Things I Learned from Doing an “Uber Frugal Month”

Today is the first day of August, meaning that I have made it through the “Uber Frugal Month Challenge” as posed by the inspirational blogger, Frugalwoods, who retired young with her husband and now baby. Her challenge was to prepare yourself for a month of frugal spending and then live as frugally as you can. During the month of July, Mrs. Frugalwoods sent daily emails with a task, mantra, and suggested reading. It was inspiring to read her posts every morning and set an intention for the day.

Now, I realize such a challenge comes with its own privilege, as Mrs. Frugalwoods has touched on in some of her posts. I was able to save money because I can spend the time taking public transportation, shopping for healthy food, and spending time researching free activities in the city, etc. This past month I did not have any health or other emergencies which required large outlays of money and for that I am grateful but also lucky. Regardless, this was a useful exercise for me and I hope to emulate my new habits going forward.

This challenge came at the right time; after an expensive spring, and a summer of travel (to the Dominican Republic, the Catskills), I was ready to take a step back and focus on what was most important in my personal life. I’ve decided this is my health, relationships, and finances. Being more frugal, I believe, improved all three aspects of this. By attempting to spend frugally, I spent less at restaurants, and more on groceries (and as a result, higher quality food). I spent quality time with friends and family, and opened up to them about this month’s challenge, and we found free things to do in the city that were fun. And, as was expected, I definitely saved some money by doing the challenge.

pantry seitan
A pretty healthy pantry dinner: Teriyaki Tempeh with frozen veggies. The teriyaki sauce was made from ingredients already in the pantry; if I didn’t have it, I just didn’t include it.

Preparing for the Challenge

I prepared myself by going back over my finances from January 1 to June 30, categorizing, and averaging them over 6 months to determine my normal rate of spending for each. I realized every month there was usually one big expenditure that was an ‘anomaly’, for example: paying my renter’s insurance in one lump sum (to avoid paying monthly and incurring a corresponding processing fee); gifts for a friends’ wedding; a flight to the Dominican Republic; and splurging on Broadway musical tickets for Waitress (totally worth it!). These are the kinds of things that I should always ‘expect’ and probably budget for, even though they are one time expenses.

pizza slice
Rather than meet for a dinner at a sit down restaurant, a friend and I ‘splurged’ on our fancy pizza slices.

In doing this month, I set a few parameters for myself:

  • Prioritize seeing friends and family, and find affordable restaurants or activities – thus restaurants were permitted but only ‘cheap eats’ and for social purposes
  • Eat through the fridge and pantry and only buy what will be eaten within the foreseeable future, i.e. have a plan for consumption
  • No shopping for material goods (non consumables) – since it was only a month if something needed to replace I figured I could make do without until August. I allowed myself to buy food and things like aspirin or other medicine or healthcare items from a pharmacy.
  • No cabs (this encompasses all private or share rides like Uber, Via, Gett, etc.)
  • Give gifts thoughtfully – no skimping!

Results of a Frugal Month

I am proud to report that I had a few successes this month, although nothing was quite 100%.

shake shack
I may or may not have already professed my love for Shake Shack on this blog previously but if not, I love the Shroom burger so much. I bought this burger during my Frugal Month. Tsk tsk!

I did not quite succeed in taking 0 cabs this month – I’ll admit it. However, I only took two rides outside of my unlimited monthly MetroCard or trips on the Metro North or NJ Transit trains: one ferry ride across the East River which cut my trip home in half (kind of fun! but very short), and one Via ride for two which cost about the same as two subway rides (so I decided to go for it). This is about 15% of what I normally spend on taxis – in addition to my monthly MetroCard. For the past few months, I would leave work or a social event and decide that it was late, I was tired, I was carrying too many bags home from work, and that I would pop in an Uber or Via – whichever had a deal that week. No more! Going forwards, cabs should only be used in an ’emergency’ or super late night out.

I almost made it through the month without purchasing non-consumables: I didn’t purchase any clothes, shoes, bath or beauty products. But what got me in the end was a brand-spankin’-new insulated lunch bag. I think I’ve been without a lunch bag for at least 8 months – and I take lunch to work every day. I had been carrying my meals in a canvas bag, which did not keep my food temperature regulated, and was a little unwieldy and things would spill. This new bag has a lovely design and fits all of my many food containers! I also very much wanted to buy a new wallet, but I did not buy one. I looked around in a number of stores for a new  one, but since none fit my criteria, I will be keeping my current wallet for the foreseeable future.

These were contenders for the new wallet shopping project but ultimately I did not buy either one of them.

I spent money on food wisely. I tried to eat through my pantry as per Mrs. Frugalwoods’ suggestion, and by doing so I’ve set myself up for a healthy August.

grits and eggs
A eat-your-pantry dinner – finishing up the grits with fried eggs. Yum!!

And finally, during the last weekend of the month, we hosted some friends on our rooftop for a lovely little barbecue – this coincidentally fell in line with one of the final Frugalwoods’ assignments of hosting friends for a frugal party. We of course bought quality food and everyone enjoyed! And no one was upset that we didn’t go to a restaurant. Some friends brought a salad, another brought mangoes, and everything was delicious and it felt like the quintessential New York City experience.

grilled pineapple
Grilled pineapple is so good.

Menu for Rooftop BBQ:
Mains: Meat and salmon steak from local butcher; veggie burgers
Sides: Salad; grilled potatoes; grilled pineapple slices with cinnamon (so good!)
Dessert: mango-yogurt-honey ice pops; cherries
Drinks: Homemade iced tea from Green Ginger Peach tea bags; water (no one wanted alcohol but this would have been an easy fix)

Overall, I had fun. I appreciated this challenge, and my friends and family were supportive. I saw a lot of friends and family (spending on Metro North or other similar train tickets was permitted). And one Friday night, I got a group of friends together to see a free play at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem (a summer tradition).

A free production of the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s Three Musketeers

And, to put it in numbers, I spent:

  • ~25% of what I usually spend at restaurants, but about 30% more on groceries.
costco goods
Some healthy food at Costco purchased during the Frugal Month Challenge.
  • $0 on take-out beverages such as coffee. I used to pop by the kiosk in my office to buy a $1 coffee a few times per month if I was feeling super tired. The cashier is always surprised to see me given how infrequently I buy coffee. This month, it was not an option – I stuck to the tea that I keep in my desk. Also, as part of the pantry clean-out, I was drinking this great chai tea concentrate mixed with almond milk, so I did not have the desire to buy coffee. It just took a little bit more prep in the morning, and the struggle of transporting it very carefully to the office in the travel mug and then some extra plastic bags in case it spilled.
  • $30+ for three alcoholic drinks at a social events. A little pricey, even for NYC. Good to know going forwards how much this adds up.
  • ~20% of the usual spending in the Miscellaneous category, which could encompass anything from band-aids to soap, to who knows what! This month it included gifts and some necessary items from the pharmacy.
lunch bag
My brand new lunch bag goes for a walk in Central Park.
  • ~10% of my usual spending for the Shopping category, which includes shoes and clothes. This month it was just my shiny new lunch bag, which I lumped into this category.

Overall, between all the categories, I spent just over half of what I normally spend in any given month. I am impressed and not planning to go back to my previous spending habits!

Reframing my Behavior

I used to spend money on things that were convenient. Taking cabs was just lazy; I already had paid for the unlimited MetroCard. Why spend additional money on something I had already covered? And why pay for an expensive restaurant meal when there are plenty of cheap eats around? Here are a few ways I changed my behavior in order to make this month a success:

Preventing the ‘need’ to take a cab: I used to justify taking a private ride when I had too much to carry or when my feet hurt or if it was too late. This month, in order to avoid this unnecessary expense, I would bring a backpack to work when I had a lot to carry, and I wore more comfortable shoes so that walking to and from the subway was comfortable. This way,  I’d have no real excuse to call a car.

Being very careful and creative around food spending: Of course I went food shopping because I need to eat multiple times a day. But I tried to really make a good effort of eating what was in the fridge and pantry, and trying to shop only for what I really could eat during the upcoming week. This meant a lot of odd meals that didn’t really make sense, such as boiled eggs, tortillas, baby carrots, and any other leftovers in the fridge, and trying my hand at experimental cooking to finish that last bit of tomato sauce (fail) or making the aforementioned mango-yogurt-honey ice pops (win!)

ice cream
I was excited to eat this $4 ice cream but it was not worth the $4 when all was said and done.

Being honest with friends and still having a great time: My friends were all understanding when I suggested cheap eats for dinner – turns out a lot of them wanted to save money also! No one was discouraged by my suggestion of pizza or cheap Indian food. Another friend agreed to meet me to share appetizers rather than full entrees, and with one drink and one appetizer we were actually full! Caveat, we did end up getting soft serve ice cream after but that wasn’t because we were hungry. It’s because… soft serve. I still got to see my friends, and we collectively saved our hard-earned dollars.

beach day
I spent a day at Jacob Riis beach – for free! I took public transportation both ways, packed my own lunch, snacks and cold water.

What’s next?

Now – onto the next challenge: No Sugar Challenge for the month of August. I expect this will be more difficult than a frugal month; however this month has put me in the right mindset. I am motivated to do this challenge because I believe it will help me overall be healthier, improve my skin, and reset my palette to eat better going forwards. I’m pretty sure I’m addicted to sugar and would like to turn towards healthy options rather than snack foods when I’m feeling hungry (or bored! or thirsty!)

Did you participate in the Uber Frugal Month? Or have you done something similar? How did it work out?

4 thoughts on “Things I Learned from Doing an “Uber Frugal Month”

  1. I’ve been using the everydollar app to track my spending and make myself more accountable. I need to work on building a sinking fund for my insurance and annual fees that always seem to make a dent in my plans.

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