Living on Less: 75 Money-Saving Tips

These 75 money-saving tips will help you live on less. From food, clothes and entertainment to rent, health and education, learn how you can have fun and save money, while spending and consuming less and ultimately living a better, wiser life.

Heatling with wood

If you live in a forested area, cut your energy costs by heating with wood. And wherever you live, never skimp on insulation — you’ll save money and energy.

Illustration by Brian Orr

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Discover these 75 money-saving tips to live on less. These inspiring ideas will help you enjoy life more while spending and consuming less.

Living on Less: 75 Money-Saving Tips

On paper, my wife and I are poor. How poor? In 2005 we made $4,303.84 combined; in 2004 we made half that. We’re in such a low tax bracket that I have trouble convincing the government of our tax return’s accuracy; they simply can’t believe Americans can live on that kind of money.

Yet in many ways, we’re better off than a Wall Street banker: We’ve saved enough money to buy land without a mortgage, we have no credit cards or monthly bills, I work 20 flexible hours a week from home, and my daughter has two stay-at-home parents.

Simply put, we never want for anything, and we have a lot of fun.

We’ve arrived where we are now through a decade of daily financial decisions. Because we didn’t want to spend our time earning money at jobs we didn’t like, we instead focused on how to stretch our money. We found that by controlling our day-to-day expenses, we could save a lot of money without sacrificing our quality of life. Neither my wife nor I will ever be confused for financial wizards; there’s nothing we’ve done that you can’t do if you’re serious about saving money. Here are 75 money-saving tips to consider, drawn from our own experiences. Find what works for you and enjoy living on less!

Good Cheap Food

1. Buy raw ingredients instead of prepackaged foods. If you don’t know how to cook, learn. You’ll save on food bills, and your body will thank you for it in the long run.

2. Buy in bulk from a local health food store, or place bulk orders directly with mail-order companies. If you can’t meet their minimum order size, go in on an order with another family, or organize a larger food buying club.

3. Avoid the middleman and buy directly from farmers. Look for farm stands, community supported agriculture programs and farmers markets.

4. Eat fruits and vegetables in season, when they are least expensive. (Once, we found organic watermelon for three cents a pound!) Stock up when they’re cheap and freeze or can any excess for later use.

5. Keep up with what’s in your refrigerator and make sure nothing spoils. Once a week, make soup or casseroles to use up vegetables and other leftovers.

6. Calculate the price of food per pound when you visit supermarkets. Doing the math will help you spot good deals.

7. Don’t overeat. When you do, you’re flushing money down the drain.

How to Avoid Paying Rent

8. Find a live-in elder care position and help someone stay out of a nursing home. There’s always someone desperate for reliable help, and often there are no qualifications needed other than compassion.

9. Help renovate a house in exchange for lodging. This is how we came into our current home.

10. For short-term stays, become a housesitter or pet sitter.

11. For long-term stays, become a caretaker. A good place to find such caretaking jobs is The Caretaker Gazette.

Find and Build Your Nest

12. Look beyond realtors’ listings to find cheap property. Try local penny papers.

13. Don’t be afraid to ask. If you see a piece of land you like, find the owner and ask if it’s for sale. It might be cheaper than you think.

14. Salvage materials for your new home. There are lots of possible sources: Look for someone who’s renovating a house and might let you cart away old materials; check the yellow pages for used building materials; or look for online groups, such as Freecycle, where people trade all kinds of unwanted items.

15. Never skimp on insulation or good windows. Build your home tight enough, and it will cost much less to heat. You may even be able to get away with a woodstove or other supplemental heating and avoid the cost of buying and running a central heating system.

16. Barter for services with carpenters. Some communities have organized time banks, to make bartering these kinds of services easier. You can learn more about them here.

17. Buy into a piece of land with another family. Be sure to check local zoning ordinances to be sure you can legally subdivide a property before you buy it.

18. Build with natural materials found on-site. If you have wood, the equipment to mill it yourself is relatively inexpensive, compared to buying lumber. (You can resell the sawmill after you’re done with it.) Building with stone or straw bales and using clay for plasters are other relatively inexpensive natural building options.

Keep Home Upkeep costs Down

19. Close off unused rooms to save on heat and air conditioning.

20. Be efficient with your appliances. Have a big baking night when you’re going to use the oven. Let your woodstove also be your dryer and water heater.

21. Take advantage of natural weather patterns to heat and cool your house. In the summer, open the windows at night and close them again by noon.

22. Place your refrigerator in the coldest part of the house so it requires less energy to keep the temperature low.

23. Wash your clothes in cold water. It’s the friction that does most of the cleaning, not the heat.

24. Switch off your water heater when you’re not going to use it for extended periods of time.

25. Buy energy-efficient light bulbs. The savings on your electric bills add up fast.

26. Unplug any unused electric items with lights, clocks or timers. They use an amazing amount of power just sitting there. You can plug multiple items into one power strip to make shutting them all off faster.

Creative Transportation

27. Carpool with friends or co-workers. Some cities maintain online listings to help people connect with other carpoolers.

28. Ask if your city has a carshare program or start one with people you trust.

29. Convert a diesel car to run on used vegetable oil. You’ll pay once for the conversion or kit, but after that all your fuel can be free. All you have to do is find a restaurant that wants to dispose of their used oil and will let you cart it away.

30. Keep track of your gas mileage and look for ways to improve it — keep your tires properly inflated and don’t speed.

31. Do as many errands as possible with each car trip around town instead of making multiple trips. You’ll save a lot of gas.

32. Book any airplane trips well in advance to get the lowest possible fare. Then show up early and offer to be bumped in exchange for free tickets if a plane is overbooked.

When You Can’t Avoid Shopping

33. Don’t go into stores unless you need something. Always carry a shopping list. Remember, stores are designed to get you to buy things you didn’t know you needed.

34. Hit end-of-season sales for as many items as possible, from kayaks to gardening supplies.

35. Before you shop, try borrowing the items you need from family or friends. Check out local Freecycle groups to find out what people are giving away. Set up borrowing co-ops for tools.

36. Try to find it used before you buy new. You can find a wide variety of items online, in the classifieds or penny papers, and at garage sales, estate sales and thrift stores.

37. When buying new, choose high-quality, durable items. It’s often cheaper to spend more upfront if you won’t have to replace the item in the near future.

38. Instead of shopping, scavenge. Watch the curbs at the end of the semester in a college town. If you live near a high school, try talking to the janitor the last day of school when they’re cleaning out the lockers.

Get Some Clothes On!

39. Buy clothing used whenever possible. You may have good luck finding clothes at garage sales, or find a wider selection at thrift stores, consignment shops and on eBay.

40. Have a clothing exchange party to trade unwanted clothing with friends.

41. Try sewing. Look for cheap material in thrift stores, or try reincarnating your outfits into something new.

42. Watch the clearance racks. It’s always amazing how much stores are willing to mark down unsold clothing.

For Your Health

43. Ask a doctor or dentist if they have sliding-scale fees.

44. Look for free or low-cost clinics and/or medical schools for treatment. (But be warned, sometimes you get what you pay for. I have a couple of bad fillings from a new dentist.)

45. Do preventive maintenance on your body. Exercise and eat well. Try yoga to reduce stress. Quit smoking.

46. Campaign for a national health care system!

Cutting Education Costs

47. For the college bound, take some general education classes at a state school or community college where the tuition is low, even if you plan to take most of your classes at a more expensive college. Just check carefully with your school of choice to make sure the classes will transfer.

48. Attend an in-state college. Establish residency for a year or two beforehand, if need be. The money saved can be well worth the time it takes to establish residency.

49. Buy your college books used online. Don’t give in to the monopoly of the college bookstore!

50. Watch for unique scholarship opportunities, including those that involve resources other than cash. (I once received a case of organic macaroni and cheese for making the dean’s list.)

51. Audit classes that you only want for the learning, not the credit.

52. For lessons, try bartering. For example, my wife is planning to do some photography in exchange for dance lessons.

Cheap Entertainment

53. Discontinue your Internet service and utilize a wireless “hotspot” where you can connect to the Internet for free. Even the smallest towns tend to have at least one.

54. Rediscover the radical notion of the library. Imagine Internet access and thousands of books, CDs and DVDs for free!

55. Volunteer to usher for concerts, plays and other events. (I haven’t paid for a play in years.)

56. Find low-cost fun in your local paper. Take full advantage of free concerts, events and movies.

57. When at a concert or movie, avoid buying anything to eat or drink. Some places even let you bring your own snacks.

58. Take turns entertaining with friends holding parties, potlucks or music nights.

59. Occasionally, go ahead and spend the money. Saving money’s like going on a diet: If you try to starve yourself, you’ll end up consuming more in the long-run. If there’s a form of entertainment you value, that’s a good place to consider splurging.

Travel the World for Less

60. Volunteer for organizations such as World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) that provide food and lodging in exchange for a reasonable amount of daily work.

61. Trade your home with friends around the country and enjoy free lodging in a new location.

62. Go camping, or rent a cabin. Don’t overlook state parks and national forests, they’re often less expensive and less crowded than national parks.

63. Try a local vacation. Chances are, there’s something great to see within a 100-mile radius of where you live.

64. Ask hotels about discounted distressed-traveler rates, especially if you hadn’t planned to stop but must because of inclement weather.

65. There’s no law against haggling with a hotel on the room rate!

66. Make your vacations pay for you by combining them with work. I once volunteered for my school to check out an innovative learning program in Vermont and got to stay in a bed and breakfast with my wife for free.

67. Buy food at local supermarkets when traveling. It’s much cheaper than eating at restaurants.

68. Choose a vehicle with fold-down seats if you’re renting a car or truck. Find a safe place to sleep for the night, and you have instant, snug lodging.

Happy Families for Cheap

69. Definitely choose used clothes for babies. They’re so cute, they don’t need to be stylish.

70. Trade babysitting time with other couples and have rotating playgroups with other families.

71. During the holidays, draw names for gift giving with groups of family or friends rather than buying a gift for everybody. A fun variation or addition to this is the white elephant holiday party, where everyone brings unwanted items and other joke gifts.

72. Invoke a gift giving spending cap.

73. Give homemade gift certificates for a home-cooked dinner, massage or babysitting time.

74. Donate to a good cause that a friend or family member supports instead of buying a gift they don’t need. Not only do you support a worthwhile organization, but you’ll save on sales tax and transportation costs.

75. Swallow your pride; accept your family’s help every now and then. It’ll make them feel good.

These suggestions are just a starting place. You’ll find lots of new ways to save that work best for you. Make a game of it if you can, and keep it fun. After all, it’s only money. Happy penny pinching!

Have more ideas for saving money? You can add them to the comments field of this article.