Attack of the Cheaps! Eight Great (And Temporary) Ideas to Save $500-$700 a Month

Whenever Laura and I return from a trip away, especially when we've been to someplace expensive, we always, always get an attack of the cheaps. Always.

Well, we're experiencing an attack of the cheaps right now, because we recently wrapped up a trip to Honolulu, Hawaii. It's a wonderful city, but each time we visit we're stunned by the extremely high cost of living there. Food in grocery stores costs double what we pay in New Jersey. Rent, housing prices, gas and other costs are similarly off the charts. And the cost of restaurant meals bugged me so much that I wrote an entire post about how to find cheap eats in Waikiki, Honolulu's key tourist district.

But enough complaining. After all, there can be benefits to catching the cheaps too. Uh, like saving money. And sometimes you discover that you never even missed the things you cut back on. So why not catch this cheapness wave, ride it, and share my "attack of the cheaps" ideas with readers? And why ask readers to share their own "attack of the cheaps" ideas too? Pretty soon we'll all be putting away some extra dough.

By following the tips below, you could easily reap savings of $500-$700 per month. Each is easy to implement, and none represents any huge downsizing or embarrassingly overt reduction to your standard of living. Best of all, however, each of following tips is temporary and reversible. They're not one-way acts of permanent abnegation that make you feel like you're denying yourself forever. You can try them out for a while, see what you think, and reap the savings until you reverse the decision.

Finally, readers, be sure to share your favorite "attack of the cheaps" ideas in the comments!

1) Downgrade (or better yet, cancel) your cable or subscription TV service for 3-6 months. Added bonus: evade commercials and infotainment that's just going to make you want to buy more stuff. Savings: $35-$200 a month.

2) Put all book purchases and magazine/newspaper subscriptions on hiatus. Take advantage of your local library for the next couple of months, save a few trees and enjoy a brief respite from the media. Savings: perhaps $30-$100 a month.

3) Forgo juices, sodas and other beverages for one week or one month and substitute simple tap water at just pennies per gallon. Protip: Keep in mind how profitable these beverages are for the companies that make them. Savings: $20-50 a month.

4) Embrace partial vegetarianism and go meatless for 1/3 to 1/2 of your meals. I've found that you can reduce your food bill by a third or more this way. Savings: $100-200 a month--or more, depending on your food bills and the size of your family.

5) Experiment with meatless weekdays for a month. This might be the easiest way of all to cut excess calories and excess costs out of your diet. Savings: similar to #4, $100-200 a month, possibly more.

6) Pack your lunch for one month--or longer: If you're a habitual eater-outer at work, this tip will save you a ton of money. Try making and freezing a batch of my burritos and storing them in the office fridge. Or make a double batch of dinner on Sunday night and pack the leftovers for a week's worth of lunches. Savings: $120-200 a month, or a cool two grand a year.

7) Set aside your credit cards and go cash-only. There's something about using 100% cash that limits your spending. It makes spending more of a tangible and conscious act. Plus, if you put a certain amount of cash in your pocket and start to run low, you naturally cut back. Hey, when you're out of dough, you're out of dough. Savings: hard to quantify--perhaps $100 a month, but possibly far more.

8) Track your spending closely for one month. This tip, stolen from the exceptional book Your Money Or Your Life, will reveal surprising information about exactly where your money goes--and you'll see proof of the saying "what gets measured gets controlled." Savings: equally hard to quantify, perhaps $200 a month or more.

Add up the savings from these tips and you can get to $500 to $700 a month. Sustain this level of savings for just a few months and this will translate into an extra $1500 to $2000 sitting in your bank account. Sustain it for a full year and you'll be looking at an extra six or seven grand. Not too shabby for a few temporary spending measures!

Readers, this list is far from complete. What have I missed? What tips do you rely on to save money after a period of overspending?

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Emmy said...

Park the car! If it's within 3 miles and it's not work, we take our bikes. Bonus points for exercise and family time. And make use of Gasbuddy when you do have to fill up the tank.

Play your own version of "Supermarket Sweep" - see how quickly you can gather your list and make it to the checkout. No time for browsing or impulse shopping.

I love your meatless ideas! We found a lentil/sweet potato stew online that my 8yo *loves* -

Open, or at least explore, a Flex Spending Plan!! It's ridiculous, the number of medical supplies we buy without ever considering that they are tax-deductible.

Awesome post, Dan!

Marcia said...

You basically nailed it. But I often will just do a pantry challenge. There's enough food in my house that I can eat without doing much shopping for a long time.

Michael Goldsman said...

A couple of other ideas - cutting back on driving is a huge opportunity. Perhaps by working at home one or more days a week, carpooling, biking or walking to work, scheduling and planning trips more carefully (Go shopping once every two weeks instead of twice a week). Other ways to conserve energy - turn off lights obsessively, replace tungsten lights with the new ones, etc. Stop drinking coffee - especially if you buy coffee at starbucks or like each day.

Julia said...

I like the suggestions to drive less and walk/bike more! Also drinking coffee at home is huge!

A few other ideas:
- When grocery shopping, I plan my meals according to what's on sale.
- Eat the whole vegetable - beet greens or turnips greens are totally edible and delicious.
- Experiment with cheaper cuts of meats.
- When things are on sale, buy in bulk and freeze.
- Cook enough at every meal for leftovers (i.e. lunch the next day)

Joanne said...

These are some excellent tips! Whenever I feel like I'm overspending, I menu plan beans into my weekly menu for at least one, but sometimes two meals. They're SO cheap that that always helps.

Daniel said...

Agreed, great tips so far. I'm grateful.

Keep 'em coming!


Eleni said...

Ha ha, I don't have anthing to add but I just had to acknowledge what a brilliant expression "Attack of the cheaps" is!

Incidentally, I always make my own lunches, but last week I ran out of supplies and had no time to get more, and so I bought lunch three days in a row. After the third day I was so disgustd by how much I had spent that I cancelled a social event so that I could go to the supermarket and buy lunch supplies! I even treated myself to some fancy pre-cooked chicken (which I wouldn't normally get) because it was still massively cheaper than buying lunch out every day!

Ronda said...

I have to say that this was really encouraging to me. We already do all those things on a regular basis except for going meatless, which wouldn't make any difference to us for quite a long time. We have a freezer full of home-grown meat, so never buy any meat other than on-sale chicken at the grocery anyway. So I guess we live pretty consistently in an "attack of the cheaps!" :)

The first thing I thought of to save money was to cancel our high speed Internet, but that's a VERY hard thing to do!

Daniel said...

Thanks for the feedback Ronda. And a suggestion for you. Call your cable/internet company and tell them you are considering cancelling. You may be happily surprised by a spontaneous discount offer to encourage you to stay on.


Erin said...

We already do tips 1-6, and have been doing them for 5 years--ever since we met, actually. Our biggest issue is trying to save enough to pay off the credit cards.

We take our reusable bags everywhere, and some stores will give a small discount for using them.

We plan our meals based on what is on sale at the grocery store, and only get the basics(pasta, canned tomatoes, dry beans) when we have to or when its a great sale.

Great tips, I love the pantry challenge so that's what's for dinner tonight.

Brittany said...

I also like the "Attack of the Cheaps!" phrase. Unfortunately, I already do all of these on a regular basis, except 7 (I've found I actually spend money more frivolously when it's cash, since I can't track it as meticulously as I can by regularly checking my credit card statement). Typically my only recourse when I get an attack of the extra-cheaps is Marcia's suggestion of a pantry challenge--I don't buy anything by milk and fresh fruit for the week and eat down my stocks. I guess I either need to do more brainstorming or just work on being less cheap all the time!

Daniel said...

Brittany, you make a good point on using credit cards vs. cash. I think it depends on which method works out to be more mindful for you. If you're the type of person who carefully goes over your statements then the tip I gave is probably better to ignore.

But if you're the type of person who throws his purchases on a credit card, doesn't think about it all that much, and then has a heart attack when the statement comes, then going cash-only is probably a great idea to save money with very little incremental effort.

Thanks for your thoughts!


David Merkel said...

I buy meat opportunistically. When I am at a grocery store that I rarely visit, I look over the meat specials, and stock up on cheap stuff I know we will use. Meat prices vary more across stores than any other class of food.

I buy large cuts of meat cheaply, and butcher them myself. Also, roast chicken is a very cheap and appetizing meal.

I buy cars cheaply. One good deal there saves a lot of money.

Spices: I buy my spices at the Asian market, where they are cheap and good -- also, the exact same spices are often cheaper in the Hispanic food section.

Tea: I buy it in bulk. I get 900 servings for the same price ordinary people get 90, and I get better quality.

Health Savings Accounts are incredibly effective ways to pay for healthcare. The tax advantages were so great, I turned down the healthcare offered by my former employer.

Typically, I can source good meat at prices per pound comparable than most vegetables/fruits, so I'm not sure going meatless saves much, at least for me.

Ah, but the last point. Don't go out to restaurants. Don't buy processed foods. We do almost everything from scratch, and we eat as a family almost always. We spend less on groceries than most families far smaller than us. I have five kids at home, aged 19 to 10.

Daniel said...

David, spectacular comment. Thank you for stopping by.

And I'd like to amplify your point on buying cars (and other big-ticket items) cost-effectively: If you can get those purchases done right, you won't need to worry so much about minor daily expenses (like that daily latte or whatever) that would otherwise add up. Love it.