A number of people have asked what our family has been up to during social distancing, particularly what frugal projects we’ve taken on and what we’ve done to pass the time and stay sane.
Our big focus at home has been to use this as an opportunity to “reset” a lot of things in our lives. We’ve been looking at our habits, our hobbies, how we connect and relate with others, how we use technology and thinking a lot about those things.
We’ve engaged in a number of frugal projects around the house as well and tried to do everything possible to keep our spirits up, avoid spending unneeded money, and keep ourselves safe.
Over the last several days, I’ve been keeping a list of things we’ve done that have been different than our normal routines before social distancing — frugal projects and little lifestyle changes and free entertainment and the like. Here are 24 such things we’ve been doing.
Please, borrow from this list. Take any and all ideas that you think match up with what’s in your life and use them yourself.
Even if you don’t use any of the ideas directly, use these ideas as a reminder that we’re all in this together, trying to find solutions to spend less money and keep ourselves going and preserve some level of normalcy during incredibly trying times.
1. Review and cancel subscriptions.
I spent a few hours going through our accounts and statements looking for any services and subscriptions we were subscribed to and canceling quite a few of them. There were lots of little things we had all signed up for over the years with tiny recurring payments, and it was a great time to review all of them.
Here are some of the specific places I looked for these subscriptions.
- I went through our credit card statements. I was really just looking for things that were obviously subscription or membership renewals.
- I went through emails. I did a lot of searching for things like “membership” and “renewal” and “subscription” just to see what I could find.
- I checked out our Amazon account. You can jump straight to a list of your Amazon memberships and subscriptions to see what you’re subscribed to (if anything) and cancel those services.
- I checked out our PayPal account. Here’s how to view all of your PayPal subscriptions, if any. It’s easy to just walk through them and cancel any outstanding ones that are no longer relevant.
- I checked out our Apple account. Here’s how to view all of your Apple subscriptions, if any. Again, you can just go through them one at a time and cancel them as needed.
I decided to proactively cancel things. If I felt that a service was a “maybe,” I canceled it. I can always restore that service if it’s something we need and value.
2. Start a vegetable and herb garden.
This has been extremely weather-dependent, but we have started establishing a very nice and robust vegetable and herb garden. We have some space in our yard for it, so we started by simply clearing out a lot of winter yard waste, turning over the soil in that area and applying some compost that we’ve had for a while into the soil.
Most of the vegetables we will start this year will begin as seeds, which we have plenty of from previous growing seasons. You can easily order seeds online if needed.
The only drawback when it comes to gardening is that there are some tools needed when you start, and you also need some land upon which to do it. If you have a local hardware store that delivers, you can take care of the tools easily, and there are many online sources for seeds, so you don’t necessarily have to leave to get things started. This is a really good guide for starting your own garden.
3. Teach and learn life skills.
With our children at home instead of in school, we’ve felt both the social crunch from having them here as well as the need to provide some sort of educational material and structure for them. For the most part, that structure has come from two distinct things: encouraging their own interests and teaching life skills.
In terms of the life skills part of the equation, we’re having them do things like handle the full preparation of a meal (planning it out, getting the ingredients, making it, cleaning up), write letters to people, read books on ideas they’re interested in (thanks to e-books, we have a lot of book access) to practice self-learning, doing laundry, doing dishes, and even things like paying bills. In short, we’re trying to use this opportunity to teach them things that they’ll need to do on their own when they’re independent, but doing it with more intensity than we’ve been doing in our daily life.
If you have children at home, this is a great time to work on teaching them life skills like these.
4. Read (quite a few) books.
As I noted above, one thing we’ve been doing is encouraging some self-directed learning, and that has involved having some set-aside time each day solely for reading a book on a topic you’re interested in.
We’ve all been doing this, and the end result has been that we’ve all read quite a few books. If you add on top of that the fact that one of my hobbies is reading fiction — and I do that on top of this set-aside reading time — my “books read” list for this year is getting quite long. I’m on pace for over 100 books read in 2020, and a lot of them are pretty long books (500+ pages).
Again, if you have children at home, it’s a good idea to set aside a block of time each day simply for reading, and it’s something you can participate in as well. It’s a good way to unwind a little and get lost in either some interesting ideas or a story of some kind. Don’t worry too much about what everyone chooses to read, as long as the reading isn’t far below their level.
5. Establish a routine where our phone isn’t with us all day.
Another thing we’ve been doing is establishing a routine where we’re minimizing cell phone use. Obviously, we all need to stay in contact with friends and family and to stay aware of local news, but having a phone with you at all times is a constant distraction that pulls you out of the moment over and over again.
I’ve made it a goal to leave my phone in another room almost all of the time, checking it only a few times during the day and really only using it consistently in the evenings.
I’ve witnessed how a cell phone can become an enormous distraction and attention magnet. It can also be a source of anxiety and upset over things outside of one’s control. While it’s a useful communication tool, it can go beyond “useful communication” and drift into areas that are not only unhelpful for one’s own mental state, but also an enormous absorber of time.
6. Have a bunch of “screen-free” days (or at least afternoons).
On several days, we’ve had complete “screen-free” days (or afternoons, from the start of lunch to the finish of supper) where all of our electronic devices are put away and we find analog things to do together (or separately).
This might seem unbelievable, but we’ve actually found that this has caused less boredom for most of us than unlimited screen time. Simply knowing that we need to find stuff to do that doesn’t involve a screen amps up our creativity. We seek out a lot of analog things to do, many of which are listed in this article.
Furthermore, a lot of those analog things involve us moving around a lot more than activities with screens. They encourage us to move around the house and out in the yard, whereas screen-based activities almost beg us to be sedentary.
7. Sleep without alarms.
While this might not be wholly sustainable once things return to normal, we’ve made a conscious effort to sleep without alarms.
In the evening, this means going to bed at a fairly consistent time, even if we feel like staying up late. Doing something highly relaxing in the evening helps, particularly if you turn off screens for the last hour or two before bed.
In the morning, just don’t set an alarm. Allow yourself to sleep until you rise naturally, and then when you’re clearly awake, simply get up and go do something. I usually start off by stretching and drinking a lot of water.
8. Make a lot of homemade bread.
Since this “social distancing” period has begun, I’ve made quite a lot of homemade bread. It’s so easy to do — basically just flour, water, yeast, sugar, and a bit of salt, mixed together in the correct proportions, kneaded for a while, left to rise, then pressed into a greased loaf pan and baked. It tastes fantastic and costs pennies.
So, why don’t people make homemade bread all the time anyway? It’s really the time investment that keeps people from doing this as an ordinary practice. It’s just faster to buy a loaf of bread at the store than it is to make it yourself.
The thing is, though, that the more times you make a loaf of bread yourself, the faster the whole process gets and the better the bread gets compared to store-bought bread. You figure out little things like that you should wash the dough bowl out with cold water rather than hot (the dough and flour comes off far easier) and how to knead so that you don’t make a mess.
Eventually, something like this becomes so routine that you end up doing it anyway because the results are so tasty and low cost, even if it does take a little bit more time.
Here’s an earlier article I wrote about baking homemade bread which includes my preferred recipe for it.
9. Start (or continue) a daily meditation / prayer practice.
To be clear, I view meditation and prayer as very similar activities. They both involve trying to clear your mind and focus on something, whether words or feelings presented to a higher power (prayer) or simply focusing on a short phrase or on your own breath (meditation). They both involve quiet, focus, and calm, and they’re both really helpful for soothing an anxious mind.
Just take ten minutes, sit in a comfortable chair, and choose something to focus on – your breathing, perhaps, or a simple prayer like the Serenity Prayer. Focus on your breath, in and out, in and out, or on a slow repetition of your chosen prayer. If you find your mind drifting away, bring it back to your point of focus.
I do this almost every single morning and I find it to be an incredibly calming practice. Interestingly, my youngest son has really gotten into this as well and we’ve been doing it together most days, and my daughter has joined us, too. We like to do this together in the mornings in the sunniest room in our house, and it’s helped calm all of us a little.
10. Reach out to family members and friends by text, video, calls and letters.
This is something that a lot of people are doing right now, but we’ve escalated it quite a bit.
We’re making a daily point of texting or calling or video chatting with elderly relatives. Each of us directly contacts someone we care about, and I’ve been contacting several people each day. Not always the same people each day, of course, but keeping tabs on people in my life that I view as being at-risk due to their age or their already-existing social isolation.
We’ve also been writing letters. We ordered a bunch of stamps from the post office (delivered in our mailbox) and already had a lot of stationery around the house, so we’re putting it to good use. This is giving our children a good excuse to work on their handwriting and to stay in touch with people, and it’s given me an opportunity to write some thoughtful letters and notes to some people in my life that I appreciate.
If you have a few envelopes and a few stamps around the house, consider writing a few letters to people. Think of people you’ve always wanted to thank for something they did for you, or someone with whom you’ve wanted to repair a relationship, and put those words down on paper, carefully and thoughtfully. Put it in the mail with a stamp on it. You’ll feel better, and your letter will likely have a bigger positive impact than you’ll know.
11. Maintaining appliances.
One project I’ve been working on is maintaining our appliances, something that I’ve been okay at in the past but have really stepped up during this period of social distancing.
Doing basic appliance maintenance usually doesn’t require any sort of special equipment, but it usually improves how well the appliance operates, often making it more energy-efficient, and definitely extends its lifespan. In short, it’ll save you money now (through a bit of an energy bill reduction on some appliances) and a lot of money later (through extending the lifespan of the appliances).
Just go online and look up the manual for each of your major appliances and do what it says for maintenance. Look up your washing machine, your dryer, your dishwasher, your refrigerator, your stove, your microwave, your lawnmower, your snowblower – pretty much any significant piece of equipment in your home. Most of the maintenance can be done easily with things you have on hand, and you’ll extend the life of everything.
12. Do a few simple DIY projects using items already on hand.
I’ve put up a few shelves and fixed a few dings and dents around the house over the last few weeks. These simple projects were just things that were on my “to-do” list but had been pushed to the bottom because they weren’t particularly urgent, but I’m glad the tasks are done.
I’m not encouraging people to head out to the hardware store and buy a bunch of stuff, but instead look at the items they have on hand and consider any small undone projects they have around the house.
For now, I’m really enjoying the floating bookshelf I installed above my standing desk. It’s got a lot of my reference books on it, along with lots of notebooks and office supplies. It’s made my working area a lot less messy.
13. Teach yourselves some new skills.
I alluded to this above during the parts about baking bread and teaching our children life skills, but this is a great time to learn a new skill.
For me, the big new skill I’ve been working on recently is data mining. It’s related to my previous career field and it’s always something I’ve enjoyed, but my skills had become quite rusty over the years, with only a few small projects utilizing those skills.
I’ve started working through the material in Coursera’s online data mining course sequence with an end project in mind. I’ve been doing this while my children have done a bit of classwork-related material so that we all feel like we’re doing some “schoolwork.”
In fact, I actually encourage parents struggling with schoolwork at home to approach it in this way. Rather than hovering over their shoulder, instead do a course yourself on a topic that matters to you while they’re doing course materials.
14. Spend as much time outside — or at least getting fresh air and sunshine — as possible.
We’ve tried to keep as many of our windows open as we possibly can to let the sunshine and fresh air into our home, and we’ve spent quite a lot of time out in the yard as well.
We’re lucky enough to live in a rural area, so we do have more outdoor access than many people who are trying to practice social distancing. We live near some large forest preserves and other wooded areas that we have permission to use, so we can easily go on hikes and nature walks where we literally don’t see another soul.
The point is this: within your particular social distancing situation, try to find as much room for fresh air and sunshine as you can. It’ll help you feel better. Plus, if the windows are open, there’s no need to run heating or cooling in your home, as nature will provide that for you.
15. Start (or continue) a journal.
I’m an avid journal writer. I usually take the approach of putting aside a little time each day to just write down whatever’s on my mind as a way of clearing the cobwebs out of my head.
It’s gradually turned into more of a “journal of this moment in history” as of late, and our whole family has started doing it to some extent. I’ve been encouraging our children to write down things that they notice as being different about this moment in time compared to the rest of their life, like the quiet nature of the area where we live, the big increase in unstructured time, and the big increase in family time.
I suspect that these will be kept throughout all of this until things begin to return to normal, and I want us all to keep notes of the changes we all see along the way.
16. Learn how to cut hair.
Something we’ve already noticed is that, with hair salons and barbershops closed everywhere, we’re starting to look a little shaggy. I’ve cut my own hair many times, but I usually do it when no one is around, so I decided to show my kids how I do it and see if any of them were willing to let me cut their hair.
All you really need for this is scissors and a brush or comb. Depending on what you want to do, clippers or a razor might be useful, too, as might a curling iron. For me, all I need are the clippers and some scissors, as I keep my hair pretty short. You’ll also need a broom and a dustpan to clean up.
So far, my kids haven’t agreed to haircuts, but I think my oldest one is considering it provided I don’t cut it too short.
17. Play a board game or a card game.
One thing that’s become an almost nightly tradition at our house has been a board game or a card game of some kind. We have quite a collection of board games (tabletop gaming is something of a hobby for myself and Sarah), so we’ve been playing a lot of those, but we’ve also played some card games with an ordinary deck of playing cards.
For example, one evening I taught my children how to play the card game that is often played by adults at our extended family events. They’d seen adults playing it, but to them it didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Now, they not only know a new and interesting game, but they have a point of connection with their extended family.
The Bicycle website has a giant assortment of card games that can be played with a standard deck. On top of that, you probably have a few board games stowed away in a closet — pull them out and give them a shot.
18. Learn a “party trick,” particularly one that requires focus and memory building.
Right now, different people in our family are working on two different types of these tricks.
One involves solving the Rubik’s Cube (and similar spatial puzzles) quickly. We have several Rubik’s Cubes in our home and several similar (and more difficult) puzzles. There are many YouTube videos and written guides on how to solve the Rubik’s Cube and other puzzles, as well as techniques for how to do it quickly.
The other one is learning how to memorize a deck of playing cards — someone shuffles a deck of playing cards and gives it to you, you study it for a minute or two, and then call off the cards in order.
Both of these might seem like party tricks (and they are), but they also teach a lot of focus while you’re learning them. Solving spatial puzzles also helps with spatial reasoning (my kids are going to find geometry to be a breeze), and the deck of playing cards trick enhances short term memory. Plus, they’re both excellent party tricks, as long as you can keep them practiced.
19. Establish some healthy daily habits, like flossing and an exercise routine.
There are a lot of things that people can and should do on a daily basis to stay healthy and keep their body operating well that people often gloss over. Most people brush daily, but does everyone brush for two full minutes twice a day? People floss sometimes, but do they do it daily? What about some form of daily exercise?
If you’re stuck at home a lot more than usual, then this is a great time to really hone a lot of healthy daily habits. It’ll improve your personal health both in the short and long term.
I’ve been trying to do the Darebee daily workout for as many days in a row as I can, for example, and also upped my flossing game. I’ve been encouraging the kids to come up with a few daily habits to master, and how to track them.
20. Make your home the cleanest it’s ever been (and learn how to make DIY cleaners).
This period of social distancing and a much lighter social calendar offers a great opportunity to “spring clean” your home in a deep fashion.
Clean out your closets. Clean your windows. Move the furniture and clean under it. Scrub the corners. Wash the walls. Dust everywhere. There are so many things you can do right now to get your home really, really clean.
It’s also a great opportunity to learn how to make your own household cleaners (so you don’t have to go out to buy anything). For example, try using just diluted vinegar in a spray bottle as a cleaning agent. I like using equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. You can also use a baking soda paste (by adding just enough water to make it into a paste) as a good cleaning agent. Instead of using paper towels to clean things, try using actual towels or old T-shirts, which you can then simply wash.
21. Make a “time capsule.”
This is a really fun activity with kids. Simply create a “time capsule” to be opened in five or 10 years. You can do it in a shoebox or a glass jar if you have one.
All you need to do is collect some items that will remind you of this moment in time when you open it in five or 10 years. Things you might want to include are ribbons or medals from recent sporting events, photographs, recent newspapers (if you have any on hand), school art, recent issues of magazines, and so on.
It’s also a really good idea to write a letter to your future self describing what life is like on a typical day and things you’d want your future self to know.
Find some place to hide it or bury it and set some sort of reminder to open it in 10 years. I actually have a Google Calendar appointment to give me reminders and emails in 10 years when we should open ours.
22. Use the things you’ve been saving for a “special occasion.”
Sarah and I had been holding onto a few bottles of really special craft beer that we picked up on an anniversary trip we went on together. We decided that now was a perfect “special occasion” for them, as it’s a simple way to make these days seem special in a good way. So, we’ve been putting one in the fridge every few days and sharing it after the kids go to bed.
Maybe you have a bottle of wine that you’ve been holding onto for a special occasion, or maybe you have some fine dishes that you haven’t used and are waiting for the right moment.
Now’s the right moment. Share that bottle of wine. Have a meal on those nice dishes. It’ll make a special positive moment for you and your loved ones in this sea of uncertainty.
23. Set some goals.
What exactly do you want out of the next ten years of your life? What do you want out of the rest of your years? This is a wonderful time to think deeply about those large scale questions and consider what it is that your life is really all about.
It is incredibly easy to get caught in the never-ending cycle of daily life and lose track of what the big picture of our life really is all about. There will probably be no better time in your life to step back and think about that big picture a little.
What’s missing in your life? What’s in your life but is just taking up space while giving you little value? What do you want the rest of your life to be like?
I’ve been dwelling on a lot of those questions, and then asking the hard follow-up questions, like what those changes mean in terms of how I act in my daily life and what I’m working toward in the next few months or the next year or two.
24. Take one day at a time.
If I have any single piece of advice to offer, it’s this one. Take one day at a time. Appreciate what that day has to offer you. Don’t get wrapped up in a maelstrom of news, but also don’t fall into the trap of complacency, either. Stick to the social distancing recommendations for your area and, within them, look for the bright things in life. Use this as an opportunity to rethink your life.