When you’re trying to save money on a tight budget, the usual instinct is to cut out 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, this is a sound plan, but there are a few exceptions. In some specific cases, investing a little money up front can help you save money in the long run. Here are some 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 mid-2017 Consumer Expenditure (CEX) Survey, the average U.S. household spends $7,407 per year – more than 10% of its annual income – on food. That means that if you’re trying to save money, slashing your food budget is a good place to start. These products can help you do just that.
The average American family spends over 40% of its food budget on food eaten away from home, according to the CEX Survey. Unfortunately, this is a costly way to eat. A 2018 analysis in Forbes found that the average takeout meal from a restaurant costs five times as much as the same meal cooked at home. Thus, anything that makes it easier to cook at home will help you get the most for your food dollar.
One of the best tools for this purpose is a multicooker, such as the Instant Pot. Multicookers combine the features of a slow cooker and pressure cooker in one product. They’re great if you have a busy or unpredictable schedule because you can put together a meal in the morning and have it ready and waiting whenever you come home. Or you can whip up a quick meal in less than half an hour after walking in the door.
How Much It Can Save You: According to Forbes, the average restaurant meal costs $20.37 per person, while a typical home-cooked meal costs $4.31. That means that if your new multicooker allows you to eat just two meals at home each week instead of eating out, it will save you roughly $1,670 in its first year.
2. Coffee Maker
One particular food item you can spend a lot on away from home is coffee. A 12-ounce brewed coffee at Starbucks costs about $1.85, and fancy drinks like lattes and mochas can cost as much as $4 each.
However, with a good coffee maker, you can make gourmet coffee at home for much less. A pound of good coffee beans costs around $9 and can make about 40 cups of coffee, for a cost of less than $0.23 per cup. You can even make your own lattes by frothing up milk in the microwave. A cup of milk costs about $0.19, so a homemade latte will run you around $0.42.
What It Costs: You can buy a French press coffee maker, widely favored by coffee snobs, for as little as $13 on Amazon. If you don’t like the cleanup involved with a French press, the $30 AeroPress gets great reviews and is very easy to use.
How Much It Can Save You: If you currently buy one cup of brewed coffee away from home every day, brewing your own will save you $591.30 in one year. If you have a latte-a-day habit, you’ll save even more – over $1,300 per year.
3. Popcorn Popper
Popcorn is a healthy and delicious snack, but most people pay way too much for it. According to a 2018 report by Mintel, Americans today are most likely to buy their popcorn in ready-popped form. A 7-ounce bag of ready-to-eat popcorn costs about $3.30, or $0.24 per cup. By contrast, a 28-ounce bag of popcorn kernels costs only $2 and can make 66 cups of popped corn – about $0.03 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.
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 about $44, saving you nearly $300 in one year.
4. Produce Protector
One way to cut your food bill is to prevent food waste. A 2015 study by the American Chemistry Council found that the average American household wastes $640 worth of food each year, often because it goes bad before they get a chance to eat it. And it’s incredibly frustrating to have to throw out a basket of beautiful berries that cost you $5 at the farmers market because they’ve turned brown and slimy.
A simple device called a produce protector, or produce saver, can help you avoid this situation. These storage containers improve air circulation around your produce and also trap ethylene gas, which hastens spoilage.
What It Costs: A set of three Rubbermaid produce bins with lids, ranging from 2.5 to 17.3 cups in capacity, costs $25 at Bed Bath & Beyond.
How Much It Can Save You: According to a 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture study, the average American wasted $34 worth of fresh fruit and $43 worth of fresh vegetables in 2010. Adjusted for inflation, this adds up to $89 worth of waste in 2019 dollars. If produce savers can cut this waste by half, they’ll save you $44.50 – nearly twice their price – in their first year.
Small Purchases That Save Energy and Money
According to the CEX Survey, the average American household spends $3,835 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 will bring this number down – and, as a bonus, will also help you shrink your carbon footprint.
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%.
What It Costs: A tube of basic white window and door caulk costs only $2. Specialized types and colors of caulk 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 $1,872 per year on home energy use, according to the CEX Survey. Cutting this bill by 10% would save you $187 in one year.
6. 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 normally keep your home temperature at 68°F during the day in the wintertime, nudge it down to 60°F before you go to bed at night. With the blankets piled on top of you, you’ll have no trouble staying warm. You can also set the thermostat down – or up, in the summertime – when you leave your house in the morning, and turn it back up when you return.
However, remembering to do this every day can be difficult. That’s where a programmable thermostat comes in handy. You can set it to automatically turns down the heat every night at bedtime and back up when you get up in the morning. It can also dial back the heat or air conditioning when you leave for work each morning and have the house back to a comfortable temperature by the time you come home.
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 this Honeywell model, can get the job done for as little as $19.
How Much It Can Save You: According to the DOE, raising or lowering your home temperature by 7°F to 10°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 ENERGY STAR. Based on the CEX Survey, that means the average family spends about $786 a year on heating and cooling. Cutting this expense by 10% would add up to a $79 savings in the first year.
7. Desk Fan
If you’re like most Americans, a huge chunk of your home energy use goes toward air conditioning in the summer. According to the DOE’s ENERGY STAR program, nearly half of the average household’s summertime electric bill is for home cooling. That means the more you can manage to stay cool without air conditioning, the more you can save on electricity.
One easy way to do this 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 in 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°C (9°F) in just a couple of minutes. And the fan did this while using only 40 watts of electricity. According to the DOE, a modern central air conditioning system uses anywhere from 0.95 to 1.32 kilowatts.
What It Costs: You can buy a basic, sturdy desk fan on Amazon for around less than $10.
How Much It Can Save You: For every hour that you run your fan instead of the central AC, you can save about a kilowatt-hour of electricity. The average cost of electricity nationwide is about $0.13 per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. So if using a fan allows you to cut your AC use by four hours a day, over the course of a summer, you can save $47.84.
8. 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 do this 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 a 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 this happen: fix your item 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 cost hundreds or thousands, it’s money well spent.
9. 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 or get knocked off the coffee table 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 much as two days while it’s being fixed. When your phone is your lifeline to the world, this can feel like an eternity.
You could carry cell phone 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’ll avoid both the cost and the trauma of being cut off from your phone during a repair.
How Much It Can Save You: According to CNET, replacing the screen on an Android phone can cost anywhere from $100 at a third-party shop to $270 through the manufacturer. If you’re especially accident-prone, your case could save you this fee several times over in a single year.
10. Antivirus Software
Your desktop computer isn’t at risk of being dropped on the ground, but it could suffer even more serious damage as a result of a virus or other malware. Viruses can damage your files, Trojan horses can steal your personal data for purposes of identity theft, and ransomware 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 2019 roundup of the best antivirus programs in PC Magazine names 10 top-rated products ranging in price from $20 to $40. One of our favorites 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 for-pay versions generally offer more protection.
How Much It Can Save You: Malware can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars. According to a 2015 New York Times story, when the reporter’s mom suffered a ransomware attack, the hackers demanded $500 to restore her computer or $1,000 if she took over a week to pay. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that two-thirds of identity theft victims suffer a financial loss, with about 2% of victims losing $1,000 or more.
11. Sewing Kit
Clothes can be expensive, especially if you believe in paying extra for quality clothing. For instance, Business Insider recommends spending around $500 for a men’s suit, saying that less expensive suits “are often poor quality and will look cheap.” After spending this much on a good suit, the last thing you want is to have it become unwearable simply because you lost a button or tore a tiny hole in the seam.
Fortunately, you can make clothes last longer by learning to fix simple problems like this yourself. All you need is minimal sewing skills and a basic sewing kit.
What It Costs: You can pick up a ready-made mini sewing kit for $10 to $15 on Amazon. It will contain everything you need to do basic repairs: a few needles, several colors of thread, 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 repairs.
12. Shoe Polish
Like clothes, shoes are much cheaper to repair than they are to replace. One easy DIY shoe repair is to give your leather shoes a good polishing when they get scuffed. This serves two purposes: it covers up the damage so your shoes look 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 can of shoe polish for $1 to $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 keep buying over and over, 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.
13. Water Bottle
According to CNBC, Americans drank 12.8 billion gallons of bottled water in 2016 – an average of 39 gallons per person. Bottled water is a healthier choice than the soda 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 in The Guardian, bottled water creates 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 out of 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 taste 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 warehouse store costs about $7, or $0.29 per bottle. If you buy individual bottles from a vending machine, they can cost as much as $2 apiece. That means that if you drink two bottles a day, you could be spending anywhere from $213 to $1,460 per year for it. Switching to tap water will cut that cost to under a dollar.
14. Rechargeable Batteries
Many modern devices, such as cell phones, 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 United States are single-use batteries, mostly alkaline ones.
All those disposable batteries create a lot of waste – over 162 million kilograms per year. And they’re a waste of money too. A much more cost-effective option is rechargeable batteries, which you can recharge with household power after each use. Many rechargeable batteries can last for over 1,000 charge cycles, so a single one 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 $16 on Amazon.
How Much It Can Save You: The amount you save in a year depends on how many batteries you use. If you normally go through four batteries a month, then an 8-pack of AmazonBasics AA batteries, priced at $5.69, will last you two months. That works out to a total of $34.14 spent on batteries in one year – more than twice the cost of the rechargeable batteries and charger. If you use more batteries than that, your savings will be even greater.
15. Safety Razor
Cartridge razors are the most popular way to shave these days – and the most expensive. A safety razor with disposable blades costs much less per shave, and many razor snobs swear it gives you a closer shave too. A professional barber interviewed by Men’s Journal argues that a clean, sharp, 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 safety razor with good reviews for $13 on Amazon, plus $10 for a supply of blades that should last at least a year.
How Much It Can Save You: Cartridges for Gillette’s top-of-the-line Fusion5 ProGlide cost $31.43 for a pack of eight. If each cartridge lasts a month, as the manufacturer claims, that’s an expense of about $47 per year – more than twice as much as the safety razor and its blades.
16. 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, as many people do, you can cut that to about two loads.
What It Costs: You can pick up a set of a dozen cloth napkins for about $12 on Amazon. The extra laundry they create will add a dollar or two per year to their cost.
How Much It Can Save You: A family of four that uses paper napkins at every meal will go through 4,380 napkins in a year. At about $15 for a pack of 400 napkins, that works out to $164.25 per year. That means cloth napkins will save this family over $150 in one year, and they’ll continue to do the same job for many years to come.
These 16 examples illustrate how spending a little money up front can save you a lot in the long term. However, these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. All kinds of other small purchases can turn out to be big money-savers, from a clothesline for drying your laundry to a streaming device that allows you to cancel your cable subscription.
If you put your mind to it, you can probably come up with many more ideas on your own. The first key is to think outside the box. Don’t assume that the way you’ve always done things is the only way to do them, whether that means buying your coffee at Starbucks 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 buying a home soda maker, such as the SodaStream, so you can quit buying soda at the store will be a money-saver. However, when you actually crunch the numbers, you might find that between the cost of the carbonator cartridges and the flavorings, your savings on soda would be minimal, and you’d have to go through hundreds of liters before the device would pay for itself.
What other ideas can you think of for small purchases that pay for themselves in a year or less?