Updated on 09.10.15

The Frugal Magic of Substitution – and 25 Ways to Make the Magic Happen

Trent Hamm
working in coffee shop / working in NY Public Library

What’s the real difference between working at a coffee shop vs. the library? One is free. Photos: Kate Hiscock / Courtney Boyd Myers

As I write this article, I’m sitting at a desk in the Ames Public Library. APL is a really nice library with a ton of books, magazines, DVDs, audiobooks, Blurays. Here’s a tour of the library that I posted a few years ago (before their recent renovation, which has been an amazing upgrade).

I usually write at my office at home, but about once a week, I try to write in a different environment in order to spur some creativity.

In the past, I would sometimes choose to write at a local coffee shop. There is a really nice coffee shop not too far from my home and I really enjoyed camping out at a table there and getting some writing done.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the coffee shop did have some advantages. If I wanted a cup of coffee to drink while writing, it was easy to get it. The location was nice and it smelled quite good.

However, the place had several drawbacks. I had to buy something when I went there, which meant that there was essentially a $5 charge for the table. It was often a bit noisy, so I would usually have to wear headphones while there. If the place got busy, I was usually encouraged to leave my table so that other customers could use it, which would interrupt my writing. Also, the only research materials I had around me were the ones on the internet and in my backpack – which, admittedly, were usually enough for whatever writing tasks I had in mind that day.

Still, it was a pretty solid alternate work environment, one that I would have stuck with if it were not for one simple thing. For the past several months, I’ve been challenging myself to try substitutes for almost everything in my life.

So, I tried out other options for those weekly or biweekly sessions. I tried a local restaurant that never seemed to fill up… except that a waitress interrupted me regularly and also required me to make a purchase. I tried writing in a park, which was wonderfully idyllic and free on the days when the weather cooperated.

In the end, it was the library that really stood out. It’s free. It has tons of research materials. It’s quiet. I’ve never been asked to move or to leave a table. Sure, I don’t get to buy a cup of coffee whenever I want, but many libraries have that feature.

The thing is, I would have never switched to the library, which turned out to be a far cheaper and overall better writing environment for those days when I needed an alternate place to write, if I hadn’t committed myself to trying substitutes for the regular things in my life.

This library desk is just one example of the power of substitution.

Substitution in Life

One of the biggest discoveries I made during my personal finance journey occurred early on, when I attempted to spend money by purchasing generic and store-brand products rather than name-brand products for most of my household and non-perishable needs.

Switching to generics and store brands instead of name-brand products is a clear example of substitution. I’m substituting the store-brand item for the name-brand item. I’m buying store-brand wheat pasta instead of the Ronzoni brand. I’m buying store-brand laundry detergent instead of Tide. I’m buying store-brand flour instead of King Arthur.

What I found was that most of the time the store brand worked just fine. Usually, it worked identically to the name brand; occasionally, it worked a little differently, but not significantly worse. There were only rare occasions when the substitution didn’t work out.

However, in almost every case, that substitution did something else – it saved me money.

That was the core reason for trying store brands and generics. I wanted to cut back on my monthly food and household expenses. It turns out that almost every significant money-saving strategy is a form of substitution. You substitute one product or one experience for another in order to save money.

Here’s the thing: We use substitution in regards to all of the resources in our life.

We use substitution to save time when we choose to eat a sack of fast food rather than eating something prepared at home.

We use substitution to save energy when hire someone to mow the yard instead of doing it ourselves.

Bad Substitutions

Many of you will probably think that the above observations are rather obvious. Of course we use substitution in our lives. We do it all the time.

As with many aspects of personal finance and self-improvement, when you look at the idea all on its own, it seems obvious, but when it comes to actually applying it in one’s life in a positive fashion, it ceases to be so easy.

We are humans, and humans are creatures of habit. Even the most spontaneous of people get into routines of doing the same thing. If we don’t consciously think about the things that we’re doing, we’ll do many, many little things identically over and over, from how and when we brush our teeth to how we load the dishwasher.

Often, without thinking about it, we’ll make substitutions that account for excess time, excess energy, excess money, or other opportunities right in front of us.

Extra money in the checking account? Let’s go out to a nicer restaurant tonight! Let’s buy that thing we’ve been wanting! Let’s go out to that movie! Let’s buy the name-brand product! It’s all about the lifestyle inflation!

Extra time in the afternoon? Let’s channel surf for a while! Let’s check out a few websites! Let’s tinker around in the garage! It’s all about wasting time, which is a very different thing than leisure time.

The moral of this story is that not only can our normal routines be improved upon, but our natural instincts when it comes to substitution can be pretty bad.

A Better Substitution Plan

A much better substitution plan – one that will actually save you money and time and energy over the long run – is to consciously think about substitutions and make a conscious effort to implement them in your life.

Honestly, this is how I spend a lot of my spare time when I’m doing mindless things like driving to the doctor’s office. I spend time looking at the ordinary things I do in my life and look at potential substitutions that might conserve money, time, or energy and leave me with more of those resources than the current way I do things.

Just like anything else, this skill gets better with practice. At first, it seems almost goofy and also a bit difficult. You’re thinking about substitutions in all of the things you do in a given day and many of the alternative ideas you come up with are terrible for some obvious reason.

Trust me, it gets better. Your mind starts immediately discarding substitutions that don’t really improve things. Instead, you’re left visualizing good substitutions.

The next trick? Go beyond visualizing and actually try out those substitutions. Try doing things the “new way” a few times and see if you get the outcomes you imagined.

25 Substitutions to Try Out

Here are 25 examples of substitutions that might work in your life. Naturally, everyone’s life is different – at least some of these won’t work for your life, and that’s okay.

I challenge you to do three simple things.

First, go through each one of these and ask yourself whether this idea could work in your life. Does it sound like a substitution for something you normally do? Is that substitution one that might use your resources more efficiently and leave you with more at the end? There might be some drawbacks to the substitution, but as long as it’s providing you with some benefit in the end, it’s worth considering.

Second, visualize yourself actually making that substitution. Walk through that substitution in your mind. How exactly would you make that change? Would you make a different choice at the store? Would you make a different choice at work?

Third, make an effort to execute that substitution at least five times. Try it out. See if it works. Unless it’s wholly negative, try doing it a few times and see if the outcome is really positive like you imagined it. Do it and see what the results are like.

For me, if I consciously try something five times and I can see the positive outcomes from it, it usually becomes a permanent substitution. I don’t go back to the old way and I find my life is a little better than it was before.

Here are 25 potential substitutions to try out and think about, to get you started. Let your imagination run free and find more – it’s a great little mental exercise during your spare moments.

1. Save money by trying a generic or store-brand version of a product instead of the name-brand product, substituting the lower-cost generic or store brand for the higher-cost name brand.

2. Improve your energy reserves and save long-term health care money by walking up a few flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator. You’re simply substituting one route to work for another one, one that costs you no time but has great long-term health consequences.

3. Save money and time by making several meals in advance on a lazy weekend afternoon and freezing them for future use, like this lasagna, substituting lazy weekend hours and bulk ingredients for busy weeknight hours and more expensive ingredients.

4. Save money over the long term by buying LED bulbs instead of CFLs and incandescent light bulbs. Modern LED bulbs produce light that is basically indistinguishable from an incandescent bulb. They do require a greater up-front expense, but that expense is quickly overturned by having a much longer life span and a much lower energy use.

5. Save energy by going to bed instead of staying up late to channel surf or do something else completely idle, substituting higher-energy hours tomorrow for low-energy hours tonight. Just substitute those one or two idle hours before bed with genuine sleep in a dark room. You’ll feel great tomorrow and actually be productive with your time.

6. Save money by checking out a book from the library instead of buying it from the bookstore or from Amazon where it would be more expensive. Even better, check out a book from the library simply as a form of entertainment, substituting for almost any form of entertainment as a library book is essentially free.

7. Save money by eliminating an addictive habit from your life, whether it’s video games, cigarettes, alcohol, soda, drugs, or anything else, and substituting a healthier habit – almost anything is healthier. It’ll probably help your life in other ways, too.

8. Save money by simply flipping the light switch to “off” every time you leave the room and not flipping it “on” unless there’s a reason to do so. In other words, swap out your normal routine of leaving lights on with a new routine of turning them off.

9. Save money by driving the speed limit, which will conserve fuel and reduce your traffic tickets while not costing you as much time as you think. Use cruise control if you’re having difficulty reining in your lead foot.

10. Save money by doing your grocery shopping at the discount grocer, and only go to other grocers if there are specific items you need that the discount grocer can’t supply. You’re simply substituting one grocery store for another.

11. Save money by shopping for things like furniture and small kitchen gear at a secondhand store first before going to a department store or Amazon, substituting a lower-cost used item for a more expensive new one.

12. Save money by buying a car that’s known for reliability and fuel efficiency above other features, substituting a cost-effective car for a less cost-effective one. A car that uses less fuel saves thousands of dollars during the time that you own it; a car that’s more reliable saves thousands on repair bills and emergency expenses (like taxis and towing).

13. Save money by working out a babysitting swap with a neighbor or a friend rather than hiring a babysitter, substituting an expensive babysitter for a free one. A babysitting exchange can be a great way for both sets parents to save money and have some guilt-free evenings.

14. Save money by moving into a less expensive home or apartment so that the cost of rent, mortgage, insurance, property taxes, maintenance, and association fees all drop through the floor, substituting your current living quarters for another one.

15. Save money by checking the community calendar first before planning a night out on the town. There are often free events around town that are quite entertaining and are far cheaper than other things you might do. It’s a simple entertainment substitution.

16. Save money by checking a movie out from the library instead of renting it from Redbox or buying the DVD or Bluray. You’re simply substituting movie retailers, replacing the store or the rental place with the library, which is free.

17. Save money by making your own basic cleaning supplies. For example, when your window cleaning solution runs out, fill the bottle with a mix of water and vinegar plus a drop or two of dish soap. It’ll provide the same effect.

18. Save money by taking public transportation to work instead of driving your car. Driving through city traffic will eat up very similar amounts of time, plus you’re not paying for gas, oil, other maintenance, depreciation, and the wear and tear on your car (which adds up to about $0.50 per mile).

19. Save money by substituting an old-fashioned safety razor for a “modern” one that does the same exact thing except requires you to buy expensive cartridges.

20. Save money by substituting reading in as one of your leisure activities. Not only is it very inexpensive – library books are free, after all – it’s also an incredibly powerful way to learn about the world, sparks the imagination, and it also sharpens your reading skills all at once.

21. Save money and time by figuring out a more optimal route to work and back. We often latch onto the first route that we discover to work, but that route isn’t always the shortest or most efficient one. Spend some time looking for a better route; if you can just shave half a mile or one minute off of each commute, that adds up to a lot of miles and time over the course of a few years.

22. Save money by eating more vegetables and less meat when it comes to meal time. Not only are vegetables less expensive than meat, they’re also better for you, which can improve health care costs over the long term.

23. Save money by swapping a dinner at a restaurant with friends for a dinner party at your house. Not only will it be less expensive for this meal, it likely sets up your friends to host a dinner party with you as a guest.

24. Save money by substituting an expensive summer trip or weekend getaway with a camping trip. Camping is incredibly inexpensive, gives you access to the great outdoors and vistas you might not otherwise enjoy, and offers certain simple pleasures that you can’t find elsewhere, like sitting around a campfire after a day spent outside.

25. Save money by substituting a new car purchase with a late model used purchase. Late model used cars are often much cheaper, often come with some type of warranty, and offer a very long lifespan.

Final Thoughts

The entire benefit behind substitution-based thinking is to make yourself look at the basic routines of your life from a new angle. The goal is to spot patterns that you may not have seen before and look for better ways to do them.

I’m constantly finding little substitutions in my own life, ones that save me money or time or energy without sacrificing things I care about. Ever so slowly, those substitutions, when taken together, start to build up a lot of savings of time, money, and energy. Those resources enable me to do more and more in my life.

Remember, a better routine for you should always leave you with a better combination of money, time, and energy than the way that you’re currently doing things. If not, then it’s not a real benefit. If you find yourself giving up an hour of your time each week to save a dollar or two, it’s not worth it. If you find yourself spending a ton of energy or money just to save fifteen minutes, it’s not worth it.

Good luck in finding and trying substitutions in your life!

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