In the pursuit of financial independence, it is more sustainable to make more money rather than avoid spending. Nevertheless, as Charles Dickens wrote in David Copperfield, a little frugalness can be the difference between happiness and misery.
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness,” the English author wrote. “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
Here are seven ways I've discovered to save thousands from my budget.
1. Own Less Stuff
One of the movements that emerged with the millennial generation is minimalism: the philosophy of owning only the things that add value to your life. Influencers like Marie Kondō and The Minimalists have launched hit Netflix shows and sold millions of books promoting the philosophy of owning less.
My own journey with minimalism began when my family of three moved from the US to Shanghai without the benefit of a relocation package. Our flight allowance was two checked bags each – which forced us to reconsider which possessions were valuable enough to lug with us around the world. The attitude change needed to make this possible has stayed with us.
My experience of being a digital nomad taught me that material possessions have three costs:
- The money spent to buy it
- The time and money to keep and maintain it
- The mental cost of worrying about it
Most people only consider the first cost when buying things – and end up with rooms and storage spaces dedicated to things they no longer need. Thinking about the lifetime cost of possessions makes me much more hesitant to acquire things.
To me, minimalism means less:
- Time spent cleaning and maintaining
- Worry about broken gadgets and appliances
- Debt to pay for things you don’t use anyway
- Worry about things broken, lost, borrowed, or misplaced
- Searching your wardrobe, tool shed, or toy chest for the right thing
Besides avoiding thousands in spending, my family is able to make our small urban home feel roomy and luxurious rather than cramped. Maybe you don’t plan to move to China, but consider how eliminating unnecessary baggage from your life will give you more time for what’s really important.
2. Bike or Walk to Work
I remember the last day I commuted to work in the fall of 2010. While I enjoy driving, I hated my daily commute. Who doesn’t? Ever since, I’ve structured my life to avoid commuting—and saved a fortune in the process. The commute is something most people take as a given: if you must get from A to B each day, you take the car, right? Not so.
I first stopped commuting when I moved to New York City. My apartment was only a few blocks from my Madison Avenue ad agency office. It cost a fortune to rent a midtown Manhattan apartment, but I was able to limit the time I spent commuting each day to under a half hour, allowing more time to be productive at the office or relaxing at home. Keeping possessions to a minimum meant that our one-bedroom railroad-style apartment was more than enough space to live in. Ever since then, I’ve made proximity to the office a non-negotiable criterion when finding my next apartment or house. The extra cost to live close to the office is more than offset by my savings.
There are two main savings from avoiding the daily commute.
First, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average cost of vehicle ownership is more than $10,000 per year. Since I don’t drive to work, my family is able to get by with a single vehicle, so I’m able to save at least this much every year.
Second, avoiding a long commute means more time being productive—whether that is time spent working or being with my family. The average total daily commute is about an hour. By keeping my commute under 20 minutes for the last 10 years, I have over a week of useful time each year. Furthermore, since I biked or walked to work, that’s time invested in my health rather than stress from traffic. (Here are seven of my tips for riding a bike to work.)
3. Join a Buy-Nothing Group
The Buy Nothing movement started in 2013 when friends Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark created the first Buy Nothing Facebook group as an experimental hyper-local gift economy on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. Since then, the groups have expanded to most US cities and 44 countries. The groups create a gift economy, where no buying, selling, or trading is allowed. While the groups are great for finding free stuff, they are also great for letting go of things you don’t need without the hassle of online sales or the guilt of throwing away functional items. Because the groups are hyper-local, pickups are quick and members have reputations, encouraging gifting and minimizing abuse.
4. Buy Quality Products
Save money by buying more expensive products? Yes! Here is Terry Pratchett’s explanation on how it works from the book Men at Arms:
“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”
Here’s a list of nine products that are worth paying top dollar for.
5. Hair: Do it Yourself
Here is a secret: I’ve colored my wife’s hair for the last 15 years. It’s not something I particularly enjoy doing, but it’s actually a lot less hassle for me. When she pays for hair color, it takes over two hours, during which I have to watch the kids anyway. I can color her hair in 20-30 minutes and move on with my day. Getting hair colored at a salon costs anywhere from $100 to $400, depending on what you want to do and where you get it done. With a little equipment and practice, I can do the same thing with a $10 tube of hair color.
During the COVID lockdowns, my wife learned to cut my hair. She got a haircut kit, watched a few YouTube videos, and after a few tries, got acceptable results. Given the price of a barbershop haircut, I eventually decided to keep going to a barber, but I can say that I’ve definitely gotten worse haircuts from a barber than I have at home.
6. Make Your own Tea (or Coffee if You Must)
A classic money-saving tip is to skip the daily Starbucks trip, brew your own, and save a million bucks over a gazillion years. But cost savings aside, here are three more reasons to prefer homemade tea (or coffee):
- Starbucks drinks have up to 1716 calories per drink – that’s nearly my average calories for the day! When you prepare your own drinks, you must explicitly decide how much sweetener to add, which may make you think twice about how many liquid calories you consume.
- Every day, I pick from 30+ teas I’ve accumulated over the years. Most of them have been gifted to me, but the point is that I can select my beverage from the entire globe rather than my local coffee shop.
- When I drink coffee, I add cinnamon, cacao, coconut milk, and protein powder. I get exactly what I want, and I think my concoctions are far healthier than what you’d find at a chain establishment.
- Most days, I drink exclusively tea – four mugs or more. By contrast, most Starbucks frappuccino or macchiato habits begin with liquid calories in coffee, but then go on to drink soda, juice, or other packaged, unhealthy drinks. The point is that once you get in the habit of making your own drinks, you can meet your hydration needs for the whole day without resorting to other unhealthy and more expensive products.
Of course, there are also good reasons to prepare all your food at home.
7. Become Your Own Handyman
Two years ago, I bought my first house and discovered the joy of always having a dozen projects that needed to be worked on. While I still need help with more advanced issues, I learned to do a lot on my own, like painting, patching holes in walls, yardwork, fixing leaky roofs, cleaning light switches, unclogging drains, replacing light switches, and much more.
For everything that needs to be done around the house, you’ll have a choice: hire someone or do it yourself. To help you decide, look up the instructions for the repair. A good start is the Dad, How do I YouTube channel, which shows how to do many household chores, and This Old House, which has tutorials to fix just about anything in your home.
What’s most important is to use your own judgment and do your own research. Here’s an example of a recent repair:
When my water heater wasn't working properly, the plumber asked for $5,000 to buy a new one. Instead, I did some research and guessed that the water heater had never been flushed. Instead of $5K, I paid him $425 to install access ports. I was then able to flush the heater myself and got my hot water back.
These are just a few examples of ways you can save yourself a fortune over time. A high income or a fat bank account is great to have, but as Charles Dickens observed, you will always be miserable when your spending exceeds your income.
Use money to obtain necessities and make your life comfortable. Don't make money your master by trying to spend your way to happiness or avoid a little elbow grease now and then.
Focus on owning only the things that add value to your life, and figure out when you need a professional and when you can do things yourself. Sacrificing a few comforts today will grow your savings and invest in a more prosperous future.