14 clever ways to save money

Pete Zimmerman  |  10/25/2022

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( TL ; DR )

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Read time: 5 minutes

Summary: Is saving money your idea of a good time? Probably not. For most people, spending is much more natural, and to be fair, the point of money is to be spent. With spending, the important question is not 'if', it's 'how' (and 'when'). So rather than thinking of saving as a chore, think of it as creating personal control over how and when you use money. Luckily, once you decide to take this control, there are millions of ways to save. Many of those are well known, but there are a few clever ways to save money that you may not be aware of.

You'd be shocked by all of the clever ways you can save money

Do you ever feel like—despite numerous efforts—it’s impossible for you to save money? And even if you're able to painstakingly sock away a decent rainy-day fund, some emergency expense always pops up at the worst possible time, and bleeds you dry again?

Or you try like hell to reduce your spending, but somehow, life gets in the way—and just like that, saving gets pushed to the back seat again? With some unpaid, overdue, and unwelcome bill riding shotgun with you?

This sucks. But if it sounds like you, you’re in good company. Saving money is a challenge for hundreds of millions of Americans. Less than half of Americans have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency expense. And $1,000 isn't that much when it comes to emergencies, when a new transmission for your car could cost $3,000, and unplanned medical expenses could be many times that.

But the good news is that while saving money can seem difficult (and let's face it- boring) at first, it's a skill. And it's not an impossible skill to learn. There are a few well-known techniques to build your savings, but there are also some clever ways to save money that you can easily adopt.

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This may surprise you, but the most important aspect of saving is knowing your why. In other words, what are your long-term plans, and what are you saving for? Don't skip this. If you get your mind right and paint yourself a vivid mental picture of the results, you’ll be much more likely to commit and follow through on the tips on this list. If you don't want to do that, you shouldn't waste your time reading further. You need the knowledge, but your goal should be ACTION.

Ok, what can we do?

This article will discuss 14+ painless, proven strategies to grow your savings over time. Don’t expect these to magically change your money habits – that’ll take time and repetition, and maybe a change in your mindset if you're not there yet. But it will show you what’s possible and motivate you to start (or improve) your money-saving journey.

A number of these strategies will probably be familiar to you, but you might also find a few clever ideas that you hadn’t thought about before. Here we go.

1:  Shop gently used clothes instead of new

No, despite what the Calvin Klein ads say, you don’t have to pay 70 bucks for that pair of designer jeans.

We look at used items all of the time for certain purchases, like video games, cars, and even houses. But we usually forget to shop used when it comes to clothes. Take time to visit thrift shops in your area and gauge the prices and selection- you’re almost guaranteed to find decent quality options at a fraction of the price. If you’re lucky, you can even find brand new clothes with the tags still attached…at about ¼ of the price.

Another way to save on clothes is to shop when they’re out of season. The retailers are usually trying to clear out inventory at that time and you can take advantage with a little planning and foresight. Buy your coats in summer and your swim suits in winter. The massive discounts will surprise you.

Estimated savings: $580 per year

 Average savings for used clothing: 30-40% of original price

 Average spending on clothing: $161 per month

2:  Set your bills to auto-pay

If you have a steady salary, this simple tip can save you hundreds of dollars a year. By putting your bills on auto-pay, you’re making sure that all of your monthly bills will be paid on time, every time.

On-time payments will help you avoid outrageous late fees that can set you back financially. Sometimes the damn late fees can be as much as the bill itself, which adds insult to injury. Put it on autopilot and don’t let it happen to you.

Estimated savings: $243 per year

3:  Buy generic instead of name brand

Do you know why name brand products are more expensive? Are they higher quality, hence the higher cost? No, not necessarily – generic and name brand products have been known to come out of the same factories, with the only difference being the label. Actually, much of it is advertising. And those millions of dollars in ad cost have to be paid for by someone. Go ahead and raise your hand. Because unfortunately, that’s you, the customer.

Buying generic, store-brand items instead of name brands is another clever way to save money. Again, you likely won’t notice much difference in the quality of the product, but you’re guaranteed to see a difference in price. Generic brands of cleaning supplies, staple food items, paper products, and medicine cost far less than their marked-up brand-name counterparts, sometimes by up to 25-30%.

There are exceptions, of course. For instance it's best to talk to your doctor before buying generic medicine. They can advise you if there’s any specific medication you might not want to switch. Pretty much everything else warrants consideration of a generic alternative.

Estimated savings: $40 per month

4:  Ditch the bottled water

Bottled water costs 4,000% more than than tap water. It’s actually hard to find another example with such an extreme price markup with minimal (if any) perceptible difference in quality. Go ahead and try. Even the massive rip-off that is restaurant cocktails only tags you with a 500-800% markup. With numbers like this, it's hard to comprehend the scale, so just for fun, let's illustrate with a visual example.

This glass contains about the amount of water in a standard bottle you'd buy at the store. It's 5-6 inches tall. If we wanted to take this height (a bit past your ankle) and increase it by 4,000% to match the markup cost, how tall would you guess that is?

Your height, 5-6 feet? Maybe the height of your house or apartment building, 15-25 feet? Well...

glass of water

No. Here's the cost difference, visually. If the tap water cost is about 5.5 inches, the bottled water cost clocks in at about 1,833 feet. Or, about the height of the Lotte World Tower (the tallest structure in South Korea). That's a Lotte ... of cost difference. Right? Don't be mad you didn't think of it first.

lotta world tower in korea

In reality, the difference occurs because tap water is just. so. cheap. If you prefer bottled because you don't like the taste or quality of water in your city or town, a cheap Britta filter can help. If you like the grab-and-go convenience, you can also refill your old bottles and just stash them in a fridge drawer. There are good options to help you avoid this tragically high expense.

Estimated savings: $100 per year

5:  Shop online with Honey or another deal-finding app

Adding the Honey extension to your browser is a great way to get the best possible deals when you're shopping online. From electronics to groceries, Honey’s shopping assistant will notify you whenever there’s a better price out there on a product you’re interested in. There's really no downside, unless you prefer to spend more.

As full disclosure, Honey states openly that they get a commission from the retailer each time a sale is made. That isn't coming from you as the buyer, but as always, it's important to know what's going on under the hood when someone says their service is "free".

For what it's worth, this is unbiased advice - we don't get anything from Honey and aren't affiliated.

Estimated savings: $126 per year

6:  Make your own gifts

Between birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, Christmas, and Mother’s Day, gift-giving can add up quickly and put a big dent in your wallet. Plus, store-bought gifts just aren’t always personal enough for some occasions and some people.

If you have a creative side, you can make your own gifts. Even if you don't, you can do a quick internet search for ideas and get endless options. Handmade gifts are a demonstration of time, effort and thoughtfulness, and will probably be more appreciated than a boring gift card or toaster anyway. Websites like wikiHow can give you fantastic gift ideas that your recipients will appreciate.

Estimated savings: $20 per gift

7:  Get a smart thermostat

This one is for homeowners (unless you want to save your landlord money). While buying a smart thermostat has an upfront cost, it can save you big bucks on your utility bill over the long term.

A smart thermostat creepily learns your habits and also lets you adjust your home’s temperature from your smartphone while you’re out and about. So you can dial your heat or A/C up or down on the fly, and save tremendously on utility costs.

Estimated savings: $12 per month

8:  Create a personal policy to wait for at least 72 hours before making any non-essential purchase

Have you ever bought something on a whim? That’s a stupid question, right? Everyone has. A recent survey showed that 6 out of 10 respondents had made an impulse purchase over the last 30 days, with the most common being food from the grocery store, alcohol, and coffee . In fact, up to 60% of purchases at grocery stores are unplanned. That is an INSANE percentage.

You may not have planned it, but you still get to foot the bill (along with the buyer’s remorse). Much of this is driven by advertising and, well, impulses. So take back the power. You can fight this tendency and avoid being a sucker by using your own, personal cooling off period. Vow to never buy anything on the spot that you hadn't planned to. Instead, write it down on a piece of paper and wait. If, after 3 days, you still want it, then allow yourself to buy it.

Estimated savings: Up to $250 per month

9:  Switch to LED lights

Are you overspending on electricity bills each month? Maybe it’s time to ditch your old light bulbs. The price for LED bulbs are still a little higher, but they’re coming down, and they use less energy and last much longer compared to traditional incandescents.

And if you own your own home, it’s not just lights; you can also look into energy-efficient appliances. They may cost a little bit more than regular appliances, but over time, they will save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars on energy costs. For additional savings, you can ask for discounts or wait until they go on sale.

Estimated savings: $8.50 per month

10:  Use credit card rewards

If you use your credit card responsibly, you can get a treasure trove of benefits via credit card rewards - totally free with no strings attached. Most cards offer generous cash back rewards: usually 1.5% on any purchases but sometimes up to 5% on specific items (gas, electronics, etc.) during promotional periods. When you sign up for a new travel credit card, you can also get a signup bonus that you can use to get free hotel stays, excursions and even flights.

Remember to pay close attention to the interest rates and fee structures. But candidly, you should be paying off the card balance every month anyway and avoiding the interest fees. If you don't, you’ll be paying dearly for the rewards with the interest you’re getting hit with (way more than any rewards are worth). Don't pay $5 bills for $1 bills.

Estimated savings: $13 per month

11: Cancel subscriptions and memberships you aren't using

How many subscriptions and memberships are you currently signed up for? You may have more than you think.

Chances are, you’re paying for multiple subscriptions like Spotify, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, magazines, etc., and those recurring expenses are hitting your account regularly each month. Companies love these subscription models because it creates recurring revenue for them. Even carwashes do it these days. But that recurring revenue comes from you, the customer, and it compounds with “subscription creep”—the gradual accumulation of these small recurring costs that you don’t tend to notice.

Most monthly costs are in the $10-30 range, so cancelling a few subscriptions you don’t use can help you save a considerable amount of money each month. And you may not even notice the difference.

Estimated savings: $119 per month

12: Install an efficient, low-flow showerhead

You probably wouldn’t be shocked to learn that bathrooms account for about 50% of your apartment or house’s total water use. But you may be surprised by the scale - for example the average family uses 40 gallons of water each day in the shower.

bridge and scenic waterfall

An efficient (low-flow) showerhead reduces water use drastically, and can save about 2,900 gallons of water over a year's time. It can also save your water heater from having to work overtime on heating all that extra flow. That translates into direct savings on your water and electrical or gas bills.

Worried that an efficient showerhead will reduce your shower to trickles and make it a crappy experience? Luckily, smart designers have largely solved these issues, and modern low-flow shower heads are now about as good as their inefficient siblings, while being much cheaper over the long term.

Estimated savings: $105-138 per year

13: Have fun at home instead

Have you ever had your eyes buldge at suprisingly huge bar or restaurant tab? * squints eyes at receipt * Is the decimal in the wrong place here?

We all know how easy it is to blow through money when you’re out on the town. Grabbing dinner, going to the movies, or meeting up with friends for drinks gets expensive fast.

So, invite your friends over instead. Organize gatherings where everyone brings a drinks or a dish, or put together a movie/game night. Look for ways to have fun that don't involve spending your rent money. If you’re conscious about how you spend money on entertainment and prioritize it honestly, you can even have more fun while spending less.

How? Rank your interests by importance, and do less of what you consider a lower priority and more of what you really like to do. As a bonus, when you do this, you're now being deliberate with your time and money and taking control, which is even more important than the direct savings you'll see. For more on that, check out Tip 5 on this blog post.

Estimated savings: Up to $728 per year

14: DIY when you can

Completing small jobs by yourself, rather than paying for them is a great way to save money. This can include painting a room by yourself, mowing your lawn, or changing your car’s oil/air filter. If you have a skillset in something, it's always going to be cheaper to handle yourself.

So, before you shell out the cash to pay for a repair or manual work, ask if you can do it. YouTube is the best place to learn DIY skills, and it’s free.

Estimated savings: Sky's the limit!

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BONUS: As a bonus for reading this far, here's a lightning round with 20 more clever ways to save money:

  1.  Use public transit options like buses, trains, and light rails
  2.  Pick an inconvenient bank for your savings (to avoid the temptation of raiding it)
  3.  Make your own cleaning supplies
  4.  Close your window blinds during hot summer months
  5.  Grow your own food in your backyard
  6.  Don’t go grocery shopping without bringing a list
  7.  Bring your own bags to the store
  8.  Enjoy free activities/events in your neighborhood
  9.  Take advantage of free fitness classes
  10.  Get free samples from apps like PINCHme
  11.  Pay with cash instead of a card
  12.  Unsubscribe from marketing emails
  13.  Clear your browser cookies, and don’t use autofill for your credit card info when shopping online
  14.  Keep your tires inflated correctly to avoid using more gas than you need to
  15.  Give up expensive habits like drinking and smoking
  16.  Adjust your thermostat up slightly in summer and down slightly in winter
  17.  If you’re thinking of buying something new, clean up what you already have first – you may develop a new appreciation for it
  18.  Always keep your receipts, so you can act on your buyer’s remorse
  19.  Delay purchases and accumulate them, until you have enough to qualify for free shipping
  20.  To save on interest, build an emergency fund to absorb unexpected expenses, instead of using a credit card
Wondering how much your emergency fund should be? Check out Cashbasic's free calculator.

You can start now

Everyone wants to save more money, but it’s something that a lot of people struggle with. You can do it. Once you understand why you want to save money and learn clever ways to do it, it gets addicting (and cheaper/safer than other addictions).

Then you’ll start wondering how to save in other aspects of your life, and it can lead to a shift in your mindset. Consistent good saving habits will put you on a path to long-term success, so don’t wait. Start now.

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Pete Zimmerman

I've worked in financial services for more than a decade, and know where all the bodies are buried (and where the motivations are). I'm a Certified Financial Planner® and a licensed real estate broker, and love using what I've learned to simplify financial concepts and bring them to life in the real world, for working-class people like you.

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