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How to wisely choose frugal activities

A few months ago, I gave a talk to a group of mothers about frugality, and since mothers of small children are usually a bit short on time (!), I focused a big portion of my talk on how to save money without spending a bunch of time.

Since we were just talking about the time/money, work/save issue here last week, I thought it might be helpful to type up the basics of what I shared with that group.

If you’ve hung out in the frugal blogosphere for long, you know that there are somewhere around eleventy billion things that you could do to save money.

You can sew your own clothes, keep chickens, wash your laundry in cold water, line dry your clothes, live in a tiny house, walk everywhere, maintain a garden, quit eating meat, preserve produce, make homemade yogurt, bread, crackers, cheese, granola bars, buy everything second-hand, and on and on and on.

It’s a little overwhelming, particularly to people who are new to this whole frugal living thing.

So, to help you narrow things down a bit, I think there are three main criteria you should use to evaluate the usefulness of a particular frugal practice, especially if you’re feeling short on time.

( homemade deep dish pizza)

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the way this plays out in your life will be different from the way it plays out in my life or your friend’s life or the life of a really fabulous blogger that you follow.

Ok! Here are the three things, all of which start with the letter E.

A frugal activity should ideally be

  • Effective
  • Efficient
  • Enjoyable

Since the meaning of those is maybe not entirely intuitive, we’ll look at each one briefly.


This means that the frugal activities you pursue should do a good job of stopping your particular budget leaks. Obviously, this will vary from household to household, so you need to get an idea of where your money is going so that you can identify the areas that need cutting.

For instance, unless you’re eating dozens of eggs every week, keeping chickens isn’t going to save you thousands of dollars a year. And if you don’t eat a lot of bread, you probably shouldn’t invest time into learning how to make your own.

On the other hand, if you discover that you’re spending thousands of dollars every year on fast food, it would be prudent to invest time into trimming that back.

In a nutshell, find your biggest money leaks and work on patching those.


An efficient frugal activity nets you a significant savings with a small time investment and the fact of the matter is that some frugal activities aren’t terribly efficient.

Collecting bread crumbs from your cutting board for use in future recipes comes to mind (breads crumbs just don’t cost that much!), as does making a hammock from six-pack rings (a reader idea from the Tightwad Gazette).

For a more realistic example, consider some of the refashioning I’ve done, like the fish dress I made for Zoe.

The materials cost very little (less than $2, I think?) and I had a lot of fun making it for her, but I definitely could have come out ahead time and money-wise if I’d just bought her a dress on clearance or at a thrift store.

If you’re short on time, you’ll want to find strategies that can save you time AND money. For instance, planning a menu saves me lots of money (I buy only what I need and having a plan makes me more likely to cook and less likely to get takeout). Freezer/batch cooking can also save time and money.

In addition, there are some frugal activities that involve simply going without things/activities…reducing the number of extra-curricular activities your children are involved in or shopping less and living with a smaller wardrobe both can save you time and money.


I saved this for last because I think it’s really key. If you want to make frugal living a habit, it’s important for you to choose frugal activities that, at the very least, you don’t absolutely despise.

For example, if you’d rather stick sharp forks in your eyeballs than shop at a thrift store, that’s probably not a frugal strategy you should choose. Even if you do manage to get started with it, the odds of you continuing aren’t too great.

As I mentioned at the beginning, there are myriad ways to save money, so odds are good that you can find something that you sort of enjoy doing.

For me, this means that I shop at thrift stores, but I don’t hang up all of my laundry.

It means that I make yogurt and bread from scratch, but I keep my heat set at 70 ° F in the wintertime (the FG family doesn’t handle cold temperatures very well!)

Of course, there are some frugal things I do even though I don’t particularly enjoy them….I don’t especially like menu-planning, and I definitely get tired of cooking meals. But those two things save us so much money, I can usually scrape up the motivation to carry on.


What do you think? How do you seasoned frugal people decide what you’re willing to do to save money and what you’re not willing to do?


Today’s 365 post: old

Joshua’s 365 post: Dogwood

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Sunday 29th of April 2012

I keep my heat set at 70° F in the wintertime (the FG family doesn't handle cold temperatures very well!)

Yay, I'm glad I'm not the only one! (Well, colder than that lately, but we got a wood-burning stove to supplement).

I'd rather not eat at a restaurant all winter than be cold. I have arthritis in both hands and both hips - the cold is painful. So our house stays warm all winter, and we cut corners in other manners.


Friday 27th of April 2012

Your article is a great way of thinking about frugality and you are totally right about doing things that you enjoy and that actually have a return on your investment.

My favorite frugal activity is using a clothes drying rack for air drying our laundry. I find that it fits the three E's very well.


Monday 23rd of April 2012

What a nice blog! I like CondoBlues comment about the 80/20 rule--we rarely eat out, I pack lunches, I shop at Aldi's . . . but thrift stores just aren't for me so I clearance shop for clothing. I live close to the local shopping area so I can do this easily (it DOES require self-control not to purchase regular-priced items) and have come away with $2 shorts and $12 winter coats for my kids (ages 8 & 6). I still receive hand-me-downs for my 6 year old which are in good condition and I am very grateful for that (we got more hand-me-downs when the kids were younger). I think the whole trick to living frugally is to know what you value and to use your money accordingly . . . you know . . . the whole "where your treasure is, your heart will be" concept . . . and it's different for everyone . . .


Sunday 22nd of April 2012

I'm not a seasoned frugal person but when making a decision on something to save money I ask myself if it's something that's really going to bother me. I don't mind switching to a cheaper phone plan without all the bells and whistles on my cell phone but there's no way I'll give up cable. My boyfriend and I get a lot of pleasure out of watching t.v. and movies together as well as sports. As far as frugal activities - cooking my own meals and packing a lunch versus eating out every day, every meal, is saving me a lot of money and it really doesn't take that long to do!

P @

Saturday 21st of April 2012

For me, menu planing (even roughly) for the week and the result of bringing my lunch to work and trying to shop second-hand as far as possible (whether it be a thrift store or in the classifieds) has made a big difference. I was recently very inspired by a frugal blogger who had made the commitment not to buy anything for 100 days in 2012!

I think it's a mind-set that requires training, especially if you're a person who naturally has the urge to spend everything as soon as you have it (like me!) I started with something as simple as ordering tea instead of a super-fancy-three-named coffee masterpiece more often when I'm meeting someone in a café :)

I'm not great at baking, but again, I think it's a case of discipline and practice :) Like everything else: baby steps!

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