Saving money is obviously an awesome thing to do. But for me, the best kind of saving money is when it also helps the environment or increases joy in life. That’s when you’re really doing something right!
I was initially a little nervous about writing this post because I don’t want it to sound like, “Here’s the secret to life and if only you’d be just like ME you’ll be happy forever!” Because that’s not true. Every person has a unique life situation, and what works for me and Chris may not work for you. Nevertheless, when I stumble upon ideas that seem good, I think they are worth spreading. So here we go.
Here (in no particular order) are 10 Frugal Happy tips that I’m sharing from my own experiences. Feel free to pick and choose the ones you like, improve upon them, and/or share your own tips in the comments section!
🌍Reduces environmental impact
🙂Improves quality of life
#1. Buy things used 💰🌍
Purchasing things secondhand is an oft-repeated tip for frugal living. But it's still worth including here because it makes so much sense, and because internet technology makes it easier than ever.
Buying used means less new stuff needs to be made in big polluting factories and shipped all around the world, and fewer useful things get thrown in the dump. It’s amazing how much material stuff exists in this country, and how much of it sits around and never gets used. Just go to any thrift store and you’ll get a sense for the scale of American overconsumption. It’s rather obscene.
Of course, buying used stuff is good for your wallet. $7 for a pair of jeans? $10 for an immersion blender? Sign me up!
Where Chris and I like to shop: secondhand stores, yard sales, Craigslist, and eBay (there’s a “used” checkbox in the filters section). For camping and outdoor gear, we head over to the REI garage sale. For computers, phones, and other tech gadgets, we look for refurbished models (see Apple and Amazon). Online, you can buy pretty much anything secondhand. Through Craigslist we even bought a used electric scooter.
At our wedding in 2014, we happily donned outfits procured from secondhand clothing stores. I think our combined outfits cost less than $100.
My personal goal is to buy everything I can used except for food, toiletries, socks, and underwear. 😊
#2. Buy food in bulk 💰🌍
Chris and I love bulk buying. It’s ideal for foods that 1) we eat a lot of, and 2) are dried and/or have a long shelf life.
Now when I say bulk, I mean BULK. I’m talking a 25-lb. bag of beans, 30-lb. box of pasta, etc. Here are the foods that we often bulk buy:
Beans (lentils, black, pinto, garbanzo)
Peanuts (for peanut butter)
Cooking oil (olive, safflower)
Buying in large quantities is worth it because you get a discounted price and you reduce packaging waste. Since it’s staple foods that you eat frequently, why buy lots of little bags or bottles when you can get one big one? It’s more efficient and cost effective to buy in bulk.
We place our bulk orders at supermarkets like Sprouts and Whole Foods, as well as local bulk/health food stores. One of our favorites is Granny’s Pantry in Pasadena. Another is a restaurant supply store in El Monte that is open to the public with enormous quantities of pretty much every food product out there. There are also lots of websites where you can order bulk food to be delivered to your house, though that’s less desirable from an environmental (fuel and packaging) and monetary (shipping costs) standpoint than in-store shopping.
Chris and I use 5-gallon buckets with airtight lids to store our bulk food. While our house is under renovation, our guest room has become an impressive storeroom.
Um, I think we’re ready for the apocalypse.
Side note: We are on the hunt for a place in the Pasadena/LA area where we can buy bulk quantities of shampoo and liquid soap. If anyone knows of any, please let us know!
#3. Make your own food 💰🌍🙂
Making your own food has many benefits, and can manifest in multiple forms. Here are some of ours:
Peanut butter — Did you know that if you throw a bunch of roasted peanuts into a food processor (just peanuts, nothing else) and turn it on for about 7 minutes, you get creamy peanut butter? It’s really quite impressive. No added sugar, salt, or oil — just pure, rich, flavorful peanuts. It's absolutely delicious, and you never have to throw out another peanut butter jar again.
Bread — A few years ago, our good friend Jeff (the dapper-looking fellow officiating our wedding in the earlier photo) taught us how to bake no-knead bread from scratch, and we’ve been hooked ever since. We bake 4 loaves of whole wheat bread a week for breakfast and lunch (yes I realize this is an insane amount of bread, but we really do eat all of it). Artisan bread usually sells for $6-8 a loaf at the store, so we are saving serious moneys (homemade bread costs us about $2/loaf in ingredients). Taste-wise, it’s unbeatable — I declare this the most delicious, hearty, and healthy bread you can get!
Junk food — As much as possible, Chris and I strive to follow this rule (thank you Michael Pollan): Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself. Turns out most unhealthy foods are a pain in the ass to make. Think cookies, cake, french fries, doughnuts, fried foods, etc. We LOVE cookies but because it’s so much work, we only bake them once in a while. When we do, we completely gorge on them (and deservedly so!). It's an occasional treat rather than the norm. Buying and eating less junk food is healthier for our bodies as well as our wallets.
One time I made Chris a giant heart-shaped cookie for Valentine's Day (at least it looked like a heart before I put it in the oven):
Boba — As a tribute to the SGV (San Gabriel Valley) where we live, here’s a photo from our boba-making party earlier this year. So fun and so yummy! (What's boba?)
Fruit wine — And here’s Chris bottling homemade wine. He used grapes from my aunt and uncle's backyard. He has also tried making wine from loquats, guava, and honey, with varying levels of success. This grape batch, he tells me, was quite good!
Grow your own food — If you have the space and time for it, I can’t recommend growing your own food enough. It’s fun, eye-opening, and very rewarding. Eating something you grew yourself is infinitely more meaningful than eating something you bought from a store. You won’t have to purchase as much food from the market, and you seriously can’t get any more fresh than your own garden. Also, you could never find a carrot like this at any store:
Cook at home — As much as possible, we cook our own meals. Homecooked meals are cheaper than restaurant meals (see tip #7). You have more control over the ingredients that are used, and eating in the comfort of your own home is more relaxing and meaningful.
Wow this tip is getting way too long so moving on now.
#4. Drive less 💰🌍🙂
Chris and I try to drive our car as our last resort. Only if our legs, our bikes, our electric bikes, our electric scooter, and public transit are all unsuitable transportation options for that particular trip. We wrote a whole blog post on why we strive to be car-free, which you can read here.
Owning and driving a car is expensive. Besides the large upfront cost of the car itself, there are ongoing costs from maintenance, car insurance, parking, and (ugghhh) gasoline. I just feel crappy when I drive, knowing that I’m burning up money, crowding the streets, spewing pollution all over the place, and making climate change just a little bit worse.
When we do drive our car, Chris and I log it in our driving log (a spreadsheet we made via Google Sheets), recording the date, number of miles, number of passengers, and purpose for that trip. This helps us stay accountable for our car driving and not get lazy. In the past 6 months, we’ve been using the car about 5-6 times per month. Here's a sample screenshot from our driving log:
For a good read about how driving less can help save money, the planet, and your health, I recommend this excellent piece by blogger Mr. Money Mustache.
#5. Cancel cable 💰🙂
Cable TV can cost over $100 a month, which is a lot! Does anyone really need that many channels? Growing up I watched a lot of TV and it kind of made me feel like a lifeless zombie consumer. I haven’t had a TV for several years now and it’s very liberating, mostly because NO MORE TV COMMERCIALS HALLELUJAH. Sure, marketing companies have figured out how to sneak ads into all aspects of our lives, but TV is still ground zero for nonstop gotta-buy-gotta-shop-let-me-tell-you-what-you-need-in-your-life advertising. Yuck.
I don’t have hard evidence to back this up, but I do believe that not being exposed to TV commercials has helped us save money because we are not as compelled to go out and buy XYZ. I don’t even know what the latest iPhone model is right now, and that’s fine with me.
Chris and I watch shows and movies online on our laptops, mostly using YouTube (free) or Netflix (a few dollars a month). Viewing programs on demand, I find myself being more deliberate about what I watch, instead of passively consuming media content. I also spend less time watching stuff, which frees me up to do other things that I enjoy.
#6. Track your expenses 💰💰
We think this is such an important frugal tip that it gets 2 money bags. For us, the first step to saving money was to start keeping meticulous track of how we spend it.
Back in September 2014, Jeff, Chris, and I all lived together, and the 3 of us decided to track our expenses for one month. The goal was to get a sense for what we were each spending money on and identify ways we could cut back. We created a spreadsheet via Google Sheets, named it “expense tracker,” and made a separate tab for each person. We recorded every purchase we made for a month, down to the penny. $27.62 on groceries, $735.00 on rent, $56.89 on health insurance, etc.
It was like a fun game. As soon as one of us spent money on anything we would yell “Expense tracker!!” and log the expense in the spreadsheet on our phone. If we couldn’t, we’d email the transaction to ourselves or stuff the receipt in our wallet to log later at home. We’d categorize each purchase by type: food, utilities, medical, eating out, debt payments, transportation, etc.
We managed to do this for the entire month of September, and we were like, “Nah that wasn’t a typical month, because I bought that [expensive and unusual one-time thing], so let’s do it for one more month.” So we did it until the end of October. And then we were like, “We still need more data, let’s just do it the rest of the year.” And then at the end of December we were like, “The holidays screwed up my spending average! I’m gonna keep going.” And next thing we know it’s now 2018 and we’ve been doing this for nearly 4 years! (We no longer live with Jeff so we’ve split our spreadsheets, but he is still rocking his expense tracker with his wife.)
Here's a sample screenshot of our expense tracker from a couple years ago:
It does take time and energy to track our purchases, but once it becomes habit it’s like second nature — we don’t think about it anymore, we just do it. It only takes a minute to log each expense, and the cumulative data is extremely valuable (and interesting!). For example, we learned that we spent way too much eating out at restaurants. So we started paying attention to how often we ate out (see tip #7).
Thanks to our expense tracker we can easily see our spending trends, such as how much we spend each year (in the last 12 months Chris and I spent about $29,000 combined, excluding renovation expenses), and what percent of our paychecks we save each month (my goal is to save 50% of my take-home pay). Based on all this information, we can then make reasonable, personalized goals for saving money. Most of all, it allows us to just be aware of when and how we spend money. Having this knowledge gives us more power and control over our financial situation.
Spreadsheets for the win!
P.S. If manually entering purchases isn’t your thing, you could use an expense-tracking app that connects to your bank account like Mint or one of these. But personally, I’m a little freaked out giving a third party access to my finances, and it’s just not as accurate with stuff like categorization and cash purchases.
#7. Track how often you eat out 💰
Using our expense tracker (see tip #6), Chris and I found out we were eating out too much — at times going out every 3 days. For each restaurant meal for two, there went $25-35, gone forever. At a rate of once every 3 days, that can add up to over $3,600 a year!
So Chris and I made a goal: On average, only eat out once every 2 weeks. This is the kind of lifestyle we want to lead. To us, eating out ought to be a special occasion, not an everyday thing.
How to keep track of our goal? Another spreadsheet, of course! We called this one our "eating out tracker." (If you haven’t figured it out, we love spreadsheets around here.) We didn’t count the times we went out with friends or family to eat, because those were socializing events. But if it was only the 2 of us going out, we were just being lazy and/or splurging. So we logged all the times the 2 of us went out to eat and how much money we spent.
In the first year, we were eating out on average every 9.3 days. The following year, it was every 17.0 days. Woot!
It’s amazing how much of a difference it makes to simply track your activities. Nothing was actually stopping us from going out to eat… we just had to fill out this silly spreadsheet every time we did it. But somehow this small deliberate act was enough to give us pause, change our behavior, and reduce unnecessary purchases.
#8. Track your energy use 💰🌍
Same idea here. The first step to saving energy is to know how you’re using it!
A typical American household spends over $100 a month on electricity. Yikes! Every home is different, but there are often many things we can do to get our energy bills down. These could be physical changes (e.g. switching out incandescent lightbulbs to LEDs) or behavioral changes (e.g. turning off lights when you leave a room), or a combination of both.
So how can you identify the biggest energy hogs in your home? Some detective work is required.
Many large energy utilities post your energy usage info online — Chris and I have Southern California Edison (SCE) for electricity, and on their website we can log in to view all our historical energy use in hourly increments. So we can look at a 24-hour period and see what times of the day we are using the most electricity. We can also compare summer and winter months to see how much electricity our air conditioner uses, or look at our overnight data to see our “always on” power use. We can even compare our usage with similar homes in our region. This is all very helpful data, although unfortunately it takes a day or two for it to post, so you can’t view your energy use in real time.
Here's a sample view of our hourly electricity usage provided online by SCE:
If you haven’t already, we highly recommend you check out what kind of usage data your electric utility offers to customers online.
In the physical world, you can also investigate by getting a watt meter — a small handy device that you can plug anything into and see how much juice it runs on. Chris and I have a Kill-A-Watt, which costs around $20, and we derive much nerd joy from running around the house plugging things into it and going, “OMG our microwave uses 1500 watts?” or “Dang this thing uses 3 watts even when it’s not on!” It even has a logging feature to show you much energy an appliance uses over time.
Our brand new toy, though, is the Sense meter, which we just got last month. It’s a bit of an investment ($299-350), but revolutionizes your understanding of how your home uses electricity. To install it, two sensor doodads get hooked up inside your main electrical panel. Then you can track your energy use in real time via Sense’s really cool, easy-to-use app. I can flip a light switch and see our power meter in the app change immediately. It’s that fast. Even better, Sense “learns” over time what devices you have in your house and detects them individually, so you find out exactly what you have turned on at any time:
For folks who have high electricity bills, a Sense meter could be a game-changing investment, helping to identify energy waste and saving hundreds of dollars a year.
#9. Get to know your neighbors 💰🌍🙂
This one may not seem intuitive, but hear me out.
Having good relationships with your neighbors not only builds community — it can help everyone save money. How? Well, when you need to use something only occasionally, you can just ask a friendly neighbor instead of going out and buying it. Think a ladder, a power tool, or even (as the cliche goes) a cup of sugar.
Here are some real-life examples from us:
Once we had a large gathering at our house and needed 20 chairs for a day — I sent an email to our neighbors and next thing I knew there were two dozen chairs sitting in our living room.
Another time, we needed a hedge trimmer and was able to borrow one from a neighbor. A few months later, this same neighbor needed a few pieces of wood cut and Chris happily did this for him using our table saw.
We help our neighbors whenever we can: sharing fresh garden veggies (check out our Share Shed!), assisting with English translation, checking on their houses when they’re on vacation, and so on. In return, we have been gifted free oranges, jujubes, salsa, homemade zucchini bread, and more.
We have some skilled people living on our street: a general contractor, an AC repairman, a hairstylist, etc. Chris has borrowed countless tools from the contractor for our renovation project, and the AC guy generously helped Chris install our new mini-split system free of charge. And we’ve appreciated many free haircuts right across the street!
Sharing stuff = saving money. Instead of exchanging financial capital (dollars), we’re exchanging social capital (time and skills). I believe this is what they call “The Sharing Economy,” and I’m a big fan!
An additional benefit of neighborly sharing is that fewer things need to be purchased (e.g. every house doesn’t need its own complete set of tools), which is more environmentally friendly. Fewer resources and less waste are needed to provide the same level of services to the community.
Furthermore, knowing your neighbors is fun!
And keeps your street safer. When everyone knows everyone else, a suspicious person or vehicle stands out. We can keep an eye out for each other, and if there’s ever an emergency (like an earthquake), we know who lives where and can help one another. Being friends with your neighbors results in an infinite positive feedback loop of awesome.
#10. Drink water 💰🌍
I drink water. I mean, I pretty much only drink water. From the tap. It feels like a silly thing to say, but I believe it has significant implications.
When I eat out, I only need to spend money on food because water is free. I don’t purchase bags of coffee or related accoutrements, like coffee makers or filters. I don’t buy $4 lattes at Starbucks. I don’t order beer or wine at restaurants, which can cost $8 a glass. I don’t have cartons of milk or juice in the fridge. I don’t buy soda or energy drinks.
My initial motivation for doing this was to avoid excessive packaging: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, tiny bags and disposable straws. I hate the idea of using something for 5 minutes and then throwing it in the landfill where it will sit for thousands of years. But then I also noticed that I was saving money. Furthermore, I reduced my sugar intake, got fewer toothaches, and wasn’t hooked to caffeine or alcohol.
This is not to say that I am against non-water beverages. I love almond milk, sweet tea, and fruit juice. What I don’t like is the weird idea that manufactured beverages are a staple, necessary part of our daily lives. Mainstream culture tells us that soft drinks are a “necessary” part of a meal. Drinking alcohol is a “necessary” part of social events. Coffee is a “necessary,” everyday product. Says who? Advertisements and commercials, that’s who. I don’t like manipulative marketers that try to convince us that we need their products so we get hooked and buy them for the rest of our lives.
To me, water is a staple, necessary part of my life. I mean, we'd literally die without it. Other beverages are treats that I’ll enjoy occasionally, but not at every meal. So I’ll sip some wine, or get a boba or fruit smoothie once in a while. But otherwise, water is perfectly good enough for me!
When you really get down to it, there are basically two ways to have more money. You can 1) earn more money, or 2) spend less money. Between the two, I focus on the latter because it’s easier to do — it’s more straightforward, more immediate, and you have much more control over the situation. That’s why all the tips here centered around the theme of frugality. But beyond that, it’s also important to enjoy your life. Hence the goal of Frugal Happy: Be conscientious, prudent, and efficient with resources while living well and having fun. 🙂
You got to the end, hooray! But there are surely more Frugal Happy tips out there!
What are your tips? Share them in the comments. 👇