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72 Frugal Business Building Tips

“99 problems and the cash ain’t one!”

Okay, maybe not 99 — and yes, maybe cash IS your problem.

Here are 72 tips to help you protect your cash and put what you have to its highest use. BUT:

There is a difference between frugality at home and frugality in business. In fact, it’s one of the most difficult things to internalize if you’re stretched for cash and just starting out. The primary difference is:

Frugality at home saves on expenditures. Frugality in business protects cash flow. @UrbanEscapee

(click to tweet!)

For example, it makes no sense to buy in bulk (“to save money”) if doing so will negatively impact your operating budget or cost you overdraft fees. Sometimes the best money saved is buying a smaller quantity despite a higher price. Other times, the best money “saved” is accepting the penalty fee and “buying” some extra time!

Some things to remember:

  • Being frugal does not make you an insufferable cheapskate. Being miserly, stingy, or selfish is a personality problem.
  • Being frugal depends on your industry and individual circumstances. Your mileage may vary.
  • Being frugal (reducing overhead costs) is just one side of the equation. You should also be working to increase your income.
  • Don’t forget your time has a value, too. Sometimes the savings aren’t really worth the time.

I’ve compiled as many frugal tips I could think of from our own business — without a single affiliate link! — but what did I forget?

Business Start-up & Planning

photo: Miguel Pires da Rosa

  1. Avoid building out space anew
    (I can summarize by saying, “Ask me how much I like paying for a non-existent kitchen in what is now a tattoo shop!”)
  2. If you build a space anew research it carefully
    Will there be enough volume of business to pay for the build out costs? Can you charge enough for product/service X?
  3. Be creative about space
    Try a pop-up shop to test a location or consider a co-working space. Two friends, Meg of Cheese to You and John of NuBeginning Farm, are sharing a single storefront (though not with each other!). You can also go entirely virtual — but I like personally like the businesses that are out there in the community best, don’t you? Who else is going to build fun, real world places?
  4. Borrow business books from the library
    Don’t buy business books if you can access them at your library or via inter-library loans. Also, they have movies for cheap date night. You’ll need your date nights!
  5. Seek mentors early
    More experienced business owners are happy to dispense free advice. Whether you take their advice is up to you, but, flattening the learning curve can save you money. Look for local mentors first. You can also benefit from a free mentor from

Business Funding

photo: Will S. (side note: I don’t like that this register is empty!)

  1. Investigate microloans
    Community and economic development organizations have money they want to loan you! The rates are usually a better than the bank and a lot better than your credit card. Locally, we have the Staunton Creative Community Fund and they are AWESOME.  Find yours by searching the Opportunity Finance Network.
  2. Investigate local incentives and grants
    Chances are there are local business incentives near you, even and especially if you have a small or micro-business. For example, when we opened the city refunded us for a few of our building permits. Ainslie and Laura even got assistance buying a place to live upstairs from their business!
  3. Bartar with other businesses for goods & services
    Trading and bartering probably go as far back as the “first profession.” You can do it, too. The trading and bartering bit, I mean.
  4. Trade hours via a local time bank 
    We’re lucky to have a new start-up here called (h)OUR ECONOMY. It’s an alternative currency where people swap time. A few businesses have already used the service to get some extra hands on deck for various projects. Cool! Search for an hour exchange in your area at TimeBanks USA. Or start your own?
  5. Raise funds via crowdsourcing
    Kickstarter is the best known of several sites that allow you to raise funds as gifts to your business (you don’t have to repay the money, but you do need to offer something in return). My friend Dawn of Rule 42 had success using Kickstarter to partially raise funds for a line of eco-friendly paints.
  6. Bank at a community bank…
  7. …or even better, bank with a local credit union
    Local banks and credit unions have all the services of larger banks but they bring some serious advantages. First, it’s possible to really get to know the people there personally. They can judge you on more than a balance sheet and be very flexible and helpful — e.g., reversing fees, cutting you slack, even sending you business. The fees are a lot lower, too. More important: when you bank locally you keep your money circulating and helps fund other indie businesses in your community. Seriously: I would never bank with Bank of America, Citibank, or Wells Fargo EVER. AGAIN. I ♥ Community Bank. That doesn’t mean smaller is always better, though — side note to fellow Virginians: I seriously un-heart First Bank & Trust.
  8. Don’t enroll in the overdraft protection program
    In theory this sounds like a good idea because it protects you from potential embarrassment if you’re short on cash. But, those fees can add up, FAST! Save yourself the cash and deal with the momentary embarrassment if your debit card is declined.
  9. Offer a competitive interest rate to a customer
    Someone I know (who shall remain anonymous) needed some serious infrastructure upgrades. The banks were unwilling to fund his equipment purchase so he turned to a well-off customer. He offered this customer a competitive interest rate to purchase equipment, which is collateralized by the equipment and paid monthly. So far, everyone is happy…not only is his equipment functional, but his electric bills are lowered now, too, bringing him some significant savings, too!
  10. Shop around for the best reward credit cards
    Okay, this one’s a love-hate recommendation. Love, because you can put all your business expenses on one card and rack up miles, points, etc., that can be valuable. Hate, because you must use this tactic wisely to avoid interest. Plus, as an indie merchant myself, it is the MERCHANT who pays for these points/miles/etc. So…my recommendation is to use your reward card liberally with large corporate chains and big box stores. Remember: using these credit cards at a fellow independently-owned business means they are the ones paying for your perks. Don’t be a jerk.
  11. Ask for the discount 
    You never know; discounts can be had — just use good judgement. Few things are worse than the reputation of being a cheapskate — I know every one in town and you can believe I’m not overly service oriented when they show up. NOTE: Do not ask a fellow, independently owned stores for a discount. That’s just tacky.

Business Management and Operations

photo: Thiophene_Guy

  1. Shop with a list
    Studies show this reduces unnecessary spending. This is particularly important at the start of the business, when you are wildly enthusiastic about purchasing equipment, decor, etc. Lists also help keep your spending focused later, too. We keep a perpetual list of items we’re looking for on our smartphones so we can stick to our purchasing plans.
  2. Buy pre-owned equipment
    Restaurant equipment has some of the worst re-sell prices… which is great, because you can pick it up on the cheap. My friend Mike bought all the equipment from a defunct hotdog shop to start his boutique catering business.
  3. Buy pre-owned nearly-everything-else
    Seriously, there are so many good deals out there — let someone else “drive it off the lot”, so to speak. You and I know that if you’re going to spend money, spend it where it makes you money, and/or where the customer sees it. CAUTION: It is tempting to spend only where the customer sees it, or, conversely, go so cheap it’s obvious your cheap in the bad sense. It’s a fine line to walk so ask yourself, is this item going to build a business and make you money?
  4. Buy quality, even when you’re buying pre-owned items 
    If it’s made to last it will be even cheaper to own and operate in the long run. It’s all about buying the best value. Remember, the things you own end up owning you!
  5. Skip the fancy furniture
    We pulled a sofa, a real gem, from the trash — and not only is it beautiful and useful, it’s a great sorting device. Those who say, “oh, what an ugly sofa” are automatically put into the “not our people” category. Do you have an item like that?
  6. Buy refurbished computer equipment
    This site is maintained on a refurb Mac Air and it works great. Remember to keep the cables from your old equipment. You never know when they’ll come in handy.
  7. Switch to Square to save on credit/debit fees, service fees, view-your-bill fees, and other b.s.
    Square is a trillion times better than any scam-you, charge-you, and fleece-you debit/credit processing service like “giant corp” First Data. FYI: The Devil works at First Data when he’s not busy throwing people into lakes of fire. Seriously.
  8. Conserve your energy use by making improvements 
    Items you can install and take with you include: Energy Film (we use it), draft dodgers, water heater blankets, CFLs. Get on it!
  9. Conserve your water use
    This is particularly important if you live in the West and/or pay for water. Faucet aerators are one inexpensive tool. Collecting greywater and using it to flush toilets is another. Don’t reuse dirty water, especially around food. Obviously.
  10. Recycle and reuse shipping supplies
    The only danger here is becoming like my grandmother, who had a basement full of useful empty boxes! We reuse our beer boxes to transport our snack deliveries or to offer to people with large retail purchases.
  11. Pay your most expensive (or, smallest) debts first — but not at the expense of growing your business!
    The “Debt Snowball” is an excellent technique for individuals, and, can be used by businesses, too.
  12. Pay your insurance in installments
    Installment payments are generally not cheaper but a smaller amount due every month or quarter makes it easier to manage your cash flow, which is the name of the game.
  13. Share internet or other costs with a business nearby
    Most of these arrangements can be made informally, but there are several sites to help, too, such as Acts of Sharing
  14. Share ownership of items you don’t use everyday but still need occasionally
    This approach can save some dough. For example, Neighborhood Goods – you’ve heard we’re entering a sharing economy, right?
  15. Give away what you don’t need
    It’s good karma, plus, you don’t have to pay to maintain or store it. Freecycle, yo!
  16. Use free, cloud-based software
    For example, Google Docs or Dropbox, instead of fancy software. Here’s a massive list of free and open source software.
  17. Get a free phone number and cut the landline
    Google Voice is great and will route calls to your inbox, for example.
  18. Skype is cheapest for long distance/international
    Cheap if you use it to “dial out” from your phone, free if you call from your computer! ¡Viva Skype!
  19. Switch to a Republic smartphone — just $20/mo!
    I’ve just switched to Republic Wireless and am awaiting a hybrid wi-fi/cell Android smartphone. That means the smartphone uses wi-fi to make calls, and then switches to cellular service if no wi-fi is available. The entire package is just $19/mo+taxes after you pay for the phone. No contracts! Sayonara, AT&T & your expensive iphone! (P.S. Drop a line in the comments if you want to hear how it goes since I just signed up.)
  20. Hire the specialized pros
    Hire the professionals — they will cost you money in the short term but save you money (and possibly trouble) in the long run. Get an accountant and a lawyer on your team, stat!
  21. Turn off lights and computers at night
    The cost of those lights and plugged in equipment do add up. The exceptions (maybe) are street-level lights for safety or to build awareness to your location
  22. Turn off the A/C…
  23. …or the heat!
    Turning off either is extreme but even adjusting the temps slightly can be a savings. For example, in the winter our refrigerators kick out a lot of heat so we ride that as much as possible on a lower thermostat setting with a combination of drapery, draft dodgers, etc.
  24. Avoid “big box” stores for office supplies
    No, not just because they represent everything anti-local & anti-indie, but because they aren’t necessarily cheaper! Investigate local options. For example, we order our supplies from Tiger Paper. They deliver small quantities, which saves us time, money, and preserves cash flow, too!
  25. Buy in bulk whenever possible… BUT:
    Make sure it makes financial sense. Sometimes it is more important to watch your cash flow. The savings you make buying 1000 rolls of toilet paper might not be more than the bank fee you have to pay if you are overdrawn, or might prevent you from making an important inventory purchase necessary to keep truck’n.
  26. If you must print something, print in “draft” mode
    Draft mode uses less ink, and we all know that’s a racket. For everything else, go digital and save as .pdf.
  27. Learn to negotiate terms
    The word “haggle” seems so unsavory. It’s so I’m-out-to-screw-you-for-my-advantage. Yuck. Think of it this way instead. Chances are you can offer someone what they want so long as they agree to your terms. They want $X? Sure. You can get that in X days/weeks/years. They may be unwilling to negotiate. That’s okay. That’s practice for you.
  28. Use cash 
    Something about peeling back those bucks will curb your spending. Cash is also a powerful negotiating device.
  29. Wait 30 days before committing…
    To a major purchase, to smooth talking business partners, etc. This step can save you serious moolah! Trust me!
  30. Do not heed every bit of costly “free advice”
    That includes my own — I only speak from my perspective! But here, I’m referring to the haughty, “helpful” suggestions from people who love to “armchair quarterback” but have never placed a foot on the quince pasted covered field.
  31. Streamline what you sell
    Evaluate to maximize your sell-through and minimize waste. In the cafe side of our business we offer multiple sandwiches that share common ingredients and suppliers, for example.
  32. Your grandparents were right: use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.
    This applies to nearly everything your business buys to get maximum value for the best price.
  33. Store it if you’re sick of it.
    Sometimes you just need to freshen things up. Rather than bring in something new, what about removing items and swapping something from storage?
  34. Give employees a concrete list of tasks and expectations — and lot of autonomy to execute how they see fit
    Treat people like thinking adults and they will perform for you. You’ll reduce the time, effort, and cost of replacing and re-training. I know this more from being an employee myself, but, we learned a lot from our first employee, who was a total waste of money.
  35. Consider temporary employees (1099) or virtual assistants
    These service providers are less expensive than a full or even half-time employees, and they make your life easier. I recommend Crystal!
  36. Buy insurance with a larger group
    If you can hitch your wagon to an affinity group (alum association, etc.) there is the potential to save money on insurance premiums.
  37. Create your own forms vs. buy premade ones
    If your business needs some standardized forms it may be cheaper to design your own and print locally, or in very small quantities.
  38. Clean it yourself
    Some jobs require hiring an employee, or even a team, to clean. Elbow grease can save you cash.
  39. Save your receipts
    Business expenses are tax-deductible.

Marketing, Advertising and PR

photo: Michael Neubert

  1. Pay for advertising where you can measure the response rate
    Broadly speaking, this means pay for everything online and skip the traditional magazine ads, but not always. If you can track the response rate you can determine what is work and cut loose what doesn’t work (saving you money). For example, our print advertising, which you can’t track, has been a result of bartering by offering to write articles.
  2. Think twice before joining due-driven professional groups
    These organizations promise marketing and promotional help but in my observation you can market on your own at a lower cost.
  3. Split ad costs with another business
    Sometimes it’s possible to share ad space with another business. Approach a complimentary business and see if they’re willing to go halfsies. This works well with local promotions.
  4. Ask for referrals
    Word-of-mouth is still the cheapest and most effective advertising and marketing method!
  5. Find your own PR opportunities using HARO
    HARO – Help a Reporter Out – is a free service that puts you in contact with journalists looking for experts and quotes. This can land you some sweet PR — but only if you’re quick on the draw. Be ready by preparing a press kit that distills your story into press-worthy bites. I’ll be sharing my techniques in the future. Drop a comment if you’d like more info. There are specific techniques to consider, and, HARO can flood you with mail (3 emails a day, typically).
  6. Enter contests using your PR-ready pitch
    Never forget that other businesses are constantly producing — and therefore need — content. (Content is my speciality!) Entering a contest is not an attempt to “win” (though, that’s nice) but, rather, to get an inbound link to your website. This is how we recently came to be featured on at Walkscore alongside businesses in larger markets.
  7. Piggyback on other promotions
    We learned this lesson a few years ago. City Hall featured Star Wars collectables one May under the banner “May the Force Be With You.” We decided to “take on City Hall” and do our own display (which was great, because it got Brian’s childhood toys out of our attic!). It was such a great conversation piece that we’ve kept the Star Wars stuff. In fact, it’s grown to be a fun part of visiting our shop.


photo: James Tworow

  1. Live close enough to walk to your business…
    Check Walkscore to get an idea of the best place to locate your business. Or, look for live/work incentives like Ainslie and Laura of Vintage Karma.
  2. …or close enough to ride your bike
    “[C]ommuting by bike to work under 3 miles is actually faster than by car,” says Deb Cosgrove. You can save money, save the environment, and get a bit of workout, too. (Yay, walkable & bike able micropolitans!)
    WHAT WE DO: We have one vehicle that we use for pick-ups and deliveries, but, the majority of our trips are on foot or on bike.
  3. Combine road trips whenever possible to save on gas
    It makes sense for time management, too.
  4. Order inventory the most efficiently as possible
    Rather than place a small order and pay for shipping, wait until you have a larger order and pay one shipping fee.
  5. If you’re out on business errands, don’t speed
    When you speed you use more gas and risk a costly ticket. Slow it, Granny!
  6. Pick it up yourself 
    Shipping is one of the biggest operating expenses for a lot of businesses. Sometimes it makes sense to pick it up yourself – or even better, make arrangements for someone else to pick up or deliver for you.


photo: Mark Stevens

  1. Vacation during the “off season”
    Just kidding — you’ll never take a vacation again! Scratch that. You might — if you’re smart with your cash and avoid some of the costly pits these tips aim to minimize or eliminate.
  2. Foster a DIY mentality (within reason)
    This is a time/value proposition. For example, we cleaned the A/C filter by running it under hot water and wiped down fridge coils so both worked more efficiently. To some it might make sense to pay someone else to do it. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself where you can create versus consume.
  3. Graciously accept volunteer help 
    People want to support you. When we moved we had numerous offers to help. This can get tricky re: insurance and liability (chances are you’re not covered for a non-employee to help you), so, protect yourself. At the same time, find a way to acknowledge the offer and perhaps contribute in another way. WHAT WE DID: We politely refused offers to help with the physical move but asked instead if people could keep their eyes out for various items, such as potted plants, decor items, and specific utensils. We were the grateful recipients of all!
  4. Be yourself
    Yes, being yourself can save you money, especially if you’re trying really hard to be someone you’re not with your business. There is no reason it has to look, act, or behave like someone else. In fact, please don’t. You’re just right the way you are. Your business is a creative expression of your values and the world needs you!



4 responses to “72 Frugal Business Building Tips”

  1. Hope

    Awesome article!! Thank you! I just started a small baking company and these tips are truly helpful.

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