The Pivnicks saved $140 a month by changing cellphone plans. The Porters reduced driving mileage by 35% when they started doing errands in one trip. The Joneses bought organic food more cheaply.
In the past several months, USA TODAY and ABC's Good Morning America Weekend challenged families to save more, cut back on food costs, reduce gas spending, and simplify their holiday gift-buying. The Frugal Family Challenge paired seven families with industry experts to help them save.
But those were one-month challenges. How have the families done in a longer period of time, and what can consumers learn from their experiences?
Using a budget
In early December, the Walker and Pivnick families set budgets and held to them. Three months later, they report success.
"We haven't really had any major slip-ups," Jimmie Walker says.
Before the challenge, the Walkers, of New Haven, Mich., ate out several times a week, spent aggressively, and often put those expenditures on credit cards.
Timothy Wyman, a financial planner in Southfield, Mich., helped the Walkers differentiate between wants and needs.
The Walkers set a tight budget, reduced their satellite TV package, got rid of Jimmie's expensive iPhone and stopped eating out.
Today, they estimate their monthly savings at $500 and are working on eliminating their $25,000 credit card debt. They've already paid off about $4,000, a feat Wyman describes as "very impressive."
"Whether you live in Michigan or anywhere else, this is a big achievement at this time," Wyman says.
What the Walkers have learned:
• Saving is a team effort. Use your significant other for support. "We both want things. I want an iPhone; she wants new flooring. But we keep each other on track," Jimmie says.
• Eat in. Giving up meals out of the house was tough, but once they did, they started saving and became closer as a family. "Going to the grocery store and making dinner has become a family event," Mitzi says.
• Celebrate each month. "It feels good looking over the month and realizing how much you saved," Mitzi says.
The Pivnicks of Richardson, Texas, switched their homeowners' insurance carrier for a cheaper one without sacrificing coverage. They started a 401(k), to which they contribute 3% monthly, and they opened a medical flexible-spending account. Bruce cuts the lawn himself, saving the family $185 a month. And a more appropriate phone plan saves them $140 a month.
Some other tips:
• Switch to a budgeted bill-payment plan. Their energy bill is averaged, so there are no unexpected high-bill months.
• Start a flexible-spending account. Most large employers offer medical accounts that save pretax income. The Pivnicks will save hundreds of dollars annually with this change alone.
•Sign up for a personal finance seminar.
Saving on gas costs
The Rhodeses and Porters were successful during their trial month, but only the Porters have been able to continue the savings.
Both families teamed with Philip Reed, consumer advice editor for automotive website Edmunds.com.
For the Rhodes family of Camas, Wash., Reed recommended the family carpool more, use their inefficient cars less and use public transportation more. He also suggested laying off the gas pedal, and driving more slowly up a steep hill leading to their house.
But after the challenge ended, the family slid back into old habits. "Because we have five adults, when they fill up, they don't often keep track of how much they spend," Mary says.
Despite the difficulty, the family gained insight about how to save at the pump:
• Pay cash for gas. Putting an agreed-upon amount of cash into the glove box helps keep multiple drivers on a budget.
• Check tire pressure and air filters. An underinflated tire or clogged air filter will decrease a car's efficiency. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 27% of cars on U.S. roads have one or more underinflated tires.
• Select routes in advance. "I plan my routes so I am not going out in the heaviest traffic," Mary says. The forward planning helps avoid getting lost and can discourage rushing.
The Porters have had better luck keeping their gas habits in check. Kelly still drives slower, avoiding what Reed called "midlevel acceleration" or when a driver increases speed to change lanes. She now moves when traffic allows her. The couple continue to carpool.
The only tip the Porters of Salem, Mass., have not been able to continue carrying out is the walking. "With temperatures in the teens, it's been difficult to keep that up," Kelly says. But she says Tim still walks to his second job as a driving instructor, which is nearby. She says she plans to drive less when the weather turns.
Here are the Porters' other suggestions:
• Avoid the drive-through window. "Anyplace where your car would be idling, I just automatically shut the car off," Kelly says.
• Keep the speed in check. "I used to drive 80 on the highway, and now I never go over 70," Kelly says. She says her new driving method not only saves gas, it's also safer.
• When running errands, go to the farthest distance first and work backward. Reed says warmer cars are more efficient and save on gas.
Saving on food costs
For the challenge, the Joneses were matched with Maile Carpenter of Food Network Magazine, who helped them spend less on groceries.
The family of four from Hoboken, N.J., is committed to eating organic. They prefer to shop at a store such as Whole Foods, where products fit their diet. During the challenge, however, the Joneses gave up higher-price food and learned to shop organic at a less-expensive store.
But completely giving up on the high-end supermarket was too difficult. "We made a compromise by going to the organic store half the time," says Susan. Here are the Joneses' suggestions for eating organic while saving money:
• If it has a peal, it doesn't need a seal. During the challenge, Carpenter explained that unless you plan on eating the skin, whatever you're buying doesn't need to be organically grown to be healthy, so the extra cost is not worth it.
• If you can't give up the high-end supermarket, commit to going half of the time.
• Invest in a slow cooker. Susan uses the slow cooker "pretty much every weekend," she says. The meals last, and they're healthier and cheaper than packaged meals.