Use What You Have! Saving Money in January

Use What You Have and Save!
The new year is wonderful for fresh starts, but unfortunately not everything can automatically be made new just because the calendar changes. And one of the things that follows us into the new year is those pesky credit card bills. January is an awfully tough month financially for many families. Huge bills are due, and the money just isn’t coming in.

But one thing that we often forget is how much money we already have tied up in stuff inside our four walls! So today I thought I’d write about ways to save money this month by Using What You Actually Have. I know that sounds revolutionary, but hear me out.

It used to be that people let nothing go to waste. I’m an avid knitter, and I remember reading about a pioneer woman who used to try out new cable stitches using the string that came tied around the butcher’s packages, because she couldn’t afford to waste yarn. So even string was valuable!

Today we often buy stuff and then it sits in a cupboard, forgotten.  If money is tight this month, maybe it’s time to figure out what’s inside those cupboards!

'Pantry Commentary 2010' photo (c) 2010, Julie Magro - license: Food

The average family has between $250-$400 of groceries inside their home at any one time. And I’m pretty sure that’s a low estimate if you include what’s in my freezer!

So this month, why not make it a challenge to actually use the cans that are in your cupboard, and the meat that is in your freezer? Don’t buy stuff at the store–even if it’s on sale. Use up what you actually have.

Those tins of cranberry? Use them. Those tins of tuna? Figure out how to make a casserole.

I’m guilty of hoarding lentils and dried beans. I keep thinking I’m actually going to cook with them, but then I rarely do. I think it’s time that I actually tried!

Recently I made chili with various miscellaneous dried beans and all kinds of hamburger and turkey patties left over from the summer that we never got around to barbecuing, but which probably wouldn’t taste that good if I left them until the next barbecuing season. When you mash them all up, they’re pretty indistinguishable from ground beef. And my freezer looks a lot better without all those boxes.

2. Medications

I’m prone to periodic bouts of eczema, or just really itchy rashes. So a while ago when it flared up I bought a tube of hydrocortisone cream. After I had used it I had to figure out where to put it, since it’s not a normal medication. When it occurred to me which drawer it would most naturally fit in, I opened up that drawer only to find–two other tubes of hydrocortisone cream. I don’t know if I’m getting forgetful in my forties or what, but no one needs three tubes of hydrocortisone cream to deal with the occasional flare-up.

The solution? Have a central place in the house where all medications are kept. I used to be really organized with my medicines, but I’ve found it a challenge now because my teenage girls have their own bathroom, and so they often stick medications in there, too. The solution I’ve come up with is to stop keeping medications in the bathrooms and start putting them in a central drawer in the kitchen. That way we won’t have three bottles of Advil floating around, or three tubes of hydrocortisone cream.

3. Toiletries

My oldest daughter likes to say that the way you can tell a girl’s bathroom from a boy’s bathroom is the amount of product on the counter. Girls, she says, are incapable of having just one of anything, because they have to try out different things!

Are you guilty of that? I know I can be. If I dig under my bathroom sink I’ll find half used cans of mousse, or conditioner, or foot cream. But honestly, most of those products are completely interchangeable, despite the brand.

'Hackpact #14' photo (c) 2009, Cormac Heron - license:

My husband started consolidating things by taking all of our leftover sunscreen after the summer and pouring it into one bottle. I thought that was a good idea, so I’ve started doing it with moisturizer cream, too. Instead of lots of half-filled bottles, I’ve got one big one. And I won’t buy anything else until that big one is actually used!

If you have stuff under there that you bought at a Mary Kay party once or something, why not start using it? You’ll feel prettier, and you’ll get rid of clutter taking up space under your sink! Getting rid of stuff you don’t use brings peace–and space to organize again.

4. Gift Cards

Many of us receive different gift cards at Christmas. But do you necessarily need them all?

One neat thing Canadians can do with gift cards is to join CardSwap and then swap out your gift cards for things you really need. So if money is tight this month you may not need a gift card to Chapters (our equivalent of Barnes and Noble), but you may really need it for a drug store. So join CardSwap and consolidate your cards into one big one you’ll actually use. I hate having $10 left on one card for one store and $15 left on another. I’d rather just have one big gift card for one store that I go to frequently.

Before Christmas my daughter cashed in $110 worth of gift cards and received about $100 back to use on Christmas presents. Yes, they take a cut, but to her the cash was worth it, because she didn’t really NEED stuff from that store. So, Canadians, check out CardSwap!

I think it’s a great service. Do they have anything similar in the U.S. or the U.K. or Australia? Let us know in the comments!

5. Games

When you want something to do at night, what do you automatically turn to? The video store? Amazon movies on demand? Even your TV? Here’s a thought: why not save the $1 or $5 or whatever it would cost and instead play a board game? We’ve all got them stuffed in those cupboards, but they rarely come out. Let’s make it a habit to actually use what we buy, including our games, rather than turning to entertainment that doesn’t necessarily entertain–and that costs us money.

So I challenge you this month to use up what you actually have. It will save you money, but more than that, it makes us think differently about how we use our money. When we throw it away carelessly, buying stuff we don’t really need, then we’re not being responsible or grateful for what we have. Actually using what’s in our house teaches us more about what we should be spending money on, and teaches us what we don’t really need!

Have you ever tried to Use What You Have to get you through a tough financial period? Let me know in the comments!


  1. This is one of my goals for January, too! One thing I’m doing is NOT looking at all of the money saving emails I get in my inbox every day. I’ve looked at a couple, and one looked like a great deal, but then I thought it through. Saving money is more important than buying one more fun or cute thing. You’re right–we have plenty of fun things available at no cost.

    Oh, I had to laugh at your hydrocortisone cream. I can’t tell you how many tubes of anti-biotic creams I found last fall (in a cleaning spree) because I always lose them and had to buy another. :)

    Timely post–thank you!

  2. This is such an excellent idea. We already bought groceries this week, but I may pitch a no-buy week to my husband for next week. It will inspire creativity! I hope…
    Bethany recently posted…Laundry DetergentMy Profile

  3. YES! I bet we could eat for a month out of our cupboards, just buying fresh milk, fruits and veggies. And the medicines? Good grief. It’s actually not good for them to be in a warm, humid environment, so the bathroom is the worst place for them anyway. I have the same problem with itchy hands in the winter and have tubes of cream stashed all over. *sigh*

    For dinner tonight? The freezer is full of venison…

    Happy New Year, Sheila!

    Julie recently posted…Really. The Last Christmas Post For 2012. Promise.My Profile

  4. Ooh, this is something we did in November to save up for Christmas. We’re now doing it this month, to pay off remaining credit card bills and to save up for a few big purchases we’re planning on this year. It’s a fun challenge. :)

  5. Thanks for sharing these tips! I particularly like the one about using up the food you have in storage. My family is really bad about this but I think I will inventory what we have and try to make some meals and clean out the shelves before things expire.

  6. great site: type in some ingredients and they’ll help you find a recipe!
    it was a great way to figure out how to use up my cranberry sauce… :)

  7. We’re really really trying to focus on that right now! It’s the little things that add up and kill your budget. That’s what happens to us. My husband is one to go out and spend money without really thinking about it, and I’ve just said “yes” too often without thinking it through. So when something is suggested, we try to think if we already have something in the house we can use. Movies, for example. We received a gift of 50 free movie rentals from a family this year for Christmas, so whenever my husband suggests renting something on Amazon, I say “I am not going to spend money on a movie when we can get it for free across the street” and he goes “Oh yeah! That’s right!”. Or me, I love Starbucks. Love love LOVE Starbucks. But I can make myself yummy drinks at home with what I already have.

    Personal care products have never really been an issue for me. I hate hate hate wasting things. If something doesn’t work for me, I’ll take it back to the store and get a refund and use it to buy something else I use anyway. I’ve done that with skincare before when I’ve had allergic reactions. That’s the thing with trying new products – check the store’s return policy. Often you can return the product for a full refund! Even if it’s just store credit, if it’s a store you shop at anyway you can put that credit towards groceries or toothpaste or whatever.
    Melissa recently posted…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!My Profile

  8. Also- we used our Christmas gift cards (and some others we found while doing a deep clean) towards the birthday gifts that we needed to buy over the next several months. Re-gifting at its best.

    I would also add that if you’re in need of something (especially small appliances) to check out secondhand stores first! Lots of people are doing their deep cleaning/purging right now, and especially those who got new appliances for christmas have often casted their old ones off at resale shops.

    We do very well with our food, and even we have a bit too much meat, etc in our freezer after all of the eating out during the holidays.
    SWR recently posted…Hello, againMy Profile

  9. Sheila, thank you for this post. I have been thinking about it all morning. It has challenged me to find some recipes to use up some of the food stock I have.
    Bethany Turner recently posted…i’ve met JesusMy Profile

  10. I love this post. This year, I am really trying to be more economical and “make do” more often with food. We keep track of our finances in Quicken, and when I added up our 2012 expenditures on groceries and divided by 52, I was appalled at the per-week cost. For that amount, we should be eating steak and lobster (and we are not!). So I cleaned out and organized my refrigerator, freezers and pantry after Christmas and posted lists of the items in both freezers. I’m making out menus for two weeks at a time and am really trying to think about what we already have and how I can use it. I’m trying to limit extra trips to the grocery store – you know how that goes, you run in for milk and come out with $40 worth of stuff! I really think that we can cut $50-60 from our weekly grocery expenditures with very little “pain.”
    Gaye @CalmHealthySexy recently posted…15 Strategies for a CalmHealthySexy 2013My Profile

  11. blessedmumwith4 says:

    we have had some MAJOR medical expenses that our med insurance is not covering and unexpected house repairs (like the 2 year old sump pump dying and my laundry room being flooded with ick) that happened one week a part from each other……so out of necessity we just cant go grocery shopping period. My budget is so tight I am counting diapers and praying they last until the next paycheck in 3 weeks…I totally trust in the Provider for our needs and that brings so much peace and joy.

    Our house is full of food too which is a blessing. We are definitely eating differently from what we “normally” do but we are using what we have and it is a fun and exciting challenge for me. We have not gone hungry ever and our house is still warm which is a blessing in cold MN. I have no reason to complain, none at all even though things are tight and we are counting every penny.

    The toiletries thing is a good reminder for me, thank you Sheila. I often forget what is hidden in the higher shelves that I cannot see, well I got the stool and lo and behold I have a years worth of bar soap up there along with some other things I thought I would have to buy soon.

  12. KellyK(@RNCCRN9706) says:

    Our family is horrible at wasting food. I am on a different diet from the other family members(hubby, 8yr old son and 89yr old mother-in-law). We are bad about eating out a lot. Usually one meal per weekend is eaten at a restaurant. This coming weekend, we have to travel out of town for an event that was unexpected so there will be another restaurant trip. Then again, we don’t take vacations. Have not been on one since our 1999 Honeymoon.

  13. Great ideas Sheila!
    I especially like to use what I have in the pantry…I just tried to empty my freezer last fall and got several good meals out of the stuff I had.

    Couple of years ago I decided not to “save” anything. For example, if I get a special lotion or shower gel as a present, instead of saving it for a “special” day, I will use it and ENJOY it! You never know how much time you have left here on earth, so it’s worth savoring each and every moment and making it special.

    I would encourage you to swap stuff with your parents/other family members/friends. For example, I got some shampoos from my mom that she knew wouldn’t be used in her house….they just sat in her cupboard. If I have something I won’t use, I will pass it on.

    A hint for dry hands: Goat Milk Stuff has the best lotion for dry skin I have found. My legs used to itch like crazy, but their lotion is really good. The main ingredient is NOT water as it often is in store bought lotions, but they use all natural butters and goat milk.


  14. So very true! Waste not, want not. It’s amazing how much you can save in a year by buying things on sale, and keeping an eye out for coupons. Great post!

    • Also, if you eat a lot of a particular item, it may well be worth getting a membership at Sam’s Club. I’ve saved a bunch of money just by buying peanuts and almonds there (up to half the price) rather than a local grocery store.

      • KellyK(@RNCCRN9706) says:

        Sam’s Club has cheap produce! I got 5 avocados for under $4. WalMart sells them for $1.48 a piece!! Not everything is cheaper there though.

  15. This is a great post! We recently moved and I had to use up our freezer and pantry stock, so I “feel” like I have sparce cupboards, but in reality, I don’t. This year, I’ve decided to only buy what I will actually use. I did stock up on brown sugar over the holidays because it was so cheap…I did this in 2011 and ended up using the last bag just before Thanksgiving. It does save money to stock up when prices are cheap – BUT only if you are going to use the items! I purge my pantry twice a year to make sure I haven’t overbought; example, when we moved, I realized I had TWENTY cans of kidney beans. I haven’t bought any since! :)
    Vinae recently posted…DinnerMy Profile

  16. This is EXACTLY where I’ve been lately. I gathered up all my lotions and cream (my guilty pleasure) and am determined to use them before I buy any more!
    Auntie Em recently posted…Auntie Em’s Crockpot Onion-Ranch ChickenMy Profile

  17. What great ideas on how to save money!
    I’m currently stocking my freezer with meals, preparing for the new baby, but I do have a lot of stuff in my pantry that I should be using.
    I don’t know how what the possibilities are in North America, but we’ve been saving a lot of money since we started doing our weekly groceries on line. It now takes me 10-15 minutes to do my groceries, which I can do in my pajamas’s with a cup of coffee. You get to compare prices much easier. There is no impulse shopping, you just get what’s on your list. My ‘list’ gets saved, so the things we get every week (milk, eggs, bread) are already on there. I can get up and check my fridge or pantry to make sure I really need something and don’t end up with more than I need. I don’t have to pay for parking at the store and I don’t have to carry anything heavy. My groceries get delivered within 24 hours, right into my kitchen! We do pay a fee (about 3-5 dollars, depending on the size of the delivery; bigger is cheaper), but we think it’s well worth it.

    • That’s awesome, Muriel! What service do you use?

      • We use this service from a local supermarket, and I’m 100% sure they don’t deliver in Canada ;-), since I live in Jerusalem, Israel. I do hear from friends in Europe that more and more supermarkets are making online shopping available, so I’m guessing that it’s the same in North America.

  18. I couldn’t agree with you more Sheila. GREAT SUGGESTIONS!!!

    Another suggestion is to have a large “giveaway” box. This is where you would put stuff to donate to a thrift store, etc. Instead of thinking you need to go through your entire house, pick one room a week (particularly bedrooms).

    Go through closets, dresser drawers and kitchen cupboards. Make quick decisions on putting into the box anything you truly do not need, will not use or simply could benefit someone else. This is a great way to reveal to yourself the stuff in our houses that we really don’t use!

    I read somewhere once that visual clutter is overwhelming and distracting. Granted, I have a long way to go in getting rid of all my clutter, but it sure does feel great to get rid of some of it. And if it is stuff that other people could benefit from, all the better!

    At the end of the month, put the box in your car and get it out of your house to the thrift store or charity.
    Julie Sibert recently posted…Five Words to Describe Sex in Your MarriageMy Profile

  19. A comment just came through by email that I thought I would post here:

    One of the best things I ever did was buy a dispenser for the shower. You use less product and it prevents having too many bottles in your shower and even under the sink. You can also get the wall mounted dispensers to use at the sink in the bathroom so you have one for face cleanser, one for moisturizer and one for hand soap.

    Another note … some of the charities and churches that supply the needs of the street people and homeless can use the toiletries we get at hotels … even some of the military organizations need these …

    • Ok, I admit that I horde hotel toiletries, but for a good reason! Our church will collect them twice a year, and bundle them up in men’s tube socks. Included in the tube socks is a “how to be saved” pamphlet, with the contact info for the homeless outreach co-ordinator. Socks are THE most requested item in shelters, and it is AWESOME to see the pure joy come over people’s faces to get something as simple as socks. :-)

  20. In the U.S. I use as an equivalent of Card Swap for buying and selling gift cards.

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  1. […] in January Sheila Gregoire wrote a good post called “Use What you Have.” The new year is a great time to think about this kind of thing, but we need to be careful […]

  2. […] Here’s a much longer article I’ve written on how to use what you have. […]

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