Small Ways to Save Big

Saving money always seems to be associated with sacrificing fun. But this isn’t an article about sacrificing fun. This article shares how small money-saving changes can make your life happier and more fulfilling with extra cash as a byproduct. I know because I’ve lived it.

By Robin Howard

A woman on a bridge with a man looking through binoculars
Birdwatching is a fun, inexpensive hobby, and a good way to get outdoors and stay active. Photo by ForestPath

When the economy tanked in 2009, my husband, along with 8.7 other million Americans, lost his job.

Like most people, our emergency fund wasn’t great. Overnight, we had to figure out how to live on half the income we were accustomed to. Everything from Netflix to the cat’s food was scrutinized as we figured out ways to cut spending drastically.

This may sound familiar to many of you who have had to react to overnight changes in our economy.

At first, my husband and I were panicked by the sudden, extreme restrictions. But a few weeks later, something unexpected began to happen: We found ourselves happier and more content than ever.

It took a year for my husband to find another job. During that time, we changed our lives for the better, forever. We found enough small ways to save that year that we built an emergency fund and took a two-week trip to Italy—all on one income.

Here are a few of the ways we did it.

Go Plastic-Free

The most surprising revelation we had that year was how expensive things in plastic are. We made a list of all food, personal items, and household products that came in plastic and switched to homemade or eco-friendly versions in paper containers. By making this one change, we saved enough that year to fund our Italian vacation.

Our plastic-free overhaul included things like switching jugs of fabric softener for wool dryer balls, shower gel for bar soap, and an entire cabinet of commercial household cleaners for inexpensive castile soap. We made staples, such as peanut butter and salad dressing, from scratch. We bought produce from local farms. If you only make one change to save more money in the next year, going plastic-free is a game-changer.

Pretend You Love to Cook

Cooking at home and avoiding restaurants to save money isn’t new advice, and most of us have been cooking at home more than ever. However, you may be surprised at how much cooking enriches your life and your relationships.

We usually splurged on an expensive meal for birthdays. However, my favorite birthday dinner of all time turned out to be a potluck on a friend’s deck with a big, sloppy homemade cake at the end.

Neither of us loves to cook, but we love what cooking at home did for us. We not only saved thousands of dollars on food that year, but the more we cooked, the more time we spent with each other and our friends.

Though we can afford to go out more often now, we don’t. Our house has become the best restaurant in town.

Eat Plants

We also discovered that if we made more plant-based meals, we spent about half as much at the grocery store. Since we were learning to cook anyway, we learned to make mostly vegetarian recipes, many of which came from my grandmother’s old farm cookbook.

We not only cut our grocery budget in half, but in six months we’d both lost 30 pounds, and our cholesterol and blood pressure values fell to normal ranges. We felt so much better that we never went back.

Find a Free Hobby

Our new financial reality was hardest on the weekends when we were at a loss for how to have fun without spending money.

In a fit of optimism, we became bird-watchers. Neither of us was particularly into birds, but we needed a free activity that would get us out of the house for a few hours.

With a pair of borrowed binoculars and a secondhand bird guide, we set off every Saturday for a park or birding hot spot. We competed to see who could identify the widest variety or the rarest bird.

Eventually, we met other birders, joined in on free bird walks, and developed a new group of interesting friends. Even though we don’t have to bird-watch on weekends anymore, we still do.

Not everybody loves birds, but you might consider taking up an inexpensive hobby such as geocaching, photography, hiking, or dog agility training if you’re trying to save money.

Keep a List of Free Events

Free events added novelty to our simple life, and it helped us expand our horizons. That year, if it was free, we were there— especially if there were snacks. We went to museum exhibits, community yoga classes, concerts, outdoor movies, language lessons, nature lectures, and farmers markets.

When you’re trying to save money, it’s vital you don’t become a hermit.

Free online classes, concerts, and museum tours are all over the place right now. Take advantage of free content and anything you can do for free from a safe distance.

Woman reading a book outside.
Libraries may be closed right now, but they still offer plenty of digital options to keep you busy and entertained. Photo by Antonio Guillem

Use the Library

Libraries are gold mines of free fun and entertainment. If you don’t already have one, get a library card. Sure, you can download or check out free books, audiobooks, and movies, but libraries are also community hubs for cool no-cost events and classes.

The library may be physically closed right now, but you can still download free books and other content.

Reevaluate What Makes You Happy

During our year of saving, we allowed ourselves one holdover from our two-income habits: Taco Tuesdays.

Suddenly, the takeout tacos we’d always taken for granted became our most anticipated indulgence. The funny thing is, we never got that excited about going to an expensive restaurant.

I wish we hadn’t learned the hard way how to live on half of what we made, but by starting with a blank financial slate, we were gradually able to identify the things that genuinely make us happy. It turns out the things that make us happy are relatively simple, like nature walks and tacos. Other things, like travel, are more extravagant.

By reevaluating how we spent money, we also learned where to save and where to splurge.