My Frugal Habits that have Stood the Test of Time

Our ever-blooming orchid

I’m going to start this post with a confession: I’m not actually very frugal.

Not really, not at heart.

For instance, we just bought a new (to us) vehicle, on credit, and it’s a gas-guzzling mini-van.

Percentage of trips with more than one human inside: approximately 1%.

It seemed to make sense at the time, and yes, it does make shopping at Costco easier, but the number of times we’ve actually needed a mini-van to do what we were doing is a bare fraction. Live & learn, I guess, plus we’ve been driving a lot less!

Essentially, I’ve learned that I’m frugal when I have to be, cheap about things that make me anxious, and a 100% middle-class suburban mom when it comes to a few things. Like the mini-van.

I’m in no way “all-frugal-all-the-time” — I’m not even going to tell you about all the ice cream we eat or just how many Amazon boxes landed on our porch in December — but there ARE a handful of habits I’ve held on to since the earliest days of this blog when we were living on a single income and I was a stay-at-home mom. These are my stand-bys, saving us a few dollars here and there, making it possible for us to have adventures — whenever we can go back out into the world again.


#1. Making my own yogurt

As I type this, I’ve got a pot with 3 litres of milk on the stove, slowly heating up to 180 degrees. Once it gets there, I’ll turn it off and let it cool to 120 with the lid on, stir in a quarter cup of last week’s yogurt from the fridge, pour it into glass jars which I’ll put in my instant pot, fill with hot tap water, and let sit for 6 hours. It’s that easy! It saves a ton of money and a load of plastic containers, and it guarantees that my kids have a healthy, probiotic snack all week. We use it in smoothies, with granola, stirred into oatmeal, and in mini mason jars every day in their school lunches, flavoured with some local maple syrup. As I’ve observed before, having frugal healthy snacks and ingredients available means the kids will choose those options more often.

I’ll teach you how if you ever want to learn!

#2. YNAB

I can honestly say, the budget app YNAB saves me thousands of dollars every year.

I don’t get anything out of promoting it here–no kick-backs, fees, pats on the back, nothing. I just truly believe this budgeting software is awesome! I’ve never tried any other one, so I can’t compare. It’s possible that using ANY budgeting app might be just as good, but since I’ve only tried this one, I will recommend it ūüôā

I’ve been subscribing for a few years and in that time, I’ve gone through periods of using it and periods of letting it slide. The times of letting it slide, that’s when I’ve gotten into trouble financially, even when our income went up.

The trick I’ve found is spending just a few minutes with my budget every day. This January 1, I started tending my budget first thing every morning, and it has been hugely rewarding. It just gives me much more control over where we are spending our money, by encouraging me to set aside the amounts for all the upcoming bills I know we’re going to have. So every paycheque, I slot a certain amount into the mortgage line, a certain amount for groceries, electricity, water bill, internet, cell phones, etc., etc.

This way, I know when I have extra money. I know that if I overspend in one category or have an unexpected expense, that it has to come out of another category. It allows me to react sensibly to the curve-balls, and really enjoy when we have any extra.

I can also use it to track things like back-to-school expenses, or how much that little weekend visit to Ottawa costs, so I can budget for those things in advance instead of being surprised by them.

The other benefit it has is providing a neutral place for my partner and I to talk about money. I can show him where we’re at, and we can figure out together where we want to be, then work out goals together, and track our progress. It’s taken a lot of the emotion and guess-work out of our money talks, and helped us get into alignment with one another.

#3. Drinking tap water

This one is very un-exciting, but it is healthy, frugal and environmentally sustainable. A great triple-hitter.

We are lucky to have a great-tasting, safe water supply, so it is an easy choice to make for us. My daughter and I are constantly refilling our water bottles, while my partner and son prefer Bubly . . . Not the most frugal choice, but it could be worse!

#4. Hanging most of our clothes up to dry

While I do use the dryer for our linens, I still hang up our clothes to dry. It takes a few minutes in the evening to hang it up on our folding drying racks, but usually my partner and I do it together, so it’s a pleasant little part of our evening routine. I’ve read that it reduces wear and tear on our clothes, and it uses much less energy than the dryer, even though we use the ceiling fan to help things along.

It’s even nicer once the sun gets warm enough because then our clothes come in smelling wonderful and outsidey: better than any perfumed laundry additive! While I would love a laundry line, our yard doesn’t offer a great solution for that, so I just bring our drying racks outside and place them in the sunniest spot on the lawn. It gets me outside for a few minutes of peaceful, quiet alone time. It’s really serene — now I really can’t wait for spring!

#5. Staying put in our “starter home”

We’ve contemplated moving so many times since landing here. Wanting something closer to my sister, or closer to the lake, or in a fancier neighbourhood or a cooler house. But something has kept us here every time.

Our house is nowhere near perfect, but the truth is, there’s nowhere that’s perfect! There will always be pros and cons, but the sticking point for us is that this house is pretty cheap. We’re getting to the half-way point of paying down our mortgage by now, and it is really hard to contemplate making that number bigger instead of smaller. Plus, from here we can both walk to work, which saves us thousands per year on parking, gas, wear and tear, and only needing one vehicle.

Moreover, our expenses here are pretty predictable. We know what our bills will be month to month. And, we can see most of the problems coming down the road, so we can make a plan to deal with them.

I have another, very selfish reason: in this house I have my own little room where I do school work, yoga and writing. A precious space all my own where I can close the door and be myself. It’s hard to find four-bedroom houses in our price range, and I am very reluctant to give up this luxury!

I’m not saying we’ll never move, but for now we’re deciding that this mess is our mess, and in this mess we’ll stay.

#6. Cooking meals at home

A lot of this blog has been dedicated to cooking, recipes and shopping smart. Even in this busy season, we cook most of our own meals, though when we’ve had more money we’ve eaten out a bit more and tried to support small, local restaurants that we value for bringing delicious variety to our city’s culinary landscape.

We have a few simple staples that we rotate, like spaghetti sauce and chili, that we get a few meals out of, plus other favourites that we repeat often. My partner and I do a very loose meal plan on Sunday before grocery shopping so we have an idea of what we will eat that week, plus we keep certain staples on hand so we can throw together a healthy-ish “emergency” meal at a moment’s notice if need be.

#7. Eating more veggie meals

We’ve been eating less and less meat, and choosing mostly local, grass-fed when we do eat meat. Not that we never have a burger or a sausage, but for us, adding more veggie meals to our repertoire works a lot better than cutting out meat entirely.

For instance, we’ve learned that the kids like Red Thai Veggie Curry (with butter instead of coconut oil), and they like Butternut Squash Soup and even Beet Soup. A couple of their favourites — mac & cheese, and perogies — are simple and meat-free, and we’ll occasionally make a vegetarian burrito bar with scrambled egg, refried beans, tomatoes, cilantro, salsa and cheese. We’ve recently fallen in love with breaded baked cauliflower bites which are made even better dipped in the best thing in the world: Sriracha mayo!

One thing I’ve done to make it easier for us to choose veggie more often is to make a list of all the vegetarian dishes we all like, and put it into a shared note with my partner. Every Sunday before grocery shopping, we take a look at the list and choose a few of those options that sound good and we haven’t had for awhile. This helps us remember all the vegetarian things we love, and it’s really working to keep our meat consumption low, without missing it at all.

#8. Walking

It’s my frugal workout. It’s my transportation to work and back. It’s my personal and couples therapy. It’s my favourite date and best hang-out activity. Yes, sometimes I’ll even drive to my hike, but I do a lot of walking around my neighbourhood too.

Last fall, the kids, their cousins, my sister and I hiked the 10K at the Conservation Area. I can’t even tell you how much fun it was! We saw all these gorgeous, hidden vistas, and the feeling of triumph when we got to the 10 of 10 kilometres was absolutely incredible. We made some amazing memories that day, and the kids learned that they can do hard things.

Maybe some day I’ll take my walking into the back country with a tent, sleeping pad and ziplock baggies of dehydrated food on my back, but for now I am content to stick to exploring our local vistas with a day pack, water bottle and some home-made cookies.


There you have it! 8 frugal habits that are still saving us money, keeping us healthy, and reducing our environmental footprint just a little. Helps me feel less guilty for the mini-van!

None of these things are going to make us millionaires — and that’s not really my goal here — but like a rudder in a boat, they help to keep us stable and on course.

These are the ones that are here to stay.

I would love to hear what frugal habits have stayed with you through the years. Let me know in the comments!

What’s your Walkscore?

walk_signWhile cruising through my Blogroll one day, I ended up on One Green Generation, which had a link to a fascinating site called Walkscore.com.

Basically, it uses Google Maps to calculate your distance from important amenities like grocery stores, libraries, parks, restaurants, cinemas, etc. to give your neighbourhood a certain score based on proximity.  The higher the score, the less need you have for a car.

Our score in Centretown Ottawa? 93/100 (woo hoo!)

Our two old places in Toronto: 83 and 77 respectively

My parents’ place in Sudbury: 53

The house I grew up in: 10 out of 100

Interestingly, every move I’ve ever made has brought me to a more walkable location! (Well, except for my year in Montreal but we won’t count that.) Though I often dream about farm life, walkability is something I really value and would find it a major adjustment to live without. In fact, I think it’s a key component of my being frugal and urban!

So, what’s the deal with walkability? ¬†The website gives a few points:

Walkable neighborhoods offer surprising benefits to our health, the environment, and our communities.

Better health: A study in Washington State found that the average resident of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood weighs 7 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling neighborhood.1 Residents of walkable neighborhoods drive less and suffer fewer car accidents, a leading cause of death between the ages of 15‚Äď45.

Reduction in greenhouse gas: Cars are a leading cause of global warming. Your feet are zero-pollution transportation machines.

More transportation options: Compact neighborhoods tend to have higher population density, which leads to more public transportation options and bicycle infrastructure. Not only is taking the bus cheaper than driving, but riding a bus is ten times safer than driving a car!2

Increased social capital: Walking increases social capital by promoting face-to-face interaction with your neighbors. Studies have shown that for every 10 minutes a person spends in a daily car commute, time spent in community activities falls by 10%.3

Stronger local businesses: Dense, walkable neighborhoods provide local businesses with the foot traffic they need to thrive. It’s easier for pedestrians to shop at many stores on one trip, since they don’t need to drive between destinations.

I would agree with all these points, and would also add that being able to walk to work (something possible in Centretown Ottawa) means having more time to spend at home with the kids. My “commute” is less than 5 minutes door-to-door, which means I maximize the time I can spend with my daughter instead of sitting in traffic. Same goes for my husband, whose “commute” is about double mine.

Another thing I’ve noticed in my years living in walkable neighbourhoods is that where people can walk, they do, and the fact that there are people out walking around, usually at all hours of the day & night, greatly increases the safety of neighbourhoods. Jane Jacobs calls this “eyes on the street”. The more mixed use and pedestrian traffic a neighbourhood has, the less crime tends to exist in a place. In fact, many parks in dense urban neighbourhoods are actually safer than suburban parks at night, simply because there are more people strolling around.

Finally, having a car would mean greatly increasing our cost of living since we would not only have to worry about the car (and most likely a car loan), but also the insurance, gas, maintenence and repairs that go along with car ownership. Not to mention an automatic $100/month just to park the thing!

I found this website really fun, and as you can see, used it to check out all the places I’ve ever lived. I would definitely use this when choosing our next apartment or house.

Car-free living

I originally titled this post “Life without car” but thought a more up-beat title was better. ¬†However, that all depends on how I’m feeling on a daily basis.

Living in centretown Ottawa I certainly don’t NEED a car. ¬†My husband and I both walk to work (my office is just 2 blocks away). ¬†Everything I could possibly need is right here in the downtown core: groceries, health food, recreation, entertainment (not that we ever go out) . . . ¬†Centretown’s got it all. ¬†And what it doesn’t have, I can certainly take a bus to a place that does have it.

So why do I long for a car?

There are a few reasons:

– access to the wilderness, or as we used to call it back home in Sudbury, “the Bush”. ¬†It’s hard to get outside the city without a car, and sometimes I long for more nature in my life and my kid’s life.

– cheap groceries. ¬†Hartmann’s is sooooooooo overpriced. ¬†Less central grocery stores have much much better prices, but it’s pretty hard to wrangle a 2-year-old and a week’s worth of groceries onto a bus.

Рfarm visits.  Pick-your-own berries, fruits and vegetables.   Meet your meat.  Introducing my girl (not to mention myself!) to where our food actually comes from.

– other interesting entertainment. ¬†Yes Centretown has everything, but there’s even MORE in the ‘burbs. ¬†A wave pool or two, water parks,¬†a giant indoor jungle gym . . .

So what’s holding me back? ¬†

Partly it’s finances. ¬†We are concentrating on paying off debt, and until that is done, it would be backwards to take on more debt. ¬†

But more importantly it is because getting a car is much more of a want than a need. ¬†Yes, some of my car ownership dreams involve super-great grocery deals, cost-free healthy hours spent hiking in the Gatineau and hauling home crates of berries to turn into jam. ¬†But water parks and wave pools? ¬†It’s the thin edge of the wedge.

Overall the costs ¬†involved in owning a car (including gas, maintenance, insurance, and parking) would certainly outweigh the grocery savings. ¬†By a long shot. ¬†And as a new-car-owner friend said to me, “Once you can get out to all those big box stores, you go shopping a lot more often.” ¬†Everything’s cheaper and more accessible . . . and isn’t that what drives our consumer economy?

So I’m sticking with my car-free centretown lifestyle. ¬†I walk 90% of the places I have to go, cycle to another 7%, take the bus to maybe 2%, and for the other 1%, I have a generous brother with a car who is willing to drive me around in exchange for dinner once in awhile.

And comparing Hartmann’s mark-up to the costs of car ownership makes their over-inflated prices look reasonable in comparison.