Last year, J & I found ourselves in a less than perfect situation - J had graduated from college and the professional world was not being too kind and I had signed an agreement with my school that I would only work in a work/study position. We had saved the amount of money they had suggested in case of unemployment but that only lasted us so long. For a few months (okay, more than a few), we were almost entirely living off of family (thank you!) and food stamps. Even when I could pick up a few hours at work (I found the one work-study job that allowed more than 10hr/wk - usually averaging 15-20hrs), we were no where near meeting our bills each month. We are in a much better situation now, but continue to live by the helpful tips we picked up while being beyond poor. So, whether you’re already in a bind (I’m sorry) or just wanting to save a little money, here are some great tips to get you started in your penny pinching journey.
Cooking & Cleaning:
- Make a menu, make the grocery list, and only buy what’s on the list. Don't forget the value of couponing, buying stuff on sale, and buying local. It can also be helpful to download the store apps before going shopping for exclusive coupons.
- Make a compromise on brand vs price. We buy store brand canned vegetables, but buy more expensive whole grain pasta or Rotel vs generic tomatoes and green chiles.
- Look at the “per unit/ounce/lb” price rather than what each boxed item costs, a smaller can may cost less than a larger can but when you’re paying double per unit, its more cost efficient to buy one large than 2 little.
- At the same time, you don’t always need to buy in bulk, especially if its something that may go bad before you can use all of it. We almost always buy coffee creamer per ounce (we drink a lot of coffee), but we’ll buy only specific recipe ingredients (heavy cream, green onions, bbq sauce) for the single night instead of having a half used ingredient for months.
- Buy foods that can be used in more than one way. Greek yogurt can be used in so many ways - substitute for milk in recipes (½ yogurt & ½ water), sour cream, whipped cream (seriously! I once ate some lemon curd with it when I made too much and I could’ve sworn it was whipped cream).
- On that note: Decide what you’re going to buy/ do then find the coupons (not the other way around)
- Stop eating out (I'll be honest, I don't understand the difficulty with this one, its just as convenient as a crockpot meal)
- Feeling a bit hungry? Drink some water (not soda or juice - water!; you may not be hungry, just a bit bored). 30 minutes till meal time? Drink some water (don’t eat on an entirely empty stomach). Bored? Drink some water. Its good for you.
- It's okay to have the same thing multiple times in a month, you'll survive - find creative ways to spice up usual recipes, like stirring in an egg with your top ramen.
- Schedule the occasional leftovers meal instead of throwing out perfectly fine food. With just the two of us, we almost always make more than we can eat in one meal so we’ll often also eat it for lunches and leftover dinners throughout the following week.
- Embrace your crockpot and dehydrator - this is the only item that I would say splurge on even if you're in a crunch. It'll save you money in the long wrong. A dehydrator allows you to dry food (herbs, fruits, veggies, etc) that may go bad otherwise and create little snacks that would be more expensive to buy at the store (ex: banana chips = $3.99/lb or bananas in the dehydrator = $.69/ lb)
- Make things homemade (often cheaper and healthier) and DIY (only when saving you money! - make your own swiffer pads from fabric scraps, dryer sheets/ balls vs buying them, rags vs paper towels, handkerchiefs vs tissues)
- Recycle & reuse (cut down on garbage costs and save the environment)
- Only run the washer/dryer and dishwasher when full
- Cable vs netflix/ amazon prime (free for students)/ hulu plus/WWE Network and share the cost with multiple people
- Internet speed - threaten to cancel to get better deals. You may not see much difference at 20MB/s vs 50MB/s or check if your city has GoogleFiber (1GB/s, that’s 1024MB/s)
- Find fun & free activities near by (walking/busing distance even) to do rather than spending $$ to do the same (discount days, free nights, donation for admittance, etc) or volunteer
- Community events and celebrations. We went to Portland Opera for kids, Rose Festival, and Scandinavian Festival and all were free.
- Shopping therapy - Even from my very first job in high school, I would always go to the store right when I got my pay check and buy myself something really small ($1-$5) - some new sticky notes or a candy bar - and the rest would go into the bank. Just a little something to say, “I earned this!” Even if you don’t have the money for that, do something for yourself - go for a walk, 15min quiet time, etc.
- More on shopping therapy - when we first started in our funk, I would walk around the store and look at all the stuff I couldn’t buy… then it hit me how unhealthy this was because, even without money, I lived a pretty good life. My walks around the store became looking at all the stuff I didn’t need because my life was pretty great as it was and buying that extra little something wasn’t going to make it any better.
- Keep an eye out for free movie screenings (We’re actually just went to one and have tickets to another in 2 weeks) and other free events
- Borrow from the library/ friend vs buying or, if you do buy, sell them back to Amazon to break even (or make a lil $). Amazon has plenty of good classic ebooks for free and check out Project Gutenburg.org for all models of eReader
- If your school employs peer tutors paid by work-study/tuition dollars, utilize the resource. They like money, and you like good grades. You likely paid for them with your tuition anyway.
- Apply for any scholarship or grant you qualify for. Your financial aid department may have some contacts or tips on locating them.
- Check Bigwords.com for comprehensive textbook price comparisons. You can specify rent vs buy, paper vs ebook, and takes Amazon Prime into account on price of shipping.
- Take notes on loose paper rather than in a bound notebook (or on your laptop but really, I think writing it down does better for your memory and you won’t be distracted with the internet) - you get way more paper that you can bind however you want and you won’t end the semester with those awkward empty back pages that you’re not sure if you should recycle or tear out to use at another time.
- I’m putting this under school just because it would only apply to college students but, whether you have your own health insurance or you’re paying through the school, utilize the health and counseling center! It doesn’t cost anything extra and if you are overly stressed, you are more likely to get sick or have a lowered immune system.
- If not in school, you may have free clinics or places aimed toward low SES
Around the house:
- During the day, keep the lights off and windows open - allows airflow and keeps it cooler...unless its super hot, then close the windows and blinds
- Take short showers rather than baths to cut down on water costs
- Turn the faucet off when brushing your teeth
- Put a filled water bottle in the back of the toilet to lower the water level
- Compost: its great for the environment (less garbage) and can be used in a vegetable garden
- Spring doesn’t have to be the only time you go through, clean everything, and send stuff off to the local goodwill. Go through your house and find things you don’t need and either donate them or reuse them (okay, so this doesn’t save you money but it sure does make you feel good)
Saving and earning those extra cents:
- Compare APR/savings at different banks. Seek out Credit Unions, they may have less fees and better rates. Read the fine print of account requirements. Compare to online checking accounts which offer ~1% APY
- Internet surveys, Amazon’s mechanical turk, and freebie samples (FreebieShark, FreeStuffFinder, & Hunt4Freebies). I’ve earned a good amount through the ipsos surveys and MTurk that I was able to apply towards my amazon account and buying school books. Plus, with the surveys and freebies, you’re getting to try out brand new things at no cost to you (I’ve received shampoo, candles, lotions, feminine hygiene items, and even money just for saying that I’d try it out). You can also sign up to test out higher end stuff, though it may take a while for you to be chosen (I signed up with Nike 9 months ago and just heard back that I can try stuff out!)
- Walk, ride your bike, carpool, or take public transportation
- Donate blood (okay, its not actually fun but they sometimes give fun thank yous like free admittance or a fun free snack at a local restaurant and you are helping save people’s lives) or other fluids - plasma, marrow, semen (yup, I said it. Honestly, you’re making a little bit of money and you’re helping someone)
- Find out if your employer has negotiated discounts at local retailers. J's work has everything from hotels to shoes to food
- Groupon when you were planning something, not based on what deals they have (like I said with couponing)
- Utilize eBay’s ‘Best Offer” option on auctions and Buy Now’s
What we didn’t know then but are doing now:
- Use the envelope method - Have some pre-determined amount of savings automatically deposited into a savings account, so that it’s out of sight/out of mind
- Offer to participate in studies (eg we live pretty close to OHSU and they are often needing participants. I didn’t get called back about the study but as an example, researchers were wanting to test out a new type of tooth filling = free dental check up, fillings on your teeth with state of the art methods, and you get paid for your time).
- Seek out local professional schools (Medicine, Dental, etc) for potentially cheaper medical appointments with current doctoral students with certified doctors watching over.
- Adjust your tax withholding so that they are only taking what they need (you don’t get loans interest free so neither should they and its not like a savings account because you are earning interest on it either) and you don’t own any at tax season - ideally, you get $0 back and you pay $0. Having a small tax bill come April is preferable to a small refund.
And there you have it. A lengthy list of easy ways to save money (they really are easy). Just take it a step at a time and don’t stress it. We weren’t able to just change our lifestyle to meet every single one of these, it took a bit of time. In the end though, you feel better about saving money. Remember, its always better to be frugal because you want to not because you have to.