A quick Google search can show you the arguments for whether it’s better to earn more or spend less, and in reality, it’s better to do both. But some people are really passionate about one way being better than the other.
I’m not here for all that drama, but the fact is, you make what you make. Right now. Today. And whether you’re trying to earn more or not, you need to know how to spend well with what you have.
That’s what we’re here for today: smart spending.
We’re about to get into the tips, but first, a quick story on how we saved almost 70% off the sticker price for a van we bought. I share this story as an example of the things that are possible when you stay intentional in your purchases (especially large purchases)…
How We Got a $9,000 Van for $2,800
A few years ago, we needed a van to fit our growing family. We went to a dealership in Oklahoma City and found a van.
It was an older van, but it was in good condition. They were asking almost $9,000 for it and we walked away paying $2,800 cash.
- We were flexible. We wanted a vehicle with at least 6 seats for under $5,000. That’s it. We didn’t care if it was a minivan, SUV, or a bus…if it fell within our criteria, we were interested.
- We weren’t married to the purchase. We were prepared to walk away if they didn’t like our offer, and we did… twice. Once to talk about it over lunch. Then we came back and they still didn’t want to give it to us for what we asked. So we left again. They finally called us back and said they’d take it.
- We were informed. We knew the Blue Book value. Most dealerships guides like this, along with others, such as a “black book value.” But just because they show you a piece of paper with a price on it, that doesn’t mean it’s accurate. We also knew the van would be going to auction if we didn’t buy it and that meant the dealership wasn’t going to get much out of it. We told them we knew that. Edmunds actually sent a staff writer undercover as a car salesman for a few months and one of the things he discovered is that some dealerships just make up a value and hope you’ll pay high-dollar for the vehicle, instead of questioning the price. It’s important to figure out what the price should be on your own.
- We weren’t afraid to hurt the dealer’s feelings. They will try every tactic in the book. They will try to make you feel guilty or even obligated to buy a car, but you don’t owe them anything. The only decision that matters is the one you make. It doesn’t matter what the salesman wants. It’s your money. It’s ok if you decide not to buy it. It’s ok if they get upset about that.
That’s an example of something we did years ago when we made much less.
There are plenty of ways to change your spending habits and stretch your dollars. And it’s not just about being cheap. Sometimes being cheap can cost you more.
Let’s see what you can do to keep more of your hard-earned money. Even if you don’t feel like you earn enough, there are ways to make the most of what you have.
We’ll start with some general tips that apply to almost everyone and then we’ll go into specific categories…
1. Emergency Tip: Use Cash
I say “emergency tip,” because this is mostly for people who are really struggling.
Honestly, we’d all spend less if we used cash, but this is most important if you’re currently dealing with revolving credit card debt (a balance that carries over monthly) and/or if you’re just simply struggling. If you want more detail, I link all the actual studies here that show the psychology of spending and how much more we spend when we use credit cards.
If you really prefer the convenience of credit cards (which is also the main reason we spend more when we use them), you can go back to the cards once you’ve paid off the debt… if you think that’s a good idea given your track record, which only you know.
2. Cut Subscriptions
First, look at what all your subscriptions are. Things like:
- Netflix and other streaming services
- Music streaming services
- Monthly boxes (food, hobbies, etc.)
- Anything other subscription you pay for regularly
You may not need some of them. Others could be reduced, like internet (do you really need the fastest service?) and cable (do you really need 1,000 channels?).
Know what all your subscriptions are, monitor them, and cut the ones you don’t need.
3. Cut Fees
Fees could be anything from bank account fees, to investment fees, to ATM fees.
There are other fees you may be paying. Do you pay a fee any time you pay a specific bill? Is there a way to pay it without a fee?
Again, these are just questions to ask and things to be mindful of.
You could even lump taxes into this, but that would be an article on its own.
4. Review Your Insurance
Insurance is important, but it’s also easy to pay more than you should.
Here are a few things you can do to reduce insurance costs:
- Check your coverage. Do you really need all the coverage in your insurance policies You may be covered by two different policies for the same thing. See what you can drop.
- Raise your deductibles. If you have an emergency fund, there’s no reason to have a high deductible. If you just take the extra money you would pay each money for having a low deductible and put it in a savings account, you will make up the difference in a few months.
- Shop around. When was the last time you called around and checked prices? There is always a cheaper insurance company out there, just make sure the quality isn’t lacking. We found out Geico was cheaper for us, but we prefer the quality of USAA and it’s not much of a price difference.
- Review your life insurance. Remember life insurance isn’t for you; it’s for those who depend on your income. Therefore, a young, single adult without kids may not even need it. Just review the amount you have and make sure you aren’t over-covered. While we’re on the topic, check on life insurance for stay-at-home spouses as well.
There are almost always ways to lower insurance costs, but you have to do some digging.
Now let’s talks cars…
Cars are one of the primary things that keep us poor. Don’t let it happen to you. Don’t live a car-poor life. It starts with getting a good deal in the first place.
5. Get a Good Deal on a Used Car
I’ve already shared one of our stories above about getting a good deal on a used car. In The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley, PhD, explains how the average millionaire doesn’t have a car payment or a new car.
Make a car payment to yourself in an interest-bearing account and you’ll never have to make a car payment to a company. It’s not always easy to get started, but if you’re in debt, once your car is paid off, start saving for the next. And pay cash.
Consistently drive older, used cars that are in good condition and you won’t fall into the car-poor lifestyle.
6. Take Care of Your Car
If you get regular oil changes, rotate your tires, keep them inflated, get regular tune-ups, and just generally maintain your car, it’s going to last much longer than it will if you run it hard and neglect maintenance.
We’re about to talk about doing the maintenance yourself, but even if you take it somewhere for maintenance, keeping that up will prolong the life of any car.
7. Do Your Own Maintenance
It’s easier than ever to learn how to do maintenance. There’s a YouTube video for almost everything.
We once had to change a blend door in a 2000 Ford Windstar. I was that-day-years-old when I learned what a blend door was, but we found a video on how to change it for that specific make, model, and year.
How crazy is that? A blend door for a 2000 Ford Windstar and there was a video.
There’s no excuse not to learn with all the tools available, unless you don’t want to, which is fine, but take your car somewhere for the maintenance. Personally, I’m electronically inclined, but I’m not mechanically inclined. However, my wife is and she loves doing that stuff, so she does it.
8. Only Have One Car
This may not work for your family, but at least consider the option.
Do you really need more than one car? Maybe you do, but maybe you don’t and you’ve just never thought about it. If you only have one person with a job outside the house, you can typically make it with one car.
Often, selling a car is all it takes to cut down a major portion of your debt.
9. Take Public Transportation
If you live in a big city, do you need a car at all?
It really depends on the city, but most cities have discounts for daily transit. If you live within walking distance of public transport, you could get some exercise out of this option as well. Or you could always bike to work.
You may live in an area where public transport isn’t an option. If that’s the case, you can still use tip #8.
It’s time to get into your health…
Health is something you don’t want to sacrifice, for the sake of money. I think we’d all agree your health is more important than money, because without your health, you won’t have much use for money. But there are some ways to cut expenses in the health category…
10. Go for Healthier Options
It may seem expensive to eat well, but in reality, processed foods can be much more expensive. If you find yourself filling your cart with snack cakes and soda, making the switch to a healthier lifestyle likely won’t increase your budget at all.
It’s a myth that it’s expensive to eat healthy meals.
If you use these tips and read the next tip, you’ll save money and eat better.
11. Cook at Home
It’s that simple. Eat more meals at home. You’ll save money and be healthier.
Buying meat, fruits, and veggies doesn’t have to be expensive. Go for the cheaper cuts, plan your meals around sales, and use all your resources (food co-ops, farmer’s markets, etc.).
If fresh produce prices are high, frozen is your next best option. Frozen fruits and veggies are typically frozen when they’re quite fresh, and you don’t have the added sodium of canned food.
If it’s a matter of not knowing how to cook, just learn. YouTube makes it easier than ever to start with some easy meals and work your way up. Famous chefs like Gordon Ramsay, Rachael Ray, and other Food Network hosts show you how to cook for free, so you can’t keep using the “I can’t cook” excuse.
12. Use What You Have
We once did an experiment where we didn’t spend money for 30 days. It was a 30-day experiment that turned into a 90+ day experiment. You can read about it here.
One of the main lessons we got out of that experiment was, we have more food in our home than we may think.
Go into your pantry and look in the back of the freezer. Especially if you’re struggling financially right now, use what you have first. You may be able to make meals for weeks.
13. Cancel Your Gym Membership
I’m not telling you to stop working out. If you’re a weight lifter, you may want to keep it (though you can create your own home gym for pretty cheap).
But if you mostly use the gym to do cardio and other things you can do outside and at home (or if you don’t use your gym membership at all), consider switching up your routine.
You’ll save gas money without the commute and get some fresh air at the same time.
Consider getting some home equipment if you go beyond basic calisthenics.
If this point offends you then keep the membership. The important thing is questioning whether you need this membership or not (or any membership for that matter).
14. Break Bad Habits
Habits like smoking, regular drinking, and gambling may be hurting you more than you know.
The average smoker spends over $2,000/year on cigarettes.1 In many states, a single pack is in the double digits, so it would cost a lot more, depending on how much you smoke. The same cost analysis applies to vaping and e-cigs.
You can use this calculator to see how much you’ll save based on prices in your area.
Drinking is no different. It likely cost you more than you think. Personally, I have an occasional drink. I live in Italy, so we drink wine with some meals, but mostly because it’s literally cheaper than water here… and because… we’re in Italy. Once we leave Italy, I doubt we’ll drink much wine at all.
Breaking bad habits isn’t as tough as it seems.
The most important two pieces to the break-a-bad-habit puzzle are:
- Change your environment. If you’re around people who smoke and drink, for example, it’s going to be much more difficult to quit. Set your daily routine up to avoid the things you relate to the bad habit.
- Replace the habit. Often, when you get rid of a bad habit, you have time slots to fill. Know ahead of time how you will fill them. Try adding in some positive tiny habits.
The environment piece is real…
Habits and Your Environment
Let’s talk for a moment about how your environment affects your habits.
Vietnam was a tough place for a lot of reasons in the 1970s, but one of the little-known issues with American soldiers was heroin addictions.2
Upon the return of our troops, it was discovered that 2/5 of the returning soldiers had tried heroin in Vietnam and 1/5 of them were addicted to it.
Typically, with heroin addicts, there is a 90% re-addiction rate. With these returning soldiers, there was only a 5% re-addiction rate.
So what was the difference between these soldiers and other heroin addicts?
Most of the heroin addicts that typically come into clinics are coming from a “drug lifestyle.” Once they break their addiction at the clinic, they head back to their old house, with their old friends, and they get right into their old habits.
So when these Vietnam vets got back into their lifestyle that didn’t include drugs, it almost seemed easy for them to quit… easy compared to life-long drug addicts at least.
Speaking of bad habits…
15. Stop Watching TV
I can’t count how many ways cutting the cable will help you. Ok, I probably could count the ways, but ain’t nobody got time for that.
Cutting the cable will save you money and hopefully get you off the couch.
Media can be a dangerous thing and a serious time-suck. Don’t let it happen to you.
It doesn’t just rob you of your money. Here’s the real cost:
- Family Time – It’s no surprise that, on average, families who watch TV spend less quality time together. It’s not uncommon for parents to watch “their shows” in separate rooms while the children watch their own shows in their own room. How many hours could be spent together talking, playing games, or enjoying the outdoors if we didn’t have cable?
- Learning Time – The stats on reading are sad compared to TV stats. We all feel like we should be reading more. Many people claim to have no time for reading while they are spending hours each day watching television. You will prioritize the things that are important to you. I don’t know anyone who would claim TV to be important to them, but apparently it is.
- Earning Time – What could you be doing with those hours? Perhaps you’ve been wanting to start a business or a side hustle, but you never seem to find the time. If you’re watching TV daily, you can find the time. You could call it a sacrifice, but I wouldn’t say that. We don’t call it a sacrifice to eat food instead of poison, do we?
- Teaching Time – If you have children, you know how important it is to teach. Schools are a great starting place, but education really begins at home. Why is it so common, as Americans, to teach our children daily, until the day they start school? As parents, our job is never over. Sure, school is a great help, but it doesn’t mean we stop teaching. And teaching takes time.
Those are all the ways cable could be costing you, but the main point is that cutting the cable will save money.
16. Drink Water
I’ve said this elsewhere, but drinking water will save you so much money.
If you can drink your tap water, you have no use for other beverages, if you’re trying to save money and cut expenses. If you can’t, I recommend some filters so you can drink your tap water in the article I just mentioned.
Drinking water when we go out to eat saves our family of seven at least $15-$20.
It’s time to go to your house…
Whether you own your own home or rent, there are plenty of ways to save money around the house just by being mindful and intentional.
17. Maintain Your Appliances
Just like with your car, if you maintain your appliances, they’re going to last longer and run more efficiently.
Regularly cleaning your kitchen appliances will ensure they run smooth and last. This includes routinely cleaning your oven, refrigerator, and freezer. Don’t forget about the coils on the back of your fridge; you’ll use less electricity if they are clean.
If you buy appliances used, it may pay to get back on YouTube for some videos on keeping those used appliances running like new.
18. Unplug Things You’re Not Using
Phantom power is real. It’s the power your devices and appliances are pulling when you’re not using them.
If you don’t use it often, unplug it.
19. Seal Your Home
This could include expensive things that will save you money in the long run, such as buying new, more efficient windows and doors. But if you don’t want to take it that far, or if you’re renting, there are some ways to seal and insulate your home without spending $30,000 on new windows.
20. Cut the Land Line
Does anyone still have a land line anymore? Actually, yes. It’s often part of a package deal with your cable or internet provider.
Nowadays, it could be freely included, but if it’s not, and you don’t use it, get rid of it.
21. Play the Thermostat Game
In the summer, try turning your AC up by one degree. Once you’re comfortable with that, do it again. I know a lot of people don’t believe in “being uncomfortable” to save what they may consider to be a small amount of money, but it you do it slowly, you’ll barely notice a difference.
Is it worth it? Well, combined with all the other ideas, overall, you’ll be saving a ton. Adjusting the thermostat by one degree can reduce your heating cost by 3%.3 When you consider what this game could turn into, you could be saving quite a bit.
This isn’t just about the heat and air. There are other things you can play the thermostat game with, such as lowering your water heater temperature. For each 10-degree reduction in water temperature, you can save between 3%-5%. 120 degrees is probably hot enough for most homes.
22. Teach Your Kids to Turn Lights Off
You may feel like this is impossible. You’ve told them 100 times to turn off the lights when they leave a room, but there are ways to make it stick.
When our kids started to get old enough to know better, we starting playing a “game” with them. When we walked into their vacant room and the lights were on, we’d take a bulb. They only had three bulbs in their room and we would wait a week to give it back to them. If they left the lights on a few days in a row, they were in the dark.
It may sound cruel, but after about one month of doing this, they were turning the lights off in every room, every time. And they still do — to include my three-year-old. Honestly, it’s not cruel at all. They still had the rest of the house once their room went dark, but it was enough to stop the trend.
23. Buy Better Light Bulbs
There is usually a label on the box that shows you how much you’re saving.
If you pay twice the price for a bulb that lasts 4x as long and consumes less electricity, you’ll start to see the savings.
Of course, I don’t recommend changing all your bulbs out right now. Wait until they go out, but when they do, get better bulbs.
We’re talking vacations next…
We’re big believers in experiences over things. We prefer to give our kids experiences they’ll remember instead of a bunch of toys that clutter our home. Sure, they still have plenty of toys, but our priority is experiences. There are ways to continue those vacations and weekend trips without breaking the bank.
24. Take a Staycation
A staycation is where you either stay home or stay local for a vacation.
Often, your kids just want time with you. They’ll be just as happy at home as they will be in another state or country, as long as you use the time to be with them.
Here are four staycation ideas to start with:
- Game Time – Find some good board games to play. Create a scavenger hunt. There are endless options for games at home and in your local area. The best part is the quality time you’re creating.
- Craft Time – Find some crafts you can do as a family and plan them out each day.
- Decluttering – Hear me out. I know this doesn’t sound even remotely like a vacation, but it’s along the same lines. If you declutter your house or garage as a family, you will be spending quality time together and being productive at the same time. Calm down, it’s only one of several options.
- Movie Marathon – I’ll be the first to admit, watching movies isn’t exactly quality time, but you will be together, and it can be a fun way to take your mind off other stressors in life.
If you don’t like any of those four ideas for a staycation, try one of these 40.
25. Go Camping
This is big enough to deserve its own point. It could be a staycation if you live near some nice camping areas. Or you could go somewhere else. You’ll save enough on lodging to spend a little more on the travel there.
This could be a hiking trip, fishing trip, or anything else you can do outdoors. It’s good for kids to learn how to live without the luxury of electricity and running water.
26. Go Somewhere Affordable
Vacations don’t have to include Disney World or an expensive Caribbean cruise.
I actually came up with 25 affordable vacation spots that include locations in all parts of the states and even the rest of the world.
If you plan well, and well in advance, you can travel to some nice places without going broke doing it.
27. Travel During Off-Season
This is a common and obvious point, but we often forget it when planning.
Off-season means something different depending on where you’re going. The summertime is generally the busiest and most expensive time to travel, unless you go somewhere that’s in off-season during the summer, like Colorado.
Likewise, you could plan a beach trip to Florida just before or just after summer when the water is still warm enough to swim, but the prices and crowds have dwindled.
28. Go See Family or Friends
This doesn’t sound like a vacation for a lot of people, but family is important and sometimes it’s good to be around those you love and don’t get to see often, even if it means using your vacation time to do so.
If you stay with family or friends, your lodging is [usually] free and you have more money to spend on activities in that local area.
If you go see someone who lives in a completely different part of the country or the world, you’ll have plenty of things to see while you’re there.
Pro Tip: As a military family, I highly recommend reaching out to families like ours who live overseas. My family and friends know they can come visit us in Italy and stay for free while we show them the sights. You may know of a military family living overseas and you may be surprised at how welcoming they are. It may be just as joyful for them to see some familiar faces as it is for you to see a new place.
Finally, let’s talk about gift giving…
29. Cut Traditional Gift Giving
Do you buy loads of birthday and Chrsitmas presents for your kids?
If you do, step back and ask yourself why you’re doing it. Here are some reasons to consider not doing it:
- It takes a lot of money to buy gifts for people who likely don’t need anything else to clutter their home and life
- It takes a lot of time to shop for gifts — time that could be spent with each other… making memories instead of amassing material possessions
- I’ve never heard anyone say “I don’t think we have enough things in our house,” — I know I’ve never said that
- We often get things we didn’t really want as gifts and keep them out of obligation — sometimes for years
Kids are happier with fewer toys anyway.
30. Consider Cards Over Presents
Sometimes there’s almost a competition at other kids’ birthday parties to see who can buy the most expensive gift. No one would admit to this, but it happens.
If you find yourself feeling like you have to buy the nicest present for your kids to give to their friends, ask yourself why you feel this way (and ask yourself if you do feel this way in the first place).
A simple card will make a good present. Especially if you’re struggling financially. You don’t have to “keep up” with anyone. You don’t need to buy nice gifts so people think you have money. The Jones are broke, so stop trying to keep up with them.
It Doesn’t End Here
Ok, so this article does end here, but your savings goals don’t have to.
Like I said, if you need more money, it’s great to earn more, but you have to start where you’re at and that means cutting expenses first.
Now that you’re full of the money-saving ammunition you need, continue to learn.
Go see how you can save money on literally everything.
And read these books (you can usually get them for free at the library)…
Further Book Reading
- Budgeting for Kids: How to Teach Budgeting From Age 3 to 18
- Don’t Just Teach Your Kids to Set Goals, Teach Them to Do This
- Alarming Studies That Show How Advertising Affects Your Kids (And How to Protect Them)
- 47 Things You Weren’t Taught in School (That Our Kids Need to Know)
- When Should Your Kid Have Their Own Phone? A Real Conversation
- 8 Minimalism Books to Help You Declutter Your Entire House
- A, Linton. (2020, June 2). How Much Money Does Smoking Cost You? Verywell Mind.
- Robins et al.. (2010). Vietnam Veterans Three Years after Vietnam: How Our Study Changed Our View of Heroin. American Journal on Addictions 19, no. 3.
- K, O’Leary. (2012, May 15). How Much is 1 Degree Worth? EnergyHub.