When I think about what it takes to reach financial success, my mind immediately jumps to “live within -- and well beneath -- your means.” I’ve always been a saver, and I’m always interested in finding new ways to live well on less and reduce my costs.
But as I’ve learned more about money, I’ve also realized that “savings” makes up one part of a more complex equation for success. Earning more money needs to be part of the discussion, too.
Here’s why: You can only save so much before you run out of expenses to eliminate before you start depriving yourself. As strongly as I believe in the benefits -- both financial and even emotional -- of living frugally, I also believe in striking a balance. It’s important to save for tomorrow, but not at the expense of happiness today.
Transitioning from a “Saver” to “Earner” Mentality
I hit that savings threshold a few years ago. I followed every single money-saving tip I could find, from cutting cable and clipping coupons to line-drying my clothes and walking instead of driving my car when I could.
I stuck to my stripped-down budget -- and still do today -- but at some point, I realized that if I wanted to accelerate my financial goals I had to do more than save. I had to earn more money, too.
Hitting a savings threshold and realizing that I had no other costs to cut (without making myself miserable and doing stuff like, for example, going without heat in the winter or living off Ramen noodles) forced me to transition from a saver to an earner mentality. Through the shift, however, I stuck to my minimal budget and never changed my spending habits.
Though my household income has more than doubled since transitioning from my old day job to running my own business, I still spend about the same amount of money I did the year I started an entry-level job the summer after college graduation.
How Can Frugal Folks Save Even More?
All that is to explain that I don’t pay much attention to tips on saving more money anymore. I’ve managed to avoid lifestyle inflation and feel I’m still at my savings threshold. There just aren’t any more expenses to eliminate or costs to cut.
Recently, I became curious about revisiting this belief. After all, though I’m still a fan of coupons and I pride myself on being a savvy consumer when I need to make purchases, there were some things I never tried.
While we’re good about DIY-ing it up when it comes to services -- we cut our own grass with a reel mower, for example -- I never got into the whole make-it-yourself craze that seemed to hit many others with the rise of Pinterest. That goes for household products and food.
I also never got into buying in bulk, even though I constantly heard that in the long-run doing so was cheaper with some products. And admittedly, I’m not good at regularly questioning my fixed bills.
Yes, I ditched cable to only have Internet service. But beyond that, I tend to assume the cost of things like my insurance, cell phone, and utilities are a little outside my control.
Hmm. After thinking through these issues, I realized that maybe there was still room for savings improvement after all. I decided to reach out and ask some of my favorite personal finance -- and financially savvy -- bloggers about how frugal folks can save even more in their monthly budgets, and then try to see if I could save more in mine.
Learn to Actually Cook and Make Meals at Home
I’ll be honest with you: I love food. I love dining at various establishments and trying new things.
I justify budgeting for meals out by avoiding major chain restaurants and trying to order items I can’t make at home. We enjoy going out for sushi, for authentic Latin dishes I can’t seem to replicate in my own kitchen, and for elaborate meals I don’t know how to replicate on my own.
But the truth is, I could learn to cook and make more from scratch if I simply dedicated some time and energy to learning. While we do eat at home most of the time (and focus on eating whole foods), our meals end up being extremely simple and basic because I’ve always been too intimidated to get fancy with the spices.
It’s also easy to go basic when you’re a vegetarian and can literally avoid cooking most of the time.
So that’s what we tried this month: avoiding all meals out and making an effort to cook meals we’ve previously dismissed as too complicated.
The results? Our total food budget when down dramatically this month. We did homemade soups of all varieties, which came with the added benefit of creating tasty leftovers. We tried homemade bread products, everything from sandwich bread to naan to tortillas, instead of buying from the store. These were better-tasting and cheaper than what we had been buying.
And we went out on a limb and went for a number of dishes that had more than three ingredients (my previous comfort zone). I’m thrilled we did, as we ate better and healthier than before and saved money. Win-win!
Readers who overcame fear of their own kitchens a long time ago and are already proficient at whipping up tasty, better-than-restaurant meals at home may need a better money-saving tip, so I asked the husband-and-wife blogger team at Frugalwoods for advice. Their suggestion? Get frugal for breakfast.
“We've all gotta eat and, if you're doing it the frugal way, you're already cooking everything at home,” Mrs. Frugalwoods explains. “Breakfast is a true culinary savings opportunity. Two words for you: rolled oats. We eat oats (purchased in bulk from Costco) every day for breakfast, a meal that clocks in at .10 cents per serving. It's delicious, hearty, healthy, easy, quick--and at $1.40 for the two of us for the entire week--extraordinarily frugal.”
Buy in Bulk
I was inspired to finally look at buying in bulk after talking with Millennial blogger Erin Lowry. I knew she had found creative ways to save while getting her start in New York City.
“A lot of my early money-saving tactics were pretty typical,” she says. “I brown-bagged my lunches. If I went out to eat I always searched for deals or I'd scour a menu ahead of time so I already knew what I could afford to buy and would refrain from purchasing alcohol during the meal to keep my costs low. Any extra money, tips from my job at Starbucks or cab money from a babysitting gig, was immediately put into savings instead of in my discretionary spending pile.”
But she didn’t stop there. Her “not-so-typical” money-saving moves included taking home the boxed lunches that were perfectly good but just past their sell-by date from Starbucks. Erin also “purchased rice in bulk and would find cheap veggies and make stir-fry meals. That 20 lbs bag of rice for $12 was a great deal,” she explains. “It takes ages to finish!”
And she still buys in bulk today: “I also buy a lot of my bath products in bulk via Amazon Prime because I don't have access to a Costco or Sam's Club and it's often cheaper to buy shampoo and body wash via Amazon than on the shelves at a convenience store. A former roommate of mine used to buy cereal in bulk off Amazon Prime because cereal can be $6 a box in NYC!”
Erin convinced me -- especially with her tip about buying on Amazon. While we do have access to a Costco, it’s about 15 miles away and is constantly, insanely crowded. I already had a Prime membership (that I split with family members to mitigate the cost!) so decided to look for bulk items via the online giant this month.
While I was able to save a little bit, the difference in my online cost versus my in-store, non-bulk cost was pretty small. That being said, I think this is a change I’ll stick with.
In addition to some savings (which are better than no savings), I appreciated the convenience of having items delivered to my door. That saved me more than money: my time and wear and tear on my car. I was also able to purchase products I’d never seen in local stores including ingredients to try making my own laundry detergent, next month's money-saving challenge!
Question Everything and Continue to Cut Costs
There was one other way I made an effort to pass that savings threshold I just thought I had hit: follow my friend J. Money’s advice to “challenge everything.” The way I take this? Don’t assume fixed costs are forever fixed.
This month, I called up service providers and asked the hard questions. Why did this bill go up this year? Are there other options for cheaper services? I don’t want to pay this much; what can you do for me?
Previously, I didn’t think you could just do this. Turns out, you absolutely can. As a result of my efforts to question my bills -- and my service providers about their costs -- I was able to save on:
- My garbage collection bill
- My car insurance
- An annual fee on my credit card (I was able to switch from a card with a fee to a no-fee version, so I didn’t have to close my account to avoid the fee.)
- My spouse’s cell phone bill (I switched to Republic Wireless a few months ago myself.)
I’m thinking about targeting some larger expenses next. Another financial pro I talked to was Alan Moore, co-founder of XY Planning Network. He agreed that “sometimes the easiest way to save more each month is to focus on our monthly expenses, like the cable bill, cell phone plan, and so on.”
But he also suggested to look at the big stuff, too. "Sometime we get so caught up on not spending too much money on lattes that we forget to look at our largest expenses,” he explains. He poses a good question to think about if you feel you’re at your frugal savings threshold as I did: “Have you looked at refinancing your mortgage lately? That could save you hundreds of dollars each month. What about paying off your car loan, and then directing that payment into savings each month?”
In other words, don’t be afraid to think big. If these small changes and savings experiments won’t get you far -- or you’re ahead of me and have already tried these tweaks -- consider the large expenses you deal with every month.
And remember, when it comes to saving more when you’re already living frugally, question everything. Challenge your costs, and challenge your own perceptions of how much you can save.