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Well, as of Sunday afternoon the U.S. has lost almost 157,000 people to COVID. Congress took the weekend off despite being nowhere near a compromise on the latest COVID-relief bill and having only until the end of this week before the session adjourns entirely. And people are struggling to cover their bills — especially while the unemployment bonus expired.
Oh, and let’s not forget the recent incursion of federal troops into unwilling states or the fact that the president is feeling around to see whether he might be able to delay the election.
So… Things aren’t great in this country. It might, as the post title suggests, feel like the world is crumbling. Which is disheartening and downright depressing, making it harder for some of us to stay on the straight and narrow when it comes to frugality.
It can seem like things are overwhelming and you just don’t care enough to put effort into frugality. At least, those of us fortunate to have a choice in the matter.
I’m guilty of this myself. While I live relatively frugally in general, this month I’ve been a little too free with getting takeout. (Just typing that sentence now has me contemplating getting some, in fact.) Because… ugh. Who cares?
But of course, few people’s jobs are completely secure, and if a depression hits, inflation could make what savings we do have less valuable. So we should all be trying to find ways to stay at least somewhat on course for being smart with our money.
How do we do that? Well, by reviewing the evergreen frugality tips. Take on one a day — or heck, even one a week, and see if you can’t get on track.
I know this is a weird thing to put in as a first frugality tip. But it’s important.
After all, if you have leeway in your budget, it’s hard to stick to an austerity plan for the long haul. And if you deprive yourself too much for too long, you’re likely to go a little crazy when the dam finally bursts. This is true even when people’s mental health isn’t deteriorating at an alarming rate. So now more than ever, it’s time to try to indulge a little.
So if you have the spare funds, plan a small splurge or two — something that feels indulgent without breaking the bank — to ensure that you don’t feel utterly miserable.
This could be a new toy for the kids, occasional takeout/food delivery, a streaming service you don’t strictly need but utterly enjoy… Whatever it takes to feel like you’re not utterly deprived of all joy.
See if you can do without
If something breaks or gets lost, before you automatically replace it, see whether it’s something you actually need. Obviously, if your washer breaks, you probably need a new one.
But you may not need a new tablet if you have a phone and a PC/Mac. How much do you really use that smartwatch/FitBit? How often do you actually watch DVDs/Blu-Ray to the point that you need to replace a broken DVD/Blu-ray machine?
As oh-so-many personal finance blogs have pointed out, there’s a difference between being cheap and being frugal. The former can come back to haunt you, especially if it comes to buying cheaply made stuff. Sometimes it’s better to pay more for an item that will last.
For example, fast fashion — while super affordable — is likely to wear out sooner than something that costs a little more. So be careful how much of your closet fast fashion comprises.
Similarly, be careful when getting electronics or appliances or just products in general that are the cheapest. Sometimes, it just happens to be a great deal. But most of the time, you do get what you pay for.
So be sure to read product reviews to make sure it’s not going to die within a couple of months (especially since both electronics and appliances often have only a 60-90 day warranty).
You don’t always need brand new stuff. My current microwave was bought at a thrift store about nine years ago and is still going strong. My slow cooker is around eight years old — though admittedly it doesn’t get a ton of use. So maybe that’s the real reason for its longevity.
Anyway, Craigslist, LetGo, OfferUp, Facebook Marketplace groups, eBay and, of course, thrift stores can be great sources for finding things used that would cost a lot more at a store. Then there are free options like Freecycle and BuyNothing Facebook groups.
A lot of sellers are apparently doing no-contact pickup. You pay via VenMo or PayPal and they leave it out for you. So you don’t even have to risk contact with new people.
Buying used is great for furniture, some electronics (I wouldn’t recommend used phones or computers, for example), clothing, books, toys, etc.
And speaking of clothes, check out Poshmark, ThredUp and — for people who want brand name stuff — Tradesy for deep discounts on clothing. It’s great for outfitting kids who grow out of things so quickly. (And hey, you can resell those kids clothes when they have outgrown them. Little kids often grow out of things long before the items actually wear out.)
As a bonus: When you buy a used item, it means that it doesn’t end up in a landfill, so you’re helping the environment.
Buy older/less impressive tech
When I finally broke down and bought a new iPhone, I had the choice of three different generations. The newest was $1,000. The oldest was $700. I chose the latter. And I’ve been perfectly happy with my iPhone 7, even if it doesn’t have every single new feature.
Similarly, you don’t need to buy top of the line computers (though, again, be careful about getting the absolute cheapest ones too). You don’t need the highest resolution TV unless you’re a serious cinemaphile. And so on and so forth.
So as cool as new features and enhanced options are, when you’re replacing/adding tech to your life, ask yourself whether you really need the latest and greatest options.
Grocery shop carefully
Some people have been reporting a notable uptick in food prices. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid that here. And of course I commit the cardinal sin of frugality by not cooking, so my shopping hasn’t changed.
But if your grocery budget is higher than usual — or if you just think you could stand to trim some excess fat from your budget (literally or figuratively) — now’s the time to start (or keep) shopping sales.
Stock up on meat whenever it’s discounted. Look for packages near the sell-by date, since they’ll be marked down, and stick them in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.
Speaking of meat, try to do more meatless meals. It’s better for the environment and probably your health.
As they go on sale, buy extra of anything you commonly eat (so long as it doesn’t mean that you’ll eat too much of it just because it’s there). This could be snacks, frozen meals, soda… Whatever you typically buy. Once upon a time — back when Tim was basically addicted to Mountain Dew — we bought more than 70 two-liters during a sale. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment, but it’s amazing how many places you can tuck stuff away, like closets or under/behind the couch.
And of course then there’s the age-old acorn: Meal plan around sales. Check the grocery circular (generally available on the store’s website a day or two before the ad actually comes out), and figure out what you can make with whatever’s cheap that week.
If you subscribe to the paper, you should obviously also be looking at the Sunday coupons. But don’t forget to check the store’s digital coupons, which you can load directly to your card. (Don’t forget this is true of drugstores too.)
And there’s always Coupons.com. But if you go that route, you should be going through either MyPoints or Swagbucks. Those programs will allow you to receive rewards points for printing and using coupons in-store.
Save your savings
Speaking of coupons, make sure all that money you’re “saving” actually goes in the bank.
Any time I save money on an item via coupons, store rewards, CVS CarePass* or just a general sale, I take that money out of my account and transfer it to a savings account. Any time I eliminate a recurring expense or get a price drop on it, I put that money aside too.
This is a great way to build up savings with not that much effort.
*Since I couldn’t find anywhere else to put this: I highly recommend the CVS CarePass. For $48 a year, you get a $10 Extrabux credit each month, free shipping on some items and 20% off any CVS brand. That’s a huge amount of value for $4/month, and most of us need at least one thing from a drugstore each month: razors, lotion, contact lens solution, etc.
Discounted gift cards
If you’re not familiar, these sites buy people’s unwanted gift cards and sell the GCs to their customers at a discount. So these are a great way to save on regular expenses.
I’ve gotten almost 30% off PETCO gift cards for Josie’s food and litter. I’ve used discounted gift cards to save on streaming services, restaurants, drugstore prescriptions and more. And of course, if you have any unwanted gift cards, selling to these types of sites is a great way to make some quick cash.
Go to GiftCard Granny to find out which sites have the best discounts for any given store. But I don’t believe that site lists CardCash prices, so be sure to check there as well before deciding where to buy. Also, be sure to sign up for the GC resale sites’ emails, as the companies will sometimes have sitewide sales.
Save on utilities
Yet another frugal chestnut: Get a smart thermostat. This will help you better conserve heating/cooling energy when you’re not at home.
Of course, many of us are now home all day, so that’s less helpful. In that case, try to be more stoic about temperature. If you live alone or just with a partner, you can go around in your underwear (or less) in the summer, so you can try keeping your place a little warmer. And of course in the winter, everyone can bundle up and keep their residences a little colder.
Especially now that so many of us are home all day, it’s important to know your peak/off-peak times and try to save as much electricity usage as possible for off-peak times. For example, I only run laundry or the dishwasher during off-peak hours. Unfortunately, the TV is on a lot during peak times, but luckily TVs don’t actually use much electricity.
Speaking of peak/off-peak, many electric companies have different plans. Check with your electric company for a review to see if you’re on the best plan for your usage habits.
If you’re okay with having someone come into your house — ask the company over the phone what protection the employee will be wearing — do an energy efficiency audit. They’ll check for leaks in HVAC, insulation levels, etc. If they do have to do any work, you may be able to get a rebate through local programs.
If you don’t have an energy efficient toilet, put either a brick or a water-filled soda bottle in the tank. This raises the water level artificially, making the tank stop filling up sooner. Thus the toilet uses less water on each flush. And if you live alone/with a tolerant partner, there’s the whole “If it’s yellow, let it mellow approach.”
If you have a garden, put a bucket in the shower (or scoop up bathwater after a soak) and use that on the plants. And if you do take a shower, play music to help you be more aware of the time you spend with the water running.
And of course, if you haven’t already, you should be using energy efficient bulbs.
Sign up for apps
If you’re not already using Fetch Rewards, Ibotta, ShopKick or GetUpside now’s the time to join. These programs allow you to upload grocery receipts and receive either cash or rewards points (which you can redeem as gift cards).
Fetch Rewards will give you 25 points for any receipt you upload, so even if you don’t buy any of the featured items, you’ll be able to rack up some points. You’ll get 2,000 points just for signing up. The great thing about Fetch Rewards is that you don’t have to add any featured items. The program scans the receipt for you. It works with various stores and even Amazon and restaurants.
Ibotta is a little more work, since you do have to go through what’s offered and add that item to a list before scanning your receipt. However, it’s still free money for stuff you were going to purchase anyway. Items include everything from snacks to alcohol to beauty/personal care and household. This app works with grocery stores (including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods), drugstores, warehouse stores, Circle K, Amazon, some dollar stores and even Groupon. So be sure to check the app pretty much any time you shop.
ShopKick will reward you just for stopping in at certain stores, like CVS and Walgreens. (In fact, just being in the parking lot and opening the app is usually enough to trigger the reward, in case you’re not buying anything there but happen to be going by one.) But it also works with grocery stores, some convenience stores, pet stores, warehouse stores and even some retail stores like Ulta, Carter’s, etc. You can also get points just for scanning items’ UPCs in the store: magazines, snacks, beauty/personal care and more.
GetUpside is a great way to save on gas. Just go into the app, check out the rebates at gas stations nearby, then choose one. You have four hours to get the gas and upload the receipt, so be sure to choose a gas station when you’re more or less already on the way to fill up.
Sign up for rewards programs
Most of us — well, at least the childless among us — now have an unprecedented amount of free time that used to be used for a social life. Why not take some of that downtime (or lulls at work, even) and be active on rewards sites?
I already mentioned these, but Swagbucks and MyPoints are great ways to get free gift cards. You can also opt for PayPal payments, but it usually costs fewer points to get gift cards. For example, Swagbucks discounts your first $25 gift card of the month by 10%, but not your first PayPal payment request.
Here’s a Swagbucks primer. There may be more opportunities now, as it’s been a while since I updated that post. But it will at least give you a general idea of ways you can earn: making online purchases, Internet searches, watching videos, answering surveys, signing up for free trial periods on products or services, etc.
MyPoints offers pretty much the same stuff, since it’s owned by the same company as Swagbucks. Admittedly, it takes longer to accrue points, but the program will also send you emails. Some of those will give you points just for clicking the links.
Inbox Dollars is similar to both programs, but it’s good to compare its offering to the other two sites before doing things like signing up for a service such as Hulu.
There are also sites that pay cash (rather than rewards points) for surveys, such as SurveyJunkie. It’s worth checking those out too.
Sign up for cash back sites
Most of us are trying to avoid in-store trips as much as possible. So now’s the time to check out cash back shopping, if you haven’t already.
It’s a pretty simple process. Instead of going directly to the store’s website, you instead go to the cash back shopping site and click the store link there. There are also often coupons listed that you might not find anywhere else.
There aren’t just retail stores, though. There are rebates for new cell phone service plans (everything from the biggies to Mint, Republic and Boost Mobile). There are grocery delivery rebates (or even just groceries — Albertson’s and Safeway are offering 0.5% through Mr. Rebates), food delivery apps, streaming services and more. So before you sign up for or buy anything, it’s best to do a quick search on the cash back site to see if there’s a cash back opportunity.
Warning: There are a few things that might keep you from getting your rebate. The most common ones are coupons from outside of the cash back site, clicking around to other sites, on store emails or even in search engine results (including doing so in other tabs/windows), not starting with an empty cart when you click the cash back site’s link or waiting more than a couple of hours between the click and actually checking out.
There’s also TopCashBack, but I’m wary of this one. While it can offer the best rate, it’s usually by a very small margin. Meanwhile, unlike most cash back sites, it passes along its whole commission and only makes money through ads on its site. This means profit margins are necessarily much slimmer.
Why is that a problem? Well, on most cash back sites you submit any missing rebates and, assuming it’s not a huge amount, you’ll often just be given a courtesy credit while they check it out on their own. They may not be reimbursed for your order when they do hear back from the store, but generally a courtesy credit will remain even so.
They can do that because they have padding from commissions. Since TopCashBack doesn’t have that padding, it may be much stingier with credits for missing rebates and only open claims with stores. Which means if you did screw up (and no matter how careful you think you are, it’s always a possibility), you’re out a rebate you might otherwise have been given as a courtesy.
To be clear: I’ve never put this theory into action, so I could be wrong. But it stands to reason that with smaller profit margins, fewer courtesies could be given. So I steer clear.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, Swagbucks and MyPoints also offer “cash back” shopping. By which I mean you get rewards points that you can redeem for gift cards or cash. It’s important to do the math before deciding whether they offer the best rate. (Hint: MyPoints is usually the worst of the bunch.)
Trim recurring bills
Of course, I did say splurge strategically earlier. But it’s important to also look for things you’re spending on that hold no value.
Do you really need to pay for Spotify/Pandora/no-ad Hulu? Couldn’t you just deal with some commercials?
The answer may be no, and that’s fine. Just so long as you’re getting enough value from that spending. But it’s important to ask the question. So check your credit card and any auto-charges to your bank account, and ask whether you’re getting enough out of the service to justify the expense.
Another option would be to see if you can split the plan with someone. Go halvsies on Amazon Prime Video and share your login info. (As long as you trust that person not to access your actual Amazon account payment information.) Same with Netflix, etc.
Anyone still subscribing to cable — especially now that professional sports are barely a thing — should make a list of the shows they watch, then check out streaming options to see whether they could get the bulk of those shows much more cheaply. And if you already cut the cord but have a ton of streaming services, make a list of what you watch on each to see whether you really need them all.
Again, the answer may be that you get enough value out of everything to keep it. But it’s good to go through and ask yourself that question.
Get a cheaper cell phone plan
With the plethora of alternative cell plans out there now, there are very few instances when it makes sense to go with Verizon, T-Mobile or AT&T.
That’s not to say it never makes sense to go with a mainstream carrier. For example, you could split a family plan with other adults, reducing the cost. Or if you have a relative with an existing family plan, you might be able to just have them add you for $10 a month. (Have them do it through a cash back site, though.) And in some states, alternative plan options are limited.
But the vast majority of people can save by signing up with a different company.
I love Mint Mobile and pay just $15 a month for up to 2 GB of data (unlimited calling/texting). It’s $20 a month for 8 GB or $25 for 12 GB.
Republic Wireless can also be cheap (but it doesn’t work with iPhones). For people who need unlimited data — especially those with kids — Boost Mobile is a great option. (Several of my readers use it and have endorsed it.)
So if your contract is coming up for renewal — or if you’re month-to-month already — go check out your options. (And go through a cash back shopping site if you do switch.)
Use the library — sorta
A favorite frugal suggestion is the library, which often has not just free books but also free DVDs and sometimes even board games available to borrow.
Of course, these days, any unnecessary in-person interaction is less than ideal. So the first course of action would be to check your library’s digital library. Obviously, you can’t get digital board games, but books, audiobooks and, in some cases, videos will be available.
Failing that, see what your local library is doing to stay safe. Many are offering contactless pickup. That is, you drive up, they find your books and then they put them in your trunk.
Of course, many people consider it worthwhile to buy books to support authors. But another option would be to see if you can suggest your library purchase a particular book. (The Phoenix Public Library even lets you do this online.) I’ve done this a few times, and I believe all but one was ultimately bought.
Okay, this is officially a ridiculously long post, but in my defense there was a lot to cover.
But this is hardly all of the ways to save. So if anyone has any favorite ways to save not covered here, please feel free to tell me in the comments.