How to become a saving Samurai: Creative ways to save money

By Dr. Kyle O'Hagan Time of article published Mar 15, 2019

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I recently wrote an article about why we find it difficult to save money. It instantly became a hit on Facebook and Pinterest, highlighting that saving money is an area of our finances that people tend to struggle with.

Because of the great response, I wanted my next post to shift away from the difficulties and focus in on some positive, creative ways that we can save money.

Start small and set mini-goals

Goal-setting can become somewhat of an overwhelming endeavor when you don’t know where to start, how far into the future you should look or maneuvering around the complications of unexpected life emergencies.

If you’re new to setting financing goals, start small. There is no need to plan out every detail of the next 10 years,when you’re struggling to figure out how to make it through the next month. This will only overwhelm you and lead you to giving up before you’ve even started.

A good alternative is to set mini financial goals. Whether it’s per week, or month or for the next 6 months, give yourself a shorter timeline and decide what you want to achieve within that time frame.

I want to save R500 this week.

To set aside at least 2 hours per week this month to budget and get my finances in order.

I will give up going out for dinner at least once a month over the next 6 months so that I can invest that money into my emergency fund.

You may be asking yourself: “Are these mini-goals even worth the effort? They’re not going to save me much.”

But don’t focus on the numbers. Focus on developing better financial habits. And, before you know it, these mini-goals will become stepping stones to allow you to set bigger, more ambitious goals in the future.

When you run a marathon, you don’t run your fastest when the gun goes off at the starting line. You conserve your energy and wait until you’re closer to the finish line to put in your all-out effort. The same could be said for our financial goals. Start at a pace that won’t exhaust you. Conserve your mental and emotional energy. And when you’ve proven to yourself that you can succeed, that is when you go all-out.

Take a look at a previous post that outlines some strategies you can use to set SMARTER goals, no matter the size. You can also download the FREE financial starter pack which provides goal-setting worksheets to help you get started.

Meal prep your way to saving money

Besides our rent/mortgage, one of our next biggest expenses is food. Whether that relates to home-cooked meals or dining out, we spend a lot of our disposable income on satiating our appetites.

One way to get around sneaky food cravings or unexpected fast food pit stops is to prepare your meals in advance. I’ve done this for years and I can’t begin to tell you how much money it has saved me.

The reason this works so well is because of something I like to call: “the fresh start effect“.

By starting each week fresh, you’re able to put the past (and any food or financial mistakes) behind you and focus your energy on making the new week a fresh start. I personally find that Sundays are the perfect day to get ahead of the upcoming week. Carve out a few hours of your Sunday to create a shopping list, buy what you need and to prepare your meals all in one go. If you’re worried that you won’t be able to fit meal prep into your busy schedule, maybe consider some of these tips.

Tips to save time (and money) with meal prep

* Consider using recipes that are simple, quick to make and at a relatively low cost. There are ample examples of these on the web, but a good place to start might be here.

* Consider using a crock pot/slow-cooker. This is one piece of kitchen equipment that I can’t survive without. It makes meal prep so easy. I just throw in some veggies, meat, spices, and coconut milk. And 8 hours later I have enough curry to last me for 12 meals (which I freeze and thaw as needed). It’s the best investment I’ve ever made – for both my wallet and health. It also takes minimal effort and time, since you let the slow-cooker do it’s thingwhile you continue on with your day.

* Consider signing up for a meal subscription service. I did this for a year when I lived in Chicago and, while it was still more expensive than making my own meals from scratch, it was still cheaper than dining out. You save significant time by not having to shop for groceries. And you save money by not buying what you don’t need. You also benefit by not eating the same meal all week while learning a thing or two about cooking along the way.

If you’re new to meal prepping, start with only making lunches for the week. When you’ve gotten into a rhythm, you can then add dinners, until you reach a point where you’re preparing most of your meals in advance.

Maximize your retirement contributions

Contributing to your retirement annuity (RA) allows you to kill two birds with one stone.

Not only do you save towards your future, but you also receive some pretty great tax (and/or employer) benefits for doing so. Essentially, it’s a double-savings!

So, how does this work? Let’s say you earn R300,000 per year and you contribute R50,000 to your retirement annuity during that year. This means that when it comes time to file your tax return, your taxable income drops from R300,000 to R250,000. Depending on your tax bracket, you’d receive a healthy lump sum back from the government.

In some instances, particularly in the US, your employer may also match your contribution to your RA, as a part of your benefits package. In addition to reducing your taxable income, you’re pretty much receiving free money from your boss. It’s a no brainer.

So, when are the best times to hike up your RA contributions?

Well, did you receive an annual bonus at the end of the year? Consider offsetting a large chunk of this amount to max out your RA contributions. Alternatively, if you have some extra discretionary savings, consider placing this into your RA before the end of the tax year to ensure you are able to receive the tax benefits.

Not only is an RA a tax-efficient savings vehicle, but it also has a set maturity date (usually around 55 years of age), which means you won’t have access to these funds until then. While this can be a scary concept to accept (especially if you’re young), it will help prevent you from dipping your fingers into these funds when times get tough.

Go green to save green

In a world facing climate change and natural disasters, such as droughts and food shortages, you can play your part in saving the earth while also saving yourself money.

* Do you have some space in your garden to start your own vegetable patch? Invest a little bit of time and elbow grease to grow your own fresh produce. Get the kids involved to make it a family-fun event.

* Meatless Mondays: consider possibly removing meat from one of your weekly meals. Not only is meat one of the most expensive parts of your meal, but the farming of livestock is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change.

* Every drop counts – for the environment and your wallet. Consider taking shorter showers, flushing your toilet less or placing a water-filled jar or brick into your toilet cistern. Alternatively, replace your faucets or shower heads to reduce the flow rate. All of these will save precious water, while racking up savings on your water bill.

* Transport-free Tuesday or Thursday: if you’re able to, consider leaving the car at home several times a week and take public transport or walk/bike to work instead. You’ll make sure there is one less car on the road and save money on refueling each month.

* Save energy: simple tips such as turning off the geyser when you’re out of town or lowering the thermostat by even a few degrees will have compounding effects on saving you electricity and money. Read this article by Stealthy Wealth, which shows how he expects a 300% return on investing in a geyser blanket.

Take part in a no-spend challenge

It seems this generation has a knack for making everything a movement. The no-spending challenge is no exception. What is it, you ask?

Well, pretty much exactly what it says. You decide on a period of time (whether it’s a weekend, a week, or even a month) when you’ll spend absolutely zero money on personal things. Nada. Zilch.

Of course, you’d still have to continue adulting and pay your bills! The no-spend challenge focuses more on reining in your spending and the temptation to buy impulsively.

There are no hard and fast rules about how to go about your no-spend challenge. You get to decide the terms, as long as it’s something that is feasible and realistic. You don’t want to have a “no-spend on food challenge” and starve yourself for a month. Here are some ideas:

The Pantry Challenge: during the time you’ve allocated, you’ll want to use up any and all food in your pantry, fridge and/or freezer. You won’t be allowed to buy anything new until all the old is used up. It’s a great way to get the creative juices flowing to decide how best to use what you have to make edible meals. Give it a try!

Free Weekend: pick a weekend and decide not to spend any money, but rather take part in all the free activities that are happening in your city. Go for a hike, a walk along the beach front or spend a lazy day at the beach.

Find a no-spend tribe: as I mentioned, no-spend challenges have become somewhat of a movement. If your friends aren’t willing to join in, find out if others online are doing it and sign up for their support groups to get tips and motivation throughout it. Here is an example.

Be honest with your friends and family

There’s nothing worse than to set yourself some financial goals, only to have your friends and family encourage you to do the opposite.

“You only live once!“

“You deserve to treat yourself!“

“Don’t be such a bore!“

These are all really tough things to hear from the people that you love. And, at certain times, you might actually want to agree with them. But these opinions can often be misguided when those closest to you are unaware of what your financial priorities are.

Sit down with them and talk them through your motivations, your concerns and why you need their support. The sooner you are honest with your loved ones, the sooner they will accept your new lifestyle, knowing the practical and emotional reasons as to why it’s important that manage your spending.

Who knows, maybe you’ll set a good enough example for them that they start asking you for help in saving money?

Make saving money fun

Let’s be real. Saving money isn’t considered the most exciting part of our finances. Or is it?

There are so many strategies to help make saving money more palatable, even fun. One example is the 52 week savings challenge, in which you save a specific amount of money each week and increase it incrementally. By the end of the year, you would have saved R13,780 (or $1,378).

An alternative to this is something I like to call the 365-day savings challenge. On day 1, you save a measly 20 cents. For day two, you increase the amount by 20 cents, to 40 cents. On day 3, you’d save 60 cents. By the end of the 365 days, you’d have saved R13,359 (or $1,335), with the highest daily savings amount being R73 on the last day.

Find out what strategy works best for you and turn it into a game. Invite friends to join. Keep each other accountable. Before you know it, you might find saving money exhilirating.

Abstain from Alcohol (even if only for a while)

It’s time for some tough love.

Alcohol is expensive. And lucrative. Bars know this. Restaurants know this. And that’s why they feel no shame in hiking prices of alcohol, knowing you’ll likely justify spending $6 on a beer or R75 for a cocktail after a long day at work.

I’ve calculated, based on the average price of a beer in Chicago, if you drank 8 beers on average per week and you stopped drinking for a month, you’d save $192 (at the average price of a beer being $6). That’s $2,304 per year. In Cape Town, using R28 as the average price for a beer, you’d save R896 per month or a whopping R10,752 per year.

Of course, not everyone drinks 8 beers a week (I was assuming 4 beers each on Friday and Saturday). Maybe you drink less or more. But, the point is, buying alcohol is practically peeing your money down the toilet.

Not only that – but, drinking alcohol introduces a host of other financial temptations. The urge for late-night pizzas or a pit stop at Taco Bell is hard to resist when you’re under the influence. By the end of a night, it’s not unimaginable to have spent over $100.

Your wallet (and your body) will thank you for the minimizing your alcohol intake.

Tips to manage what you spend on alcohol

* Get your friends together and pre-drink at your apartment, rather than buying alcohol at bars/restaurants. Buying from the liquor store is significantly cheaper.

* Take part in Sober October or Dry July or Febfast or, for the more adventurous, a year with no beer. Gather a bunch of friends who are willing to join you and make it a competition to save money. Or use these booze-free months as philanthropic events, raising money for charities.

* Ensure to drink one glass of water between each alcoholic drink. You’ll ward off the hangover and save money on drinks throughout the night.

In conclusion

Between the increase in cost of living and being bombarded by consumer marketing, it’s no wonder we find saving money difficult.

However, there are ways to get around it. Be creative. Get your friends, family and colleagues involved. Find ways to make it fun. Soon, you’ll realize there is always room to squeeze out a few more dollars.

If you have some of your own effective strategies to save money, let me know. Comment on the post below or get in touch with me. I’d love to hear your success stories and what works for you!

Dr. Kyle O'Hagan is a UCT scientist and an avid personal finance blogger. With over 20 years worth of experience in the SA schooling system, he has come to appreciate the value of a proper education and feels that personal finance is an area that is often neglected, particularly at a young age.

O'Hagan is one of Personal Finance's New Voices and his finance blog is called the Saving Scientist


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