How to Be Frugal – The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Frugal Living

"The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Frugal Living" overlaid on a photo a woman putting coins into a white piggy bank on a table.

I’ve been writing about how to be frugal for a long time and I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Frugal living looks different for everyone as each situation is unique! So whether you’re new to frugal living or have been living a frugal lifestyle for years now, this guide on how to be frugal is for you!

NOTE: this post is a long one. However, I did say this was the “ultimate guide”! My nifty blog publisher says it takes 25 minutes to read. Too long? you can skim the numbered headings and find what you’re looking for! Better yet – bookmark it in your browser so you can come back later and get all the frugal goodness.

The Sweet Spot

There is this amazing little sweet spot where frugality, environmentalism (eco friendly living), and minimalism intersect. I live there… mostly. We’re still working on how to better embrace the “eco” part. Frugal Eco Minimalism is what I lean towards sharing with you these days as the powerhouse trio of living principles has really shaped how we live.

Frugal eco minimalism is worth mentioning in this guide on how to be frugal. The foundation of each principle is choosing to consume less – for financial purposes like saving money and staying out of debt, for environmental purposes like using less plastic and reducing your waste, and for minimalist purposes by choosing to have less clutter in our homes and on our schedules. So this is where we will start.

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1. Consume Less

If you’ve spent time on Hello Brownlow, you might see a pattern emerge… from lowering your cost of living to living a minimalist life to becoming a low waste house, it all starts with consuming less.

For when you’re learning how to be frugal, you might think you need to use coupons and shop deals to keep buying the same amount of stuff you’re used to. While these things help, truly purchasing and consuming less will help lay your frugal foundation. You can’t keep living a life of consumerism, wanting more and buying more, if you ever want to be frugal.

This could look like: using less electricity and water, making more realistic portion sizes during meal time, freezing leftovers instead of toss them or cooking smaller dishes, shopping less, purchasing less clothes… the list goes on.

2. Know How You Spend Your Money & Identify Money Leaks

Have you ever looked at the balance in your bank account or balance on your credit card and said “How the heck did I spend that much?!”?

If you have, there could be two problems that need fixing ASAP.

Problem #1: you don’t have a budget and don’t know how much you make or spend.
Problem #2: you have a general idea of what you make/spend but don’t keep track of every transaction

Part of how to be frugal is paying attention to small details. It could end up saving you thousands of dollars! So let’s get to the bottom of why money is “leaking” from your account.

Complete a spending audit to see where every dollar you earn goes. Does any category of spending surprise you? If yes, work to reduce or eliminate that expense! Do you have subscriptions (streaming, Amazon Prime, monthly boxes, etc.)? If those are a major drag on your budget and you don’t get the value out of them like you thought you would, it’s probably time to end it.

Small adjustments in your budget will help you stop money leaks and help you be more frugal.

3. Frugal Life Hacks

We’ve been living this frugal lifestyle for a while now, and a lot of these frugal life hacks taught us a lot about how to be frugal. They’re second nature and part of our everyday lives. Here are some of my favorite frugal life hacks:

  • Cook your meals at home (like these 10 Vegan Meals on a Budget)
  • Meal plan using what’s in your pantry/freezer/fridge first
  • Take your lunch/snacks/drinks to work or when you leave the house during a meal time
  • Brew your own coffee either to enjoy at home or take on the go (I’ve recently discovered DIY cold brew coffee is actually fantastic!)
  • Cook in bulk – eat some now, some for leftovers tomorrow, and freeze the rest for future you!
  • DIY cleaning supplies – vinegar and a dash of dish soap cleans a lot of messes
  • DIY foaming hand soap
  • Entertain at home rather than going out for drinks/dinner
  • Divide/slice things in half to extend their life (bars of soap, sponges, etc.)
  • Call your service providers at least annually to make sure you’re getting the best rate
  • Cut your family’s hair (we use these Wahl clippers)
  • Cut cable, streaming, and subscription services you don’t use or need
  • Use a 72 hour list to curb impulse spending
  • Bring your emotional support water bottle everywhere

There are loads more that I can think of! But we’ll cover them in the sections below (so keep reading!).

4. Repair

Between my husband, myself, our neighbors, and our dads… we can fix pretty much anything. Leaky refrigerator? Fixed. Demoed a wall and aren’t sure how to make it look okay (real life scenario…)? At least someone we knew could help us! Ripped bedsheet? Sewn right up.

And if none of us knew how to fix something? That’s where YouTube comes in to rescue us. Someone somewhere has fixed what you need to fix before and thought to film it. Not on YouTube or way outside your comfort zone? Ask in your local Facebook group if someone can walk you through it or ask a neighbor for help.

While somethings are meant to never be fix (i.e. the battery or electrical component is sealed inside and you’d have to completely break it to fix it which is completely counterproductive), most things are worth at least attempting to fix.

When you fix an item instead of replacing it right away, you’re not only learning how to be frugal and save money… but you’re also left with a sense of satisfaction knowing you fixed it (similar to the “Ikea Effect”). I think the satisfaction of fixing something far outweighs the brief “happiness” we feel when we buy something new.

5. Make Do

Instead of rushing out to buy exactly what you need, could you make do with what you already have?

Chances of you being able to make do with items you already have in your home a pretty high! Making do can be for any situation. And the more you learn how to be frugal, the more often you’ll make do instead of buying the exact perfect thing for every situation.

Some examples of making do include:

  • Wearing the same formal dress to every event this year
  • Using large plates instead of buying serving trays
  • Substituting ingredients in a recipe
  • Reusing jars instead of purchasing matching storage containers

Try to find a solution in your own home first before you buy something to solve your problem.

6. Buy Secondhand

Ever since we became more aware of where our money was going, we started shopping secondhand. Not only does it save us money but it keeps someone’s unwanted items out of the landfill. Win-win!

We do try to find most things used (minus things that may not be sanitary). Shopping at local thrift and resale stores, online sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace, as well as within our local Buy Nothing Group gives us plenty of opportunity to find everything we need.

Pro tips when shopping secondhand:

  • Make a list and plan ahead – think one or two seasons ahead when looking for clothes and other seasonal things
  • Thrift or search frequently – the more often you go, the more likely you are to find what you need
  • Check quality – stains, rips, pilling, etc. are all things to look for before you purchase something
  • Don’t purchase something “just because it’s cheap” – do you really need it or plan to need it within the next six months?
  • Walk away empty handed – remember that you may not find what you’re looking for right away! It’s okay to leave a store without buying anything

More Knowledge >>> 6 Things We Always Buy Secondhand, How to Thrift like a Pro

7. Use It All Up

There is a simple pleasure in using something up. Almost like completing a puzzle or finishing a book – it’s like a task completed.

Using things (mostly consumable goods) to their fullest is another focal point when learning how to be frugal. When you use things ups, you don’t waste any money. When you focus on using what you have before buying more, it can also help curb impulse purchases on things like make-up, lotion, clothing, etc. It also gives us time to reflect on our next purchase to replace that item – did you like it enough to re-purchase it or can you do without it?

Read More >>> The Joy of Using Things Up

8. Know When to Stock Up

Stocking up on things is where I struggle to balance frugality and minimalism. On the frugal hand, it’s better to buy something at its rock-bottom price to use at a later date. When considering minimalism’s side, it’s better to buy less but buy higher quality. While this very much applies to things like TVs, computers, and clothing, it doesn’t quite apply to food a personal care items.

Stocking up on food so that you have a two week supply is not only a good idea to save money – it is also a recommended action by FEMA.

But how do you know when to stock up on certain items? Well my frugal friends, lucky for you, I’m a former extreme couponer and know a thing or two about a stockpile!

  1. Do you actually use the item? If not, then don’t buy it even if it is on sale!
  2. Make a list of all the food your family buys on a regular basis. On that list, write the price you normally pay out next to the item. Next to the normal price, put the lowest price you’ve ever seen the item sell for. That lowest price is what you will aim to purchase the item at!
  3. While shopping, if you find something at its lowest price or on a mega-sale (local grocery stores love to do this over weekend), use the “one for now, two for later” stock-up method. Plan to use one of that item this week in your meal plan and put the other two in your pantry.
  4. Take pantry inventory each month. This allows you to see what you have enough of and what you need to find a deal for.
  5. Please eat all your food. Even with a “large” stockpile of food for our family, we never let any of it go bad. If you let food go to waste, you’re wasting money and resources. If you have food nearing (but not past) the expiry date on the box and you know you won’t eat it, consider offering it in your local Buy Nothing or Freecycle group.

Every family will be different, but here is a list of things that I like to have in my pantry at all times. >>> Frugal Food List

9. Prevent Food Waste

I hate wasting food. The US wastes approximately $408 billion worth of food in a year (cringe)! Not only are you wasting money, but that food has a hard time decomposing in landfills – often releasing planet-warming methane gas. So let’s skip the bad news and get to the good news – it’s easy to prevent food waste!

Buy and prepare foods you’ll actually eat.
Seems like an easy thing to do, but marketing and eye catching packages make it hard to say no! It is okay to buy/try new foods every once in a while, but don’t make every trip to the store an experimental one.

Write down your family’s favorite meals (printable here) and create a meal plan around those meals. If you know what your family loves and doesn’t love, you can better plan, buy, and prepare your meals.

Meal Plan
Meal planning is a key tip in this crash course on how to be frugal! As food is a major line item in most of our budgets, we should make the most of it. Our method of meal planning is this:

  • Take pantry inventory
  • List what meals we can make with the ingredients on hand
  • Look at the calendar
  • Plan out meals based on our current food stock and schedule including breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks

Of course, this is somewhat over-simplified. If you want a more in-depth review of how to meal plan, check out my FREE e-book below!

Pantry Inventory
As mentioned above, we take inventory of our pantry on a regular basis. This allows us to see what we need to eat (items near expiry) as well as what we don’t have to buy. If I have a hankering for some refried bean burritos, I look at my pantry inventory to see if we have pinto beans, some type of oil, seasoning, cheese, and tortillas. I can check off what I don’t have to buy at the store and add the items I do need to a grocery list.

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    10. Bring Your Own

    Part of how to be frugal is to bring your own. Your own meals and snacks, water bottle, coffee, and anything else that you regularly purchase while you are out or at work.

    I take my water bottle everywhere. Not only can I drink from it, but if I’m with my kiddo, he can also have a drink. I also bring my own travel mug of coffee or other drinks to work or even out running errands.

    The key to bringing your own is planning ahead. If you’re leaving the house ask yourself:

    • How long will we be gone?
    • Will I likely need a drink while I’m out?
    • Do I just want water or do I want coffee, soda, etc.?
    • If I’m gone long enough, will I (or my kids) get hungry for a meal or a snack?
    • If I’m bringing a meal, will I have access to a microwave?

    We make it easy on ourselves to get drinks, snacks, and to-go meals ready by preparing the night before. We pack lunch boxes, fill water bottles, and get the coffee pot ready all the night before. It’s like a gift to my groggy future self the next morning! If it is a task that is not so enjoyable to you, just think of all the money you can save everyday: $2 for a bottle of water, $5 for a coffee, $12 for lunch, $5 for a snack, $3 for an afternoon soda – that’s $27 in a single day!

    11. Reuse

    Learning how to be frugal means learning how to reuse things to their fullest. Not only reusing items again and again for their intended purpose, but also reusing or upcycling items in a way that saves you money.

    There are so many reuse examples that are swirling around in my head but here are some of my favorites:

    • Salsa or sauce jars to storage jars
    • Old shirts to napkins, garage rags, make-up wipes, etc.
    • Juice bottles to make-do pitchers for iced tea, iced coffee, etc.
    • Tin cans to candle holders
    • Plastic water bottles used again for the same purpose or for to-go juice for kiddos
    • Large boxes into forts and craft supplies for the kids

    For more ideas on what to reuse, head on over to my sustainable swaps list!

    12. Do It Yourself

    There is something so satisfying in doing things yourself! Part of frugal living is getting used to doing things for yourself. Instead of hiring out lawn care, could you mow and fertilize your own yard? Mend your own clothing instead going to the tailor? Build your own garden beds instead of buying kits? Make coffee for yourself instead of getting to-go? Cutting your family’s hair instead of going to the salon?

    Make a list of all the things that you typically hire out. Could you do any of these things yourself?

    Extra credit reading >>> Frugal Life Hacks to Get You Started

    13. Declutter and Sell Excess Stuff

    This is definitely an “extra credit” tip on how to be frugal. BUT… if you’re in a place where you are really wanting to achieve a savings goal or need to make a large purchase (a need not a want), decluttering your items and selling them for profit can be an easy-ish way to save money.

    We made over $1000 at our first garage sale after we found minimalism! We found that after we decluttered, we simply didn’t want to bring more stuff into our home. So our shopping habits adjusted.

    A few tips for selling your things:

    • Decide if the item is actually worth selling based on the selling price or the condition it is in
    • Set a firm timeline on when things need to leave your home (i.e. having a garage sale on a certain date or only listing items online for 30 days max)
    • If selling online: price your item reasonably, take good pictures, write a good description, measure your item, and note any defects, damage, etc. Also consider increasing the price to include free shipping (because who doesn’t love free shipping!)
    • Don’t get offended if someone won’t pay the price you list it at. Be flexible and adjust your price as time goes on
    • If you don’t want to deal with garage sales or online shenanigans, consider taking your items to a consignment store or resale store
    • Actually stash the cash you make from selling your items!

    If selling isn’t your thing, consider a swap with friends to get something you do need or donating your gently used items.

    Read Next >>> How to Declutter Your Whole Home (the no-mess way!)

    14. Shop Your Home

    When you get the urge to go out and shop, remember that you have plenty already and shop your own home. As silly as that sounds, slow down before you make a purchase. Ask yourself, “Do I already own something like this?”. Often you will find the answer is yes!

    Shopping your home is a good thing to lean on when you’re learning how to be frugal. It can look like: swapping out seasonal décor, rotating your wardrobe with the seasons so it feels new, pulling out the fancy serving dishes for a party instead of buying disposable, and more.

    It is both refreshing and empowering to know that you probably have everything you need right at home. You might need to do a little declutter of your items to see what you actually have on hand. This way, you certainly won’t go out and buy a duplicate!

    A Simple Guide on How to Purge Your Whole Home
    Why We Keep Clothes We Don’t Wear + How to Let Go
    How I Eliminated Over Half of My Wardrobe
    9 Tips to Get Started Decluttering

    15. No Spend Challenge

    If all of these tips seem daunting, then try this: a no spend challenge.

    Pick your length of time (week, month, year) that fits for you right now in your current season of life. Make a list of your needs (groceries, bills, rent, daycare, etc.) and eliminate the rest from your daily spending. This means no shopping, no eating out, no movie tickets, no unnecessary purchases.

    Ripping off the spending bandage is going to hurt at first! But after a few days or weeks, not spending money starts to feel normal. You’ve probably gotten creative with food that’s already in your fridge, had a date night at home with a spaghetti dinner and a board game, and you might have just found your new favorite outfit lurking in the back of your wardrobe.

    By establishing a “no spend” time period, you are removing the option of spending money.

    See a clothing store and have time to kill? Can’t go in – it’s my no spend month! New movie at the theater you want to see? Can’t purchase a ticket – it’s my no spend month!

    While removing the option is a downer at first (believe me), you won’t even start to question whether or not you should spend the money after you settle into new habits. You’ll automatically opt for a free or frugal option instead. This could be: organizing a clothing swap instead of buying new, going to the library for books and movies instead of using Amazon or going to the movies, cooking your own take-out fake-out instead of ordering DoorDash, taking surveys or using cash-back apps to earn gift cards to use for spending.

    The options and creativity during a no spend challenge are endless! It helps build your muscles when you’re learning how to be frugal.

    Extra credit >>> How to do a Low-Buy Year

    What are your favorite ways to be frugal?

    We’ve all got to spill the beans here. From slicing soap bars in half to freezing leftovers – what’s your favorite frugal living tips or best frugal thing you do? Tell us in the comments! I’d love to hear all those fabulous (and maybe wacky) tips!

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    1 Comment

    1. I love this article. It is very thorough and has tons of great ideas. One you sort of mentioned that I did for years was what I called a pricebook. Writing down everything we buy regularly and keeping track of the prices and best sales and how often these sales come along. With a family of 6, this helped us always have enough food at good prices. Wonderful post, thank you!

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