Today’s post is by Brett Green, a physics PhD student at Penn State. These frugal tips are part of the month of frugal tips going up daily on the Personal Finance for PhDs Facebook page. If you want to receive the tips for the entire month plus bonus tips by other PhD contributors like Brett, sign up here.
Frugality is the complement of earning money – earning increases income and frugality decreases expenditure. Just like how earning money can be anywhere from a necessary bore to pay the bills to a way to make a living by doing what you love, frugality doesn’t have to mean undercutting yourself and in fact can lead you to just the opposite! Sometimes it’s almost like a game to me to find new ways to be resourceful and save money, I love learning new things along the way, and habits that save money also mean reduced waste and saved energy. I hope to share some of these benefits with you and hope they prove to be helpful.
On that note, though the main focus here is on saving money, I’m sure that we all are interested in saving time as well as money. When some time-saving ideas tied naturally into these money-saving ideas, I included them too. Besides, you know what they say – “time is money”!
Buy secondhand and at alternative retailers
Buying secondhand and other places “off the beaten path” can have even more benefits than saving you money! You never know what you’ll find at thrift stores – the like-new camera I bought for $10 would have cost me $160 retail, and I’m much happier with my historic Yugoslavian dining room chairs than I’d be with something from the big box stores. The things you’d find in a thrift store are almost invariably not only less pricey but also more unique and interesting! Check out closeout stores too if you have any around, where even new goods can be found at up to half off their normal prices.
Create Your Own Entertainment
Make your own fun instead of paying for it and you’ll save on entertainment! There are myriad ways to amuse yourself without needing to pay for tickets, cable television, or the like. Going to a park, going out with friends, are solid options, as are hobbies. If you don’t have hobbies, this would be a great reason to take one up. As a bonus, if you take up an art or craft, you can sell your work on top of your entertainment savings!
Research Your Purchases Ahead of Time
Give yourself time to have options by starting your search for something you’ll need before you direly need it. Most of the best deals are found by watching and waiting while patiently keeping a lookout. This is especially helpful if you like thrift stores, as their inventories are constantly changing. Similarly, I like to set up Craigslist searches with e-mail alerts so I can jump on good deals right away. Remember, though, that you need to be looking actively to find your query – watching and waiting alone won’t do the job! Try to think of new places to look or people to ask.
Sell before the Move-Out Rush
Plan ahead for a move-out by starting to sell things before the last minute. Your offerings will be the first others will see and you won’t be forced to accept a low offer because of a time crunch. If you aren’t able to sell something, I encourage you to donate it. Even putting aside the societal benefits of charity and waste reduction, this benefits you directly as a tax deduction.
Buy During the Move-out Rush
Conversely, going move-out hunting when students vacate dorms (usually May) and leases are ending (usually August) is a great way to pick up left-behind freebies often in new or like-new condition! Many students fail to plan ahead and end up abandoning things that are perfectly good. One May I picked up two brand-new 500GB hard drives still boxed and sealed in antistatic bags from beside a dumpster, for example, and about a month ago a friend of mine picked up and made $40 off a leather office chair.
Buy and Cook in Bulk
Buy in bulk, and then cook in bulk, use your freezer! The first saves money, the second saves time, and the third saves your food from spoilage when you go in bulk. Some grocery stores display the price per unit (e.g. per pound) beside the package price, making it easy to see that you can save as much as half by buying in bulk. If not, bring a calculator – it takes only seconds to do it yourself! Cooking in bulk means you’ll only have to preheat, clean, etc. once, which is not only a timesaver but can make it less of a chore for those of us who don’t really like to cook. Finally, the wonderful preservation technology of the freezer means you won’t have to throw it out! For example, I buy about six pounds of chicken breasts for less than $2/lb, about half the regular price, and cook and freeze them all so I can just defrost them and have them ready in less than a minute for the next several weeks.
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Bring Your Lunch
Pack your own lunch to campus to save both money and time instead of making a detour midday to find a restaurant. On top of that, you get to design your lunch exactly the way you want it, not constrained by any menu!
Grow Your Own
Start your own garden and grow some of your own groceries and spices! It’s awesome to see what you can grow, and you can bet they’ll taste better just because you know that you grew them yourself. You may not even need to go to a garden store – many such as onions, lettuce, and potatoes can be grown from your leftovers. I was a proud potato papa when I found that the two I had buried had grown into twelve! You can also grow many plants from cuttings by taking a few inches off a stem and putting it in water until it roots. I’ve grown mint, basil, rosemary and lemongrass this way.
Buy a quality bike instead of a parking pass! Getting out and riding in the fresh air is good for you too. Learn to take good care of your bike and it’ll serve you well for many years to come, and you’ll be able to help out and impress your friends with your knowledge of bicycles. You’ll be environmentally friendly this way too.
Buy a Home
Buying a house or condominium, if you can, means you’ll be building equity instead of just paying rent. If you have spare rooms you can rent them out as well! Just to be safe, if you plan to sell it after you graduate, it would be wise to talk to those familiar with the housing market to get a picture of how the home’s value might change. I figure, at least, that if you’re looking for a house now, then by the time you’re ready to move another student will be there in your former role as the buyer.
Put in Sweat Equity
Do your own “dirty work” when applicable instead of hiring someone, and you’ll get a sense of satisfaction and pride in addition to saving money! This can be as simple as washing your car by hand, or it could be more complicated, such as home maintenance. Even many things that are at first intimidating, though, actually aren’t so hard once you start. I’ve fixed my water heater for $12 and my gas fireplace for free with just some courage and the manuals, and the sensation of accomplishment and victory afterward is awesome! On the not-so-intimidating (for a young man, at least) side, I’m about to 3D-print a larger hair clipper attachment to match the length I like.
Take care of things and they’ll last longer and work better, saving you (you guessed it!) time and money, not to mention possible frustration, in the long run! Whenever you get something new, it’s good practice to check what you need to do to keep it in great shape. Most things will have instructions or a manual available, and even for secondhand goods which no longer have the original copies you can bank on the information being online. When I get a new tool, even if I only skim the features and capabilities, the two places I’ll be sure to read through are safety and maintenance.
Note how many of these come from planning; certainly the 3rd (searching ahead), 4th (selling ahead) and 5th (move-out hunting) and less explicitly also the 6th (cooking ahead), 7th (packing lunch), 10th (buying a home) and 12th (taking care of things) can be thought of in terms of planning ahead. This wasn’t even intentional on my part – it’s just a fact of the way things work that planning ahead is the best way to get things done.
There’s one more thing I think is apropos to share with you, and that’s to keep your approach to saving balanced and in perspective. Frugality can be a double-edged sword, as I often have trouble spending money on myself even when it would be worth it. This can be, for example, buying a cheaper substitute that isn’t really what I wanted or doesn’t adequately accomplish the purpose I wanted it for, or it could be a foregone opportunity, such as museums I didn’t visit or lunch or movies with my friends that I was reluctant to pay for. To be sure, my ideas wouldn’t necessarily correlate with that sort of excessive frugality, but it’s best to be conscious of it now so you’ll be aware of it later. Just be sure that you keep doing what’s best for you overall and put the right importance on other things that matter to you!
All right, I know I said one more thing, but I suppose really it’s two. After all, I would be missing a golden opportunity were I to end this without a frugal pun! “Dumpster diving is a great way to net free stuff. The best, though, is on the side of the highway – that’s how you really get the pick of the litter!”
Thank you for reading!