Some Thoughts On Saving Money (Can I Touch This in December?)

It might seem a bit strange to talk about saving money in the middle of the biggest shopping extravaganza of the year. But, to me at least, it’s a fun topic. I think finding ways to be fiscally conservative – while appreciating certain luxuries money can buy – is about as fun as cleaning out a linen closet. And friends…there is not much that ranks higher on my fun list than a good linen closet decluttering. Sad, but true.

I’ve talked before about our background – how we came out of university and bootstrapped two startups which, technically, left us spending years below the Canadian poverty line. You may have heard the entrepreneurial advice to pay yourself first – I’m here to tell you it rarely works that way (unless “paying yourself” equals $400 a month, minus deductions). We hacked our way through buying almost everything secondhand, living with limited square footage, and eating a lot of beef.

We had unarguable advantages. We were educated. We came from stable homes. We were white. See, unfortunately, being “frugal” is not a choice for many people. Low wages, restrictive work schedules, and lack of access to affordable housing, food, childcare, and education are the reality for far too many people. So when I talk about being frugal and our experiences, it comes from a place of enormous privilege. We live in a country with safety nets (e.g. extensive maternity leave and monthly federal payments to all families with children) and had personal social supports that so many are sadly lacking.

While our current financial situation allows us to be a bit more generous with how and when we spend money, our default is still to look for ways to maximize each dollar – believing we’re called to be wise stewards of it (including the fact that the more we save, the more we can give!). With those caveats in place, let’s discuss a few ways we’ve managed to stretch money over the years.


I’ve re-used teabags (not anymore, I’ll admit), I wash out Ziploc baggies, and we pack lunchboxes at home. But sometimes the payout just isn’t quite worth the effort.

For example, here in Canada, we pay a bottle deposit on most beverages. Juice boxes, soda, bottled water – they all come with an additional $0.05-0.15 charge per item. We don’t tend to buy many of these foods but had an upswing over the summer – largely fueled by my sudden affection for sparkling water. This bottle “deposit” is partially refundable, so I decided I would wash, dry and separate all the refundable items from the other recyclables and get back some of our money. For over a month I dutifully put in the time and energy (not a lot, but it wasn’t insignificant), drove with my husband to the depot ten minutes away, and prepared for our cash windfall. I estimated a $12 return for the bag.

We got $4.10. Whomp, whomp.

We likely spent that much in gas to get to the depot, not to mention the time spent washing, drying and separating all the items (and the space it took to store them in our furnace room). 

So while I embrace a minimal lifestyle and enjoy the challenge of finding small ways to save bits of money here and there – sometimes my energy would be better spent finding larger sources of kickback.

In other words, going from a 2-car to 1-car arrangement will make a much bigger difference to a fiscal bottom line than skipping a weekly latte.

BIG SAVINGS = BIG REWARDS

We have never owned a new car since getting married and, recently, when COVID meant we no longer needed a second vehicle for frequent airport trips, we became a single-car family. A few times a month this feels inconvenient but, for the most part, it has been a small blip on our radar.

Working from home has advantages.

When we were in a position to buy our first home, the mortgage limit far exceeded what we would have ever considered maximizing. We bought the only house we felt we could afford (not what the bank said we “could” afford, mind you) in the town we loved. It has needed some repairs – some cosmetic and others proactively functional like replacing drainage tile and original 1970’s windows – but it cost about 1/2 of what other homes in the area were selling for at the time.

Finding a way to take a trip on points is going to save you a lot more money than skipping a trip up the Eiffel Tower.

When reasonable, make use of warranty guarantees

While this “hack” isn’t in the same category as downsizing cars or homes, I would say 8-10 times a year I make use of some warranty claim which has literally saved us 1000s of dollars over the years, for relatively minimal effort.

Some things I have claimed under warranty:

  • Our bed. I had NO idea beds had warranties until I went to replace our sagging mattress (at the same store where we bought our original boxspring + mattress). When they started asking questions I said, “I’ll look at anything but beds made by X brand.” When they asked why, I explained our issue and they said it might still be under warranty. It was and, after a bit of runaround, we got a brand new bed! (~$600)
  • John’s favourite laptop bag; the zipper started to fail and a new one arrived this week! We may take the broken one to a local seamstress to see if she can repair it. (~$75)
  • Blundstones. A pair wore very quickly in the toe box for some inexplicable reason. Replaced quickly and efficiently. (~$150)
  • BOGS. These always seem to wear out prematurely in the heels and I’ve had 2-3 pairs replaced. (~$100/pair)
  • Kombi gloves. Ditto above; multiple issues with seams coming apart prematurely, which the company remedied with credit and/or replacement pairs. (~$25/pair)
  • My NorthFace jacket. I got this jacket on a great post-Christmas sale, but within a year or so I had an issue with the zipper. After sending it away for repair twice, the local store where I bought it told me to pick out a replacement jacket, no strings or brands attached. I paid ~$100 for my NorthFace jacket and walked out with a $350 Helly Hansen jacket which I’ve worn 150+ days a year for years now.
  • Darn Tough socks. This brand has a lifetime guarantee and we have maximized! (~$30/pair)
  • T-Fal. Our beloved Jamie Oliver T-Fal pan bit the dust much faster than expected even though we had cared for it like a newborn. A few e-mails back and forth and we had a replacement which we’ve now used for several years without incident. I would buy another pan in a heartbeat because of the quality + customer service when there was an issue. (~$100)

Save where it’s easy to spend where it’s valuable

I think the biggest question of 2021, for me, has been: What really matters? Now that I’ve more clearly identified my values, where should I direct my energy and what goals should I make that align with these priorities?

The same applies to money. I often think back to the general gist of what Ramit Sethi asks: “What does rich look like to you?” Is it ordering appetizers before a restaurant meal (Sethi’s answer)? Is it buying a new book every month? Is it having a certain figure in your savings account? Is it being able to contribute a certain amount to charity each year?

I remember running into a co-worker in a grocery store many years ago, in the midst of our counting-every-penny days. We were shopping sales and buying the lowest-priced version we could find of most products. This co-worker looked flabbergasted when we explained our behaviour. He made some comment about buying what he wanted when he needed it. I couldn’t even fathom that idea! If we wanted to make chicken fajita’s and chicken wasn’t on sale, we simply wouldn’t be having chicken fajitas!

But this was easy for us.

I had a friend who, after she was newly married, told me she and her new husband were working hard to establish a firm budget in just about every category of life. But, she added: “We’re not capping books; we can buy as many books as we want each month.” I can count on one hand the number of books I buy over the course of several years, let alone each month! But for this friend, not going over her monthly grocery allowance was easy while putting limits on buying books was non-negotiable.

Our wedding cost a small fraction of what I expect most weddings do; in lieu of a present one friend did flowers, another played the piano (she also made our wedding cake), while another took our photos. It was truly a wedding on a budget!

But when we went to pick our wedding bands, I hit a roadblock. I wanted to get a band that matched the diamond chip pattern on my engagement ring. There were two bands that would potentially fit the bill. One band had smaller chips, set in a narrower pattern. It was about $200. The other band had chips that matched my engagement ring exactly, but it was $300. $100 seemed like a lot of money to spend on something as frivolous as diamond chips and I deliberated for an inordinate amount of time.

I tried to rationalize how the smaller chips didn’t look that bad. After several visits to the jewelry store I (thankfully) decided that since this was something I hoped to wear every day for many many decades, the extra $100 was warranted.

I’ve thought back to this specific example many times when I’m trying to debate long-term quality/pleasure vs. my frugal nature when making a decision. Save where it’s easy to spend where it’s valuable, realizing that “value” is incredibly specific to each individual. I have a number of friends who don’t wear engagement rings at all and have thin, gold wedding bands – I suspect their trips to the jewelry store involved very little deliberation.

The best way to not spend money…is to NOT spend MONEY

And sometimes expenditures don’t need a frugal hack – they just need to be hacked.

We have mutually agreed, to the relief of all parties involved, to stop exchanging Christmas gifts with a number of friend groups over the last few years. Less stress and a lot less money. Instead of trying to find a great gift at a reasonable price, now we spend holiday get-togethers enjoying food and each other’s company, not worrying if our gifts align on price point.

Instead of getting a less expensive coffee at a mediocre cafe, just don’t get the coffee.

Or, if you’ve successfully replaced a mattress under warranty, go whole hog and buy the most expensive latte money can buy. I’m kidding. Maybe… Save up. Spend out.

Header photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Saving Money (Can I Touch This in December?)”

  1. I love posts like this! I used to do a somewhat regular ‘finance friday’ post series about things of this nature. They were a lot of work to write so they kind of fell by the wayside but I would like to bring them back at some point! My husband and I are very fortunate to work in a well-compensated industry – we both work for asset management companies. We worked really hard to get where we are and both passed a super hard series of exams to get our CFA designations. But we lucked out to be drawn to a field that pays well. But the downside is that it is a very volatile industry. We have both lost jobs or been forced to relocate to keep our jobs and we have no diversification of our income since we work in the same industry. So our answer to that lack of diversification is to save like crazy and live well below our means. Being ‘rich’ to me means having ample savings to be able to weather a 6+ month lay off. And to not worry about what your bank balance is. I remember years of my life in my 20s when I had to so carefully watch the balance in my checking account to make sure I would never get an overdraft! Those days were so stressful. But I was always raised to spend less than you make and to save – but also am white and have a ton of privilege as a result. We do mot have the social safety net here in the US that you have in Canada but I knew my parents would help if I was ever in a pinch.

    The biggest things we do are to max out our retirement savings accounts each year. Before marriage I had money taken out of my paycheck and put into savings. Not seeing the money helped and prevented me from spending more than I really needed to or should. I don’t do that anymore as my husband likes to manage our money way more than I do! Lastly, focusing on the big items helps us, like buying a house that provides what we need but costs far less than what the bank would say we can afford. We have bought new cars but I had my 2003 accord for 13 years so feel I got my money’s worth. Then I got a 2016 Camry and we will sell or trade it in when we buy our next car. We got such a good deal on it when I bought it that it looks like we will break even since the used car market is nuts and it only has 32k miles on it!

    But I acknowledge that we are in a far different situation than the majority of the public because of our industry. I feel some guilt about that but we make sure to contribute to charities and such!

    1. I’ve got to go back into your archives and find your finance series! I love reading these sort of things too, especially from people that seem to be of a similar financial mindset (FIRE always seems too intense, and the people who go all out with being frugal – making everything from scratch, budgeting every last dollar – also doesn’t really feel attainable for me either; though both are still very interesting to read about). We don’t have cable, but every once in a while on vacation I’ll catch a show like Til Debt Do Us Part. I LOVE watching those. It’s always so fascinating to me to see how quickly and easily money can go “out.”

      Both of our parents were very frugal and I know having that background helps. Both our fathers were also pastors, not exactly the highest paying jobs. But we learned a lot about fiscal conservatism from them. Sometimes I think children raised in this environment can go to opposite extremes (overspending), but for me I just really appreciate all the lessons I learned (shopping sales, for instance, is something I grew up watching my Mom do and I spend 20 minutes every week going through the sales flyers). I hope our kids learn many of the same lessons just by watching us…but also that they don’t feel deprived. I think being frugal doesn’t have to come at the expense of having wonderful experiences or even having material things.

      We just started the allowance “thing” with Abby last year and she has a set amount of money to spend, money to save (long-term savings) and money to give. I didn’t grow up with any access to money – everything went right into the bank for university. I don’t begrudge this, but do think it has made me too cautious with money at times – I feel guilty about spending money on just about anything. I’m hoping to strike the right balance with allowing the kids to buy items on their own (learning how long it can take to save up for something they want), encouraging them to save with a long-term goal in mind, and then giving them money that they pass on to good causes (e.g. Abby’s last batch of “giving” money went toward our church’s efforts to raise enough funds to sponsor/reunite a Syrian refugee family to come to Canada – so a very tangible goal for her to feel a part of).

      1. Figuring out how to raise our kids to be responsible with money is something we think about. My parents weren’t super intentional about it but their habits and views on money clearly wore off on me. We haven’t figured out what we will do about allowances and such. I like your approach of the different buckets of money, though! One thing we have discussed is what to do about college expenses. I paid for my own college since I was 1 of 5 kids and my parents couldn’t afford to pay for all of us. I got help in other ways but took out loans and got a scholarship to pay for my degree. Phil’s parents paid for his completely. But they only had 2 kids and only 1 finished college so it was a small expense compared to what my parents would have footed. The reality is that our kids will not qualify for financial aid because of our income so we will need to pay for their school but will hopefully have it all or mostly funded with their college savings account. But we don’t want them to take their education for granted. My husband didn’t, so just because you didn’t pay for it doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate it, but I felt extra motivated since I was paying for my education. I know there are good books out there about how to instill financial responsibility in kids so that is a genre I will start to read in the coming years. The BOBW episode from yesterday was really interesting to me and I think I will do a blog post with my thoughts on it at some point!

        1. College/university is a whole other beast!

          My husband and I both paid for university (admittedly, less expensive in Canada). We both had scholarships and worked throughout our degrees.
          My parents put money away each month for me when I was growing up – not very large amounts as my Dad was a Baptist minister, but they started when I was born and the little bits did add up – and almost all the money I made at birthdays/Christmas and doing other odd jobs went toward this account. I was fortunate to get about 1/2 my way paid in scholarships, and had relatively good research jobs every summer of my undergrad degree (and then made a stipend during my Master’s + worked other jobs on the side). In the end I came out of university debt free, with money in my account. I think that is harder and harder to do as university costs increase and high school/university job salaries do not (for example, my Dad could earn enough over the summer at a dry dock to pay his room, board and tuition for a YEAR at college back in the 1960s – no university student can make the equivalent these days).

          In Canada, we have a government program where if parents open a registered education savings plan and contribute X amount, the government will also apply money to the account, so we have that set up for both kids, but it will only pay a portion of their degrees. It’s a while away now, but I would certainly want both kids to work toward financial contributions for their schooling (and work hard in Grade 11/12 to try to maximize scholarship opportunities)!

  2. This was an interesting read! I can relate on so many terms 😉 The hubby and I both came from pretty frugal households, so neither of us have ever felt the need to buy extravagant things. Believe me, the first time I handed over $100 for a pair of shoes I’d wear solely for running and nothing else, I almost fainted (BTW, Those very shoes now are priced even higher, but I don’t blink twice because I know the value is warranted, LOL).

    1. So much of it is learning where to invest! By saving where it’s easy, spend where it matters (and if you’re a fitness buff, good gear is one of the best investments)!
      The answer to what is “important” can vary so much between individuals. I often refer back to something I heard from an interview with JK Rowling where she talked about “throwing money at a problem” (her “problem” was trying to write the final Harry Potter book in the middle of a home renovation, I believe). She ended up renting a hotel room, which is where she completed the book. Looking at money as a tool, is an important consideration – what do I gain (or lose) by spending money on this item or experience. Things like childcare, outsourcing food/cleaning etc can all fall into this category as often money can give us time…

  3. I love these kinds of posts. I think we should talk about finances more and it shouldn’t be a taboo. I also think handling your finances (or at least some basics) should be taught in school, because not every parent is equipped to teach or a good example on how to handle money. It’s such a touchy topic, too.

    I definitely agree that priorities are different for different people and absolutely have to be taken into account! It’s absolutely true that a lot of things around spending/saving/money is personal responsibility, but I also think that some things are out of our hands.

    I read an article recently titled “being poor is expensive” and it was such an interesting read, partly because it is true that the more “wiggle room” you have, the easier it is to make smart financial decisions.

    1. So interesting – I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever thought about fiscal responsibility/budgeting/investing etc as being a teachable skill that could be covered in a public/private education setting but this makes a lot of sense. Especially, as you so rightly point out, this isn’t necessarily something that all children are going to have access to within a home environment. And it’s a vital skill!

      And I couldn’t agree more about “being poor is expensive.” I think about this with regard to private medical insurance; here in Canada most medical expenses are covered, but things like dental work/eye exams are only covered until children reach 10 or 12. Dental expenses, for example, add up quickly – of course many people (who already make enough money to afford dental care) have private insurance through work programs. The people who don’t have jobs that provide private medical insurance are the very ones who are most impacted by the high cost of these procedures. We used to go to a dentist who covered ALL dental work for kids up to age 15 because she said it broke her heart that parents stopped bringing their kids in when the free coverage stopped.

      Also, it takes money to save/invest. It’s very hard to get ahead without having enough disposable income. So these discussions around being frugal are often, sadly, not relevant to the people who feel financial constraints most severely. There are so many other conversations that can follow – living wages and increased taxation on top wage earners etc.

  4. this is a personal topic and I reading about others before judging their behaviors, not that I judge anymore. 🙂 I fully agree that we first need to decide our values and then spend accordingly. otherwise it’s like mindless eating and at the end of the month you wonder what happened.
    I used YNAB app for a while and realized that I didn’t need it as some categories stay the same (groceries, bills), while others vary a lot like travel, gifts, books. Now I do a monthly summary (google sheets) to know where we are financially but don’t put on any cap anymore. I know we are privileged to not have to worry about money in general but it’s also because we are frugal in certain areas (like eating out or luxury things) while luxious in others like travel. It’s all about choices. Even the richest person in the world need to make choices and I often tell my girls why I won’t buy certain things when they ask me.
    Also, I realize that the couple really needs to agree on this. Imagine if you have different preferences on how to spend money. My husband is much more frugal than me, he gets upset when I keep the faucet running when water bill here is fixed.

    1. Ha – that’s hilarious about the running water on a fixed bill.

      We do something similar with budget tracking; I have a categorized spreadsheet that I update each month so I have a very clear grasp of where funds are going in/out…but we don’t put firm caps on any one category. We do look at it together a few times a year (especially at year-end) and assess how things are going – is there an area that seems misaligned with our priorities etc. But, mostly, we aim to spend money wisely (on things we value/need) and be as frugal as possible along the way. Though, as San pointed out, it is a huge luxury to be able to do this and quite frankly it often requires a relatively high financial buffer to be able to easily apply some of these “frugal” tendancies.

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