Cutting expenses when your budget is seriously out of balance

Radical Cost Cutting

TDS Reader Solutions

How to Conquer Debt eBook

Need to Get Radical on Cutting Costs

We are in a tight budget situation because of higher prices, less work (meaning less money) for my husband, and raising a family. It is expensive for me to go to work and would mean a radical lifestyle change. I don't think that throwing more money at the problem is the answer or that a radical lifestyle change is good for the children.

I am sure there are readers out there who have lived through some tight times. For example, I always purchase the same garbage bags at Wal-Mart because I've found them to be the best deal. They used to be 20 bags for $1.50. Last night, when I purchased them, they were $2.43. It is that way with paper towels, toilet paper, laundry soap, dog food, etc. I am ready for some radical ideas on how to cut our costs more. Can readers help out?

Track Expenses

Because each family's situation is unique, it's hard to say what specific "radical" steps will save you the most money without knowing the details of your finances. What I would suggest as an all-purpose first step is to keep track of your expenses for at least a month. Total them up and sort them into categories, such as groceries, utilities, transportation, and so on. This will let you see which areas of your budget are eating up the largest share of your income. Then you can focus your cost-cutting strategies on these areas.

Try looking through the articles on the Dollar Stretcher website. There are a lot of tips for cutting costs in just about every conceivable area. One section that's sure to be useful for you is the collection of articles on "One Income Families." Another great resource is The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn. See if your library has a copy; if not, consider investing $18 or so in a copy ( also has second hand copies and many other sellers have copies available). The money-saving ideas in this book range from the mundane to the genuinely radical and are sure to net you much more in savings than the cost of the book.

Finally, always keep your eye out for a better deal. As you've discovered, even if Wal-Mart has always offered the best deal in the past, there's no guarantee it will continue to do so. So whenever and wherever you shop, compare prices with what you're used to paying and be prepared to switch if you find a better deal somewhere else. Keeping a "price book" in which you record the prices of various items at various stores helps immensely.

Wants Versus Needs

When we were going through some really rough times, I sat down with my shopping list and did some serious prioritizing. I sorted it into two new lists: Wants and Needs. Ten years ago, when my husband and I married, we made very little money, and I managed to feed both of us for two weeks on $30 to $40. That was all we had, and we made it work.

Ten years and one child later, though, our grocery bill every two weeks was nearing $200. When I sat down and really evaluated my list, I noticed that many things we had once considered "wants" we now considered "needs." I found I cut my shopping list by almost 2/3 when I did that.

However, to avoid total shopping shock, I did allow myself a couple of the wants back on the list. That saved time meant more time with the kids (two now) and was worth a few dollars if we had it!
Colleen S.

Related: Could Acquired Needs Theory Save You Money?

Been There, Done That

My husband was laid off last year, and it was very scary. There was no work in my area, so I couldn't get a job, and it was months before he found work. Here are some options. I've used almost all.

  • Go to your local public library and check out books that apply. You can go to and do a search and read reviews on books on frugal living.
  • Consume less. Don't by any impulse purchases, whether they are bargains or not. If you don't need it right now, don't buy it. It isn't a bargain if you don't need it. Instead, it's a money vacuum.
  • Modify your meals. Most Americans snack between meals and eat too much. So reduce or eliminate most snacks. Learn to eat less and don't cater to every member of your family. If someone doesn't like peas or ham, that's fine. That person has a choice to eat or not eat.
  • Eliminate extras. Cable TV, cell phones, dance lessons, band trips, memberships in most things, etc. are not necessities. You can always rejoin later.
  • No more soda or beer. As minor as this is, it's amazing how much money you will save by drinking water instead. If this will be a fighting point in your family, go for a reduction.>
  • Quit smoking. In a year, you'll have enough to go on a vacation if you're currently a pack-a-day smoker.
  • Garden. You can get an empty frosting bucket from a bakery (even at Wal-Mart) for free. Poke holes in the bottom, put in some rocks for drainage, and fill with soil. Plant some plants or seeds of things you will eat or use. Tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and snap peas all grow in these things.
  • Abandon the disposable lifestyle.


Related: How Can I Keep Up with Rising Costs on My Stagnant Income?

Win the Grocery Game

We cut our grocery spending dramatically by combining manufacturer's coupons with store sales. That way, when a product goes on sale and you have a coupon, you stock up on the product. I get many items for free and have gotten our grocery spending for a family of four down to about $50 a week, from $125. And that includes all household maintenance, personal care items, and diapers as well.

Related: Cutting the Grocery Budget Down to Size

There's Always More that Can Be Done

The bad news is that saving money takes lots of patience and effort. The good news is that most people haven't explored all of their options. Is working completely out? I have worked 25 years as a piano teacher in my own home. There was a time that I wondered if such a menial salary would be worth my college education, but it has really paid off! I enjoy what I do and can work my own hours. I don't have to worry about forced retirement. I have saved much over the years on childcare, gas, car maintenance, and have been able to deduct things on my taxes that I could also have for personal use. Do you have special talents or skills? What about jobs that young people normally do such as babysitting or a paper route? Can you work a few hours when your husband is off?

People who don't work outside the home generally have more time to use cost-saving ideas than those who are busy to the gills. When my husband faced unemployment, I decided to find all I could about gardening. I found that organic gardening was not only safer but also much cheaper than using chemicals. I got all of my information through the library. Through the years, I have saved a great deal on food. I also go pick wild berries in the summer that I know are safe. Do you have farms near by where you can pick veggies or berries in the summer? Check the want ads.

Learn a skill where you have little to lose but time. My husband learned how to cut hair. My first haircut took 45 minutes and was not perfect but he got faster and better and hair grows back. You need very little equipment for that.

What can you do without? Can you at least give it a six-month sabbatical? We decided to give up cable TV when my husband was unemployed. I bring home armloads of things from the library. I have the website on my computer and put things on hold on a weekly basis. Can you give up your subscriptions since a lot of information is on the Internet? What about the cell phone? Since I'm a stay-at-home worker and wife, I don't need a regular cell phone plan. My husband and I share a cell phone for emergencies. It is a prepaid plan that costs about $10 a month instead of $50.

Lastly, plan your shopping for once a week and plan out your route. You will spend less time shopping over all and save on gas. (I go to the library and bank on this day as well). Consider all the different places you can get what you need. Drug stores aren't really known for their food items and so often have unadvertised sales on food. Dollar or discount stores are often in the same strip malls or area as the grocery stores. Make sure to regularly check them out. Also, before buying a large costly item, check the want ads. Around here, people have garage sales all year long.
Mary in WA

Is your family heading for debt trouble? Many families are and don't even know it. This simple checklist can help you determine if you are and what you can do to avoid it.

7 Radical Cost Cutters

These are things that my family of five has been doing for several years.

  1. To the extent possible, buy everything in bulk or by the case, not individually.
  2. Use less electricity. Learn to walk around your home in darkness. It's not that hard! Learn to do things with less light or even in the dark. Eat with less light, go to the bathroom at night without turning on light, shower with less/no light. Congregate in one room. Don't have lights on in four rooms if you can all be in one room. Don't turn on lights as soon as it starts to get dim. Wait until you truly can't see what you're doing before turning on a light. The only exception would be for reading/writing.
  3. Conserve/reuse water. When showering/bathing, plug the tub and reuse the water for watering plants/gardens and flushing toilets. This will save a huge amount of water and money and requires little effort. Wait to run garbage disposal until you have fruit/veggies to wash/rinse or are draining sink after washing dishes.
  4. Drive less. For example, plan to buy groceries when you need to go to doctor's appointment. Ride your bike or walk when possible. Any time when you don't need to carry something large, walk or bike if distance is reasonable.
  5. Eat at home only.
  6. Don't waste money on junk food.
  7. Differentiate between need and want.


Survey Junkie

Put on the Walking Shoes

We've had some pretty tight times in the past. During one time after an out of province move for a job that didn't work out and then a move right back into the home we started from (this time with no job), we had to get radical. Our first course of action was to get rid of the vehicle. Not too difficult since our family van had "bit the dust" during the move. We simply went without a vehicle for one year.

That one radical move helped us significantly recover. I walked with the children to activities when possible. We did without the weekly lessons because it was too far to walk with four little kids. I went grocery shopping only twice a month. I walked there and took a cab back. We saved not only on insurance, gasoline and maintenance, but we saved an unexpected amount on not being able to go through drive-thrus for a little treat.

All in all, we made huge strides ahead that year we went without a vehicle.
Jasmine in BC

Related: Could You Earn $50 While Junior Naps?

Learning to Live without Modern Contrivances

I do medieval and 18th century reenacting and you can learn to do without a lot of things that normally seem to be essentials while you are camping in a period style. We don't have paper towels at 18th century events. Instead, we cut out squares from scraps of our linen or cotton cloth and use them as napkins and rags and the like. You can do that or buy cheap washcloths or hand towels to take the place of paper towels. You can wash and bleach them for ages until they become hopelessly stained or ragged, and then toss them and start afresh. In our medieval feast basket, I keep some men's handkerchiefs to use as napkins. Think how upscale you will feel with cloth napkins at the dinner table! You should be able to find both cheap washcloths and hand towels and handkerchiefs at a Dollar General Store or the like. Make sure you buy enough to last you between wash days.

When you have some spare time, I suggest going to the library and reading through the Foxfire books for some inspiration into living without modern contrivances. Also, since you have kids, make sure you read the Laura Ingalls Little House series to them. If they are old enough, give them the task of coming up with ways to reduce your dependence on or replace entirely disposable items. Since kids aren't conscious of social etiquette and haven't developed habits yet, they will probably come up with things that you wouldn't have thought about. And if they have a hand in the process, they will be more understanding of the changes you implement and less likely to fuss about it.
Keri in Eagleville, TN

Reviewed November 2017

Take the Next Step

Share your thoughts about this article with the editor.

Debt Book
Stay Connected with TDS

Do you struggle to get ahead financially?

Surviving Tough Times is a weekly newsletter aimed at helping you stretch your dollars and make the most of your resources.

Debt Checklist

And get a copy of Are You Heading for Debt Trouble?
A Simple Checklist and What You Can Do About It
for FREE!

Your Email:

View the TDS Privacy Policy.

Debt Book