Welcome to Day 3 of my pandemic-inspired, 8-day, what-do-I-do with my money, Uber Frugal Week series. For more about the series, including an overview of what I’ll cover each day, check this out. I recommend you read the series in order; start with Day 1 here. Read disclaimers about me and the series here.
While the Uber Frugal Month is an email program, the Uber Frugal Week will appear right here on the blog in a series of posts. I’ll publish Uber Frugal Week posts as quickly as I can but, in all honesty, I haven’t written all of them yet because pandemic means both of my kids are home all the time and my husband and I are both working from home. I’m writing as fast as I can, I promise!
Uber Frugal Week: Day 3
On Day 1 we categorized our expenses as Fixed, Discretionary, Reduceable, or Forbearance Eligible. Day 2 addressed what to do with Forbearance Eligible expenses, some of which are Fixed, such as rent/mortgage payments. Today focuses on Reduceable and Discretionary expenses.
Saving more money is something you can control and start doing right away. Earning more money and/or diversifying your income is important, but it’s also dependent on someone else paying you. We’ll cover income-generating ideas in a future post, but we start with how to save money because you are in control of your spending and you can make changes to it immediately.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
As you go through the Uber Frugal Week, please understand that my advice isn’t going to be perfect–or applicable–for everyone.
- The series is designed to get you thinking about what YOU need to do with YOUR money. And what you need will be different from what the next person needs.
- This isn’t a time to judge our neighbor’s spending (or saving); it’s a time to look inward and identify what we can–and need to–do for our families.
- Some people will spend more on groceries (that would be me!), some will spend less. Some people will keep cable, others have never had cable. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know your own situation and what you need to do in order to come out of this recession as intact as possible.
Lend a hand, if you can:
- If, like me, you find yourself in a fortunate position, please consider supporting others. I’m focusing my philanthropy on my local community by donating to local relief efforts. The New York Times offers this article on where and how to give back during the pandemic.
- Everyone’s ability to help during this time will be different and everyone has seasons of being able to help and needing to receive help. Please do not feel guilty for whichever group you fall into–we all experience both over the course of our lives. If you need help, please reach out. If you can offer help, please reach out.
Now’s the time to set aside judgment, partisanship, and sanctimonious-ness and just help each other out.
Step One: Reduce The Reduceables
To recap, Reduceables are things in your budget that are mandatory for your existence, but aren’t Fixed or Forbearance Eligible (such as your rent/mortgage or federal student loan repayments; see Day 2 for a rundown on what to do with those).
Reduceable #1: Groceries
The near-universal need to eat costs money but is necessary for, you know, survival and all that. While it’s easy to assume a grocery bill is unchangeable, that is false. Here’s the top line on how to reduce your grocery bill:
In general, the farther foods are from processing, the cheaper and more shelf-stable they’ll be. For example, instead of buying a loaf of bread, buy the raw ingredients to bake bread (flour, yeast, etc). Buying bulk, raw foods gives you the most flexibility in your cooking and costs less (source: me).
The doubly good news is that this cheaper stuff has a long shelf life, which is ideal for limiting trips to the grocery store. I know that cooking from scratch is not everyone’s jam. I, myself, do not like to cook. But people, if there was ever a time to bust out your great-grandma’s bread recipe, it’s now.
I’m not saying you have to love it, I’m not saying you have to do it forever. But if you need to save more money–and, since you’ve put up with me for this long I’m guessing you do–buying raw and cooking from scratch is a darn good way to do it.
Additionally, buy generic or store-brand of everything. Avoid name brands and avoid pre-made, packaged foods. That giant bag of dry beans? Oh you want it. That enormous sack of uncooked rice? It’s got your name on it.
Groceries In The Time of Pandemic
All of the above advice would be great during Normal Times, but we are not in Normal Times, we are in Pandemic Times. My family is no longer going to the grocery store every week (we’re going as infrequently as possible; roughly every three weeks) and we’re no longer going to the cheapest stores. Instead, we’re going to the stores that offer curbside pick-up, no matter the price.
We’re flipped our prioritization metric from price to social distance. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t save more on groceries right now. Don’t put your health in danger to shave a few dollars off your food budget. Do what you have to do to feed your family and limit your exposure as much as possible.
Plus, grocery stores are out of a lot items right and so, we all have to be flexible with what we buy. In general, simplify as much as possible–focus on the rawest form of all ingredients and accept that your menus might be a bit unusual for awhile here. It’s Pandemic Cooking and it’ll probably be different from Normal Times Cooking. The more you can lean into it, the less stress you’ll have.
A few things that’ve worked for us to limit our contact with people while food shopping:
- Curbside pick-up of fresh produce from a local produce store
- Buying farm products (eggs and beef) from our neighbors via porch/barn pick-up
- Going to a convenience store/gas station when it’s empty of customers:
- Since it’s a much smaller space, my husband was able to wait in the parking lot until the store was empty (except for one cashier) and then go inside. This would never be possible at a large grocery store.
- Curbside pick-up of flour and baking ingredients from King Arthur Flour
- Ordering bulk raw foods online, such as dried beans, oats, cornmeal, yeast, etc
It’s a hodgepodge and it’s different from how we normally shop, but it’s working for the time being. You may need to get creative and cook foods you wouldn’t normally cook and shop where you wouldn’t normally shop.
Rather than plagiarize myself, I’m going to link you to my best rundowns on cheap groceries:
- Our Complete Guide To Frugal, Healthy Eating
- The Dirty Secret Behind How We Cook At Home
- My Healthy Oatmeal Pumpkin Bars Recipe + How I Get My Kids To Eat Kale
- …and everything else in my Food category (except for all the stuff about potlucks. Don’t be having pandemic potlucks, people!)
- The list of foods we bought for pandemic preparedness is here
Reduceable #2: Cell Phone Service
Get excited: this is the easiest, least painful thing to reduce because all you have to do is sign-up for cell phone service through an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator). MVNOs are wireless service resellers; they resell brand name wireless service (such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, etc) at dirt cheap rates. This is not a hoax. Nor is it a gimmick, which is what I assumed before I tried it myself.
Ever the willing guinea pigs for you folks, Mr. Frugalwoods and I went on an odyssey of testing out different MVNO providers last year and I’m here to tell you that they work.
They legit work and they legit cost PENNIES compared to traditional cell service providers. If you’re not already using an MVNO, now’s the time to convert and repent, my friends. Actually, don’t worry about the repent thing. Just convert.
I use and recommend the MVNO Ting. Another MVNO you might check out–especially if you use a lot of data–is Mint (these are affiliate links). Get the details on how to make the switch here: My Frugal Cell Phone Service Trick: How I Pay $10.65 A Month
Reduceable #3: Internet and/or Home Phone Services
In this wild time, I think it’s worth calling your utility providers to see if you can negotiate a reduced rate for things like internet and home phone. And if you can get by without a home phone right now? Cancel it. Remember that this doesn’t mean you’ll never have a home phone ever again. It just means that right now, you need the savings more than you need the phone.
Note: some internet companies are offering reduced rates or forgiveness for non-payment. Check out the Day 2 post for details.
Reduceable #4: Utilities
Now’s the time to turn down the heat and use less water. Guys, I know this sounds extreme and it is. The goal here is to try and save money in every possible area and, using less electricity and less water is a way to save money.
I have several posts on how to reduce your electricity and water usage:
- 11 Frugal Hacks to Stay Warm and Save Money This Winter
- You Can’t Buy Your Way To Green: How Frugality Is Environmentalism
- Environmentalism, Frugality, and Minimalism: The Triumvirate That’ll Save You Money and Simplify Your Life
Note: some utility companies are offering reduced rates or forgiveness for non-payment. Check out the Day 2 post for details.
Step Two: Make Discretionary Substitutions
For everything you categorized as “Discretionary,” now’s the time to decide if you want to axe it or find a cheaper substitute. If you’ve lost your job–or fear you might very soon–then I highly recommend you delete these items from your budget. If you’re still employed and aren’t in immediate danger of being laid off, you might consider implementing some of these cheaper substitution ideas.
Discretionary Substitution #1: Cable TV
I realize this is at odds with the fact that we’re all trapped at home right now (written by a person who would like to do nothing more than watch Outlander and Call The Midwife all day long while eating Cheetos… ), but, Cable is usually THE MOST EXPENSIVE way to get entertainment. Now’s the time to explore your streaming options.
If you just broke out in a cold sweat because you’re not sure what “streaming options” mean, please be in touch (remotely; don’t actually touch them) with your adult children/grandchildren/local tech geek neighbor or friend. They are also stuck at home and can help you figure out what will work best for you and can probably even–GULP–set it up for you remotely.
If you’ve been dragging your feet on canceling cable, drag your feet over to the phone and cancel it now. RIGHT NOW. I’ll be here when you get back. Sign-up instead for a much cheaper streaming service and…
Free Trial It Up:
Lots of streaming services offer a free trial period. If you sign-up for one free trial at a time, you could have MONTHS of free TV and movies. Here’s how:
- Sign-up for Netflix’s free 30-day trial
- Once your free Netflix trial is over, sign-up for Hulu’s free trial
- Then, sign-up for Amazon Prime Streaming’s free 30-day trial (affiliate link)
- Next, sign-up for a 7-day free trial with Philo TV
- After that, sign-up for Sling’s 14-day free trail
- Then, there’s the Disney Plus free trial
- And check out the 500 hours of programming that HBO just made free
- There are even more free trials out there, but I got tired of Googling them
Once you’ve run through all the free trials (which, to be honest, will take you a REALLY long time), sign-up for a super cheap streaming subscription, such as Hulu’s $5.99/month plan.
Explore Other Totally Free Entertainment Options:
- See if your local public library has options for no-contact lending of DVDs, books, and videos.
- PBS is always free!
- Check out the many, many, many free events and activities happening all over the internet right now. This post has a bunch of ideas.
- Watch videos of your grandchildren dressed as dinosaurs running into each other while singing “Row Row Row Your Boat.” Just, for example.
- Teach your cats to jump through a hula hoop (hat tip to my parents for that one).
Discretionary Substitution #2: Haircuts!
I’ve been preaching the Home Haircut Evangelism for years and I feel like I may finally have my moment. All of a sudden, LOTS of people are asking me how to cut hair at home. LOTS of people are furtively texting me for advice on self-administered bangs trims. After years of being That Weirdo, the time of the home haircut is upon us and I AM HERE FOR YOU.
My husband and I have been cutting each other’s hair for years now. Several key points:
- We’re still married (celebrating 12 years in June!)
- Neither of us has ever had to go to a salon for a “repair”
- It’s not that big of a deal
- We’re all supposed to be staying home right now anyway, so no one’s going to see your hair if something bad does happen
- I am not a haircutting professional and will not be held responsible for any pandemic-related hair emergencies
I have not one, not two, but THREE tutorials on how to cut your own hair:
- How to Give Home Haircuts in 8 Easy Steps
- Final Frontier Of Frugality: My Husband Gave Me A Haircut
- Sunk Costs, Paralysis By Analysis, And Why I Finally Cut My Hair Short
And folks, I’m not the only one. The internet will provide a tutorial for whatever sort of hair you have and whatever sort of cut you want.
Here’s the rundown on my family’s haircutting regime:
- My husband has a buzz cut and we’ve been using these two Wahl products for at least eight years now (these are affiliate links):
- I have a chin-length angled bob (shorter in the back, longer in the front) and my husband uses the Wahl clippers to buzz for length and then a pair of kitchen scissors to trim up any loose ends (in my experience, special “hair cutting scissors” are totally unnecessary).
- My daughters both have long hair and I trim straight across (while their hair is wet) to take care of split ends. My four-year-old jerked her head to the side during her most recent trim and, voila, she now has layers!
Discretionary Substitution #3: Beauty Regimens
You will be 100% unsurprised to hear that I insource all of my beauty rituals and have done so for years. And I don’t look like a Yeti! I swear! I have several posts on how to DIY your beauty care, including fabulous compilations of advice from Frugalwoods readers:
- Reader Suggestions: Beauty Routines Of The Frugal And Fabulous
- Reader Suggestions On How To Fight the Pink Tax from Birth Control to Bras
- Less Makeup, More Confidence: My Frugal Beauty Manifesto
- How I Let Go Of Caring What People Think
Discretionary Substitution #4: Take-out, Restaurants, Coffee Shops, and Bars
Unfortunately, the pandemic is taking care of this for us right now. Sadly, since most restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are closed, this is a chance to save on those line items. As I discussed in this post, if you’re financially able to support your local economy (through getting take-out or buying gift certificates for future use), please consider doing so.
For ideas and inspiration for at-home fun, check out the following:
- Reader Suggestions: How To Make Frugality Luxurious and Longterm
- Reader Suggestions Of Frugal Date Ideas
- Reader Suggestions Of Cheap And Fun Things To Do This Summer
- How To Stop Eating Out According To Frugalwoods Readers
Discretionary Substitution #5: Subscription Services, Gym Memberships, etc
Now’s the time to review the recurring subscriptions that automatically deduct from your accounts every month. This isn’t to say you’ll cancel them, but it’s important to have an awareness that they’re there. If you’ve forgotten you even had a subscription? Might be a sign you can cancel it.
There’s also the inconvenient fact that we’re in a pandemic and Pandemic Life might mean you need to sign-up for services that’ll enable you to stay home, such as grocery delivery, Amazon Prime, or streaming services (affiliate link). But if you come across something that’s not seriously adding value to your life? Cancel it.
In light of the pandemic, a lot of companies/gyms/exercise studios/etc are offering no-penalty cancellations or delays of membership. It doesn’t make sense to pay for a gym membership you can’t use, so it’s worth calling your gym to see what they have on offer.
Additionally, now’s the time to do Cancellation Math. In some instances, it’ll be cheaper in the long run to pay a cancellation fee and not pay the monthly subscription/membership fee.
Don’t assume that anything in your budget is immutable right now–pretty much everything is up for grabs.
Discretionary Substitution #6: Rotate Toys, Games, and Books for Kids Instead of Buying More
On the third day of no school total isolation life, I very nearly bought a $200 indoor mini-bounce house for my kids. And I still might. But then I remembered something I learned in my most favorite book ever, Simplicity Parenting (I lent my copy to a friend, so I have to paraphrase):
Children engage in play more deeply, and with greater intention, when they have fewer toys and clutter overwhelming their environment.
This is the principle we try to follow with our kids and I have to say, it totally works. Sounds counterintuitive, but the fewer toys and books we have out, the more inventive my kids are with the stuff that’s available. Since we own WAY too many toys (courtesy of hand-me-downs and yard sale-ing), I’ve implemented a system of toy rotation.
How To Set Up A Toy Rotation
In our basement, I keep boxes of toys sorted by type: there’s a stuffed animals box, a dress-ups box, a blocks box, a trucks/cars box, etc. Every few weeks (more often during Pandemic Times), I rotate the toys that are out for our kids.
I select one (or two) items from each tub and swap them with the current toys. My kids have at least 35 stuffed animals, but they only have two out at any given time. They have at least 15 different cars/trucks, but again, only one or two out at a time. Increasingly I’m doing two from each category because they like to play with the same stuff at the same time. We still own WAY more toys than we need, but by swapping them out, we never feel overwhelmed by toys because there aren’t that many out at any given time.
By doing this, my kids go weeks–months even–without seeing a toy, which preserves the novelty of each toy. It’s like buying brand new toys every week without actually buying anything. I’m amazed at how well this system works and it keeps our home from becoming overrun with toy clutter. The other advantage to this approach is that it’s much more manageable for my girls to clean everything up at the end of the day. They have to put all of their toys away before bed every night and I think it would be impossible if they had to wade through mountains of toys.
- If you have the space, time, and quantity of toys, consider reducing the number of toys available to your children. Store toys by type and rotate them often.
- Resist the urge to bring out too many toys at a time. Really and truly, try it and see.
- If possible, consider having just one of each type of toy available (or one per child as I’ve found works best). For example, bring out: one baby doll, one stuffed animal, one puzzle, one set of blocks, one small box of dress-ups, one doll stroller, one truck, one large toy (such as a doll house or indoor basketball hoop), etc.
- Rather than buy new toys, books, and games, try rotating the stuff you already own.
- Bonus: this is an opportunity to organize and purge toys your kids no longer play with.
- Double bonus: rotating toys can be an activity in counting and organizing for older kids–my four-year-old is getting into it and loves helping me! The two-year-old, not so much.
- Note: if it upsets your kids to see you putting their toys away, do it after they’re in bed and then it’s like Christmas morning when they wake up (I love the look on my kids’ faces when they come downstairs to all “new” toys).
Inspiration and ideas for decluttering (with kids):
- How Decluttering Saves Me Money, Time, And Stress
- My Quest For A Clutter-Free Life
- How I Try To Balance Minimalism With Frugality
Step Three: Identify De Facto Savings
Pandemic Times equal savings in several categories that, during Normal Times, wouldn’t be possible. It’s not ideal, but it’s where we are. Be sure to factor in these savings when you calculate your new monthly budget:
- Gas for the car. Unless you’re an essential worker, you’re likely not driving much these days.
- Car insurance. Speaking of not driving, some car insurance companies are offering rebates or reduced coverage rates. Call your company to inquire.
- Travel and vacations. Sadly, those are not happening at present. If you have excess travel points (or points that will expire soon), consider donating them to frontline healthcare workers who need to travel in order to treat patients or would prefer to sleep in a hotel so as not to expose their family to potential infections.
- Concerts, movies, entertainment in general. Also not happening right now.
- Fewer olive bar impulse buys at the grocery store. The olive bars–and salad bars–are closed at the grocery store. This means no more garlic-stuffed jalapeño olive impulse buys. Just, for example. Not that I know anything about that…
Take these savings and, if needed, utilize them to offset a higher-than-normal grocery bill or a higher-than-normal subscription/streaming service budget.
There’s no one right way to save money. There’s no one right way to get through a pandemic. Don’t beat yourself up if you find you’re spending more money right now. But don’t feel helpless either. Take the time to comb through your spending and figure out what can give and what can be used to offset new expenses. Not everyone NEEDS to save more money right now. But if you do? Go through these exercises and see what you find. Remember, the Uber Frugal Week isn’t about judging anyone else’s spending, it’s about looking at your own spending and making the choices that you want–and need–to make.
What questions do you have about the Day 3 exercises?
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