How to Save Money When You're Already on a Tight Budget
Saving money is hard. And finding ways to save when you're already operating on a tight budget is even harder. Here are some tips and strategies to help you out.
When you’re living on a super tight budget, you need all the savings you can get.
But how much more can you save?! You know about making your own coffee. You know about canceling subscription services you aren’t using. You’ve already cut down on eating out! You’ve tightened your budget and it’s still not enough. What else can you do to save further?
Well, you’re in luck! We spoke to the experts to find out how you can tighten your already skinny budget.
Start with your food budget.
As we said above, you know that you shouldn’t be ordering takeout or eating at restaurants too often. You don’t need to hear it again. But there are other ways to keep your food budget down.
“Groceries are a place that most people don’t think about saving money,” suggested financial coach and author Karen Ford. “Do you have to have the name brand ketchup? Generic foods don’t use advertising, so their cost to you is substantially less. They still have to be approved by the FDA so generic away.”
And even if you know that making your own lunch is a good idea, it’s good to remember just how much you can save. Here’s an in-depth example from Timothy G. Wiedman, a retired professor of Management & Human Resources at Doane University:
“Most folks know that restaurant meals can often be expensive, but working people can’t simply skip lunch! Still, how many people realize the cost difference between a ‘reasonably-priced’ restaurant meal and a brown-bag lunch made at home?
“For example, at a nearby Applebee’s, the least expensive lunch combo plus a drink, tax, and tip totals about $11.50 (depending on local taxes and tipping behavior, of course). So over the course of a 5-day work week, regularly eating lunch at Applebee’s would cost at least $57.50. Also, consider the fact that some gasoline will likely be consumed on that daily trek to the restaurant.
“On the other hand, a healthy lunch brought from home (e.g., a sandwich made with low-fat lunch-meat on whole-grain bread, a dozen peeled baby carrots, a small individually-sized box of raisins for dessert, and a can of diet soda) can be assembled for about $2.80 (i.e., $14 per week).
“Further, if that brown-bag lunch is eaten in the employee break room (or while absorbing nature in a city park that’s within easy walking distance), very little time nor gasoline is wasted on a lunchtime commute. Over the course of a 49-week working year, the savings would exceed $2,100 (and adding in the cost of any gas consumed driving back and forth to lunch would increase that total even more).
“Obviously one might get a less expensive fast-food lunch (that’s likely much higher in fat and calories) instead of going to Applebee’s. But even if that fast-food lunch (including tax, of course) averaged just $6.45 per day, a brown-bagger would still save almost $900 per year (or even more if the cost of gas consumption is figured into the equation).
“Further, there may also be some ‘psychic’ benefits to eating lunch in the break room at work: no mad dash in traffic getting to and from a (likely) congested restaurant, no stressing out if service is slow, and no rush to finish eating (to ensure getting back to work on time).
“My wife and I brown-bagged it for years (while taking turns assembling our lunches); and after finishing her meal, my wife enjoyed working on cross-stitch projects to relax before returning to her hectic office job. So between the two of us, we saved more than $4,000 annually. And the money we saved helped fund our IRAs. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but relatively few folks seem to do it these days!”
Utilizing utility savings.
No one should be expected to live without basic utilities. But there are ways you can lower the cost of those bills.
“So I thought of some ways to save on utilities recently because our energy bill was getting so incredibly high this summer,” advised Daniella Flores, and creator and author of iliketodabble.com. “I found insulating window curtains which worked great in not wasting any of our AC inside the house by slipping out through our weak windows (yes we are planning on replacing these soon though).
“We also got outlets with timers for things like the coffee pot, hair dryer, computer charger, phone charger etc where they supply power for anywhere from 30 min-45 min-one hour-to even two hours (you can set the time) and then they will shut off, no longer supplying power. So we tried to put these outlets for anything that we didn’t need all the time but only use for a short amount of time but may forget to unplug (like the coffee maker). And they work great, save a ton of money on the electric bill, and prevent fire hazards!”
But in addition to changing your outlets and decor, saving can be as simple as changing some basic behaviors around the home.
“Your home is one of the most significant places that can get you some savings but all too often people limit their view to less impactful tactics that might not help them realize the kinds of savings they desire,” explained Doug Keller, marketing manager at Payless Power. “Along with the simple act of turning out lights, you can do other things that reduce the energy your home uses and puts money back into your pocket each month. For starters, turn down the temperature of your water heater. Typically, they are set at 140 degrees F, but dropping it to 120 degrees F will reduce your energy consumption because the heater maintains the temperature at all times. It prevents your water from becoming dangerously hot too.
“You can also avoid energy consuming chores like doing laundry and dishwashing during peak times. During these intervals, energy service providers are stretched thin due to high demand, resulting in rates being jacked up. By being a bit more strategic in the timing of your household tasks, you can reduce the expense and save yourself money while only altering your behavior slightly.”
Be your own handyman.
Beyond just cutting back, there are all sorts of proactive ways you can save large amounts of money, hopefully giving that tight budget a little bit of breathing room.
“Learn to repair things that break around your home without calling in an expert,” recommended Joe Goldstein, Director of Operations and SEO for Contractor Calls. “Thanks to Youtube and the rest of the internet, you can repair anything from a chipped windshield to a wet hard drive with basic tools and a little bit of DIY perseverance. Getting comfortable with DIY repairs means you can avoid calling in expensive experts, avoid buying expensive replacements, and even sell your formerly broken things on Craigslist or Facebook for a profit.”
There are also some creative options you can consider when it comes to your home.
Hack your home.
Here’s one such option to consider, courtesy of Brian Davis, co-founder of SparkRental.com: “One option that most people are unaware of is house hacking. The traditional house hacking model involves buying a small multifamily property, moving into one unit, and renting out the other(s).
“If you do it right, your tenants pay your housing costs, so you cut out your largest expense in one move. Here’s a detailed house hacking example, of how a young man with no real estate experience bought a suburban property and now lives for free in it.
“But buying a multifamily and moving in isn’t the only way to house hack. My partner brought a foreign exchange student into her home, and the stipend covers much of her mortgage. You can also rent out rooms on Airbnb, or rent out rooms to long-term housemates.”
Build a support network.
And you don’t have to manage your saving strategy alone.
“Tell others you’re trying to save,” suggested Keller. “All too often we are swayed by others to spend our money when we are really just trying to save it. Because of the power of our loved ones, it is best to bring the attention of others to the fact that you are trying to save.
“In doing this it is important not to bend because your resolve will signal to others just how seriously you are taking your saving. And with it on their radar, others can be more accommodating with the activities you all engage in.”
Become a mystery shopper.
Did you know that some companies will pay you to shop? It’s called mystery shopping, and it’s one way that companies can learn about the experience of the average shopper.
Jennifer Hayes, of SmartyPantsFinance.com, told us about it: “Mystery shopping is a LEGITIMATE way to supplement income but, even better, mystery shopping can be used to take the place of spending. Oil changes for my car? Nope! I never pay for them because I get a mystery shopping assignment instead. Vacations? Nope, don’t pay for that either!
“I mystery shop hotels all over the world and make money while on vacation. Just yesterday, I had groceries delivered to my house for a mystery shopping job. Mystery shopping allows people to still live a nice life while cutting back hard on their spending. I’ve been mystery shopping since 2004. On a small budget, I have used this avenue to live a large life.”
Get ready to make hard choices.
Finally, CPA Erin Donahue offered us some hard truths to leave you with: “If your goal is to save money, you’re probably already aware that it’s not glamorous. It involves hard work and deprivation (in the short term). It can also be a frustrating process because there are no shortcuts or hacks to circumvent the savings equation: Savings equals money in, less money out. But in the long run, saving is supremely rewarding.
“So if you’ve already gone through your budget—pinched, trimmed, and snipped—and you are still finding that your savings just aren’t adding up quickly enough, what can you do?
“The short answer is that your lifestyle is not supporting your goals. If you’ve trimmed the obvious, you need to take a new, hard look at the untouchable items in your budget. What bills do you pay every single month, and which of these payments represent the largest chunks of money going it the door? If it’s housing, maybe the answer is to downsize—move to a smaller home. Lowering your housing costs would likely make a much bigger dent in your savings goal than couponing or cutting out your lattes.
“Maybe car insurance and gas are bleeding you dry. The answer may be to sell your car and switch to public transit. Perhaps you need to give up your home phone, internet, and cable TV, and make do with tethering and streaming on your cell phone. None of these are glamorous, but they will work.
“If these changes are not palatable, the alternative to downsizing your lifestyle would be to upsize your income. Take on a side hustle or a second job. Post some Fiverr gigs. Have a yard sale. Sell advertising space on your car. Rent out extra rooms on Airbnb. Trawl the Craigslist job boards.
“This approach, too, may mean a major lifestyle change (at least temporarily, while you are in pursuit of your savings goals). But there are only two ways to tame the savings equation.”
Saving isn’t fun, but it can make the difference. Just keep imagining all the ways it’ll pay off, and try and minimize the stress in your life.
G. Brian Davis is a landlord, personal finance writer, and co-founder of SparkRental.com, which provides free video courses and rental investing tools for landlords. He spends most of the year overseas, splitting his time between Abu Dhabi, Europe, and his hometown of Baltimore.
Karen Ford is a Master Financial Coach, Public Speaker, Entrepreneur, and Best- Selling Author. Her #1 Amazon Best Selling Book “Money Matters” is a discovery for many. In “Money Matters” she provides keys to demolishing debt, shares how to budget correctly, and gives principles in wealth building.
Jennifer Hayes is a mom, teacher, blogger, entrepreneur, and saver extraordinaire. Her business, Smarty Pants Finance, helps people from all walks of life save more money, spend less, and live their best life one smart decision at a time. Jennifer has co-authored the book How to Become a Mystery Shopper and teaches mystery shopping classes at community colleges across Southern California. She resides in the Los Angeles area with her children. Jennifer can be found at SmartyPantsFinance.com and on Facebook.
After 13 years as a successful operations manager working at two different ‘Fortune 1000’ companies, Dr. Timothy G. Wiedman spent the next 28 years in academia teaching college courses in business, management, human resources, and retirement planning. Dr. Wiedman recently took an early retirement from Doane University, is a member of the Human Resources Group of West Michigan and continues to do annual volunteer work for the SHRM Foundation. He holds two graduate degrees in business and has completed multiple professional certifications.
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