Perhaps the single greatest tactic a frugal weirdo can employ in the campaign to save money is… drum roll… planning ahead. Yep, planning. Not fancy apps or bizarre investing schemes or diets consisting solely of tuna fish. Planning ahead.
There are different categories of planning ahead and different ways to apply this deceptively simple strategy to your own life. It’s true that I’m a girl scout and Mr. Frugalwoods is a boy scout, so you could say that “be prepared” is something of a family motto.
Foreseeable Future “Emergencies”: Zero Cost Planning Ahead
This is the first category of planning ahead and it is by far the easiest to master. After finding myself in the McDonald’s drive-through angling for a strawberry banana smoothie due to near-death-by-thirst last summer, I realized this was nothing more than a failure to plan ahead. Thanks to this (and my many multitudes of failures to plan ahead) I’ve finally internalized the process by which I can effectively avoid spending money on a daily basis. Huzzah!
Planning ahead in this respect entails knowing yourself, knowing your routines, and preventing avoidable and predictable outlays of cash. Think through your typical week and identify every instance where you spent money because you didn’t plan ahead. Don’t berate yourself–this isn’t a time to criticize–rather, it’s a time to identify new opportunities for savings. I did this exercise with a typical weekday a while back and shared my results here.
Planning ahead can be as simple as making your own lunch and coffee everyday instead of eating out. It can be as easy as packing snacks for yourself and your kids when you’ll be running errands all afternoon (and a thermos of coffee for momma if you’re anything like me… ).
Planning ahead might be cooking all your dinners for the coming week on Sunday afternoon so that you don’t have to race home from work to prepare a meal every night. Planning ahead–as I posited in my mega frugal food post–might entail stocking your freezer with pre-made meals to ensure you won’t fall victim to take-out during hectic weeknights
The crux of planning ahead is accepting and acknowledging the stage of life you’re in–not necessarily the stage you’d like to be in–but the stage you’re in. Internalize the universal truth that in order to save money, you need to plan more than a day in advance. You need to know what you’re going to need and what the constraints on your time will be.
Planning ahead for predictable events also makes it much easier to manage unforeseen circumstances. For example, when our daughter was unexpectedly in the NICU for a week after birth–something we hadn’t planned for–we had the ease of a freezer stocked with meals we could pull out and warm up. This was doubly important since we were simultaneously buying our homestead.
While those compounding factors made our lives challenging that week, we didn’t spend money because we’d pre-paid for our birth and hospital stay, we’d lined up a dear friend to watch Frugal Hound, and we’d cooked all of our food. By doing these seemingly simple things ahead of time, it meant that one of the most difficult weeks of our lives didn’t cost us any money. Control what you can and the rest becomes less stressful to navigate.
These are not earth-shattering realizations, but it’s astounding the number of convenience tools and services that await us if we’ve failed to plan ahead. Our modern economy is practically designed around the idea that we inferior consumers won’t plan ahead. There are car services if we didn’t allow enough time to walk or take the bus, endless food delivery options for every single meal we’ve failed to plan to cook, and more. Our failure to plan is quite lucrative for businesses and marketers.
I love this first category of planning ahead because it’s largely a zero cost proposition. If, for example, you don’t eat the snacks you took to work today, you can simply eat them another time. There’s essentially nothing to lose by implementing this style of planning ahead in your daily life.
Plan Ahead With Free (Or Cheap) Second-hand Stuff
I’m a devotee of, and advocate for, finding free and cheap stuff: through Craigslist, garage sales, thrift stores, the side of the road, the Buy Nothing Project, and my very favorite: hand-me-downs. But, you cry, I don’t have time for this, Mrs. FW! I need a dress for my sister’s wedding next week!!! Aha, fear not, frugal friends, for it’s possible to plan ahead even with your used acquisitions.
I rarely enter a thrift store or garage sale with an urgent need to find a specific item–that’s a surefire route to frustration and failure. Rather, I go with my eyes peeled for stellar deals on items we’re going to need in the coming months and years. Now I will caution that this is not a blank Frugalwoods check to go all supermarket sweeps and buy everything in sight. It’s a careful balance of strategically spending when you find excellent prices on things you’re certain to need.
Here are a few instances where I’ve purchased cheap, used items before we needed them:
- I bought a beautiful taffeta J Crew dress for $15 from a thrift store years ago without a clear idea of when I’d wear it. I just knew it was gorgeous, fit perfectly, and was ultra cheap. I’ve now worn this dress to countless weddings (4 maybe?) and will likely wear it long into the future. If you invite me to your wedding, I’ll probably wear this dress. If you know you’ll need a specific item of clothing (snowsuit, dress, boots) in the near future, buy it cheap when you find it. Waiting until the last minute almost guarantees you’ll have to buy it new and spend a fortune.
- There were some excellent blocks in a little wagon on sale for $1 at a garage sale last summer, which I scooped up for Babywoods. At the time, she was way too young to play with them, but they’re quality toys that I know she’ll enjoy in the future.
- We found several pairs of snowshoes for $5 each at a yard sale last summer and bought them for use by our wintertime guests. I’m not sure exactly who’ll wear these or when, but when the time comes, we’ll be so glad to have them. Since new snowshoes are circa $150+ and since you need snowshoes to hike our trails in the wintertime, these’ll come in handy for future guests.
I also like to plan ahead with free hand-me-downs and am a proponent of collecting items when they’re offered to me, even if my need for them is a few months (or even years) away. A few examples:
Several years ago when my friend mentioned she needed to get rid of her children’s crib and changing table in order to make room for big kid beds, I asked if I could take them off her hands. I wasn’t even pregnant yet, but we hoped to be soon and I knew we’d need this furniture. She and her husband were delighted since they didn’t want to disassemble and carry the furniture out of their house. We happily took it and Babywoods uses it to this day.
- After we closed on our homestead last January, we knew we’d be moving in May. And so, I began collecting free moving boxes and supplies that friends, neighbors, and my Buy Nothing group were offering. I had to store them in our basement for several months before we moved, but I didn’t have to buy a single box or roll of bubble wrap for our entire move. On the day we moved, I had a stack of leftover boxes and bubble wrap, which I offered to my Buy Nothing group and someone gladly came to take them for his upcoming move.
Since I know Babywoods will need bigger clothes as she ages, I collect hand-me-down kids’ clothes in larger sizes as they come my way and store them in boxes labeled by size in the basement. I also keep an empty box (labeled by size) in her closet and put all the clothes she outgrows into it. Anything we don’t use, I put into a separate box to give away. Thanks to this system, at 14 months old, we have yet to need to buy a single item of new clothing for her. This also creates a pipeline of baby clothing for me to pass along to other parents.
The worst that happens in any of these scenarios is that you don’t use what you’ve collected and you pass it along to someone else who can use it. I keep several give-away boxes in our basement at all times and put unneeded items in there. I’m an advocate for the circle of giving: I take free hand-me-downs and I pass along items we no longer need. There’s a misconception that frugal people don’t donate or pass along their hand-me-downs but that’s patently false. Some of my greatest hand-me-downs are from fellow frugal weirdos. Everyone has something to give.
Since I do stockpile for the future, I frequently lend out items I don’t need yet. For example, a friend gave us a hand-me-down toddler carseat for Babywoods, but Babywoods is still too small for it. And so, I’ve lent it to no less than two other families to use until we need it for Babywoods. Similarly, since I’m not currently pregnant, I lent a bunch of my second-hand maternity clothes to a pregnant friend.
Mid and Long Range Planning Ahead
While the first category applies to our more quotidian, daily needs and the second relates to the used market, it’s also frugally advantageous to plan ahead for long range goals. The first two tenets of planning ahead are typically cheap or free propositions; conversely, there can be spending involved in longer term planning.
An example in this category: we replaced the main water valve in our rental house before we moved out. This is not something we had to replace at the time, but the valve wasn’t working well and we posited it would likely break in the future.
Since we were moving out and turning the house over to tenants, we figured this was a prudent preemptive repair. We hope that if something terrible happens with the plumbing in the future, having a working main water valve will be the difference between a minor inconvenience and a major renovation project.
This category of planning primarily entails spending on repairs or tools or supplies that you anticipate will save you money in the long run. Preemptive repairs to stave off more costly renovations down the line, or other preventative measures where an influx of spending now will save a ton of spending later, are wise.
Beware of Justifying Spending In The Name Of Planning Ahead
On the heels of this water valve example, I’m compelled to point out that there lurks a danger of justifying spending in the name of planning ahead. I’ve heard countless stories where people spent massive amounts of money in service of the planning ahead god. It’s a judgment call, and it’s a call only you can make. However, there are some guidelines you can apply to determine if you’re addressing a valid planning ahead instance or a fallacy.
Do not spend on “planning ahead” if:
- You’ll be going into debt in order to do so
- You’ll be spending more than something is worth
- You feel pressured–by society, by your friends, by family–into the purchase
It’s a balance to determine when to spend in the name of planning ahead, but by following the above guidelines, you’re likely to cut out a great deal of unwise spending.
One of the epitomizing examples of improperly justifying spending in the name of planning ahead is a car loan. There’s a trope touted by our consumer culture that we need brand-new, shiny cars in order to ward against future car repairs and, crucially, to cart our families around safely. This, my friends, is nothing more than an epic myth peddled by car dealers. Justifying the purchase of a new car as “planning ahead” for safety and reliability is a fallacy of profound proportions since you can obtain the same result (reliable, safe transportation) for vastly less via the used market.
And now, please enjoy an example of where our failure to plan ahead ended up costing us more money:
Since we live in a winter wonderland, we need snow tires on our vehicles during the snowy months. However, snow tires reduce gas mileage and wear out. In light of this, we wanted to wait as long as possible before putting them on our cars this year. However, we waited too long… We had an early snowfall and couldn’t get out of our driveway in our regular tires. And so, Mr. FW set about putting the snow tires on himself.
However, we don’t have a garage and there were four inches of snow on the ground. Shockingly enough, the optimum time to put snow tires on is not when there are already four inches of snow on the ground… But Mr. FW wasn’t deterred. He gamely got out there in the snow and tried to take off the regular times. He quickly realized that he didn’t have a breaker bar with enough leverage to get the tires off. And so, we glumly had to pay a mechanic to do it for us. Lesson learned, money spent, and a failure to plan for our record books.
Save Money Now, Reap Rewards Later
The final instance of frugal planning ahead is purely financial in nature and is very much the heart of frugality: save money now so that you can afford both the opportunities and also the hurdles that life will inevitably throw your way.
While we often discuss the merits of building an emergency fund to cover our expenses in case of an emergency job loss, health crisis, or other unforeseen tragedy, there’s also a great deal of joy in saving to buy things you want!
I’ll tell you what, Mr. FW and I DID NOT expect to find our dream homestead while we were 9 months pregnant and we DID NOT think we’d be buying a homestead the week our daughter was born and we DID NOT think we’d close on our house in the middle of winter and then move there with a bitty baby. But, that’s what was in our cards. And our frugality allowed us to seize this opportunity in advance of our original timeline and with quite a few unexpected factors (baby, winter) in our path. Frugality doesn’t just stave off emergencies–it also allows you to pursue your dreams.
Mr. Frugalwoods and I planned ahead for our homestead for years. We mapped out a savings plan and how much money we’d need in the bank, we researched locations, we visited properties, and we read about life in the country. This long-term planning helped keep us motivated in our frugality. Everyday we were reminded of what we really want out of life, which made it all the easier to avoid short-term treats that would derail our savings rate. Thanks to this long-term planning, we were confident and decisive when we saw our dream property last October. We knew it was “the one” and we were financially and emotionally ready to take the plunge.
Speaking from personal experience, there’s nothing more liberating than realizing you want to pursue an unusual dream and simultaneously realizing you’re able to afford it. But getting to that place takes planning. If you want a granular, easy way to begin working towards this type of financial freedom, start tracking your expenses today (I recommend Personal Capital, which is free and easy to use). You can also sign-up to join the over 9,900 people taking my Uber Frugal Month Challenge–you’ll start on Day 1 so you won’t miss a thing.
You Can’t Plan For Everything, But You Can Make Your Life Easier
While it’s impossible to plan for everything in life, I like planning ahead for the things I can predict–and, as it turns out, there are plenty of these things! Planning for these easily-anticipated occasions makes it all the easier to weather the unanticipated emergencies that invariably crop up in life. Frugality and planning ahead reduce the number of variables you have to grapple with at any one time. As you probably already know, planning ahead isn’t just a way to save money, it’s a way to live a simpler, happier, less stressful life. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.