If you’ve read The Simple Dollar for long, you’ve seen tons of lists of money-saving tips, from 100 little steps for saving money and 100 free things to do this weekend to fifty ways to have fun by yourself on the cheap and my frugal vacation guide to Dallas/Fort Worth, just to name a few.
A few days ago, an old friend of mine wrote to me about The Simple Dollar. She’d been reading the archives for a while and had finally caught up with the most recent posts. One of her comments was quite interesting and worth discussing:
The articles I didn’t like were when you listed tips for cutting your spending. Most of them are just simply outside the realm of possibility. Most people don’t want to do a bunch of extra work or do something really unenjoyable or ruin something fun just to save a few bucks.
Her example actually revolved around a tip she found on the site where I suggested making sandwiches on vacations instead of eating out for every meal:
I’m on vacation to have fun. Eating a “sandwich” that consists of some awful lunchmeat jammed between two pieces of dry bread does not equal fun. I just simply won’t do it, and most people won’t, either.
Since I couldn’t find the tip she mentioned after searching for an hour, I’ll explain it in more detail in a “mini-post” right now – two posts in one!
A Frugal Vacation Tip From My Childhood
We rarely went on vacations when I was a child. The only true vacation that we went on before I was in high school – meaning a trip that wasn’t either camping within 50 miles of home or visiting relatives – was a trip to Saint Louis in 1986 with my parents, one of my brothers, and one of my cousins.
We didn’t have a huge budget for the five day trip, so my parents used several techniques to save money. My father got discount Six Flags and baseball tickets through his credit union in some sort of package deal. All five of us shared a single room with one large bed, leaving us three kids to sleep on the floor. At least two of the days, we didn’t do anything at all – instead, we either just stayed at the hotel in the pool much of the day or wandered around Saint Louis near our hotel, exploring.
But one big trick that my parents used on this trip was to eat sandwiches for every lunch on the trip. The day before we left, my parents bought several loaves of bread, some cheese, and some bologna from a local deli counter, along with some condiments and chips. Each day for lunch, we’d either gather in the hotel room and make sandwiches at lunch time or we’d pack a lunch in the morning and eat it when we were out and about.
We plowed through several loaves of bread, a few packages of bologna, a few packages of cheese, and a bottle of ketchup and mustard, but the total cost of the food was less than $15 – and it provided five lunches for five people. Compare that to the cost of eating out … anything. It was a huge savings – it likely amounted to getting our hotel room for free.
Since then, I’ve been a big believer of making picnic lunches while traveling whenever there’s a reasonable opportunity to do so. Often, on long road trips, we’ll stop at an exit and instead of hitting a restaurant, we’ll stop at a park, pop open the back, and dig into the sandwiches we packed – or stop at a grocery store, pick up a loaf of bread and a few other items, and head to a park to make our own sandwiches (and save the inevitable left over bread).
It’s cheaper and healthier and almost as fast as the other options.
So, here we have it. I like to make my own sandwiches for lunches on road trips and vacations, but my friend comments that such tactics are “outside the realm of possibility” as it degrades the quality of the vacation just to save a few bucks.
This type of phenomenon pops up time and time again. It might be “outside the realm of possibility” to pry that morning coffee from your hands. It might be “outside the realm of possibility” to drive a ten year old car (my truck is thirteen years old! I must be a loser!). It might be “outside the realm of possibility” to make your own laundry detergent. You wouldn’t even think of doing such things.
Here’s the way I look at the world. If something has an obvious benefit, I’ll consider it instead of brushing it off immediately. Most money-saving tactics fall straight into this category – so, in this example, the obvious benefit of making such sandwiches is that they’re healthier than fast food and quite a bit cheaper.
The obvious benefit of trimming out a morning coffee is that you save $5 every morning and break a caffeine addiction.
The obvious benefit of driving an old vehicle is that you’re not spending money on a new car payment.
The obvious benefit of making your own laundry detergent is that your detergent is about 1/10th the cost of detergent bought at the store.
Thus, I’m willing to at least consider most frugal tactics – I don’t immediately rule them as being outside the realm of possibility.
Obviously, each of these options has some sort of cost.
A sandwich on a trip is likely not going to be quite as tasty as going to a restaurant, and you’ll likely be eating in a park instead of a restaurant (with kids, this latter part is an advantage, but it might not be for others).
Trimming your morning coffee means that you’re either drinking lower quality coffee or you’re giving it up entirely. Maybe you can just move from the Starbucks routine to making your own (a big savings right there) or just try different brands to find one that suits you (for example, my wife reports that Eight O’Clock Coffee is the best bang for the buck out there).
An old vehicle is somewhat less reliable and likely gets worse gas mileage. These two factors pushed us to upgrade our car earlier this year, moving from a 1999 Mercury Sable with a failing transmission and about 24 MPG to a 2009 Toyota Prius that gets 46 MPG. We debated the upgrade for the better part of a year.
Making your own laundry detergent takes about fifteen minutes, so it’s really a factor of how you value your free time in the evenings or on weekends.
In some cases, I’ll go for it – I’m still driving my old rust-bucket truck, I make my own laundry detergent, I make sandwiches on the road, and I don’t drink coffee anymore at all (aside from a once-a-month or so treat).
Others might balk at one or more of those choices, choosing to stick with what they’re already doing or a more expensive route. I do this with many food choices – I’ll buy eggs from a local farmer at a premium, for example.
That’s fine – it’s all about personal value. What’s dangerous is not even considering such options and immediately ruling them out of the realm of possibility. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think it comes down to one thing: fear of change.
Frugal choices often require doing things differently than you did before. For some, the thought of changing their routine – even if there’s an obvious net benefit – is bad. This can affect every aspect of one’s life.
Here’s a great example of how powerful routine can be. Once a year, my wife and I spend a day with two of our friends that live about six hours away. It’s usually a “weekend getaway” for them that we interrupt for an afternoon or so. Every single year, though, the two of them choose to go to the same place. They stay in the same hotel. They go to many of the same places. Earlier this year, when we met up, I asked them why. They both shrugged their shoulders and then suggested it was because it was familiar – it fit like an old glove. Choosing something different would just seem… wrong.
The next time you outright reject a frugal choice, ask yourself whether you’re rejecting that frugal choice for a good reason or you’re rejecting it because it would mean you’d have to change a comfortable behavior. Quite often, stepping outside a comfortable behavior can offer huge benefits, not only in the immediate choice, but in that it makes you more flexible and open to other little choices.
Making your own laundry detergent or your own sandwiches on the road isn’t outside the realm of possibility, after all.