How I’m Sticking to a Budget and Spending Less During COVID-19

Happy family enjoying together in park.
Happy family enjoying together in park.

Like many people, I’ve had to deal with significant hits to my income level during the pandemic. We’ve been fortunate to live a comfortable middle-class life, but holding on to that now requires drastic spending reductions and very careful money management.

Fortunately, the silver lining of my family’s new homebody lifestyle is that it comes with a lot of built-in automatic savings. We no longer go out to restaurants or happy hours once or twice a week. There won’t be any sunny beach vacation this winter. Our daughter’s extracurricular activities like swim lessons and dance classes have been canceled.

In order to adapt, I’m harkening back to the kind of budgeting and frugality my husband and I exercised when we first met more than a decade ago, both at more primordial stages of our lives and careers. The big difference now, though, are those grown-up expenses like a mortgage, car payments and child-related costs that we didn’t have back then.

There’s a lot I didn’t know in my 20s that I know now, but I’m taking some advice from my younger self to keep living the dream — on much less money. Use these tips to save a little extra these days.

Last updated: Nov. 6, 2020

Hand holding wire cutters and cutting a television cable attached to a television set.
Hand holding wire cutters and cutting a television cable attached to a television set.

Trim the Fat

Cable television, a Sunday newspaper delivery and the satellite radio and navigation in my car also weren’t expenses for 29-year-old me. I called each of these service providers with the honest intention to cancel and cut the expenses completely but was surprised by the fantastic promotional offers I got to stay. In the end, I was able to keep both the newspaper and satellite radio subscriptions for about the cost of a weekly latte (which I now only make at home).

We did finally cut our cable cord, as we’ve been threatening to do for some time. In exchange, by switching service providers, we got a higher-speed broadband internet service for half the cost of our cable internet bill, bundled it with mobile phone service at a lower rate than we were getting and got new phones thrown in to replace our aging iPhone 6s models.


Refrigerator Minimalism

My single life fridge had a far more minimalist aesthetic (olives + cheese + wine = dinner!), and back then I purchased less and wasted less. Groceries are now one of my family’s biggest expenses, and the refrigerator can easily become a black box of mystery run amok. A return to order is possible — it just takes a bit more effort.

Because of the pandemic, I’ve adopted more mindful shopping habits, planning meals out a week at a time and making fewer trips to the store. On top of that, I started labeling food with dates as it goes in the fridge and cleaning it out weekly, as well as using scraps of vegetables and other leftovers to make broths, sauces and soups.

I also put a chalkboard on the wall in the kitchen with two columns: items I need to buy and items I need to use before they go bad. On those nights at 6 p.m. when I don’t have a plan for dinner, there’s often a decent meal staring me in the face on that board, requiring just a sprinkle of that youthful kitchen creativity.

retirement saving regardless of income
retirement saving regardless of income

Personal Care: Actually Save Your Savings

  • Monthly beauty/fitness savings: $460

  • Yearly additional college fund deposit: $1,200

I used to be great at putting anything extra into my savings account because rainy days came more often. Our fitness and beauty regimens were a great place to put that back into practice.

Pre-pandemic, our monthly expenditures for haircuts, my yoga studio, my husband’s martial arts classes and our daughter’s gymnastics and dance activities cost almost $500 a month combined. We now only pay $40 a month for a couple of online home fitness apps and we have family home salon days, complete with “spa” refreshments and ice cream rewards.

It’s tempting to reward myself for those savings by buying a new pair of shoes I don’t need. To keep myself in check, I reallocated $100 a month to my daughter’s college fund. When I think of it as new shoes versus my child’s future, the choice is easy.

Two Filipino parents and their three children enjoy huge waffle ice cream cones on a California boardwalk by the beach.
Two Filipino parents and their three children enjoy huge waffle ice cream cones on a California boardwalk by the beach.

Drive Less, Walk More

I used to walk or bike everywhere but family life has made me far more attached to my car. Now that I’m not commuting the 40 miles a day to work that I was pre-pandemic, we’re saving a lot on transportation. I’ve turned my electric vehicle over to my husband to commute to his nearby shop, so he’s now going to the pump less. I was also able to get a lower rate on our car insurance since we’re putting fewer miles on my car.

Since we’ve dropped the fitness club memberships, it’s all the more reason to take care of neighborhood errands by walking or biking — a win for our bodies, the environment and our bank account.

woman shopping in thrift store
woman shopping in thrift store

Join the Circular Economy

My love of vintage and thrifted items is one thing I’ve never lost from my younger days and it’s still serving me well. Now, though, it has a fancy name with a badge of sustainability: the circular economy. By avoiding the purchase of brand-new items, you’re eliminating waste and the continual use of virgin resources. You’re saving a whole bunch of money, too.

Buy Nothing: I love my neighborhood Facebook Buy Nothing group for passing on gently worn kids’ clothes or picking up household items.

Upcycling: When I needed to make some new curtains, I purchased some gorgeous vintage deadstock fabric for half the price of new home decor fabric. Deadstock sellers source leftover textiles from fashion brands, movie sets and fabric mills that would otherwise get thrown away. Try online shops like Fabcycle or Matchpoint Fabric.

Plant exchanges: While I’ve had more time at home to spend in my garden, I don’t have more money to match. So rather than dropping $100 at the nursery on plants I’ll probably kill, I’ve joined a couple of local plant exchange groups where I can score divided or orphaned plants other gardeners are happy to share.

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