Top 10 biggest money savers

What are The Simple Dollar's favorite money-saving tips?

Photo illustration / John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor / File
Megan Aepli became a member of in 2006. She mails out a book about every two weeks, and has received 15 or 20. If you have a large library of paperbacks you don't plan to read again, this is a fantastic way to score lots of new books, practically free!

Today is the four year anniversary of The Simple Dollar. Rather than just lauding myself by posting a big pile of my favorite articles from the past, I decided to just cut straight to the heart of the matter and offer up specific useful tactics that have helped me to save money over the past four years.

What follows are the ten specific things that have had the biggest positive impact on our day-to-day finances over the past four years (in no particular order).

I have, quite literally, received hundreds of nearly free books in the mail thanks to this service. Considering that I’m an avid book reader, devouring three books a week when I’m really rolling, that’s a tremendous savings compared to my earlier habit of buying piles of books at Borders and from Amazon.

PaperBackSwap is really simple. You sign up, list ten books you own that you don’t want, and pledge to send them out to any member that requests them. This earns you two “credits” on the site. For a credit, you can request that any book on the site be sent to you (and there are millions of them). You can earn more credits by fulfilling the requests of others who ask you to mail them a book that you’ve listed – it costs about $2 to send one via Media Mail. That’s it – you’re basically getting access to an enormous used book library for $2.

The library
I love my local library. It’s that simple.

Most people see the word “library” and think “books.” Books merely scratch the surface of the free stuff available there: magazines, audiobooks, CDs, DVDs, children’s programs, adult discussion groups, community messageboards, meeting rooms … the list goes on and on. All of this stuff is just sitting there waiting for you to use it.

Learning to cook well at home
Once upon a time, my wife and I ate out several times a week. Why? In our minds, it gave us an opportunity to talk while someone was making a meal for us.

After my financial meltdown, we started making more and more food at home. At first, it was a money saving tactic, but at some point, we realized that we were making some really good meals at home. Plus, we weren’t really missing out on the conversation, since we were often making the meals together and talking while we were doing it.

Keeping a pocket notebook
How can this be a big money saver? Easy. I use it to jot down prices on items for comparison shopping. I use it to note sales. I use it to note gift ideas that people mention. I use it for shopping lists.

I also use such a notebook to earn more money, too. I use it to record ideas. I use it to make very rough outlines of posts. I use it to make note of important things I need to get done in my own life.

I use it for so many things that have a positive effect on my finances (and my broader life) that I could scarcely live without it.

On Tuesday, we’re losing our cable box. The biggest reason, honestly, is Netflix.

Why? For $9 a month (way cheaper than our cable bill), we get a giant mountain of commercial-free entertainment that we can watch on our television. We choose what we want, wait three seconds, and it’s showing. Plus, we get new movie releases in the mail.

It’s drastically cheaper than the $60 a month or so that our cable bill is and we don’t feel like we’re missing out on much, especially in conjunction with over-the-air signals.

Used video game trading
My late-night-when-everyone-else-is-asleep hobby is usually video games. Once upon a time, I had accumulated a massive video game collection. What I’d usually do is buy (or be gifted) lots of new games over the course of a console generation, then sell all of it off to buy a console and a few games for the next generation.

What I’ve started doing instead is simply trading my already-defeated games for new titles that I haven’t played. This has pretty much killed my new game purchasing habits. Now, when I defeat a game or two, I go down to the local used game shop, trade them for something I’ve not played before, head home, and enjoy something new.

Craigslist and thrift stores
We bought our wonderful 2004 Honda Pilot off of Craigslist, paying cash and getting a tremendous deal. That alone saved us a big fist full of money.

Beyond that, though, I’ve picked up quite a few items off of Craigslist, including a recent acquisition of a big pile of barely-used high quality kitchen implements.

Beyond that, I go thrifting fairly regularly and am constantly finding things like nearly-new great board games for $0.50, nearly new shirts for a buck, and countless other things like that.

Forcing myself to be more social
When I force myself to be more social, I find my social calendar filling up. My wife and I have things to do pretty much every evening. Here’s the interesting thing, though – most of those evenings are free activities, and sometimes they’re free meals, too.

Being really social goes against my basic nature. I like being a quiet homebody. However, I’ve found that evenings at home often add up to more spending. I’ll rent a movie. I’ll finish reading a book and desire to pick up a new one. However, if I have an exchange of dinners with a friend, I’ve spent two evenings without spending a dime – I make one larger meal one night, but then get a free meal another night, and the entertainment is usually free or close to it.

Not only that, this expanding social network also gives me lots of opportunity to save money in other ways. I hear about good deals that are out there. I have more sources of advice and suggestions when I’m making a purchase, which can often lead to big savings. I also have people to rely on during my moments of need.

Board games
Five years ago, a social evening would have involved a night out on the town – eating out, seeing a movie, maybe getting some drinks. That can get expensive if you do it regularly.

Instead, my wife and I often just play board games, either with each other or with a small handful of other regular friends. We meet at someone’s house, often have dinner together, and just play whatever games we have on hand. If a game isn’t getting play, I find someone online to swap it with, giving us something new to try.

Board games have become a part of many of our social events, offering us something to do while actually conversing with each other (instead of just ignoring each other while watching a movie or attending a concert). Even better, they also offer my wife and I something to do together in the evenings while we talk about our day or the ongoing issues in our lives, cementing our own relationship.

I volunteer as a secretary for one community group, as financial chairman for another group, and as a basketball and soccer coach. I’ve volunteered for political committees, charities, and civic groups.

What do these things have in common? For one, they’re all fulfilling ways to spend time without any cost – and they better the community. For another, they’re a great opportunity to meet like-minded people.

The time I spend volunteering not only helps me to grow as a person, it keeps money in my wallet instead of finding ways to spend it.

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