Frugality for the Frantic
I just survived Maycember, the hectic end of school year schedule that rivals only the craziness of the holidays. Although our kids’ school calendars aren’t full of banquets and concerts just yet, this May included a weekend retreat, a family wedding, a family graduation, and a church camping trip with Neil teaching.
May’s craziness saw me valuing convenience like never before. I’m done making homemade everything and hang-drying every single sock for a while. I need fast, low-effort frugality.
So, what are the easiest, most efficient ways to save money? Or, what does it look like to stay frugal when your schedule feels frantic?
First and foremost is keeping your top 3 expenses–housing, transportation, and food–under control. Once you set yourself up to save in these areas, it’s actually pretty easy to maintain a frugal lifestyle.
Most people’s number one expense is housing. The best way to keep housing cost reasonable is to buy only what you can afford, and resist the urge to upsize unneccessarily. Conventional advice states your monthly mortgage or rent should not exceed 25% of your monthly income.
As your income increases it can be tempting to look for a bigger, better place. As our family has grown we have very much felt this draw, and perhaps someday we will need or want a different home. There are reasons we’d buy a bigger place, which I’ll discuss in a future post. But not buying at the top of what we could possibly afford, and not upgrading as soon as possible, has saved us a lot of money.
If you’re looking for a home, stick to that 25% monthly income budget for your mortgage payment. If your current place feels small, is there something you can do to rearrange? Declutter? Remodel? You can do a lot for $10,000-$20,000. Which is about what you’d probably spend just in selling your home and moving costs.
If you’re feeling stretched by your rent or mortgage, consider alternatives. Could you live with a friend or relative for a year to save up money? Could you rent a room of your house to offset mortgage costs? If you’re paying PMI, can you cut back on spending or side hustle in order to put more money toward your principle? And if you’re truly in over your head, could you consider moving to a less expensive home? Easier said than done, I’m sure, but it can yield loads of financial relief.
For more on housing, check out these articles. We like the advice of putting 20% down and choosing a 15 year mortgage if possible, for the sake of financial efficiency. But there’s more than one way to do a death pledge.
- Who Wants a Death Pledge?
- So You Want to Buy a House?
- Why Not Rent?
- Are You Ready to Buy a House? The Non-Financial Checklist
- Mortgage Myths
Takeaway: keep housing costs reasonable, around 25% of your income.
The second biggest cost for most people is transportation. If you live in the suburbs like us, it’s almost essential to own a vehicle or two. (If you’re making life work without one, kudos to you!) The easiest way to save on vehicle ownership is to purchase a used car in cash. We all know new cars depreciate immediately, so it makes sense to buy something at least a few years old.
If you’re in the new car camp and can’t be swayed, be the person who drives it for 15-20 years. That’s not a bad approach, but it’s a straight and narrow path not many end up following. Rather than keeping a car payment, keep a car fund. We always have what we’d need to purchase a replacement vehicle in savings. When we do buy a car, we start replenishing that fund ASAP. Avoiding a car payment means saving thousands of dollars in interest. For more on saving on cars, refer to:
- How I Spent Less Than $8k on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting
- Ahh! We Bought a Minivan
- We Bought a Car for $200
- Nothing Parties Like a Rental (Car)
- Point A to Point B
Takeaway: Buy used cars, in cash. If you buy new or take a loan, drive it for as long as possible.
While housing and transportation costs can be fairly set-and-forget, food costs are more variable and can be harder to control. We all need to eat, but the options for getting sustenance are endless. The simplest, easiest way to save money on food is to eat home-cooked meals. And unfortunately, this does require some effort. But fear not, there are simple changes that can make a big dent in your food spending.
I’d encourage everyone to track their food spending. Especially restaurants, since those bad boys can really add up, even if they’re just little trips that don’t feel extravagant. Shopping at a discount grocery store can also make a big difference. Not only are the prices lower, there are often just fewer options to spend your money on. Lately I’ve also been liking grocery pick up because it reduces impulse spending and allows you to see your total and tweak your order before you check out. Well, mostly I like it can so I can be lazy. But it’s good for those other reasons too! For more info, check out the following on food savings:
- Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half
- Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half, Part 2
- Going Out Without Going Broke
- Beyond Rice and Beans: Budget Dinners that Aren’t Boring
- Say Good-bye to Meatless Mondays
- 20 Frugal Food Hacks
- Not Your Mom’s Meal Planning
Home cooking doesn’t have to look like preparing a feast from Bon Appetit recipes. Ask friends and family for their go-to easy recipes. Carve out an hour to meal plan and grocery shop. And get the other members of your household to help out, whether it’s with putting away groceries, doing the dishes, offering meal ideas, packing lunches, and of course, help cooking. My 5-year-old just shaved her first cucumber and found it fun!
Takeaway: Cook at home. Track food spending, especially restaurants. Shop discount grocery stores. And ask for help!
If you can control spending on housing, transportation, and food, you needn’t devote too much time and effort to being frugal. Naturally, you’ll want to watch out for your weaknesses when it comes to spending. Now back to that busy schedule…
Have you ever had one of the big 3 expenses get out of control? How are you recovering? How do you save money in the midst of a hectic schedule?
These are all good ideas. We have maintained a vehicle fund throughout our marriage so that we have been able to pay cash for vehicles. My husband likes to buy new because neither he nor I have strong mechanical abilities. Our most economical vehicle was a small Toyota truck which we purchased new in 1986 and sold for $1100 in 2011. We had around 250,000 miles on it. We did have to replace the engine at around 100,000 miles because we had allowed it to overheat on a long trip but still felt that it was an economical vehicle for us and the cost per mile was low.
I’ve had an interesting experience moving into a much bigger house. It’s just for the next few years (rental) and it’s a move for work, so it’s heavily subsidized. We wanted to have room for family visitors, and we’re going from 3 to 4 kids, so we wanted at least 4 bedrooms instead of the just-barely-nicer-than-entry-level 3 bedroom that we used to have.
We got a lot more space than what we had before. We have 4 bedrooms plus 3 other rooms that could possibly be used as bedrooms.
I’ve regretted it ever since I got used to the house about a month after moving. The house is a bad layout, which we didn’t focus on like we should have, it’s way more space to need to keep clean, and we need to buy more furniture to be able to use the extra rooms. So even if the cost is almost the same, don’t get more house than you need! I mean I think it’s ok if it’s like 1 small room more than you need, that you can use as an office/guest room, but anything more than that and in my experience it actually makes your living experience WORSE, not better. Again, that’s even ignoring the cost, because in my case the cost difference is negligible due to work housing subsidy!