I was sick again yesterday morning. To console myself, I made a cup of cocoa. As I was preparing to add the required three tablespoons of chocolate powder, it occurred to me that maybe I could get by with two tablespoons. I’d be saving calories and money at the same time!

The cocoa wasn’t quite as good as usual, but it was good enough. And by dropping to two tablespoons instead of three, I saved 33% (or about 29 cents).

Now obviously saving a few pennies on an occasional cup of cocoa isn’t going to make me a rich man, but this principle can be applied to other aspects of my life. That’s what thrift is all about: learning money-saving skills that can be transferred from one situation to another. When we use enough of these skills in enough places, the savings can be substantial.

One way to save money is to use less of things.

How much dishwasher detergent do you use, for example? I used to fill the soap containers to the rim. Sure, the dishes got clean, but do you know what? They get just as clean now that I fill them only halfway. (And I sometimes wonder if I could use even less detergent.)

There are many ways we can cut back on the things we use. Some of these are systemic changes: you might, for example, decide to eat less meat in order to reduce your grocery bill, or to drive less to save on fuel and maintenance.

Here are a few specific examples of how cutting back from the norm can save you money:

  • Toothpaste. How much toothpaste do you really need? The instructions on Kris’ current tube say that she should “apply at least a 1-inch strip of the product onto a soft bristled brush”. Instead, she uses the pea-sized amount that once was the standard.
  • Shampoo. Lather, rinse, repeat? The instructions on many packages are written from the manufacturer’s perspective, not the consumer’s. Use the directions as guidelines. Judge for yourself just how much shampoo (or anything else) works for you.
  • Juice and drink mixes. Juice and beverage mixes can be made more dilute and still quench your thirst. Again, this saves calories as well as pennies. Made according to the directions, some drink mixes are too sweet for adult tastes anyway. Try increasing the volume of water by 50%.
  • Pet food. If I were to feed my cats as much as the package suggested, they would look like enormous tribbles. Instead, I give them as much as they’ll eat in a day. It took a while to find that amount, but we have it now, and that’s what they get.
  • Engine oil. The 3,000-mile oil change is a myth propagated by quick-lube places to get you in their doors more often. Most vehicles can go much farther between service appointments. This isn’t one you should experiment with, though. Failure to change your oil frequently enough can ruin your engine. Check your owners manual for the recommended interval. (It’s unlikely to be just 3,000 miles!)
  • Shopping. Earlier this month, I shared how America’s Cheapest Family saves more by shopping less. By grocery shopping just once a month, they make better use of their money. Kris and I aren’t ready to make that leap, but we’re earnestly trying to limit ourselves to one trip every two weeks. (With a quick supplemental trip for milk and produce.) So far, so good.
  • Water. When we first bought a house, I watered our lawn often. I paid to have a green lawn. Now, however, I’m happy to let the grass go dormant. I don’t water the lawn at all during the summer. The grass “dies” in July and August, but becomes green again when the rains return in September.

A friend of mine once worked for a large consumer-goods conglomerate. Recently he confided, “Some companies mess with cap and lid sizes as a way to increase consumption. Want a bottle of laundry detergent to run out faster? Then increase the cap size slightly. Many people use a capful per load.” Manufacturers want us to use more than we need.

In many cases, it’s possible to use less of something and still get satisfactory results. Cutting back can save you money, but finding the right amount can take a little trial and error. Don’t let it fluster you.

You might, for example, cut back too far on dishwasher detergent and find one load doesn’t get completely clean. That’s okay. Next time, use a little more. The key is to cut back until you notice a difference. (Or, more precisely, until the difference crosses your “irritation threshold”.)

Have you been able to reduce the amount or frequency with which you use certain products? What sorts of things have you cut back on?

Photo by Joel Telling.

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