How we save money in little ways to get big results

In honor of National Financial Literacy Month, I wrote about my favorite personal finance blogs, other websites and resources two weeks ago. I also wrote about how to save money when raising a baby or toddler on Monday.

This week, I wanted to focus on saving money in other categories. While children are a factor in them, they’re not the focus. I gave them their own post since somehow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates that it costs $233,610 for a middle-income, two-child family to raise a child in 2015That figure doesn’t even include college expenses. Raising kids is expensive, but I truly believe it doesn’t have to be THAT expensive.

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Seriously, that’s between $12,350 and almost $14,000 per year. We don’t spend anywhere close to that thanks to minimal shopping, generous friends and family and taking advantage of free or cheap, family-friendly recreation. That’s just for one child, and the estimate doesn’t include other household expenses.

We’re still working on our financial plan, but we’ve been finding more areas to cut back in– not just where our kid is concerned, but in nearly every category. Every time we save money, we can put it towards our priorities: retirement, a house, and our toddler’s future.


Grocery shopping has probably been the hardest area for us to save money in for non-fixed expenses. It’s easy to let food go to waste, buy more than you need, or eat out when you’re tired.

But making a budget and sticking to it can save you tons of money. Be intentional when you shop and try to stick to a list. Don’t let items “jump” into your cart. You’re an adult and you– not the unlisted ice cream– make the decisions.

Sticking to the peripheral sections of the store lets you generally find fresher foods (hummus, vegetables, fruits, cheese, dairy milk, dairy alternatives, etc.) Start there to buy whole foods, then make your way to the inner aisles to find the rest of the ingredients. Cooking meals at home can save money and you know exactly what you’re getting. You can make simple, Blue Zone-friendly meals using healthy, largely inexpensive ingredients.

Growing food in a garden can require start-up costs if you don’t already own any tools, plants or seeds, but friends or family may let you collect seeds or plant cuttings from them. Try asking your neighbor if you can take a few inches off her mint so you can plant your own, or seeing if a family member will split the cost of a seed order in exchange for some of the seeds.

My sister-in-law, her sister and I all split a seed order this year to save money. If there was a packet only one of us ordered, we paid full price for it, but some were split two or three ways. Since some packets come with dozens or hundreds of seeds, there’s still plenty left for a modest garden. I did the same with a former co-worker. It helps cut the seed and shipping costs. I’ve found that seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Park Seed have a great germination rate, and I had a great experience with my Park Seed blueberry plant.

Blueberries in a container garden
My blueberry plant grew strong and tall (for a dwarf plant) in its new home, bearing beautiful berries. My dwarf blueberry plant did great in a large container!

Using Ibotta lets you get a rebate on certain purchases– not just in grocery, but for general shopping, as well. While there’s not as many options for getting cash back on fruits and veggies, there are a few, and if you buy cereal, pasta, salad dressing, feminine hygiene products, toothpaste, etc., you can find something to scan in and begin building up your balance. It’s not much at first, but can save money over time.

You can read more about my experience with Ibotta. Try my referral code, jihhwoh, or use this referral link if you want to create an account on your computer.

Chobani yogurt shown with a rebate in Ibotta.
Buying this Chobani yogurt got customers $1.20 in cash back while the Ibotta offer was valid.

Transportation costs

My husband and I were really blessed with being able to find housing close to our jobs after we graduated and during our entire marriage so far . Even when we moved or switched job locations, we’ve never had to make a long commute. Now, I do freelance writing, so while I use some gas going to appointments, I try to build it into my fee. Since I largely work from home, I save a lot on gas money and car maintenance even over the previous short drive to my former office.

We know that living near our jobs has saved us a lot of money, time and car maintenance over the years. If we were putting on the extra miles, we’d likely be more tempted to get fast food or order dinner in. We’d also spend more on oil, gas, tires and more. Our time to spend together, volunteer with our church or meet with friends and family would also be significantly reduced.

It took some searching, but we were able to find housing in areas where we work. Even if the rent is a bit higher than you like, compare that increase with the amount you’d save in fuel driving from a slightly cheaper house or apartment. It may be cheaper to commute, but you may be surprised and learn that it’s better to pay a slightly higher rent.

I also have an old bicycle my family gifted me years ago. I still ride it and someone at our church recently repaired it for a minimal fee (which he asked us to donate to the church instead of paying him.) I’ve never left my bicycle outside, and have gotten proper safety equipment over the years (including helmets and spoke reflectors) to make sure my ride is safe.

If you live in an area where it’s safe and possible to do so, try biking to work or the store. You can use a bike trailer to haul your kids or purchases. You can save money in fuel and car maintenance costs even on short trips since they add up.


Using a bike instead of getting a gym membership is a great way to save money. You can often find bikes second-hand for cheap. Just do a safety inspection before you buy.

Helmets are something I don’t recommend you buy used. You don’t know how old they are or if they’re damaged in some way. We recently upgraded our bike safety equipment to make sure we’re safe. While I love to save money in almost every other way, we looked for quality helmets that offered MIPS protection.

Toddler wears a blue bike helmet in a bike trailer.
My toddler wears her Giro Scamp MIPS helmet on bike rides. It seems comfortable, and she hates taking her “hat” off.

You can buy yoga mats like this one inexpensively on Amazon. Try following free workouts offered by Cassie Ho of Blogilates, or using free YouTube pilates or yoga exercises. I like using the app Yoga Studio. Use it as quiet time away from the kids, or get the whole family involved. You can even find mama-baby yoga DVDs (though of course dads can use them, too!)

Sometimes you can find group yoga sessions for a low cost or for free. Many resorts, parks and other places offer them. A quick Google search may yield fun results.

Instead of a gym membership, you could save money and just buy second-hand gym equipment on sites like Craigslist. Often the equipment was rarely, if ever, used, but the price is very low.

You could also get an Iron Gym to do pull-ups in your doorway. We’ve had ours for years!

Many areas offer inexpensive canoe or kayak rentals. It’s a great way to get in a workout while enjoying the water. I’ve even seen some places that offer free use of the boats during certain times of the week.

Or, for completely free, go on walks or hikes! Your local Chamber of Commerce, visitor’s center or similar location may be able to direct you to some good walking, hiking or biking trails. Many of those places offer maps of trails. If you’re unsure about hiking alone, ask the visitor’s center or ranger station if there are any regular group hikes you could join. You could also check with places like REI to see if they have hiking events coming up.

REI also offers a list of events that includes pop-up picnics, group bike rides or hikes, and lots of free and paid classes that may be a good way to find inexpensive learning and entertainment. Often (though not necessarily always), the difference between member and non-member class fees is about $20 to $30. Currently, a lifetime REI membership costs $20, so you could make up the difference with just one class by getting the membership.

Books and printing

My toddler and I visit our local library at least once a week, often twice a week. We each pick out several books for the week, and when we check out, the library gives us a receipt telling us how much we’ve saved by borrowing the books instead of purchasing them. We’ve only had our cards a few months since moving and we’ve already saved well over $900!

Most of the books we really enjoyed, but would have no room for at home permanently (especially in our new, much smaller house). Some books were inappropriate, boring or just not what we were looking for. I borrowed a Baby Einstein book for my toddler that we quickly returned since we found it boring. I’ve already returned two or three books without finishing them.

(Don’t worry– I just read a trilogy and am in the middle of another series! We read a TON, but we’d rather spend our time reading fun, quality books instead of useless drivel.)

Right now, we have two printers that both refuse to work. I’m not sure what’s wrong with one, and the other just won’t work with my laptop, though it works with my husband’s old computer (but he can’t remember his password).

We could go buy a new printer, but we haven’t been doing a lot of printing lately. While we plan to replace or fix ours, we’ve just made the rare prints we’ve needed at the library for a few cents per page. It would add up over time, but since we’ve only printed a few pages it’s so far been much cheaper than it would be to buy a new printer and ink. It’s also forcing us to be very intentional about what we print.

We DO plan to buy a new printer soon, but in the meantime, this has been a good solution. We’re still getting organized from our move, so it’s one less thing to deal with at the moment.


The library also offers story time for kids of different ages. In my daughter’s group, they ready a story, sing songs with hand motions, review ASL signs, use shaker eggs and wave colorful scarves with music, and play together. They have a blast, learn a lot and it’s totally free. My family uses a lot of ASL, but we’re still learning, and it’s a great time for us to learn a new sign or practice ones we already know with other kids.

Many libraries have books that can help you learn a new skill or language. I own this awesome, color-page knitting book and noticed that my library does, too. The Teach Yourself Visually books have been an excellent resource for me. I haven’t tried them, but I’ve seen several free knitting and crocheting groups listed at local libraries. Some are specifically intended for beginners who want to learn.

I also use a free app called Duolingo to work on my Spanish, which I practice on my toddler. It teaches her and lets me practice, too. We also use YouTube to listen to free music, either in Spanish or English, to teach us Spanish and let her learn about colors, her ABCs, etc. She loves to say familiar words as she hears the songs. (Our toddler doesn’t get screen time yet beyond seeing photos or videos of family, or video chats with family. But we listen to the audio together.)

I use the app Marlee Signs to work on my ASL. Some portions are free, and others are inexpensive.

Coursera is an option for learning a huge variety of topics, including English, Excel, digital marketing, psychology… just about anything. It’s free and the course information is from the top schools in the world.

There are certificate and degree options for varying pricing, though the website says some financial aid is available. But if you want to just go through the class material to pick up a new skill for fun or your résumé, it’s a great free resource to check out. If it’s something you want to learn but don’t need class credit for, you can save money by going through the material yourself.

Save money on utilities

One big area we’ve cut costs in is utilities. We never used a ton since it’s just the three of us and we didn’t have sprinklers, a pool or other large draws. But we knew we could get our bill down.

I use container trays under some plants to make sure they absorb water that drained beneath when I watered them. It can help save a bit of water. I also manually water our plants as needed, so I don’t have to get a sprinkler system or worry about over-watering.

We use cloth diapers, which increases our water usage a bit, but it’s not significant. It also helps us to save money instead of buying disposable diapers. Instead of using the dryer, we put them and our clothes on the clothesline if the weather allows. This saves us quite a bit on our electric bill. You could use a drying rack if you don’t have anywhere for a clothesline. (I wrote about our cloth diaper laundry routine if you’re curious, as well as why we choose to use cloth diapers for our baby.)

Cloth pocket diapers and inserts dry on a clothesline
I love seeing cloth diapers hanging on our laundry line!

We also use energy-efficient appliances. When we were considering where to move, this house won big points for having an energy-efficient washer, dryer, fridge and stove. It would be expensive to buy them, but we’re enjoying the benefits.

Over the years, we’ve made sure to replace lightbulbs with LEDs. Short-term, they’re more expensive, but over time they can really save money on energy costs. You can calculate what your savings would be here before you buy them.

What are your best money-saving tips? In what ways do you need to improve?

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