Tran and I enjoy living cheaply without sacrificing our comfortable lifestyle. Here are some ways that we are able to save money.
We cook most meals at home. Not only are they more delicious but we know exactly what go in our bodies. We plan our meals around whatever items are on sale that week. For example, a couple of weeks ago, 4 oz. lobster tails were on sale for $3.99/ea so I bought 20 tails. I stir-fried 4 tails with ginger and scallions and froze the rest for later meals. I also bought eggplants, green beans, and zucchinis, which were all $0.59/lb. Obviously, the grocery bill could be even less without seafood but it’s my Achilles’ heel. For desserts, we snacked on blackberries and strawberries, which were on sale for $0.97/package.
My husband and I love going to the movies. However, we only go during matinee to save money. Most of the time, we go on Sunday mornings when all shows before noon are more than 50% off. We usually walk to the theater about 3/4 mile away. It not only saves money but allows us to exercise together. We also avoid buying unhealthy and overpriced snacks at the concession stands by eating breakfast at home.
As with all hotel and coffee chains, I signed up for AMC’s loyalty program. After earning 5,000 points, there’s a $5 reward that you can apply for the next movie tickets. Also, the loyalty program waives all convenience fees if bought online. We usually buy AMC gift cards through United’s portal to earn 5 miles/dollar. Not only do we save money watching movies but also earn valuable United miles without actually flying. United miles are great for redemption to Asia. For example, we used United miles to fly in First Class for our honeymoon to Japan.
Some cities offer discounted tickets on certain days. The theater in my hometown offers $6.75 (used to be $5) every Tuesday and Sunday. Make sure to check your local cinemas for deals.
Bars and Restaurants
If you’re looking for ways to better live cheaply, this is probably the easiest category to cut back on.
Our friends and we prefer to host potlucks. That way, we could try each other’s cooking without breaking the bank. Other times, we choose to meet at a BYOB restaurant. Luckily, I don’t drink alcohol or sodas so that saves some money. We also avoid smoking, using recreational drugs, or gambling. Those vices surely add up.
Occasionally, we feel like eating fast food and McDonald’s is our go-to place. Why? It has an app with weekly deals and freebies. There are free medium fries on Fridays with any purchase. We usually order two orders of 10 McNuggets and split the fries for $5 plus taxes. The deals are tailored to specific areas so check the app to see what’s offered around you.
We love Starbucks but never pay full price for the drinks. Before, we would get Starbucks gift cards from eBay for cheap or free after doing some online surveys. Nowadays, we wait until it has a promotion, which occurs frequently. Sometimes, Starbucks will give you 125 to 300 stars if you load $10 to the app. Occasionally, you can buy $10 for $5 gift cards through Groupon. Starbucks also send you weekly dash deals. Therefore, we’d only go if there’s a good deal, like earning 50-75 stars after a purchase. Unlike Tran, for some reasons, I receive buy one get one free offers quite often.
This week, I earned 125 stars after buying a tall macchiato, which is enough to redeem for a free drink/food.
Another favorite place to hang out is Panera Bread and it too has a loyalty program. Since rewards are earned based on visits, we both use the same account to earn rewards quicker. Over the Christmas break, we had $5 off a mobile order so ordered two cheese danishes for $0.57 after redeeming the coupon.
There are many places that offer birthday freebies so we both sign up for those. You could potentially eat and drink on your special day for free or really cheap. Check your local restaurants.
We spent great efforts to choose housing close to Tran’s office, banks, and grocery stores. That way, I was able to give my car to my youngest brother, who is in college. My husband walks to work daily while we walk to the grocery store weekly. More great ways to increase our step counts!
The subway station is a block away and Amtrak stations are three blocks away. Despite that, we usually use Uber/Lyft for longer trips to save time. In 2017, we spent about $2,400 total on Uber/Lyft. That may sound like a lot, but it is $200/mo between the two of us. Some families spend more than that on gas alone.
Many people we know spend between 40-60% of their gross incomes on housing alone. We spend 8% by living in a 600 sq. ft. studio. Here is a picture of the layout of our apartment.
Our friends and family frequently ask us to upgrade but since we both work a lot and I travel all the time, it doesn’t make financial sense to do that. Perhaps, we will find a larger place once kids are in the picture but right now, our small studio is big enough for two. Plus, we enjoy having a doorman and a gym on site. Why pay more for less?
Since 2015, we’ve been using miles and points from credit card sign ups to offset our travel cost. We usually fly in First or Business Class and stay at 5-star hotels for a fraction of the retail price.
For example, my mom and I flew in First and Business Class to/from Vietnam for less than $220 total. That’s $110 per person, round-trip! Sometimes, I pay even more for my brother to fly within California. There, I was able to get custom-made clothes for the wedding party and three wedding dresses for myself for $460 total.
My wedding dress cost $50.
We use Ebates to get cashback. We rarely shop in a brick and mortar store. These online stores have sales throughout the year and if we need something then would wait until there’s a sale. Rarely do we pay full price for anything. Not only do we shop at the convenience of our home but also get money back as well. By shopping online, we remove the temptations of window shopping.
During the year, our Chase Freedom credit card usually has one quarter dedicated to 5% UR points for up to $1,500 purchases at grocery stores, Amazon, or Walmart. When this happens, we often will purchase gift cards for these respective retailers, which we will use throughout the year.
Additionally, when it comes to online shopping, we usually start by looking at the Clearance tab for the item(s) we are looking for.
This is not limited to shopping but sign up for every rewards program that you use, from Bath and Body Works, AMC, MAC, Estee Lauder to Starbucks. Loyal customers get better deals. Sometimes, they will even send you freebies, especially on your birthday. You can create a separate email account for those registration.
I am an avid fan of arts and crafts projects. Dollar Tree and other dollar stores are the best place to shop for my decorative and baking projects. It is also the best place to buy wedding and birthday cards. I rarely find those items cheaper elsewhere, even Walmart.
For most personal care and household products, we buy generic, white-label, store brands instead of brand name products. More often than not, we can’t tell the differences between the cheaper and more expensive options. That said, for certain items such as skin care and electronics, we may pay slightly more for better quality.
We max out our 401(k) contributions each year. This way, we not only take advantage of employer matches, but also get to shield a portion of the incomes from our high current tax bracket. We expect our tax bracket to be much lower in retirement.
Create a budget and stick to it. I didn’t know what a budget entailed until 2013 when residency began. Tran made one for me. It really helped me visualize how my income flowed from my salary down through taxes and expenses, and finally to what I had leftover to spend and pay loans with. Because of this, I was able to tweak my spending habits, putting more toward my loan payments.
Keep track of your finances by checking your accounts often. We use Personal Capital to help keep us organized. It is a free tool that allows us to track our income, expenses, and net worth. It also allows several investment management tools to view allocations, analyze portfolio risk/return trade-offs, and run retirement analyses (review here).
We are constantly reading and learning about new ways to better improve our financial decision making. By living cheaply and below our means, we are able to save and invest for the future and help our parents with some living costs. It also allowed us to pay off $270,000 in student loans just a couple of years of working. Recently, we even developed a plan achieve financial independence by 40.
Do you have any other suggestions for living cheaply that have worked for you?