Frugal Living: Thrifty Tips to Stretch Every Dollar

Long before the economy tanked and the employment rate hit an all-time high, I embraced frugality as a natural way of life. Growing up, I watched my mother stretch every dollar further than you can possibly imagine. How she managed to raise five children on a $300 monthly alimony check is still one of the greatest mysteries of my life.

Although my mother practiced frugality because our survival depended upon it, as an adult I came to see that being thrifty was a smart way to live no matter how much disposable income I had. Now I abhor waste, and frugal living is ingrained in the very fiber of who I am. I’m grateful that my mother, the undisputed Thrifty Queen, taught me how to stretch every dollar at a very young age. It means that today I’m not left scrambling to find ways to save money in tough economic times. And thanks to her, I can pay it forward.

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Frugal Living Tip #1: Think before you buy. Conscious spending is the fundamental rule of thrifty living. You have to learn to distinguish “need” from “want” before every single purchase. If you really, really need something, then buy it (as economically as possible, of course). If you just want it, forgo buying it for now. You may be surprised to find that in a week or a month, something you thought you couldn’t live without is not so important after all.

Tip #2: Know what things cost. When you shop or read the grocery store flyers, pay attention to the prices of things you buy, especially those you purchase regularly. You can’t know a bargain when you see one, unless you know what it costs normally. Retail stores have mastered the art of making people think they’re saving money, when in reality the sale price might be mere pennies less than the regular price. Lift the sale tag to see the “before” price!

Tip #3: Grow your own food. I have a hard time buying cucumbers in the winter at nearly a dollar apiece, because I know that in the summer I can grow hundreds from one pack of seeds (and have seeds left for several years!). Seriously, growing your own organic vegetables is incredibly easy and so much cheaper than supermarket produce (not to mention it tastes a million times better). If space is limited you can still grow tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and herbs in containers.

Tip #4: Unplug the “Energy Vampires” in your home. Televisions, computers, VCRs, DVD players, washers, dryers, microwaves, chargers for cell phones, Ipods and power tools all continue to suck power whenever they’re plugged into an outlet, even when they’re turned off! Unplugging devices when they’re not being used eliminates this energy waste, which amounts to about 5% of your monthly energy bill. This may not seem like a lot; but frugal living means understanding that every little bit adds up.

Tip #5: Embrace the simple pleasures. Kids do not need stacks of video games and movies or a playroom full of expensive toys to have a fun and memorable childhood. What they want most of all is to spend time with their parents, and you can enjoy quality time together for free by flying a kite, feeding the ducks at the park, going for a bike ride, or having “family game night” once a week.

Tip #6: Hold an annual “Swap Party.” Instead of donating unwanted clothing, shoes and accessories to a thrift store or consignment shop, invite a group of friends to bring all their gently used items to your house for a free shopping spree. Or invite several families to bring over the toys and games their children have outgrown; everyone gets something “new” to play with, for free!

Tip #7: Take advantage of free entertainment. If you or your kids love computer games, there are dozens of websites where you can play free games online. It’s not technically “free” since you have to pay for a computer and internet access, but most households already have this, so playing games online isn’t an extra expense. Most cities also have many free events for both children and adults, so take advantage of them when they come up. You can also save money by checking out stacks of books every week from the library for free.

Tip #8: Get maximum mileage from coupons. Using coupons is a classic frugal living tip that everyone knows about. However, to stretch every dollar, use online coupons from places like Mypoints. Each coupon you redeem gives you points you can redeem later for gift cards to Target, Wal-Mart and many other stores, and it’s completely free to sign up. The more coupons you use, the faster they add up! Many stores will even double the amount of the coupon which can result in getting an item practically free, especially if you have a $1 off coupon.

Tip #9: Shop smart. Don’t buy products online unless you can get free shipping, and make sure the items aren’t available for less locally. I nearly had to relinquish my Thrifty Queen crown after I discovered that the same shampoo I bought online was in every local drugstore, for one-third of what I paid for it during one of my very rare impulse shopping moments.

Tip #10: Get free stuff. I was a mystery shopper for a national pizza chain and got a free pizza every month for years. All I had to do was order a pizza for home delivery, then fill out and mail in a 5-minute survey about the pizza and the delivery driver. I’ve also participated in numerous product testings and received free laundry detergent, free fabric softener, free granola bars, you name it! One caveat: you never, ever want to pay to be a mystery shopper or product tester. Manufacturer’s need impartial consumer input, and they’re willing to pay for it, not the other way around.

Tip #11: Eating day-old bread won’t kill you. Most supermarkets have a rack they load up each morning with that day’s expiring bakery products for 50% off. Here’s the thing: they’re still quite fresh, and often you can’t even tell the difference. Why pay more when you don’t have to?

Tip #12: Treat yourself once in awhile. Thrifty people, even those who are trying to stretch every dollar, understand the importance of buying some small nonessential item every now and then. If you don’t treat yourself or your family now and again, you may eventually end up feeling so deprived and weary of frugal living that you blow your budget by buying a big-ticket item you really cannot afford.