Living on a small budget doesn’t mean you have to give up the good life. There are ways to eat well, travel and dress like a million bucks without having to drop a whole bunch of cash.
Last updated: July 13, 2021
Seek Quality Over Quantity
Whether you're choosing what goes into your grocery cart or your wardrobe, it's important to select quality over quantity when making purchases. When you're living on a budget, shopping less frequently will give you the time and flexibility needed to save up for higher-quality items across all categories.
"Instead of getting takeout or fast food a couple times a week, save that money for a nice restaurant," said Zina Kumok of the blog Conscious Coins. "Nicer items and experiences last longer -- and they're more cost-effective overall."
Use Rewards Credit Cards
You can make many items on your wish list more affordable by using a credit card that offers rewards.
By using a card like PenFed’s Power Cash Rewards Visa Signature Card, you can earn 2% total cash back on your purchases as an Honors Advantage member, which means you’re saving every time you buy. Or if you’re looking for different types of rewards, the PenFed Platinum Rewards Visa Signature Card offers five times the points on gas purchases paid at the pump, three times the points at the supermarket and one times the points on all other purchases. These points can then be redeemed for travel, gift cards and shopping, allowing you to capitalize on your own spending.
Just make sure you are using your credit card wisely; you don’t want to end up in debt to afford your big lifestyle.
Eat Well on Less
If you're wondering how to live on a budget but still eat well, scope out nearby farmers markets to find local, quality produce. You'll get the best prices by stocking up on what's in season and shopping at the end of the day, when farmers are more likely to discount their remaining supply.
If you've ever bitten into an heirloom tomato at the height of the season, you know how luxurious a taste of premiere produce can be.
Splurge On Lunch Instead of Dinner
If you love to splurge on eating out, opt for lunch instead of dinner. Prices are typically lower in the middle of the day than they are at the height of the dinner rush. And the food is just as delicious.
Take Advantage of Nature for Exercising
Take advantage of the world around you and work out for free. Go for a run, walk, hike or swim, depending on where you live. Chances are that the scenery outside beats the view of the wall at your local gym.
"I enjoy going to the mountains and hiking," said Michelle Jackson, founder of the blog Michelle Is Money Hungry. "Typically, my friends and I will carpool and have an Instagram-worthy day. There's nothing better than enjoying what's in my hometown's backyard."
Get Outside for Relaxing Romance
Instead of defining romance as dinner and a movie, take your significant other on an outdoor date. It's not only fun, but it's great for your budget, too.
"With four small children, any cheap date where I can get out of the house and spend time with my wife is a luxury. It can be as simple as dropping the kids off with the grandparents," said John McCarthy of McCarthy Tax Preparation.
You can pack a picnic lunch or bring a bottle of wine to enjoy under the stars on a quiet evening.
Barter for Workouts
Exercise classes can be expensive. Try bartering for a high-class workout that doesn't break your budget. Perhaps the instructor needs help setting up before class or cleaning the space afterward. You could also help the gym owner by running the front desk, checking in visitors or answering the phone.
If you have time to help with these or other tasks, you might just be able to enjoy expensive, high-end workouts for less.
Find Free Meetups
If you want to make new friends or try new things in your city, the website Meetup is a great resource. Search for free events like 5K runs, book clubs and more. You can enjoy your city, try different activities and make new friends -- all without busting your budget.
If you're trying to stay inside and avoid illness, dating sites like Bumble also offer a "friends" version that helps you develop friendships with strangers who live near you.
Make Gourmet Coffee at Home
Most grocery stores offer high-quality coffee in bulk. If you buy ground beans and brew them at home when you have a craving, you can save a bundle on your daily latte. By some estimates, you can save $1 per 16-ounce cup by self-brewing.
Tap Into Your Network To Travel
While this tip may have to wait until after traveling becomes safer again, it's a good one to file away, nonetheless.
"Everyone seems to think you need to be rolling in dough to see the world, but it's not true," said "Make Money Your Honey" author Amanda Abella. "Find ways to make travel more affordable by crashing with friends."
Wallet Hacks founder Jim Wang added that vacations don't have to be expensive to be satisfying. "What we enjoy about vacations is that we get to spend time with friends and family, see new places and not worry about work," he said.
Consider Alternative Accommodations
When you're living on a budget, remember that a hotel is not the only option for lodging when you're on the road. Consider alternatives like Airbnb, Couchsurfing and Home Exchange to save money. They're often more cost-effective and almost always offer a unique experience.
Make the Most of Airfare Savings Apps
Use an app like Hitlist that monitors fares from your home airport and alerts you when hot deals arise. The end result is that you can get to your dream destinations for less.
Hopper is another way to save money on flights. The app analyzes historical airfare data and lets you know whether to buy now or hold off on your booking to get the best deal. You can also visit Skiplagged, which reveals potential savings through strategies like hidden-city ticketing that you won't find elsewhere.
Try Exchange Rate Travel
Sometimes, traveling abroad can be cheaper and easier than traveling within the United States. If you choose to visit a country where the U.S. dollar is worth more, the exchange rate works in your favor, affording you more for less. Just remember, many countries currently have travel restrictions due to COVID-19, so you may have to plan your trip abroad pretty far in advance.
Take Short Trips Instead of Long Vacations
Instead of taking an extended vacation, you might find more sustainable enjoyment by taking short trips more often. Sprinkle a few long-weekend getaways into your calendar. You might also find it easier to unplug from work if you're getting away for just a few days, rather than a week or more.
Plan a Staycation
Consider skipping the destination altogether and be a tourist in your own city. Take some time to explore areas you haven't before. You just might stumble upon luxurious hidden gems close to home.
Resolve Your Debt Now
One of the smartest things you can do to live the big life on a small budget is to get rid of your debt. If you don’t have regular high-interest credit card payments or other debt to deal with then that money can be used for more fun.
One way to resolve your debt issues is by consolidating your high-interest credit card debt with a balance transfer. PenFed’s Gold Visa Card offers a 0% annual percentage rate on balance transfers for 12 months. This will help you save money on interest while you pay down your debt. And with no annual fee, this is a card you could keep using responsibly in the future for all your little and big moments.
Go Yachting With Groupon
Yachting might sound like the ultimate one-percenter experience, but evening sails, daytime cruises and full-boat charters can be enjoyed for an affordable price when booked through discount portals like Groupon.
Rent Luxury Fashion Instead of Buying
If you have a weakness for designer items like handbags, dresses and shoes, consider renting them on sites like Lending Luxury or Bag Borrow or Steal rather than buying them outright. These portals offer weekly and monthly rates that cost only a fraction of the sticker price when buying the items new. By renting, you can also upgrade to new styles each season without incurring additional costs.
Buy Designer Items Used
You can also score designer clothing and accessories at budget-friendly rates on sites like eBay and ThredUp.com. Just make sure you know what you're buying is high quality, and watch out for imitations that are sometimes sold as the real thing.
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Host a High-End Clothing Swap
Clothing swaps are a great way to spend time with friends while getting new clothes for free. Traditionally, these swaps are not limited to high-end or designer clothes, but you can make up the rules if you decide to host your own. Just be sure that everyone understands and adheres to the guidelines so you don't end up giving away high-quality items in exchange for things of lower value.
Focus On Trendy Accessories, Not Trendy Outfits
Refreshing a basic outfit with trendy accessories can be much cheaper than buying a brand-new look. Snag designer accents to pair with your budget basics, and you can still pull off high fashion.
Shop Out of Season
If you reset your consumer calendar to shop for swimwear in the fall and boots in the spring, you'll save a ton by purchasing items at clearance rates. Just be sure not to wait too long, as your size and favorite designer styles might run out.
Don’t Write Off Discount Stores
Don't write off discount stores for finding items like designer jeans and bags. To locate the best deals in these shops, stick to quality items when sifting through the clearance racks. Additionally, bargain shoppers should check for potential design flaws before making purchases.
Dress It Up
You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on your outfits to feel rich. Give yourself a constant feel-good boost by dressing well each time you leave the house. Instead of donning those yoga pants to hit the grocery store, jump-start your self-confidence by wearing your favorite jeans and a cute top.
Get a High-Style, Low-Budget Haircut at a Salon School
If you don't want to do your own hair, consider saving money by getting it cut, colored and styled at a local beauty school.
Services at beauty school salons are provided by supervised students. Haircuts can be as cheap as $10, but it might be hard to get an appointment if you are in a time crunch or have a limited schedule.
Plan a Student Spa Day
Your local massage therapy school might not have a locker room complete with eucalyptus-scented towels and steam rooms, but it is likely to offer great rates on relaxing massage treatments. If you're willing to be treated by a supervised student, you can indulge in future spa days for a lot less. Or, create your own affordable spa day at home.
DIY Other Salon Services
A mani-pedi can make anyone's life feel more luxurious, but these services are expensive when indulged in regularly. Instead of shelling out every couple weeks for professional nail art, complete your mani-pedi at home or have a mani-pedi party with a few friends where you provide these salon services for one another.
Have Movie Nights at Home
There's nothing like a movie night after a long day at work. Instead of going to the theater and spending at least $10 on admission, and another $10 or so on snacks, pop your own popcorn, buy snacks and soda at the grocery store and watch a movie from Netflix. Even if you decide to rent a movie, you will save a lot by staying in.
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Search For Discount Nights at Local Theaters
If you don't want to give up your movie nights out, save money by checking for discount times at your local theater. Not all cinemas offer lower admissions, but they might provide cheap snacks and drinks instead.
However, in the wake of the coronavirus, theaters across America have largely been closed; hopefully, some of the smaller ones will survive the shutdown and bounce back better than ever when it's safe to see movies again.
Bring the Party to You
"One of the great joys in life is spending time with family and friends, and that doesn't have to cost much at all. Open your home, make a pot of spaghetti or ask everyone to bring a dish, and you've got a party," said Teresa Mears, CEO of deals website Living on the Cheap.
Just remember to give everyone an assignment if you decide to go potluck style, recommended New York City-based writer James Dennin.
"I like to entertain a lot and used to feel very self-conscious about telling people to bring things," Dennin said. "Now I'm ruthless. Everyone gets an assignment, usually booze since that costs the most, and everyone's super finicky about what they like."
Look For Other Free Entertainment
"There are so many free things to do. You just have to find them in your local area," said personal finance blogger Karen Cordaway.
You might be surprised by what you can find just by searching online for free events in your city. You can also look for freebies by inquiring at your local library or checking the events calendar on your local park's website.
Invest In Memberships to Places You Frequent
If you enjoy going to a museum or zoo on a regular basis, it might make sense to invest in a membership. Memberships to many popular attractions will pay for themselves in just two or three family outings. Switch it up by buying a membership to a different attraction each year.
Make Use of Introductory Specials
Whether you're interested in finding a grocery delivery service or a personal trainer, it's wise to make the most of introductory specials, which give you a taste of large living for a fraction of the cost. But read the fine print to make sure you don't sign up for more than you've bargained for and that you can cancel when you desire.
Buy an Older Used Luxury Car
A financially savvy alternative to leasing a luxury car is buying a vintage used one. A "newer" used model might still be unaffordable on your small budget. However, there's a good chance that you can find an older vehicle that hasn't changed much over the years.
Brighten Your Space With Fresh Flowers
Fresh flowers don't have to cost a bundle, and they can really brighten up your living and working spaces. For best results, go with in-season flowers from your local grocery store, and skip the vase by using one you already have.
Rent a Mansion Instead of Buying
When you consider the convenience factors associated with renting, it might be a better financial decision. Moreover, you can save money by renting a mansion instead of buying one, as you won't have to pay property taxes or keep up with maintenance and repairs.
Upgrade Your Home Yourself
If you aren't quite ready to rent that mansion, try upgrading your current living space by using high-end finishes and design elements instead. Typically, the kitchen and bathroom are the best places to start.
To save money, try to find upgrades you can do yourself, like changing out cabinet hardware, painting and even installing new backsplash around your cabinets.
Embrace Secondhand and Vintage Home Stylings
You can furnish your home for far less if you're willing to embrace secondhand and vintage furniture instead of buying brand-new items. These used pieces will come with their own character and charm, and can really add to the unique, HGTV-worthy look of your home.
Learn To Save on Event Tickets
Although there are plenty of events that are free or cheap to attend, there are others that come with some hefty price tags. Instead of missing out, use sites like Vivid Seats to save on costs. You can also use these online marketplaces to unload extra tickets, saving the cash for something you need.
Don’t Discount the Minor Leagues
Whether it's minor league baseball games or open mic nights at a hole-in-the-wall comedy club, by skipping the pricey big names, you can enjoy more cost-effective but equally entertaining evenings.
Rent a Private Jet Instead of Flying First Class
If you want to plan an ultra-luxurious getaway, consider renting a private jet. If you can find a last-minute deal on a site like JetSuite, the cost is surprisingly comparable to -- and sometimes cheaper than -- flying first class.
Make Friends With Coupon Sites
When you're trying to figure out how to live on a budget, you can search coupon sites to save money on goods and services in your local area. All you have to do is visit the site, input your location and start searching for the goods and services you desire.
Check With Savings Apps
With smartphone savings apps, deals follow you wherever you go. Whether you're waiting to buy tickets at the movie theater box office or in the checkout line of your favorite retailer, an app like RetailMeNot can help you apply additional savings right up to the last minute. You can stop worrying about discount FOMO once you get the right tools in the palm of your hand.
Use Facebook To Unclutter Your Life
Use the local Facebook buy/sell/trade groups that have popped up in the last few years to sell and trade items you no longer need. Then you can use that money to buy things you do need or truly want to have in your new luxurious life.
Utilize Discount Gift Cards
Lock in simple savings by using discount gift cards at your favorite retailers. Card resale sites like Gift Card Granny can offer savings of up to 50% on gift cards for your top shopping destinations. Whether you want to stock up on necessities at Target or enjoy a little indulgence at Starbucks, the savings with discounted cards are already built in.
Always Check For Special Discounts
Whether you're buying a ticket for a train ride or a Broadway show, chances are good that some select discounts exist. Always check to see whether you qualify for special rates -- student, senior, local, veteran or union member, among others. For best results, have the appropriate identification with you in case the business wants to verify your discount eligibility.
Learn New Skills
Part of living the big life is knowing the value of investing in yourself and your continuing education -- and you can still do that while living on a budget. Take a class from a community college that sounds interesting, or learn a new skill from a friend or family member. A big life is full of constant learning, not necessarily constant spending.
Give Back to Others
Live rich by sharing the wealth. Donate your time, money and talents, and you'll get them back in various ways.
Even if cash is tight, you can still have an impact by volunteering for a cause that's meaningful to you, or donating clothing you no longer need. You can also regift rewards such as hotel loyalty points to programs like Make-A-Wish.
Ask For What You Want
It's okay to ask for things you really want on special occasions. Even if your friends and family can't afford to buy you what you've asked for, they can give you cash or a gift card to put toward large, wish-list purchases.
Splurge With Mindfulness
"Allow yourself one or two splurges that add to your overall well-being," suggested Tiffany Alexy of Alexy Realty Group. "For me, it's my monthly massage. I not only feel better, but it helps me feel like I'm not sacrificing anything by sticking to a budget."
The occasional indulgence can help keep you accountable while living on a budget and ensure you maintain your new fiscal savvy long term.
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