How to Save Money- In a Nutshell

Homemade Green Tabasco Sauce
In a local money saving group, someone asked for a "crash course of living within her means". I started writing this out as a post for her... then realized how long it would be, so made it into a blog post instead, because what I wrote isn't just applicable locally, but everywhere.

A) Try adjusting your expectations of what is "normal" and "needed". So many things I thought before were obvious that I'd have/buy/use/do I no longer do:

 1. Like do you need to go on trips, vacations, etc... or can you have frugal or free fun around the home and locally? Especially if kids are little, often they enjoy trips to the playground or doing arts and crafts at home with Mommy, as much, if not more than trips to museums, amusement parks, hotels, etc... While we may want to give our kids everything that we had growing up, and feel that we are failing as a parent if we don't give them a "good life", what kids care most about isn't how much money you spend on them, but the attention you give them, and doing enjoyable things, which doesn't equal spending money. Don't project your feelings of inadequacy about things like that on your kids because your kids are living their own life, not yours, and unless you're living in social circles where their friends are doing/getting all these stuff, they probably don't even know what they're "missing." (This is part of why I am very happy that I live in a place where there isn't pressure to live it up and spend a lot of money- the type of community you live in plays a big part in your ability to be happy with less. Being the "poor one" of the community doesn't feel good, but if you live in communities where thrift is valued, or at least excess spending is frowned upon, it helps a lot.)

2. Do you need to buy only new things? Do you need to buy certain stuff at all? For example, if you regularly buy yourself and your kids new clothes before each holiday, you may think you're being frugal by shopping in cheaper stores. But buying new, even cheaply, is still more expensive than buying second hand, and even buying second hand there are cheaper and more expensive places to do so... and buying second hand is still more expensive than free- either getting things from swaps, hand me downs, things being given away on Free-Cycle, or just doing without. In terms of furniture and other appliances, while it would be nice for me to have everything by a certain style and theme in my house, since I am just using furniture I got free or dirt cheap in my house, I simply don't have a themed and "pretty" place. But I have friends who also furnished and decorated on a super low budget and their home is beautiful- with an eye for design, you can definitely make your home pretty and styled even without spending a lot.

3. Disposables are the way of life for most people- disposable plates, cups, cutlery, pans, paper towels, diapers, feminine hygiene products. We rarely ever use disposable dishes/cutlery/cups/pans, never use paper towels, use cloth diapers, reusable feminine hygiene products (homemade cloth pads and mooncup menstrual cup).

4. It is possible to live in a small home, even with a family. We live in 484 square feet with our family of six- when we first married we lived in a place that was 900 square feet, and lived there until we had 2 kids, and it felt small when we first married, but now we're happy living in a place half the size of our first place, and have no plans on moving any time soon. In fact, in many ways we like it better living in a smaller place than living in our bigger place.

B) In terms of spending less on groceries... which I focus on a lot, because it is the thing that you can change most easily, and regularly, without major upheavals like moving.... And a little bit adds up to a lot very quickly...

1.  Don't buy processed foods. I try to make sure the stuff I buy have at most two or three ingredients- everything is whole, wholesome ingredients, which I combine to make everything my family needs. This is not only cheaper, it's much healthier too. Things I make from scratch (or used to, before food allergies kicked in)- mayonnaise, yogurt, cream cheese, ketchup, tomato sauce, spice mixes, a variety of salad dressings, worcestershire sauce, terriyaki sauce, thai chili sauce, sriracha sauce, tabasco sauce, relish, tartar sauce, powdered sugar, bread (this really is the pefect sliceable whole wheat bread recipe), crackers, cookies, cakes, bagels, dairy free milks (almond milk, sunflower milk, sesame milk, coconut milk), donuts, hummus, fruit leather, chocolate syrup (for chocolate milk and for desserts), drinks (iced tea, lemonade, kombucha), puddings, stevia extract, vanilla extract or ground vanilla, ice cream, wine, grape juice, jam, pickles, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, pasta... among many other things. Many things, if I can't make them at home myself (or at least not easily) and the store bought stuff isn't so cheap, we just do without. (This goes for most junk food.) I make all my cleaning supplies at home as well.

2. Try to serve vegan when possible. I realized that I don't feel well on an 100% vegan diet, but I can definitely manage to serve a few vegan meals each week, and when we're tighter on cash, I try to increase the amount of vegan meals I serve. Breakfast is almost always vegan (unless my kids use some milk with it, which they sometimes do, but I don't always serve it with milk)- pancakes, porridge of some kind, muffins, etc... The main meal of the day in my house is probably 2-4 times a week legume based (some grain and some legume like lentils or beans, plus veggies, etc...) and then we eat the leftovers from that generally for the next meal. And when I serve non vegan meals, I often stretch the meals by serving legumes together with the animal protein, so less animal protein is needed, but you still feel like you ate a meaty meal (like minestrone soup, chicken and bean soup, chicken succotash, chili with legumes and ground chicken/turkey/beef, meatballs with lentils mixed in, lentil and ground chicken/turkey/beef shepherd's pie, lentil and ground chicken/turkey/beef bolognese, etc...)
People think its cheaper to serve dairy than meat, so when they try to save money, serve vegetarian, but dairy is pretty expensive locally, and per pound in many cases it is more expensive than chicken and sometimes more expensive than fish. I've found in terms of animal proteins, from cheapest to most expensive (from what I use): cheap chicken on sale, eggs, chicken not on sale, beef on sale, dairy, cheap fish, beef not on sale, other types of fish. As you can imagine, fish is rarely ever served in my house- tuna fish is expensive when you think of how much you're getting per can, salmon is maybe once a year if even. I serve cheap white fish occasionally, and when I want a tuna fish "fix", use white fish instead and make a fish salad.

3. Try to never pay full price for any grocery item. If you can't get an item cheaply, either don't buy it, or buy it rarely- and make the bulk of your diet based on what you can get cheaply.
a) Stock up on dry goods when they are on sale (and with better sales, buy more) and store them in a stockpile so that instead of going to the store to buy items when you need it, you just get the cheap stuff you already bought from your pantry. And if you don't have the item, make do without. Do the same for perishables that you have room for in your freezer- I stock up on chicken, beef, fish, and dairy on sale- but never more than we can store in our freezer. Lots of produce can last a long time in the fridge, so buy those stuff on sale in larger quantities- and things that don't last long in the fridge, freeze. (I currently have a few pounds of strawberries that I bought cheaply, in my freezer.)
b) Price compare. Don't just rely on one grocery store for all your groceries- if you can manage to make your rounds at a few different stores (one week one store, one week the next, etc... not all in one day or week) so you can buy what is cheaper at each store, that is best. Don't be brand loyal- if one brand is cheaper than another, buy that. There rarely is enough of a significant difference to make it worth buying the more expensive brand.
c) Buy in bulk from manufacturers if and when you can, especially for items that you use often and are more expensive. I currently have in bulk: potato flakes, onion flakes, millet, buckwheat, sunflower seeds, coconut oil, baking soda, baking powder, citric acid, palm oil. In the past I bought whole wheat flour, coconut, vital wheat gluten, powdered milk, and chocolate chips in bulk. If you don't have enough room to store 25 or 50 pounds sacks that bulk foods come in, try splitting with friends. I currently have blueberries in my freezer that I bought bulk and split with friends, and in the past I did that with chocolate chips and powdered sugar.
d) Check out scratch and dent stores for food items and stock up on things they have cheaply that you use regularly.
e) Buy produce that is from the "reduced rack"- often there is absolutely nothing wrong with it, other than maybe being slightly oddly shaped or otherwise less aesthetic looking. Other times, they are a little older and need to be used up faster- but if you freeze them they'll last a while.
f) Forage. You can, like myself, forage "weirder" things in random places... or you can just put it out there among your friends and neighbors that if any of them have fruit trees with excess, you're happy to come, pick, and take some off their hands.
g) Reduce kitchen waste. Use up your food before it goes off. Serve leftovers until they are finished, or repurpose them into a new dish for a new meal. Keep food scraps to make things like scrap soup or fruit scrap drinks.
h) Though this isn't an option for me, many find that buying veggies from a CSA saves them a lot of money on produce.

C) Dumpster dive.

E) Let it become public knowledge that you like free things or cheap things- like announce on Facebook that you are happy to accept any hand me downs for your kids, share sales that you hear of with your friends and hopefully they'll return the favor. Before I buy anything, I try first posting on Facebook, both on my wall and on immediately local groups and on frugal local groups, asking if anyone has one of those that they are throwing out/giving away/no longer want. If no one has one they are giving away, network and ask where you can buy that item most cheaply. If there is no local frugal network, start one. I started a local frugal group on Facebook, because I felt it was needed, and there are now over 1000 people in the group, and it has been an amazing resource to helping me and plenty of other people save.

F) Read frugal blogs to get more ideas. Blogs that don't encourage consumerism, not even "cheaper consumerism", but blogs that are truly about frugality and adjusting your mindset to enjoying life without the pursuit of "things".

I just have to add that while frugality is great, and makes a big difference, if you can do things on the side to earn some extra money, even if its not a lot of extra money, it may be worth it. Even if its just a few extra hundred dollars a month, if you're frugal, you can stretch those 100 dollars much further and they can make a big difference.

What are the ways you save money, "in a nutshell"?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. KellyK(@RNCCRN9706)April 22, 2014 at 11:42 AM

    Reading blogs such as this & The Prudent Homemaker.
    *using Recyclebank to get free magazines & other items
    *hosting people in our home rather than going out to socialize as it's always cheaper
    *getting my hair cut free by my Mom, who happens to be a licensed beautician
    *making my own homemade laundry detergent
    *only replacing my sons clothes as needed

  2. *reduce transportation costs by consolidating trips, committing to at least one no-drive day a week, biking or walking if less than 3 miles, and getting a bus pass.

    *check out MVNO cell networks like RePublic Wireless to cut cell phone bills in half.

    *pencil and paper - if you write down your appointments, grocery lists, reminders, etc... you won't be caught wrongfooted and short on items or time.

  3. *borrow books/dvds from the library instead of buying them at a bookstore
    *Swagbucks is my new best friend
    *CVS always gives you cash vouchers if you purchase something so buy items one at a time and you might be able to get one on your list for free!
    *beekeeping/chicken keeping
    *My mother planted a blackberry bush in the backyard and forgot about it has taken over a good space and provide us with free blackberries. We don't even water it!

  4. Hi Penny,

    I wonder if you would do a post about things that are more expensive (to buy) but that save money in the long term. In my case, that would be things like :

    - stainless steel pots : I used to buy cheap non stick pots from a regular supermarket. I ended to have to change them quite often (they get scratched). Once I decided I was really scared of non stick stuff and I gifted myself a (very) expensive stainless steel pot. I LOVE it. It works well and it ages beautifully. If I manage to not burn it, I think I can keep it a lifetime. I then bought a seconde one :) I also opted for stainless steel lids. I used to break glass lids quite often but stainless steel are unbreakable :P I don't miss being able to see though the glass !

    - same with non stick pans. I found a "le creuset" skillet in a thrift shop. I love that stuff :) Even it it is very expensive, I think I can keep 50years or more :)

  5. - do cost-benefit analysis of EVERYTHING, even if you think it's stupid. everything has a cost. sometimes it's cheaper to spend the money than take the time. other times it isn't. we're often finding that we should have paid someone to do something we did ourselves and it cost us more to do it ourselves.
    - find a sustainable method that works for you and stick to it, even if it's unpopular (my friends, who all have less money than i do, believe in stock-up shops and taking cabs home from the supermarket, sharing them if possible. i am fortunate in that i work right near 3 cheap supermarkets and pop into them several times a week on my lunch break or on the way home. this way i can max out on loss leaders- especially those with limits that i can buy several times- and capitalize on the money i'm paying to commute anyway. this is especially true if i take my son, whose daycare is near my office, to work in his stroller instead of a baby carrier- i've paid for the stroller on the bus in the morning, so it will come home full of groceries that i couldn't otherwise carry.)
    - i almost never use disposable dishes or foil pans. if i want to make pans easier to clean (because we really don't have a lot of time for fussing with dishes), i line them with aluminum foil. we don't have room for one, but i'd sooner invest in a dishwasher than disposable dishes. for now they're manageable and my husband washes them on his lunch break. we also try to use the same dinner dishes and cutlery for several meals before washing (we're only really home for dinner during the week. my husband is home for lunch, but eats sandwiches).

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