6 Keys to Smart Frugal Living

I prefer to live a fairly frugal lifestyle. While it’s in part due to the limitations of my family’s income, it’s also a personal preference. Being careful about how much you spend, even when you can easily afford it, is just sensible.

Be sure you’re doing smart frugal living, however. It’s not just “here’s the cheap way, let’s do that!” The immediately cheap way isn’t always the cheap way in the long run, after all. You have to consider the long term, at least as much as you can fit it into your budget.

1. Go for quality.

Within reason, you have to consider quality when you buy things. The cheapest product can cost more in the long run if you have to buy it more often than you would a more expensive product.

I’m fond of how Terry Pratchett has Samuel Vimes explain it in the Discworld novel, Men At Arms, in terms of the cost of boots. A cheap pair of boots would cost him $10, and last about a season or two. Better boots would run about $50, but would last for years. This leads him to reason that the rich don’t have to spend as much money on such things because they can buy products that will last longer and cost less in the long run.

Of course, most of us can’t always afford the things that will last best. Still, when better quality and longer lasting products are within your budget, it can be more frugal to spend the extra now, rather than spend more over the long run.

This is especially true for expensive things such as furniture and cars. You want these to last as long as possible, and some extra money spent now can save you more in the future.

Kids clothes, and shoes in particular, on the other hand, you should think about how long it will be until they grow out of them. Some things you really don’t want to overspend on. Buy better quality if they’re something that can be handed down, but if you know your child is going to ruin it, go for the quality that should last until they outgrow it.

We pay more attention to the quality of my son’s running shoes, for example, than my daughter’s, because he uses them hard and can wear them out before he outgrows them. He needs better quality so they last and we don’t have to buy more in the same size. By the time my daughter wears her shoes out, she usually needs a new size anyhow.

piggy banks

2. Buy only as much as you need.

This rule is especially important when it comes to food. About 40% of the food supply in the United States is thrown away every year.  That’s a lot of food wasted, and of course money wasted too.

Think about how you handle your grocery shopping. Do you buy in bulk because that’s what you’re going to use, or because it’s a lower price per unit, and you hope to use it before it goes bad? Are you only buying the fresh meat, dairy and produce your family will use before it goes bad? Do you eat the leftovers you put back in the fridge, or do you throw them out a week later? Do you know what the sell by dates really mean or when the expiration date really matter?

Food waste happens when you eat out too. It’s not just that eating in a restaurant costs more, it’s that the portions often result in a lot of food waste.

If you want to figure out how much you’re spending in restaurants, keep track for a month or three. You might be surprised. My family doesn’t eat out very often, but it adds up fast when we do. Eating at home is a much more frugal choice, and likely to be healthier as well.

This goes for other things too, of course. Think about what the right size wardrobe is for your needs. Rethink that next gadget, and so on.

Are you overspending on your home?

Buying as much as you need goes for the home you live in too. Your rent or mortgage is probably your biggest monthly expense. Cut this one down and you can slice hundreds of dollars per month off your expenses.

It can also be one of the most difficult to cut. Moving costs money. Finding a less expensive place to live that suits all of your needs can be difficult. But if you can make it happen you’ll do your finances a huge favor.

frugal living cat

3. Get repairs done right.

When something in your home or car needs repairs, get the job done right. This doesn’t mean be a sucker for every suggested repair, but to spend enough to have the job done right the first time so that you won’t have the thing break down again in a month or two. Mechanics and repairmen can sometimes suggest a cheaper alternative to what really needs to be done when you’re concerned about price, but that may only delay the work that really needs to be done.

Whenever possible, get it done right the first time… and know how they warranty their work in case something goes wrong again. I’ve had my mechanic repeat a repair for free because something didn’t go quite right the first time he did it.

Think carefully, however, before buying an extended warranty. Make sure you know what you’re really getting before you pay for it. Often they’re nothing more than an added expense and don’t give you anything in return. How often have you had something break during what would have been the extended warranty period?

I have bought the extended warranty for a few items, and for a couple, it was even worth it. My laptop developed a bad line across its screen just a few months before the extended warranty ended. The store had to install a new screen for me. I probably would have purchased a new laptop rather than replace the screen otherwise. Laptop screens are on the pricey and difficult side to replace. The store really grumbled about the whole process.

4. “Sale” doesn’t mean “buy now.”

We all love a bargain. Sales are wonderful ways to save money on the things you need, but they’re also great for getting you to spend more money than you should. Just because you see a good deal doesn’t mean you should forget to consider whether or not you need that item right then.

I find it helpful to remember that most items will go on sale again at a later date if it’s something I might need later, but not right now. Stores often have a cycle they go through for their sales. If you know how often things go on sale, you can buy them at a good price when you need them, not just because you saw the deal and didn’t want to pass it up. And if you don’t really need it, even a great deal on it shouldn’t matter at all.

This also goes for any dollar stores you visit regularly. I belong to a Facebook group for my favorite dollar store, and it amazes me how much stuff some people buy there. I mostly get food there (they have an amazing fresh produce section), but many people get all kinds of home decor and other stuff there. Some even get to the point where they know they’re overspending, but they can’t resist the bargains.

Overspending, even on super good deals, is not a part of smart frugal living. No matter how good the deal is, think about whether you need the item or not.

frugal garden

5. Consider your health.

Don’t be so frugal that you damage your health. Don’t be too cheap to eat right, go to the doctor and dentist, take care of yourself. Taking care of yourself in general now can save you a lot of money and discomfort in the long run. This can include simple activities such as taking regular walks to keep fit.

Unless your doctor says you need them, skip the vitamin supplements. Most do little more than give you expensive urine. Some vitamins can even damage your health if you take too much of them.

Make sure you pay attention during open enrollment times for your health insurance.  If your employer offers a variety of selections, you should review your coverage choices every year. You can save a lot of money if you switch to a cheaper plan that still offers all the coverage you need. You won’t find a cheaper plan every time, but it can be a huge deal when you do.

If you have space, starting a garden can be a wonderful source of fresh produce. Even an apartment balcony may be used to grow tomatoes and other vegetables in pots. Think about your favorite vegetables and see if there’s a way you can grow them. So long as you don’t overspend on supplies, this can help you save money.

We planted fruit trees when we moved into our home as a way to save money in the long run. The trees are still young and don’t produce a lot yet, but in years to come, they’ll give us a lot of fruit to enjoy.

And of course, gardening is a nice form of exercise. It’s not terribly strenuous most of the time, but it gets you outside and doing things. That’s good for your health too.

growing money

6. Remember that smart frugal living only takes you so far.

Smart frugal living can help you reach a lot of financial goals, but it may not take you as far as you’d like. There are more important things to consider.

Increasing your income, for example, can do far more for your financial situation than most steps you take to live frugally. A raise from your current job can be a help, but sometimes finding a better job will do far more.

What you do with your savings matters as well. If being frugal is the only thing keeping you going financially, you may not have a lot of options. But if your frugality leaves you with money beyond what you need to live on, consider doing one of these things with it:

  • Pay off any remaining credit cards.
  • Pay off student loans.
  • Set up an emergency fund.
  • Put money into a 401(k).
  • Put money into a Roth IRA.
  • Contribute to a Health Savings Account (HSA).
  • Save toward a down payment on a home if you don’t own one.
  • Save toward a vacation.

Also remember that no matter how frugal you are, spend money on things because they’re fun once in a while. Take a family vacation. Go on a date.

These things don’t always have to cost a lot of money. A trip to a local campground can be a wonderful, memorable family experience. The same goes for a day at a local museum.

If you want to spend more money on experiences, have your family come up with ways to save money up for it. You can make that family vacation to Disneyland all the more memorable if you give the kids the pride of having helped save up for it.