Posted by: thatjen | May 27, 2008

Tightwad Tuesday 3: Snip, Snip, Snip

So you’ve taken the plunge and drafted a budget (whether meticulous to the last penny or somewhat faster and looser), and now you’re looking at the bottom line. If you’re lucky, your bottom line is a positive number. If you’re like most of us, it’s a bit redder than that. But no matter what your final tally is, chances are you want or need to make some cuts. Another option would be to add income, but we’ll look at that another time. Maybe you need to put more money into emergency, retirement, or college savings (in that order, please). Or maybe, like us, you need to find money to, uh, buy groceries.

There are many ways to trim your budget – you can look for big-ticket items, or small ones. Things that can be eliminated immediately, or reductions you can work towards over time. We’re looking at all of them, but today I thought I’d focus on some of the small stuff. It really is true that the little things add up over time, and sometimes it’s easier and faster to make small changes. While it won’t solve all of your money worries, it is good discipline, and it does ultimately make a difference.

Small savings can be made in myriad ways, and every person or family will find a different approach. A friend of mine poured tons of her disposable income into cab rides, but made an effort to get up in time to take the bus or walk. She quickly started saving enough money to make a significant impact on her budget. Others may find that entertainment costs, clothing, gadgets, or hobbies are a bigger slice of the budget than necessary. For us, one key area on which to focus is food costs, including groceries, dining out, and snacking on the run.

We’ve already made a difference by recommitting to planning dinner menus for the week, and making sure some of the meals provide leftovers for lunches. Convenience foods – like the frozen lunches we used to fall back on far too often – are a quick way to add to the grocery bill. DIY is another way to save, and we already make artisan-type bread using the No-Knead Bread recipe. We’re exploring other homemade options, too, but the reality is that we can’t make everything and juggle jobs, a toddler, a pregnancy, and chronic illness. So we weigh the convenience versus the cost. Right now, for example, the convenience of canned beans outweighs the cost savings over dried. Perhaps later we’ll change our minds.

Much like budgeting is essential to getting your finances in control, cost-comparisons are crucial in trimming spending on things like groceries, toiletries, or other disposable/perishable goods. Shelli keeps a price book where she writes down the cost of goods at various stores, and says after months of tracking prices, she doesn’t really need the book – it’s all in her head. I’m enough of a geek that I have to have a spreadsheet, so I made one up and printed it out. It lives in my bag, and every time I’m in a store, I jot down the prices on a few items (even if they aren’t what I’m buying on that trip). Already it’s helped me confirm that many goods really are cheaper – sometimes significantly – at Costco, but not everything.

The small things can also be some of the hardest to change, as they tend to come from the discretionary areas in your spending, so cutting back too quickly or severely can lead to feelings of deprivation and frustration, which may backfire and derail your entire financial plan (much like overly restrictive dieting can lead to a compensatory binge). We may eventually need to be more severe in our cutbacks, but so far have tried instead to reign in carefree spending and make sure that
1) we make the most cost effective purchase possible
2) we use what we buy (we’ve eaten some sad looking carrots lately, let me tell you)
3) we ENJOY what we eat and make it special, whether it’s home-cooked or a treat from a restaurant.
We’re not making dramatic eliminations from our grocery purchasing (except cereal – we did switch to oatmeal for breakfast because packaged cereal is SO expensive) and not stopping restaurant and snack purchases altogether, because I know that would make us all depressed and grumpy. So far it’s working – and we’re enjoying better meals as a result.

There’s so much more I could write, but now it’s your turn:

What is the area where you can really make small savings add up, and what are your tricks for doing so?


  1. Instead of spending an hour and a half sitting in traffic every morning – costing a ton in petrol – my husband has started driving to the closest zone 1 (cheapest) station. If he gets a train into the city before 7am it’s free and in the afternoon it’s a cheap ticket out of the city. It’s saving us a lot in petrol which is supposed to reach $1.64 per/L today which is insane.

    We also just downgraded our internet plan from $120 to $80 a month and cut our Quicklix subscription from $40 to $10 a month.

    This weekend we made the point at shopping at a local meat place that is stocked by local farmers. That saved us a lot of money.

    (I’m in Melbourne, Australia.)

  2. Thanks for the nod! 😉

    The price book REALLY helped me know that I could pick up product A on my way home at store 1, as it is directly on my path from the office to the subway. I know that object A is more expensive at store 3, so I ONLY buy it at store 1 – UNLESS it is on sale at store 2, 3, or 4. But lately, store 1 and 3 seem to be our regular stores.

    We have 3 change “receptacles” in the apartment, and we wait until they are all bursting at the seams to bring them to Commerce (free coin counting) to cash them in. We usually bring in about 100 dollars or so, and it goes in the pocket change category – we buy extra underwear, or things of that nature – needed, but not necessary – AND Starbucks, for sure! 😉

    And I make my Lentil Rice Casserole at least twice a month – it’s uber cheap, lots of good stuff can be put in, and , and it’s YUMMY!

  3. We became vegetarians 5 years ago (for reasons other than to save $) and found that our grocery bill was much lighter. I’m not suggesting this for everyone, but I think just cutting one meat-based meal a week would save between $4-8/week depending on what you usually buy. What to replace the meat with? Meals that include beans &/or lentils – delicious, cheap and healthy. The other thing we do that saves us $$ and sanity every week is make a big pot of home-made veggie soup, veggie chili, chickpea & lentil casserole, or in the summer, a giant bowl of various types of salad. We make this on Sunday night and use it for lunches as long as it lasts (usually can make it last ’till Thursday). Lunch prep is soooo much less hassle, the food is healthier than what you’d buy on the go, and you end up not buying lunch or eating processed expensive frozen lunches. We also put a Brita filter-thingy on our faucet and splurged on aluminum water bottles so that we don’t buy bottled water when we’re out and on the go – this probably saves us between $2.50-$5 a week (the aluminum bottles payed for themselves very quickly). Finally, we don’t do cable. If we’re in the mood for watching something, it’s either one of our faves that we own, or we rent something (maybe 2-3 times/month).

  4. our 2 biggest small ticket (or not so small ticket depending on the month) categories are eating out and coffee.

    We were doing so much better on the eating out front before we went on vacation. We would plan out our meals in advance, and make sure to make use of everything we bought (ditto, here, on the sad carrots — in our case sad broccoli and lettus) we also set out to puzzle out how to make some of our favorite restaurant dishes at home. Also, in planning out our meals, we take the motto that if it’s cheaper to eat at home than at a restaurant, then not all of those home meals have to be what my mom called “poverty meals”. meaning that we will splurge on a king crab leg to make our own sushi knowing that we’ll still spend far less on that than on going to a restaurant. Or we’ll buy some expensive artisan refrigerated ravioli on the same theory — still cheaper than going out.

    AND, when we’re really on the ball, we’ll take our budgeted amount for eating out for the month and use it to buy gift cards at a discounted gift card seller on-line. That way our money stretches further while keeping us on budget (no gift cards left? no going out then)

    Where I wish I could save more is on coffee. Klove buys $4 coffees every day and sometimes more than once a day. The frustrating thing is that we HAVE an espresso/cappucino machine and all she drinks are plain lattes, so we could easily make her fancy coffees at home. And we have before and they’re just as good (we have syrups to make my flavored lattes and mochas, too) but for Klove the buying of coffee is an emotional thing. She feels deprived if she can’t buy coffee even if the cheaper coffee we make at home is just as good and more plentiful. :sigh:

  5. one thing we have done with our grocery list is buy cereal in a bag and a couple of huge rubbermaid containers to put said cereal in. bag cereal is much less expensive than box cereal.

    One other thing is my parents, my brother and his wife and us go in a cow or 2 every year for meat for the year… my husband hunts so we usually have venison throughout the year also. Saves a lot at the store to not buy meat.

  6. Being more thoughtful and planning ahead about lunches helps us cut down on food bills. Bread and lunch meat are not all that expensive, and we can have lunches for a week with minimal effort. I have also tried to be much more creative about using the food we have in the cabinets and freezer to make dinners (for us it is always tempting to just go out after a long day).

    I’m with you– we feel deprived if we tell ourselves that we cannot go out AT ALL, so coming up with a number of times per month that we are allowed to go out makes this a bit better. But this is STILL our biggest sinkhole in terms of money– we need to keep working on it for sure.

  7. Sassy – gas/petrol deserve at least a post unto themselves! I am jealous of a FREE train, though!

    Yep, being veg can definitely be cheaper, but it’s been so long since I bought meat (well, I never really did b/c I became veg in college) that I forget about the savings there!

    Chicory, I would be SO FRUSTRATED by the coffee thing!!! I like your restaurant gift card idea – I’ll have to see if we can get any deals on the places we like to go (unlikely, though, as our faves are all little local chains or indy’s).

    Mrsssg, I should have said, “our yuppie organic cereal” is so absurdly expensive. We can save if we buy it at Trader Joe’s (even cheaper than Amazon) but it’s still a hefty price for breakfast.

    Sara, I wish I were better at just throwing stuff together. I am a very recipe-oriented cook so I have a hard time putting stuff together even though our cabinets are very full. I just don’t know how to combine the weird odds and ends and get something GOOD!

  8. Frittata. Seriously, if you have eggs and weird odds and ends (bit of bread, leftover rice, one lone veggie) you can make frittata. It’s easy, pretty good, and, unlike an omelette, doesn’t need to be eaten while hot.

    Pasta is also really forgiving. Make pasta and toss leftover odd bits of food (okay that sounds gross, but you know what I mean) in.

  9. Ditto to all above on planning meals, vegetarian cooking and bringing lunch. As far as modulating that deprived feeling, we sometimes use a trick adapted from an eating plan called “the no s diet” ( The idea of the “no S” diet is that you don’t have “Snacks, Sweets or Seconds” except on days that start with S (Saturday, Sunday, “Special” days e.g. birthdays). We expand this idea to items that are somehow special or a treat, but add up if you get them all the time.

    For example, we really really like tea and drink it a LOT. In particular, we really like fancy tea that costs at least 20 times as much as super-cheap store brand black tea. Instead of saying we can never ever drink fancy tea, we only drink “S-tea” on “S-days.” We drink enough tea that this actually does make a bit of dent in our grocery budget, and as a side benefit we enjoy the tea even more on the weekends. This kind of “selective” deprivation can help us really enjoy the things we like, even more than if we had them all of the time.

  10. We actually trimmed our services a bit…lowered our cell phone plan, took advantage of a bundled Internet/TV package, and things like that. In total it is saving us only $50/mnth, but it did not impact our lifestyles at all. I like that we have a bit more lee way in our budget now, and can use it for “fun” or to pay off a bit more debt, however we feel that month.

  11. For luxuries that I can’t seem to deny myself but also can’t justify, I’ve begun asking for gift cards from my parents or other folks who buy me birthday/other holiday presents.

    Also, no cable. I use my library as N*tFlix. I request movies, generally they are out on loan so come back in a random order but there is always something I’ve wanted to see waiting for me.

    Life is long, you will be able to make up the money but you will never be able to recoup the time. You will be fine. Enjoy!

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