When you’re trying to live a frugal lifestyle and save money, it can seem counterintuitive to buy anything new.
Yet, that’s exactly what many money-conscious people do.
The difference is, those who have mastered the art of frugality don’t just buy things; they invest in them. And they don’t just invest in “stuff;” they invest in services and tools that actually save them money over time.
The truth is, there are a number of everyday items to invest in that can pay for themselves in a short amount of time — then help you save hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars over the months and years.
If you’re looking for new ways to save money, here are a few items you might want to take a closer look at:
1. Slow cooker or crock pot
In the average American kitchen, there are few tools more valuable than a sturdy, reliable crock pot.
We have written about the virtues of crock pot meals many times here at The Simple Dollar, and for good reason. The average American family eats out or orders in at least once a week, if not much more. And with the average takeout dinner or restaurant meal costing upwards of $50 for a family of four, that adds up fast.
Convenience is a big reason people order take-out: On a hectic weeknight, we often feel like we just don’t have the time to prepare a healthy, home-cooked meal. But throwing some ingredients in a crock pot before work in the morning can magically ensure dinner is virtually done and waiting for you by the time you come back home.
Trading a crock pot meal for take-out just once per week can help you reap huge financial dividends over time (not to mention the health benefits of avoiding convenience foods). Assuming the average crock pot meal costs around $2 per person, the amount you could save by replacing one weekly restaurant meal with a crock pot classic is enormous — $2,135 in the first year alone, even after the initial investment:
- Cost of a high-quality, programmable slow cooker: $49
- Average one-year savings: $2,135
- Savings over five years: $10,871
2. Coffee maker
Stopping for a coffee on your way to work can be an enjoyable habit. However, it can also result in something akin to “death by a thousand cuts.” Each $2 coffee or $4 latte may not feel like much, but the impact over the weeks and years can be truly detrimental to your finances.
Do the math and you’ll find that buying a coffee each weekday for a year will cost you over $500. And if you’re hooked on fancy $4 lattes, you’re looking at $1,040!
That’s where an in-home coffee maker can come in handy. If you brew your own coffee at home — ideally using freshly ground beans — and take it with you in a travel mug or thermos, you can still enjoy a perfect cup (or five) of morning coffee without breaking the bank.
Assuming you buy a high-quality coffee maker and spend around $5 per week on your favorite coffee beans and supplies, the savings can really add up quickly.
- Cost of a high-quality coffee maker: $49
- Average one-year savings: $211 (regular coffee) or $731 (lattes)
- Savings over five years: $1,251 (regular coffee) or $3,851 (lattes)
3. LED light bulbs
Just a decade ago, LED light bulbs were prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, prices have fallen considerably over the last few years, and you can now buy a fancy LED light bulb for around $6-$8 or less.
Since an old, inefficient incandescent bulb costs around $1, you’re paying considerably more for an LED. Still, LEDs are a good investment.
When you compare the two options, you’ll see that incandescent bulbs only last an average of 1,200 hours (about one year), whereas LEDs can last up to 25,000 hours (about 23 years). And over that entire time, an LED bulb will draw just a sixth of the electricity to produce the same amount of light as a comparable incandescent bulb.
Assuming you install just five LED light bulbs, use them an average of four hours a day, and pay the nationwide average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, you’ll break even in under than a year — and the amount of money you’ll save over their lifetime makes the transition well worth it:
- Cost of five LED light bulbs: $40
- Average one-year savings: $9
- Average five-year savings: $205
- Average 23-year savings: $1,122
Using a gas or electric dryer is certainly the fastest way to dry your clothes, but that doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest. In fact, when you add up the cost of the dryer itself with the cost of running it, you’ll find that drying your clothes this way is actually a rather expensive endeavor.
If the average dryer uses 3.3 kilowatt hours of energy for a 45-minute cycle, then at the average rate of 12 cents per kilowatt hour, drying a small load of clothes costs around $0.40. Here’s how much you could save if you purchased a standard clothesline and hung your clothes to dry instead of using your dryer just twice per week:
- Cost of retractable indoor/outdoor clothesline: $10
- Average one-year savings: $31
- Average five-year-savings: $205
5. Netflix, Roku Box, and HDTV antenna
According to the Federal Communications Commission, the average cost of expanded basic cable services rose to $64.41 by the end of 2013. That’s a lot of money to fork over for a service that many people don’t take full advantage of, which is why many have opted to cancel cable and explore their alternatives over time.
One such alternative, Netflix, costs only $8 per month and provides enough entertainment to satisfy most busy families. If you’re within 35 miles or so of a major city, combine that with an over-the-air HDTV antenna and you’ll be able to watch the major networks in real time for free — handy for live events like sports and awards shows and for keeping up with TV’s biggest series.
There are a number of easy and inexpensive ways to watch Netflix on your television, whether you use a simple Roku box, a $30 Google Chromecast, or even just a $5 HDMI cable connected to your laptop. You may miss a couple of your favorite channels, but we promise the savings will be worth it.
- Cost of Roku box: $79
- Cost of HDTV antenna: $35
- Average one-year savings (including Netflix subscription): $563
- Average five-year savings: $3,271
6. Programmable thermostat
With utility bills climbing higher than ever before, a lot of people have found relief simply by updating their thermostat to one that is more accurate and efficient. However, if you want to take your savings a step further, you can buy a programmable thermostat that will allow you to have even more control over how you heat and cool your home.
The amount of money you’ll save can vary drastically based on factors such as your utility costs, the type of heating or cooling system in your home, and the size and average temperature of your home. However, most experts suggest that a programmable thermostat (programmed wisely) will help you save around $173 per year on your utility bills.
- Cost of simple programmable thermostat: $25
- Average one-year savings: $148
- Average five-year savings: $840
7. Commuter bike
With so many factors to consider, the cost of commuting to work can vary a great deal. Not only do you have to consider what kind of car you’re driving, and how much it costs to own and maintain it, you also have to factor in the cost of gas, insurance, maintenance, and even parking.
However, it’s pretty easy to come up with a rough estimate using the average cost of each single component of your commute. For example, according to Experian Automotive, the average car payment for a new car rose to $482 during the fourth quarter of 2014. Meanwhile, the average cost of a gallon of gas currently sits at around $3.
Assuming a new car owner consumes one tank of gas per week and spends $200 per year on maintenance, that person would spend $6,140 during year one of car ownership. With that scenario in mind, even an expensive commuter bike would pay for itself in less than one month if it meant not buying a new car. (Trent recently ran some numbers on this subject as well.)
- Cost of commuter bike: $300
- Average one-year savings: $5,840
- Average five-year savings (assuming car is paid off in four years): $24,616
8. Brita water pitcher
Bottled water is not only expensive, it’s also absolutely disastrous for the environment. The clear plastic bottles that companies like Nestle and Ice Mountain produce by the billions work their way into our landfills, waterways, and streets over time, since not even half of them make it into the recycling bin (and that’s according to the forgiving estimates of a bottled water trade group).
And in many cases, the bottled water you buy isn’t anything special either; in the U.S, much of it is simply pumped out from cities and towns in neighboring states, or even your own state. In other cases, it’s simply tap water, which is just as safe as bottled water, but surely not worth paying extra for.
The good news is, something as simple as a Brita water pitcher can help you avoid the environmental waste and questionable value you get when you buy bottled water in the first place. Combine it with a reusable water bottle, and you’ll have pure, free water on the go, too.
Assuming a family goes through a case of bottled water per week at $5 per case — that’s not even including single bottles purchased at a higher markup while outside the home — the savings can be huge:
- Cost of Brita water pitcher ($23) and 12 filters ($60): $83
- Average one-year savings: $177
- Average five-year savings: $1,217
9. Dryer balls
If you insist on drying your clothes in a dryer instead of hanging your clothes, one way you can save is to purchase a set of dryer balls and use them in place of fabric softener or dryer sheets. Not only do dryer balls make those clothes-softening and chemical-laden purchases unnecessary, but they can cut down on the time it takes to dry your clothes by 40%.
Reduced drying time aside, there are huge savings to be had just by not having to buy fabric softener or dryer sheets ever again. Here’s how much you would save if you spent an average of $10 on fabric softener per month then switched to dryer balls:
- Cost of dryer balls: $10
- Average one-year savings: $110
- Average five-year savings: $590
10. Home gym
A gym membership is an expense that can prove to be incredibly valuable — if you use it often. However, that monthly bill can become a huge waste if you don’t get to the gym regularly or, in some cases, at all.
That’s why it can make a lot of sense to invest in a home gym if you have the room in your home. Owning a home gym makes it easy to cancel your pricey gym membership, and it only involves one large, upfront cost vs. the endless monthly payments your gym membership most likely requires. Another benefit? You may actually use it more often, since it’s just a few steps away.
Of course, the truly frugal can start a rigorous, equipment-free workout regimen for no cost at all. But with the average gym membership costing around $50 a month, even purchasing an expensive home gym can save quite a bit of money over time:
- Cost of Gold’s Gym Home Gym System: $450
- Average one-year savings: $150
- Average five-year savings: $2,550
11. Cloth diapers
Another area where an upfront investment can save money and the environment is the kind of diapers you choose for your baby.
Disposable diapers are incredibly detrimental to the environment; one estimate even claims that they can take up to 500 years to decompose in a landfill. Cloth diapers, on the other hand, can be used again and again, although there are some costs associated with laundering them at home.
Regardless, the amount of money you can save over time by choosing cloth diapers is mind-boggling. Assuming you buy two packs of disposal diapers per week at $10 each for five years (let’s say you’re raising two kids back to back), here’s what you could save by using reusable cloth diapers and inserts:
- Cost of cloth diaper and inserts (4 sets of 6 at $39.99 each): $160
- Estimated cost of additional laundering (detergent + utilities): $104/year
- Average one-year savings: $776
- Average five-year savings: $4,520
12. Cloth napkins
Another wasteful item you could probably cut out of your budget completely is paper towels and napkins. In most cases, paper towels are used quickly and only once, then thrown in the trash and sent on their way to the local dump. By investing in a sturdy set of cloth napkins and dish towels, you can avoid this expense altogether while also cutting down on the amount of waste your household produces.
If you would normally go through two $1 rolls of paper towels per week but switched to cloth napkins instead, here’s an estimate of how much money you could save:
- Cost of cloth napkin set: $14
- Average one-year savings: $90
- Average five-year savings: $506
Investing in items that pay for themselves over time
These are just a few of the items that can pay for themselves over a lifetime — as long as you make good use of them. Other items that could easily pay for themselves can be just about anything — a sewing machine that allows you to mend your own clothing, a chest freezer that lets you stock up on meat when it’s on sale, or an energy efficient car that helps you save on gas.
And I suppose that’s the difference between being “cheap,” and being “frugal.” While being cheap usually means scrimping on nearly anything to save a buck, frugality is more about making your purchases count. It’s about finding items that provide you with the most value for the least amount of money — and not just for today, but for tomorrow too.