There are plenty of reasons to live a more frugal lifestyle. You might be saving up for a big vacation or new car. Maybe you want to reject consumerism and trim unnecessary expenses from your life. It could be that times are tough and everyone has to make sacrifices somewhere. Or maybe there are simply other things you'd rather be spending your money on. Whatever the reason, you've decided to make personal budget cuts and keep more money in your own pocket.
The problem is, once you've cut back on restaurant visits, transferred your debt to a lower-interest credit card and gotten that latte habit under control, where else can you cut? At some point you get the absolute necessities, and you can't cut those. Can you?
You can get by with a lot less than you think you need and manage the things you can't cut (food, transportation to work) for much less than you're paying right now. Serious frugality, however, can get tricky. Not every plan to save money works out. If you've got a few tools and know what you're doing, changing your own oil can save you $10 to $15 every few months. If not, you might be better off having it done professionally -- especially if your mechanical ineptitude might damage your car.
What are the best ways to save money? And what are the most efficient methods to accomplish this level of extreme budget cutting? Let's start by putting our green thumbs to work.
Grow Your Own Food
You can stop ordering takeout and use grocery coupons, but you'll still need to visit the supermarket to keep your family fed. You want to buy healthy food, but the produce section is often the most expensive part of the store. One way to save cash is to grow vegetables in your own yard.
This isn't a fool-proof plan, however. The problems with growing vegetables include:
- Initial costs. Your first year, you'll probably lose money due to buying tools and supplies.
- Labor intensity. Plan on a day or two to plant (depending on the size of your garden) and several hours each week for maintenance.
- No guarantees. Bad weather, plant disease, insects and other factors could keep you from getting a useful return out of your gardening efforts.
- Abundance of seasonal foods. You'll have more tomatoes and cucumbers than you could possibly eat in August, and none the rest of the year unless you learn to can or pickle your veggies.
To mitigate these problems, focus on growing expensive foods, like tomatoes. Composting also reduces costs: A double or triple layer of newspaper will block weeds most of the growing season and decompose into the soil by next spring. Cover the newspaper with a thin layer of wood mulch to weigh it down. Make sure you use regular newsprint (no glossy ads or magazines), and ensure that your newspaper uses soy-based inks.
One-hundred square feet of garden will roughly double an initial investment of $50 in a given year (not counting startup or labor costs) [source: Kirby]. You can increase the profit by planting a larger area, but this increases the amount of time you'll spend on the garden.
Ditch Cable and Still Watch TV
Cable is a huge expense. Depending on the options you choose and what provider you have, your bill might be $50 to $100 each month just to watch TV. That's $600 to $1,200 every year. It's something you can certainly live without, so the simple solution is to just cut the cord and save some money.
If you can't give up your favorite shows, don't despair. Head to an electronics supply store and get an antenna. You don't really need a fancy one, and a basic model can be found for under $50, about the price of one month's worth of cable. With this, you'll be able to tune in a wide variety of local stations -- you might be surprised at what channels are being broadcast in your area. Since most cable providers use digital compression on their HD signals, you can actually get a better HD picture with your antenna.
If you're still paying for broadband Internet service, there are a number of other ways to access TV shows without cable. Several services provide streaming television shows, but to use them effectively you need a way to connect your TV to the Internet, either through a direct Ethernet connection or through a separate device, like a computer, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Roku box.
Popular TV streaming services include Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and Blockbuster. Some of them offer current TV episodes, some only have past seasons. Deciding which one works best for you depends on whether you just want something to watch or really need to keep up with the latest shows. These services typically cost significantly less per month than cable, although if you need to purchase a computer or gaming system to access the service, add that cost to your evaluation.
One of the biggest problems many people have with getting rid of cable is the inability to watch live sports. There aren't really any ideal solutions to this issue. Several sports packages are available through Playstation 3 and a few other devices that allow streaming of live games. However, these packages can be so expensive they would defeat the purpose of getting rid of cable, and in some cases, your home team's games wouldn't be accessible. There are Web sites that stream various live events, including sports, but not all of them are legal, and they can be difficult to find or access.
Use the Library for Books, Movies and Internet
Today's libraries are much more than places to check out books. A huge portion of your local library's budget goes to maintaining information databases and purchasing computers to provide patrons with Internet access. Libraries also maintain extensive DVD selections for patrons.
It may seem obvious, but if you total up your book purchases and DVD rentals over the course of a year, they can really add up. As long as you make sure to return the materials on time and avoid late fees, you can keep reading at the library without the expense.
The biggest savings a library can offer is free Internet service. Broadband internet costs about $50 per month. Computers at the library are free.
Living without Internet access may seem inconceivable, but getting rid of a dedicated Internet connection is an opportunity to save money by combining expenses. Imagine that you cancel your telephone landline and get a smartphone. You have to pay the monthly fee for data on your smartphone, but if you can accomplish basic functions like e-mail and Facebook updates with your phone, you can save $100 to $150 or more per month.
If you have to write a lengthy e-mail or spend some time searching the internet and don't relish the thought of using a public computer, you could take your laptop to a location with free WiFi. You might have to buy a cup of coffee every now and then, but if you don't rely on this option daily, you'll still save money.
Get a Roommate
The other methods we've mentioned could save you hundreds of dollars a year. This method literally slashes most of your expenses in half. Imagine if your rent, electric bill, gas bill and cable bill were all suddenly cut by 50 percent -- and you had an extra set of hands to help out in the garden.
Of course, getting a roommate can be a major sacrifice if you've been living on your own. Having the privacy and freedom of your own place is one of the things we all strive for, and giving that up is a big step for some people. But if you're serious about saving money, there are few better methods.
If you want to make this situation work, you need enough space in your place for someone else. You'll also need to work out all those little details like who does the dishes and so on. A thorough background check and security deposit is in order if you'll be acting as the landlord.
If you already live in an apartment, taking on a roommate should be relatively simple. You'll probably have to ask the landlord, but they'll typically deal with the lease, adding the new tenant and other details. If you're going to rent out space in your own home, there will be more complications. You'll have to learn the legal aspects of the landlord/tenant relationship, and your city or town may require special permits or inspections for properties that will be rented out.
Move Somewhere Cheaper
Moving to another city is the ultimate step you can take for long-term savings. Living in a large, major city will always be more expensive than living in a small town because property values are so high. That drives up virtually every other price in the city.
For example, moving from Los Angeles to Buffalo, N.Y. will cut your housing costs in half. Health care will cost 16 percent less, utilities 14 percent less, groceries 13 percent less and transportation 8 percent less [source: C2ER via CNN]. Over several years, you could save tens of thousands of dollars. That said, moving and buying a new home is expensive, so that cuts into your savings. You'll also have to find a job in your new city, and in a city with a low cost of living, you may have to take a pay cut.
In 2009, Forbes listed the best areas in the U.S. to live cheaply. The top city was Manchester, N.H., but note that good cities with low costs of living have certain characteristics. They have medium populations (enough for some job opportunities and cultural institutions), but that population has undergone a decline in the last few decades (which reduces property values due to supply and demand).
If you don't need an urban lifestyle, rural areas usually offer low property values. However, the cost of living can be higher due to lack of access to public transportation and other services you might find in a city.
Dollar stores — where most items cost just a buck — always seem to make money. HowStuffWorks finds out how they do it.
- Greenberg, Zack O'Malley. "Full List: America's Best Cheap Cities." Forbes, July 14, 2009. Accessed Oct. 18, 2011. http://www.forbes.com/2009/07/13/cheap-cities-property-lifestyle-real-estate-cheap-places-chart.html
- Kirby, Carrie. "How much savings can a vegetable garden sprout?" Chicago Tribune, April 14, 2011. Accessed Oct. 13, 2011. http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/sc-cons-0414-frugalista-garden-20110414,0,82774.story