Lessons from 12 months of pinching pennies

For the last year I’ve been trying everything I can think of to save money, then reporting back on whether it worked and if it was worth it. So what have I learned?

A year ago I’d quit my full-time job so I could freelance and work around my new baby. With extra responsibilities but no guaranteed income, it felt like I was in financial freefall.

I decided to cut back on our household spending and began to really pinch pennies for the first time since I’d been a student; only this time there were three of us. So what have I learned?


Budget brands can be brilliant

The very first column I wrote for Yahoo! compared budget, supermarket-own brands to big brand alternatives. I cooked the same meal twice, once with the cheaper ingredients and once with the more expensive range.

It was a revelation; the budget meal tasted absolutely fine and cost half as much.

Since then, I’ve tested budget cleaning products, budget cereals and even budget baked beans.

However, I also learnt that you can’t assume they’ll be any good. It is very important to experiment as some budget items are useless – budget bin bags being particularly poor.

Saving money never saves time

We’re so used to convenience that it’s easy to forget we pay for it. From ready meals to using the car instead of the bus, if it’s more convenient then it tends to cost more.

In my year writing this column, I’ve met some amazing people who work really hard on their money saving, like Jenny with her chickens or Sarah using reusable nappies.

Both those case studies also showed me that saving money and being more environmentally friendly often go hand in hand.

Not all money-saving schemes save you money

So many potential money-saving schemes involved spending a lot of money first. I soon found that it was easy to waste money under the guise of saving it.

Whether it’s making your own Christmas cards, growing your own veg or even cycling to work – you have to be confident you’re actually going to use the kit you buy.

It’s also very easy to overestimate the savings you’re making, which can encourage you to overspend elsewhere.

Read my article "How I ‘saved’ £2,000 moving house" for a case in point.

We all waste a surprising amount of money

One of the things that really surprised me was realising how much cash we all waste. There’s little point saving an extra £60 on breakfast cereal when we’re wasting hundreds of pounds on household bills.

Not only that, but loads of us pay more tax than we strictly need to, by failing to take advantage of things like childcare vouchers and ISAs.

It’s also easy to miss out on money you’re entitled to or fail to sign up for perks offered by an employer.

Friends can help you save

An easy way to save cash is to buy in bulk, but few of us have the space in our homes for massive packs of toilet rolls or crates of pasta.

I’ve found that you can have the benefits of bulk buying without the problems by shopping through a food co-operative or even just splitting an order with friends.

You can also save on childcare by swapping babysitting with your friends instead of paying a professional.

Supermarkets aren’t on your side

I was pretty depressed to discover just how cynical the supermarkets could be when it came to marketing to their broke customers.

The major supermarkets have worked out that offering bargains attract shoppers, but sometimes they just make things look like bargains.

From charging more per can for bulk-packs of baked beans to exaggerating price cuts, you need to be on your toes to save money on your weekly shop.


Small habit changes really add up

Lots of money-saving tactics I’ve explored have only offered a tiny saving, but I’ve realised that these do soon add up.

For example, a few changes to your driving style could save you hundreds of pounds a year while taking a little more time over your laundry can make your clothes last far longer.

There’s always someone managing on less

One of the money-saving challenges that really made me think was living on the minimum wage for a week; it was a real eye-opener.

I thought we’d been cutting back before but suddenly we couldn’t afford to run the car, take our son to the swimming pool or meet friends for a coffee.

Previously I hadn’t really thought of those things as treats, but on such a tight budget they obviously were.

I have an enormous respect for people who budget so tightly all year round, often with larger families. However pinched your budget might seem, someone is managing on less.


There are some things I won’t do

I hadn’t been writing these columns for long before discovering that there was one money-saving idea I simply couldn’t try.

And that was leaving dirty bedsheets on my bed for an annual saving of £15.

Yuck.

I'm not done yet though. While I've cut back on a lot, there are always ways to do more, new plans for making money last longer or spending less. So if there's anything you've heard of that you think might work, tell me about it below and I'll investigate...