15 Super-Smart Ways to Start a Business on a Budget

Because you have a million-dollar idea—not a million dollars.

Ideas are free. Turning those ideas into a successful business can be costly.

Of course, there’s the time and effort needed to launch it. But more than that, building a company from the ground up requires money—and a lot of it.

Luckily, there are a few tricks to get your million-dollar idea off the ground without breaking the bank. We spoke to 10 thriving entrepreneurs about the clever ways they were able to launch their businesses on a budget. Here are their top hacks for cutting costs without cutting corners.

No. 1: Barter

Catherine Cohen, Co-Founder of Cohen Coaching

One of the best ways to reduce costs when you start up in business is to barter. You can barter one-to-one with another business; for example, you are a chiropractor and you trade your services with a CPA. Or you can join a reputable barter exchange so that you can trade your products or services for barter dollars and then buy what you need with your barter dollars.

When I started my massage therapy practice back in 1998, I joined a barter exchange and was able to trade massages for barter dollars. Those barter dollars bought me advertising, business cards, flyers, and other goods and services I needed but did not have a budget for. Today as a business coach, I advise my clients to barter when they can in order to save cash.

No. 2: Lower living costs

Dayana Mayfield, copywriting consultant at DayanaMayfield.com

When starting a business, new entrepreneurs should work to lower their living costs as much as possible. This puts less stress on your business initially in terms of the salary you need to pay yourself. Remember, it’s not forever; it’s just a temporary pay cut to help you build your dream.

No. 3: Check credit card fees

Robert Livingstone, President and Founder of IdealCost.com

One of the top 10, and often top 5, expenses for small businesses are monthly credit card processing fees. When you start a business, you open a merchant account to accept electronic payments. Unfortunately, these 3-year agreements to accept credit and debit cards are very complicated and even misleading. The fee structures are unlike any other industry and there is no professional regulation or licensing required to sell the service.

To save money, you should consult several companies to compare offers. You could also hire a credit card processing advisor like IdealCost.com, and let them negotiate with the vendors of your choosing. For businesses that already accept credit cards, each monthly statement should be read in full to confirm that all deposits are correct and charges are fair. If you aren’t sure, you should also consult an expert. The overcharges might be hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

No. 4: Involve like-minded individuals

Shyam K. Iyer, Founder of SKI Charities

I am the founder of SKI Charities, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to empowering the economically excluded. A lifelong goal of mine, I started this enterprise in 2010 in order to demonstrate that finance can be used for good, in particular for vulnerable populations in isolated parts of our world.

The start-up challenges were many. … Through careful financial management and the pro bono work of attorneys and professionals who shared our vision, we survived the first year and have been building upon that foundation.

The key to start-up success is involving like-minded individuals to both finance and operate the organization. Then I hired and gave increasing responsibility to staff and beneficiaries from the community being served. Nine years later, my team and I have empowered hundreds of females and their families in Zimbabwe and southern Chile through microfinance to become independent entrepreneurs.

No. 5: Prioritize price or value

Brian Cairns, Founder of ProStrategix Consulting

Often, we, as small business owners, are bombarded with advice, especially when it comes to deals. Not all of this advice is bad, however, but whether something is a deal, only you can decide.

One mistake many people make is to focus on price versus value. You avoid wasting money if you focus on the value it provides to your small business. Have you ever bought something cheap, and it broke or didn’t do the job, etc., only to have to buy something else? I think we all have. It teaches us a great [lesson] about value. Value is a measure of quality for a given price. Value is tough to measure because quality is tough to gauge. The key question is really: Will it do the best job at that price level?

Let’s face it. We all buy on impulse. It happens. There are many who will say, ‘Never buy on impulse.’ While that’s great in theory, we all know it’s going to happen. The key is to minimize it. When the urge hits, take a breather, and ask, ‘Do we (or I) really need this?’ If you are buying something, you should have a reason, even if it’s just to treat yourself.

Building on the last point, you can avoid wasting money as a small business by ensuring that all your purchases have a purpose. Some small business owners are really good at this. In contrast, some aren’t. If you fall into the latter category, it’s helpful to make a list of what you spent for a week, 2 weeks, or a month. Next to each purchase, put a check if it had a reason. Count how many checkmarks you have. It’s a bit tedious, but it’s a good tool to help track and train new spending habits.

Look, most small business owners didn’t start their businesses because they had business degrees, so, it’s likely there are some hidden inefficiencies in a small business that are wasting money. To avoid them, it can be helpful to analyze your business model once in a while.

No. 6: Set a paperless precedent

Logan Allec, Founder of Money Done Right

Commit to being a paperless business from day one. This will save your business money on paper, ink, toner, and other expensive supplies. There may be times where it might be impossible to avoid printing something, but a commitment to minimize those times when it is absolutely necessary will be a financially wise decision for your business.

No. 7: Advertise wisely 

Logan Allec, Founder of Money Done Right

Strategically invest your advertising budget in a way that honors your business’ finances. Think about the specific audiences you want to reach, and strategically look for low-cost but effective ways to reach out to that audience.

Online advertising can be as affordable or as expensive as you want it to be, but the key is to be strategic and wise regardless of what your budget is. Word-of-mouth is essentially free advertising, so brainstorm ways to encourage clients to spread the word about your business as part of your advertising budget.

No. 8: Open a business rewards credit card 

Logan Allec, Founder of Money Done Right

Even when attempting to minimize startup costs, you will still have plenty of expenses. Earning cashback or rewards points on those expenses is something you should absolutely be doing to offset some of that expense. A cashback card is probably the best way to immediately save money, but if you will be traveling extensively as part of your business, a travel rewards card could save your business more money long term.

No. 9: Keep overhead low

Abhi Lokesh, CEO and Co-Founder of Fracture

Keep overhead low by taking advantage of coworking spaces or incubators/accelerators in your region that bundle all of your monthly expenses into one lump cost that’s spread over multiple tenants. That way you’ll just have one monthly cost to worry about, which is also a smaller headache to worry about versus rent, utilities, etc.

No. 10: Prioritize monthly or yearly subscriptions

Abhi Lokesh, CEO and Co-Founder of Fracture

Consider prioritizing monthly contracts over yearly subscriptions. Many vendors/services will entice you with a longer-term contract that seems like a better deal than a month-to-month contract, but cash flow is everything. Keep things month to month so you’ll have the ability to monitor whether that service or vendor is worth it without having to be locked into a long-term contract.

No. 11: Don’t overthink it

Abhi Lokesh, CEO and Co-Founder of Fracture

Don’t overthink things. Your empire-building ambitions are important, but early on, the name of the game is simple: Make more than you spend. New business owners tend to get overwhelmed by accounting terminology and jargon and tend to offload their finances to an accountant/bookkeeper because they feel like they aren’t smart enough to handle their [own]. I’m a fan of the opposite strategy – if there’s one thing you should really own, it’s your finances. Don’t be scared – just stick to the basic principles about money management you learned when you were a kid and you’ll be fine. You’ll be surprised by how far you can go with basic spreadsheets and your banking app.

No. 12: Work remote

Josh Wardini, Co-Founder of Serpwatch

At a time when I was starting out my business in the IT industry, I was overwhelmed with the projected costs of the venture. The office space solely was such a huge cost, I wasn’t sure I was even ready to go with the risk. But then I thought about switching the business model from on site to remote.

I managed to form a team of remote employees who saw the remoteness as a perk, rather than my cost saving. At the same time, I saved on rental space (It didn’t have to be as big, and I didn’t have to worry about physical location following the growth of the team.), utilities, office supplies, and more.

No. 13: Share expenses

Frederick W. Penney Esq., managing attorney at Penney and Associates

I have started a number of businesses over the past 30 years, and founded a very successful law firm. I have always been a proponent of growing your business organically. In the first 5 years of my law practice, I did not take out any loans. This allowed me to start small, [and] sacrifice my time and what small amount of money I was making at the time to build the business. Do not go into heavy debt when first opening a business.

Try to secure an office space where you are sharing costs with another person or company. Some might try to work out of the home, but even a small office presence is important. A good example would be to share an office space or warehouse with another business or person, and ask them to charge you less for everything in exchange for being in charge of cleaning the building and managing any other building functions. This can lower your expenses and allows you to put in some sweat in exchange for protecting your finances.

No. 14: Sacrifice convenience

Steve Kurniawan, Content Specialist and Growth Strategist at Marketing Unfolded

In my opinion (that I strongly believe in), there are always two alternatives of saving money on absolutely everything: First is you do more by yourself so you don’t have to hire anyone, don’t have to buy a new software to help you, etc. You sacrifice your time and convenience to save money. Second, is to be creative and find workarounds. A simple example: Instead of investing on the new Photoshop, you can take advantage of many cloud-based platforms (i.e. Canva) and their free trial offers, so you switch from platform to platform after their free trial expires. …

The bottom line is: You usually can save a lot just by sacrificing your convenience. Of course, you have to weigh whether these sacrifices (longer work hours, more stress, less sleep, etc.) will hinder your productivity, but more often than not, it’s just our lack of motivation.

No: 15 Decide between long-term or short-term

Steve Kurniawan, Content Specialist and Growth Strategist at Marketing Unfolded

Many decisions in business are about deciding between short-term and long-term for both costs and gains. With a simple example, a software subscription might cost US$100 per month, but if you pay upfront for a year, you’ll only need to pay $900. On the other hand, your meat supplier will give you a 10% discount if you pay cash instead of paying after a month, and the cost of this meat is $1,000 monthly. So, in the case of the meat supplier, you’ll save $100 a month, while in the case of the software, you’ll only save $300 a year. In this case, it’s wiser to prioritize on paying cash to the meat supplier.

In reality, there can be many different variables and suppliers involved, and your cash flow will vary greatly. The ability to see all these variables and make the right decision is very important as an entrepreneur. This is how you can cut costs and maximize your profits.

Bottom Line

Being an entrepreneur takes intelligence, hard work, patience—and money. But if you’re strategic about it, launching a business can be less expensive than you might think. So spend smart and reduce costs. And just think: Every dollar you save is another dollar that you can invest in making your dreams come true.

Contributors

Alexandra FungLogan Allec is a CPA and owner of the personal finance website Money Done Right. After spending his twenties grinding it out in the corporate world and paying off more than $35,000 in student loans, he dropped everything, and in 2017, launched Money Done Right. His mission is to help everybody—from college students to retirees—make, save, and invest more money. He resides in the Los Angeles area with his wife Caroline.
Brian Cairns has more than 25 years of business experience dealing with companies and startups, large and small. He started his career with P&G, and after having worked at Pfizer, J&J, and Wyeth, he left his senior management role to start ProStrategix Consulting. ProStrategix provides business know-how to small and mid-size companies to help them solve their business issues (cash flow, revenue, marketing, etc.). ProStrategix knows small business owners start their organization to follow a dream or a passion, not because they had a degree in business. Because of this, many stumble, and that’s where ProStrategix can help.
Catherine Cohen is the co-founder of Cohen Coaching. A more creative force, Cohen is the ideas person. Her specialty is taking a client’s talent, experience, desire, and skills, and reworking them into new offerings, laying out the groundwork to get a new business started, or creating a path of growth and renewal. Cohen enjoys crafting solutions that make sense to each client’s unique situation.
Shyam K. IyerShyam K. Iyer is a finance professional and founder of SKI Charities.
Steve Kurniawan is an Indonesian-born serial entrepreneur and marketer. He has launched a few successful tech companies. He is responsible for content marketing and growth strategy at Marketing Unfolded, a community for digital marketers where they can learn tips and tricks and the latest tactics for SEO, email, social media, and local marketing. Kurniawan is addicted to great stories and creating great content.
Robert LivingstoneRobert Livingstone is the president of IdealCost.com, a national credit card processing fee reduction firm. Since 2009, IdealCost.com has helped hundreds of companies nationwide reduce their credit and debit card acceptance fees without going through the hassle of changing their current vendor, bank, or equipment. Fee reductions for clients varies from $300-$20,000 per month and savings is guaranteed, or no fee to the client.
Abhi Lokesh cofounded the photo decor brand Fracture in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession on a bootstrapped budget in the unlikely startup hub of Gainesville, Florida. Despite being a first-time business owner fresh out of college, this young CEO and TEDx speaker overcame the odds to turn his idea (printing photos directly to eco-friendly glass) into an Inc. top 5,000 company, which earned $27 million last year. Lokesh grew his company into a 73-person all collar workforce operating in a new, 30,000-square-foot, solar-powered, vertically-integrated space —all while remaining faithful to Fracture’s core ethics of operating a carbon-neutral business that helps the world focus on moments that are important in their lives.
Dayana Mayfield is a professional copywriter who works exclusively with B2B SaaS and tech companies, helping them acquire more customers with on-point messaging and digital copy that sells.
Frederick Penney received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brigham Young University in Philosophy and then attended J. Reuben Clark Law School, where he received his JD in 1991. After being admitted to the California State Bar, Penney briefly worked for a nationwide personal injury firm, but after numerous requests from potential clients, he opened the law firm of Penney and Associates in 1992. He is the author of numerous personal injury articles and the host of Radio Law Talk, a radio show discussing the latest trending legal topics and news.
Josh Wardini is a long-time digital marketer with a focus on SEO. He’s a Python enthusiast scratching the surface of deep learning, machine learning, and narrow AI. Wardini is based in Portland, Oregon, 3 months per year, and is in transit the remainder.