My Budget Challenge 2016: How to Live Frugally When You Have No Time

[Editor's Note: This is another episode in Max Wong's journey to find an extra $31,000 this year. Read the whole series here.]

One of the assumptions that my friends, who earn more money than me while still living paycheck to paycheck, make about my frugal habits is that they are too busy to actually make these lifestyle changes themselves.

This total garbage assumption keeps so many people poor. Many of my friends insist that I have to be totally wasting my life scrimping all the time. This just isn't true. In fact, I have a lot more free time than any of my friends who argue that every financial tweak costs them too much of their precious time. With very few exceptions, I also have more savings. Here's how I keep a tight budget on a tight schedule.

I Don't Waste Time on Researching Things That Don't Matter

To quote Asiz Ansari: "Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I've never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, 'What happened?' And they replied, 'Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.'"

I spent an hour researching a car part for my Volvo. If I bought this part refurbished locally, it would have cost me $765. I found a brand-new, aftermarket version for $45 online that had stellar reviews. I saved $720 by spending one hour of my life exploring my options. I would not spend this amount of my time researching the shovel I just bought at my local hardware store for $70. I bought the shovel based entirely on the fact that there was just one model to choose from.

Part of saving money is stripping away the marketing message that you need to buy the best of everything or suffer dire consequences.

I Focus on Saving Money on the Things I Already Do

There are so many money-saving activities out there that it's easy for me to screw up my schedule by trying to do them all. While I am always trying to level up on my savings game, when I am crushed for time, I focus on making the things I must do more financially sustainable.

For example I have to weed my garden or risk the wrath of the Los Angeles Fire Department. Since many of the weeds in my garden are edible, I am saving money and time on growing vegetables by eating my weeds. If this sounds disgusting, please note that Chef Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken Magasinet, one of the world's most acclaimed restaurants, serves an entire menu of foraged foods. In fact, Nilsson would probably be distraught by the fact that I am composting probably delicious moss and pine resin. As much as I hate weeding, eating my plant enemies provides a primal and peculiar satisfaction, which makes all the kneeling in the dirt worthwhile.

I Keep an Aspirational Calendar for the Future

As much as I wanted to harvest the green walnuts that grow on wild trees around my neighborhood, I missed my window of opportunity. The nuts are already too mature to make the pickled walnut recipe I wanted to make for holiday gifts this year. Alas, I just didn't have the free time last month to work on my new hobby of preparing wildcrafted food.

So, I am adding "pick walnuts" to my 2017 calendar. By adding reminders to make money-saving moves to my schedule a year in advance, I set myself up for ever-improving financial habits for the future. While I can never do all the aspirational projects I schedule for myself, just creating a plan in advance ensures that I can add at least one new skill to my life each year. I think of it as a wish list with a deadline.

I Get High-End Retail Service at a Low Cost

It does not take me more time to buy a shirt at a thrift store than it does for me to buy a shirt for full price at the mall. In fact, buying used is often quick business because my local thrift stores have customer wish lists. For example, the workers at my neighborhood consignment store know that I am constantly on the hunt for a specific style of discontinued jeans. Whenever a pair in my size shows up, I get a phone call, letting me know they have a pair of jeans on hold for me.

People assume that low cost means poor service. Unlike a lot of retail workers, thrift store clerks often revel in the thrill of the hunt. They love finding the perfect thing, even for other people, so they end up acting like personal shoppers for their favorite customers.

The Off Season Is My Friend

When I lived in Florence, my Italian neighbors told me to wait until November, between tourist seasons, to buy clothes. Everything gets cheaper in November. Hotel and restaurants drop their prices and stores put merchandise on sale. Let me just say that the offseason in Florence is fantastic. The museums emptied out, the lines to my favorite gelato stores got short, and I could walk across the Ponte Vecchio without being part of some tourist's upskirt panty video. I see no point in ever returning to Florence during the high season.

Even if I lived in Podunk, America and never traveled, I would take advantage of the easier access and the discounts on merchandise, entertainment, and education during Podunk's offseason.

I Buy and Make Gifts All Year Long

I start planning for Christmas in January, even though I personally don't celebrate a winter holiday. This extremely early jump on things gives me plenty of time to make handmade gifts and source inexpensive presents for every occasion for pennies.

This last weekend I attended the baptism of a friend's baby. I used some of the $100 trade credit I got from a local consignment store to "buy" several sterling silver baby spoons. I gifted one of the spoons to the new kid, and stashed the rest in my silverware drawer where they quietly await future babies. I also bought a scrimshaw pin for my husband as a reward for his especially thrifty behavior this year. Total cost of these gifts: $0. (And I still have trade credit left over)!

Coupons Are for Crazy Cat Ladies

Okay, you know, I save enough on cat food and cat litter each year to buy a plane ticket to New York City. So all those people who don't want to see Hamilton on Broadway can just keep on buying Friskies at full price. Be my guest.

Although there are some coupon queens who still get a thrill from dumpster diving for newspaper inserts, grocery stores make it so easy to get discounts now. Most big grocery chains even have phone apps that give a curated selection of coupons based on previous purchases. One of my store apps actually makes my phone beep when I pass a sale item on my list. Seriously, I just used a coupon to buy grass fed beef at Whole Foods for $5 a pound. Grass. Fed. Beef. Whole. Foods.

One of my friends lives in DC where his favorite brand of Dennison's Chili is not available. I always send him a flat of cans for his birthday. It does not take me any additional time to buy that chili when it goes on sale, with a coupon, than it does when it's full price. And, even though my friend knows I always buy his chili at a discount, he doesn't enjoy his lunches any less.

I Batch Process My Errands

Mr. Spendypants is saving hundreds of dollars on gas this year by carpooling to work a few days a week. But I save money by carpooling even though I work from home! At least once a week, my awesome neighbor Patria picks me up in her car and we run errands together. Not only does this save me on gas, it turns trips to the post office, the bank, and the pharmacy into a nice afternoon with my friend. Patria started this good habit over a year ago when she realized that she's much more efficient with her errands when I'm in the car with her to keep her on schedule. She also saves money on gas because she's incentivized to batch process her errands.

I Work Less So I Have More Time

I have many friends who work insane hours so they can make enough money to pay for the entourage…that enables them to work insane hours. I have one friend who hates his job so much that I actually worry about him stroking out from stress. He and his wife both work full time to pay for the maid to clean their house, the gardener to do the yard work, and the full time nanny for their kid. Even though I ran the numbers for him, he still can't wrap his head around the idea that he could work fewer hours for less money at his dream job, and that would give him enough flexibility that he could take care of his own child, house, and yard, instead of paying outside help.

The concept that working less can mean more money in the bank seems counterintuitive, but how much I spend is as important as how much I earn. If I spend all my money, it doesn't matter if I make $100 or $1,000,000. I will still have zero savings and possibly less free time.

Progress So Far

Alas, Mr. Spendypants threw a spanner into my already maxed-out schedule. He forgot to pay the yearly $30 bribe, ahem, fee to the fire department to avoid the brush clearance inspection. So we were inspected and given a warning. We have just a few days to trim every tree in our yard by 30%. Did I mention that we have 14 trees in our yard? If we miss the deadline for re-inspection, then we will be fined $356 and I will still have to trim every tree in our yard by 30%. So, instead of working for money, for the last two weeks I have been working a volunteer gig as an angry amateur arborist.

If my blog posts stop abruptly, it means that I have fallen off a ladder to my death. Wish me luck.

As my Mormon friend puts it, I did receive a few #tender mercies during the last pay period in the form of three tiny payments. I earned $9.45 from a book sale on, I sold $51.99 in clothing at a consignment store, and I got a whopping $31.13 as the payout for some random, class action lawsuit against Wells Fargo that I don't remember joining. (I haven't been a Wells Fargo customer in five years, so thank God I wasn't waiting around for that check to arrive).

Since Mr. Spendypants and I were out of town for the baptism, he hasn't balanced his books yet. His savings and expenses for last month will be chronicled as part of my next post.

Goal: $31,000

Amount Raised: $19,998.41

Amount Spent: $10,653.66

Amount Left to Go: $21,747.82

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Joan Freed

I thoroughly enjoyed this post!

I, too, live with the challenge of work less for more free time to learn, to write, to read (more learning and laughing), less stress worrying about things like paying my phone bill, my car insurance, and property taxes, and just being happy in my freedom to choose.

I, finally, have 'the' seasonal job in an excellent climate (for me) that I work fulltime for seven months of the year then escape the winter cold. I pay my reoccuring bills annually -- while I'm working. Voila!