20 Great Frugal Skills — and How to Get Them

by Meg Favreau on 27 August 2012 18 comments
Photo: Mike Petrucci

Independence is at the heart of frugality. The more that you can do for yourself, the less you have to pay others to do those things for you. But to be independent, you need skills.

Then 20 skills below can all help you become more independent and frugal. Some of them might come naturally, and some of them might be frustrating — but they're all beneficial. And you don't need to develop full mastery to get the benefits; with many of these skills, just a little knowledge can provide a lot of help. (See also: 10 Lifesaving Skills Everyone Should Know)

1. Gardening

Growing your own food can be a great way to get fresh produce for very, very cheap — as long as you know how to keep your plants from dying. I recommend that "budding" gardeners (I'm sorry, bad joke, I know) start with fresh herbs in containers. They can be grown inside or out, and since fresh herbs tend to be expensive at the grocery store, these plants offer a lot of value for a minimum of work. While every type of plant is different, having a couple of small container herbs will also help you get used to plants' needs — how much sun, when to water them, and so on.

If you're interested in starting a bigger garden, make sure to do your research before diving in — the last thing you want to do is pick a plant that will immediately wither in your or-so-sunny yard or never truly thrive in your moderate climate. Get Rich Slowly has a great post on starting your first garden, and if you're interested in learning more about what grows well in your region, contact your local Cooperative Extension office.

2. Cooking

Always dining out is one of the most budget-busting (and possibly health-busting) things you can do. Thankfully, while cooking might seem daunting, it doesn't have to take a lot of time or effort. When I first started cooking, I focused a lot on one-pot meals. The first "recipe" I cooked for myself regularly was simply this — mix drained canned kidney beans, thawed frozen spinach, and shredded cheddar or pepper jack cheese in the microwave or in a pot on the stovetop. When the cheese is melted, spoon the filling into a tortilla, wrap it up, and eat. It's fast, it's tasty, and it's pretty healthy — and there are a lot of recipes out there like that.

Learning how to cook has become so much easier with the Internet, too. You can search for recipes for your favorite foods, and if you don't know how to do something the recipe calls for ("What the heck is a braise?"), you can search for a how-to video. And there are great overviews on how to start cooking, too. Mark Bittman, the king of delicious, healthy, and simple cooking, did a Q&A about cooking at home that addresses several aspects of getting started. I also recommend this roundup post from The Kitchn that collects several cooking basics, from cooking brown rice to roasting a chicken.

Also, if you have a friend who cooks regularly, offer to buy ingredients in exchange for preparing dinner together. You get to hang out with a friend and get a great cooking lesson.

3. Baking

I put cooking and baking separately because I find that people often think of them as two separate skills; I've talked to a lot of people who say "I'm a better cook than a baker," and vice versa.

A lot of people get intimidated by baking because it seems less forgiving. Amounts need to be more exact. There are mysterious chemical processes afoot.

The truth is that baking, like cooking, can be very simple. Take beer bread for example. It requires three ingredients — beer, flour, and a little bit of sugar. You put it in a greased pan in an oven, and you get bread.

Yeast bread does get a little more complicated, but this homemade bread tutorial from The Simple Dollar talks you through the steps.

As for sweets, again — start simple. Brownies are one of the most basic dessert recipes you can bake. Try this brownie recipe from Rachel Ray.

Whether you're cooking or baking, follow the recipe. There's time for substitutions later once you get more comfortable with cooking.

4. Canning/Preserving

Buying (or growing) produce in bulk when it's cheap and in-season makes frugal sense — if you're able to preserve it for later. Canning can be intimidating — sterilizing jars! Specialized equipment! But being able to preserve summer's best fruits and vegetables can make it worth it. Check out the USDA's home canning guide — it gives you all the basics.

If you don't want to go all the way with canning, the National Center for Home Food Preservation also has information on freezing, drying, curing/smoking, fermenting, and pickling foods. In fact, making fridge pickles is one of my favorite easy ways to preserve vegetables ranging from carrots to cucumbers to okra.

5. Sewing

Sewing is a great example of a skill where just a little knowledge can help a lot. All you need is a needle and thread to sew on a button, mend a tear, or even hem clothing.

Of course, if you do want to get a sewing machine, you have many more options. There are several super-useful, simple projects that you can tackle after you learn how to use your machine, such as sewing curtains. creating aprons, or even making an easy quilt. And when your skills really get up to snuff, well...it's time to sew your own wedding dress.

6. Knitting or Crocheting

While sewing might be a more valuable skill when it comes to fixing things, knitting and crocheting allow you to make great cold-weather wear that's both useful and giftable (or even sellable). In my experience, the best way to learn these skills is to ask a friend to teach you or to take a class at a local yarn shop. Or you can try KnittingHelp.com or the About.com Guide to Crochet.

I also love these skills because they provide something relatively mindless to do while watching TV or riding on public transportation.

7. Exercising

Unlike many of the other items on this list, improving your exercise skills might not save you money directly. But a healthy lifestyle can help eliminate medical visits and improve your mental health.

Several types of exercise — even something as simple as running — can be daunting when you first start them. Even if you plan to approach exercise frugally, it can be beneficial to talk to an expert or take a class before you start doing it on your own. For example, go to a running store and get fit for the right running shoes for your body, or take a yoga class before using free online yoga videos, so a teacher can help you learn the proper alignment.

8. Making Minor Household Repairs

There are several things around the house that you want to hire a professional for. But when it comes to minor fixes like unclogging a drain, fixing a hole in drywall, or installing shelves, you can save hundreds of dollars by doing just a little work.

9. Making Gifts and Cards

Not only are handmade gifts and cards from the heart, they can be a lot cheaper than that store-bought stuff too. Check out our list of gifts you can make today or five great homemade greeting cards.

10. Writing

Want to communicate efficiently, be taken seriously, and land great jobs? Then shine up those writing skills. Being able to accurately get your point across will always serve you well.

Now available online, The Elements of Style is the granddaddy of all grammar and usage books; it will reteach you everything you forgot from school. But writing is about much more than knowing where to put your commas. You can read all of the guides to writing that you want (seriously, do that — one of the best ways to become a better writer is to read what other people have written), but, like any other skill, writing improves primarily through practice.

11. Haggling and Negotiation

Haggling can save you money on everything from furniture to medical care, and knowing how to negotiate can mean the difference between a good starting salary and a great one. Our own Kentin Waits has a great guide to the seven laws of negotiation.

12. Painting

I'm not talking about artistic painting (although that certainly has its benefits). If you can paint a room or even paint the outside of your house, you can save a lot.

13. Budgeting

A solid budget is at the core of any good personal finance plan — it's what helps you ensure that you're saving some of your money while also getting to spend some on things that really matter to you. There are several ways to budget — check out our pieces on the first step to budgeting, budgeting for people who hate planning, and the envelope system.

14. Selling/Marketing

If you ever plan to have a yard sale, list an item on Craigslist, or market yourself as a job applicant, it behooves you to know how to make whatever you're selling as appealing as possible. (And no, being good at selling things doesn't mean doing your best sleazy car salesman impression.)

Discover the nine secrets of highly successful craigslist sellers, how to have a successful garage sale, or how one writer still makes money with eBay. Or if you're trying to market yourself for a job, read about the importance of being memorable, stupid things to put in your cover letter, and unique ways to score a job interview.

15. Getting Rid of Pests

Some things — like bed bugs or roaches — usually require a professional. But you can deal with ants, mice, and other pests yourself.

16. Fixing Broken Things

Yes, "broken things" is a pretty loose term. The skill to learn here might be better described as problem solving — a little bit of online research and elbow grease can save you a lot of money. For example, when my laptop stopped booting up correctly a few months ago, I was sure I needed a new computer — or at least a new drive. But some Googling showed me that my particular laptop has a design flaw that pinches one of the cables. Thanks to an online tutorial, I not only knew that I could get a replacement cable for under $50, but I also learned how to fix that part so it didn't pinch the cable again.

17. Entertaining Yourself

Frugality 101 — you're going to spend a lot of money if you feel like having fun means you always need to go to the movies, a bar, or another establishment where you pay to play. While it might seem silly, entertaining yourself is a skill, and one that you can get better at as you discover new things that you find enjoyable. Read. Make something. Visit friends. Go for a hike. Cook something new. Find a free event. Draw. Do a crossword puzzle. There are many, many ways to have cheap fun.

18. Changing Your Oil

Most laypeople don't know how to fix the stuff that goes really wrong with a car, but you can at the very least a lot of your regular maintenance. The most intimidating of that regular maintenance (at least in my opinion) is changing your oil. But it's totally doable — check out this step-by-step how-to with photos from Edmunds.

19. Changing a Tire

If you get a flat and you don't have roadside assistance through your insurance or an organization like AAA, you'll probably be stuck with a hefty fee. Don't let that happen. Popular Mechanics tells (and shows) you everything you need to know to change a tire.

20. Couponing

Some people love couponing, and others think it's just not worth it — but good couponing skills can save you money. At the very least, you should get in the habit of searching for online coupon codes — a quick search can save you a few bucks.

Did I miss any of your favorite frugal skills? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

4.7
Average: 4.7 (10 votes)
Your rating: None
ShareThis

comments

18 discussions

Add New Comment

CAPTCHA
This test helps prevent automated spam submissions.
Guest's picture
Joe

The only one I'll quibble with is changing your own oil. I'm pretty DIY-focused - I do just about everything else on this list myself - but I pay to have my oil changed. If you shop around for deals and coupons, you can get it done no more than $10 more than the oil and filter will cost you. You keep yourself and your driveway clean, they take care if disposing of the waste oil, and you save yourself an hour or two. Seems like a bargain to me.

Guest's picture
Jared

The only problem with this though is they give you the lowest grade "just enough" oil to get you out the door. Show me one shop that will put fully synthetic oil in your vehicle for cheaper/close to the price of you doing it yourself. On the flip-side of that coin of yours you can also look around for sales, coupons, whatever and find fully synthetic oil AND a good filter (not just some crappy made, quickly thrown together brown paper bag filter).

Guest's picture

Painting is my favorite way to change a room because it makes a huge difference, it's relatively inexpensive, and it's usually something you can accomplish in a weekend.

I have a special savings account at ING set aside for home renovation projects. We've got some bigger projects in mind for our new home, but the first step is getting the rooms we aren't going to renovate painting some color other than industrial white.

As soon as enough money is saved up in the account (from automatic transfers) to pay for painting a room (usually $60-$100, depending on how much paint you have to buy, and if you already have the supplies you need like brushes and drop-cloths), I transfer the money into my checking account and make a trip to the hardware store.

In the ten months that we've owned our condo, I've painting three rooms. It feels more and more homey by the day. :)

Guest's picture

I love these tips! I always say the best way to save money is to DIY, DIY, DIY! I do need to brush up on changing a tire and changing oil. I am really bad with cars. Hey - living in Jersey, I don't even pump my own gas lol! I do need to try and learn these skills to save myself money though. Thanks for the inspiration!

Guest's picture
Michael

These all seem like hobbies - not serious ways to save money. I mean, crocheting? Just buy a sweater at Goodwill and save yourself 15 hrs. of work. How much is your time worth, anyway?

Guest's picture
Guest

Sweaters take forever and the yarn costs oodles, too -- agree that those are better thrifted. But I love sock knitting with an almost religious zeal.

Scarves are great if you are just starting to knit (I make a cowl that fills the neckline on a coat to keep the cold air out, doesn't use too much yarn, and isn't too easily lost or stolen because it stays securely around the wearer's neck), but there's a very low limit to how many scarves anyone really needs (and they are easily thrifted or repurposed from other woolens so mostly useful for learning to knit, not really for saving money). Cotton dishclothes (which are a higher quality product than commercial dishclothes) might be a thriftier beginner project. Wool socks make a great next project and if you are knitting for family or friends can keep you productively and thriftily occupied for many a winter.

The case for socks: Wool socks are qualitatively far superior to most other kinds of socks for both summer and winter wear. Wool socks are expensive and if you get good at sourcing your yarn you can buy the yarn for less than a pair of socks (try JoAnn's Sensations or elann.com). AND If you learn to replace the heels and toes on your socks, THEN you are really stretching your dollars. Alternatively, the yarn from outgrown or heel-worn socks can be re-knitted into a new pair. Thus, I would contest that If you don't overbuy (limit your future projects stash to two skeins at the most) you've got a hobby that CAN save you money.

Other considerations: The project is small and portable, so it can use oddiments of waiting time (but your cell phone might feel snubbed). You can also knit while you listen and knit while you talk (if you are a public citizen who spends time in meetings you can get productive use of otherwise misused "air" time).

Great winter hobby -- the toe and the heel require you to keep your mind on your game (and count rows) so there's a bit of a mental workout there, the footbed and ankle can be straight-on knitting if you like to alternate challenge with relaxation, or as complicated as you wish. And the time you spend knitting is time that you are not spending money in other ways.

A few other favorite sock knitting tips: toe-up knitting so that you can make a shorter sock if you run out of yarn; fitting the sock to the wearer (the footbed is easy to trial fit when you are knitting toe-up); a figure-8 cast-on that is super-quick and super-clean (only possible with toe-up knitting) -- no grafting!; Lucy Neatby videos from library; double-stranding footbed with mohair to make slightly felted denser, warmer footbed; 75% washable wool, 25% nylon for durability and warmth; wrapping the heel at least 60% around the circumference of the sock, maybe even a little more; look for yardage -- some skeins only make one sock which must be taken into consideration when pricing yarn; using the "magic loop" method on one set very long circular needles instead of the 4 or 5 short double-pointed ones that sometimes fall out if you knit loosely or your preschooler or cat takes an interest in the project.

Guest's picture
Guest

I'm with Joe on the oil, and take it a little further. As part of the steps of Your Money or Your Life, I calculated my real hourly wage. When I applied that to things like oil changes and laundry (sitting in laundromat vs having laundromat ppl do for per-pound rate), it totally made sense for me to pay someone else to do these things that I didn't like to do and that ate up a lot of time for me to do - it "cost" me more to do it myself and honestly, the real cash-cost of having someone else do it was not significantly different than the real cash-cost of doing it myself.

Guest's picture
Scoutmaster

A great frugal skill....learn to give.
Simplely give extra produce from your garden, watch a friend's child so they can have a Date Night out, take a small meal or baked goods to someone sick or sad, etc.... Pepole who "get it" will share with you, be it loaning out their tools, home repair etc..that can REALY save you big $$$. If they don't "get it"...you are teaching them how to share & have done a good deed. When i give alot, i find myself happier in life..not needing to spend extra $$$. This one thing alone keeps my savings healthy!!!

Guest's picture
Carol

Yes, this is a great tip!

Guest's picture
Frugal Donna

Do your own taxes - or at least understand personal income tax.

Guest's picture

Getting good at working out when to let go of things (decluttering) and when to hang onto them is a definite skill. Clearing out the wardrobe is great, but doing this too enthusiastically could leave you short of clothes!

Guest's picture

These are great tips! I would add, shop at thrift stores. My mom took me to thrift stores when I was a baby and I grew up loving to find great bargins at thrift stores. When I needed a light Khaki jacket for the spring, I didn't want to pay $30-$40 for a jacket I might only where for a few months a year, so I went to the thrift store and found exactly what I wanted for only $6. I dry cleaned it for $3 and I have a great jacket I have worn every spring for the past 3 years. Well worth the $9 investment and saved me $20-$30 bucks! I also shop at Aldi for my groceries and comparison shop before I buy things so I can try to get the best deals. It all adds up in the end!

Sally Stretton

Guest's picture
Guest

I don't have a dog, but it seems that my friends who do, spend a great deal of money on grooming. Yes, I know it can be a back-breaking task to bathe a dog in the tub but I think the savings would be worth it at least occasionally. I used to have an afghan hound and I bathed him myself and learned to trim his dogsuit too. He may have never been a winner in the dog show circuit but he always looked fine to me, and isn't that what counts?

Guest's picture
Guest

These (at least 80% of them) are things EVERYONE should know!

Guest's picture
lynn

I've saved quite a bit cutting my son's hair, making my own curtains, drying clothes on a line, making my own laundry detergent are a few. Our family does almost everything ourselves. We've repaired washers, dryers, heaters, a/c, refrigerators, cars. My son learned how to sharpen knives. We clean our own house (unlike many I know), do our own landscaping and pool maintenance. Last year we spread four tons of rock and replaced a pool filter.

When we can't do it ourselves, we look to those who can repair reasonably. Our sofa cushion has been repaired instead of replacing the sofa, our backpacks get repaired by shoe repair shops, our shoes get re -heeled when necessary etc.

Guest's picture
Guest

question please re: #10. Writing...

can someone recommend what they would consider to be the most advantageous/helpful book regarding essay writing. As much as I understand the intention behind an essay: wanting to best convincingly prove or refute a thesis statement — a book that serves as a layman's guide would prove helpful.

don't get me wrong - I'm looking and reading, but I'm interested in what the members of this blog thread might have to say...

Suggestions?

Thank you :)

Guest's picture
theMark

One skill/frugal tip I would add is to always plan ahead when you can. This should help limit the number of impulse buys you make. Also, it will allow you to snatch up good deals on things you know you will be needing. Not being in a rush to buy something will allow you to wait for a coupon code or the item to go on sale.

Guest's picture
Robert Harper

Literally, every one of these skills is a must have to some extent! As the internet centralizes most peoples' day-to-day lives, the days where these skills were learned on a regular basis are dwindling. However, it is important to note that these skills are so universal that self-teaching and improving in these areas is becoming more popular.