5 Keys to Spending Less and Living Well

Tonight I’m talking to the Syracuse chapter of the Holistic Moms Network.  I’m honored:  with holistic moms’ passion for whole foods, simple living, consuming less, fresh air, all natural and home-made, I’m sure I’ll go home with a lot more ideas than I came with.  Here is what I’ll bring to the table.

1.  Cherish Your Long-Term Goals

Bend your budget to your values, not your values to your budget.

For example, when my husband and I were just starting out and I got a part-time job teaching English, we decided that we would not depend on my earnings  — at all.  Every penny would go into savings.  We would just make it work.  Why?

We wanted to have children soon, and I wanted the freedom to stay home with them if I wanted.  To avoid developing a lifestyle that was dependent on a double income, we immediately whisked my salary away into savings.  Not only did we gain freedom, but we also started building a nest egg that helped us pursue other dreams, like moving from his native Italy to the U.S. (It should be the other way around, I know!) and my husband going back to school so he could change careers (from public health to psychiatry).

What are you saving for?  Here are some common goals:

  • buying a house
  • retirement
  • sending children to college
  • amassing an emergency fund
  • taking a sabbatical or dream trip

As Frugal Babe notes in a guest post she wrote for me this summer, “Never sacrifice what you want most for what you want right now.”

Tips for keeping your goals in the forefront:

  • Change all your computer passwords to something about your goal, such as “houseinthecountry” or “$10,000by2012”
  • Display images of your goal on your desktop, your car, your fridge (but don’t keep your passwords in view on your desktop)
  • Cheer yourself on with visual displays of your progress, such as coloring in a graph of your savings
  • Set up automatic transfers from checking to savings every month

2.  Track Your Spending

Print my daily expenses chart, use software such as Quicken, a free website like Mint.com, or simply create your own chart with pen and paper. Why?

  • Avoid marital strife
  • Stay accountable to yourself, your goals and your family
  • Discourage non-essential purchases knowing they can’t be brushed under the rug
  • Learn where you spend the most, where you could cut back, where you are doing well
  • See instant results when you are successful in trimming expenses

Once you start, you’ll never say again, “Where does all the money go?”

3.  Be a Planner

Long term goals are important in saving money, but daily planning is essential.

Here are some examples of how this works:


If the refrigerator is full of fresh, perishable veggies, the beans are soaked and the meat is thawed, it’s hard to justify ordering in.  Also:  pack lunches, brew your own coffee, make double batches of recipes and freeze the rest.

Sign up for a farm shares (read: cheap organic produce) in the winter (or earlier) for the next growing season.  For more information on Community-Supported Agriculture, and a participating farm near you, see LocalHarvest.

If you want to plant your own, way before spring arrives research planting times and how to start seeds.


Never, ever leave home without snacks and water.  For longer trips, bring a picnic lunch or dinner.


Frequent flyer tickets with the lowest mileage requirements are snapped up almost a year in advance.  Subvert airline baggage fees by trying these tips.

Classes and education:

Be aware of deadlines for preschool or toddler classes.  Often the most economical (and high-quality) programs are those offered by the city, county or parks and recreation department.  If you think you qualify, ask about tuition reduction or scholarships.


Give yourself the time to make or buy thoughtful gifts.  Keep on hand a bunch of favorite yet inexpensive toys (we love Stomp Rockets) for last-minute presents.   Have your child make a personalized card well in advance.

For getting organized so we can better plan ahead, I love this book by my colleagues at Buttoned Up:  Pretty Neat: Get Organized and Let Go of Perfection.

4.  Join Communities

So many of us are separated from our families by thousands of miles. Participating in groups can not only make us feel less alone, safer and happier, it fosters co-operation, which can save us all a lot of money and make life easier.  Think about a neighborhood association, a PTA, a babysitting co-op, or a carpool group.

Are you a parent?  Then run, don’t walk, to join a group like one of these:

Local online parenting groups:

One of the easiest groups to join are local online communities (or email groups) that connect parents in a certain area.  (Search Yahoo or Google groups for one near you, or see Babble’s Top 12 Listserv Parent Networks.)

I love these groups for a quick and immediate way to exchange with a bunch of people at once — ideas, advice and tips on everything from affordable handymen and kids’ allowances to rummage sales and job openings.

In-person parenting groups:

Whether it’s a casual playgroup born through your pre-natal class or a chapter of a national organization like Holistic Moms Network or MOMS Club International, parenting groups are perfect venues for organizing co-operative efforts such as babysitting co-ops, clothing swaps, or meal deliveries to new moms.  Setting up a “free table” or a book/magazine/dvd table where people can leave or take whatever they want is a simple way to spread good karma and help people declutter or fill their needs.

I love the mission of MOPS International (Mothers of Preschoolers):  No Mother Alone.  At-home parenting can be lonely and isolating.

Plus, by joining groups — such as book clubs, churches, knitting circles, and parenting groups — and by just being a nice friendly person, you create social capital, or mutual goodwill.  You create social capital when you help someone carry a package, attend a neighborhood block party, or bring a plate of cookies to a shut-in.

In Is Social Capital More Valuable than Money?, the people at Get Rich Slowly explain how these everyday kindnesses “compound (just like compound interest) to yield larger returns in the future.”

Get this:

There appears to be a strong relationship between the possession of social capital and better health. ‘As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining’. Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage and affluence as predictors of life happiness.  (Cited from a 1998 book by Bo Rothstein in the definition of social capital at Informal Education.)

5.  Find the Free: Ask, Swap and Do-it-Yourself

Give and Take

Instead of spending the time and effort selling my stuff on places like Craigslist or to other moms on a listserv, I prefer to give it away.   I’m no entrepreneur but, in my experience, the money earned in consignment sales and eBay is not worth the effort. It makes me feel bad to get so little for objects that were well-loved by our family.

In contrast I save time (and money, if time is money) and feel good when I can just bag it up and find someone who is grateful to have it, whether it’s a neighbor or friend, someone in Freecycle, or a charity like Salvation Army.

Maybe because I regularly give, I feel comfortable asking for cast-offs such as hand-me-down clothing.

If you belong to a group (see #4), it’s easy to send an email asking if anyone is ready to pass along their size 3T boys clothing or summer season maternity clothes.  It can be hard to let go, and most people are grateful for the opportunity to see their clothes go to someone who will appreciate them.

Do-it-Yourself or Delegate

You don’t have to be crafty or good in the kitchen to make home-made party supplies and food.  There are lots of other ways you and your family can band together to get jobs done.

Think about how your children can help the economy of family—it teaches them life skills and the value of working together.

When we lived in New York City and could not spare a dime, my two daughters (then aged 5 and 7) helped me clean the house. We used a cleaning wheel to keep it fair and consistent, and every Saturday and Sunday morning we each took our turn to dust the living room or clean the bathroom or vacuum the bedrooms. It’s amazing how well children respond to being treated like grown-ups, and how feeling needed and respected can foster a sense of unity and strength in a family.

Barter, Exchange, Swap

Within a community of people (again, see #4), there is no limit to what you can exchange among others. Here are just some of the ways you can save money, make friends and have fun:

  • Clothing swaps (kids, womens or family clothing; it’s easy to host a clothing swap party)
  • Toy swaps (organized between families like a clothing swap) as suggested by the authors of Pretty Neat: Let Go of Perfection and Get Organized
  • Neighborhood tool shed:  “No one has to invest a lot of money to own a lot of tools that only get used periodically,” says Karen Falter of Cincinnati about communities that swap tools. “The neighbors make a list of who owns what and circulate the list to everyone. They develop a set of rules about what to do if someone breaks or loses a tool and an easy method of going about borrowing tools.  I knew a group that made a group purchase of a snow-blower, decided who stored it, shared costs of maintenance and passed it around when needed.”
  • Dinner exchange (See the New York Times’ Save Time and Stress with a Cooking Co-op)
  • Babysitting swaps, babysitting parties, babysitting co-ops, co-operative preschools

What is your key to saving money and making life better? Let me know in the comments section below.

Thank you to all of you who read and left organizing tips on my post about Pretty Neat: Get Organized and Let Go of Perfection. I loved all of them. The winning tip came from the SimplyStacie blog: you can read more about it here.

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  • Steph April 29, 2013, 11:31 pm

    Amazing! I was searching for something like that for years – and now I found it by accident.
    I think I have to share and translate this to my not-good-in-english friends in Germany. They will love it! :-)

    Thanks a lot!!

    • Amy April 30, 2013, 2:15 pm

      Hi Steph,

      So glad you found us too!


  • Mama Kelly aka Jia January 15, 2011, 4:02 pm

    I cook on the weekend for the week ahead. Having a ‘fridge full of lunches and dinners that just need to be heated up is the best way we’ve found to avoid the pitfall of ordering take in or shopping for overpriced convenience food.

    • Amy January 18, 2011, 9:04 pm

      Hi Jia,

      I love the idea of cooking huge batches of stuff on the weekends, filling the house with warmth and good smells. Then, as you say, during the week, you can still eat healthy and delicious meals, without the work.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Bill Nye January 15, 2011, 1:16 pm

    That’s great but I’m not sure for this year. This year I will try increasing my income. Thank you for the wonderful stories on your blog. I have some advice to suggest though, I have been using this site for tips and I found that I could really increase my income.
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    During the writing of this review, I installed the Swagbucks toolbar on my computer at home. At the completion of this review, I had already gained 410 Swag Bucks! Now, I’ve only got 40 to go before I can get a $5 Amazon gift card!

    Use this referal link to get a bonus of swagbucks for signing up!


    • Amy January 18, 2011, 9:03 pm

      Hi Bill,

      Thanks for explaining what Swagbucks is all about. I’ve heard about it, but haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. Interesting concept.

  • Allison January 14, 2011, 3:04 pm

    Amy- Loved all these ideas. I really want to do more with food co-ops, clothing swaps, and just plain building community. I think when you have lots of people to get together with not only do you spend less on entertainment, there is so much more value there in so many ways! Thanks for sharing.

    • Amy January 18, 2011, 8:27 pm

      Hi Allison,

      I so agree that participating in communities is a win-win-win-win: it’s first about the togetherness, but then there are so many more benefits that you realize over time.

      Thanks so much for writing in!

  • Nealey Levi January 14, 2011, 11:34 am

    Great tips!! I haven’t had children yet, so thanks for the useful information.

    Here are a few of my own money-saving tips:

    1. Eating out a lot? The obvious thing is to tell to cook more and you should. However, if you do go to a restaurant, why not sit at the bar and try the happy hour menu?

    2. Stop shopping! If you really are in need of a new wardrobe, why not dress some oldies up with new accessories instead?

    3. Shopping online? There are tons of coupons out there waiting to be used! Before you check out, open another browser window and do a Google search for savings (i.e. “Staples coupon codes”). RetailMeNot.com is one of many sites that provide thousands of coupon codes.

    More here! http://www.the-organizing-boutique.com/organizing-your-financial-life.html

    • Amy January 18, 2011, 8:25 pm

      Hi Nealey,

      I like your tips! I use RetailMeNot too. I love finding a discount on something I would have bought anyway.

      And I agree with stopping shopping. It’s fun, but really, in so many cases unnecessary when you can find creative solutions.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Kara January 14, 2011, 7:48 am

    Us too! We put away ALL of my salary when we were engaged and some when we got married to put down on a house. It was the best decision ever. We have NO idea what it feels like to live on 2 incomes. Fortunately, I grew up with an extremely frugal father. He would make us save our pennies as kids for things we wanted. Cash was not handed to us, but earned!

    Thanks for you ideas Amy. With baby #4 on the way (yes that is an announcement) we need to cut back even more. Would love for you to speak at MOPS this year…I love your ideas:) Plus we should totally hang out little more. We tend to live similar lives!

    • Amy January 18, 2011, 8:19 pm

      Hi Kara,

      First of all, a huge CONGRATULATIONS on number 4! That is such exciting news.

      I’m impressed that you started socking away your salary even before you got married. I guess it helps, as you say, to have good models, like your father.

      Thanks for writing in, and congratulations again!


  • Jen @ Jen Spends January 13, 2011, 10:32 pm

    Wow, this is a GREAT post! My husband and I had the same mindset when we were both working – we knew that I would be a stay-at-home mom someday, so we didn’t let ourselves get used to “the good life”. And we were making a LOT. We didn’t know it at the time, but if we hadn’t saved all that money, it would have been impossible for me to stay at home. Our little guy ended up costing us a little more than we had expected.

    Unfortunately I’ve let myself veer off track a little bit, but I think that’s because I was being a little bit too extreme in my frugality and made too many changes all at once. It has also been a challenge being literally the ONLY person among my friends and family who lives a frugal lifestyle. Hearing about them going shopping or out to dinner all the time makes me long for that too. I need to work on my resolve. Thank goodness for like-minded people on the internet!

    • Amy January 18, 2011, 8:16 pm

      Hi Jen,

      Wow, I’m impressed that you lived so frugally even while making a great income. Now that takes discipline!

      Interesting that you felt the only one among your friends who was trying to save money. I often feel that way, but I assumed it was just because we were poor.

      I think it’s okay to get off track sometimes — it’s like being on a diet and occasionally having an ice cream sundae. We gotta live!


  • Lillian D January 13, 2011, 9:08 pm

    It was great to meet you tonight! It was really helpful. And thanks so much for posting everything here. Now I can share it with my husband, discuss, and get on the same page.

    • Amy January 18, 2011, 8:13 pm

      Hi Lillian,

      I’m so glad you came tonight!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving me a comment already.

      I hope I’ll see you again soon, but feel free to write anytime.


  • Sarah January 13, 2011, 3:40 pm

    Wow – what great ideas! I love the idea of changing passwords to your financial goal. It can be really tough to stay motivated when your goal is intangible…but if you’re writing it ten times/day just logging into various things – it become so much more so.

    • Amy January 14, 2011, 9:44 am

      I’m glad you like it, Sarah. That’s a huge compliment coming from someone who wrote the book — Pretty Neat — on organizing tips!