I am cheap, y’all. You may not be able to tell because I look pretty put together (clothes all bought on sale or thrifted) and travel a decent amount (credit card miles, baby), but I pore over every dollar that leaves my bank account.
Thriving on a budget is in my genes. My mom used to take my brother and me to thrift stores and yard sales as kids. I learned from a very young age that I could get five old Barbies for the price of one new one. A little soap and water to wipe them down and VOILÁ! I had my own Barbie commune.
As I got older and had my own money, this instinct to save whenever possible stuck with me. My parents have always been really supportive, but I never had a credit card paid for by mom or dad. So I learned to value my hard-earned cash.
I really became a budget ninja while living in Argentina in my early 20s. It was the first place I had ever lived alone and fully supported myself. I lived in a giant city and made a (very) modest income. I realized pretty quickly that I would have to be creative to make it to the end of each month. Fancy dinners and taxis were out of the question, and I didn’t even buy a bottle of water on the street if I could avoid it. At one point, to save money on laundry, I was washing everything, including sheets and towels, by hand. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. I still found lots of ways to have fun that were free or cheap, like going to the park, or cooking with friends at home.
My experience in Argentina became my baseline. I discovered that I could spend very little and still be happy, and this perspective has stayed with me over the years, even as my salary has increased. (Plus, if I’m being honest, I can be a little uptight, and pinching pennies is just a part of my personality.)
While I’m not a personal finance expert, I thought I’d share a few tricks of the trade.
1. Ask for discounts. If you’re part of certain groups (Students! Teachers! Veterans!), you’re entitled to discounts at a ton of places. If I’m at a store or using a service I’ve never tried before, I rattle off my list (AAA insurance member, former state employee, etc.) to see if anything sticks.
Another tactic is simply asking for a discount because you want one. I’m not kidding — if you straight up ask people to give you a discount, sometimes they will. This tactic especially pays off (pun intended) for recurring expenses like rent, cable, cell phone, etc. Call up your provider, tell them you want a discount and see what happens. I call my internet provider once a year and I’m almost always able to lower my bill. Just today I noticed a bank fee I wasn’t pleased with, so I called the bank and asked them to waive it. They did.
2. Make credit cards work for you. Credit cards don’t work for everyone, but if you want one, do some research on the perks before you commit. I have an airline credit card that I love because I earn miles when I use it. The Points Guy is a great resource for researching this type of credit card. Other people like cards that give them cash back, which is cool, too. If you’re going to be spending money anyway, you might as well get something in return.
3. Make spending money on non-necessities special. If I’m buying something I don’t need, I make sure I really love it. For example, I don’t go out to eat much. I like to cook, and when I was a kid eating out was a special occasion. I still think of it that way. If I’m going to eat out, I want it to be delicious, not mediocre. Otherwise, I’m fine eating at home. If you think of things like eating out, buying a coffee or getting your nails done as special treats instead of daily necessities, you might even enjoy them more. And all the while you’ll be stowing away precious green.
4. Do free stuff whenever you can. Look for free ways to do stuff you like. For example, I’m a big reader, and I get almost all the books I read from the library. If I’m being honest, I don’t usually read books more than once, and free stuff is the best. I also mostly work out at home, so I save a bunch by not having a gym membership.
5. Invest in a few nice things vs. lots of cheap things. Confession: I’m not sure this one actually saves you money. You might end up spending about the same amount. But a few years ago, I was super inspired by this blog about a young woman’s quest to build a capsule wardrobe of 37 pieces. Around the same time, I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, and my foray into wannabe minimalism began. I purged a bunch of crap that didn’t, in Kondo’s words, “spark joy.” Now I love almost all the items I own — not because they’re super fancy, but because I thought really carefully about each one.
6. Save money at the beginning of each month, not the end. My attitude toward my savings account used to be, “I’ll just see what’s left over at the end of the month and put that in savings.” A few years ago, I started depositing money into my savings account at the beginning of each month (when I get paid), and watched my savings grow much faster than before. Choosing to save at the beginning of the month made me adjust my spending to support my saving, not the other way around.
7. Try to never pay full price. Online sales (many big retailers offer them every few weeks), eBay, craigslist and coupon codes are your friends. I often scan all of these sites for the item or brand I’m looking for before buying it to make sure I’m not missing a good deal.
I save thousands of dollars a year by doing this stuff, but I know that the cheaper option is sometimes more time-consuming. Reserving library books online, picking them up and returning them before the due date requires more time and energy than clicking “purchase” on Amazon. It’s all a matter of what’s valuable to you. If you love buying and owning books, by all means, do that. I encourage you to think about how much the more expensive alternative will cost you over time, and then whether you would be as content with the cheaper option. Regardless of what you choose, simply raising your awareness about what you spend is a great step in the right direction.
Author’s note: The original title of this article was “Tales of a cheap-ass woman,” but I changed “-ass” so as not to appropriate African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). I’m sorry.