17 Ways to Save Money and Feel Good About It

Being frugal, to me, is not just about finding what’s cheap.  And it’s also not about sacrificing my happiness in an all-out pursuit of a fat bank account.

Of course, spending less comes out of necessity for our family  — my husband wanted to change careers and is still in medical training, and I choose to take care of my children full-time.  But I’ve been happily surprised to realize all the ways we gain, even while we cut back.  This bright side of being parsimonious is what I like to write about at Frugal Mama.

Sometimes what we gain from keeping a tight budget is a new skill, a stronger family or network of friends, a simplified life, or a sense of satisfaction.  And in more cases than not, an extra benefit of spending less is that we end up polluting less and wasting less.

So when I was asked to co-host an online talk last week on The Motherhood about Saving Money While Living Green, I knew there was a lot of material to mine.

Also organized by Discovery and led by Annabelle Gurwitch of Planet Green’s Wa$ted!, the talk was co-hosted by an impressive line-up of women who run these dynamic websites:

The text-based chat galloped along at a lively pace and, while you can read the transcript, I felt it was worth trying to condense the conversation into bite-sized pieces.

In a few words, here is the wisdom of many:

1.  School supplies: Instead of going out to buy pencils and notebooks, use up what you have. If you don’t find all you need “shopping” from home, try Freecycle.

2.  Backpacks & lunch boxes: Cheap of-the-moment backpacks usually need to be replaced every school year.  Why not buy a long-lasting quality one like those from Dante Beatrix, EcoGear, Columbia, or REI?  Same goes for lunch bags.  Try Goodbyn, Laptop Lunches or Mimi the Sardine.

3.  Meat: Eat 20% less meat (much more expensive than vegetables, grains and legumes) and reduce your impact on the environment as much as you would by switching to a hybrid car.  (Livestock production creates almost 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases.)  Even making one meal a week meat-free (Meat-Free Monday, for example) can save a family hundreds of dollars a year.

4.  Produce: Buy in-season fruits and vegetables.  (See this peak season map at Epicurious.com.)  They cost less, taste better and can reduce the environmental impact of long-distance shipping.   An added plus?  When produce is in peak season, organic sometimes costs the same as conventional.

5.  Cleansers: Clean almost everything in your house with vinegar, water and baking soda. (Fill a spray bottle with 1 part white vinegar and 1 part water and use it as you would Windex or Clorox cleaner.)

6.  Exchanging: Try swapping with friends and neighbors everything from clothes to dinners to babysitting. It’s amazing how our communities can grow and our quality of life can improve when we help each other out.   Also think of borrowing and lending large, infrequently-used items like tools, garden equipment, car luggage carriers, or inflatable mattresses.  A neighborhood listserv is a huge help in connecting people.  If yours doesn’t have one, start one at Google Groups or Yahoo Groups.

7.  Baby food: Make your own with as little equipment as a saucepan and a food processor or food mill, or simply by oven-roasting in foil.  When your baby is ready, simply grind up a portion of what you’re making for dinner.  Or prolong breastfeeding to the point where you can just cut up food into small pieces or smash with a fork. For a simple cookbook, try Cooking with Baby.

8.  Transportation: Ditch the car a few days a week and use public transportation. The average family can save almost $10,000 a year by using public transportation. Or try car sharing service ZipCar for in-town trips and GoLoco for longer trips. Carpooling is another great way to build community and save gas.

9.  Books: If you like to keep your books instead of borrowing from the library, try online book swapping services like Papberback Swap or Book Mooch.   If you can’t find a book you want, check it out from the library first to make sure you really want to buy it.

10.  Paper towels: Annabelle says, “On Wa$ted, I found a heretofore undiagnosed addiction in America: PTA, paper towel addiction. Break the habit, save hundreds of dollars a year!” Use sponges, rags or kitchen towels instead.  Try placing a basket of cloth where you would normally keep paper towels.

11.  Napkins: Cloth napkins are so much more pleasing, besides being more effective.  Use them for a few days then toss them in the laundry.  Favor darker colors so you don’t worry about spot cleaning.  Try them in your child’s lunchbox, along with real silverware and re-usable containers.

12.  Party favors: Make edibles to stuff your goody bags and you win three times:  get off the treadmill of buying single-use items, model behavior for your children, and save money all at once.

13.  Seeds: Plant a family garden for super-cheap organic food and teachable moments.  Try just one vegetable first, like tomatoes, which can be incredibly rewarding for your tastebuds and your wallet.  Or place pots of herbs on the porch in reach of the kitchen.

14.  Large appliances: When purchasing washers, dryers, refrigerators and dishwashers, choose machines with an Energy Star star rating.  Not only do they use less water and energy, they’ll pay you back big time in reduced energy costs.

15.  Beauty: Simplify your morning routine and cut back on the number of personal care products you use (like shower gel and body wash), which usually contain parabens and sulfates that wash down the drain, get into ground water, and damage fish, frogs and other aquatic wildlife.

16.  Home energy use: Save money by using programmable thermostats, keeping the shades drawn, lowering the temperature on hot water heaters, turning off the tap, and using fans instead of air conditioning.

17.  Dinnertime: Eat meals together. Not only do home-cooked meals cost less and taste better, but important bonding happens over the dinner table.  Sharing meals is even thought to be a mood-lifter.

What are some ways that you save money and feel good about it?

Congratulations to Vicki Pennock who won last week’s family pass to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Photo credits: flowers, transportationtomatoes.

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  • entertainer August 25, 2010, 6:19 am

    You have presented great ideas. The article is splendid.

  • Flo Citterbart July 28, 2010, 8:10 am

    Amy, good luck to you and your family in your new house. This is a positive move and to have Enrico support you is the best. Hurray for the parents who come out fighting to help out. Sounds like you are finally on your way to being suburb parents. Not a bad thing after all!

  • Ila July 25, 2010, 11:50 pm

    Please be careful sending real silverware to school with your children. With the “zero tolerance” on weapons in schools these days, its best to know what your school considers a weapon. I head on the news not too long ago of a child in K being in trouble for having a fork in his lunch.

    I’m all for being as green as possible, and think the trauma for the child was an example of a school going way overboard, but a simple call to the school could have avoided the issue altogether.

    • Amy August 27, 2010, 10:50 am

      Hi Ila,

      Thanks for pointing out this possible barrier to bringing real utensils. It’s worth checking the school policy first.


  • Stimey July 21, 2010, 11:38 pm

    I love the vinegar cleaner idea. What a great way to be green AND save money! It was a great conversation and wonderful to be part of it with you!

  • Diane MacEachern July 21, 2010, 9:40 am

    Thanks for a great summary of our conversation! Here’s another great money saver: keep track of the food in your refrigerator. The USDA says Americans waste 30% of the food they buy because they let it spoil or expire. So you could afford 30% more food just by putting labels on things and keeping leftovers in the front of the fridge, not the back.

  • doreen July 21, 2010, 9:34 am

    I especially like the idea of swapping stuff. I actually use to do it a lot with my neighbors and friends. It’s alsways nice to help each other out. The only problem is that sometimes, they also do not have the things I need. I recently searched the web for more ideas and stumbled over a bartering page calles http://www.barterquest.com. It is a great site to swap everything with people all over the place. You can even search for people in you region if you feel uncomfortable with shipping. It’s great because you can post what you want HAVE and want to barter with and what you WANT. i alreday posted many things like old kids clothes and school textbooks we don’t need anymore. Also I have a little apartment that I wanted to rent out. i can even barter with it on that page. I think it is a great idea and will definitely contribute to the community!

    • Amy July 22, 2010, 9:16 pm

      Doreen — Thanks so much for adding the great info and website on bartering. It’s such an old-fashioned yet super-effective way to save money and make connections.

      Stimey and Diane — Great to hear from you. Thanks for checking in!