Small Changes Are the Building Blocks of Financial Success

Though Kris and I are fairly adept in the yard and garden, we sometimes struggle with home maintenance tasks. When I prune the camellia hedge too hard (as I did in April), it may look ugly for a few months, but I know that nature will erase my mistake in time. A house is less forgiving.

Still, with each passing year, I try to become a little more adept at do-it-yourself home maintenance. If a person is careful and thorough, even modest home-improvement skills can save money.

Though we recently paid a contractor to bring our home's electrical system up to code, I spent part of this weekend wiring the light fixtures myself. I'm sure it takes me five times as long as a professional to hang a new lamp, but not only do I save some money, I also get a sense of satisfaction.

Over the past few days, I've had conversations with several people who are taking similar steps to save (or make) a little extra money. I enjoy these stories because they're exactly the kinds of things I believe average people can (and should) do to improve their finances:

  • My friends Andrew and Courtney participated in a neighborhood garage sale. They were able to purge their home of some clutter while earning $762 in much-needed cash.
  • I learned that one friend told his co-workers about ING Direct. Some of them moved from no- or low-interest savings accounts to high-interest savings accounts.
  • One of the women in my running group found a job closer to home. She had been spending $250/month on gasoline just for her commute. Now she can take public transportation. She'll save time and money — plus her new job came with a small raise in pay.
  • My friend Mike is interested in real-estate investing. He has other savings and investments, but is ready to diversify further. After doing some research, he and a partner are negotiating a deal on a rental property. If things go according to plan, this will add to his monthly cash flow.
  • My sister-in-law cut her cable television to basic only and gave up her DVR. She'll save $70/month or $840/year! (I think she'll find the non-financial savings even greater. Since Kris and I cut back to basic cable, we watch less television and have more time for other things we'd like to do.)

Kris and I also talked with some friends about how we save money on food. We've been tracking how much our vegetable garden costs, for example, and are now beginning to reap the rewards. As another way to profit from our harvest, we've agreed to trade surplus raspberries (of which we'll have many) for a friend's surplus salad greens (which we cannot seem to grow).

Finally, I've been hearing news stories lately that indicate the price of beef (and other meat) is likely to increase substantially in coming months. Maybe this explains why so many people have been asking for tips on how to buy a side of beef — they want to lock in current prices. Kris and I continue to believe that the quality, convenience, and modest cost savings make purchasing beef in bulk a good deal, if you have a place to store it.

All of these anecdotes feature small ways to save money. Nobody will get rich — slowly or otherwise — by taking just one or two of these steps. But when combined together as part of an ongoing campaign of thrift, investing, and self-improvement, small changes like these can lead to a very large change indeed.

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Jerichohill
Jerichohill
12 years ago

An important thing that wasn’t emphasized enough is that by doing something yourself, not only is there the monetary benefit but also a psychological boost!

Thomas Murphy
Thomas Murphy
12 years ago

People should learn how to stick to their budget and not look for financial uncertainties.

B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
12 years ago

Getting rich is like anything else. It is both major steps and a landslide of small improvements. While each small improvement may seem insignificant, they add up when they are all taken together. The key is to groove the habit and move on.

Sometimes people get obsessed with trying to find more ways to save. You reach a point of diminishing returns. At this point you need to step back and say what next? Focus on growing your income. Enjoy your new found freedom.

Melissa A.
Melissa A.
12 years ago

I think the best things I have done are:

– $60 a month bus pass
– cancelled cable and just have a basic local phone/basic internet package
– using the library
– having lost interest in going to bars 😉

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
12 years ago

Great post. Two concepts that come to mind in relation to what you’ve written are ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘healthy discipline’. It’s funny how modern luxuries, including hiring out as much as possible to be done FOR us, tend to weaken our self-sufficiency and personal discipline. The path you describe can make us richer in character and skills as well as financially richer. More at my blog http://www.diamondcutlife.org/

Bart
Bart
12 years ago

I saw a nice presentation (video) which talked about eating healthy, which discusses (among other things) cutting back on meat. And how much meat we actually need.
http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/263
Very interesting.

BPT - MoneyChangesThings
BPT - MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

Following up on Bart’s point about meat: not only is it costly, meat has hugely negative impacts on the global eco-system. Grain that would otherwise feed humans is fed to livestock, a very inefficient way of humans getting protein. The livestock industry treats the animals abysmally as well as emitting huge amounts of greenhouse gases and polluting ground streams. Eating more vegetarian meals per week will make a huge impact. I am impressed with how the vegie-burger department has expanded in normal grocery stores. Think of meat as a treat, not an entitlement, and you’ll have an impact beyond your… Read more »

No Debt Plan
No Debt Plan
12 years ago

I agree making small tweaks to your behavior are key… funny, I actually wrote about that today (http://tinyurl.com/6re65z).

But just to clarify, I think BIG changes should come first. Save yourself $20 per month here, $15 per month there… save $100 on your car payment… etc. before making a change that saves you $10 for the year, etc.

Brigid
Brigid
12 years ago

Even if you aren’t particularily handy with DIY projects, almost anyone can tear things up. I saved an easy $800 by dismantling the kitchen myself.

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

I understand the attractions of on-line banking, including higher interest on savings, but I’ve also been seeing the benefits of having a relationship with a local bank — the local banks here in flood country are doing things like offering to let people put their mortgage payments on hiatus, and they are offering low-interest loans to customers and so on.

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
12 years ago

I also canceled cable tv. I get HD reception from my antenna for free. Bonus: since there is no signal compression, the picture is actually better. I did allow myself a TIVO however….

Richie
Richie
12 years ago

The ING bank accounts keep getting kicked around. When I look at their website, it’s hard to get information. I have to watch a video and blah blah. Anyway, I am ready to fire Bank of America as my primary bank. I use it to pay all of my monthly bills. Everything is done electronically or via bill pay – except my rent. My paychecks are direct deposited to my bank account. Every once in awhile I need to visit the BofA ATM to make a deposit. If I switched to ING as my primary checking, is there some way… Read more »

Rich
Rich
12 years ago

If I switched to ING as my primary checking, is there some way to make deposits that take effect the same day? If I mail ING a check to deposit, how long does it take?

The only way to do same day deposits that I’ve found is ING Savings–>ING Checking transfers. Everything else seems to take about 3 days.

I haven’t deposited a check through them yet. We don’t get many checks and our credit union is just around the corner.

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

i DON’T buy bottled watter.. that’s one way i save money.. i have a little hiking canister that i fill up with tap water when i’m at home

i also don’t buy bottled water when i get lunch.. restaurants give you water for FREE when you ask.. cmon now! i stay away from soda.. although i’ll have one every now and then

i don’t remember the last time i had starbucks.. it’s been at least a month

The Hoss
The Hoss
12 years ago

Great money saving tips. Remember the old saying a penny saved is a penny earned.

The Hoss

Jay
Jay
12 years ago

One of the most interesting changes we’ve made came when (1) I got hold of some coupons which offer a discount on $50 (once a week) of groceries, and (2) hubbie cut out sodas in favor of using an ISI and Torani syrups: Because of the coupons, I’ve started tabulating what I spend on groceries during the weekly shopping trip. As soon as I hit $50, I stop, thinking I’ll put off the “fun stuff” until the following week. This forces critical choices in purchases, and I’ve put back many a snack, etc. Somehow, I never get around to purchasing… Read more »

Curt
Curt
12 years ago

If you can find 20 small things to save money on or cut expenses with, you will be on your way to drasticly improving your financial future. Saving money on 20 small things for several years will result in saving thousands of dollars. Great post.

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

Other than the coffee at work (we barter with a local coffee roaster and always have top quality coffee) — and beer and cocktails — I don’t drink soda or juice and I drink many liters of water at work too (always keeping my nalgene topped off!). Sounds strange but it’s really that sodas and juices are expensive and I’d rather spend the money and caloric intake on fancy drinks! We also do not have any television whatsoever in my house… but my roommates do have a projector and we have a media room with a computer hookup, so I… Read more »

Temelie’s blog
Temelie’s blog
12 years ago

Very interesting article. Let’s save some money ppl 🙂

Mark
Mark
12 years ago

Interesting. I don’t clip coupons but maybe I should. I do most repair jobs in and around the house. Probably takes me twice as long. Because I have a business I am always being told to outsource but I think I am too cheap. We are going to buy a freezer so we can buy larger quantities of organic beef. I haven’t figured out the savings in that one yet.

Rob Madrid
Rob Madrid
12 years ago

The best part is when you reach the tipping point going from being tight and struggling to make ends meet to suddenly having money left over at the end of the month, We’re just reaching that now. Going to come out of the summer (when work traditionally slows down) with some real savings. Usually I come out of the summers broke.

Man that’s a nice feeling

Cara
Cara
12 years ago

Earlier this year I had a headlight go out on on my VW. I hated the thought of going to the mechanic and spending $65. So I turned to google, and found several sites explaining how to remove and change the bulb — with photos no less! I spent $9 on a bulb and changed it myself in 15 minutes. So satisfying.

Ron@TheWisdomJournal
12 years ago

Just like a building is built brick by brick, so are our financial lives. I frequently show a very large brick wall to my kids, telling them that every decision they make is like a brick in the wall of their lives. Good decisions put a brick in place, bad ones pull it back out. Pulling a few bricks here and there doesn’t crumble the wall, though it is noticeable. But pulling out too many and the wall crumbles and you have to start all over.

Susy
Susy
12 years ago

A great way to save on meat is to hunt! My dad loves to hunt, so every year we get a deer or two and that supplies our meat for the year. Since our family owns a hunting cabin with many acres, no hunting license is necessary and it costs only $50 for processing. It’s also super healthy since it’s a wild animal! Can’t beat a hobby that provides healthy food for the family! We also make dog food out of any left over from the year before so it feeds our dogs healthfully as well!

Richie
Richie
12 years ago

Seems like every commenter here has their own money blog!

Focus On Your Money Maker
Focus On Your Money Maker
12 years ago

I wrote a funny story on this earlier today about my father-in-law that used to save the toilet paper that the neighborhood kids would use to do a prank on his house.

http://focusonyourmoneymaker.com/2008/06/23/my-mentor-harry-swensen/

There really is a million different ways to save a little here and there.

Eric J. Nisall
Eric J. Nisall
12 years ago

Interesting post, which has some very interesting responses. While I certainly agree that going with an online bank is the way to go (most, afterall, are run by traditional institutions that have been in business for over 100+ years) some of the other ideas need careful thought. Especially when you are talking about doing household or automotive tasks yourself. It is important to understand completely what you are getting yourself into. back in December I wrote a post on my business blog, Let’s Blog Business http://letsblogbusiness.com/2007/12/29/stick-to-what-you-do-best-outsource-the-rest/ about only taking on tasks with which you can do proficiently and effectively and… Read more »

Jay
Jay
12 years ago

We’ve learned, too, that it “pays”, or rather saves, to get the pros to do some jobs. While I wouldn’t pay someone to change oil in a traditional car, some of the newer ones are really difficult to get to and require specialized tools. A carpenter can do a much better job, and faster, installing a door. You will be guaranteed a leveled, properly functioning result. Roofers know what they’re doing. A good tax preparer is worth her weight in gold. So forth and so on. The trick is know your limits, then take bids, create good working relationships, and… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

I’m not sure I agree with the title. Small changes are important, and all changes are better than doing nothing. However, DH and I find that the big changes have the biggest long term impact and remain stable for a while. The little changes tend to need a lot more attention and tweaking. Examples? Deciding not to be “house rich and cash poor”. Not surprisingly, we weren’t hit as hard by the real estate downturn as we could have been. Also, our overall housing costs and gas costs are a lot lower than we could have had had we bought… Read more »

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

Another way that we save money is by having a great landlord. I live in an amazing house less than ten blocks from my work — I wake up 10-30 minutes before work and bike over, and get to take my lunch breaks at home too! (Some days though I like to pack a lunch and just eat at work… we have so many newspaper/magazine subscriptions that I look forward to that). Our landlord has charged us less than market value in a gentrifying neighborhood. I’m seeing comparable houses on CL for $300-600 more/month! (3 bedroom house, 2000+ sq ft…… Read more »

mythago
mythago
12 years ago

I generally agree with this post, but beware the learning curve–and remedy cost–for DIY jobs. Some things are forgiving, like trimming hedges, but there is a reason that some things are done by licensed professionals, and it’s not because they’re trying to keep you from doing their simple tasks yourself. It’s a good idea to find a skilled person and learn from them, not only what to do, but what you CAN’T do yourself.

nbdean
nbdean
12 years ago

Seems like every commenter here has their own money blog!

It does make you wonder how many people comment here just to advertise their blog, doesn’t it? I’m not pointing any fingers here, but you’ve got to figure that’s happening to some degree.

Eric J. Nisall
Eric J. Nisall
12 years ago

“It does make you wonder how many people comment here just to advertise their blog, doesn’t it?”

I would tend to agree, however does it really matter if those people are contibuting useful and pertinent information from within their own blogs to further enhance this post?

nbdean
nbdean
12 years ago

does it really matter if those people are contibuting useful and pertinent information from within their own blogs to further enhance this post? I have my own opinions about whether it matters, but I was merely curious as to how many of the posters who reference their blogs comment with the sole intention of advertising their blogs, with the contribution of useful and pertinent information as a side effect (if said contribution is indeed useful and pertinent). By the way, I blogged about this very phenomenon on my awesome blog http://www.nbdeansawesomeblog.com in March. Check it out. While you’re there, click… Read more »

Frank Schulte-Ladbeck
Frank Schulte-Ladbeck
12 years ago

Good advice with interesting comments. I always tell my clients that a simple book on home maintenance is a wise investment. Most jobs are simple enough, but people do need to know how to do them right, or problems can ensue.

Tina
Tina
12 years ago

I cancelled cable TV entirely. (I considered cutting back to basic, but realized I had no interest in any of those channels.) I kept high-speed internet for working at home and for entertainment & email. It’s incredible how much more I get done in the evenings & weekends, in terms of chores, work, chatting with friends, and getting to bed on time! And it’s more relaxing, too. Somehow, tv makes me nervous.

CRM
CRM
12 years ago

That’s funny that people are looking to buy beef in bulk. When I was a kid, we bought a cow every fall, had it butchered and ate it all winter long. We had a big deep freeze that held steaks, hamburgers, and roasts until we were ready to eat them. We always saved a pack of strip steaks for last – it was my dad’s inaugural use of the grill each spring.

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