7 Money-Saving Tricks I Learned After Living in Italy for 14 Years

Living in Italy may sound fancy, but locals know how to be frugal while still living life to the fullest—and their smart money tips can work anywhere

To say that my life changed when I moved to Italy 14 years ago is putting it mildly. I created a completely new life here that was dramatically different from my life in America, and I had to learn a lot along the way. Besides learning a new language and learning to understand the nuances of life in my small village, I was living with my husband for the first time. Two years later, our daughter arrived.

Sharing household expenses and building a life together meant we were always watching our budget. And while things like clipping coupons or asking stores to price-match items may be smart ways to save money in the United States, those practices are virtually nonexistent here. So I had to find new ways to save money on groceries, kids’ clothes and other necessities. Here are seven money-saving tricks I picked up from living in Italy—most of which can apply to wherever you live too!

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Buy fewer groceries at a time

If you ever visit a friend or family member in Europe, you will likely notice something very different about their kitchen: a small refrigerator. How do they manage with such a tiny fridge? They don’t stockpile food, and now, I don’t either. I can’t speak for other countries, but Italians tend to buy more fresh food—and buy it in smaller quantities. We don’t have big-box stores like Sam’s or Costco, so buying in bulk isn’t really an option anyway. But even if it were, I’ve learned to buy less at a time, especially when it comes to perishable items like fruit and vegetables. That way, we have just what we know we’ll consume in a few days, before anything has a chance to spoil and go to waste. It takes a little more meal planning, but we definitely save by not buying too much and then having to throw it out.

Eat seasonally

tomato on blue backgroundCodorniz/getty images

I love strawberries, cantaloupe and watermelon, but in Italy, I can only get them in the summer, when they’re ripe. The same goes for fall and winter fruits and vegetables like Brussels sprouts, winter squash, just about every kind of apple and those delicious blood oranges from Sicily. Most stores don’t sell these items out of season, in part because Italians prioritize seasonality, as well as locally and regionally grown produce, but also because of price. Out of season, these fruits and vegetables would have to be imported. They’d be a lot more expensive, of lesser quality and quite possibly grown in an industrial greenhouse. Instead, enjoying them seasonally helps me appreciate them more.

Another way Italians save is by growing their own produce. Almost anyone with a little plot of land uses it to grow zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant and other summer vegetables. Neither my husband nor I have developed any gardening skills just yet, but fortunately, his mother, uncles and cousins have, and they frequently leave bags of just-picked produce on our doorstep.

Cook more meals at home

I live in a small town where we have no fast-food restaurants other than a pizzeria that does carry-out. (Can you imagine?!) Ordering food for delivery or carryout, or even going out to dinner on the spur of the moment, isn’t something we can do easily, mostly due to a lack of options. And it turns out, that’s really OK! Not only do we save money on expensive restaurant meals, overpriced wine and huge portions of calorie-laden carryout food that goes uneaten, but we get more quality family time by cooking, eating and cleaning up together. We also end up eating less and having healthier meals.

Yes, bigger cities have more options for fast food, delivery and carryout. But even where the community is less close-knit, cooking and sharing meals with family and friends is still a big part of the social fabric in Italy. I’ve also found that Italians are more conscious (OK, suspicious) of what’s in their food, so they tend to be less willing to make fast food more than an occasional meal.

Accept hand-me-down clothes

Before our daughter was born, my sister-in-law presented me with a box of baby clothes left over from her two kids. That started me on the habit of both recycling clothes and gladly accepting used clothes from other moms. After all, kids outgrow clothes so quickly, and it just doesn’t make sense to buy new outfits and shoes every few months, especially for expensive items like winter coats. When our daughter was in preschool, I didn’t even care if the used clothes I accepted had the occasional stain—she was just going to mess them up anyway! Now in seventh grade, she still wears clothes handed down from an older friend, and in turn, her younger cousins wear her old clothes. It’s fun to spot her well-loved outfits on other kids in town!

Of course, handing down and accepting used clothes isn’t exclusive to Italy, but it is something I learned to appreciate a lot more here. We’re a small, close-knit community, and there’s just an assumption that we’ll try to help one another when we can and not let good clothes or other used items go to waste.

Do less frivolous buying

Dollar banknotes in black wallet on blue backgroundMakhbubakhon Ismatova/Getty Images

I don’t have a Target, Walmart, Home Depot or anything similar within even an hour’s drive of my house. The result? I can’t walk into one of those mega stores intent on buying garbage bags or a hairbrush and walk out with $200 worth of stuff I didn’t know I needed. That kind of recreational shopping is harder to do here because of a lack of available stores. There are IKEAs and some larger home-improvement stores (though nothing of Home Depot dimensions) on the outskirts of big cities, but going to them is a once-in-a-while event, not an “I’m just going to stop and pick up X on the way home” kind of thing.

In general, accumulating lots of “stuff” is just not part of the culture here. People live on a smaller scale compared with much of the U.S., with smaller homes, smaller kitchens, smaller closets and less tendency (and space) to accumulate stuff. Adopting some of that mentality has taught me to be less of an impulse shopper … though I will cop to a lot of online shopping during the pandemic.

Keep a car longer

Don’t let all those Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Maseratis fool you. The vast majority of Italian cars are of the much more practical variety. In fact, if you ever want a lesson in Italian thriftiness, count how many old Fiat Pandas you see on your next trip over here. These basic, affordable, reliable cars will run until the wheels fall off, and owners will keep them for decades. And it’s not just Pandas. Italians tend to keep their cars longer, usually well after they’re paid off. It’s very much an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, which also applies to appliances, furniture and other big-ticket items. (Or if it is broke, we fix it, rather than replace it.)

We’ve had our primary car for eight years and recently bought a 2006 Panda—from its original owner!—as a second car. So I can say from experience that once you go several years without a car payment, it’s tough to rationalize buying a new car when you have a perfectly good one in your driveway.

Avoid credit card debt

I still remember when I got my first credit card in the United States. I was a college student with barely any income, and yet I was approved for a credit card with an exorbitant interest rate. I soon accumulated credit card debt that I struggled to pay off. Had I known then what I know now, I never would have applied for that card! Here’s a surprising thing about the Italian economy: It’s harder to accumulate consumer debt here, especially credit card debt. In Italy, credit card balances are linked to your bank account and paid off every month, with payments automatically withdrawn from your account. If you charge more than you have in your account, your bank balance will be overdrawn. That’s a sobering reason not to overuse your card! It also prevents consumers from racking up debt that might take them years to pay off, avoiding the vicious cycle of tamping down and then reaccumulating credit card debt.

This all adds up—in more ways than one

Travelers who come back from vacations to Italy, especially to rural areas like where I live, often speak wistfully of the simpler way of life here. And in a way, they’re right. Of course, Italians (and foreigners living in Italy) have just as many problems and worries as people anywhere else in the world. But by living a little bit smaller—buying less, spending less, accumulating less—they may just have the right idea … not just about saving money, but about living well in general.

Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Italy. Her writing on travel and sustainability appears in national and international publications, and she is the author of several guidebooks. For RD.com and sister publication FamilyHandyman.com, she writes about pets (especially dogs!), books, seasonal gift guides, home improvement and outdoor living.