Frugal Living Basics – Feeling Thrifty!

Before we delve into the engrossing details of some more obscure frugal tips, we may as well lay out the basics.  Much of what results in keeping $$ in your pocket as well as saving the planet can be boiled down to the 4 R’s you learned in school:

  • Reduce – the amout of stuff you consume or buy
  • Reuse – what you already have, or other people’s stuff
  • Recycle – one man’s junk is another man’s treasure
  • Refuse – excess stuff, excess packaging

It really is that simple.  Let’s look into each a little further, analyzing by the most common and basic of costs (food, water, clothing, shelter):


As you go about your day, consciously pay attention to what resources you are using:


We all need to eat.  But most of us can reduce the amount of food that gets thrown out, spoiled, or wasted!

  • Meal plan – devise a meal plan week-by-week or month-by-month, and purchase your groceries accordingly.
    • incorporate meatless meals
  • only buy how much you can eat
    • buy in bulk…but only what you will reasonably consume by the best-before-date
  • buy local and in-season to reduce your global footprint (these are usually more nutrient dense as well)
  • clip or print coupons for things you already buy anyways
  • freeze items that you can’t use up before they go bad:
    • freeze leftovers in meal-sized freezer safe containers to take for lunches or to eat on rushed days
    • shred and freeze cheese
    • puree vegetables to use up in chili or pasta sauces
    • freeze veggies for stirfrys
    • cut up fruit or berries and freeze for smoothies
  • puree herbs, garlic, onion and freeze in ice cube trays for future use – just pop them out of the tray and keep in the freezer in zip-lock bags
  • if you enjoy leftovers or have to pack lunches, making extra large meals can save time and money
    • but if you’re not going to eat it, then only make how much you can eat!
    • NOTE: potatoes don’t freeze and reheat well – they go mushy.
  • some items are fine to use well after the best-before-date:
    • dry goods (flours, rice, pastas) – as long as they don’t smell strange
    • stale crackers can be crushed up and used in meatballs
    • yogurt and sour cream, being fermentation products anyways, are good for a long time as long as there isn’t mold (blue & fuzzy)
  • make your own snacks instead of buying processed, packaged snacks; these can also be healthier:
    • popcorn
    • muffins – can be homemade for about 20c each
    • cookies – can be homemade for about 20c each
    • trail mix – make a mix of nuts, seeds, chocolate chips, and breakfast cereals (cheerios, chex, shreddies, etc)


Personal Care:

  • turn off the tap when you are not actively using the water (i.e. brushing your teeth)
  • don’t run the shower full-blast; try to use 1/2 to 2/3 the pressure and you may not even notice the difference!
  • invest in a low-flow showerhead
  • take shorter showers
  • take less frequent baths (which use even more water than showers)
  • is it possible to shower every second day instead of daily?
  • invest in a low-flow toilet
  • consider eco modes for washing machine and dishwashers – faster time, lower water usage


  • use a smaller amount of water to do dishes (think camping)
  • don’t boil more water than you need (i.e. pasta, boiled eggs)


  • consider timed sprinklers
  • water gardens, lawn, etc in the evening or the morning to reduce evaporation
  • avoid watering outside when it is windy to reduce evaporation/moisture loss
  • water the lawn and plants 1-2x a week deeply instead of small amounts daily; this also encourages deeper root growth
  • consider soaker-hoses for flowerbeds and gardens
  • mulch around plants and gardens to reduce evaporation (rubber shavings, bark chunks, straw, grass clippings)
  • consider xeriscaping (landscaping that reduces or eliminates need for watering)


  • purchase only what you need for about 7-9 days use (to get you through a week of laundry)
  • think outfits, not pieces – the more your wardrobe can mix and match, the less articles of clothing you need
    • think of some good basics:
      • 1 pair jeans
      • 1-2 pair black pants
      • 1-2 pair grey or brown / khaki pants
      • 1 pair comfy pants
      • several tank tops / t-shirts
      • several long-sleeved shirts
      • several short-sleeved shirts
      • 1 sweater / cardigan
      • 1 dress / dressy-ish outfit (if needed)
      • 1 belt (black)
      • 1-2 pr pj’s
    • wool is higher maintenance (cold wash gentle, no dryer), but it can be reworn as it doesn’t hold stink – i.e. Icebreaker Merino
    • polyester lasts forever, but holds in smell more than natural fabrics
  • decorating our bodies with clothing is kind of like decorating a living room – buy the functional ($) basics first in a timeless neutral (black, browns, grey, cream/white), then punch it up seasonally or trendily using affordable accessories
  • you really, really don’t need a closet full of clothes, and you really don’t need to be on top of the latest clothing trends.  Even if you work in a clothing store!  This is a really hard one…I know…unsubscribe from mailing lists, ban yourself from websites and shopping trips if you must.
  • don’t keep what you won’t reasonably fit into within a year…or two
  • when properly taken care of, clothing can last years
    • wash only when dirty/stinky – spot wash if possible (this will keep it looking newer longer)
    • launder according to manufacturer’s directions, or:
      • wash in cold/cold unless quite soiled
      • hang or lay flat to dry, or tumble dry low and gentle
      • air dry polyesters, rayon, and other synthetics as well as wool


There’s a reason Tiny Houses are slowly becoming more popular – we really don’t need 1000 square feet of living space per person.

On they state:

A smaller home requires less embodied energy to build, has lower heating and cooling needs, needs fewer furnishings, takes less time to maintain and requires less work to fund.


Apart from buying, or building, a smaller house, we can shrink down our bills:


  • Turn lights, appliances, and electrical devices off when not in use
  • Unplug electrical devices that won’t be used for a long time
  • Turn down the temperature on hot water heater
  • Invest in hot-water-on-demand if replacing a hot water heater
  • Invest in energy efficient appliances; balance the cost of energy with the cost of the appliance over its projected lifespan (i.e. it may not be worth an extra $400 to shell out for a refrigerator that costs $4 less a year to run than a similar cheaper model).
  • Set thermostat lower in winter and higher in summer to reduce furnace / air conditioning usage; reduce furnace / AC use when no one home; reduce furnace / AC use at night by adjusting bedding and clothing
  • Make use of fans to reduce AC usage
  • Consider space heaters to reduce furnace usage (if usage confined to a single or small room)
  • Use cold water for wash loads (darks, clothing that is not overly soiled), and warm water for heavily soiled clothing (warm wash, cold rinse)
  • Air dry clothing where possible – consider clothing lines/racks
  • Consider eco modes for washer, dryer, dishwasher for clothes/dishes that are only lightly soiled
  • Seal air-leaks, door and window frames, etc.


  • Start with some classic, timeless basics (color and style) in as good of quality as you can reasonably afford:
    • buy what fits you (size-wise)
    • buy what you need and will use (not an extra bed for Aunt Betty who might visit once a year)
    • leather is easier to clean than fabric and is more durable; some qualities of leather hold up better to pets and kids than others – think if you could potentially have either of those in the next 10-15 years and plan accordingly
      • my best friend went through 3 fabric couches in the time of our one tough-leather couch, which is still holding up strong (2 kids and 3 dogs later) EXCEPT that we cheaped out and did vinyl on the sides and back, which is now cracking.  Mental note: spend the extra $300 and get all-leather.
      • think of the cow.  Plan to treat your leather gently and carefully, and appreciate that an animal gave its’ life for your couch.
      • white/cream is not a good choice for most people.  Beautiful yes.  Practical no.  Think of the cow.
    • hard woods (maple, oak) hold up MUCH better than soft woods (pine)
    • simple is better.  You can always dress it up with accessories.
  • Think multi-purpose.  It might be a good idea to get that couch with a hideabed.
  • Instead of buying a huge table for company, what about the size of table you would normally use, and then using TV tables and folding chairs for company?
  • Purchase second-hand when possible (lots of people downsize or upsize bedroom suites, dining tables, and sectionals).
    • Furniture refinishing is pretty easy if there is a good quality wood backbone to it:  strip, sand, stain, seal.  I’ve done a triple wooden dresser (which was wood veneer and too thin once sanded down – look for SOLID wood) and a desk; each took about a weekend of work.  Painting with chalk paint is even easier (no prep, just paint, antique if desired by a bit of sanding, and seal).
    • Reupholstering is a little tougher, but not impossible.  Definitely a great option if you just want something to last a while, while you save up for something better.
  • Accessorize with color and trendy items – these can often also be found second-hand as people change tastes and colors.


  • carpool
  • take public transit
  • walk or cycle
  • consolidate down to 1 vehicle per family
    • buy second-hand, ideally 2-4 years old as most of the depreciating in a vehicle occurs in the first 3 years; but then an older vehicle starts to cost more in maintenance/repair.
    • only buy the size you need.  Most city-folk do not need gas-guzzling trucks or SUVs.
  • consolidate trips and figure out the most efficient route between stops


Borrow seldom-used things (ie. tools) from a friend, family member, or neighbor; and be willing to lend as well!

Reuse what you can:


  • use up leftovers to create new dishes, such as stirfrys


  • collect rainwater to use for plants


  • save children’s clothing to use with multiple children
  • consider gender-neutral clothing for young children/babies so it can be used for more children
  • buy second-hand as much as possible – there are numerous consignment shops and thrift stores that sell quality clothing second-hand, and many of these shops run sales regularly as well!   Many garage sales have children’s clothing.
  • swap groups/sites – there are clothing swap sites on social media for both adults & children.  Also try sites such as eBay and kijiji.
  • consider clothing swaps with friends of similar size
  • pass children’s clothing around for increased re-use
  • donate or sell clothing you are finished with that is still in wearable condition
  • clothing that is stained or torn can be used for other purposes:
    • Cotton – torn into strips for rags (great for cleaning grease or paint spills so you can just throw them away); repurpose into other clothing articles; cut into pieces for craft purposes (i.e. Parachutes for Bibles, Bravery Buddies)
    • Denim – make shoes for Sole Hope; cut into squares for quilting
    • Mixed fabrics – consider making into quilts or using for craft supplies; repurpose into other clothing articles

Household Goods

  • reuse what you can:
    • wash ziplock bags and dry inside out on the counter
      • if you reuse your bags about 5x each, assuming you would normally use one box of bags (50) every 2-4 weeks, at $5 a box, this will save you $50-100 per year, or $3000 – $6000 over your adult life.
      • Lori-Valesko-plastic-bag-drying-Jan-2011
    • use grocery bags for non-kitchen garbage
      • I used to use grocery bags for kitchen garbage as well, but they frequently have holes, so I would end up with a stinky, rotting mess in my garbage can.
  • bring your own cloth shopping bags and refuse the plastic ones


A ton of money can be saved (which will also reduce your footprint on the Earth) by buying and selling used.  There are many avenues which facilitate this, including local swap and buy sites (kijiji, craigslist), national/international (eBay), and garage sales / thrift shops.  You will make much more money selling things on swap sites (where people have actively sought out your item) than at garage sales (opportunistic people looking for great deals).  I have hosted dozens of garage sales in my life, and unless you are on a very busy street, traffic is light and shoppers aren’t willing to pay much.  The inverse is also true, you will get better deals if you shop at garage sales than on swap sites.  However, time is money (and gas is money), and shopping costs money – as you will always find “great deals” 🙂

Find out what recycling facilities are in your area, but these items can commonly be recycled:

  • paper
  • cardboard
  • some plastics
  • aluminum cans ($)
  • glass bottles ($)
  • glass jars
  • tin cans
  • electronics

As well, once you are done with clothing or household items that are still functional, please donate them to a charity thrift store.  (If possible, avoid Value Village and Goodwill, which operate for-profit.  Look up some smaller charity fundraising thrift shops in your area! Also sometimes people hold charity fundraising garage/yard sales – these can be great to donate to!)





It is difficult to stop buying things we don’t need.  Incredibly, indescribably difficult.  And it’s almost impossible to refuse to buy something based on its’ packaging – really, that’s not a great purchasing decision unless all other factors are equal.  So…I just have one suggestion here.

Refuse to go shopping.

Unsubscribe from catalogues and mailing lists.

Instead of shopping:

  • find a new hobby (that isn’t too expensive!)
    • perhaps you could make baby blankets for the NICU or local women’s shelter
    • or sew shoes for Sole Hope
    • or sew Bravery Buddies for children facing serious health challenges
  • get out in nature, go for a walk or a hike, ride your bike, go camping
  • volunteer – as a cashier or help in the back at a charity thrift store, at the local animal shelter, at a senior citizen’s center, at a women’s shelter
  • read the news
  • write a blog!
  • read a book
  • go to the library
  • draw, color or paint
  • learn about something new, like geography, history, or scientific discoveries
    • there are so many great documentaries on Netflix!
  • make your own personal care products or cosmetics
  • take a cooking class

You can feel better that you are doing your part to help take care of the planet, while keeping $ in your wallet!  I know, I know, so much of it seems to make such little difference, but over time (average lifespan is over 80) it really adds up!



Appliances – Reduce Use and Maintain Regularly

We have already discussed turning off and unplugging appliances when not in use to reduce energy consumption.  This also preserves the life of the appliance by not contributing to its’ aging when not being actively used.  So, other than turning if off and/or unplugging it:

Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for maintenance.  Regularly maintaining your appliances will prolong their lives, as well as improve their energy efficiency.  I am thinking specifically of:

  • Changing furnace filters monthly (or as specified)
  • Regular furnace inspection (yearly) and duct cleaning (depends how dusty things are in your home!  Regular furnace filter changes, and periodic vacuuming of the parts you can reach with your vacuum can lengthen time between duct cleans.  As well, if anyone has airborne allergies in your home, or if you have pets, this will require more frequent duct cleans).
  • Cleaning out your desktop computer’s hard drive case / fan
  • Cleaning your oven, stovetop, microwave, fridge (won’t improve lifespan, but will keep it looking newer longer, so you won’t be so tempted to replace it)
  • Vacuuming the back of your fridge (where the coils are) – now this is a tough one.  It necessitates pulling your fridge out and potentially wrecking your flooring.  So…I don’t actually do it.  But it would improve your fridge’s performance and lifespan.
  • Cleaning out your dryer filter after EACH LOAD – this reduces build up inside the ducting, and reduces risk of fires, as well as improving dryer efficiency
  • Cleaning out your dryer ducting yearly – all that metal tubing – this improves dryer efficiency and reduces risk of fire
  • Cleaning out your vacuum filter regularly – we have a cannister-type and I sometimes scrub the holes out with an old toothbrush
  • Cleaning out your washing machine trap (see instruction manual), and periodically scrubbing the insides that you can see/reach where gunk accumulates
  • Cleaning out your dishwasher inside – seals, edges where gunk accumulates
  • Clean the crumbs out of your toaster and toaster oven regularly

Another way you can save on energy and appliance use is only running appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines when they are full (full loads).  If they are not full, consider using Eco modes, or washing by hand.

Have a small family?  Consider investing in a toaster oven and using it instead of your large oven when possible.  We have a convection model, and although it doesn’t provide even enough heating for cookies, it does great for casseroles, chicken nuggets, and reheating leftovers.

Replace appliances when they are no longer working properly – both for your safety and to save electricity.  When replacing appliances, consider energy efficient models and the size you need for your family (or potential family size over the potential lifespan of the appliance).


  • Keep appliances clean and in good repair through regular cleaning and maintenance.
  • Run appliances when they are at full capacity; in the meantime, consider washing by hand (clothes, dishes) or using a smaller appliance to do the job (toaster oven, microwave).
  • Consider energy efficient models, buy only the size you need (or potentially need over the lifespan of the appliance)

Saving Money Through Contests and Coupons

Ok, folks, today we’re going to talk about Contests and Coupons.

There are people who make cutting coupons their job.  They then go out, and systematically shop and buy vast quantities of these items.  Maybe they re-sell them for a profit?  I do not know.  Apparently, though, you can double up on some coupons (manufacturer coupons plus store coupons) to get things almost free sometimes.

Clipping Coupons

Coupons are absolutely a great money-saver when it comes to items you are planning to buy already, and will use.  The purpose of coupons (from the store or manufacturer’s perspective) is to lure you into buying an item you normally wouldn’t, or into buying more things than you would have bought otherwise.  As long as you are aware of this – and ask yourself if you really will use it and need it – then you are less likely to be tricked 🙂  Even with a coupon, the no-name or store brand may be cheaper and just as effective.

Coupons for many brand-name products can often be located on the manufacturer’s website, for everything from razors to diapers.  Some coupons (like pediasure / ensure) are longstanding and are basically always available for you to print.  It pays to google coupons for things you regularly need or pricier items you will need to buy soon.  Watch out for the up-sell though; you may get 75 cents off the fancy sparkle-toothpaste, but the regular ole’ fluoride tube of crest or colgate is just as effective at preventing cavities and is only $1 a tube.

A note on bargain-hunter websites.  These seldom yield useful coupons, but they do log your IP address.  A more privacy-safe way to get coupons (and avoid costly computer viruses) is to go to manufacturer websites directly and look for coupon sections.  You can also email the company using the contact info and request coupons (and samples!), which most companies will send you!

Watch for store sales, and try to purchase enough to last you until the next sale on that item (about every 6-12 weeks, depending on the item and store).  Bonus if you can use manufacturer coupons on top of store sales!

About Contests – stores and manufacturers aren’t holding contests because they love you.  They are hoping to generate future sales, or else are after your personal information to help them with marketing (or worse).  Your personal information is valuable, so only enter contests from reputable companies and sources, such as:

  • local businesses that you trust
  • reputable, long-standing businesses (i.e. Walmart)
  • fundraisers you trust (verifiable)

Always give the minimal amount of information needed; you don’t have to fill out every line!  While they need some way to contact you if you are a winner (and often, to try to sell you something), keep your birthday & year, income level, etc. a secret.  I always use the same fake birthday for online and contest use!  All they need to know is that you are of legal age to win something (over 18).  It’s also a good idea to have an anonymous email address for giving out in such instances – such as through gmail or hotmail.  Use this anonymous email account and ID for anyone who is not a friend or family member.  Use discretion – and if in doubt, don’t enter.  It’s not worth the loss of privacy sometimes!


  1. Collect coupons for things you regularly buy or will need to buy soon.  These can be found on manufacturer’s websites, or obtained by contacting companies directly.
  2. Watch out for the up-sell; the fancy version isn’t necessarily a better performer.
  3. Watch for store sales, and try to purchase enough to last you until the next sale on that item (about 6-12 weeks, depending on item and store).  Try to use manufacturer coupons on top of sale prices.
  4. Only enter contests from verifiable and reputable sources – your personal data is worth a lot!
  5. Have an anonymous email address to use when contacting companies, entering contests, etc.

The Art of Returns


Embracing returns is going to save you money.  And if you are as indecisive as I am, it is going to save you A LOT of money.

I spend a lot of time in stores staring, reading labels, hemming and hawing.  I narrow things down.  I think about an item’s use.  I think about whether I really need it or not.  I think about if it’s the best product for the job, and if it is good value for the money.  I google to see if there are coupons for it, or if it will come on sale.

I buy it.

I get home.

It looks different in natural lighting.  Or it’s the wrong one/brand/color.  Or it comes on sale next week.  Or I find it cheaper, or a coupon for it, online.

Instead of shelving it…

take a deep breath…

…breathe with me – we are going to return it / get price protection.

Most stores have SOME sort of return policy.  It is a good idea to become familiar with their return policy BEFORE purchasing an item in some cases; such as if you are not sure a clothing article will fit and you can’t try it on, or if you are uncertain about the product in any way.  Return policies vary from:

  • Strict.  No returns, or very limited returns (new with original tags and packaging, within 7 days, defective product).
  • Moderate.  Returns limited to new with original tags and packaging, or defective product, but a longer time-frame (14-30 days generally).
  • Super Great For Indecisive People.  Returns accepted for changing your mind, product not as expected, tags possibly removed or packaging mangled, and a great time-frame (30-90 days).  Receipts are almost always required, except for possibly defective items.

Now, I’m not great at keeping my receipts, unless I am not sure if I will keep an item or not (which does happen rather frequently).  But it’s a good idea to keep ALL receipts for about a 30-day window, because you never know when that new $15 LED lightbulb will burn out on the second day of use.  To keep the clutter down, have a current-month envelope, and when it switches to a new month, start a new envelope.  Each month, throw away the receipts that are over a month old and re-use the envelope (saving trees and $) for the next month.  If you never have to root through and find a receipt, great.  But there have been a number of occasions when I’ve wished I kept the receipt.

(I used to keep all receipts.  And semi-organized them in grocery bags under my bed.  Until I had 3 year’s worth of receipts and dust bunnies under there and my hubby said ENOUGH!)

Here are my Return Tips:

  1. Shop at stores with generous return policies (Costco, Walmart, London Drugs, Shopper’s Drug Mart, Superstore, Sears, The Bay, Home Depot, Chapters-Indigo, Amazon, Old Navy, Gap).  These are generally large chain stores, that also often have good pricing and bargains.  These aren’t always the most environmentally friendly options, but hey, my priorities align with my indecisiveness and thriftiness.  By all means, shop local/specialty if you don’t have my challenges in decision-making!
  2. Keep the tags on things until you are SURE you NEED and LOVE the product.
  3. Try not to mangle packaging, and keep it until you are SURE you NEED and LOVE the product.
  4. Return things that you don’t NEED or LOVE
  5. Here’s a tip, most of the above stores will take back things you opened, tried, and just didn’t like.  Like make-up.  Ask me how I know.
  6. The more you do it, the easier it gets 😉  I don’t particularly enjoy returning things, but generally I have at least one return to do a month.
  7. Have a pre-determined price limit on your time/effort.  For me, it’s $5.  I don’t return anything worth under $5, nor do I point out cashier or price errors under $5 that I notice after the fact – whether it’s in the store or my favor.  I do try to pay attention as things are ringing up that the prices are reasonably correct, but I don’t have everything memorized and written down (nor do I have the headspace to do that at this point in my life).
  8. Return things when you already have to go back to the store or are in the area.  
  9. If you would have to make a special trip or a far trip to return something, consider the value versus your effort.  Perhaps you could sell it at a loss on a swap site or kijiji and save yourself the drive, chalking it up as a learning experience.
  10. If something is faulty, return it.  If you don’t have the receipt, contact the manufacturer/company with a description of the problem, and ask them if they would consider replacing it or sending a coupon towards a new one.  Be polite.  Most reputable companies will do so, even without a receipt.  Be prepared to take and send a picture if that helps build your case.