One of the most common complaints I hear about frugal strategies is that they take so much time compared to other options. I don’t really find this to be the case, mostly because this line of thinking ignores the fact that non-frugal strategies also take time and the time difference often ends up being very small for the amount of money you save.
To illustrate this point, over the last several weeks, I’ve actually done a bunch of common tasks in a “frugal” fashion and a “non-frugal” fashion, timed how long each technique took me, and calculated the cost. This helped me get an estimate as to how much money I saved per hour of effort using the frugal techniques. In many cases, I was able to measure multiple times, so I use an average when I can in this post.
So, let’s dig in to a few of these strategies.
Canned Beans versus Dried Beans
Many of my favorite dishes contain some variety of beans in them – red beans, kidney beans, black beans, navy beans… the list goes on and on. What I like to do is plan two or three meals for a week that use the same type of bean, then buy a pound of dry beans and cook them all at once with relatively minimal spicing, then put them all in a container in the fridge to use throughout the week.
The technique for this is fairly straightforward. I dump a full pound bag of the beans in a slow cooker to soak overnight with no heat, just covering them with enough water to cover all of the beans and most of my index finger’s length in extra water. This takes about 30 seconds. In the morning, I strain off all of that liquid and then replace it with fresh liquid, at which point I turn the slow cooker on “low” and let the beans cook for some amount of time. This takes about 90 seconds, on average. Depending on what I’m doing, I’ll add a few spices and seasonings or maybe some diced onions, diced green peppers, or minced garlic. This adds another minute or so for the spices (finding them, adding an appropriate amount, putting them back in the spice rack). I won’t count the time for the added vegetables because most canned beans don’t include them anyway – it’s part of the meal prep, really. There’s also another minute or so that comes from loading the slow cooker crock and the lid and the strainer in the dishwasher and then unloading it and putting it away, and that takes about a minute all told. So, all told, cooking a pound of dried beans takes me about four minutes.
A pound of dried beans that are fully cooked is roughly equal to the contents of four cans of beans one might buy at the store. It takes me about five seconds to open a can, plus another ten seconds to get the cans out and dispose of them afterwards. So, all told, using canned beans takes about 30 seconds.
I actually measured these things two times each, and I’ll conclude that the extra time spent cooking a pound of dry beans versus opening four cans of beans is about three and a half minutes.
I typically buy dry beans in bulk and a 20 pound bag of dried black beans can be found for about $15. (If you buy them a pound at a time, you’ll be spending about $1.50 at most stores.) Most stores will sell you a can of black beans for $0.75 to $1 – we’ll go with $0.85 on average – and you need four of them to equal the total cooked volume of a pound of dried beans, so that’s $3.40.
If you’re comparing a single pound bag of dried beans to four cans of cooked beans, you’re saving $1.90 for three and a half minutes of effort. Is that worth it? It’s your call, really. If you want that calculated out to an hourly rate of money saved per hour of effort, that’s $32.57 an hour and you don’t have to pay taxes on it (it’s savings rather than income).
If you’re comparing a 20 pound bulk bag of dried beans to 80 cans of cooked beans (with 20 times the effort), you’re saving $53 for 70 minutes of effort, assuming you’re cooking the dried beans a pound at a time. Is that worth it? Well, again, if you want the hourly rate, it’s about $45.43 per hour of effort and, again, that’s savings rather than income so you don’t have to pay taxes on it.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit with this strategy – and with every other one listed here – that the time invested in doing it the “frugal” way is longer at first, and that the time drops as you become more familiar with the technique. For me, however, the fact that it saves so much for the time invested and the fact that the taste of dried beans cooked at home is so much better makes this one an automatic for me. I only have canned beans around to use in a pinch, when something caused me to not have enough freshly cooked beans.
Minute (or “Instant”) Rice versus Dried Rice
When I’m cooking rice, I do much the same thing as described above. I cook a bunch of it in a rice cooker, put it in a big container in the fridge, and use it throughout the week. That’s hard to beat – it’s actually faster than the equivalent amount of instant rice if you do it this way.
However, let’s compare the situation where you don’t have that rice cooker that you invested in initially. In that case, you’re likely stuck cooking rice in individual batches in the microwave or on the stovetop.
In those cases, the recipes are basically the same. Put a certain amount of water into a pot, maybe a bit of salt and/or butter, bring it to a boil, add a certain amount of rice, stir, then let it simmer for a while, covered. The difference here is that you have to wait for a lot longer with dry rice versus instant rice, because the instant rice is essentially already cooked and then dehydrated. With most instant rices, you usually let it simmer for about five minutes, and then remove from heat and let it sit for five more minutes. With store-bought rice, you let it simmer for about 18 minutes, and then let it sit for five minutes.
So, for a small batch of rice, the only difference between instant rice and dry rice is about thirteen minutes of simmering. Don’t get me wrong – that can make a difference sometimes – but usually you’re spending that time preparing things to go with the rice.
You can get a pound of store brand instant white rice for roughly $1.35 – it usually comes in 28 ounce boxes for about $2.50. You can get a pound of dry white rice for about $0.80 (buying it for a single pound) or as low as $0.40 (buying it in 20 pound bulk).
Assuming you’re cooking a couple of cups of dry rice at a time, you’re going to get about three batches per dry pound, which means that you’re investing about 40 total minutes of simmering time (in which you just have a pot simmering on the stovetop, so you can be doing other things) to save somewhere between $0.50 to $1. I think the dry rice (not the instant) tastes better, too, but that’s a personal factor. (The exact numbers change if you use other types of rice.)
So, here’s the scoop with rice: the fastest and cheapest method is to just cook it in a rice cooker in bulk. There’s just no way to beat that in terms of efficiency – I can cook multiple pounds at once and just leave it in the fridge. However, it requires a rice cooker to do this. If you eat rice very often at all, I suggest hitting the local Goodwill or other secondhand store and picking up a rice cooker, as it’ll be worth your time.
If you don’t have a rice cooker, use instant rice only if you are extremely constrained in terms of meal prep time. If you often find yourself trying to get dinner on the table in fifteen minutes and rarely plan ahead enough to cook the rice in the morning as you’re getting ready for the day and leave it in the fridge for the evening, then go for instant rice. Otherwise, the only disadvantage of uncooked dry rice is some additional simmering time, which you can use getting other elements of the meal ready, and it’s cheaper (and, in my opinion, tastes better).
Homemade Laundry Soap versus Store-Bought Soap/Detergent
As I’ve shared many times, I like to use homemade laundry soap. I originally described it here, but since then, my recipe has evolved. Today, I just put 2 cups of washing soda, 2 cups of borax, and 2 cups of soap flakes in a Gladware container, shake it up for a few seconds, then toss a measuring tablespoon in there. Each load I do, I use a tablespoon of this mix. When the container’s really low, I just make a new batch. This mix handles about 100 loads of laundry. The cost per load for this mix is just a hair over $0.04, though the price can get a bit lower if you just buy a super-cheap bar of soap and grate it yourself in a box grater instead of buying soap flakes.
The time investment in assembling this mix, beyond the time invested in buying the ingredients (which, since you’re using them so slowly, makes re-buying less frequent than just buying straight laundry soap or detergent), is about two minutes. I probably spend a minute measuring the contents and a minute shaking the container. This is enough for 100 loads.
Comparing this to Wal-Mart prices (as a common point of reference), one can find powdered laundry soaps for about $0.13 per load (and up), as well as liquid detergents that get as low as the $0.17 per load range.
Over the course of 100 loads, my homemade kind saves about $0.09 per load over store-bought powdered soap, so the savings is about $9 for about two minutes of effort. (We do a load or two every day, so this takes us about three months to use up.) The amount of money saved per hour (basically, making this thirty times, which would be over the course of eight years or so) is $270. If you’re comparing this powder to the liquid form, you’re saving about $0.13 per load, so the savings is about $13 for about two minutes of effort, which is an even higher hourly rate (again, spread in two minute bits across several years).
For me, the tiny amount of time needed to mix up my own soap saves so much money over the next three months that it’s well worth it.
Bulk Dish Soap versus Individual Containers
Another strategy we like to use is to buy a giant jug of dish soap and use it to regularly refill a regular-sized container of dish soap that we actually use when doing dishes. We do a number of our dishes by hand and we’ve never really found a good, reliable, simple homemade dish soap, so our savings here comes from buying store brand soap in bulk and refilling from that bulk container.
I prefer to buy the Member’s Mark dish soap at the cost of $4.98 per gallon ($0.04 per ounce), or the less harsh version at a cost of $6.98 per 100 ounces ($0.07 per ounce). These come in big jugs that aren’t very handy to use at the sink, so you have to refill a smaller bottle.
Buying this soap in a reasonably-sized bottle (40 ounces) costs $2.97 (about $0.075 per ounce).
Let’s assume it takes me about a minute to refill the smaller container. I’ll refill it three times from the big bulk container, so it’ll use about three minutes. From the smaller bulk container, I’ll fill it two and a half times, so it’ll use about two and a half minutes.
Using the big bulk container, I save $4.48 for three minutes of additional effort, which is well worth it. With the smaller bulk container, I save about $0.50 for two and a half minutes of effort, which may or may not be worth it (it adds up to $12 an hour in savings).
In short, if you get a good deal on the biggest bulk soap out there and get the cost per ounce down around $0.04 or less, then it’s worth your time to refill from a big bulk bottle. If not, you’re probably not saving much for your time investment.
Pre-Chopped Vegetables versus Chopping Them Yourself
One of my favorite tactics when preparing meals at home is to buy bags of flash-frozen vegetables and use them as a shortcut for the time spent chopping some common fresh vegetables. My local grocery store, Fareway, sells very inexpensive frozen bags of chopped onions and green peppers which work great in all kinds of things, for example, and I often use their frozen bags of broccoli, corn, and mixed vegetables for various things.
It’s not too hard to recognize that the flash frozen bags are more expensive than the equivalent amount of fresh vegetables. The bags of frozen vegetables usually clock in at around $1.40, while the equivalent amount of fresh vegetables right out of the produce section can vary, but is usually around $0.75 to $1. It’s a bit cheaper to buy the fresh vegetables, in other words.
The catch, of course, is time. Recently, I tried measuring my own chopping time to see how long it would take me to approximate the contents of a frozen bag of vegetables and what I found is that, regardless of what was in the bag, it would take me about four minutes to match it, including the time involved in getting out the knife and cutting board, honing the knife a little if needed, chopping up the vegetable in question, and putting everything away or in the dishwasher.
So, I’m saving around $0.50 to save four minutes of effort. Over the course of an hour, that adds up to about $7.50 in savings. Honestly, for me, it’s not worth it.
Thus, the vast majority of the time, I use the store brand flash frozen vegetables, and save my chopping for the vegetables that I can’t get in that form. It doesn’t save me enough money to chop things myself when I can get them in frozen form. The thing to remember is that cooking at home, even with the frozen vegetables, is light years cheaper than eating out, no matter where you eat.
These strategies, and many more like them, end up saving quite a bit of money for the time invested. If you calculate it out to an hourly rate, the savings is usually pretty impressive, especially when you consider it’s money directly in your pocket without taxation.
The catch, of course, is that these strategies do eat into the relatively limited amount of time that we have when we’re not sleeping or working. How much is that time really worth to you? For some people who are on a very tight schedule, that time can be really, really valuable.
In general, I only commit to frugal strategies when they also save time or when they’re truly big wins, above $10 per hour of time saved if I enjoy doing it and much higher than that if I don’t. If something doesn’t cost me any time, I’ll almost always do it the cheapest way, like cooking rice in a rice cooker and keeping it in the fridge. If it costs me some time, it better be saving me a lot for that time or doing it better have some other benefits to it (like way better food or an activity I enjoy or something I can do with my kids).
The thing is, there are a lot of frugal strategies that pass this basic test. For me, all of the strategies listed above pass this test almost all of the time – using dry rice over instant rice, using dry beans over canned beans, making my own laundry soap, and so on. There are many others that are big wins, too, like air sealing my home to close drafts (something that costs time, but only once, and saves money forever), using LED light bulbs (has a high initial cost, but saves time and money over the long run), buying almost everything in store brand form (no extra time, pure savings), and so on.
In my eyes, resisting even an attempt at those kinds of strategies is simply a resistance to change in general. If you find yourself resisting a strategy that seems to have more upside than downside, it’s worth your time to think about why you’re resisting it and whether those reasons really make sense. You may have meaningful reasons, but often, the reasons that people oppose change is simply that – an opposition to change for any reason.
The lesson of all of this is simple: if a frugal change has little time cost associated with it, or the time cost is well rewarded, it rarely hurts to give it a shot. The ones that you should consider more carefully are the ones with extensive time commitments that don’t offer a huge return or have some other challenges involved with them. Thankfully, common sense usually points out most of those unfruitful strategies.
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