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How to Save Money on the Top 5 Living Expenses, Really

How to Save Money on Your Top 5 Expenses | Budget Tips | Budget Busters | Ways to Save Money | How to Get Out of Debt | Fix My Finances

You know that I can be anal retentive detail-oriented, but when I first give advice or suggestions about money, I target the big stuff.  In general, that means making more or spending less.

Specifically, here on the top 5 everyday expenses I harp on the most and specifically how you can save money on them…I know because this is how I do it.


  • Can you move somewhere cheaper?  Or do you need to stay where you are (job, family, friends, etc.)?
  • Is it fiscally better for you to buy or rent where you plan to live?  If you’d like a little push, check out guesstimations like this interactive Rent or Buy calculator (I just used a search engine and thought that one worked pretty well…no affiliation).
  • What are your personal preferences on general location, size, and type of home?

No matter how you answer, there are ways to cut costs.

  • Live in the minimum amount of space in which you are comfortable.  That can be 300 square feet or 3000 square feet.  Just remember, the less space, usually the less it costs.
  • Research the going prices for what you want through Craigslist, realtor websites, appraisal district websites, etc.
  • Shop around and negotiate for overall price, options, interest rates, everything.
  • Consider having a roommate.

My husband and I chose the areas we have lived in based on the location of our support network and jobs.  Out of college, we chose a 550 sq. ft. apartment because it was cheap ($399 a month). We asked for discounted rent at renewal, touting our stellar rental history with them and our great credit rating.  When we moved to a larger apartment, we offered lower rent in exchange for a longer lease term, again mentioning our awesome rental payment and care history.  We received cheaper rent the first time we asked but just the regular offered special the second time.

For houses, here is my post about our total housing cost breakdown in Houston, TX.  We bought a very nice foreclosure the first time after negotiating down the price by sticking to our maximum offer even after the second round of “we’ve received multiple offers, so please bring your best to the table”.  For the second house, we negotiated off $5000 to buy the lot the builder was stuck with since it was next to utility lines.

If you aren’t buying a home in cash, remember that tiny parts of an interest rate percentage point can mean a lot overall.  On our $208,000 loan for 30 years, 4% versus 4.25% was the difference of nearly $11,000 overall.  I just used a general mortgage calculator to figure out those costs – just type “mortgage calculator” into your search engine of choice.

When we first bought a home in 2007, we aimed for an affordable starter (3 bed/2 bath/1750 sq. ft. for $114,000) – our mortgage plus property taxes came to about $1000 a month.  Don’t spit out your coffee, we live outside of Houston, TX.  It’s affordable thanks to heat, humidity, and hurricanes.

When you splurge on extra space like we did with our second home (5 bed/4 bath, 3750 sq. ft. for $261,000) there is an inherent, unnecessary higher cost.  Our mortgage plus property taxes is now about $1650.  That’s not inherently bad, it just means it costs more than we technically need.  Simply take that into account.

As for roommates, hubby and I have had roommates for 8 of the past 10 years.  Yes, it can suck…there are roommates from hell.  But it can also kick ass.  On a scale of 1 to 10, our roommates have spanned 4-10 based on all the stories I’ve heard.  They’ve all paid on time and none of them have burnt down our homes.  Several of them have become or stayed good friends.  All of them have contributed $400-$750 per month, which really helped when it came to mortgage payments and property taxes!

Health Care

Health care costs can be out of this world.  Let’s just take into account health care insurance premiums plus the additional costs you have to cover like your deductible. That’s why Im always on the hunt for inexpensive health insurance and so far I gotta say Im impressed with what I’ve found.

Again, the less you need, the less it generally costs.  So the first thing for everybody to do to save money on healthcare is to work to stay as healthy as possible.  Then shop around for your options.  Then select the best fit for you.

If you work for a company offering discounted health care plans, check out your options there versus in the regular market to make sure it’s a good deal.  If it is, you can be squared away for that cost per paycheck plus your deductible.

If you are self-employed like us, you have to find a plan on your own.  For several years, we paid $350-$650 a month for plans I found when I got an esurance quote and then through the government’s health insurance marketplace.  We used to lean towards high deductible plans since they came with HSA’s (health savings accounts) which helped counterbalance the $5000+ deductibles. Speaking of HSA, make sure to check out my article on the best HSA accounts out there. 

I was sick of paying so much for so little, so we switched over to Liberty Healthshare in mid-2016.  It’s a healthcare sharing ministry, not an actual insurance company.  That link takes you to the full review I wrote last year with its pros and cons.

It has worked amazingly well for us – $299 a month plus a $1000 annual unshared amount (like the deductible).  Great customer service.  Our total annual cost for healthcare is now around $5800 – $4600 if we reach our max unshared amount plus about $1200 a year for my husband’s chiropractor (which is a pre-existing condition for the next 2 years).

There are several, large healthcare sharing ministries.  If you contact Liberty, please let them know Crystal Stemberger sent you.  If you aren’t eligible or interested, than remember to look at your employer’s options as well as options found through the government site, www.healthcare.gov.  You can even look up an insurance broker who will do a lot of legwork for you.  I found one through esurance.com last time.

A side suggestion:  Always keep at least enough cash aside in an easily-accessible account to cover your maximum deductible/unshared amount!  When we had high deductible plans, that meant keeping up to $11,000 put aside, so I totally understand your pain.


How to Save Money on The Top Five Expenses | Budget Tips | Ways to Save Money | Frugal Hacks | How to Cut my Budget | Budgeting Guidelines | Budget Busters | Savings TipsElectricity

In Texas, I use powertochoose.org, a free site that lists out dozens of options for electricity rates.  I sign 1 or 2 year contracts and then start looking again a few months before the contract ends since going month-to-month allows for them to skyrocket the price.

Be sure to review the Facts sheet of every optional company VERY carefully.  I signed up for our current plan at a high base rate, 11.9 cents per kw/h, because it also gives an $80 credit if you hit 1000+ kw/h.  So when we aren’t using the a/c, we get $80-$100 bills and when we do use the a/c we get $45-$120 bills depending on the outside temp.

In other states, ask around or run an internet search to see if you have a similar site.  If there isn’t, call around so you can get as many options to choose from as possible.  No matter what, you could concentrate on reducing your energy usage instead of the price per kwh.


We don’t have a choice when it comes to our water provider, so we have to concentrate on lowering consumption.

In our part of Texas, that means our lawn is not the most watered.  It also means we only run the dishwasher when it’s full.  If you choose not to use a dishwasher, remember the dish-by-dish method can be a water guzzler.  With laundry, we mostly select the one-rinse option.

I’ll admit that our water bill plus our natural gas bill comes to less than $100 total, so I don’t really worry about them much.  If you live in an area where these bills are HUGE, please let us know how you control them in the comments!

Cell Phones

I’m super proud of our cell phone bill.  We were paying $150 a month for nearly ten years on two unlimited plans on Sprint.  Then we switched to Ting and have LOVED them!!!  Cue the rainbows, butterflies, and cartoon unicorns!!!

Our highest bill since we switched in 2014 has been $95.  Our lowest has been $45.  Our service has been flawless and we love our Samsung Galaxy S5’s that we bought from them more than a year ago.  I covered all the pros and cons along with how to switch in my Ting step-by-step guide article last year.  If you use my referral code, you and I will receive $25 credits.


If you choose to cut cable, which we have done in the past, you can get along great with:

  • Digital antenna (that link goes to my mom’s guest post)
  • Free shows streamed online through your computer/laptop
  • Watching the coolest things with friends or family, etc.
  • Hulu – a lot of Hulu plans are budget-friendly so make sure to check it out
  • Netflix – we love and use Netflix even with cable
  • Amazon Prime – lots of shows and movies that can be streamed as a side benefit, but they aren’t as easy to navigate as Netflix in my opinion.
  • Amazon Fire Stick ($40)
  • Amazon Fire TV ($90 – more memory but not as mobile)
  • Google Chromecast – didn’t do well for us before, but that was pre-fiber optic internet…
  • Sling TV
  • Not watching as much tv.  This would be do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do advice.

If you choose to keep cable but want it as cheap as possible, I covered how I do it with the post, “Keeping Our Cable Bill Tolerable Instead of OH HELLS NO”.  Hehehehe, I crack me up.  But to summarize:

  • Actually be ready to cancel before calling and asking for the retention department.
  • Explain your situation, really play up the recent freelance contract you lost, and make it clear that you want to keep all the services you have, just at a lower price.
  • Don’t sign up for temporary awesome deals or free offers unless you put the necessary cancellation date into your phone and will pay attention to your bill to ensure they don’t “accidentally” charge you.

Following my own advice has saved us $300+ a year compared to not negotiating.  Cancelling cable altogether would save us $550+ a year outright, which is in consideration for next month.

You also need to find cheap printer ink to save a lot within a year. 


If you don’t need cars, you save the most by not having them usually.  Check out your local public transportation and see if it would work for you.  We live in a suburb and it just isn’t safe to try to walk or bike everywhere.  It would be the live version of Frogger.

That said, here are my tips for buying a car.  This comes from personal experience working at Reynolds and Reynolds, a car dealership software company, for 6 years as well as buying cars for myself, my husband, and several of our friends.

Before you ever look at a car:

  • Strongly consider your needs
  • Narrow that down to the make and model of a vehicle you actually want
  • Look up the Kelley Blue Book or Craigslist prices for the new and used versions of what you want
  • Choose whether you are going new or used
  • Get pre-approved for a car loan for those general amounts if you aren’t paying in cash

Once you are ready, if you are buying through a dealership:

  • Test drive the car you want.
  • Stick to your numbers – either you can make your solid offer and just stick to it without budging until you get them to accept, or you can offer a price less than you actually were aiming for and haggle until you reach the price you wanted.
  • Watch out for the finance manager (they person they send you to for the paperwork).  DON’T LET THE FINANCE MANAGER TALK YOU INTO A TON OF EXTRAS OR ADD EXTRA MONTHS TO YOUR WANTED TERM JUST TO LOWER YOUR PAYMENTS.  If you can afford $260 a month, you can afford $290 a month and the change in term from 60 months to 72 months can be $1000+ overall. Make sure the finance rate they find you is less or equal to your pre-approved rate or buy the same car through the bank you got pre-approved with instead.
  • Double check your paperwork.  What you sign is the deal, not what they say.

Side note:  The only add-on that may be worth it at all at a dealer for you is GAP insurance, and even that isn’t worth anything unless you total your car while you still owe more than your car is worth.  You can practically insure yourself there by putting down $2500+ in advance and paying the car off quickly.


The longer I deal with our food budget, the easier giving advice is on it.  Do we always follow that advice?  Hell no.  Because we are lazy or we just want to fulfill cravings or whatever.

But if you want a surefire lower monthly food bill, here is how to do it.  We know because we did a food budget challenge in January 2017 and spent a grand total of $190 for the whole month.

  • Don’t eat out.
  • Eat what is in season (aka, what is cheap).
  • Meal plan for all 7 days.
  • Leftovers are your friends.
  • Use your freezer AND label everything you put in it.
  • Keep convenient foods in your pantry, fridge, and freezer so you don’t give up on busy days.

We concentrated on the less expensive proteins and vegetables and then just peppered our plans with the more expensive options as needed/wanted.  For example, spaghetti with meat sauce would make up a few dinners, red beans and rice with sausage would be for a few dinners, and one dinner a week would be salmon or steaks.

We also had more fresh vegetables and fruits for sides and snacks, we just had to buy what was in season that we also liked.  Check out my Food Budget Challenge posts for exactly what we ate and how we did.

You don’t have to go $50-a-week strict.  Just shave a bit off here and there until it’s cheaper but still comfortable for you.  We’re spending $300-$400 a month on all food now instead of the $600-$800 we were spending before our challenge.

Okay, so help everyone out.  How else would you save money on these huge basic expenses?

9 thoughts on “How to Save Money on the Top 5 Living Expenses, Really”

  1. PW

    I was just going to email you to see how your medical insurance worked out given your recent health issue. The average cost for insurance under Obamacare in Chicago for 2017 – a family of 4 is costing close to $20,000 a year with a $7,000 deductible and most of my clients (I am an insurance agent) said this would be the last year they could afford insurance. That was with Blue Cross of IL, most of the other companies were more expensive and a lot of companies pulled out of our market for 2017. (SIGH!)

    The cost of living in Chicago is huge, housing, taxes of all kinds, utilities, transportation as well as an assortment of car window stickers is crazy. My
    husband takes the train to downtown Chicago and we live within walking distance of the train (one of the ways we save $). We do walk to grocery stores and restaurants. But we don’t go out to eat much. Too expensive. Too time consuming. I would love to have the minimal costs you have. Just not possible here. Moving elsewhere is not viable for us, we cut heat/air conditioning, etc. by turning up/down thermostat when at work, run dishwasher 2 times a week, walk as much as we can, I don’t have time for coupons, discounts, etc. We rarely throw food out, leftovers go into our freezer and make up soup. Even lettuce, tomatoes etc. Not much goes into our trash. We don’t have cable, we do buy a lot of organic and no hormones meat, free range etc. We gave up our gym memberships a while ago and have a nice collection of used work out equipment. Last year we sold our house we lived in 30 years (taxes and upkeep were just out of hand). Moved to a smaller condo, but even that is expensive. Wish we could move to a cheaper area but we just can’t.

    I do keep a running inventory of what is in our pantry and our freezer and fridge and a weekly menu of dinners and packed lunches. Works great to save $

    Glad to hear your comments about your insurance, I have been referring my clients to check them out.

  2. Nicole

    I couldn’t be happier since switching to Ting thanks to seeing your post about it! Our highest bill so far was just under $60 and the lowest was near $30. We try to stay on Wi-Fi where possible but don’t stress about it. As long as you’re not streaming video on data it’s definitely the most affordable option out there. I am still tickled pink that we’re saving at least $80 per month over what we were paying AT&T.

  3. Chad

    Great points on housing! As a part-time licensed Realtor here in Louisiana, I have had the opportunity to work with quite a few first time homebuyers over the last 10 years or so. The Home buying process in and of itself can be very intimidating. With that said, I always suggest people shop around for interest rates, and insurance. As you mentioned the smallest difference in interest rate can actually add up to a much larger amount if you add it all up over time.

    One thing that I always try to coach clients on is determining what they can truly afford. Banks will almost always be willing to lend you more than you can “afford.” I look at the formula for what a person can truly afford to be a combination of what you can literally afford based on your income and within your budget, and what your goals are. If you are someone like me that loves to travel any chance they can get, then maxing out your monthly budget on a mortgage for a fancy house may not allow you any room to also simultaneously enjoy other hobbies and things you like to do. So without trying to sound like I’m lecturing, I like to just bring some of these points to the table as something to think about when I am working with home buyers.

  4. Crystal Stemberger

    @PW, so far, so good! The miscarriage brought in bills from the ER, my OB-GYN, the surgery center, the anesthesiologist, and the blood work testing center. Altogether, I have been billed for more than $18,000 so far (yeah, it’s ridiculous…like they can put anything on the bill and just cross their fingers). Liberty Healthshare has negotiated that down to less than $5500 and I didn’t need to pay anything out of pocket after around $1500 (things posted at different times, etc.). If anyone disagrees with the rates Liberty states, they’ll work it out themselves. I will apparently be receiving a check or several checks for anything over $1000 that I paid or will pay out of pocket. No matter what, their customer service made everything easy, don’t mind looking into things for me, and have always made me feel better than when I did before calling. I think that is amazing. United and Humana never made me feel better. You can tell your clients that Crystal Stemberger vouches for them with about 8 months experience so far that has included several regular doctor’s visits for my husband and an early pregnancy miscarriage on my end.

    Holy crap. Those different expenses sound horrendous. You have my very best wishes. And yes, keeping a running inventory of what you have is a great idea! We sort of do that on the notepad on the fridge. 🙂

    @Nicole, glad I could help!!!

    @Chad, I think it is awesome that you encourage your clients to really think and prioritize before jumping into a mortgage. That’s being a good person and probably is good business too, right?

  5. Adriana @MoneyJourney

    We’ve had a few awful experiences in the past, having roommates and being the roommates ourselves for a few months, I can honestly say I’d rather live in a 50 sq. feet storage space, but be by ourselves 😀 But of course, this is just us!

    As far as utilities go, we’ve managed to cut our bills almost in half!
    Switching to cheaper providers or simply switching contracts with the same provider was a great move! Yes, it takes time to do some research and call them up to make the switch, but in the long run it’s really worth it, we’re saving a lot, compared to a few years ago.

  6. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life

    I keep forgetting about Ting but I think I might switch my dad to that when I get a minute to look at their plans, if they have something that beats about $15 a month. I’ll definitely use your referral, of course 😉

  7. Lorna @savingchamps

    Wow. So many detailed ideas on saving money on those necessities. I used to think my life is frugal enough and there was really no room for further savings. But it turned out I was wrong. With a little bit more planning and research, we can always find a better deal or a creative way to cut expenses here and there. We recently cut our Internet costs by $20 a month (and kept the exactly same services) just by calling the Internet provider and negotiating the price.

  8. Chris Huntley

    Wow Crystal. Great stuff! That’s honestly the first time I’ve read EVERY word of a blog post in a while. LOL

    Ok, I gotta go check out Ting and the big one… Liberty Healthshare. I know my wife is just concerned since we have 3 little kids. With Kaiser, we have a 24 hour nurse line we can call with questions, and can usually get in right away the next morning. I think her big concern is “where would we go if we don’t have a dedicated doctor or facility?” “Who would we call?” That sort of thing. I’ll check out your review of them. We’re paying $800 per month and have a $6000 per person/ $12,000 family deductible and co-pays are usually around $60 or $75. It’s crazy expensive.

    Your food challenge sounds interesting. Gotta check that out too.

  9. Crystal Stemberger

    @Adriana, lol, yeah, mileage may vary if you’ve had roommates from hell. But as you mentioned there as a joke, someone can downgrade the actual size of their home to save money instead of doing that with roommates. It’s all a matter of preference and personal priorities. 🙂 And spot on with switching utility providers as needed!

    @Revanche, it’s hard to beat $15 a month with Ting, but not impossible. I think my youngest sister keeps it around there. Ting, in my opinion, is a great option if you’re paying for all the extras other places or if you have 2 or more lines to switch over.

    @Lorna, totally with you on negotiating better deals of course!

    @Chris, as a skimmer myself, that’s “reading every word” bit was the best compliment!!! Thank you!

    Liberty covers kids too. 🙂 Just call them up (mention my name, lol) and give them your deets. They’ll let you know super fast if you’re a good fit. They make everything really easy so far!

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