10 Budget Hacks

One vivid memory I have of elementary school is not having Guess jeans. Never mind all the things we did have – a great home, a pool, two parents who adored us, bikes, a pantry full of food, vacations to southern California. No. Never mind that stuff. Once the mid-80s Guess jeans, Esprit bags, high top Converse trends hit suburban Phoenix, I felt like a pauper. All the other kids had Guess jeans. Why was I wearing JC Penney? WHY OH WHY?

My mom would laugh at my requests and she would not be swayed. She could not understand why any parent would purchase $100 jeans for a growing child. It simply didn’t make sense.

Today, I think my mom is a genius. Then, I thought she was trying to forever keep me unpopular. My third grade brain decided wearing the “right” jeans and tennis shoes, made you a better person. Being cool meant complete happiness.

Jars of Renewal: Savings Plan

Eventually I saved enough babysitting money to buy a Guess t-shirt in 7th grade, but by then the brand was fading from popularity. The shirt didn’t fit for long and I’m pretty sure I regretted the expense, even if it did look super cool with my puka shell necklace and double barrel bangs. My mom just shook her head, sure that at some point I too would figure it out: things weren’t going to make me cool. Money wasn’t happiness.

I’d love to tell you there was some huge “a ha!” moment soon after when, say, volunteering at a soup kitchen or wrapping Christmas gifts for orphans, I knew this to be truth. Sadly, there was no clarifying moment of cheap grace. I always loved helping others and I always loved going into a fancy department store, or Gap, or Target – or heck, even Costco – and coming out with a cart full of shiny, bright, stylish items that gave me the rush of NEW.

I am human, and therefore complicated.

Jars of Renewal: Savings Plan

Now, as I’ve combined households and finances with someone, I’m embarrassed I haven’t done a better job of listening to what my wise mother has been trying to say for two decades: save more, spend less. Ashamed, really. Instead, I have a closet full of shoes, more books than I’ll ever be able to read and a passport full of stamps from flights I often put on credit to pay off … when I could. They were, of course, “once in a lifetime opportunities.” All of them. Really.

I know it is tacky to speak of money; if I’m insulting your Victorian sensibilities, look away.

Jars of Renewal: Savings Plan

My current top 10 budget hacks:

  1. It goes without saying but: the ultimate budget hack is to not spend more than you earn. Track every expense in a free Google doc and Mint. Compare utilities on a utility comparison site such as Utility Bidder to find yourself the cheapest utility bills available to you, and other monthly expenses to review usage. Change phone/energy plans to best meet your needs and uses. Review receipts and track expenses by category to see where you are going over budget and need to make changes. You can’t change it if you are in denial.
  2. No movies. It is never really just the movies. It’s a $12 ticket and $30 worth of high fructose corn syrup. Instead, we have an $8 a month Netflix account and if we are in the mood for junk food, I’ll bake a pan of sea salt brownies. If we want something else, we go to Red Box for $4.
  3. No shopping. This sounds simple, but I’d gotten in the silly habit of buying a new piece of clothing every time I had a big event. Sometimes it was a full outfit, other times it was just something small. I’d spend my lunch hour at Target with a giant $4 iced coffee from Starbucks. New makeup. New socks. Some new peanut butter I hadn’t tried. The result is too much of everything. I have zero need for more clothes, makeup or for-the-love-of-god — peanut butter. To meet this goal, I’m limiting how much I look at magazines or let myself spend time in stores, which fuel my desired consumerism.
  4. I plan our meals using Stacey’s tracker. This means shopping with coupons for a specific ingredient list, and trying to cook enough for two meals, plus lunches. We eat leftovers and we take our lunch. We also don’t go out to eat on a whim anymore. We plan one night out a week and make it great. It feels like a treat. We are eating healthier as a result, and our food expenses are budgeted to about $120 per week, together for a total of 40 meals. We eat a lot of eggs, Crockpot roasts and fresh fruits and veggies. Sure, this takes focus, but it really does make life so much easier once you get in the groove. No more having to swing by the market on the way home for this or that. You know. It’s planned. It’s printed. It’s on the fridge.
  5. I’ve changed my beauty routines. No more manicures and pedicures. I do them myself, saving more than $100 a month. I also have limited my beauty product use to a dime size. We use everything to the last drop, and it last ridiculously longer. I’ve also been cutting coupons specifically for beauty products and even joined a coupon group at work that swaps information on what is on sale at what store each week. (When I do want a splurge, SWIHA has a fantastic hour-long massage for $35. And the Aveda school in Tempe does a great haircut for less than $20.)
  6. As for hobbies and gift giving: it is a time to use what we have. I’m making gifts from my current yarn and fabric stashes. I’m using paper stock and stamps to make birthday cards. And when I need a gift, I often turn to half.com for a book I’ve loved and want to pass along. Most books are $.75, with $2-$3 shipping. Along with a handmade card, you can’t go wrong. Is it cheap? Yes. Is it thoughtful? Also, yes.
  7. As for health – it’s time to floss. And exercise daily. And drink a lot of water. And wear sunscreen. These sound simple, but all will help keep long-term health expenses at bay. I’m also planning to ride my bike to work once it cools off. That will save ½ gallon of gas per day, or $1.75. It’s minor, but it will add up as I build awesome quads. Also, I’ll be less tempted to visit Target at lunch if I have to bike there.
  8. It isn’t all austere. With a little research, I’ve found some fun free things to do in downtown Phoenix. The Phoenix Art Museum has free admission on Wednesdays from 3-9 pm. The city’s concerts in the park series start again soon. There are countless trails we will hike, and roads to cycle.
  9. It’s the little things, really. Like that $3.45 cup of espresso I became so accustomed to each morning. Instead, we buy our (fair trade) beans in bulk. With milk and stevia, it comes out to $27 per month for more than 90 cups of coffee. $3.45 per cup just went to less than $.30 per cup. I take a thermos to work and sip my coffee during the morning. If only all changes were so simple to see such change!
  10. Give yourself a cash budget for the extras. I put a $20 bill in my wallet on Sundays. This is my soda money. My mid-week Ben and Jerry’s-after-dinner-run money. It’s the little bit of extra I get to play with, and if I don’t spend it – I get to save. Suddenly, I love that idea far more than the thought of spending.
Jars of Renewal: Savings Plan

I hope some of these may be helpful if you too are trying to live la vida frugalista.



P.S. Mom, I finally heard you.

14 Replies to “10 Budget Hacks”

  1. These are GREAT tips!! I’m in the same boat….and now we are trying to pay student loans without any increased income. NOT fun. Just had a long talk with a co-worker at lunch about how I need to get a handle on the finances.

  2. The best advice I ever got for saving *meaningfully* was from my godfather – pay yourself first.

    Before the bills, the daily things, the needs, the wants, the whatevers get in the way – pay yourself into your savings account (or that jar you have there), even if it’s just $5.

    And when you can afford to save more, do.

    It’s how I’m going to school instead of working for two years. The man knows his shit.

  3. My heart as a mom is warmed by this story because it answers that age old question, “when will they ever learn?”

    I’ll be saving up here to get back to Phoenix sometime and I will take you out to Pita Jungle!

  4. Your story about the Guess jeans made me smile. I had the exact same arguments with my parents as a kid! I think I did finally end up with a pair that we found on clearance but — surprise! — I did not become popular overnight as a result of owning them. Your budget hacks are excellent! Most of them aren’t even that hard, it’s just a matter of changing habits and expectations — which can be very hard indeed. I guess I’m lucky I never got into spending too much on manicures, pedicures, or beauty products, I know that stuff can really add up. And I think you’ll find that your meal planning will pay dividends in many arenas. Homemade food is usually healthier in addition to being cheaper! You should try the crockpot chicken curry recipe I linked to from my meal plan last Saturday, it turned out really well.

  5. I love love love this post. Thank you so much for talking about money. It’s a constant topic of conversation in our household!

    Our busy schedules don’t allow us to always make food and take leftovers (I do most days, but sometimes it’s hours before Ryan can reach a refrigerator or microwave depending on his day). I finally got realistic and realized we need to have two food budgets – one for biweekly groceries, one for “allowance” (going out to happy hours, business lunch, Jimmy Johns between classes, etc). It is working SO WELL. I use the Safeway coupon app on my phone and also get at least 10 cents off gas every time I shop.

    Makeup or clothing purchases come out of allowance. Friend wants to go to The Chop Shop for dinner? I’m getting water and salad. I’m better at researching happy hours these days. It all adds up!

  6. This post is like you stepped inside my head and wrote down everything (EVERYTHING!!! Guess and converse and double-barrelled bangs) I’ve been talking about lately. Power to the frugalistas.

  7. I like all of your tips. Here is a very simple thing that I did to help me break the spend cycle – no impulse buying. I know most of us have heard this for years and about three years ago I finally did it. I promised myself to wait 36 hours before buying something that’s not a necessity. Why 36 hours you ask? Well, oftentimes at the end of the 36 hours it was late evening and stores were closed.

    I’ve been budget counsious for over three years now and It has resulted in a pretty hefty savings account. Now, I need to tackle those extra pounds I’m carrying.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  8. Oh yes the Guess jeans! I remember my slightly smaller friend let me borrow a pair and I SQUISHED myself into them. I was sure regretting them by the end of the day haha.

    I’ve been broke so long all my stuff is cool now haha. Upcycling and mismatched? That’s me! I did thrift stores before they were cool 😉

  9. I am pretty frugal too, and always wanted the cool stuff my mom wouldn’t buy. Luckily I had an aunt who was an amazing thrift store shopper and could find brand new cool things. I would never tell anyone where I got stuff though! I have been working to pay off that last credit card but I have long done what Finny’s godfather told her to do. My paycheck gets divided (direct deposit) and at least 10-20% goes directly into my savings account that I do not touch (can’t transfer from it online so there’s no temptation). It’s not millions but it’s nice to see it grow. Plus that money is not in my account and available for me to “spend as I see fit.” 😉 When you get a raise, raise the amount you put into savings or your 401K by the amount of your raise. You have been living on the original amount so keep doing it. You’ll be happier to have it in retirement.

  10. I think it’s easier to conserve money when you’re in a partnership simply because a lot of the things that cost money meant community and fighting loneliness. Nights out with friends, dinners, lattes at the local coffee shop. They all put me in contact with people.

  11. Wow – thanks so much for mentioning mint.com. I went to check it out, and it’s awesome! I love that D and I can both have the app on our phones, so we can both see the budget in real time. Took some time to set it up but I can already tell it’s going to be very helpful!!

  12. I’ve never been able to get Blogger to feed me your posts as they come up and so I can’t say I’ve followed you faithfully, only dipped in here and there. I can’t quite keep up with all the places you’ve lived! But, silly me, with all the home cooking, gardening and crafting I always assumed you were quite frugal. I never pictured you as ‘manicured’. That should remind me about making assumptions. Anyhow, welcome to the frugal world – it’s way more fun than new stuff from Target. Any fool can go out and spend money. ‘Making do’ has done more to spark my creativity than any thing else!

  13. I’m enough older than you that it was Gloria Vanderbuilt instead of Guess and I was stuck in Lee’s. But I felt your junior high pain.
    I agree with the “pay yourself first”. I have $100 pulled directly from my checking account to an HSBC online savings on the same day that I get paid every two weeks. I don’t even miss it, and that’s $2,600 in savings over the course of the year.
    I’ve been a faithful menu planner for YEARS – with a back-up of frozen pizza for those nights when it would be a temptation to run out and grab something else. Our weekly grocery budget is $100 for the four of us. I do watch sales to a certain extent, but the big gun in my arsenal is shopping at ALDI. So cheap. I like their healthy line. I can’t tell the difference between their store brand and name brand, and some things I actually prefer. And they seem to have less high fructose corn syrup in their products than most brands.
    And I know you know this, but for those days when you “NEED” some retail therapy, Salvation Army or Goodwill. 🙂
    You’re on the right track. Keep up the good work!

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