As a general rule, I try not to think about Tory ministers while I bathe. But recently, while taking a post-workout shower in my sports bra, its wicking fabric creating a dry zone on my skin, I thought about the environment secretary, George Eustice, and his advice that families struggling to cope during the current cost of living crisis ought to switch to value brands. Eustice was quickly lampooned for patronising the public with this staggeringly obvious suggestion, and for minimising the pain people are experiencing through the biggest drop in living standards since the 50s.
Meanwhile, I was weeks into my exploration of “extreme frugality” – a money-saving practice that is booming online. Somewhere between a hobby and a way of life, extreme frugallers take money-consciousness to new levels, utilising ingenious, creative and sometimes controversial methods that often require a leap of faith. Such as wearing your bra in the shower. The logic goes that as I’m already paying for energy and water for a shower, I may as well use it to clean bras, too. This way, I reduce the number of washing machine loads I need.
Anyway, it worked: the bra quickly became saturated, and I whipped it off, wringing it out and hanging to dry while continuing my shower – a refreshed sports bra, without one extra drop of water.
With summer on our doorsteps, a time when holidays and outdoor events make extra demands for our cash, could the internet wisdom of the frugal public help us navigate this mess? I spent a month trying to find out.
There’s a long history of public discourse around frugality – from the “waste not, want not” ethos of postwar Britain to the rise of thrift culture in the 90s. A key book from this time, Amy Dacyczyn’s The Complete Tightwad Gazette: Promoting Thrift as a Viable Alternative Lifestyle, describes tightwads as a “minority”. But now frugality has finally gone mainstream. Some extreme frugallers trade tips on forums and YouTube, while others offer paid-for consultancy on how to achieve Fire (a related lifestyle that’s very online, it stands for Financial Independence Retire Early, and combines frugal living with shrewd financial investment). These days, the online frugal community is so large it’s spawned multiple subreddit threads (including the very specific FrugalUrbanHermits). On Facebook, the Extreme Couponing and Bargains UK page has a whopping 1.9 million members. When one praised her £35 heated throw from Aldi in April, thousands of others chimed in to add their endorsement. The item has since sold out.
Some of the more outre tips include reusing the strong plastic bags that hold cereal (I gave it a go, using my Cheerios bag for sandwiches); getting more out of each toothpaste tube by snipping off the end and scraping out the remnants; and taping aluminium foil to the windows when it’s hot instead of running a fan. Then there are posts such as the one from an ingenious user who’d saved the cost of buying a 2022 calendar by using a calendar from 1994 (calendars starting on the same day can be reused): yes, it’s cost-saving, but not as frugal as using a digital calendar.
Frugallers of every stripe agree that the first thing everyone should do is create a budget. I jot down all my outgoings and immediately spot subscriptions I should cancel to the tune of £36 a month. I separate fixed fees I’m locked into (broadband, mortgage, council tax, mobile phone, car and home insurances). This makes up most of my monthly outgoings. I’m left with a list of costs that vary based on my usage (electricity, petrol, water, food) and a vow to bring those down. Extremely.
Frugal diet: is it that easy to get free food?
As I scroll the frugal internet, I am pleased to discover I’m already practising the basics: buying in bulk; using budget shops; eating mostly vegetarian and maximising tinned ingredients (tomatoes, chickpeas, coconut milk etc) by using spice for flavour. I thought this was just called “being South Asian” but it’s also the beating heart of frugal eating. I also use one teabag for two cups, grow my own herbs, and batch cook: all tricks passed down from my mother.
Yet even in the financially difficult situation of my childhood (single immigrant parent, three kids, council house), we were lucky not to live in a food desert; currently 1.2 million Britons live in neighbourhoods where poverty, poor public transport and a scarcity of supermarkets make healthy food inaccessible, with communities in Bristol, Newport, Hull and Tameside some of the worst affected. We also had storage space (frugal tip: keep tins under the bed), and unlike 2.8 million Britons, we had a freezer. They allow shoppers to take advantage of cheap food close to its expiry date, and save some of the 9.5m tonnes of food that is binned in the UK each year.
Olio is an app that connects neighbours who have food to give away. But even where I live in London, I’d still need to travel to collect the items, and that would carry a cost. “Where I am in the north-east, there’s nothing on Olio,” says Nicola from The Frugal Cottage, a blog documenting her year of extreme frugality. She recommends looking for community hubs or kitchens in rural areas, which might have food to give away, but cautions: “You need to search for them.”
I collect a bag of unsold food from Pret a Manger worth £12; as it’s 3pm it costs £4. Inside is a falafel wrap, soup, and a mac and cheese
Another app, Too Good to Go, lets people buy food surplus from restaurants at a fraction of the price. I try it one lunchtime from the Guardian’s office, hoping for breakfast goods, but find no participating venue within an hour’s round trip on foot. A few days later, I collect a bag of unsold food from Pret a Manger worth £12; as it’s 3pm it costs me £4. Inside is a falafel wrap, vegetarian soup, and a mac and cheese. It’s meat-free, but only by chance, so people with specific dietary needs may be out of luck.
Nicola tells me her weekly food shop for her family of four is £50, and “there’s no waste”. She stores carrots in water so they don’t go bendy, and she puts kitchen roll in the salad bag to stop leaves drooping. She also plans meals, so never buys something she already has. Some extreme frugallers take this one step further by keeping inventory lists. This means they can be confident they have supplies to fall back on if an unexpected bill comes in.
I give this a go – and immediately regret it. There’s something about putting numbers against everything that makes a usually pleasant experience – browsing the cupboards and wondering what to cook – feel like an exam. Then I come home to find my whole family cooking in the kitchen: cute, ordinarily, but this time I find myself growling: “How can you not know how many tomatoes you used?” This is the next frugal lesson: it’s hard to do it comprehensively when you don’t have full control.
I tell Nicola I’m feeling demoralised. “You need to have a set goal,” she advises. “And to celebrate each milestone.” Frugallers are partial to a competition, such as the 1p saving challenge (saving an increasing amount each day, so 1p on day one, 2p on day two, until you’ve saved £650 a year) or a no-spend week/month. And, Nicola says, I might want to start with small changes: “I wouldn’t like to inventory our kitchen cupboards, either.”
Go slow: could driving at a snail’s pace save money?
Petrol prices are at record highs. Enter hypermiling: a driving technique that aims to maximise fuel efficiency. It took off in the US in the 2000s when drivers switched to hybrid cars and began seeing how far they could travel on one tank of gas. Today, there are competitions dedicated to it – the UK record holder drove an electric car from John o’Groats to Land’s End with only one recharging stop.
I start by unburdening my car – a used Hyundai i10 – of its boots, maps, and random footballs, because heavy cars use more fuel. Good-quality tyres make a difference, but sadly I have no idea about mine because I bought them secondhand from a man who, observing I was a lone woman in a garage, spent most of the time sighing. This is the paradoxical part of frugality: you need money to save money. Typically, a frugaller will buy less, but will buy to last. For those locked into a system of spending more because they have less (see also: pay-as-you go call rates are more expensive than contracted ones; prepay energy meters work out pricier than direct debit) that is simply not possible.
I turn my engine off in standstill traffic, but it takes me four seconds longer to move again. Horns are honked, curses are shouted
Hypermiling involves reducing the use of brakes and accelerator – both of which guzzle fuel. Journeys should be made at a steady speed in the highest gear, avoiding heavy traffic. Slow and steady wins the race.
I do my first journey to visit relatives, happily pootling behind a lorry at 58mph. This is called “drafting” – using a larger vehicle to reduce wind resistance. Some extreme hypermilers drive so close they’re practically touching bumpers, but I find that driving two chevrons behind still provides protection. My target is to beat my car’s claimed 62mpg. I’m not far off. And I enjoy it – not least because there’s now a cool new word for my usual driving style instead of “like a granny”.
Karl Dyson is the founder of hypermiler.co.uk, a forum that has been running since 2007. For him, a true hypermiler should question the need to drive altogether: “I always say, ‘If you’re not using a car, you’re saving 100% of fuel.’ But it’s getting harder. Everything’s out of town now – the high street’s dying.”
He suggests I turn my engine off if I’m in standstill traffic. I give this a try, but it takes me four seconds longer to move again. Horns are honked, curses are shouted. Next time, I decide to keep the engine running; it’ll work out cheaper than replacing the window that the angry man behind me is threatening to smash.
No more spontaneous fun: can I plan a thrifty social life?
After a no-spend week, I follow Nicola’s advice and celebrate. I treat myself to a swim at the lido (I’d been sticking to free YouTube workouts). And after trying to clean my flat using lemon and a makeshift rag from an old T-shirt, to save on the cost of cleaners and sponges, I practically sprint to the shop to be reunited with my beloved Cillit Bang. I use it on my bin after a disastrous experiment: forgoing bin bags and putting non-compostable waste in loose. The frugaller who suggested it promised I’d need to clean my bin only once a month, but after five days and warm weather there were entire civilisations of mould growing in it.
But what I’m really missing is some carefree time with friends. A pal pops over. She knows I’ve cut out the streaming services, so brings a DVD. But alas, I no longer own a DVD player. More friends join, and I turn it into a frugal dinner party. I dig out the pasta machine and we drink wine and make hundreds of tortellini as the evening’s activity. It’s not as frugal as it could be – wine is a luxury, though cheaper to drink at home – and the pasta contains meat. But we all get enough to eat, and I’m left with plenty for the freezer.
For all the attention given to expenditure in extreme frugality, one commodity is poorly priced in: time
Nicola advises me that frugal socialising doesn’t always mean staying in: there are websites that share deals from chain restaurants, or allow you to join the audience at live television shows or film previews. “It means thinking outside the box,” she says. It also means planning. I spend one afternoon searching for something to do outside the next day – a free walking tour, or tickets to a museum – but everything is booked. For all the attention given to expenditure in extreme frugality, one commodity is poorly priced in: time. Was it truly frugal to spend an afternoon scrolling for something free that would ordinarily cost £15, or would it have been more prudent to batch cook for more guaranteed savings? Or even making money by putting things on eBay? Time is money, after all.
Hot-water bottles and sleeping bags: can I get away with barely using any energy?
Energy prices will more than double this year. Turning off lights not in use, and running the washing machine and dishwasher at lower temperatures and always full can help claw some of that cost back. Also, switching off devices from the plug: up to 16% of energy bills are from appliances left on standby. Whole meals can be concocted in the microwave, and it’s cheaper to cook with than the oven (frugal tip: if you are using the oven, cook as much as you can in it, and then let the heat out to warm your home). Kettles are generally more efficient than boiling by hob, especially if you don’t overfill them. Some extreme frugallers boil the kettle once a day, keeping the water hot with flasks. My goal? Soft boiling an egg in the kettle. The result? Success! Even though the price I pay is getting a mouthful of egg in my tea because an earlier attempt cracked. (It is, apparently, safe to drink your used egg water, but some frugallers suggest the best use is to water your plants instead.)
“You could try a haybox cooker,” suggests Naomi Willis. She and her husband, Ricky, run Skint Dad, a personal finance blog. Their journey began in 2013 when they were in £42,000 of debt. The pair embraced frugality, launching the blog to share their story. They are now debt-free. Hay cooking, or thermal cooking, involves “heating a pot with your food so it’s very hot, before covering it in hay or blankets,” says Willis. I try with a picnic basket and a cast-iron pot. I fry celery, garlic, carrots and onion, before adding butter beans, tomatoes and vegetable stock, and bringing to a boil. Then I slam the lid on, taking it off the heat. I line the basket with towels and blankets, add the pot, then pile more blankets on top, leaving it overnight. The next morning the food is … not quite cooked.
I pull the sleeping bag up around me until I resemble a very cosy slug. It does the job, but after several evenings as a slug, my mood drops
But it’s heating that’s our biggest energy cost. “Heat the human, not the home” is a solution recently advocated by Martin Lewis. If it’s one room that needs to be warm, turn radiators off elsewhere, though Lewis says it should be even cheaper to turn the heating off and heat the person using electric blankets and gloves. I don’t have any of these, so I start by wearing thermals under my clothes. The thermals serve the joint purpose of keeping me warm and, according to one extreme frugaller, reduce laundry loads as the clothes I wear on top won’t get dirty. This is clearly a suggestion from someone who doesn’t spill food on their shirt most meals (an additional tip: wear only one colour to be sure there’s always enough items for a full load). The thermals improve my experience during the day, but at night when the temperature drops my hands, feet and ears ache, making me irritable. Woolly hats help, but wearing gloves frustrates me while using my phone. Duvets feel toasty on the sofa, but are cumbersome at the dining table.
Lewis suggests a heated footpad costing £1.05 a week, but I try to beat this with a hot-water bottle in a sleeping bag. I place my feet on the bottle, pulling the bag up around me until I resemble a very cosy slug. It does the job, but after several evenings being a slug, my mood drops. Getting out of bed gets harder. In the end, I put the heating back on, grateful that I can, and horrified that so many can’t.
Wash out: watery hacks for the home
Average water costs also increased by 1.7% this April. Simple tricks to save water include not leaving taps running, and fixing leaky loos. But showers are the biggest drain. A shower uses 10 litres of water a minute, so a 10-minute shower uses more than the average bath (80 litres). Many water companies recommend four-minute showers; extreme frugallers do it in two. I try to get through my usual routine in two minutes and end up showering blind when frantic lathering gets shampoo in my eyes. This, combined with bloody legs nicked by a rushed razor, was not the sort of inspirational image shown on the forums (some extreme frugallers forgo razors and shampoo, though for a more accessible tip, cut your shampoo with water to make it go further; the same for dish soap and handwash). But I soon discover I can turn the shower off while lathering or shaving, to hit the two-minute mark.
One night, I treat myself to a bath, but I don’t drain the water. Instead I use a bucket to pour some of it down the loo, to flush it. That’s because lavatories are the second biggest use of water at home. Willis suggests a Hippo Water Saver: a bag you put in the cistern that means you use less water.
I don’t particularly enjoy having my slightly scummy bathwater standing around. I have a brainwave. Earlier, I’d trialled a frugal car washing tip: lather your car up with soap, then wait for it to rain. But it didn’t rain. My car had been sticky since. It’s tiring going back and forth from the bath to the car, splashing the water on the vehicle. But it does the job frugally. Though surely, nothing can be as thrifty as my preferred method: not washing the car at all.
After a month of extreme frugality, I had many takeaways (both of the “life lesson” and Just Eat variety). First, there was the renewed appreciation of small joys: a negroni in a bar; the fragrant bath bomb I giddily watched fizzing away, its single purpose to please and pamper me. In seeing them for what they are – luxuries – I felt more luxurious.
But also, like someone eating too quickly after a fast, I often felt sick at how many luxuries are presented as normal, if not essential, draining our pockets and planet; and at how hard it is to extricate yourself from this vampiric system. We supposedly live in a time of choice, but the choice to say, “No, thank you” is increasingly difficult. Even if you find a way around the mad consumerism, you still pay in other ways, like with your precious time. Frugallers may enjoy it as a kind of sport, but as a model for how to live for everyone? I’m not sure.
I was inspired by how frugallers support each other – sharing information, resources and surplus items. And I wondered if perhaps taking it up a notch with collective action might be in order: how about we all ask for a four-day week so we can spend a day laying the foundations for a frugal week ahead without exhausting ourselves? Perhaps we need a nationwide insulation scheme? Or legislation around food waste that helps redirect it to the neediest? It is ultimately only these big, collective pushes that will move the dial on living standards and put more money in people’s pockets. Some might say these suggestions are extreme. But good things require a leap of faith.
View image in fullscreen Illustration: Lisa Sheehan/The Guardian
FIVE SUPER-FRUGAL TIPS I’LL STICK WITH
Writing down food prices If you’re looking to build a stock cupboard, jotting down prices of items will help you clock a real bargain.
Embrace other people’s leftovers Did work supply sandwiches for a meeting? Ask for a doggy bag. Save the birthday cake from the bin by taking an extra slice home.
If you wash up by hand, use a bowl You can save £25 a year by using a bowl over a running tap.
If you’re desperate to eat meat, embrace cheaper offal Hearts and liver work well in bolognese.
Give frugal gifts Why not give your partner a coupon for a week off doing chores?
… AND FIVE SUPER-FRUGAL TIPS I WON’T BE TRYING
Dumpster diving This doesn’t easily work in the UK, where bins and skips are often on private property; diving in them could be trespassing.
Eating roadkill If you accidentally hit an animal while driving, you’re not supposed to take it home and eat it. You can eat roadkill someone else has hit, but is it fresh enough to be safe?
Letting a loved one cut your hair Because there’s nothing like having to see the person who ruined your hair every single day. Better to let it grow.
Flushing the toilet less Or as extreme frugallers put it, “If it’s brown flush it down, if it’s yellow let it mellow.”
Haggling in the supermarket Although there is some evidence haggling in high street stores is still possible.