How to Live Happily on Less

As creative economizers are discovering, cutting back doesn’t have to mean giving up the good life.

By SHARE

[See the Secret to Living Well on $40,000 a Year.]

Become a smarter shopper. Do you know where your dollars go? When Ingram noticed that she was making all her business and personal calls from her cellphone, she dropped her land line and started saving $800 annually.

In some cases, getting a price reduction only requires asking. Belonging to a group like AAA or AARP, for example, affords discounts at thousands of places—and not just hotels and car rental companies. AAA members, for instance, are entitled to breaks on products and services from Dell computers, hearing aids, and drug prescriptions to flower deliveries and restaurant outings. Bank of America offers its credit or debit card holders free admission to select zoos and museums one weekend each month.

Seeking out cheaper or store brands—64 percent of grocery shoppers have begun doing so, according to a recent study by the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte—is another painless way to save. "It became clear to me that consumerism is a marketing game of always making you want more. I realized I had the power to break the cycle, deciding for myself what I do and don't need," says Aaron Ginn of Dallas, 23, who recently made the decision to switch from designer labels to store-brand clothing and from high-end grocery store items to generic brands at discount shops.

Downsize. In September, Ginn, who works for a company with an online tool that helps consumers get a handle on their medical expenses, made the biggest change yet, moving from a downtown high-rise apartment to a bedroom in a suburban tract house shared with friends. Not only did he slash his monthly rent from $1,100 to $500, but he also gained a camaraderie he didn't have while living alone. "Whether buying a home or renting an apartment, people can save thousands of dollars by downsizing even a little," says Gregory Paul Johnson, president of the Small House Society, an advocacy group for greener living in Iowa City.

[See 5 Reasons You Should Buy a Small House.]

While a handful of extremists are finding satisfaction in newly built "micro homes" of just a few hundred square feet, most people are scaling back more modestly. The average newly built U.S. home has shrunk slightly in the past three years, falling from a 2007 high of 2,521 square feet to 2,392 in 2010. That's a significant saving, Johnson says, given that construction costs run from $120 to $200 per square foot and smaller homes typically mean lower taxes, less expensive maintenance and repair, and lower heating and cooling bills.

Rediscover lost pleasures. It's no coincidence that what's become known as the "slow" movement—Slow Food, Slow Craft, Slow Design, and the like—has taken off since the recession. From growing and cooking your own food to decorating more sparsely, these shifts to a slower, more old-fashioned lifestyle not coincidentally usually save money, says Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which is based on the Japanese approach of finding serenity in simplicity. Modern homesteading—going back to basics by growing and canning your own food, raising chickens for eggs, even making your own clothing and furniture—has become increasingly popular; one website forum, Homestead.org, has more than 6,000 online members.

[See Modern Homesteading: How to Live Better on Less.]

With Americans expected to spend $362 billion eating out this year, cooking can offer especially impressive savings. Earlier this year, Toni Dolce, a New York City vocalist and voice-over artist, and her husband Andrew Bove, a music producer, began cooking at home several days each week rather than eating out nightly, after calculating that their monthly restaurant expenses had risen higher than their city apartment's rent. Because they especially favored international fare, they gathered recipes and now experiment widely, cooking to the accompaniment of the particular culture's music. "My favorite part is when I'm cleaning the dishes and my husband whirls me into the living room to dance to the ethnic music," Dolce says. As an added bonus to saving about $500 a month, they each have painlessly lost 10 pounds by avoiding restaurant food.