How to be frugal without cramping your style

Don't let the word "frugal" scare you. Here are some easy ways to cut back without cutting out everything you like.

When you think of what it looks like to live frugally, you might imagine it involves spending your evenings clipping coupons and your weekends at home doing a whole lot of nothing. But you can learn ​how to be frugal (and save money) without revamping your entire lifestyle. True story.

Just ask Vanessa Lumby, co-founder of a frugal living blog, who started to live frugally when she and her husband were trying to pay off their student loans. They had over $25,000 in debt and were able to pay that off in a year by being frugal—for them, that meant driving a car with low insurance costs, eschewing expensive holiday or birthday gifts and forgoing vacations.

Two people enjoying a ride on a scooter.

“Our life is anything but boring,” Lumby says. “Being frugal is not about sitting at home trying to avoid spending money. It’s about deciding what’s important to you in life and choosing to spend less on the things that don’t matter.”

Kendal Perez, a blogger at a frugal shopping site, agrees.

“I think it’s dangerous to associate money with an exciting life,” she says. “There are plenty of experiences worthy of your time that are free or cost very little.”

If you’re looking for tips to living a frugal life, start with the following:

1. Prioritize your pleasure

To live frugally, focus on getting the best ‘return on investment’ or most pleasure for every dollar you spend. Karen Civil, an entrepreneur and media maven, says you can live frugally without sacrificing your priorities by properly budgeting.

“If you set aside a monthly and weekly budget then you can plan to partake in activities that you enjoy, like going out to eat, shopping, etc.,” she says.

The Lumbys, for example, skip eating out at casual restaurants and instead budget for when they want to dine at nicer places.

Prepared meals in mason jars.

“Since we don’t dine out very often,” Lumby says, “I feel more comfortable splurging on the experience.”

Perez likes watching TV with her partner, but rather than pay for cable, they subscribe to Netflix and Amazon Prime. She also knows that, sometimes, the most pleasurable activities come without a price tag.

“Spending the day at the beach with friends and family,” Perez says, “may offer a far better experience than an overpriced restaurant meal.”

A shop window with a large "sale" sign.

2. Look for deals

Most people think that being on a budget requires giving up many of the things they love. Not so. You can learn ​how to be frugal and do what you want—as long as you’re flexible. For the Lumbys, that means planning their social lives around deals.

“This week there might be a good deal at an Italian restaurant we like,” she says, “and next weekend there will be a bowling deal or a free music festival.”

They use various coupon and deals websites for discounts on food and activities and sign up for a local entertainment newsletter. Perez also preaches flexibility as a tip to living a frugal life. She goes to see movies on cheap Tuesdays and brings her own snacks. She also meets friends during happy hour to save on drinks and appetizers.

Ever pay for something and spot a survey on the bottom of your receipt? Instead of tossing that piece of paper or filing it away immediately, Civil recommends completing the survey and signing up for the company’s mobile club.

“You always get free merchandise and food depending on what the establishment is,” Civil says.

3. Plan your vacations strategically

Sometimes you just need to get away from it all. But that doesn’t mean you have to book a rundown motel to stay within your budget. You can live it up on your vacation and live frugally, too. The Lumbys, for example, use credit card rewards to go on trips to places like Thailand and the Caribbean. They often do online research to find free local activities to do while there.

If you’re in a rewards mindset and trying to live frugally on vacation, you can also consider using a rewards checking account to earn cash back on your travel spending. With Discover® Cashback Debit for example, you can earn 1% cash back on up to $3,000 in monthly debit card purchases.1

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​If you’re wondering how to be frugal when flying, Perez has it figured out. She prefers to take airlines that give passengers price adjustments if the flight drops in price, and she likes to spend her vacation time visiting and staying with friends. When she does go to a city where she doesn’t know anyone, she books a hotel downtown. While she might pay a little more for location, she makes it up by saving on transportation costs since she can walk everywhere.

When it comes to planning her vacations, Civil always checks her airline loyalty program of choice to see if she has any ticket discounts available. “I also will plan to travel during certain times of the week because hotels are cheaper depending on what days you are staying,” she says.

4. Buy discounted gift cards

Why not get exactly what you want at your favorite store for a discount? Perez buys discounted gift cards online, and can sometimes score gift cards for up to 20 percent off.

A sales associate at a clothing store (with a "sale" sign displayed) hands a bag of merchandise to a customer.

By figuring out ​how to be frugal ​with gift cards, she’s able to get discounts at places that don’t typically offer sales, like restaurants, and by combining discounted gift cards with sales at other stores, she’s able to save even more.

5. Shop at the right time

As the saying goes, there is a season for everything. The same applies to shopping. While buying fruits and vegetables when they’re in season will help rein in your spending, you could also consider buying other items when they’re more likely to be on sale. Certain websites and organizations track the time of year when certain products are more likely to be discounted. Who knew there was a good month to buy a new TV or get that lawn mower your yard has been desperate for?

One of the ways Lumby learned ​how to be frugal is by shopping for holiday gifts at a time many people may not consider—right after Christmas.

“That’s when stores start marking their prices extremely low,” she says. “Most people don’t know this because the last thing they want to do the day after Christmas is go shopping again.”

“Being frugal is not about sitting at home trying to avoid spending money. It’s about deciding what’s important to you in life and choosing to spend less on the things that don’t matter.”

Vanessa Lumby, co-founder of a frugal living blog

6. Do a regular review

Rather than worrying all the time about how you can cut back on your costs to live frugally, set a schedule to review your expenses regularly. Civil, for example, reviews her finances monthly to see where she might be going over in her budget.

“We try to review our recurring expenses annually and compare costs from other providers to ensure we’re still getting a good deal,” Perez says. “We did this recently with our homeowners insurance and auto insurance policies and ended up saving over $1,300 per year.”

If you own your home, your financial review can be a great time to do some small energy conservation projects that will help you save money on your bills.

“We installed energy saving light bulbs, low flow water faucets, and shower heads, and weather proofed all our windows and doors,” Lumby says.

7. Make it a game

Lumby and her husband like to make living frugally a game to motivate each other to stay on track and find simple ways to save money.

“Make it a competition between you and your spouse,” she suggests. “Continue to find creative ways to cut costs, and make it about the money you’ll get to keep, rather than what you had to do without.”

Graphic showing a bowling ball striking the pins.

You can take this tip to living a frugal life one step further by setting aside a certain amount of money as a prize. The person who saves the most gets to use the prize money to splurge on a treat.

8. Save first

One key to spending less is making it harder to splurge regularly. That’s why Civil, Perez and Lumby’s favorite tip to living a frugal life is to pay yourself first.

“I suggest people put 15 to 20 percent of all payments into their savings account automatically,” Civil says.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to set up an automatic transfer each month into an online savings account.

“Waiting until after you’ve paid your bills to set aside money for savings is dangerous,” Perez says, “as you can easily convince yourself to spend unused funds.”

A hand holding a low-power LED lightbulb.

Living frugally doesn’t mean a lifestyle overhaul

Some frugal bloggers give tips to living a frugal life that tell you to do things like separate the plies on your toilet paper to save a few pennies. But you can learn ​how to be frugal by cutting out things that don’t add to your life, rather than spending hours trying to cut back on small expenses.

“Being frugal in most areas of your life typically means you can afford to splurge every once and again,” Perez says. “I think this is one of my favorite things about being frugal because it gives me the freedom to enjoy something indulgent without any guilt.”

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