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How I Saved More Than $500 in a Month

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This February we invited readers to take the Frugal Month Challenge and commit to what some have called a "no-buy month." My family of four embarked on this cheap-living challenge and now I'm back to share the results. I am proud to report that we saved $544 during the month, a 66 percent improvement over last year.

A quick refresher on the rule: Buy nothing extra -- only the bare necessities. For my family that meant we paid our mortgage and other monthly bills and bought groceries, dog food, and gas, but that's pretty much it. We even tried to pare down our grocery budget to increase our savings.

After accepting this frugal/no-buy-month challenge for the past few years, and having saved $328 in 2014, I was a firm believer. Truth be told, my husband and I actually looked forward to a no-buy month. Although we regularly try to stick to a tight budget, we fell off the wagon last year, especially around the holidays.

So once again, we eagerly embarked on the frugal month challenge and the results didn't disappoint. We saved $216 more this February compared with last year. And as always, the frugal month practice showed us where there is room for improvement.

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While this category doesn't vary much from year to year, our youngest son is old enough now to warrant regular haircuts. Our haircut budget increased over last year because now we pay for monthly trims for my husband and two sons. During February, however, they went without. The longer length doesn't look bad on any of them, anyway. 

Savings: $64 ($28 for husband, $18 per child).

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We normally budget $50 a month for clothes -- our 4-year-old and 22-month-old go through clothes like it's their job. Ripped knees on three pairs of jeans in just the past month is but one example. Instead of buying more, however, I patched them with an old pair that my husband was planning to throw away. Recently we've been overspending in this category, sometimes upwards of $250 a month on things like shoes and other items we really don't need. During our frugal challenge we reeled it in and didn't buy a single article of clothing. 

Savings: $50.

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This category is always a challenge for us. Despite the good spending habits we've learned in previous frugal month challenges and a concerted effort to stick to our budget, spending invariably creeps up. It's hard to keep all four of us happy with a meager grocery list. Last year we tried a new strategy and joined Costco, in an effort to save on household goods. Now we're spending about $250 a month at the discount warehouse club, in addition to our regular grocery tab, on staples such as laundry detergent, dish soap, paper towels, flour, sugar, and other pantry items. As a result, we've been sticking to or beating our supermarket budget although outlays at Costco are too high. So this past month I trimmed the fat and kept us to just under $150, which is where I would like us to stay.

Savings: $100

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Several times a month we have family movie night, which includes a short, child-appropriate movie, a special snack, and a later-than-usual bedtime. We generally rent movies for these occasions, but this month we borrowed (free) movies from the library or re-watched some we already own. The rest of our entertainment budget consists of items such as books for our Kindle, apps for our devices, outings and activities for the kids (e.g., play spaces, swim lessons, meeting daddy for lunch, and drop-in music class). We cut out all this during the frugal-month challenge. Instead of paying for activities, the boys and I went to free story times at the local library; instead of meeting other moms and children at a paid venue for coffee and play space, everyone came to our house; and we took the kids to free family swims at the gym where we are members. 

Savings: $80.

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This year instead of going out for our monthly date night (and paying for a babysitter as well as dinner and a movie or drink), we stayed in. We put the boys to bed and then made a nice dinner, played board games, listened to music, and enjoyed a relaxing evening without spending an extra dime. Last year we added another expense to this budget category: Mom's Night Out for the women in our neighborhood. The evening usually consists of drinks and light appetizers at a local restaurant, but this time I offered to host. Everyone brought a bottle of wine and we sipped cocktails, did nails, and gossiped. 

Savings: $150.

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We ate at home every night during February, which meant that I cooked almost every night. I've recently joined a neighborhood group that makes freezer meals once a month for everyone to share, and I've been slowly stocking our freezer. This month we used quite a few because we gave up restaurant dinners and I didn't always want to cook. My husband also committed to packing his lunch every day for the month and neither of us stopped at a coffee shop for our java fixes. With two young boys, giving up dinner out wasn't too difficult, and the handy freezer meals helped resist the siren call of ordering carryout. The most difficult sacrifice was passing on coffee breaks. 

Savings: $75.

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This is, begrudgingly, a newish budget category for us. It seems as though our oldest child is invited to a birthday party at least once a month, or I'm invited to a baby and/or wedding shower at least as often. Moreover, holidays cost more with kids, even minor ones like Valentine's Day. This year we wanted to do a little something special for the boys so we decorated their bedroom doors with balloons and hearts after they went to sleep, and left a special treat (homemade heart cookies) for them to find in the morning. It was a nice Valentine's Day surprise and cost next to nothing; plus, the balloons provided entertainment for the entire day. Then, I was invited to a baby shower and was lassoed into sharing a group gift, costing me $25 that I hadn't planned on. The savings in this category were less than we wanted, but by not spending on Valentine's Day we still cut the category in half. 

Savings: $25.

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Since I'm now a veteran of frugal month challenges, I planned ahead. Because the rules meant no new toys, I saved some Christmas toys to bring out this month to replace those that had been played out.

In addition, I recently joined a Facebook group to buy, sell, and trade items. I took advantage of our added time at home in February to clean out closets and the basement storage, and actually gathered a nice pile of things to sell. I made $167 selling our used clothes, toy, and home goods.

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In general, we managed quite well during our no-buy month. We relied a lot on what we already have, sought out free activities for entertainment, got together with friends in a cheaper setting, and cut down on some frills. And we survived. Admittedly, we won't be able to keep this up every month. Eventually everyone will need haircuts and clothes, and I will need childcare for some reason or another. But this little experiment once again points out some ways we can save on a monthly basis. Now we just have to make these good spending (and saving) lessons last beyond February.