But what if you've already incorporated these easy changes, but are still struggling financially? Then you need to go one step forward, a step into the land of . . . extreme frugality!
What's extreme frugality? It's taking the steps that others might find odd, but have the potential to put some breathing room into your finances.
Mix up your food shopping habits
It may seem easier to buy all your food from a single traditional grocery store, but there's money to be saved by shaking up your routine. Go ahead and poke your head into ethnic stores, and you'll be unlikely to leave empty handed, as certain foods such as meat and produce can be less than half the price of your regular store.
Expiration dates? Take them with a grain of salt. Confused by the "sell-by," "best-by" and "expiration dates" on your food? You're not the only one. Americans waste an estimated "8 million pounds of food annually" due to these vague and unregulated terms, so don't assume that the date on your food products are set in stone. Use your common sense when it comes to tossing food, and make sure to check out this article by food waste author Jonathan Bloom for more details.
Also, try eating in season. And no, this doesn't mean you should only shop at elite farmer's markets. It means to enjoy your corn mid-summer when it's 10/$1, fill up on apples in the fall and enjoy your asparagus in the spring. Not only will you be buying when produce is at its lowest price, you'll also enjoy the natural seasonality of food like your grandparents did.
Institute a restaurant ban
I'm not one to argue that eating out isn't one of life's greatest pleasures, but if you're unable to pay the bills, it might be time to take a break. However, you do need to be a realist about those inevitable busy nights, or you'll find yourself falling back into old habits. Whether you're stockpiling a few lasagnas in the freezer, stashing a couple of pre-made meals or accepting that it won't kill you to serve a simple meal of scrambled eggs, it's important to have a backup plan in place. Don't worry, those restaurants will still be there when your credit union balance is back up again.
Tinker with your utilities
You may cringe when you get your monthly utility bills in the mail, but with a few simple changes you can take charge of your utility accounts.
Switch your lights over to LED bulbs. Gone are the days when these energy-efficient bulbs cost $6 apiece, and if you look around you might be able to score them for free. I filled out a home energy use survey through the Energy Trust of Oregon a few months ago, and was mailed a big box of free bulbs. A quick look at other states' electric company websites show similar programs, many of which offer free in-home energy audits. These are great, as they can be utilized by both home owners and renters!
Few of us earn different amounts based on the seasons, which is why it makes sense to switch to an equal-pay utility program. These programs even out your monthly bills, so you'll make the same payment every month. Years ago, my husband and I switched to an equal-pay program and have really appreciated that we're no longer blindsided by $350 gas bills after a January cold snap or a swelteringly hot August. And the best part is that one bill per year either charges extra or debits any overpayments, and we've always received the debit!
Give, receive and swap
The Buy Nothing Project is working to connect people through the gifting of free wanted and needed items, and there's likely a chapter in your area. Organized through Facebook, you can look for a group in your area by typing "buy nothing" plus your city, town or neighborhood in the Facebook search box. I've both given and received items ranging from a computer charger to a gallon of milk. It's free, and you can specifically ask for what you need, want or even simply wish to borrow.
Don't have a buy nothing group in your area? That's okay, as you can ask your Facebook friends if anyone has whatever extra doohickey that you're looking for. Most people are happy to share their excess stuff, so don't be shy. Many communities have swap gatherings where people bring a certain category ranging from clothing to baby items or even simple household belongings. Participants take what they want and then donate the leftovers to charity. People get to freshen up their wardrobe (or home) without spending a penny, and it's a great option for setting a few gifts aside as pieces are often brand new! Want to know how to host a swap? Oprah's got you covered!
Check out what your library has to offer
You already know that your local library has free books, but you did you know that they likely also offer free e-books, audiobooks, e-magazines, DVDs, Blu-rays, tutoring, foreign language instruction and much much more? Libraries are a great resource for people who've had to cancel paid TV subscriptions or Amazon Prime streaming TV. Click HERE to explore the amazing resources that your tax dollars have already paid for.
Stop buying disposables
Although I'll never suggest that you switch to reusable cloth toilet paper, there is money to be saved by letting go of most other disposable products. You might be tempted by the pictures of pretty reusable paper towels on Pinterest, but it doesn't have to be so complicated. Launderable rags made from stained old T-shirts or ratty old towels make perfect paper towel replacements, and can be stored out of sight. Then bust out those cloth napkins and dish towels and you'll be set! Stop buying facial tissue.
Grab a stack of handkerchiefs from grandpa's estate for the occasional sniffle and upgrade to a roll of toilet paper when you've got a genuine cold.
Make the switch to a menstrual cup. Let's face it, it's expensive to buy menstrual products every month, and when you consider that a menstrual cup costs just $30 and is a one time purchase, it's a little easier to get past any squeamishness.
Fix instead of replace
If you're broke, it's time to start repairing instead of replacing your stuff. Let go of broken things being an excuse to treat yourself to something new. So get out that super-glue, dust off that sewing kit and familiarize yourself with the endless number of YouTube videos that can walk you through even the most complicated of repair processes.
Cut out booze and soda
If you're struggling to make ends meet it's time to take a cold
carbonated hard look at the money you're spending on beverages. This might be a painful step, but extreme frugality takes sacrifice and it's hard to justify soda and alcohol when having enough money for living expenses is unsure. So brew up a batch of iced tea and raise a toast to frugality.
Free up your entertainment
Having a limited budget can make it a challenge to get out of the house for fun. However, with a bit of research and creativity, there are plenty of fun things to do when your wallet has developed an echo. First off, make it a habit to grab any free publications that might advertise local events. Concerts in the park, outdoor activities like hiking and picnics require no money, plus your library is always a great resource for free activities.
One of my favorite things to do is to attend author readings in bookstores, which are interesting yet don't cost a penny. Have a hankering for a museum visit? Check in with your library to see if they have cultural passes, as many of them do. Invite friends over for a potluck game night. Have everyone bring a dish and then choose a game like Cards Against Humanity or maybe something a little more PG. Either way, it's not necessary to spend a ton of money when enjoying the company of family and friends.
Make more money
Cutting spending to a bare minimum is all well and good when times are tight, but sometimes the answer lies in scraping up some extra cash. Whether you're selling unused belongings, participating in a focus group or picking up a side-gig, there's never a time when a few extra bucks doesn't come in handy.
Life can be hard when money is tight, but that doesn't mean that you're without options. There are ways to adhere to an impossibly tight budget without sacrificing fun. And maybe you can even find satisfaction in the creative challenge that comes with a limited budget. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.