Thriving on Less – Tools for a Frugal Life

By Leo Babauta in Management on January 10th, 2009 / No Comments

The mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” – Confucius

With any undertaking, it’s important to have the right tools. The same is true when you simplify, scale back, live more frugally and sustainably, and make room in your life for things you love.

We’ve already discussed several key tools. The Short List:

  1. Determining your essentials and eliminating the rest.
  2. A “thriving” mindset where you focus on what you love, not what you don’t have.
  3. An “enough” mindset, where you realize you already have enough, and stop wanting more.
  4. A plan to reduce expenses, both small and large.
  5. Sound financial habits.
  6. Debt-elimination strategies.

Beyond those tools, I’d like to share some other ideas for scaling back and living more frugally. You don’t have to do all of these, but can pick and choose the ideas that appeal to you most. And don’t try them all at once – do one or two at a time, and see if they work for you. Another note: some of these tools have been mentioned in previous chapters, but I thought I’d compile a more thorough list here.

Look for used first. If you need something — I mean really need it, not just want it — see if someone you know has one that they don’t use or need anymore. Send out an email to family or friends, or just ask around. You might be surprised. I was about to buy a printer, and then found out my mom just bought a laser printer and didn’t need her old inkjet … saving me close to $100. If no one you know owns one, try freecycle.org or craigslist.org. Then look to buy used, at garage sales or thrift shops. You can find a bargain if you look around.

Adopt a minimalist wardrobe. This tip won’t be for everybody, but I try for a minimalist wardrobe. I generally wear jeans or casual pants, a T-shirt or Polo-type shirt, and sandals or shoes. Plain, solid colors are my favorite. Everything goes with everything else, and I don’t have too many clothes. This saves me the stress of picking out an outfit, and I don’t need as many clothes.

Stop online impulse buys. This was a problem for me before I canceled my credit card. I used to buy online a couple of times a week. Now I buy maybe once every couple of months, using PayPal or someone else’s credit card. I’m not saying you have to go to this extreme, but realize that online buying can be way too easy (you don’t even have to go to a store) and therefore, we make too many impulse buys. Buy online if you really need something and it’ll save you money, but beware the impulse buy. See 30-day list tip below.

Don’t shop. Don’t go to the mall or other shopping area or department store to look around and shop. Go to a store if you know what you need, and then get out. Many times people go shopping, with a vague idea of what they want, and get caught up buying much more. Or they go just for fun, as a form of entertainment. That ends up costing a lot. It can really add up. Instead, stay away from shopping areas and find other ways to have fun (more below).

Use a 30-day list. To curb impulse buys, create a 30-day list. When you want to buy something, other than a true necessity (medicine or food, for example), put it on this list, with the date you added it to the list. And make it a rule that you can’t buy anything for at least 30 days after you put it on the list. And stick to it. You’ll find that you buy a lot less with this system.

Cut out cable. I talked about how I cut out cable earlier. It saves me money every month (in my area, about $60, or more than $700 a year), and also forces me to do things like read and have conversations and go outside. Win win.

Use the library. Instead of buying books, check them out. The library often also has a great selection of DVDs (depending on your area), saving you even more. Now who needs cable?

Find free entertainment. Find cheap ways to have fun. Entertainment often ends up costing a lot of money, if you go to the movies, buy concessions, or go out at night, go to the bar, etc. The average person spends about $1,800 a year on entertainment (not including eating out). Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have fun … but there are cheaper ways to do it. Go on a picnic, have a day at the beach, watch a DVD and make your own popcorn, play board games, play a sport, toss a Frisbee, watch the sunset … the possibilities are endless.

Frugal exercise. Exercise is important, but it doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Try bodyweight exercises you can do at home such as pushups, situps, pullups, squats, burpees, dips, planks and more. Do a circuit of 5 of them, rest a couple minutes, then repeat twice more – you’ll get a great workout.

Stay healthy. Easier said than done, I know, but staying healthy can save you tons of money on doctor’s visits, hospital bills, and medicine over the long run. An ounce of prevention, and all that. Eat healthily, and exercise. Simple and effective.

Commute by bike. Even if you own a car, commuting by bike will save you gas, and get you in shape at the same time. I highly recommend it.

Carpool or ride the bus. OK, you don’t want to bike it. So find a friend or neighbor who works near you, and arrange a carpool. Or take public transportation. Simple advice, but something a lot of people ignore.

Walk. Often we drive to the corner store, or to a school that’s less than a mile away. Leave a few minutes early, walk, burn some calories, and save gas.

Sell your clutter. This is not so much saving money as making it, but the frugal, simplifying cheapskate, like myself, will want to declutter and make a few bucks doing it. Hold a garage sale or sell it on eBay. It’s amazing what some people will buy.

Frugal gifting. Gifts can cost a lot of money over the course of a year. Look for ways to do it cheaply. Make a gift, or give a consummable. My family enjoys getting and giving cookies, for example.

Quit smoking. Not the easiest way to save, I know. It’s hard. But I did it, and so have many, many others. Not only will you save on cigarettes (which are expensive over the long run), but also associated costs (I used to buy a soda or beer to go with my cigarettes) … and of course the huge, long-term medical costs. In less than 2 years of not smoking, I’ve saved well more than $3,000.

Alcohol in moderation. If you drink one beer or a few beers a day, that adds up to big money each month. Some drink even more than that. It’s expensive. If you can cut your drinking to the occasional party, and once in awhile with friends (not all the time), you’ll save tons.

Sweets in moderation. Desserts and sweet snacks give us lots of calories with no nutrition. And we pay a premium price for that, in dollars and in our deteriorating health. Cut back on sweets (don’t eliminate them entirely of course) to save money and cut calories.

Drink water. Often we drink lots of calories through sodas, coffee, alcohol, juices, tea, etc. And that costs a lot too. Drink water, save money, save calories.

Stay home. Becoming a homebody might not sound like a lot of fun, but it really can be. I love staying home with my family. We can do all kinds of fun things at home. Or I can spend a day alone, if the family is at school, and really enjoy it. It’s quiet and peaceful, I can read or watch a good movie or respond to comments on my blog or write. Staying home can save tons, in eating out expenses, shopping expenses, gas, and incidentals.

Stop using credit cards. Credit cards are not evil. I know that they can be used to good purpose. If that’s how you use them, then that’s good, skip this tip. For others, credit cards make buying too easy, and end up making them buy too much.Not only that, but if you don’t pay your bill in full each month, they will cost you a lot in interest. The average American with at least 1 credit card has more than $8,500 in credit card debt. Don’t make that mistake.

Cancel subscriptions. With the wealth of information and entertainment online, do you really need magazine subscriptions? With all the news online, do you really need a newspaper subscription? If you can get DVDs for free or cheap, do you really need a Netflix subscription? I’m not saying you definitely don’t need any of these — I’m just asking you to consider whether they’re really essential — the answer might be yes. Also consider other subscriptions you might be paying for — I’m not saying you should cancel everything, but seriously consider whether they can be canceled without much loss of value.

Make your own. I won’t go into all the possibilities here, but many times we buy things when really, we could make them ourselves for much cheaper if we get a little creative. Now, this might take a little more time and effort, but it can be fun, especially if you make it a family project. We recently made our own (very simple) bookshelves with only a couple of pieces of lumber, instead of buying them. If you don’t know how to make something, search for it online. You’ll most likely find some instructions.

Do it yourself. Instead of hiring someone to do something, try doing it yourself. Sure, it takes some time and effort, but it’s satisfying, and of course cheaper. It’s also educational, if you don’t know how to do it — again, do an online search, read up on it, and give it a go. Frugality freaks are DIYers.

Stop paying interest. I mentioned the interest of credit cards, and auto loans, and mortgages. I consider them a waste of money. I’ve talked about how to live without credit before, and I recommend it for a frugal lifestyle. Consider any other accounts or loans where you pay interest, and see if you can eventually eliminate as much of these as possible.

Reduce convenience foods. Frozen foods, microwaveable stuff, junk food … anything that’s packaged and prepared for our convenience is not only more expensive than something you cook yourself, but also most likely less healthy. I’m not saying to eliminate these completely, but reduce consumption.

Travel frugally. I actually don’t travel much, but if you do have to travel, some advance planning can save you money. Airfare is most expensive, usually, so look to buy your ticket in advance, and look for deals. Also consider train travel. Shop around for car rental rates, as they can vary greatly (or use public transportation). Look for cheaper accommodations, or stay with a friend or relative.

Cut your own hair. Again, this one isn’t for everybody. Personally, I use electric clippers to shave my head. It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s minimalist, it’s care-free. I don’t worry about my hair getting messed up, or having to fix it in the morning. However, I’m not saying you should shave your head. Many people cut their own hair, in many simple but nice hairstyles, long or short. Saves money, and time.

Maintain stuff. This is a no-brainer, but we don’t often think about it: if you take care of what you have, it will last longer. You’ll then spend less on buying new stuff. When you buy something worth maintaining, take a few minutes to read the maintenance manual, and create a maintenance checklist that you can attach to the item. For important things like your car’s oil changes or tune- ups, put them in your calendar.

Only buy bargain clothing (when you need clothes). OK, so you’re a cheapskate like me who only buys clothes when the old clothes have too many arm or leg holes. But now you need new clothing. I mean really need it. So instead of buying new, look for thrift shops with good clothes. Or buy new, but only buy the stuff that’s 50% off. Look for the bargains, and you’ll save a ton.

Telecommute. Telecommuting doesn’t necessarily give you your dream job, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. But in addition to allowing you to work in your underwear (and who doesn’t have that dream?), telecommuting saves money on gas, on eating out (if you eat lunch at a restaurant), and on buying expensive work clothes.

Cook ahead. If you have one free day a week (or even a month), cook food in big batches and freeze in dinner-sized portions. I don’t do this all the time, but I have done it and it saves money (buying big can often save) as well as time. You have to plan it out a bit, coming up with a menu and shopping, cooking enough meals for a week or a month. But once you’re done, your meals each night (and for lunch if you like) are quick and easy. This saves you from eating out or eating convenience food when you’re hungry but too tired to cook.

Wash clothes less. Some people wear clothes and then wash them, but I’ve gotten into the habit of wearing my clothes more than once if they’re not really dirty. I use my nose as a test — I don’t want to wear clothes that smell, but most times the clothes are still perfectly clean. This saves on washing.

Sun-dry clothes. When my parents were young, everyone used a clothesline to dry clothes. Now dryers are ubiquitous, because they’re fast. But if you don’t wash a ton of clothes, it’s not that hard to take a few minutes to hang them up. You’ll save a lot in electricity, plus your clothes last longer.

Eat less meat. I’m not saying you have to become a vegetarian (although you could always give it a try), but once in awhile, eat meatless dishes. Pasta, vegetarian chili, vegetarian Indian or Thai dishes, falafels with hummus and pitas and tomatoes and lettuce … there are plenty of tasty dishes without meat. And as meat is expensive (well, the fresh kind is … Spam is cheap), you’ll save money on meatless dishes. Again, I’m assuming you cook with fresh meat, not canned.

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About the author:
Leo Babauta is the author of The Power of Less and the creator and blogger at Zen Habits, a Top 100 blog with 80,000 subscribers – one of the top productivity and simplicity blogs on the Internet.

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