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20 frugal tips from someone who's saved thousands

Key takeaways

  • Saving money in everyday ways could call for more time and effort, but there's a clear payoff.
  • Consider these ideas to help save thousands on flights, groceries, clothes, and even gifts.

In college, my friends staged an intervention: It was to discuss how frugal I was. I was embarrassed at the time, but now I wear that label as a badge of honor. Even though I don’t have to sacrifice as much as I did when my sole source of income was from my part-time preschool teacher gig, I still use some tricks from when I had to live frugally. These frugal living tips could take extra time to pull off, but time is money—and if you’d rather spend time than money, try these cash-saving ideas.

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Frugal living tips

1. I do the less-desirable thing.

While some colleagues were spending nearly every dime of their paychecks on rent in trendy areas in New York City, I chose to live in an unhip neighborhood for a lot less. My commute was no longer than theirs, and it cost the same too. But my rent, food, and entertainment were much more affordable. I also prefer to travel at less-popular times to less-cool spots (think: upstate New York in the winter—it was cold, but there was a chowder festival). It’s tougher now that I’m a mom and school calendars dictate my vacation schedule, but getting to and staying somewhere is generally cheaper when you’re not competing with a million other people. And it can actually be more relaxing when you’re not fighting crowds to get into attractions and restaurants.

2. I buy stuff I’ll need later whenever it’s on sale.

My laundry room currently has several dozen rolls of paper towels lining the shelves—not because they make cheap decorations but because I stumbled across a deep discount and stocked up. I’ve done the same with long-shelf-life snacks my kids love and bathroom must-haves like hand soap, body wash, and mouthwash. If you have the space, buy a lot of whatever you know you’ll use at some point when it hits a lower-than-usual price.

3. I compare per-ounce costs before I buy.

Before you stock up on an item, make sure you’re getting the best deal. The same food, toiletry, or other essential can come in various sizes or bundles at different prices, making it tougher to compare apples to apples. Luckily, some e-commerce sites post the per-ounce (or per-item, if it’s a multipack) cost under the total price. I’ll keep scrolling until I find the lowest and buy that one, even if the hunt takes time.

4. I buy different foods from different sources.

I don’t just comparison shop on a single site. Instead of picking up groceries from the same supermarket each week, I’ll order food from there but also from big-box stores and e-commerce sites throughout the course of a month, depending on who has what I need for the best price—factoring in delivery and tip fees, of course. The mix changes a bit for each shopping trip.

5. I’ll wait to buy some things I want until I have a coupon.

I keep items in my cart without checking out in case the retailer sends me an email with a coupon. It really does work with some places. I also won’t make a purchase without thoroughly scouring the internet for a discount code. If I can’t find one, sometimes I won’t buy at that moment, opting instead to wait days or weeks until a code materializes. I once saved 20% on a swimsuit when I bought midsummer instead of in spring when I first found it.

6. I check warehouse clubs and big-box stores for gift cards.

Before we took a family trip to a major theme park, I picked up discounted gift cards for that destination from a big-box store. I shaved off about 10%, but when you’re spending hundreds of dollars, that’s a big difference. I’ve seen gift cards sold at those stores for less than their value on bowling, movies, and restaurants too.

7. I’ve shopped in the kids’ section for myself.

I’m not hitting the kids’ section for me much lately, but back when I could wear smaller sizes, I’d head to the kids’ section when I needed clothes. They’re often cheaper than the adult section, even though a similar amount of fabric is used for the big-kid sizes. One time, at a popular chain store, I bought sweatpants for about $20 that looked identical to a grown-up version selling for $40.

8. I search for pre-worn clothes and accessories before I buy new.

If I fall in love with a top in a social media ad, I’ll reverse image search the item to see if it shows up for less anywhere else. Often, a similar if not exact piece will show up for a fraction of the price in a resale marketplace. Then I check that the item is in good condition and the seller has solid reviews before I buy. I do the same reverse image search trick for anything my kids ask for, including birthday and holiday gifts.

9. I take advantage of day-after holiday merch purges.

My kids’ Easter candy was Valentine’s Day–branded because I bought it February 15, when supermarkets and drug stores slash prices on V-Day treats. The hearts look enough like bunny ears that it works—and my kids don’t care. Chocolate is chocolate, and they are happy. So am I because I spent as much as 60% less. I’ve also bought winter-holiday cards for the next year on the day after Christmas. This would work on Halloween costumes as well, but my kids would change their minds a bunch in those 364 days.

10. I don’t throw out disposable tableware from takeout restaurants.

A lot of takeout spots stuff napkins and plastic utensils in our takeaway bags without my asking. It’d be wasteful to toss them when they’re in usable condition. So I use the branded ones for my family’s home meals, and the plain ones for guests. In fact, I’ve entertained whole parties of people with plastic-wrapped fork, spoon, knife, and napkin bunches. No complaints—and I saved $20 on buying new.

11. I save all restaurant leftovers.

Even if it’s just a few bites, I’ll pack up what my family or I didn’t eat to have as a snack the next day or pair with less food than I’d normally cook at home. Don’t forget the free bread on the table. We’ve used these to make sandwiches.

12. I use credit cards for just about every purchase.

If there’s no discount for using cash, and no extra fee for charging, I’ll pull out plastic to earn points. And I’ll make sure to use the rewards card that offers the most points for that particular purchase category—whether it’s restaurants, gas, or groceries. I then redeem those points for whatever offers the best value. For my family, it’s typically been flights—we haven’t paid anything for plane tickets for a couple vacations, saving more than $5,000 for 2 trips to Florida. What also helps rack up points: I offer to put split expenses with friends and family on my credit card. This strategy only saves you money if you pay your whole credit card bill each month to avoid accumulating interest.

13. I buy used or rent things that have limited-time use.

I bought used sports gear for my sons that was advertised on a social media marketplace. Sure, the gear is already a little muddy or sandy, but my kids’ cleats cost $10 a pair, not $50. They will get muddy by the first game anyway, so they just have a head start. And they will outgrow them in a single season. While I wouldn’t wear muddy dresses to weddings, I tend to buy pre-worn if I plan to re-wear the dress—or just rent if I’m only going to wear it once (or twice in the same weekend as I once did).

14. I choose free when possible.

Hey, do you have windows in your home? Are you sometimes home during a sunny day? Instead of flipping on a light switch, let the sun shine in. Hit the library before the bookstore and your friends’ closets before clothing shops (if you’re the same size, can be trusted not to spill things on yourself, and would be willing to return the favor).

15. I cut costs for gifting.

Buying $7 greeting cards and $5 gift bags is a waste. Instead, I invest in blank stationery sets for as little as 15 cents per card and write personalized notes. As for gift bags, I reuse ones that have been given to my family. Just check that the little paper gift tag isn’t filled out, and if it is, rip it off. If I accidentally give back a gift bag to the person who gave it to us? Shrug. It’s going to get thrown out anyway—or reused if they’re smart. I’ve also bought multipacks of toys and treats and given out one each to birthday kids when it’s more cost-effective than buying them one at a time.

16. I cast a wide net for services we need.

I exhaustively research servicepeople to find out who offers the best value. I don’t stick with the area’s usual suspects. I look in places with a lower cost of living. We’ve saved hundreds of dollars on home repairs by working with pros a few towns over. It’s a pain to get tons of estimates, but you don’t know what someone charges until you ask, so we might meet with 7 or 8 people instead of the requisite 3. We also consider people who are newer to their trade who might charge less to help build their business.

17. I cash in on work perks.

My gym fee is halved because of my company’s fitness reimbursement. I’ve used low-cost backup care instead of a high-priced sitter when school was closed. I’ve gotten free skin cancer screenings and vaccines. And my husband had a benefit that defrayed our kids’ sports fees. I know not every job offers such great benefits—because I’ve had those jobs—but if yours does, use every single one you’re entitled to.

18. I sell almost everything we’re no longer using.

It was a great day in our household when my kids outgrew the bulky baby and toddler gear cluttering up our space. It took a lot of time to list every item for sale—strollers, carriers, a bouncer, a swing, a crib, a rocking chair, a playmat, and probably 30 other things—but we made hundreds of dollars back and got to donate some stuff too.

19. I unplug a lot.

When no one’s going to be home for a while, I’ll go room to room unplugging TVs, chargers, appliances, video game systems, and more. That’s because even though the items aren’t “on,” they still use electricity when they’re plugged in. Why should anyone pay for what’s not being used? It’s why I shut off the air conditioner or heater as well.

20. I keep things in the family.

I’m on a phone family plan not just with my husband and kids but also with my mom, sister, and brother-in-law. Each line is an affordable $33.99 a month for unlimited service. We all share streaming services (at least the ones that let you share). Plus, my mom lives with me, my husband, and our kids, and she chips in on housing expenses, which defrays our costs.

Meredith Bodgas
Editorial Director
Meredith Bodgas is an editorial director for Fidelity Smart Money. She lives with her husband, 2 children, and mom in New Jersey.

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The views expressed are as of the date indicated and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author, as applicable, and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments. The third-party contributors are not employed by Fidelity but are compensated for their services.

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