A Step-by-Step Guide for When Friends Ask for Help Being Frugal

I don’t consider myself a personal-finance expert, but as a writer for a variety of personal finance blogs, my friends think I’m a guru of all things money.

Because I’ve made a mini-career out of doling out money-saving advice, I field lots of queries on how people can cut back on this thing or that. I can offer solutions, sure, but the one concept that many people in need of help don’t understand is that being frugal is a lifestyle — and one that takes a considerable amount of dedication if you want to reap the positive results.

So when someone asks my help for being frugal, I start at the beginning — with their budget — and work my way through the aspects of their life that are costing them the most. From how much they’re spending on eating out to shopping smarter to replacing disposable products with reusable ones, here are my basic rules for being frugal. Take note. (See also: Should You Lend to Friends and Family?)

1. Compare Your Income Against Your Expenses

The first step you need to take to make changes to your spending habits is identifying how much you make, how much you spend, which parts of your life cost the most, and how you can cut back. I can almost guarantee that rent and food — two necessities — consume a major portion of your paycheck. So many people think there’s nothing they can do about that, but they’re wrong (and perhaps lazy). If you’re struggling to afford rent, you have a few choices, which include bringing in a roommate to offset the cost if you have the extra room or moving to a more affordable home.

Then there’s food. It always baffles me that the people who complain the most about never having any money are always the ones eating out and ordering in. If you want to save more money, go to the grocery store (with a list; I’ll get to that important piece of the frugal pie in a minute) and buy fresh foods that you can make at home. You’ll save much more money per meal that you will when you’re eating food that you didn’t make — especially because you don’t have to tip yourself.

2. Shop With Lists

Whether you’re going to the supermarket to buy groceries or to Target to pick up cleaning supplies, arm yourself with a list, and stick to it. Whenever I’ve entered any store without a list, I go overboard — never fails. What was meant to be a $20 trip to Target turns into a $100 trip to Target because I don’t have that piece of paper to help keep me in line. It may seem like a silly idea to consider that a Post-it note helps me save money, but not if you believe that willpower is the shaky foundation on which bankruptcy is built. I have no willpower when I go into stores, which is why I’ve stopped shopping inside supermarkets all together. I started shopping online — with my list — so I’m not tempted in the slightest to get sucked in to any of my favorite brands’ shiny, tasty marketing strategies.

3. Cut Out All Unnecessary Expenses Immediately

Not using that pricey gym membership as much as you’d like? Get rid of it. I was paying nearly $90 a month for a gym membership that I used maybe once a month until I finally cut the cord. Now I buy monthly deals to local gyms that I find on daily deal sites like Groupon and Living Social for less than $40 a month, and many of them include extras like a free personal-training session or premium fitness class. Go through the rest of your subscriptions and membership and figure out which ones you can live without. If you don’t watch cable TV on the actual TV anymore, kill it. If you can use free Wi-Fi somewhere nearby and can live without constant access inside your home, get rid of that, too. These are major changes, for sure, but you’ll see major savings right away.

4. Replace Your Disposable Items With Reusable Items

I know a lot of people on tight budgets who buy disposable products like they’re going out of style. Several guys in my circle, for instance, choose to buy paper plates and plastic utensils to avoid washing dishes. That laziness costs a lot of money month to month (and, not to mention, ruins the environment). Granted, many of us are not dining that way, but very few of us can actually claim that we don’t use paper towels on a regular basis. HUGE waste of money there too; you’re literally throwing it away. Instead, buy reusable, washable dishtowels to clean up spills and messes. When you’re done, toss them in the washer with the rest of the soiled linens and prepare them for round two.

5. Change Your Entertainment Habits

If you worried about not having enough money, then you shouldn’t be spending it with abandon. Unfortunately, sacrifices must be made. You’ll need to spend less time at the corner bar, local movie theater, nearby arcade, golf course, shooting range, pottery class — the list goes on and on. Whatever you’re into must be scaled back. That’s not to say that you can’t have any fun at all, but it’s reasonable expectation that you can’t live like royalty if you don’t have a royal’s bank account. With all that free time on your hands, consider filling those voids with a side gig (that could actually be fun, by the way) to help you earn more money instead of spending it.

No one wants to admit they’re lazy, but in my experience it’s the main reason why the people I know who want to save money but somehow can’t, don’t. Change is never easy — and saving money is harder than that — but if you’re serious about turning your financial situation from a negative to a positive, you’ll have to spend more time thinking about how to save money and implementing those strategies instead of taking the easy way out, handing over the cash, and inevitably complaining about it later.

Penny for your thoughts — I’d love to hear what you think about this advice on how to help someone be frugal. Let ’er rip in the comments below.

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Guest's picture

I have a roommate. I don't eat out. I always use a shopping list. The last time I was in a gym, I was subbing for a gym teacher. I walk at the mall across the street. I do my own hair and have it cut at the cheapest salon using a coupon and a senior discount. I polish my own finger and toenails. I drive a 14 year old car and drive as little as possible. All my prescriptions are generic. I borrow dvd's from the library. You get to a point where there is just nothing more to cut down on.

Guest's picture

Sounds like you're doing a great job so far!

The next step might be picking up a side gig of some kind. Do you have anything you're not using? Ebay it! Do you enjoy crafting? Start an etsy store and make some money out of that hobby! What about freelance writing if craft isn't your thing?

Also, if you aren't using your car much, why not sell it? You're probably paying a lot of money just to cover registration/insurance/parking/tolls - maybe car sharing programs/public transport might be an option?

Guest's picture

Eating out at restaurant and entertainment are the easiest areas to cut back on. As a young adult, I've had to learn that you can still have fun without going out to dinner and paying for a meal as well as drinks, or going to the movies and spending $20 on a ticket and snacks. If you're friends don't understand that you need to stick to a budget, then find other frugal friends to hang out with.

Guest's picture

Good list, Mikey! I tell people to ditch the data plan on their phones. Free wi-fi is available in almost every coffee shop and (usually) in your house. Why do you need web access everywhere you go for $30 a month?!! It's crazy. Most people pay it, then never use it.

Guest's picture

None of my friends are interested in being frugal. They all think I'm either extremely cheap or poor, which I am neither. My advice to someone who wants to be frugal would be pretty much the same as above, especially cutting out unnecessary expenses and sticking to a list. Also cutting out disposable paper products, and going over your utility bills and going pre-paid mobile.

I got excited for a minute recently because I thought a friend really wanted to turn it around, and was asking me for recipes and tips, only to make 2 extremely large, frivolous purchases on credit within 4 days. High-interest, "bad credit" credit at that. Although it's none of my business, and my friend will always be my friend, I have to say I was disappointed because I thought I would have a frugal friend. I will still be there when she hops back on that wagon though!

Guest's picture

Great post!

It’s hard to believe how many people have no idea how much they earn vs. how much they spend. Whenever someone says to me that they need more money I always ask them if they have a budget and if they track their spending?

9 times out of 10 they don’t have a budget and they wouldn’t have a clue what they are spending their money on (other than rent or mortgage repayments).

I normally suggest to these people that they download one of the many spending tracker apps for the iPhone or Android and start recording every single purchase (no matter how small) and come back and see me after 4-6 weeks.

Quite often the person in financial hardship discovers that they actually have more than enough money, they just never realized where it was all going. Once they prioritized their spending, many of their money woes disappeared.

The biggest thing that people fail to appreciate is just how much the little things can add up particularly when that money is put to better use and allowed to compound.

Guest's picture

I am totally agree with you. Frugal living is a habit and a lifestyle. You've got very good points here.