Budget living doesn't necessarily mean sacrifice. If you're buried in debt or facing foreclosure, small changes aren't going to cut it. But if you're simply embracing a more frugal mindset, economizing can actually be cathartic. Here are 10 creative—and even enjoyable—ways to snip your spending:
1. Clothing swaps 2.0. Friends have been swapping their unwanted duds for decades, usually in small groups and over a few glasses of wine. Today, self-professed "swapaholics" are organizing larger, more sophisticated clothing swaps with hundreds of participants, and they're held everywhere from auditoriums to city parks. Some of these events operate on a one-for-one model, in which participants receive one ticket for each item they offer up, which can be traded for another, says Melissa Massello, editor-in-chief of Shoestring , an online magazine ( shoestringmag.com ) devoted to modern budget living. Others require a bag of unwanted clothing and sometimes a small fee for admission. Although the swaps are carefully coordinated, they still have a treasure-hunt feel. "It is literally a free-for-all," says Massello, who recently began co-hosting swaps in the Boston area through theswapaholics.com, and has begun branching out into other cities. Other sites that organize local events include swaporamarama.com and clothingswap.com . If you can't find a swap near you, thredUP.com operates a Netflix-style online clothing exchange.
2. Lunch clubs. Brown-bagging it is one of the best ways to slash your weekly spending, but it requires a lot of planning and prep. These days, groups of co-workers are sharing the load by taking turns providing lunch for each other during the week. It can be as easy as making an extra lasagna on Sunday night, or packing the ingredients for a large chef salad on Monday morning. "Even a fast-food meal can cost $5 or $6 a day," says Gary Foreman, a former financial planner who now edits The Dollar Stretcher , an print and online publication ( stretcher.com ). "But you can feed five people this way for about $10, and you'll spend $10 a week instead of $25." Nurturing workplace camaraderie is an added bonus.
3. DIY ideas. Along with other innovative savers, Massello's looking to the past for inspiration, " sponging up all the Depression-era wisdom spilled by her gregarious Greatest (and first-) Generation Italian-American family back in Boston," as she proclaims in her Shoestring bio. One of the site's most popular stories is "Homemade Condiments: Just Like Grandma Made," which coaches readers in making peanut butter, ricotta, ketchup, and mustard, and includes cost comparisons between recipe supplies and the store-bought equivalents. Cleaning products are other popular make-at-home items because their ingredients are simple, cheap, and often only require a trip to the pantry. "You can clean almost everything with baking soda and vinegar, which are safer for the environment than green products and cost less than any other cleaning products, green or toxic," says Jeff Yeager, author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Roadmap to True Riches and blogger at thedailygreen.com.
[Read more of Yeager's advice on How to Be a Savvy Cheapskate.]
4. Make your own beer or wine. The basic supplies and ingredients will cost you, but making several gallons of beer or wine—which can be done in an afternoon—can be quite economical, says blogger Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar. His step-by-step instructions for brewing porter include a list of what you'll need as well as a cost estimate for one batch. Hamm figures that $35 of ingredients will make seven six-packs, at a cost of about $5 each. Your start-up costs will be higher: Figure $80 for a homebrewing kit that includes a primary fermenter, bottling bucket, siphon, and other accessories. Hamm recommends turning the brewing process into a social event in which you and your friends split the costs—and the bounty.
5. Crowd buying. When it comes to discretionary spending, the collective buying power of crowds can help you nab some great deals. The concept: Local businesses offer their products or services at a large discount—think $25 for $50 worth of salon services or $35 for a half-day rafting trip—but the deal is only good if enough people snap it up. The most well-known of the sites is Groupon.com, which lists daily deals in more than 40 metro markets. Other sites that operate on the group-buying model include Boston-based BuyWithMe.com, which lists deals in four cities, and DealOn.com, which services 10 cities.
6. Freeganism for non-extremists. You don't have to climb into a garbage bin. You don't even have to get your hands dirty. Instead of buying clay pots for your container garden, ask your local nursery for its unwanted plastic ones. Day trip to the woods—or park—to forage for fresh herbs, or check sites like VeggieTrader.com, where gardeners offer up their surplus. At FallenFruit.org, downloadable neighborhood foraging maps are available for finding fruits and vegetables on public land, where they are free. "It's completely legal, but there are ethics, like taking only what you actually can eat," says Massello, who once spent a week living as a freegan for research. During that time, she took advantage of community calendars, which list free events such as concerts and art gallery openings that offer free food and wine. She also interviewed other freegans: " I heard from expert Dumpster divers who worked with local bakeries to the point where food never actually touched Dumpster. They knew what time day to go."
7. Bartering for beginners. If you're uncomfortable with the idea of bartering but want to try it, take baby steps. Start by reaching out via social networks like Facebook or Twitter, recommends Massello. "If you're a writer, ask if anyone needs résumé help, and what they can offer in return," she says. Are you a yoga aficionado? A techie? Think about your skills to determine what you can offer. If you're bartering with friends, it's important to make sure the transaction is transparent, she adds: "Just be really clear about what the exchange will look like. Instead of saying that you'll paint their house in exchange for babysitting, say you'll paint 10 hours [for a set amount of time babysitting]."
[Check out our guide to swapping goods and services online.]
House-swapping is another form of bartering. The practice has exploded in popularity over the past decade, and plenty of websites now offer directories of available houses in cities throughout the world. There are even companies like KnowYourTrade.com that vet home-exchange agencies, but some people are still turned off by the idea. For the anxious, Gary Foreman of The Dollar Stretcher recommends simply swapping homes with friends who live in another city. "M ost of us are uncomfortable with having strangers in our homes, and we're seeing more people swap with old college friends, things like that," he says.
8. Get hitched on the cheap. Weddings need not be $20,000 affairs—roughly the average amount spent these days, according to theknot.com . Consider tying exchanging vows in a national park: A permit for a hillside amphitheater in Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, costs between $50 and $200, depending on the size of the party. Follow the ceremony with a picnic, and recruit a friend or family member with a good camera—and a good eye—to take wedding photos. You might even consider asking a friend to get ordained online to become a marriage officiant; The Universal Life Church Monastery charges nothing.
9. Eat lentils. Well, not just lentils, but they cost little and have tons of nutritional value. Yeager recommends "eating lower on the food chain," which means focusing on fresh, healthy foods, and aiming to spend no more than a dollar a pound. "It's a myth that it costs more to eat healthy. You can spend a lot, but when you think about the kinds of things we should eat the most of—whole grains, legumes, and produce—they tend to cost less per pound than things that are bad for us like red meat and many processed foods that are high in trans saturated fats," he says. Y eager's list of 50 healthy foods that cost less than $1 a pound also includes chickpeas, eggs, yogurt—and of course, pasta.
10. Extreme measures. Chew a half stick of gum at a time. Time your showers with a stopwatch. Use only a pea-size amount of toothpaste. These particular things may out of the realm of what you're willing to do to save a buck, but "most people, I think, have one or two things they tend to be really frugal with," says Foreman. "Why, I don't know … we see a lot of people saving in interesting ways. What they're trying to do now is maintain their standard of living." The bottom line: Don't feel guilty about reusing plastic silverware or squirreling away restaurant soy-sauce packets. "My take is that if it bugs your family and friends to the point that they tease you, it's probably too extreme. But if not and it makes you happy, go for it," says Massello.