The Secret to Frugal Living: Small Course Corrections

A family member recently forwarded me an interesting article, knowing my interest in all things frugal. The article appeared in Yahoo! Finance and was entitled, What My Little Indulgences Really Cost.

My response to most of these types of “ways to save” articles is to immediately find myself disagreeing with the author’s chosen categories to cut. No, not the gym membership! Or, is a latte a day really going to kill your budget?

However, in this case, I thought the author made a few important points in line with my way of thinking, and living, frugally. For instance, the excerpt below is a hot topic in the Frugal household: dining out.

Whether we are debating eating dinner out or staying in, or my daily challenge to brown bag a lunch rather than hit the drive-thru, food expense is a budget buster in our family. I suspect that is true in most families these days thanks to our compressed schedules and ever-rising food inflation.

Here’s what Shauna had to say on the subject of eating out:

With a family of five, I don’t always feel like cooking. On those nights, Taco Bell or McDonald’s comes in handy. Even when I indulged a few times a week, I wasn’t spending boatloads of money. I’d buy the multipack of tacos or chicken nuggets, designed to feed five on a budget. However, shelling out $20 twice a week meant I was spending $2,080 a year. How did I fix it? When I cooked, I would make and freeze a couple of extra meals for those nights when I didn’t feel like cooking.

A perfect example of someone making a relatively small shift in their way of doing things to produce a frugal outcome.

Not all shifts produce giant returns like choosing to stay home rather than eat out. Hanging a load of towels and jeans on a drying rack, or even better, on a clothesline outside, might only save you a couple bucks in energy costs over running the dryer. But it’s the cumulative savings that add up.

Staying in for dinner, line-drying heavy clothes, drinking water instead of soda, and yes, even skipping the daily latte (I prefer to make things like this a once-a-week treat rather than eliminating them altogether), all add up to big savings over time. But do these cost-saving measures come at a cost as well.

The Costs of Being Ultra-Frugal

Declining lunch invitations all the time might cause you to miss opportunities to network with coworkers (read the book Never Eat Alone for more thoughts on the subject).

Habitually skipping a few indulgences may cause you to binge on them at some point and blow more than you’ve saved by being ultra-disciplined. For instance, consider the over-used diet analogy. Those trying to lose weight are often encouraged to have a small piece of cake occasionally, because depriving yourself for too long breeds internal resentment, and at some point you’re defenses will weaken and you’ll down half a cake in one sitting.

Living frugal is about making small course corrections over time that eventually add up.

  • Check out books at the library and only buy those you know you’ll want to refer back to in the future.
  • Skip the weekly trip to the movie theater and instead make it a once-a-month treat for your family.
  • Bring your lunch to work four days a week, then splurge a little and eat out with your team on Fridays.
  • Schedule a “date night” out every couple weeks to give yourselves a break from the cooking/cleaning routine, but consider splitting a meal to reduce costs.
  • Avoid debt, and associated interest, by saving cash for large purchases. You’ll appreciate them more after waiting a few months and debt-free ownership usually leads to more happiness with the product over time.

Those are just a few things our family has been trying to do to move towards a more frugal existence.

What are some small course corrections you’ve been making to live more frugally?


  1. When we do go out to eat: Consider going out for lunch instead of dinner when you want a treat since lunch menus often have smaller, more reasonable portions at better prices. Order water. Soft drink can easily cost $2.50 each. Multiply that by 4 and we have saved $10 off our total bill just by skipping sodas and teas. Have the kids share a meal and share food with them from our own meals.

    We make up small packs of snack mix on our own and put it in bags to grab when we are going to be out of the house for a while. My girls (4 and 5) think its fun to assemble the bags and they are easy to grab on the way out the door. We are less likely to need to grab snacks while we are out or stop at a restaurant because the snack will hold us over until we get home.

    Check out your local library for programs that are free or very low cost. Our library have a great summer letter boxing program in conjunction with the local parks that is free fun (other than gas money to get to the park) that we all enjoy.

  2. Trying to take the back way home from work one day a week to stop at the little produce market for my fresh fruits/veggies – at 1/3 to 1/2 the price of the big store on my other route…. Same mileage, just not the route I usually take home as the bank, post office, library, and big store are on the other route.

    I’m doing a “low spend” month on Northwest edible FB page this month – and writing down every discretionary penny spent ( not recurring bills), but including gas and groceries, has shown me that just changing where I buy weekly fruits and veggies will make a big difference in what I spend. Just need to change my route going home from work one day a week 🙂 It’s been a good financial exercise this month!

  3. Since moving to a new community, I have a longer commute to work which is costly with gas. I don’t have an option to car pool or take transit, so I plan my trips instead. The town I work in has most of what I might need. I go for groceries on my lunch hour and put the perishables in the work fridge. This not only saves me gas money – it saves me precious time! We also have a smaller grocery store within 1KM of home but the prices are higher. I will go there for bargins or if I only need a few items rather than driving to the larger chain grocers on my off-work time which is a 15 minute drive. This also helps me avoid temptation of other stores I enjoy and spending unnecessarily.
    My employer was able to get us a discount card for a local drugstore. It has been a big help for savings on household items like bandaids and shampoo etc.

  4. I pack lunch every day and walk to work. My SO and I have also cut out eating out the last couple months in favor of grilling at home. Our date night last week was a picnic with finger foods from home.

  5. I used to use two ply toilet paper. Now I separate the plys and get twice as much use out of one roll. Also, I never buy sandwich bags or storage bags anymore. I use the liners from cereal boxes and newspaper wrappers. I haven’t tried it (yet) but I hear you can rub pine needles under your arms instead of buying deodorant. On those rare occasions that I do go out with my bride and children we take the free ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, napkins at the table – between the four of us we can usually get about a weeks supply.

    • Those packets and napkins re there for you to use at the restaurant. Anything more, especially in quantities large enough to last for a week, is stealing.

      Thanks for driving up the cost for everyone else!

      • I think Andrew was poking fun a bit. I’m willing to bet he doesn’t actually use pine needles under his arms or steal a week’s worth of ketchup packets from restaurants (though I’m sure some people do)

        • Thanks Susan. You’re right, I was just being silly. Lighten up Andrew, it was a joke. If someone were to really do those things I think it’d be categorized as something other than frugal – like maybe mentally deranged.

  6. I stopped making bread at home it really was a false ecconomy for me. it might cost me 30cents in ingredients but the extra 70cents to buy a loaf was definitely worth the time and electricity saving. Not to mention I appreciate the additives they put in so it last longer:)

  7. Not paying someone else to make you food is the big one. I try to make every bill I have to pay the most efficient they can be, insurance, cell, etc. Research local events and visit them is cheap and fun. Shop at Value Village. Always ask yourself if you really something before you buy it. It all adds up! a small hole can sink a big ship

  8. One good way of saving in luxurious items is also to change the rules, especially in stuff like NASCAR racing. If we could just make it a little bit greener then everything would be better.

    –Ri of changerules(dot)net

  9. We love to eat out, it is one of our few indulgences. I would rather eat out than buy a new shirt/shoes, etc. That being said, we can only afford to do it a couple of times a month. I set a budgeted amount for eating out and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

    So when we do go out we have to make it worth it. We don’t frequent the chain restaurant, but rather go for more ethnic food. Ethnic restaurant tend to have lower prices for better prepared fresh food. It typically cost $6-$9 for a dish at the ethnic restaurant vs $12+ in the chain restaurant. Plus a lot of time you can share the dishes, as it also comes with rice/noodles, etc.

    We also try to go for foods we can’t/won’t make at home such as fried foods (fries/chicken wings/calamari/fried chicken/fish&chips, etc.) or dim sum. Those things takes so much time and effort to make, it’s just not worth it.

    I agree with Courtney, we never order drinks unless we have to (@ the place we go to for chicken wings you have to order a drink to get the deal). It’s always just water with lemon please.

  10. Reading this got me thinking a bit about point of references when it comes to frugality. It would seem to me that $40 a week to eat out is actually a frugal budget, but it doesn’t seem to be the case for the author at all!

    I know people who spend $200, or even $400 a week on dining out (not counting on groceries that they still buy).

    I know we are all on the frugal side here since we read this site, but how likely are two working spouses (the norm in America) spending substantially less than $40 each week on dining out on average?

    • Well, at least in my household it’s very likely–we typically spend around $10 on Friday night for Chinese takeout and another dollar (redbox) or three for a movie rental. We made an exception last Friday night and spent about $20 at a locally owned Mexican restaurant. Most weeks we prepare the rest of our meals at home.
      I work at a company that provides an employee meal, and my husband frequently goes home for lunch. If we eat out more than once a week it’s because of some occasion or social event, or we’r on vacation.

    • I think it is VERY likely that they are not spending $40/wk on eating out… I don’t spend $10/month on eating out….

      Why would they spend that kind of money on eating out when they can eat at home for so much less? My whole grocery bill for the WEEK is not $40 including any eating out… by choice 🙂

    • Any pair of working spouses can easily not spend that much. It’s called a stove, oven, and crock-pot. This time of year add the grill. It takes about the same amount of time to cook and eat, or eat and clean, at home as it does to wait for a table, decide what to get, order, wait for food, pay, and drive both ways. Add in a couple of pre-schoolers and the restaurant headache is pretty bad. At home you have their toys. One spouse cooks, the other cleans, the “non-busy” spouse keeps the kids entertained. The leftovers become lunch at work the next day.

      Maybe you are referring to the large amount of planning it takes to do this. Turns out a couple of chicken breasts in a bowl with salad dressing or assorted spices all day flavors up nicely. Add frozen veggies in the microwave and rice in the cooker you have a full meal in 10-20 minutes with little to no planning and minimal work.

      My wife and I about one every week or two weigh the option o fcooking at home versus eating out because we are just exhausted. When taking emotion out and looking at what will really be involved in both instances almost always has us eating at home. Keeping a 2 year old occupied and not disturbing everyone for 1.5 hours in a restaurant is more exhausting than cooking or cleaning dinner. All of this doesn’t even approach the health side of things, just the time and money. Eating at home looks better and better every time we examine it. These days we eat out for a) date night, b) travelling to long for packing lunch, and c) didn’t get groceries bought and literally cannot make anything for dinner. (This includes breakfast, so hasn’t actually happened in months, over a year even.)

      • was looking for the “like” button ! LOL…. agree… eating out would waste soooo much of my time – I just don’t have that kind of time to waste sitting and waiting for food to show up, etc…. at home at least one can be multitasking while cooking – or letting the crock pot cook for you 🙂

  11. For me, I think the biggest “little thing” I do is avoid and delay purchases and/or try to buy used.

    We’ve been talking about getting a bedroom set for at least 5 years and so far I haven’t found a new one that’s worth the money. (a quality set is expensive). I keep hoping that I’ll find my dream set on craigs list far, spending has been avoided. We also do it with clothes, cars, computers, sporting equipment etc. I’d say we wait too long on a lot of it, but I think it does add up over time if you can get an extra 1- 5 years out of an item.

  12. We’ve been trying to cook more at home and also stretch meals to cover two nights. We still slip here and there, but overall, our food budget looks much more manageable. 🙂

  13. If it’s a night that I don’t have something planned for dinner or have time to cook, I don’t think a trip through the drive thru or going to Subway is a bad thing! Just staying out of the grocery store saves me money in the long run. Groceries have become insanely expensive! For an occassional meal, fast food really isn’t expensive and it’s a welcome change of pace.

  14. We made a lot of large and a lot of small changes since our “debt crisis” arised. One other thing that I have been doing differently is making my coffee in the morning and bringing it to work in a thermos. I used to purchase two coffees each day at $1 each. I also enjoy a Diet Coke in the afternoon, which I now purchase at the store in 24 oz 6 packs for $3.50 (at Walmart). this is a $5.50 savings vs purchasing them from a vending machine (at $1.50 each)!

    These little savings add up. Monthly savings:

    $18.33 on Diet Coke
    $24.00 on Coffee (and mine is better!)

    So just with those two easy changes, we are saving at least $42.33 per month!

    -John @

  15. Some good advice. I’ve recently signed up for online banking and didn’t realise how much I was wasting on small debit card purchases. Things like buying a sandwiches or coffee at work really add up! I’ll be moving to packed lunches four times a week now I think with a treat on a Friday as you advise!

  16. Since food seems to be a major part of our budget, I always shop frugally. Rarely go to the store without a list and then stick to the list. Almost everything I buy is either on sale or I have a coupon….my biggest thrill is when it is both. I go to the clearance section at the meat section and check what is there. Usually look for something with at least a day or two left on expiration date. We either use immediately or freeze it. So basically we eat what is on sale that week or put it in the freezer to enjoy later. Often the clearance section is half off what was on sale previously since they didn’t sell what was anticipated when they had the sale on a particular meat.

    We rarely eat out. Frankly, I can grill a steak or prepare meals that are much tastier than if we went to a restaurant. Since we eat out rarely, I don’t get worked up about spending $ at a restaurant since it is something we rarely indulge in. Having said that, I tend to order water to drink. My wife will have a glass of wine and I know the markup is huge, but what the heck, a little indulgence won’t kill our budget. After all, the wine we drink at home was something we bought on sale so to me it evens out. I will buy Groupon certificates if it is a restaurant we enjoy or something new we would like to try. I like eating for 50% off the list price. In ordering, I make sure we don’t get carried away and spend alot more than the benefit we are getting from the certificate.

  17. Cost Conscious Dad said pretty much exactly what I was going to say. I love getting the deal on the “almost” expired meats and freeze them. I do menu planning around what is on sale that week and we are chosing vegetarian for at least 2 meals a day most days. STILL our food budget is very very high, with 2 growing boys and a hard working husband we have to eat well to stay healthy and that kind of volume is expensive no matter how many meals I cook at home.

    It actually frives me nuts how fast food can be less money to fill everyone up than real food… but I’m not going down that road…. that’s a whole other rant.

  18. Great post! Brown bagging remains a challenge for me, but I’m working on it! In a recent article, I advocate paying extra for quality ingredients to cook at home, as it’s an investment in your family’s health. What do you think?

    Elizabeth S.