Three Surprisingly Expensive Frugal Tips To Avoid

Finding (and giving) good frugal tips is a tricky business. It's hard to find frugal tips that actually work for you, especially after you do the basic one-time things (install draft dodgers under your door) and make a few habits second nature (cooking at home, washing on cold). Since personal finance is so personal, most tips are either going to be inapplicable to your lifestyle, or they are going to be way more austere than you want to be (sometimes it's worth it to me to eat foods other than lentils!), or they are going to tell you to stop extravagant habits you never started (there are people who pay to get their hair blown out every day??)

I don't mind habits that simply don't apply to me, because they apply to somebody, or tips that are too frugal for me--everybody draws the line somewhere different. What I do mind is frugal tips that actually encourage you to spend more than you would otherwise! Here are the three most common offenders.

Shop Sales

I've been thinking a lot about sales as we head into Memorial Day, one of those not-really-very-important holidays that stores love to use as an excuse for a sale. Every sale season--especially the biggies, like Black Friday--the frugal blogs become divided between those ranting about anticonsumerism and refusing to spend a single dollar as a protest, and those giving detailed instructions for getting the most luxury goods for the lowest price. Who cares if they are things you actually want or need? They're cheap!

I don't buy fully into either side, but if I'm in my right mind, I tend more toward the anticonsumerist view. Every so often, the stars align and I truly get a good sale deal: I see that something I was planning to buy anyway has reduced its price, and if I just tweak the timing of my planned purchase, I can get a good deal. Most of the time, though, sales are good for one thing: getting me to spend. And that is not frugal.

Now, I totally get the temptation to shop sales--I get suckered into it all the time. This is probably my biggest unfrugal bad habit. "It's such a discount," I breathe, gazing at slashed prices. "And it's only for a limited time!" The thing is, if the item isn't one I otherwise would have bought, it's not discount. It's a thing I don't need. Stores are really good at getting me to compare the sale price to the anchor of the list price, when I know I should be comparing it instead to $0: the amount I was going to spend before I knew about the sale.

The Buy With Intention list has helped me to take advantage of this more often, since writing down my plans makes it easier to remember things I actually planned to buy vs. things I've just started to want because they are on sale. I'm also trying to use it to shop sales in reverse: instead of buying something because it's on sale, I don't buy something right away because it's not on sale (I wait and see if it will come down in price). Another thing I'm trying to remember is this: if I miss this sale, another will come around. There are sales on every major holiday. If I choose not to spend this Memorial Day, there is Fourth of July around the corner.

Clip Coupons

I get why people like couponing. It's the thrill of the hunt. Enthusiasts love to brag about the time they bought $120 worth of groceries for five cents with the right combination of coupons. It's true that you can get things for nearly free if you manage to combine store and manufacturer's coupons at the right moment. But at what cost? Extreme couponing is time-consuming and requires a ton of organization. If you truly enjoy couponing as a hobby, fine, but if you are doing it purely for the money savings, it is a pretty terrible return on time investment.

I have clipped a coupon here or there in a non-extreme fashion, and if it's for something that I was going to buy anyway, sure, it's a free fifty cents or whatever. Most of the time, though, I don't come across coupons for things I was going to buy anyway. As with sales, if a coupon is not for something I otherwise would have bought, I'm just being duped. And the process of looking for coupons is basically looking at ads, something that definitely makes me more likely to want to buy and spend. So I think it's better to avoid it.

Take Up a DIY Hobby

This is the biggest offender on hard-core frugal blogs. Some even go so far as to berate you if you consider paying a professional for their goods or services if you can possibly make or do it yourself. This covers anything from growing your own veggies, to tailoring or sewing your own clothes, to carpentry, plumbing, electrical, and renovation projects.

I've no doubt that experienced DIYers can build, fix, grow, sew, and make tons of things that they'd otherwise have to pay for, while spending little or no money on that particular project. But when touting their particular brand of DIY as a lifehack that can save your thousands (or even the ONLY way to do things and anyone who pays for it is DUMB), proponents often don't factor in:

Time: Time spent doing a hobby you enjoy is time well spent, and if you get something out of it that you'd otherwise have to buy, bonus. But if you don't enjoy doing DIY as a hobby, and you are just powering through an odious task in order to save a few bucks, you have to factor in time as something you are "spending."

Tools & Basic Materials: If you already have gardening supplies, growing a new plant is super cheap: you just need seeds or cuttings. If you are starting from square one, though, you need to invest a bunch in starter materials. The one year I tried to garden, I probably spent $250 on pots and soil and trellises and stuff, and my haul was a few pea pods. (All my other planned veggies fell victim to animals or my own incompetence.)

When deciding whether to DIY a particular project, it's important to factor in the likelihood that any new tools you'd need to buy will actually be reused in a future project. The more you do the hobby, the more the cost of tools is amortized over many, many projects, but that's only if the hobby catches on as an important part of your life.

Expertise: If you're skilled and experienced at this particular type of project, you are going to do it a lot faster and better than someone who does not have those skills. A newbie is probably going to end up spending a lot more, not just in time, but in materials as they will probably not be able to do things efficiently and might have to start over several times.

Now, of course, you can't get expertise until you jump in and get your feet wet, and you have to start somewhere. It's a fallacy to say that I shouldn't learn to cook because my first dinner will almost invariably not turn out very well. But, again, when deciding which skills to invest time and money in learning, it's legitimate to factor in how often you will realistically use it. Unless you really enjoy the process as a form of leisure in and of itself, it may not be worth it to learn how to replace your own hot water heater, since this is something that you hopefully won't have to do very often in your life.

I sound really anti-DIY, but I'm not. DIY projects can be extremely rewarding way to spend time. They can build your skills, increase your sense of confidence and efficacy, and just be fun. They may or may not save money--usually not the first few times--but saving money isn't the only reason to do things.

I feel the same way about DIY hobbies that I do about picking a college major. If you have a passion for a particular thing and hate another, go with your instincts. If, on the other hand, you are undecided--if you feel like you need more hobbies and you are picking and choosing which one--then you can let Return on Investment factor in. You might save money incidentally if your hobby is productive, the type of thing people pay for. But, just as potential to make money doesn't strike me as a good enough reason to choose a career you dislike, saving money alone is not a good enough reason to power through a DIY project. It's only worth it if it's something you just love to do, for its own sake.


  1. I appreciate your analysis here; it's intelligent and accessible, and I hope people read it for their own benefit!

    I think this part: "instead of buying something because it's not sale" was intended to read "instead of buying something because it's on sale".


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