Budgeting, like dieting, has very simple fundamentals. Dollars (or calories) in, minus dollars (or calories) out.
I believe that budgeting is not a math problem, but rather a behavior problem (also like dieting). No one is in debt because they don’t know how to add or subtract. They’re in debt because they haven’t yet found a system they can live with, to spend less than they earn.
I can’t inject you with discipline. But I can give you some fun, fresh, funky ideas to help you shave money (in one case literally) from your budget.
I asked around the web for weird savings tips, from both personal finance experts and from laypeople alike. Here’s what bubbled to the surface!
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14 Unusual But Possibly Brilliant Savings Tactics
1. Lower your housing costs.
Housing is the most expensive, well, expense for most of us. So it’s a natural place to start, since it has the most potential for savings.
Amber Masters, the blogger behind DeeplyinDebt.com, has $650,000 of debt to pay down. Her answer to housing? “My husband and I live in the Midwest, where the cost of living is cheap even though we’d prefer to live literally anywhere else. It saves us THOUSANDS each month.”
Not willing to move to the hinterland? Try bringing on a housemate or two. I did this when I bought my first home, and my roommate not only paid 75% of my mortgage, but she became a lifelong friend.
My partner Deni Supplee did this as well, renting out the master bedroom in her rowhouse and moving her bed into a closet in the hallway. Her housemate helped her make her rent payments, which she’d been struggling to afford as a single mother. She even helped out with watching Deni’s kids when Deni was pulled in one too many directions.
Ilene Davis (no relation), author of Wealthy by Choice: Choosing Your Way to a Wealthier Future, takes it one step further. “One idea I loved was a couple of single mothers who each had two children. The children shared a room, and each mother had her own. They worked different hours so they could share ‘babysitting’ duties with each other.”
Want to take it even further? Janet Alvarez from Wise Bread cites intentional community living, “where participants grow their own food, make their own clothes, and share housing.”
2. Or cut your housing costs entirely.
Why lower your housing bills when you can cut them out entirely?
Not weird or extreme enough for you? Consider the “un-housing” movement. Janet from Wise Bread summarizes it succinctly: “It’s where individuals will crash with friends, camp outdoors, or otherwise seek free shelter.”
It sounds curiously similar to being a transient to me.
3. Live for free while traveling
Want to live for free, anywhere in the world?
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, author of How to Become a Housesitter: Insider Tips from the HouseSit Diva, explains how she does it: “I rent out my home for income and travel full-time as a housesitter, where I live at no cost in someone’s home and care for their pets while they vacation.
“I’ve housesat in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Gibraltar, throughout Africa, Hanoi, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur—even Ya’an, a village in China where I was the only non-Asian face I saw for a week!”
A woman after my own heart, Kelly is also a landlord, renting out her home while she travels. “My rental income has allowed me financial independence to start a new career as a writer and editor.”
Cori Carl of RemoteSwap.club does the same. “My apartment in Toronto rents for C$1,750. Now my only ‘housing costs’ are getting from one city to another and thank-you gifts for my hosts.
“It’s saved me thousands of dollars—which I can put toward a down payment for my next investment property.”
In fact, Cori uses the opportunity to scope out new markets for real estate investing. “I’m looking for a more affordable market to invest in, so I’m also taking housesit positions in cities that might fit my personal criteria.”
You can also travel and stay for free by volunteering—there are even services that pair you with volunteer travel opportunities.
4. Live in your investment.
Most people’s homes are more liability than asset. Equity in your home looks nice on paper, but it does you no good unless you have a concrete plan for converting equity to cash.
Carl, better known as Mr. 1500 from 1500 Days, likes doing live-in flips.
“If you must own a house, buy the worst one in the best neighborhood you can afford and fix it up!
“Look for homes that need cosmetic work like paint, cabinets, and tile (don’t mess with cracked foundations). When you go to sell your home, you’ll make money from all of the forced equity you’ve created.
“And best of all, if you’ve lived there for two years, your gains are probably tax-free.”
5. Ditch the car & bike to work.
Amber Masters does this, even “living in the Midwest where it’s somewhat socially not acceptable. But it saves us over $100 each month!”
Actually, $100/month is a conservative estimate. The average cost of car ownership is $706/month according to NerdWallet. That’s $8,469 every year!
And that says nothing of the health benefits. Maybe you wouldn’t even need that pricey gym membership if you biked to and from work every day!
My stepfather bikes 14 miles to work. He’s 60 years old and in exceptional shape.
You’d also prevent several tons of carbon emissions. And reduce local traffic congestion.
Win, win, win, win.
6. Don’t assume you should buy.
Even in the era of “the sharing economy,” most of us unthinkingly just buy everything we need or want.
Who says you need to buy that bike to bike to work? Lori Cheeks, an entrepreneur who spent several lean years when she was launching her dating service Cheekd, bikes around New York City—without owning a bike. “I use the shared bike service, Citi Bike, which costs $149/year, rather than paying for the subway or cabs.”
In a city where every square foot of housing is precious, not having to store a bike is a serious perk.
The same principle applies to cars. We all need wheels every once in a while, but if you don’t need to drive every day, why not consider using Uber or ZipCar?
The list goes on. Dresses. Formalwear. Jewelry. Toilet paper.
(OK, so you can’t rent everything—just making sure you were paying attention!)
7. Automate savings—and remove discipline from the equation.
Nate Masterson, Finance Manager for Maple Holistics, recommends the Acorns app. “Acorns essentially helps you turn your pocket change into substantial sums by automatically investing in safe exchange-traded funds. It monitors your debit and credit charges, rounds them up to the nearest dollar, and invests the change into convenient, pre-arranged portfolios. This simple and straightforward investing tool is perfect for beginners and people who don’t have a substantial income but want to start saving for the future.”
Another option that I’ve advocated before is setting up automated transfers to your savings account, on the same day you get paid.
Of course, you still need to avoid raiding the savings account. Eliza Cross, who blogs at Happy Simple Living, found that discipline was still a problem. “I opened an ‘inconvenient savings account’ at a credit union a good distance away from my main bank, where I have to drive and speak to a teller in person to withdraw the money. By making it harder to access the money, my account has finally had a chance to really grow.”
But you don’t need tech to help you automate your savings. Mark Cianciulli, a Realtor, attorney and CPA with the CREM Group in Long Beach, writes a physical check to his sister-in-law every month. She deposits it in a savings account for them, keeping it out of sight and mind. “We have saved over $50,000 in just over three years. To be honest, I completely forget it’s there sometimes because all I look at is our checking accounts.”
8. Charge yourself for behavior you want to curb.
Len Penzo, the quirky personal finance writer at LenPenzo.com, shares a tip his parents have used for years: “My Mom and Dad keep a jar by their washer and dryer and charge themselves $1 for every load of clothes that goes into the machines.
“Believe it or not, they typically save $250 to $400 per year doing this!”
Perhaps it even leads to less laundry, less water and electricity usage, and longer lifespans for their clothes.
What if you take it one step further and charge yourself for behavior your want to curb? Maybe that means charging yourself each time you eat dessert, or for each cigarette or each drink.
Or what if you charged yourself each time you eat out at a restaurant?
Related: Life Hacking in Pursuit of Financial Freedom: How I Add $1,500+/Mo to My Income
9. Rethink eating out.
Meals out add up. Quickly.
Most of us eat 21 meals each week. The more of those meals you can prepare yourself, the less money you’ll spend on food. Period.
That doesn’t mean you have to give up all food experiences outside your own kitchen. Marilyn Anderson, author of How to Live Like a MILLIONAIRE When You’re a Million Short, suggests happy hour instead of full dinners.
“Many expensive restaurants have super deals on food at happy hour or late happy hour. For instance, instead of paying $150-200 for a meal for two at Ruth’s Chris or Fleming’s—where an a la carte steak costs $40-50—go to their happy hours, where you can get a steak sandwich, hamburger with fries, or lobster roll, or steak flatbread for $8-9, so a meal for two would be about $20-30 dollars instead.”
And who says you need to eat the entire meal out? Ilene Davis proposes “Instead of going out to dinner, go out for dessert and coffee. You still have a night out, but for much less cost.”
For that matter, you could go out for an appetizer or light bite, perhaps at happy hour. My wife Katie and I find that sharing a couple appetizers at happy hour, often for $4-5 apiece, fill us up quite nicely.
10. Rethink eating in.
I’ve managed to replace nearly all of my lunch meals with leftovers. Katie and I simply prepare enough food at dinner each night to save plenty for our lunches the next day.
Nor do leftovers have to stop with next-day lunches. Ilene Davis goes on to outline a fun meal prep idea: the weekly crockpot party.
“Get four other couples or individuals who want to build wealth. Weekly, each makes a five-quart meal in crockpot. Divide into five one-quart containers. Get together and exchange. Each cooks one meal but walks away with five different ones!”
Pretty clever, right?
And if you really want to get weird, Janet from Wise Bread explained that in addition to a free housing movement, there’s also a free food movement. “I’ve heard of people relying solely on food banks, church free breakfasts, soup kitchens, etc. for their dietary sustenance.”
Call me old-fashioned, but I can live with frugal spending on groceries and cooking my own food.
11. Rethink entertainment.
I have a not-so-frugal confession to make: I love high-end wines and beers.
It gets worse. I’ve gotten so picky that I distrust most others’ beer and wine selections. (To be fair, I’ve also taken courses and certifications on wine, and for years I brewed my own beer. Which probably just makes me sound like more of a jerk, now that I think about it.)
In short, it costs me an arm and a leg to drink the kind of wine or beer that I like, if I pay the full 300% markup prices at restaurants and bars.
So what do I do? I coordinate dinner parties with our friends, where I can bring my own beer and wine, that I buy in bulk at a discount.
Dinner parties can be as casual or as shi-shi as you want them to be. Laid back pot luck? Five-course meal with wine pairings for each course? Your call.
And all of it is far cheaper than entertainment out at bars, clubs, and restaurants.
Or go in a different direction, and host a game night with friends. Or movie nights. We have a monthly cinema club night with another couple who loves movies.
Why spend $50 for four people to go see a movie, when you can rent one at home for a dollar or two? Your couch is probably more comfortable, you can eat a healthier (and cheaper) snack than $7 popcorn drenched in fake butter.
And, of course, you can even enjoy the movie with your favorite wine or beer.
12. Get creative with medical care.
Like most of the above, we’ll start reasonable, then get weirder.
Marilyn Anderson has a no-brainer way to save money: “Check the $4 generic list at your drugstore or go to MyFourDollarDrugList.com; if your medicine isn’t on the $4 generic list, go to GoodRx.com. (It’s free to get a card, and you may get your drugs for even less than with your insurance co-pay.)”
Health insurance and healthcare billing remain incredibly opaque—more so than any other industry I’ve encountered. Brynne Conroy of Femme Frugality has had plenty of experience with family health bills, and says the trick is to challenge them at every turn. “One thing I’ve picked up on from having to deal with these bills so often is how frequently illegal billing practices happen, or an insurance company will deny a valid claim.
“Make sure you know what your plan covers, what the ACA dictates plans must cover, and the reason each and every claim is denied. Then, go through the process to appeal those denials, citing the law. It’s a tedious process, to be sure. But it’s one that has saved my family thousands of dollars we didn’t legally owe in 2018 alone.”
Ready to push the boundary a little further?
Marilyn uses dental schools and training programs for her dentistry. “They are well supervised, but you can get your dental work done without spending thousands of dollars.
“Here’s an example: a periodontist was going to charge me $6,000 to do gum surgery. I looked online and found a renowned dental center that trains already-working dentists on a special laser procedure, and they offered to treat peoples’ gums for FREE—because the dentists need patients to work on as they train in the new procedure (which is actually less invasive and less painful than the surgery the periodontist wanted to do).”
The same logic can be used for other medical care… if you dare!
13. Get creative with grooming & personal care.
People spend a shocking amount of money on massages, makeup, manicures, pedicures, hair care, razors… you name it.
When I say shocking, I mean in the thousands per year. A huge dent in your budget, when added together.
How much of it can you do yourself? Lori Cheeks ran the numbers, and she now saves over $2,000/year, simply by doing her own manicures and pedicures.
My wife Katie and I took a couple’s massage class. While we occasionally still indulge in a salon massage, we give each other massages to help loosen knotted muscles.
Marilyn Anderson saves on hair care by being a hair model. “Get your hair done for free by being a hair model (check SalonApprentice.com or Craigslist under beauty, write ‘model’ in the search bar.)
“Hair salons can cost a woman hundreds of dollars every month, for cuts, blow drying, and color, so being a hair model can save them thousands of dollars. (And you don’t need to be young, thin, or gorgeous to be a hair model. You just need one thing: HAIR!)”
Caden Rhoton of DimeDad.com found another place to save: his morning shave. “One of the unusual ways I’ve been able to save money is by switching from shaving with cartridge razors to a double-edge safety razor. Four years ago I made an initial investment of $71.44 to buy the razor, the blades, shaving soap and a brush. Since then have only spent $16.99 on new shaving soap. If you run the numbers, I’ve only spent $1.85 per month on shaving for the past four years. When you compare that to a shaving subscription that delivers blades to your house every month, you’re looking at around $7/month in shaving costs!”
14. Bank smarter.
Natasha Rachel Smith from TopCashBack.com points out just how much money most bank customers lose to fees.
“From overdraft fees, monthly maintenance fees, foreign transaction fees to even a minimum balance fee, you might be paying more in fees than you’re saving.
“Instead open an account with Chime Bank to live a healthier financial life and get ahead by automating your savings. Chime allows consumers to save when they spend by automatically rounding up transactions to the nearest dollar and transferring the round-up from your spending account into your savings account. The more you spend, the more you’ll build your savings.
“Chime also makes it easy to save by transferring 10% of every paycheck directly into your savings account.”
And what about your credit cards? Are they costing you money in fees, or paying you rewards?
Carson Yarbrough of Credit Cards Explained recommends you “choose a rewards credit card that matches your spending habits and then adjust accordingly over the coming months and years. Think of credit card rewards in the same way investors think of getting better results from their investments.”
The Chopping Block Doesn’t Discriminate
Whew! Look at all those ways to save.
If there is one theme that ties all of the above together, it’s simply that every expense can be cut. Nothing is sacred, from housing to transportation to clothing to food to personal care.
Most of us think in terms of “fixed” and “variable” expenses. But the truth is that even “fixed” expenses can be changed at any time—all you need do is ask the question “How can I reduce or eliminate that expense?”
What are your weird or unusual savings tips? What has worked for you? What’s too weird?
Share your ideas and experiences below!