and the same income I had before, so some frugality was called for. (See also: New Year, New Spending Habits)

Here are 16 tips I've learned, either on my own or by talking to people cited below, to kick-start frugality, and make it an everyday part of life. Some are small tips to save a few dollars a week, and a few are big that can add up to hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars, so be sure to start with the easy ones before jumping to the big ones.

1. Start Saving With Direct Deposit

Whether it's a payroll savings plan to save for retirement or simply moving $100 each month from a checking account to a savings account, putting money aside before you get a chance to notice it and spend it is a great first step to being frugal.

2. Track Spending for a Week

Keep track of every penny you spend for a week, and you'll likely see a pattern. Fidelity Investments, of which I'm a customer, has a barrelful of tips for saving money, and it recommends keeping track of every dollar. It has a graphic that shows how far saving a dollar for retirement can go at different ages. Obviously, the younger you start saving, the more money you'll have as it compounds. By tracking spending for a week — either by the dollar or penny — you'll see your weak spots (too many trips to the vending machine at work or coffee house) and can adjust and have the extra money automatically transferred to a savings account.

3. Skip Treats and Luxuries for a Week

Stop buying anything you eat, drink or smoke that would be considered an "extra," and instead drink boring water or make it yourself or bring something cheaper with you. Bring an orange instead of buying chips at the vending machine.

Financial counselor and editor Adrianna Domingos-Lupher told me that she broke a coffee house addiction two years ago by investing in an espresso maker and having lattes at home. Her family has cut their coffee house expenses by nearly 75%, dropping from $30 a week on coffee to less than $10 now. "Granted the learning curve to froth the milk and find the right grind of coffee was a challenge, but I'm glad to report that I visit a certain celestial coffee house a lot less than I used to," she says. "It's more of a treat on weekends than an everyday affair."

4. Spend Only Cash

Try this for a week — it's not as easy as it sounds. Like tracking your spending online, using only cash will show you where your money goes and will limit what you buy.

Author Alan Corey says he started being frugal by simply going to the ATM once a week for $100. Everything he bought had to be in cash. "It kept me on a budget without having to save receipts or planning too much ahead," Corey says. "All I had to do was look in my wallet to see what I could spend, and then determine if I could get by on until my next ATM outing." He later lowered it to $80 a week after $100 was working well, allowing him to save more money.

5. Don't Buy Anything

This is a much more drastic step than what Corey does, and it probably shouldn't be your first step to starting a frugal lifestyle. But if you want to make the big jump in the frugal pond, this will do it. The "no spend challenge," as many bloggers have written about, starts with cutting all unnecessary spending cold turkey. Only spend money on the basics, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, and basic groceries. If anything will lead to a frugal snowball effect, this will.

Jen Smialek, a personal finance blogger in Boston, says a month-long no-spending vow helped her save $600 one month. Smialek says she only spent money on rent, utilities, and basic groceries, and that the habit has helped her stop unnecessary spending for the past four years.

6. Don't Shop at the Grocery Store

I can do this for a week, no problem. In fact, my refrigerator is now almost empty and a trip to the grocery store is imminent. With a well-stocked pantry, visits to the farmer's market, and buying $25 worth of groceries from an online organic grocer, Michelle Jackson, a personal finance blogger, says she went seven weeks without having to go to a grocery store. Jackson says her grocery bill dropped from about $75 per visit (two to three times a week) to $275 for the entire seven weeks.

7. Don't Eat Out

For 30 days in 2006, blogger Carrie Rocha and her husband did a no eating out challenge. It included no stops at the coffee shop, no soda at a gas station, no rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, no concessions at a ballpark, and never a meal in a restaurant. They were successful that month and saved hundreds of dollars, but the real benefit was realizing their lack of self-control. Before, they took joy in a midday treat, and learned that because they couldn't afford to indulge, they had to find healthier ways to get through the temptations. They bought healthier on-the-go snacks and have saved thousands of dollars in the seven years they've been living within their means.

8. No Big Group Meals Out

If eating out once a week with your spouse is too difficult to cut from your lifestyle, try to at least cut out group meals with friends and co-workers.

Mitchell Fox, co-founder of a tax monitoring website, says the best the best thing his wife and he did to start saving money was to skip on big group dinners in San Francisco, which is an expensive city at any income. The dinner bill always seemed to come out to at least $50 per person, sometimes much more with drinks added to the bill. "What we have started to do instead is suggest house parties — either inviting people to our place or suggesting they host — or meeting up for happy hour drinks instead of dinner," Fox says. They used to eat out at least once a week with friends, but this step has cut their monthly spending by at least $500, he says.

9. Get Your Teenager to Wait a Year Before Driving

This kick-start method can help teach you and your teen how to save money through delayed gratification, although convincing a teen of this may be difficult. If you can get around the hassle of driving your teen around for another year when they turn 17, you (and the teenager) will save money by not buying a car or paying for maintenance or extra gas. You also won't have to pay the 20% to 80% surcharge from some insurers for teenage drivers, according to AutoInsuranceCenter.com.

10. Pay Yourself to Meet Your Goals

Putting a few dollars in an envelope or some spare change in a jar whenever you meet a frugal goal is a way to reward yourself for being frugal. Lisa Boesen was successful in her "Lenten Challenge" to use up everything in her pantry and freezer during Lent, so she put $5 in a jar every time she and her husband followed their frugal guidelines. They ended with $100 in the jar last year, Boesen says, and are continuing to add to their own tip jar whenever they meet a frugal goal they've set.

11. Don't Buy a Book for a Month

I've done this for a few years (except on trips) when I realized I was spending about $50 a month on new books for my Kindle. I sometimes buy used books and save 50%, but I mostly go to the library and check them out for free. Getting new releases can be tough, although I've found that if I get on the waiting list early enough, the book is available within a month or so. You can also save money on DVDs, music, and other media at libraries. Getting a library card is too easy, so there's no excuse to try it for a month or so.

12. Cut Back on Haircuts

After spending $200 a month for 25 years so she could have her hair straightened, life style strategist Melisa Alaba eliminated that expense by chopping her relaxed hair and wearing her hair in its natural style. She puts the savings in an education fund for her daughters, and since starting this three years ago, she has learned to do her own hair, and as she puts it, has learned to "embrace my natural beauty."

13. Walk, Bike, or Ride to Work

Moving close to work so you can walk is a big step, but worth thinking about the next time you change jobs. I've made it a life-long habit to live near where I work, and have always lived within a few miles of my job. While I've often needed a car at work, I've been able to walk and bike to work, and live in an area where I can walk to stores for quick errands. I've saved on auto insurance by driving fewer miles, which has also cut maintenance and gas expenses.

14. Get Rid of Your Car

Obviously, this is a big step. I've always wanted to try this, but haven't because I think it would be difficult without having the public transportation of a big city. Comedian Jim Dailakis of New York has, taking public transportation whenever he can or renting cars. Dailakis accumulates points as a gold member with Hertz, allowing him to sometimes rent a car for free.

15. Dump Cable TV for a Month

As I've written before, this step has much more than financial benefits. The biggest has been not wasting time watching TV. I read more, have more free time, and watch programs that I really want to watch. After the initial equipment costs to make the switch away from cable TV and buying monthly services such as Netflix and Hulu, we've saved at least $30 a month.

16. Live in a Tent

This is the biggest, most life-changing way to kick-start frugality, and you might want to make this the last frugal choice you make. But if you're really committed, as Richard and Laura Pawlowski were, then this could be the first kick-start to a life of frugality.

The Pawlowskis are in their 70s and wrote about living in a tent for two years after being pushed from their home of 35 years. They traveled to more than 50 campgrounds in 10 states, saved money, and rebalanced their debt. They no longer paid $1,200 in monthly rent, using some of the money for gas and food.

It's a heck of a kick-start to frugality and makes skipping a daily latte look simple.

How did you kick-start your frugal habits?

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Guest's picture

Great advice! Also plan your meals ahead and know exactly what you are going to eat and how much. If you fix stew, know how many meals it will be consumed. Don't overbuy and don't over prepare. No more waste.

Aaron Crowe's picture

Agreed. For planning meals, I've written about a service that plans the meals for a family, saving a lot of time and expense in buying too much food. Here's the story: http://www.wisebread.com/avoid-dinner-stress-pay-someone-to-plan-your-meals

The service I use is soon starting food delivery, taking another step out of the process and leaving only the cooking and food prep.

Guest's picture

You can also delay any non-emergency purchase for two weeks or a month, to see if you REALLY need it or just kinda want it.

Aaron Crowe's picture

Jenny: I think that's a great idea. I don't know if I can delay such purchases a month, but I have been successful giving myself at least a few days and up to a week. Some things I end up forgetting I wanted.

Guest's picture
David

I recently sold my car after committing to working from home and started using public on a regular basis. Overall, I am very happy with my decision. I don't have to pay for gas, car insurance or any costly fixes that my car would have cost. Also, I am saving for some decent wheels :)

Aaron Crowe's picture

I think this is one of the biggest areas to save money. Getting rid of a car expense can save thousands.

Unfortunately for too many people (myself included), a car is necessary for major errands (for me, picking up my kid at school) and is used for much more than just commuting to work. I didn't get into car sharing in this article, but that can be a great way to have a car for a few hours without much expense. It's mostly offered in urban areas, so suburbia is missing out for now.

Guest's picture
guest

Great tips! #9 surprised me: I live in (from what I've found since reading this!) the only state that allows 14 year olds to drive... didn't realize SoDak was alone on that one.
I have an 8th grader taking drivers ed in May, and going for his license in July. He actually has classmates (8th grade!) who have been driving to school all year... I'm pretty sure we won't be delaying his driving - it's actually an important skill out here in the farmland where he hopes find work driving tractor/truck for a farmer by 16...

Aaron Crowe's picture

Good point. Driving in rural areas is an important skill for young drivers to learn as soon as they can, and can help families get much more done. But I think for most people, delaying a teen's driving for a year will help everyone involved and save everyone a lot of money. It's a good way to teach a teen about finances and how much money goes into a car beyond gas.

Guest's picture

Thanks for including my tip in your article! Great list!

Aaron Crowe's picture

Thanks for your help, Adrianna. I think skipping treats is one of the hardest frugal kick-start methods to do with all of the temptations out there. I was just at the farmer's market in my city and the smell of caramel corn cooking was barely irresistible. I passed, but partly because the line was so long.

Guest's picture
Lola

I'm surprised that thrifting isn't listed. I went through a rough time financially (emotionally, physically, but financially is the focus here) after my divorce. I learned that you can buy just about anything used. My son was 6 months old at the time, and I started out buying him used clothing and toys, then started buying myself clothes from the thrift stores. Now, 5 years later, I am much more financially stable and don't need to shop the thrift stores, however, I still do. There is even a facebook page for my local area for selling used clothing, toys, books, ect...

Aaron Crowe's picture

LOLA:
Thanks for the great tip. I agree that thrift shopping, especially for clothes, can be a smart way to start a more frugal lifestyle. They're fun to shop at since you don't know what the inventory is and what will be there.

Guest's picture
Ivan

Aaron,

You’ve got some great tips here. I really like “Don't Buy a Book for a Month” and “Dump Cable TV for a Month”.

A little change in habits can often save lots of money without any loss in your quality of life. I’ve personally saved hundreds of dollars by using the library instead of buying new books.

A little planning ahead is often all you need to save money!

Aaron Crowe's picture

Ivan:
The library and Roku are two of the best ways I found to make being frugal easy. The library may be the easiest way to kick-start being frugal because it's free and almost every community has one. If library services are cut, it would hurt a lot of frugal readers.

Guest's picture
Kyle

There are so many great tips here! I especially appreciate the tip to not buy a book for a month. I'm an avid reader but I've found that doing "book shares" with friends or doing kindle swaps is a great way to read the books I've been dying to read - for free!

There's a recently released tip sheet by Online Trading Academy that has 40 tips from money experts that perfectly complements this advice. It did really well on reddit a few days ago and helps people manage their spending and "kick-start frugality" too: http://www.tradingacademy.com/resources/financial-education-center/money...

Guest's picture

Not going out to eat and not going shopping or buying unnecessary things is the easiest way to start saving. Yes, everyone wants new things or to enjoy a night out with friends but the truth is that if you want/need to save, you need to make sacrifices and this is where it starts. I also like your idea of buying food at the farmer's market which is always a lot cheaper!

Aaron Crowe's picture

Thanks for the comment, Kelly. I think the common theme is to stop spending money, or at least not as much money, and I don't think people realize how much money they spend on eating out, a night out or an impulse buy of new clothing until they add it up for a month.

Keeping track of such expenses can really open your eyes.

Guest's picture

My New Years Resolution for this year was to not spend any $5 bills that come into my possession, it sounds crazy but it was a great way to get me to start saving and it makes you realize how much you really spend! I've saved almost $300 already from doing nothing!

Aaron Crowe's picture

Morgan:
That's a great way to kick-start being frugal. I'm going to give that a try and see how much I can hold on to by end of summer. Thanks for the great tip!

Guest's picture
bret america

Although interesting, I feel the 'spend only cash' point falls short of using a credit card for purchases. One of the great things about the digital age is being able to track your life in various fashions online. My wife and I use (1) credit card for 90% of purchases (outside of monthly rent/bills). We use Mint / CC website to categorize our spending habits and set digital budgets for analysis. This has provided immense data in reeling in our spending habits and setting goals. We also rack up numerous points and by the end of the year have attained enough to cover our entire Christmas budget. I understand your point is just another unique option and that unfortunately some people are not responsible enough to use a credit card.

Aaron Crowe's picture

Bret:
Spending only cash is meant as a way to keep track of spending for a month, or week if that's all someone can do, and can help not overspend with a credit card. If you're spending only cash and you run out of cash, you can't buy that jacket on sale or whatever. With a credit card, anything is yours if you have the credit limit.

It's also important to pay off the credit card's monthly balance in full, which sounds like something you do. Doing that and keeping track with Mint or something else on how and where money is spent is a good idea if you have the ability not to overspend with a credit card.

Guest's picture
Guest

live in a tent? i mean, c'mon....

Guest's picture
Guest

dont knock it until you try it :)

Aaron Crowe's picture

While moving to a tent is an extreme first step to starting a frugal lifestyle, I included it because I thought it was interesting method and while not for everyone, can be a big step to a frugal life if you're ready for it. It's obviously not a small step to kick-start frugality and shouldn't be taken lightly.

Guest's picture
vin

It's not for the weak or faint of heart, but it does get to the root of our "needs" versus "wants". When survival and waiting out the bad times are critical, putting your money in your own sustenance rather than a landlord's makes sense.

Guest's picture
Rob

Great tips! Doing without unnecessary things for a week or a month really makes you realize how unimportant they are. I dumped cable a few years ago and now I don't even miss it. I don't just sit down and "see what's on" anymore. I look for something else to do, like reading or going out for a bike ride, before even thinking about turning on the TV.

Guest's picture
Kathy

I also went through a rough patch after downsizing, fifteen years ago.
1, 4, 11, 12, and 15, I now do as a way of life, on a permanent basis.
5 I do a modified version of (I only buy what I can clearly justify) .... 8 I also do a modified version of (I DO go to all church suppers! that way you can have fellowship, but the expenses are more realistic).

Guest's picture

Nice article Aaron. I practice much of what you talk about here. A good way I like to look at spending habits is how much they add up to over a period of five or ten years. Once I started to see things in this light, it put a perspective on my spending. Recently, I have also adopted a "don't spend $5 bills on anything." Every time I receive a $5 back in change, I stash it away in my money chest. This adds up very quickly!

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