I often receive emails from readers who wonder how on earth we managed to survive three years of law school on a part-time income without going into debt. I have a series of posts in the works right now on specifically why we did this and how we did this, but I thought it might also be insightful for me to share a 10-part series on 100 different practical ideas which helped us live on our beans-and-rice law school budget.
Not all of these ideas will work for everyone and many of them are probably things that other frugal zealots out there are already doing, but each of these ideas could very well save you $100 per year if faithfully implement. And many of them could produce much higher savings than that.
1) Make out and follow a written budget. I cannot emphasize how much money and stress we have saved over the course of six years of marriage thanks to our written budget. I've written more on budgeting here. I also highly recommend resources by Dave Ramsey if you're new to the whole idea of budgeting or could just use some motivation and encouragement in this area.
2) Use cash only for the majority of your purchases. I know that there are a handful of folks who can use a credit or debit card without overspending, but we personally have found it is much easier for us to spend more when swiping a debit card as opposed to parting with literal cash. So we use cash for the majority of our purchases and it has saved us hundreds of dollars in little excess purchases over the years.
3) Use an envelope system. In addition to paying with cash, we also designate a certain amount of cash each month for our spending categories (groceries, clothing, eating out, gifts, etc.) and put this amount an assigned envelope. If we need to make a purchase in any of these areas, we use the cash in the envelope.
When the envelope is empty, there is no more money left to spend in that category that month. This has taught us to learn patience and self-discipline in our spending habits. Undoubtedly, this has also saved us a large amount of money.
4) Plan a menu and follow it. Not only will planning a simple menu for each week save you last-minute frustration or trips through the drive-thru lane, it will also save you money. I wrote more on how I plan our menus and weekly shopping trips here and here.
5) Designate one or two nights per week for meatless meals. Now, not all families would go for this, but I promise you that it's a simple and easy way to cut down on your grocery costs and explore some new recipes at the same time!
When my husband was in law school, we often only had $20 to spend on groceries each week so meatless meals were a must for us. However, I determined to exercise creativity in the kitchen despite my limited resources and since then, I've come up with a number of delicious meatless recipes that my husband loves. I've written more on how to keep meat from breaking your grocery budget here.
6) Buy your prescription glasses from Zenni Optical. Seriously, I think this was one of my best frugal discoveries in the last few years. I was very skeptical at the thought of purchasing prescription glasses online for only $8 to $20 per pair, but after ordering mine and wearing them for almost six months now, I'm sold! You can read more on my personal experience with Zenni Optical here.
7) Utilize your local library. I have no clue how much money we've saved by frequenting our libraries over the years. We checked out thousands of books, movies, DVDs, and CDs and had countless hours of free fun, learning, education, and inspiration as a result–all thanks to our local libraries.
When my husband and I were first married, we often went on "Library Dates". We'd just go hang out at the library for the evening, perusing books, and checking out a big stack to take home. It felt like a splurge of sorts and yet it was completely free!
8) Carefully evaluate all purchases and expenditures. Before spending money, always ask yourself: "Can I afford this? Do I really need this? Can I purchase this somewhere else for less?" Just taking the time to think before spending can eliminate many unnecessary purchases and save you hundreds (or even thousands!) of dollars each year.
9) Frequent consignment shops and thrift stores. For the first few years of our marriage, we bought very few clothes. We tried to make do as best as possible with what we already had. But when we did need to buy something, we almost always purchased things used from a thrift store or consignment shop. Yes, it takes a bit more work to look through the racks at thrift stores but the rewards in the money saved are worth every bit of it.
The funny thing is, even though our income has dramatically increased since our law school days, I still prefer to purchase the majority of our clothes second-hand. In fact, I've gotten to where most of the time I can't even bear to pay normal thrift store prices so I go on the half-price days or Dollar Days!
However, let me give one word of caution when it comes to thrift store shopping: do not buy more than you need. Just because it's a great price does not mean you need to buy it. Don't get carried away when thrift-store-shopping. Have a list of items you need and shop from that list. (Refer to #8 above!)
10) Use less whenever possible. Conserving in simple ways throughout each day can add up to big savings in the long run. Use less shampoo, less laundry detergent, fewer paper towels (or do what we've done and just eliminate them from your home and use towels instead!), turn off the lights when you're not in a room, and so on. I loved Trent's recent post on this subject.