Author: Daniel B. Kline | February 13, 2018
Pennies become nickels...
In many ways, saving money is like losing weight. You can do it in extreme ways that hurt and have quick results, but that's not likely to create long-term change.
If you want to build a foundation of new behavior, it's better to make a series of small, manageable changes. This approach to saving money has a better chance of long-term success.
The list below consists of little, mostly pain-free changes you can make to save money. Not every one will be right for you, but pick a few, and you will be on your way to a stronger financial future.
Cycle off a streaming network
My wife and I have Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and a handful of other streaming services. We pay for most of them on a month-to-month basis and they can easily be turned off when we are not using them.
For example, Hulu only has a few shows we watch. We could cycle it off for much of the year only turning it on when we run out of programs on other platforms. If we creatively juggle our services to have one turned off at all times, we would save around $120 a year without really losing anything.
Skip an appetizer
When we eat out on the weekends, I tend to reflexively order an appetizer, even though that will lead to me not finishing my main course. It's a wasteful practice that adds $10-$16 to each meal without bringing much additional enjoyment.
Of course, if the appetizer has more appeal than the main course, sometimes you can spend less by ordering an appetizer and a soup or salad or even instead of an appetizer plus a main course.
Your savings will vary here, but if you're careful about what you order, you can eat what you want and spend a few dollars less.
ALSO READ: How to Start Saving Money in 2018
Downgrade your coffee
While making coffee at home or giving it up altogether would save the most money, substituting a basic coffee for a latte would save roughly $2 on each purchase. That's not even a big sacrifice when you consider that most coffee chains offer a variety of milks and other free add-ons (like cinnamon or vanilla powder) that you can use to doctor your cheaper cup of Joe.
Not everyone has the option of working from home or walking to the grocery store, but with a gallon of gas averaging $2.57 as of Jan. 26, saving a gallon or two each week can add up.
In some cases you can accomplish this by walking or biking. Sometimes you can save gas just by planning a little better so your schedule allows you to get more things done while driving around less.
Be a little hot or a little cold
Heat and air conditioning cost money. Simply by lowering or raising the thermostat one degree as seasonally appropriate, you will spend less money. Yes, you might be a tad bit hot or cold, but a one-degree difference is something most people will quickly get used to.
You can save roughly 3% on your energy bill by adjusting the indoor temperature by one degree, according to EnergyHub.com. Your savings will vary based on local conditions and the size and energy efficiency of your home, but this small discomfort could save you a pretty penny.
Wait for movies to come to DVD or digital
My son and I see pretty much every major blockbuster that comes out. We have MoviePass, so this actually only costs us $10 each a month, but if we did not have the service (or if it goes out of business), then skipping one film would save us roughly $35-$40 when factoring in tickets, popcorn, and a bottle of water.
Of course, even with the all-you-can-watch movie service, we still spend money on concessions. Were we to stay home and watch some movies after their theatrical window, we could make our own popcorn and drink store-bought soda.
Go generic when possible
For years, my family bought Advil just because we were familiar with the brand. That made little sense, considering that the store brand sitting on the shelf next to it is the exact same product.
Look around when you shop and switch out for generics when it won't make a difference. For example. generic medicines are usually the same (check the labels), but generic spaghetti sauce might be hit or miss. Do some experimenting, and you may find that you don't notice the difference -- or even prefer the generic product.
Get the right deals credit card
Getting and using any credit card can be a bit of a risk. You're only saving money if you pay your bill off each month.
If you do, however, certain rewards cards can essentially pay you to use them. For example, I have an Amazon credit card that I use solely for purchases on the online retailer. It gives me 5% back in points I can use for purchases on the site.
I pay that credit card bill in full each month on auto-pay so I don't incur any interest charges, and the card has no fees. That means the rewards I'm earning are essentially free money that I can use to offset future purchases.
Buy bottled water in bulk
My wife and I live in a condo building, so we started having water delivered instead of lugging it in from the garage. Even with delivery, a case of name-brand bottled water (24 bottles) costs about $5. Compare that to the $1-$3 the same bottle sells for at local restaurants, and you can see how much money I save by tossing a bottle of water into my bag each day.
Even a cheap convenience store charges around $1 for a bottle of water. Since I pay about $0.20 for each bottle, I'm paying less than I would for even the cheapest option I could buy on the go.
Don't buy water at all
Buying water in bulk is cheap, but not buying water at all is cheaper. If you live someplace where the water is drinkable, then consider, well, drinking it.
Even buying in bulk, my wife and I spend about $30 a month on water. If we were willing to drink the free stuff (we aren't -- the pipes in our building are old), we would be able to save that money.
Skip the gifts
In most years, I spend about $100-$200 on gifts for my wife on her birthday, and we also generally go out for a nice meal. She does the same for me, and it's rare that either one of us is happy about our gifts. Mostly, we get each other gift cards that get used, but there's rarely a present to open that we're excited about.
In years when we've bought houses or had other major expenses, we've skipped the gifts and just had the meal. That puts $200-$400 back in our pockets, and neither of us is the least bit upset.
Of course, this is something you have to plan with your spouse or significant other. Surprising your loved one with this particular cost cutting method could land you in the dog house.
Plan vacations well
Many people view vacation as a luxury, but that does not mean you can't be smart about it.
Look into the cheapest ways to book the trip you're hoping to take. Sometimes a little flexibility on dates can save you hundreds on airfare. In addition, warehouse clubs and discount websites sometimes offer better pricing than you might otherwise get.
As a frugal traveler, I generally save hundreds on each trip we take without sacrificing anything. I may use a blind bidding website to book hotels or take flights that leave very late or very early, but smaller changes and careful planning can pay off big as well.
Go off peak
When researching a trip, one key way to save big bucks is to travel when other people don't. That doesn't mean going skiing in the summer, but simply avoiding the most popular dates. For example, Florida's theme parks are less crowded when kids are in school. That means prices are better on everything from hotel to airfare -- even tickets to the parks.
Many special vacations have surprising deal times. Cruises, for example, are cheaper during hurricane season. Book during that time, and you'll pay less. That may sound like a bad idea, but the only real risk is that your itinerary will change: Cruise lines use high-tech weather gear to make sure their ships are never caught in the middle of a bad storm. Instead, they plot a course that avoids the bad weather.
Use ride sharing
If my mother has to get somewhere when she doesn't have a car, she takes a cab. It's an ingrained habit that costs her money when she could be using cheaper ride-share services like Uber or Lyft.
I only live a few miles from the airport. A cab may cost around $15, while an Uber is generally under $10. The savings vary, but I've never seen a situation in which a cab was the cheaper choice.
For many folks, change isn't always easy, and the idea of getting into a stranger's car is a little scary. Uber and Lyft, however, are well-established companies and perfectly safe to use. Once you set them up, which is not hard, they are also incredibly user-friendly.
I'm lucky enough to work from home, and my wife's office is less than a mile from our house. That's a big change from when we lived in our previous location and had a combined commute of maybe 70 miles round-trip each day. Since we stopped having to make those drives we've saved about $30-$50 a week in gas, depending upon the price of a gallon.
It's enough money that if either of us ended up with a long commute, we'd look for people to carpool with. That way we would not save as much money on gas as we do by not driving, but we'd still save some of it.
Have a cheap meal at home
Eating out at even a modest restaurant can cost a family of three $40-$50. There are countless meals you can make at home for less than $10 even if you're not much of a cook. Think tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, or even pancakes for breakfast, and you can save a little cash while still eating well.
Take a driving vaction
In March, my wife and I are taking our son on a trip for his school break. We had considered visiting family in New England, but airfare would have cost around $900 round trip for the three of us. That's almost twice what the same tickets cost when demand is not driven by school vacation.
Instead of flying, we decided to book a beach trip on the other side of the state. The two-and-a-half-hour ride should cost around $20-$25 in gas, plus some small tolls. That's a huge savings, and instead of spending the week in relatively cold weather, we'll be checking out Florida's west coast beaches.
See a matinee
If you like going to movies, it's cheaper to do so earlier in the day and sometimes on weekdays. The theater near where I live charges around $11 for a regular ticket (it varies based on the screen a film is showing on). Matinees cost about half that, and the theater offers them any day before 6 p.m. including weekends. In addition, look for discount days offered through theater loyalty programs, which are generally free to join.
Use deal websites
Every summer, my son and I go to the local water park at least twice. That park closes for a few months in the winter (even though we don't really have winter here in South Florida), and when it's closed, it offers season pass deals on Groupon.
For the price of about one admission, I can buy a ticket that will let us go as often as we want during the summer. That's a great deal that will save us around $120 while also letting us get more value by going more often.
Join a cheaper gym
I used to be a member at a gym that cost around $60 a month. It had towel service, a sauna, nice locker rooms, and a pool. After I switched to the $10 a month gym, I missed the sauna a little bit, but I was happy to have an extra $50 in my pocket each month.
A fancy gym may have nicer amenities, but it will mostly the same equipment. Weights are weights, and a treadmill is more or less a treadmill. In downgrading, you may get pampered less, but your workout probably won't suffer.
Keep your car
If your car is in good working order and you've paid it off, it makes sense to hold on to it as long as you can. Every month you drive a paid-off car saves you a car payment. That could be anywhere from $100 to a few hundred dollars -- big money for simply not replacing something that isn't broken.
Buy a used car
A few months ago my wife finally decided to replace her well-worn car. The paint had worn off the roof, and while nothing was wrong with it, at over 130,000 miles the car seemed due for a major problem.
At first we looked at dealerships for new models. When we decided on a modest sedan she liked, we got a price on a new one. It was about $16,000 without some of the options she wanted.
Instead of buying new, we went for a one-year-old model. It had about 30,000 miles on it (irrelevant because her commute is about a mile, so she's not going to add a lot of mileage) and cost just over $11,000.
By giving up the idea of having a new car, we got an immaculate vehicle in great shape for $5,000 less. That's a smart trade-off we would make every time.
Use a round-off app
Every time I use my main debit card to buy something, the Acorns app rounds the amount up to the nearest dollar and deposits the difference in an investment account. It's a completely painless way to save that resulted in over $1,000 in savings in less than a year (that number includes some profit made on those investments).
Once you set the app up, you really don't have to do anything. Getting paid out takes a few days if you need the money, which is deposited in the account you have associated with the app.
Buy in bulk
Whether you're a member of a warehouse club or not, buying in bulk can save you money. Even at your local grocery store, the largest pack of toilet paper generally costs less per roll than the smaller ones. The same is often true for everything from toothpaste to razor blades to dish washing detergent.
Of course, there are two caveats here. The first is that you must make sure you're actually paying a lower rate. The second is that you need to use whatever item you buy before it expires (if it has a use-by date, that is).
Use free shipping
Walmart offers free two-day shipping on any eligible order over $35. Amazon has free (albeit much slower) shipping for eligible orders over $25.
In most cases, it's better to wait until you need enough items to qualify for the free shipping deals that these two (and many other) retailers offer. That's not hard to do, given such low thresholds, and the savings will be roughly $3-$5 per order.
Keep your phone longer
Having the latest smartphone can cost you either $600 to $1,200 up front or a payment each month. If you hold on to your phone for an extra year or two after you own it, then you're saving serious money.
Plus, while you may sacrifice a little bit in camera quality or processor speed, how different is last year's model from this year's? For most people, having the latest and greatest phone is more about status than performance. Sacrifice a little cachet, and your savings account will thank you.
Buy last year's sneakers
My son teases me because I buy my sneakers at the New Balance outlet store. I used to buy them at the mall, but I got tired of paying over $200 for the latest model.
The outlet stores sells last year's models, shoes that did not sell well, and sometimes colors that did not catch on. I can generally find a high-quality, U.S.-made pair of New Balance sneakers in my size in a reasonable color for about half what the same pair would have cost new.
I walk about five miles a day, so having quality sneakers is important. Having the hottest model is not, and I save around $100 three or four times a year (I'm hard on sneakers) by being flexible and shopping at the outlet store.
Buy a slow cooker
Stew meat costs less than a ribeye because it's tougher. The same is true of all sorts of cuts of beef.
However, a slow cooker -- which can be had for under $30 -- can make a cheap cut of meat fall-apart tender in four to eight hours. It works for pretty much any cut of beef or pork as long as there's a little fat in it.
Owning a slow cooker lets you buy cheaper cuts of meat and still turn out great meals. You might save anywhere from a few dollars to $15 a pound (or more) depending upon the cuts you buy.
A slow cooker also makes it easy to cook many servings of food at once, so you can buy in bulk and eat out less.
Set aside your change
For years, I emptied my pockets of change at the end of each day into a big cup. On my anniversary each year I would either roll the money or take it to a change-counting machine. I would use the money to pay for a nice dinner out, and it felt like a free meal.
Saving your change is an easy way to save up for a small luxury purchase. Of course, since I use cash less now, I don't have quite as much to put away, but it's still a couple of hundred dollars in coins each year.
Cut the cord
A cable bill can cost over $100 a month -- sometimes close to $200. Luckily, it's possible to cut the cord and still have access to an array of programming choices.
Buy a streaming service like Hulu, and you get access to original shows and tons of network programs one day after they air. Add Netflix, and for under $20 a month for the two, you'll have more shows than you could ever watch.
In many markets, you can also buy an antenna and pick up some over-the-air channels that offer local programming, sports, and live TV. Even if you add other streaming services on top of the two mentioned above, you'll spend less than you would on even a modest cable package.
Go to the library
Libraries have more than free books. In many markets, they also have DVDs, video games, and even discount passes to museums and other local attractions. It's a little different at each library, but check out what yours has to offer, and you'll probably be surprised.
Consider an annual pass
If you visit a local museum, theme park, or other attraction often, it might be cheaper to have an annual pass than to buy a one-day pass each time. My son and I have passes to multiple theme parks, and we go quite often. If we paid for single-day tickets each time, we'd be spending thousands instead of the few hundred dollars our passes cost.
Of course, without the passes, we would not be able to visit as often, but since we have them, we take full advantage. Pick a place you love to go, and by spending some money up front, you can cut your overall entertainment budget substantially.
Improve your credit score
A better credit score generally means you pay less for loans. One easy way to improve your score quickly is to pay off your credit balance (assuming you have one). If you don't, improving your score is more of a long-term project that involves steadily paying your bills on time and keeping your balance low.
Whether it's a short- or long-term project, it's a worthwhile effort. A better credit score can save you hundreds or thousands on a car loan -- and perhaps even five figures on a mortgage.
Refinance your mortage
A $250,000 mortgage at 4% interest will cost you about $429,700 over the life of a 30-year loan. Cut that interest rate by half a point to 3.5% and your total cost will be $404,00.
When you refinance a mortgage, you need to consider any savings against closing costs. If, for example, you save $100 each month and have $1,200 in closing costs, it will take a year for the refinance to be worth it.
Factor in how much you will save, what you have to pay up front, and how long you intend to stay in the house. Assuming the numbers work out, this can be a great way to hold on to more cash each month.
Shop your car insurance
Most people simply renew their car insurance every year, usually paying slightly more than they did for the previous policy. Don't just accept what your current company is offering. Go online and get bids from at least two other companies, and chances are you will get a lower price.
If you want to stick with your current provider, use that lower quote as leverage. It may not work, but it never hurts to ask, and some companies will negotiate.
Stop drinking soda in restaurants
Whether you're spending a dollar or two at a fast food restaurant or a few dollars at a sit-down establishment, soda adds an outsize cost to your bill, because it's typically sold at a huge markup.
If you crave soda, then buy it in bulk and avoid indulging while you dine out. Of course, abstaining altogether is best -- for both your wallet and your health.
Only drink alcohol at home
Alcohol is a huge moneymaker for restaurants. The markup varies based on where you're drinking and what type of beverage you order, but restaurants commonly sell wine and liquor for four or five times its cost. That means a $10 bottle of wine may sell for $40 to $50 in a restaurant. Even beer comes at a massive premium.
Instead of having a drink with dinner, have a nightcap at home. And if you had planned to go bar hopping, well, maybe stock up and have some friends over instead.
Share your biggest expense
Most people's biggest expense is housing. Whether you own your house or rent, one way to save money is by taking in a roommate. Now, that may not work if you live in a studio or have a family of four packed into a two-bedroom condo, but if you have an extra bedroom to spare, you can defray some of your housing costs by renting it out.
Avoid paying for parking
When my wife and I moved to downtown West Palm Beach, I made a vow that I would walk to any place within walking distance. I did it for health reasons, but it's had some major side benefits. I spend less on gas and, perhaps more importantly, I save money on parking.
The gas savings are probably not huge, but two hours of parking in our downtown can cost around $10. Multiply that by a couple of nights a week and a weekend trip or two, and you can see how I'm saving big-time by hoofing it.
You can also avoid paying for parking by planning your trips. Learn where free lots are, or which restaurants will cover your parking cost if you eat there. Some malls offer free parking if you spend a certain amount, and some movie theaters will validate parking at paid lots with the price of a movie ticket.
Be smart about where you fill up
The gas station that's generally the most convenient for me charges at least $0.10 more than another chain that's nearby. The cheaper gas station often has long lines, and it can be chaotic with cars flowing in both directions and nobody directing traffic. On a ten-gallon fill-up, however, I save at least $1.20.
If I had a bigger, less fuel-efficient car (or drove more) the savings would add up. But even with my limited gas purchases, I'm still putting an extra few dollars in my pocket each month by being careful where I buy.
Change your wireless carrier
The competition between the four major wireless carriers has gotten intense. Because of that, at various times of year, each of them offers deals that could dramatically lower your bill.
Of course, be careful about signing something that gives you a good rate for a while but then locks you into a high rate after that. Also be sure to check whether your current phone will work on the new network or whether the company will replace it for you (with a trade-in, most likely).
Some carriers will even pay off any money you owe on phone leases or contracts. This is generally done through either a bill credit or a gift card -- and you may have to pay your old carrier before getting the money back from your new one.
It's also worth checking out some of the off-brand carriers, though they're pretty no-frills and have limited customer service. These companies, which are either leasing network space from one of the four major carriers or are actually owned by them, generally have lower prices. They probably won't have big deals or promotions to get you to switch, but they may have the lowest rates -- ones that don't expire.
Want to pay less? Ask.
It won't always work, but sometimes the easiest path to a discount is simply asking for one. Your cable company, phone carrier, and even your internet provider won't want to lose you, and many have retention teams designed to offer you deals to stay.
Be careful, though, because sometimes -- and cable companies do this the most -- instead of cutting your bill, they'll offer you an extra service for free for a period of time. After that window, if you forget to cancel, your bill will actually go up.
Your chances of success in asking for a better price are generally tied to your ability to switch to another company. If you live in a town with one internet provider, then you don't have much leverage. But if there are multiple providers or alternative services you might use (like a streaming service in place of cable), then you can make them compete for your business.
Actually cancel your service
When I lived in Connecticut, our town finally got a second option for cable and internet. The new carrier offered a lower price than the old one, so I called my then-current provider and asked for a better deal. They declined, but once I actually cancelled my service, the company sprang into action.
I started getting "please come back" calls offering me lower prices. It was frustrating, because I had never wanted to leave, and returning their equipment was a hassle that involved a half-hour ride, but once I actually left, the company did everything it could to get me back.
Cut down on dry cleaner visits
For years, I took every button-down shirt and pair of non-jeans pants I owned to a dry cleaner. For $2 to $3 per shirt and a little more for the pants, I got my clothes back on a hanger, wrapped in plastic, and ready to wear again.
It was easy and convenient, but it was also wasteful. Some of those shirts needed dry cleaning, but others could be thrown in the laundry, even if they needed to be air-dried and ironed afterward. It's a little more work, but it's a lot less money (and a lot fewer hangers to throw away).
When you have children, it's important to get a little time away from them. Whether it's a quick dinner, a movie, or even a kid-free trip to the grocery store, most parents want a little time away.
The challenge is that quality babysitting is expensive. You may spend $10 an hour or more (it varies greatly based on where you live and the age of your child) on top of whatever you spend going out.
One way around that is to find another set of parents with a child
that's around the same age as yours and offer to swap nights out. Your
kid gets a new friend, and you get a little time to yourself without
having to pay for it.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Netflix. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.