46 Frugal Living Tips to Help You Spend Smarter
JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images
According to data from the U.S. Inflation Calculator, inflation rates have gone down slightly as of late, averaging roughly 5.6 percent so far for 2023—a marked improvement from the 8 percent average of 2022—but that’s still pretty darn high considering that rates never reached above 3.4 percent from 2000 until when the pandemic hit. What this all means is that your money is getting you less than ever at the grocery store and almost everywhere else, which probably explains why 2023 trend reports from Meta show that conversations on “frugality” have seen a year over year growth rate of 485 percent on Instagram.
So what’s all the buzz about and how can you test this big brain approach to saving money on your own budget? We tapped financial and industry experts for the details, plus a whole host of frugal living tips that you can put into action right now.
What Is Frugal Living?
Frugal living is about maximizing the value of your money (i.e., getting as much bang for your buck as possible). It requires big picture thinking and priority assessment, but if you start employing some basic frugal habits, you can really stretch your money without sacrificing much at all.
What’s the Difference Between Frugal and Cheap?
Both cheap and frugal people are interested in saving money, but the difference is that frugal means prioritizing your spending and holding off to find the best deals on quality items; whereas cheap tends to refer to someone who will indiscriminately purchase the least expensive item at all times. In other words, frugal spenders see the bigger picture, rely on simple and practical strategies to save money and look for opportunities to cash in, while “cheap people” are seen as doing anything to save a buck in the short-term, even if their quality of life takes a hit. Suffice it to say, frugality is the winning approach.
Frugal Living Shopping Tips
1. Make a Shopping List and Stick to It
This applies not just to food (more on that later), but all kinds of shopping. “A thorough list will help you avoid impulse purchases, which can add up quickly,” says Garry (and our most recent trip to Ikea confirms).
2. Use Coupons, Discount Codes and Promo Deals Whenever Possible
Big box stores in particular tend to have a regular rotation of coupons and promotions on offer, but don’t expect to be informed of them at the checkout counter. Instead, look online for coupon codes you can pull up as soon as you reach the cashier or the checkout page if you’re shopping online.
3. Shop Out of Season
Items like clothing and holiday decorations are significantly marked down during the off-season and Garry tells us that there are even some magazines, like Consumer Reports, that print lists of the best times to buy different things, including items you might not think are seasonal.
4. Compare Prices
This one takes a little effort and practice, but once you train yourself to pay attention to prices, you will start naturally observing the difference between stores and scoring the best deals.
5. Ditch Brand Loyalty
The experts agree that your preference for Bounty paper towels is hurting your budget and that switching to house or generic brands for all household supplies can save you a few bucks every time you shop. (It adds up!) Plus, Palfrey says that “usually the quality is identical and the products may even be manufactured in the same facilities as your favorite brands.”
6. Split Bills with Friends
Find a frugal friend (or an aspiring frugal friend) and go in on a Costco or Sam’s Club membership together so you can load up on everything from toilet paper to snacks, suggests Palfrey, adding that “the upfront cost of buying in bulk can be a barrier for frugal shoppers, but splitting the cost of bulk items between friends can save you hundreds of dollars a year.”
7. Create a ‘Wants’ List
Impulse buys often happen when your mind tricks you into thinking you need something that you really just want. For this reason, Cobb recommends creating a ‘wants’ list: “Let your budget be in charge of what you can buy now and what you can buy later. And when you don’t have enough money to buy that new smartphone, put it on a ‘wants list’ in a notes app on your phone. That way, after some time passes, when you do have enough money for that thing you wanted, you’ll remember what it was and where to get it. Or you might realize that you don’t need or want it at all.”
8. Use Cashback Apps
Garry recommends availing yourself of apps like Rakuten or Ibotta that allow you to get a little cash every time you start spending it.
9. Buy Second Hand
Kumar and Garry agree that brand new isn’t always better—and certainly not for your wallet. Head to a thrift store, browse the Facebook Marketplace or join your neighborhood listserv to find furniture, clothing, electronics and other items that folks are selling at steeply discounted prices (or even giving away) simply because they were lightly used. If the item is still in good condition, you won’t even notice the difference.
Frugal Living Entertainment Tips
1. Look for Free or Low-Cost Entertainment
Garry says you might be surprised by how many free entertainment options there are in your community (think: suggested donation days at the museum, free concerts in the park and even block parties in your ‘hood). Keep your ear to the ground, and if nothing appealing is going on, definitely opt for a movie night at home to spare yourself the huge expense of going to the theater.
2. Use Your Local Library
The local library is an entertainment goldmine with books, movies, and music that you can borrow for free, which means you’ll save $4 on an Amazon rental fee simply by pulling out your library card (and maybe wiping the dust off your DVD player).
3. Take Advantage of Student, Senior or Military Discounts
If you fall into any of the above categories, start seeking out entertainment venues that give you a break.
4. Look for Discount Codes and Deals
Garry recommends platforms such as Groupon and LivingSocial for finding entertainment deals that can cut the cost of a fun night out in half.
5. Host Potlucks or Game Nights at Home
Make it a BYOB event or ask everyone to come with a home cooked dish, and you’ll have the fun atmosphere and all the good eats of a restaurant or bar without the hefty bill.
6. Time Your Vacations Wisely
If a vacation is in the cards, Garry recommends you plan ahead so you can take advantage of early bird specials and off-season rates. Cobb seconds the notion, adding that flexibility is key to saving money on travel—and that includes being open to different destinations. (i.e., if you want to go to Budapest, broaden your search to the larger geographical area and you might be able to find dramatically cheaper flights.) After all, the R&R isn’t really worth it if you return home to financial stress.
7. Look for Free Trials of Streaming Services
Hulu has one movie you want to watch, but that doesn’t mean you have to commit to a subscription. Test the waters with a free trial, and if you’re not using the service on the regular, be sure to cancel before the first charge lands.
8. Cancel Subscriptions or Memberships
Specifically, the ones that you don't use frequently enough to justify the cost. Many people are subscribed to every streaming service under the sun, and there’s a lot of redundancy between them. Chances are there’s at least one subscription you can cancel and not miss.
Frugal Living Home Tips
1. Turn Off Lights and Electronics When Not in Use
This advice is as old as, well, electricity—so it should come as no surprise that all the experts say that unplugging devices and turning off lights when you don’t need them is a good habit that will conserve and save you significant money on your electric bill. Cobb also recommends switching to LED light bulbs and looking for appliances with eco-friendly settings for additional savings.
2. Make Your Own Cleaning Products
Commercial cleaning products are expensive and oftentimes unnecessary—namely because “a mixture of vinegar and water can be used to clean most surfaces,” says Garry. (And adding a little baking soda to the mix can work wonders, too.)
3. Use a Programmable Thermostat
Programmable thermostats are a smart way to regulate your home's temperature and save on heating and cooling costs.
4. Keep Your Fridge and Freezer Full
Interestingly enough, Garry tells us that frugal living does not go hand in hand with a sparsely stocked refrigerator. In fact, the expert says that this essential kitchen appliance runs far more efficiently when it is filled to capacity.
5. Do Your Own Repairs
Everything is possible with a can-do attitude and a few YouTube tutorials—so put on your handyman hat and try to tackle a DIY or repair project yourself before enlisting the services of an expensive professional.
6. Plant Trees or Install Shading Devices
Per Garry, a simple landscaping or interior design choice can block direct sunlight and reduce cooling costs in the summer.
7. Use Natural Light
Artificial light will cost you a pretty penny every time, but the sun is free. Open curtains and blinds during the day so you can keep your electric use to a minimum.
8. Take a Second Look at Your Homeowner’s Insurance
“This is one of the easiest and quickest ways to save money, as the competition is fierce between all of these insurance companies. Shop policies for new customer discounts, best rates options and opportunities to bundle (e.g. combining home and auto) that could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year,” says Cobb. (Roger that.)
9. Look into Mortgage Refinancing
If you’ve taken out loans to buy a home or car, Cobb tells us it may make sense to revisit them with a financial professional to see if more attractive terms are available.
Frugal Living Food Tips
1. Plan your meals
Every expert agrees that one of the most effective ways to save money on food is by simply knowing what you want to eat and when you’re going to eat it. Before you put together a grocery list, make a seven-day meal plan so you can buy only the ingredients you need and avoid having produce and other perishable goods go to waste.
2. Stick to Your Grocery List
Put down that wheel of brie! All the experts say you can save a considerable amount of money if you avoid straying from your grocery list at all costs (pun intended). Psst: This will be much easier if you also avoid going to the grocery store on an empty stomach.
3. Buy Non-Perishable Items in Bulk
We covered this shopping tip already, but it applies to food, too. Buy an extra big bag of rice and you’ll save a couple bucks on something that can hang around for quite a while. And again, it never hurts to find a friend to split the perishable stuff with—particularly in instances where even the normal quantity feels like a bulk buy. (Who can use that much dill before it wilts?)
4. Eat Less Meat
Plant-based meals are often less expensive, says Garry—and we have it on good authority that they can be just as tasty and satisfying. (Try these plant-based recipes and see for yourself.)
5. Pick Up Your Takeout
In a perfect world, you would cut costs buy cooking every single meal for yourself…but everyone deserves a break sometimes. Still, Kushner points out that delivery apps are killing you with convenience and that you can save upwards of $5 to $10 per meal simply by ordering from the restaurant directly and taking a stroll to pick up the food yourself. Plus, the restaurateur notes that these apps charge you and the restaurant for the service, so you’d be doing your favorite local eatery a solid, too.
6. Grow Your Own
Per Kumar, “planting a home garden to grow your own fruits and vegetables can save you approximately $20-$30 a week during the growing season,” which translates to as much as $500 a year. No outdoor space? No problem. Grow lights can keep a tomato plant alive indoors during the summer months and even a small herb garden on your windowsill can shave money off your grocery bills.
7. Buy Seasonal Produce
When it comes to produce, Garry recommends sticking to the seasonal kind—namely because it’s typically cheaper than the imported, out-of-season fruits and veggies and far more flavorful, too.
8. Buy Partial Produce
What you see is what you get…or is it? Kushner tells us that some stores, like Whole Foods, will cut a melon in half—and the same goes for that wheel of fancy cheese, too. Not all grocery stores will oblige, but it never hurts to ask and the opportunity to take home only what you can realistically eat (without splurging on the overpriced pre-cut stuff) is definitely worth exploring.
9. Don’t Fear Frozen
The culinary expert is myth-busting when it comes to frozen foods: “This should be old news, but lots of people still think that frozen foods are less tasty than their fresh counterparts. In reality, frozen produce is flash frozen shortly after harvesting, meaning its actually "fresher" than the same produce on supermarket shelves. Frozen foods work great in recipes and can save you a ton of money and time versus prepping the same amount of fresh veggies. This is especially true of tropical fruits like pineapples or passion fruit, which taste amazing from frozen but are tough to find fresh at a reasonable price,” says Kushner.
10. Use Meal Kits
Another pro tip from Kushner that can save you serious money on take-out, delivery and, most importantly, food waste: “A meal kit subscription service can be a frugal way to cook dinners (with leftovers for lunch) without purchasing extra ingredients that will just go to waste. It also teaches you the fundamentals of menu planning and food prep, so you can keep the recipes you like and buy, prep and store the ingredients for quick cooking later.”
Frugal Living Budget & Finance Tips
1. Track Your Spending
Ever get the feeling that you’re hemorrhaging money and have no idea how? (Raises hand.) Well, Garry tells us you can get to the bottom of the bank-breaking mystery and make a change simply by logging your every purchase, sorting the expenditures into categories and identifying areas where you can cut back.
2. Set a Budget (and Stick to It)
All the experts agree that a budget is a useful tool when it comes to good money management. That said, they can be tedious to make and hard to stick to, which is why Cobb recommends availing yourself of a free budgeting app that will do the work for you and give you alerts when you start getting off track.
3. Use Cash Instead of Credit Cards
Garry points out, and personal experience confirms, that it’s way easier to overspend when you’re using a credit card instead of cash for all your purchases. Credit is tempting, but cash is tangible—and no one overlooks a wallet that’s gone from hefty to lightweight in one day.
4. Pay Off High-Interest Debts First, Such as Credit Card Balances
It’s all about priorities, friends. If you’re among the very large portion of the population that has more than one kind of debt, you’ve got to pay it off wisely by tackling it in order of interest rate. (Hint: That’s where you’re getting screwed.)
5. Start a Sinking Fund
What’s a sinking fund, you ask? Cobb explains that a sinking fund is cash you put away not for emergencies, but for “larger expenses that don’t happen every month, but aren’t unexpected.” Think: holiday shopping, vacations, weddings, etc. This budgeting hack allows you to put aside a small amount of money every month so you aren’t relying on credit when the special occasions roll around.
6. Automate Savings
Both Kumar and Garry recommend enrolling in automatic transfers to a savings account. By doing this, you don’t have to wrestle with the decision of how much you want to put in savings every month. Plus, “this not only ensures you save but also reduces the temptation to spend. If you save just $100 each month, that adds up to $1200 per year,” says Kumar.
7. Use a Rewards Credit Card
Garry recommends getting a rewards credit card to use for purchases you would be making anyway (recurring bills, etc.)—just make sure you pay it off in full each month to avoid paying interest.
8. Switch Your Bills
“One of the fastest ways to save a few hundred dollars every year is to find new service providers for your cellphone, internet and television providers,” says Palfrey. Shop around for the best deal or promotion you can find; then, call up your current provider and see if they’ll match the price. Chances are they will in order to avoid losing a customer—but if they say no, it’s time to move onto greener pastures.
9. Don’t Pay to Use Your Money
ATM charges can really add up, which is why Palfrey advises you to plan ahead and “take out one large sum and give yourself an allowance, instead of impulsively using ATMs that hit you with unnecessary fees.” This is particularly important if you’re also following the previous tip to start choosing cash over credit.
10. Automate Your Bill Payments
Missing a bill payment can be frustrating—and expensive, which is why Cobb suggests automating that, too: “Being late on your bills can force you to make high interest payments and it can decrease your overall credit score. Take the hassle out of remembering to pay your bills on time and automate them.”