By Dr. Disha Spath, WCI Columnist
Growing up as the child of a single mother and a new immigrant, my family was uncomfortably frugal. We looked at the costs for EVERYTHING. If we went to a restaurant, we shared meals, and our water was as still as possible. Statuesque, even. Naturally, when I became a doc, I wanted the exact opposite. The last thing I wanted to do was be frugal. I wanted my water sparkling, darn it. And I wanted all the other stuff, too.
I had worked so hard to get here for so many years, I deserved it.
So, we bought a beautiful house and upgraded to the attending lifestyle as soon as I got my first job. Then, we bought things that we thought the attending lifestyle called for.
Soon, though, I realized that we were living on the edge. As soon as I took maternity leave and there was a decrease in our income, I realized how large our fixed monthly spending had become. Having little breathing room between income and expenses was tying me to my job and paycheck and not leaving any room to create stability or to grow wealth.
I spoke to my husband about this, and he was on board. We decided to make a big change on our next move and downsize our life to pay off debt. Cutting back on housing costs definitely helped.
I also worked on finding ways to save money on our daily spend. I was definitely not willing to compromise on ordering what I wanted when I went to a restaurant. But I was willing to decrease the number of times we went. I wasn’t willing to pinch pennies on absolutely everything. But I was willing to make some healthy frugal spending habits that would help me save money in the long term.
When I went looking with this intention, I found some relatively easy substitutions that helped create some automatic breathing room between my family’s income and expenses. I’m going to share them with you today because, with the price of everything going up and with inflation rampant, you might just need them! Plus, who wouldn’t want to make their life just a little easier and save some of their hard-earned money?
Here are 10 of my favorite ways to save money as a busy professional. They may require some upfront work and maybe a difficult decision. But they generally become automatic savings going forward.
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#1 Ditch Paper Towels
Switching from using paper products to reusable cloth napkins is frugal, pandemic-friendly, and good for the earth. Most families go through a ton of paper products every week. Mine was no exception. We were going through 12 rolls of paper towels every 2-3 weeks, and we were spending roughly $350 per year on paper towels. The great paper towel race at the beginning of the pandemic was the impetus for my family to finally ditch them and switch to cloth.
To do this, I bought 50 huck towels for cleaning up messes (you know, the super absorbent blue OR towels? They run $25 for a box of 50 on Amazon), some microfiber towels for cleaning ($15), and some wrinkle-resistant polyester blend napkins ($11) for everyday dining. I designated one kitchen drawer to store the napkins and bought a metal wire basket that hangs inside a kitchen cabinet door to collect dirty napkins until laundry day. This system has helped us cut out the expense of paper towels almost completely.
Cost Analysis: Cost of paper towels for one year: $20 for 12 rolls every three weeks = $350 per year; Cost of cloth napkins: Upfront cost ($51 for towels, $25 for basket) + Cost of an extra load of laundry per week ($0.42/wash *52 weeks= $97.84 per year). Cloth towels only need to be replaced every few years so really it’s only the cost of washing per year = ( $0.42/wash*52 weeks=$21.84). Total savings = $328.16/year.
#2 Batch Cook
Taking meals to work can save significant money over the long term. Home cooking is generally healthier than eating out, as well. But to do this regularly can be challenging. Batch cooking, or making large amounts at a time and saving meal-sized portions, has made taking lunch to work consistently easier for me. I generally make a large batch of food one day a week and then package it up in serving-sized containers so I have a bunch of meals lined up and ready to go for the week. The other times I cook, I simply double the recipes so I have plenty of leftovers for future meals. Having food ready to grab and go is also such a time-saver in the morning.
Cost analysis: $10 per day x a five-day work week= $50/week. $50 x 52 weeks= $2,600 per year. Cost of a home-cooked meal $3 x five-day work week x 52 weeks= $780. That = $1,820 savings per year! Cost of avoiding diabetes and other lifestyle diseases = priceless.
#3 Order Groceries for Pickup/Delivery and Consider Changing Stores
This is another huge time and money saver. We all know how easy it is to overspend while cruising the aisles at a grocery store (especially if we go when we’re hungry!). Ordering from home and picking up saves me so much time and money because I can buy exactly what I need without impulse-buying a whole bunch of things I don’t need.
Also, consider that many of the staples we purchase are the same everywhere, but some stores mark up prices a whole lot more to pay for pretty displays and staff. Stores like Aldi, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart keep lower overhead, and they can provide lower prices. These savings really add up. Making the switch to Aldi helped me cut our grocery spending in half. Since TJ’s and Aldi don’t allow for pickup, we do Walmart pickup or delivery (with Walmart + subscription reimbursed by our American Express Platinum card).
Cost analysis: Shopping at Publix: an average of $300/week or $15,600/year; Shopping at Aldi: an average $150/week or $7,800/year; Savings = $7,800/year.
#4 Cut Cable
Cable is a big fixed expense, and most of the time, we end up not using it at all. Consider cutting cable and utilizing streaming services and a digital antenna instead. Making this switch helped us cut our entertainment budget in half. As an added bonus, Amex covers some of our streaming subscriptions through the digital entertainment credit, so we really end up saving.
Cost analysis: Cable + internet = $150/month or $1,800/year; Streaming + internet ($30 + $65) = $95/month or $1,140/year; Savings = $660/year.
#5 Cut Unused Subscriptions and Arbitrage Others
Companies like monthly subscriptions because, as consumers, we tend to sign up for things and then forget about them. When trying to save money, going through all subscriptions with a fine-tooth comb and making sure we’re using everything that we are paying for is low-hanging fruit. Also, consider that some subscriptions are reimbursed by credit card companies. For example, American Express has a $240 per year digital entertainment credit that reimburses subscriptions to things like Hulu, Audible, and the New York Times. Chase offers $120 in statement credits for Peloton App subscriptions (but only through June 30, 2022). Make sure to arbitrage subscriptions to the appropriate cards for subscriptions that you decide to keep.
Cost analysis: Depends on your penchant for signing up for subscriptions, but the savings here could be HUGE!
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#6 Change Phone Service Providers
We all know how much of a rip-off cell phone bills can be, especially if there is a chatty teenager in the family. But the big servicers like Verizon and T-Mobile aren’t the only options. Lower-cost alternative carriers like Google Fi or Republic Wireless also do the job. They piggyback on all the networks established by bigger companies. The difference in cost can be significant, and often, the service is no different, depending on where you live. It’s worth it to ask around and see who is offering the best rates and who has a good reputation for reliable service in the area.
Cost analysis in the Spath house: Monthly bill $140/month-> $70/month. Savings of $840/year. Plus we got better coverage and better international rates.
#7 Look for the Deal Stack
OK, I know I don’t have time to clip coupons and cruise the aisles of stores to stack store coupons on top of manufacturer coupons (this is how people extreme coupon and sometimes end up making money while shopping). But it’s relatively easy to do this online. Look for ways to stack discounts and deals. For example, stack a healthcare discount with a credit card credit for shopping at a retailer, or use Capital One shopping to automatically look for discount codes. Don’t forget cashback sites like Rakuten. Using one or a combination of these things can really add up to savings on items we needed anyway. The hard part is buying only when we need a certain something and not just because it's on sale.
#8 Shop Insurance Once a Year
Insurance is a big line item in my budget. We have insurance for almost everything. It is important to shop around for these every year or so to make sure we still have the best rates (this usually takes the equivalent of an evening’s worth of research). Sometimes I find a better deal, sometimes I don't. But it’s always worth it to look around since this is a large fixed monthly cost. Sites like thezebra.com make it easy to get multiple quotes at one time. Or if you're looking for life or disability insurance, check out these WCI-vetted companies.
#9 Drive Paid-Off Cars
So far, I’ve talked about smaller lifestyle changes that add up. But let’s not forget the big things too. A great way to AUTOMATICALLY save more is to have fewer fixed expenses. Driving reasonable, paid-off cars helps create that room in the budget. Yes, there are people who get joy out of buying cars or purchasing rare ones for investing purposes. If that’s what you value, enjoy! But for the rest of us who really just need a way to get from point A to point B, paid-off cars are a great way to make room in the budget. Once we paid off our cars, we had another $1,000 extra a month to use to pay down debt and invest.
#10 Live in a Smaller House Than You Can Afford
Finally, another great way to save money is simply not to stretch ALL the way to the limits of the budget when buying a house. Buying a house that has all the needs and some of the wants works just as well to build a home and a stress-free family.
Small changes add up to big results. In Atomic Habits, author James Clear explains the power of tiny gains. He shows how if we get 1% better each day for one year, we end up 37 times better by the end of the year. For the savings I calculated for points 1 through 5, those seemingly small changes add up to $11,448.60 of extra savings per year. That’s almost two Roth IRA contributions. And that doesn’t include the more variable savings from points 6-10.
Once they are established, many of these savings are automatic. After my family paid off our two cars and my student debt (about $280,000 total), we saved up another down payment and inflated our lifestyle a bit with a larger house (but still not the biggest house we could afford). We have still kept all of the changes I have mentioned above as a part of our lifestyle, because they made our lives better. The automatic savings here help us maintain a savings rate that allows us to invest consistently to hopefully become work optional or financially independent early. Living below our means and saving consistently also gives us freedom, knowing we’ll be OK if one of us needs to switch jobs or take some time off.
But that’s not to say we’re always frugal. We indulge in things that really bring happiness and value to our lives, like travel, golf, date nights, and . . . oh yeah, sparkling seltzer water. Now that’s the good stuff.
Do you have any favorite frugal hacks? Have they made your life better? How much do you think you saved per year once you implemented them? Comment below!