My 11-year-old son loves “life hacks.” It’s become something of a hobby for him as he’s found lists of preteen-appropriate “life hacks” and has been using them at school and at home. The other day, we had a conversation about life hacks in general and he asked me what kind of life hacks I use.
So, first of all, what’s a life hack? I view a life hack as a simple task or very straightforward substitution you can do in your life that produces better value overall than the usual way of spending that time, money, or energy. These things usually aren’t habit changes unless it’s a simple substitution and usually take the form of just doing something ordinary, albeit different than what you previously did.
I started listing life hacks off the top of my head for my son, many of which are on the list below, but others which are less financial in nature. He listened while I rattled off 30 or 40 or so, and then he simply said, “Gee, Dad, you should write those down and make a list. Maybe you could write a book.”
I took his advice. I wrote them down. I made a list of a couple hundred or so. Then I started breaking them down into categories – time savers, money savers, energy savers, and so on.
What follows are some of the most worthwhile money saving life hacks that I came up with. You’ve probably heard of some of these before, but I’m including them here because they work. I’m basing that on personal experience, as these are all things I’ve done with success in my own life.
Most of these are just replacements for things you ordinarily do or are one-time small projects that will save money. None of them are incredibly complicated (I trimmed out some of those). They all just… work.
#1 // Drink water as your primary or exclusive beverage.
One of the most frugal things in our house is the kitchen sink faucet. I turn it on, fill a cup or a bottle up with water, and drink it down. The cost? Virtually nothing. The long-term health cost? Positive, if anything. The cost of other ways to quench my thirst? Much higher.
This is easy to implement, too. Whenever you feel an urge to enjoy a beverage, whether it’s soda or juice or milk or alcohol or anything else, simply pour yourself a glass of water instead and drink it down. Have a water bottle with you full of cold water so that you’re never tempted to head to a vending machine or a convenience store. Remember that each time you do it, you’re saving at least a buck, and then simply enjoy the water.
#2 // If you can’t handle your tap water, get a water filter.
Some people do live in areas where the tap water is less than palatable. If that’s your situation, simply ask around for a good water filter that makes the tap water more pleasant for drinking and invest in that filter.
If you consistently drink water instead of other beverages, it won’t be long before the cost of the water filter is completely absorbed by the savings coming to you from the tap. If that filter turns drinking from the tap into a routine for you, it’s going to be well worth it.
#3 // Call your auto insurance company.
This is a simple process that can save you a ton of money, but it looks intimidating at first. It’s not.
All you need to do to start with is get a summary of your current auto insurance. Just pull out your most recent insurance policy, then go online and get a few quotes from other auto insurers for the same type of insurance. As you get quotes, they’ll ask you a few questions, so just answer them based on your current policy. Collect those new quotes, then give your current insurer a call. Say you’d like to continue being a customer, but this other company is offering you this rate which is quite a bit lower, and see what they can do.
Most of the time, you’ll get something close to or matching the lower competitor’s rate and you don’t have to do much of anything – no paperwork, no changes, nothing. It’s basically free money for a few minutes digging out your insurance package, half an hour of getting quotes online, and a few more minutes calling your insurer. It’s easy money! (You can do a similar thing with other types of insurance as well, such as homeowners insurance.)
#4 // When you need to buy common items like clothing or small appliances, do a ‘first pass’ through a thrift store or two first.
Need some new clothes? Looking to buy a toaster or a crock pot? Considering getting some new decorations for the front room? Need a few extra plates for when a lot of guests come over?
Your first instinct might be to run to a department store or a clothing store for items like these, but put that first instinct aside for a moment and instead make your first stop at a secondhand store or a thrift store.
When you go in, remember that you don’t have to buy the item you’re looking for at this first stop. You’re simply checking to see if they have something you’re already looking for.
What you’ll find a surprising amount of the time is that they have just the item you need to solve your need for just a few dollars. This isn’t ever a guarantee, of course, but it happens more often than you might expect and you sometimes end up going home with a nearly-new version of what you were looking for at a tiny fraction of the price.
#5 // Start a carpool with a friend or neighbor.
If you have a regular commute with regular hours and you know anyone in your neighborhood that has the same commute with similar hours, talk to them about a carpool, even if it’s an irregular one.
Just simply have a conversation with this person about their commute and suggest sharing a ride on days when your schedule is similar. Maybe it works out every day, or every day but Fridays. Maybe it only works on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even if it’s just an occasional thing, if it’s a regular thing you’ll both save money on gas and wear and tear on your car.
For many years, my wife carpooled to school with an older worker just a few years from retirement. They would only share a ride one or two days a week, but it happened often enough that they both saved hundreds of dollars (by my back-of-the-envelope math) over the course of their ride sharing.
#6 // Make a grocery list before you go to the store.
The fridge is bare. The shelves are empty. You need food. Time to hit the grocery store, right?
If you simply take the first step of looking around your home and thinking about what you actually need at the store and make a list, you’re going to end up spending a lot less time in the store and spending a lot less money, too. Why? You’ll have a list to focus on in the store rather than drifting from aisle to aisle tossing things in your cart.
For bonus points, take a look at your grocery store’s flyer while making this grocery list for ideas on discounted stuff to add to your list. For even more bonus points, make up a simple meal plan for the next several days and make sure you have all of the stuff you need for those meals to ensure you can easily (and cheaply) eat at home for a while.
Speaking of eating at home…
#7 // Eat more meals outside of restaurants.
It is really easy to get into a routine of eating at a restaurant or just getting takeout or delivery every night, especially when you feel overwhelmed with things to do. It just feels convenient and easy and it seems like one less thing to worry about.
The problem is that having someone else prepare your food is incredibly expensive. You’re basically choosing between cheap, healthy, and good – choose any two of the three – and even the “cheap” really isn’t very cheap, it’s just not insanely expensive.
The solution is to remove that expense from the equation and start eating at home. Do it one meal at a time, and treat each one of them as a learning experience in terms of how to make simple meals you like and how to clean up efficiently afterwards.
Every time you take on the task of food preparation, the easier and more efficient it becomes until you can have a home-cooked meal on the table in a handful of minutes and have the whole thing cleaned up in just a few minutes.
Trust me – I do this exact thing for a family of five at least twice a week. We have things like spaghetti with marinara sauce, jambalaya, tacos, and other things. With the aid of a slow cooker and a lot of practice – most of which was merely preparing simple meals and mastering the techniques of cooking and cleanup so that it’s practically automatic – I can whip out simple family meals far faster than we can even get them at a restaurant, and far cheaper, too.
Treat each meal at home as a success and a step on your learning journey, because it is.
#8 // Make extra batches of meals and freeze the extra batches.
Whenever you make a batch of your favorite meal, whether it’s a soup or a casserole or something else, consider whether or not you could prepare a second or third batch of it at the same time and freeze that extra batch. If you can and the extra batch would reheat easily, then do so.
This saves money in two directions at once. For one, it allows you to buy bulk ingredients for the dish, so you might end up buying a giant can of beans or a full bag of potatoes. For another, a frozen meal in the freezer (one that you can thaw by putting it in the fridge a few days early) is extremely easy to prepare as it usually just involves heating it up in a pan or a microwave-safe bowl.
I particularly love doing this with soups. I’ll make a huge batch of soup, almost filling my pot with a double or triple batch, and then I’ll put all of the excess after our dinner (and a leftover container or two) into freezer Ziploc bags and pop them in our freezer until later. It’s so incredibly easy to do and it makes for some incredibly easy meals later on.
#9 // Make up a new email address and sign up for rewards cards with it.
Any store with a rewards program that you shop at more than once is a store where you should sign up for their rewards program. The only problem is spam. Many stores sell your email address to interested third parties, who then begin to send you stuff you don’t want, and then your email address gets sold again and again and before you know it you have mountains of junk.
The solution? Make up a new email address and use it for signing up for such programs. Make it something you’ll easily remember, then sign up for an address over at Gmail. Then, whenever you sign up for a bonus program, use that “false” email.
You should log in and check it every once in a while to make sure you’ve completed signups for your bonus programs. It’s also not a bad idea to check it whenever you’re about to shop at one of those stores, just to see if there’s an email coupon, or right on or right after your birthday (as many businesses send out birthday coupons).
Doing this keeps your main email clean while allowing you to sign up for every customer rewards program under the sun.
#10 // Buy nonperishable stuff you use all the time in bulk.
Do you blow through deodorant sticks in a month or so? Buy a three pack and save about 20%. Do you use tons of dishwashing detergent? Buy the jumbo pack and save 20%. Do you use toilet paper regularly? Buy the giant toilet paper pack and save 20%.
Are you getting the theme here? If you have something that you use every day (or nearly every day) and it’s something that doesn’t get old, you should be buying it in the largest multi-pack that you can easily get at the store (assuming, of course, that it has the lowest price per roll or price per ounce). Bulk buying is all about stocking up on items that you know you’re going to use because the price is really low.
If one of those items goes on sale… stock up, big time. If you happen to find a coupon for that item… hold it until close to the expiration date because you may just be able to stack it with a sale in a few weeks (stores often do this) and then bulk buy like a captain of industry. You’ll save a lot this way.
#11 // Use the library for books and movies.
Ever read a book for entertainment? How about watching a movie? Do you listen to audiobooks on road trips? If you’re saying yes to any of those things and you’re not using the local library, you’re tossing away money.
It’s pretty easy. Whenever you have a desire to read a book or watch a movie or listen to an audiobook, make your local library your first stop. See what they have on offer that meets your needs.
It does work best if you go in there with some flexibility in terms of what you choose, but if they don’t have what you want, many libraries can request items via interlibrary loan pretty easy. Just ask the librarian!
#12 // Have a potluck dinner party instead of going out.
The next time you’re thinking about going out for dinner with a few friends, consider hosting a potluck dinner instead. Have each person bring an item to the dinner and simply prepare an easy main course yourself, like a big pot of hearty soup or a simple casserole.
You might have one person bring an appropriate side dish, another couple of people each bring a bottle of wine, and another person bring a simple dessert. Each of you are spending far less than you would out on the town, but you get to dine together in a comfortable environment and share the items you made and selected with each other.
What if you would typically go out for drinks afterward? Just split the cost of the ingredients for a few mixed drinks. What if you’d go to a movie? Watch a movie you have on hand, or rent one. It’s pretty easy to make a dinner party work if you’re committed to the idea!
#13 // Shop around for a new cell phone carrier.
If you’re at the end of your cell phone contract, you’re at the perfect point to shop around for a new phone and a new carrier. Simply check in with a few competing carriers to see what they have on offer, get the details of their offer, and stop by your current carrier (assuming you’re happy with them) and talk about the competing offers you’re considering.
Quite often, your current carrier will somehow manage to give you at least some – if not all – of the discounts they offer to new customers, in order to keep you.
With just that simple move, you don’t have to change anything, but suddenly you have a cheap new phone and likely a less expensive cell phone bill than you had before.
#14 // Buy clothing in neutral colors so you don’t need as many garments.
When you buy new clothing (or gently used clothing) to fill out a hole in your wardrobe, choose items that are in neutral colors that go with many other items in your wardrobe. If you want to accent them with color, do that with lower cost accessories such as neckties or pins or scarves.
This simple technique enables you to get far more value out of your wardrobe, as almost everything goes with everything else. You can easily mix and match items to give the appearance of a large wardrobe without actually having too many garments.
When you do this, choose well-made garments that will last for a long time. Check the stitching – is it smooth and tightly stitched? Does the cloth feel robust and doesn’t feel like it will easily tear in your hands? Garments that match both of those factors are likely to last much longer than garments with uneven stitching or thin fabrics.
#15 // Every spring and fall, switch your ceiling fans to the correct seasonal setting.
This is such a simple little trick that can save you a surprising amount on your energy bills. During the summer, your ceiling fans are more efficient if they’re running clockwise, so that the blades are pushing down air in the center of the room and giving a “breeze” effect which cools the skin. During the winter, the reverse is true – you want to pull up air in the middle of the room and push the warm air on the ceiling over to the walls and downward without creating a breeze.
So, in the fall, stand under your ceiling fan and see if the air is blowing down on you. If it is, flip the little directional switch on your ceiling fan; if it isn’t, leave it alone. Do the reverse in the spring.
That little trick will ensure that your ceiling fan is working in an optimal fashion for the season, keeping you cool in the summer and keeping you warm in the winter.
#16 // Make your own coffee and put it in a thermos rather than buying it.
Many people fall into a routine of stopping at a coffee shop each day for coffee. It’s easy on a busy morning, right?
The truth is that making your own pot of coffee is quite easy in the morning. Set it up the night before, flip a switch or push a button on your coffee maker right when you get up, and you’ll usually have a pot ready to go about the time you’re ready to leave. Pour that coffee into a travel mug and put the rest into a thermos and you’re ready to go.
Another approach – make cold brew coffee. Basically, just get a large cloth tea bag and fill it with a few teaspoons of ground coffee, then let that tea bag sit in a quart of water in your fridge for about a day. Remove the tea bag and you have cold brewed coffee. Heat it up at your convenience or drink it cold.
#17 // Plant some trees shortly after you move into a house.
There are a couple of reasons why this is a really good financial move – one saves money and the other earns it.
You save money over the long run when the trees grow large enough to provide shade for the house. If you buy a fast growing tree, it can start providing some shade to your home in as little as ten years.
You make money over the long run by having trees in your yard, which improves property values. Homes look more “home-y” with a tree in the yard, plus the energy-saving value of a few trees is also a plus for many buyers.
If you’ve just moved into a home and there aren’t any trees in the yard, plant a few. Even if you don’t live there long enough to enjoy the energy saving benefits of the shade, you’ll still increase the value by the time you move.
#18 // Try the store brand version of every product you use, and stick with the ones that actually meet your needs.
Whenever you’re in the store and considering which brand of a product to buy, make the choice to buy the store brand, especially if you’ve never tried it. Take it home and give it a fair shake.
It’s a very rare situation where the store brand lets you down completely. At worst, you’ll just be mildly dissatisfied with it and buy the regular brand the next time. Often, you won’t notice the difference; occasionally, you may even like it better.
Why do this? The store brand of a product is almost always cheaper than the name brand of a product. Store brand hand soap is almost always far cheaper than Mrs. Meyer or Softsoap. Store brand dish soap is almost always far cheaper than Dawn. Store brand ketchup is almost always far cheaper than Heinz. If you find yourself happily using the store brand version of at least some of your regular household purchases, your grocery/household bill will go down, and you don’t even have to stick with any store brands that don’t work for you.
#19 // Make your own spray cleaner in an old Windex bottle.
I have a bottle of spray cleaner that I use for all kinds of household things, from washing windows to cleaning up marinara sauce droplets on the table after spaghetti night. It’s easy to make and a tiny fraction of the cost of buying a new bottle of Windex.
I just take an empty jar, add equal parts water and vinegar, and toss a few citrus peels in there from an orange or a lemon. I put a lid on the jar, shake it a bit, and leave it sitting for a week, then I strain it into a Windex bottle that’s empty except for a drop or two of dish soap. I just put a mesh strainer on top of a funnel and pour the contents of the jar right in there, straining out the citrus peel.
That’s it! This stuff cleans everything. I use it to take care of pet accidents and muddy shoe prints and dirty walls. It just works. It’s also dirt cheap.
#20 // Delete your payment information from e-commerce sites.
For a long time, I found myself haphazardly buying things from e-commerce sites, particularly Amazon, without really thinking about it too much. This resulted in some larger-than-desired credit card bills and some books on my Kindle that left me wondering what I was thinking when I purchased them.
The solution to this problem was a really simple life hack that might, at first glance, seem to be something that makes life more difficult – just delete your payment information from e-commerce sites so you can’t easily order. The thing is, if you make it a bit harder to order, you force yourself to spend a bit more time thinking about whether you should even make this purchase at all, and often you decide it isn’t worth it.
This simple move hasn’t kept me from buying well-considered purchases, but it has kept me from throwing money at things I’d probably regret later.
#21 // Set up an automatic transfer to move a little of your checking into your savings each payday.
This is how you build an emergency fund, and an emergency fund is how you handle difficult life problems without panic and without going into debt.
Just ask your bank if they can set up an automatic transfer into your savings account on a regular basis, then set it up to transfer $20 or $50 or $100 into your savings account each payday or each time you have a deposit over a certain amount. Then, just forget about the savings account until a crisis hits.
When that crisis hits, that’s the time to tap that savings account. It’ll be there for you when you need to pay for an unexpected car repair or travel across the country for three days to be with a relative or you suddenly lose your job and need to make the rent.
#22 // Try doing small projects yourself before calling for help.
When the toilet is broken, many people reflexively call the plumber without thinking too much about it. They have visions of a flooded bathroom or some other unlikely disaster and instead just toss money at the problem.
That’s not the best approach. If something isn’t working at your home or it needs a minor repair, head over to Youtube and see if you can figure out what the problem is and whether it’s easy to fix yourself. Things like fixing a toilet tank bladder are actually quite easy provided you can flip a couple of tabs and put a hook through a hole.
The thing to remember is that even if you mess up, you can always turn off the water or flip the breaker and then call a repairperson. It’s very unlikely that you’ll make the problem significantly worse.
The best part? Once you handle a couple of simple repairs on your own, you’ll slowly build confidence to try more and more things.
#23 // Clean out your closets and sell everything you haven’t used in the last few months.
People often accumulate unwanted items in their closet over time. The items that they use stay at the front – or not even in the closet at all – while undesired items gradually slip to the back.
Cleaning out your closet and pulling out those forgotten items is a great task to take on every once in a while. When you do so, not only do you free up space in your closet (and probably make the cost of eventually moving substantially lower), you also put some money directly in your pocket which you can use to pay off debts and save money on insurance.
Just go through your closet, identify things you haven’t used in the last few months, and sell off those items on Craigslist or eBay.
#24 // Check out Meetup and add three events to your calendar.
Meetup is one of my favorite resources for finding interesting social things to do without throwing money down the drain at the bar or at a club. You simply go there, find an interest group related to something you’re interested in, and go to that “meetup” whenever it’s scheduled.
I’ve gone to young professionals meet ups. I’ve gone to board game nights. I’ve gone to volunteer groups. I’ve gone to technology groups. I’ve gone to religious meetings. I’ve found them all via Meetup and they were all worthwhile.
If you have this nagging desire to be more social and don’t know how to channel that other than going to a bar (and that doesn’t sound particularly fun), give Meetup a try. You won’t regret it.
#25 // Plant an extremely easy to maintain vegetable or herb under your back porch.
If you have a back porch, simply plant a really easy to maintain item around the posts and avoid them with the lawnmower when you mow (you can even wall them off with a few bricks or something).
Pick something that requires very little maintenance so you don’t have to worry about it until it’s time to harvest. Some of my favorites for this purpose include chives, basil, and cucumbers (you can easily get the vines to wind up onto your porch railing).
All of those require almost no effort to maintain and provide a bounty of vegetables or herbs when they mature. Some of them even grow back every year; we have a wonderful little chives patch next to our back steps that’s been going for a decade.
Odd Bonus Tip: Put items unevenly in the microwave (one on top of a glass) to microwave both quickly and thoroughly.
This is such a goofy little tip, but it’s something I’ve been using a lot lately so I thought I’d share it.
I often microwave oatmeal for my children for breakfast, two or three days a week. If I make it one bowl at a time, it’s pretty slow. If I do two bowls at a time, it’s a bit faster, but I have to rotate them halfway through.
My new trick is to put one of the bowls on top of a coffee cup in the microwave so that the bottom of the tall bowl is above the top of the short bowl. Doing that, both bowls heat evenly because the microwaves are coming in from the sides and they aren’t blocking each other. It doesn’t take much longer than just microwaving one bowl.
It’s not really a money saver, but it does save a little bit of time on a busy morning, so I thought I’d toss it in here as a “bonus” for those who have read all the way to the bottom.
Take these life hacks and choose the ones that make sense for you, then put them to work in your life. Don’t be afraid to toss some out if they don’t match up with your life – if you don’t own a home, for example, then the back porch vegetable trick isn’t useful, and that’s okay. Just choose the tactics that work for you and make the most of them!