When you’re trying to save money on a tight budget, your instinct may be to cut as many expenses as you can. You cancel your cable, try to patch up old clothes, and spend less at the grocery store. And above all, you don’t buy yourself anything new.
Overall, it’s a sound plan, but there are a few exceptions. In some cases, investing a little money upfront can save you in the long run. There are many examples of small items you can buy for $100 or less that have the potential to save you much more than that over time.
Small Purchases That Cut Your Food Costs
According to the Department of Labor’s 2019 Consumer Expenditure (CEX) Survey, the average American household spends $8,169 per year — roughly 10% of its annual income — on food. So if you’re trying to save money, slashing your food budget is an excellent place to start. These products can help you do just that.
1. A Multicooker
According to the CEX Survey, the average American family spends over 40% of its food budget on restaurant meals and takeout. Unfortunately, that’s a costly way to eat. According to RestaurantOwner.com, when you dine out, the food itself accounts for only 28% to 32% of the cost. Thus, anything that makes it easier to cook at home can help you get more for your food dollar.
One of the best tools for that purpose is a multicooker, such as the Instant Pot. Multicookers combine the features of a slow cooker and pressure cooker in one product. The slow cooker function lets you put together a meal in the morning and have it ready and waiting when you come home. And the pressure cooker function lets you whip up a quick meal in less than half an hour.
What It Costs: There are numerous Instant Pot models that range from $70 to $200 on Amazon. One popular choice is the 6-quart Instant Pot Duo, a top pick in comparison tests at Wirecutter, Good Housekeeping, and Serious Eats.
How Much It Can Save You: According to Insider, the average restaurant dish costs between $8.82 and $13. By contrast, a home-cooked dish from a budget-oriented cookbook like “Good and Cheap” costs $3 per serving or less. If your new multicooker helps you eat just two meals at home each week instead of eating out, it will save you between $605 and $1,040 in its first year.
2. A Coffee Maker
Many people spend a lot of money on coffee when they’re away from home. A 12-ounce brewed coffee at Starbucks costs about $1.85, and fancy drinks like lattes and mochas can cost as much as $4.50 each.
But with a quality coffee maker, you can make gourmet coffee at home for much less. A pound of coffee shop-quality beans costs around $8 and can make about 40 cups of coffee for a cost of roughly $0.20 per cup. You can even make your own lattes by frothing milk in the microwave. A cup of milk costs about $0.22, so a homemade latte runs around $0.42.
What It Costs: You can buy a French press coffee maker, widely favored by coffee connoisseurs, for as little as $18 on Amazon. However, it takes several minutes to brew a cup of coffee, plus there’s some cleanup involved. A quicker option is the $30 AeroPress, which has a 5-star rating (out of almost 12,000 reviews) and is very easy to use.
How Much It Can Save You: If you currently buy one cup of brewed coffee at the coffee shop every day, brewing your own can save you more than $600 in one year. If you have a latte-a-day habit, you’ll save even more — over $1,480 per year.
3. A Popcorn Popper
Popcorn is a healthy and delicious snack, but many people pay way too much for it. According to a 2018 report by Mintel, sales of ready-to-eat popcorn in bags have more than doubled since 2021. But it’s the most expensive way to buy popcorn.
A 4.4-ounce bag of ready-to-eat popcorn costs about $3.30, or $0.20 per cup. Even a 24-pack of microwave popcorn that makes about 300 cups costs around $10, or about $0.04 per cup. By contrast, a 45-ounce bag of popcorn kernels costs only $2.50 and can make 172 cups of popped corn — less than $0.02 per cup.
There are several ways to make your own popcorn at home. In a test by Serious Eats, a stovetop popper got the best results overall, producing fluffy, crunchy popcorn in minutes without a lot of mess. A microwave popcorn popper was even easier to use and clean, but the popcorn wasn’t as tasty.
If you prefer fancy flavored popcorn, there are ways to make that yourself too. For instance, with a stovetop popper, you can make kettle corn by simply adding sugar with the corn kernels and shaking the pot as it pops. You can find recipes online for tons of other flavors, such as Buffalo-ranch and rosemary-Parmesan.
What It Costs: The highly rated Whirley Pop stovetop popper costs $25 at Bed Bath & Beyond. And Amazon sells various collapsible silicone popcorn poppers for between $9 and $16.
How Much It Can Save You: If you currently go through two bags of popcorn per week, your popcorn habit is costing you about $343 per year. Popping your own could cut that cost to less than $33, saving you over $300 in one year.
4. A Food Saver
One way to cut your food bill is to prevent food waste. According to a 2020 study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (via Forbes), the average U.S. household wastes $1,866 worth of food each year. That’s nearly one-third of all its food.
Much of this food goes to waste because it goes bad before anyone gets a chance to eat it. Anyone who’s ever had to throw out a basket of beautiful $5 farmers market berries because they’ve turned brown and slimy knows how frustrating that is.
There are several tools that can help you reduce food waste at home. For instance, simple devices called produce protectors help produce stay good longer by improving air circulation and trapping ethylene gas, which hastens spoilage. Similarly, herb savers extend the life of fresh herbs and some tender veggies, like asparagus.
Vacuum sealers remove excess air from foods to keep them fresh. And air-lock canisters do the same for dry foods, such as coffee.
What It Costs: A set of three Rubbermaid produce bins with lids costs $25 at Bed Bath & Beyond. You can find herb savers on Amazon for $12 to $36. Small vacuum sealers range from $20 to $70, and air-lock canisters range from $10 to $35.
How Much It Can Save You: If you’re wasting as much food as a typical household, food waste is costing you almost $2,000 per year. If a set of food savers allow you to cut this waste in half, an investment of $100 or less could save more than $900 in its first year alone.
Small Purchases That Save Energy & Money
According to the CEX Survey, the average American household spends $4,055 per year on utilities, fuels, and public services. This category includes electricity, heating oil, natural gas, water, and telephone service. Any product that helps you save energy at home can bring this number down.
Gaps around doors and windows let warm air out of your house in the wintertime and cool air out in the summertime. That means your heating or cooling system has to work harder to maintain the right temperature, jacking up your utility bills.
However, you can easily fix these air leaks with an inexpensive tube of caulk. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), caulking around doors and windows is an easy DIY job you can complete in a couple of hours, and it can cut your home energy use by 10% to 20%.
What It Costs: A tube of basic white window and door caulk costs only $2. Specialized types and colors cost a little more, up to $10 per tube. A caulk gun, which makes the material easier to apply, adds another $5 to $20. All told, you’re looking at an investment of no more than $30.
How Much It Can Save You: The average household spends $2,001 per year on home energy use, according to the CEX Survey. Cutting this bill by 10% would save you $200 in one year.
6. A Programmable Thermostat
Another way to save on home heating and cooling is to lower your thermostat when you’re asleep or away from home. For example, if you typically keep your home at 68 degrees F during the day in the wintertime, nudge it down to 60 degrees F at bedtime. You can do the same thing when you leave your house in the morning and turn it back up when you return.
However, remembering to do that every day can be difficult. That’s where a programmable thermostat comes in handy. You can set it to turn the temperature down or up automatically during any period you specify.
What It Costs: There’s no need to shell out $200 or more for a smart thermostat, such as the trendy Nest. A much more basic programmable thermostat, such as an entry-model Honeywell, can get the job done for around $20.
How Much It Can Save You: According to the DOE, raising or lowering your home temperature by 7 to 10 degrees F for eight hours per day can cut your home heating and cooling bills by around 10%. Home heating and cooling account for about 42% of the average home’s energy use, according to the federal Energy Star program.
Based on the CEX Survey, that means the average family spends about $840 per year on heating and cooling. Cutting this expense by 10% would add up to an $84 savings in the first year.
7. A Desk Fan
If you’re like most Americans, a massive chunk of your home energy use goes toward air conditioning in the summer. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), air conditioning accounts for about 12% of the average household’s total energy use. That means the more you can manage to stay cool without A/C, the more you can save on electricity.
One easy way to stay cool is with a simple desk fan. Fans don’t actually cool the air like an air conditioner does, but the airflow they create helps your sweat evaporate and keeps you cooler.
An experiment by Wired magazine used a piece of paper soaked in warm water to simulate human skin and found that a desk fan blowing on the paper lowered its temperature by 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) in just a couple of minutes using only 40 watts of electricity. According to Homelite’s energy use worksheet, a central air conditioning system uses 1,500 to 6,000 watts.
What It Costs: You can buy a basic sturdy desk fan on Amazon for around $11.
How Much It Can Save You: For every hour you run your fan instead of the central A/C, you can save at least 1.46 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity. The average cost of electricity nationwide is about $0.14 per kWh, according to the EIA. So if using a fan allows you to cut your A/C use by four hours per day, over one summer, you can save over $75.
8. LED Light Bulbs
The old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs many of us grew up with — the ones that ran so hot they could actually burn your fingers — went off the market in 2012. Today, there are three kinds of bulbs you can use in most home lighting fixtures: more efficient modern incandescents, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs.
LED bulbs have always been the most energy-efficient of the three. However, for years, they were also the most expensive to buy upfront. They would still save you money in the long run because they lasted the longest and used the least power. But not everyone had time to figure that out while standing in the aisle at the hardware store.
Today, the decision is much simpler. LED bulbs are the most efficient and often the cheapest. So if you haven’t upgraded your lighting to LED yet, now is the perfect time.
What It Costs: An eight-pack of soft white 800-lumen LED light bulbs (equivalent in brightness to an old 60-watt incandescent) costs just under $10 at Home Depot. That’s roughly $1.25 per bulb.
How Much It Can Save You: These LED bulbs use only 9 watts of energy compared to 50 watts for a modern incandescent bulb of similar brightness. In a lamp that’s used for three hours per day, one of these bulbs can save you 44.9 kWh over one year. At the average price of $0.14 per kWh, that’s a savings of about $6.28.
Moreover, these bulbs have a lifespan of about 10 years, while the incandescent bulb lasts just under a year. Thus, each $1.25 bulb can take the place of 11 incandescent bulbs that cost around $3 each for a savings of $41.25. That adds up to a total savings of over $100 over the life of the bulb.
9. A Low-Flow Showerhead
Every time you take a shower, you’re using both water and fuel to heat the water. So by limiting the amount of water you use in the shower, you can both conserve water and save energy, reducing two of your utility bills at once.
One way to save water (and fuel) is to install a low-flow showerhead. While a standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute (gpm), one that meets the WaterSense standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses no more than 2 gpm.
What It Costs: There are hundreds of showerheads on Amazon that meet WaterSense guidelines. The top-rated models range in price from $9 to $220, with several choices under $30.
How Much It Can Save You: According to the EPA, switching to a WaterSense showerhead saves the average family more than $70 per year on water and fuel.
Small Purchases That Make Big Ones Last Longer
When you’ve spent a lot of money on anything, from a car to a computer, you want it to last as long as possible. There are two ways to make that happen: fix it when it breaks or prevent it from breaking or wearing out in the first place. If you can buy something for just a few dollars to repair or protect something that costs hundreds or thousands, it’s money well spent.
10. A Smartphone Case
If you’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars for a new smartphone, it’s an awful feeling to see it slip from your grasp and suffer a cracked screen. Not only do you have to pay to replace the glass, but you also have to do without your phone for as long as two days while it’s at the repair shop. When your phone is your lifeline to the world, that can feel like an eternity.
You could carry cellphone insurance to cover the cost of the repair, but you’d probably never get your money’s worth out of it. It’s much better to prevent the damage in the first place by protecting your phone with a strong, sturdy case. That way, you avoid both the cost and the trauma of being cut off from your phone during a repair.
What It Costs: The iPhone cases highest-rated by Digital Trends range in price from $17 to $65. The gold standard OtterBox Defender goes for around $60 for the latest iPhone model.
How Much It Can Save You: According to Thumbtack, the average cost of repairing a cracked iPhone screen is $220. If you’re especially accident-prone, your case could save you this fee several times over in a single year.
11. Antivirus Software
Your desktop computer isn’t at risk of being dropped on the ground, but it could suffer even more severe damage as a result of a virus or other malware. Viruses can damage your files and Trojan horses can steal personal data, like your credit card or savings account information. Then there’s ransomware, which can make your computer nonfunctional until you pay a fee to release it.
To avoid these threats, you need to install a useful, up-to-date antivirus program and run regular scans on your machine. It’s an essential computer maintenance task no one can afford to skip.
What It Costs: A 2020 roundup of the best antivirus programs published in PC Magazine names 13 top-rated products ranging in price from $19 to $60 per year. One of the more affordable options is Webroot SecureAnywhere Antivirus. The editors also note that there are many free antivirus tools on the market that do a pretty good job, but they say the paid versions generally offer more protection.
How Much It Can Save You: Malware can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. A 2015 New York Times story relates how the reporter’s mom suffered a ransomware attack from hackers who demanded $500 in Bitcoin to restore her computer or $1,000 if she took over a week to pay. According to Experian, victims of identity theft lose around $429 on average.
12. A Sewing Kit
Clothes can be expensive, especially if you believe in paying extra for quality clothing. For instance, Insider recommends spending around $500 for a well-made men’s suit. After spending that much on a quality suit, the last thing you want is to have it become unwearable simply because you lose a button or tear a tiny hole in the seam.
Fortunately, you can make clothes last longer by learning to do simple repairs yourself. All you need are minimal sewing skills and a basic sewing kit.
What It Costs: You can pick up a basic ready-made sewing kit for $7 to $21 on Amazon. These typically contain everything you need to do basic repairs: a few needles, several thread colors, a couple of spare buttons, a seam ripper, and a tape measure.
How Much It Can Save You: In theory, your sewing kit could save you the cost of replacing entire garments, from a $30 shirt to a $400 sports coat, just because they have minor damage. At a minimum, it will save you from having to pay a tailor $20 a pop for simple fixes.
13. Shoe Polish
Like clothes, shoes are much cheaper to repair than they are to replace. One easy DIY shoe repair is to give scuffed leather shoes a good polishing. That serves two purposes: It covers the damage, leaving your shoes looking as good as new, and the coating of waxy polish protects them from further damage. All you need for this simple repair is a can of shoe polish and a soft cloth.
What It Costs: You can pick up a tin of shoe polish for around $3 at big-box stores like Target and Walmart.
How Much It Can Save You: According to Popular Mechanics, you can extend the life of your leather shoes by years with regular polishing and conditioning. If a $100 pair of shoes currently lasts you two years and you can extend that to four, that works out to a savings of $25 per year.
Small Purchases That Replace Repeat Purchases
Sometimes, it’s not the expensive purchases that cost you the most. It’s the little things you have to repeatedly buy, such as bottles of water or sets of batteries. Individually, they don’t cost much, but they add up to big money over time.
In some cases, a single reusable item can take the place of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of disposable ones. So with just a small investment, you can push pricey recurring expenses out of your life for good.
14. A Water Bottle
According to Statista, Americans drank nearly 19 billion gallons of bottled water in 2019 — close to 44 gallons per person. Bottled water is a healthier choice than the soda the study indicates we used to drink most, but it’s just as unhealthy for our wallets.
A bottle of water typically costs as much as a bottle of soda, and many high-end brands cost considerably more. Plus, according to a 2017 report published in The Guardian, bottled water and soft drinks create over 480 billion bottles’ worth of plastic waste per year worldwide, most of which is never recycled.
Meanwhile, in most parts of the country, you can get clean, safe water from the tap for a fraction of a cent per gallon. Of course, you don’t always have access to a faucet, but that’s an easy problem to fix. With a reusable water bottle, you can carry inexpensive tap water wherever you go.
What It Costs: There are lots of types of water bottles to choose from, but the most popular is a stainless-steel flask. They’re sturdy, easy to clean, and don’t affect the flavor of the water. You can pick up a Klean Kanteen, one of the better-known brands, for around $20 on Amazon.
How Much It Can Save You: A case of water from a big-box store costs about $5, or $0.21 per bottle. If you buy individual bottles from a vending machine, they can cost as much as $2 apiece. That means you could be spending anywhere from $152 to $1,460 per year for it if you drink two bottles per day. Switching to tap water cuts that cost to under a dollar.
15. Rechargeable Batteries
Many modern devices, such as cellphones, have their own built-in batteries. However, we still rely on replaceable batteries for a wide range of gadgets, from remote controls to smoke alarms, and most of us are using disposable ones.
A 2016 report by the environmental consulting firm Kelleher Environmental found that over 90% of the batteries sold in the U.S. are single-use batteries, mostly alkaline ones. All those disposable batteries create a lot of waste — roughly 162.9 million kilograms (179,560 tons) per year. And they’re a waste of money too.
A much more cost-effective option is a rechargeable battery, which you can recharge with household power after each use. Many rechargeable batteries can last for over 1,000 charge cycles, so a single battery can replace more than 1,000 disposable batteries.
What It Costs: You can get a set of four Energizer Rechargeable AA batteries, plus a charger, for $14 on Amazon.
How Much It Can Save You: The amount you save in a year depends on how many batteries you use. For example, if you usually go through four batteries per month, an eight-pack of AmazonBasics AA batteries, priced at around $6, will last you two months. That works out to $36 for batteries per year — more than twice the cost of the rechargeable batteries and charger.
16. A Safety Razor
Cartridge razors are the most popular way to shave these days — and the priciest. A safety razor costs much less per shave, and many razor mavens swear it gives you a closer shave too. Garrett Pike, the founder of Brooklyn’s No Club Barbershop, tells Men’s Journal that a single-edged razor blade will “shave closer and smoother than any three- or five-blade razor cartridge.”
What It Costs: You can pick up a highly rated safety razor for $10 to $20 on Amazon and pay around $10 for a supply of blades that should last a year.
How Much It Can Save You: Cartridges for Gillette’s top-of-the-line Fusion5 ProGlide cost $27 for a pack of eight. If each cartridge lasts two to three weeks, as reviewers report, that’s an expense of about $70 per year — more than twice as much as the safety razor and its blades.
17. Cloth Napkins
In 2017, The Washington Post reported that millennials preferred to use paper towels as dinner napkins rather than the paper napkins favored by older generations. They like paper towels because they’re cheaper, and it’s one less thing to buy.
However, they could save still more by switching to an old-fashioned alternative: cloth napkins. A set of cloth napkins can last for years, and the extra laundry they create is minimal. If you wash your napkins after every meal, you’ll do about 10 extra loads of laundry per year; if you reuse the same napkin for several meals, you can cut that to about two loads.
What It Costs: You can pick up a set of a dozen cloth napkins for about $14 on Amazon. The extra laundry they create adds between $0.36 and $11.80 per year to their cost based on calculations by consumer energy efficiency organization ClearlyEnergy.
How Much It Can Save You: A family of four who uses paper napkins at every meal goes through 4,380 napkins in a year. At about $13 for a pack of 200 napkins, that works out to nearly $285 per year. Even if they switch to paper towels like many millennials, they’d still pay about $0.017 per sheet, or $74 per year.
That means a $14 set of cloth napkins could save this family anywhere from $60 to over $250 in one year. And they’ll continue to do the same job for many years to come.
These examples illustrate how spending a little money upfront can save you a lot in the long run. However, these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. If you put your mind to it, you can probably come up with many more ideas for small purchases that can be big money-savers.
The first key is to think outside the box. Don’t assume the way you’ve always done things is the only way to do them, whether that means hitting the coffee shop every morning or using paper napkins at meals. Look at your habits with fresh eyes, and if you don’t like what they’re costing you, look for ways to change them.
The second key is to do the math when you think you’ve found a money-saving solution. For example, it might seem that a home soda maker like the SodaStream would save you money on soda. However, when you crunch the numbers, you might find that your savings would be so low you’d have to go through hundreds of liters before the device pays for itself.
Bottom line: Don’t make assumptions. Whether you’re thinking about current habits or looking for new ways to save a little extra money, always do the math.