Updated on 09.01.09

Cheaper and Better

Trent Hamm

“Let’s play catch, Daddy!”

“Sure!” I said as I put away the final bits of our family’s picnic. Joe picked up the little football and ran out into the grassy field, ball in one hand, with his arms stretched out to the sides, catching the wind as he ran. The late summer sunlight made his hair shine and as he turned around, ready to toss the ball back at me, he had a grin of pure boyish joy on his face.

The family was on a four hour road trip to visit his grandparents and it was time for dinner, so instead of stopping at a restaurant or a fast food place and dropping $20 and a good portion of an hour on a likely-unhealthy meal there, we stopped at a rest stop along the interstate, pulled a pre-packed picnic basket out of the back, enjoyed a healthy hand-prepared meal at the picnic table in the outdoors, then stretched and ran around a bit playing with our kids.

Certainly, the picnic meal was cheaper. Many of the ingredients were leftovers from meals earlier in the week – a couple pieces of roast chicken made into chicken salad sandwiches, carrot sticks from a few leftover carrots, and so on. Our beverages were water bottles, packed before we left from our own faucet.

It was better in other ways, though. Eating in the outdoors on a nice late summer day. Eating immediately instead of waiting for food with impatient and energetic children. Running around in the grass and playing touch football for a bit before loading back in the car. These are aspects of life that you simply can’t get from a restaurant stop.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about frugality over the last few years is that the cheaper option is often the better option regardless of money. When I step back and evaluate some of the experiences I’ve had while digging into frugality, I realize that these were great experiences, never mind the dollars and cents. I spent quality time with my children. I tried many fun new things that I would have never tried otherwise. I learned countless new ideas and skills. And along the way, I grew significantly as a person.

Choosing to be frugal means looking for new ways of doing things – and trying these new ways to see how they work for you. It doesn’t just mean seeking the cheapest way of doing things. Instead, it’s all about maximizing value and always being willing to try new things.

In fact, I’d argue that the opposite of frugality isn’t spending more than you should, but refusing to consider a new way of doing things. The opposite of frugality is being stuck in your ways, refusing to try new things, and criticizing those things that are different than what you expect.

Sure, sometimes those new ways are failures. They don’t work as well as you expect or hope that they will, or they just feel like a waste of time once you’ve tried them. That’s fine – chalk it up to experience.

At times, though, the successes go far, far beyond saving a few dollars. They’re simply a better way of doing things. Packing picnic baskets before long road trips falls into this category, as does making my own laundry detergent. I initially tried these things because they save money, but now? I’d still do things this way even if it didn’t save money because they’re enjoyable in other ways.

My “better way” might not be your better way, but the principle still holds: trying new ways of doing things will always reveal your better way of doing things. You might not get a level of personal enjoyment out of doing things like going on family picnics that I do, but stepping outside your comfort zone on a regular basis and trying new things will always lead you to a better place over time.

Try a new way today – it might save you money and enrich your life. Here’s a good place to start.

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  1. Pizpo says:

    So true. Thinking back to my childhood, we were very poor (at least cash poor). But that is probably why my parents were so great. Cash poor teaches a lot of good lessons and nothing is more valuable than time together. I have to remember this and apply it with my daughter. Thanks for the post.

  2. Borealis says:

    I have driven cross country by myself several times. About 80% those roadside restaurant meals were very disappointing.

  3. Liz says:

    When I was a kid in the late 60s, my parents used to pack a picnic cooler every time we went on a road trip, even though it wasn’t all that often.

    At that age, I didn’t consider the frugality aspect at all; I just enjoyed having good food along for the ride and within reach. :)

    Then again, my parents were Depression-era kids and they were used to doing this and other frugal things as a matter of course because that was they way they had always lived.

    So nice to hear that this kind of thing hasn’t gone out of style.

  4. alison says:

    I absolutely love camping with my family for a vacation. It’s relatively cheap. Perhaps because of that, it’s more relaxed, more open and honest. I know that when I was a child, we went camping because we lacked money or resources to do something “better.” Most of my fondest childhood memories were camping in the summer. I want my children to have those same memories.

  5. Chris says:

    I love this post!

    Packing a picnic before going out of town from leftovers also has the benefit of reducing food waste and spoilage; as anyone who’s worked in a restaurant knows, this is an area in which a LOT of money vanishes!

  6. Bill says:

    My wife and I came to live frugally after deciding to get out of debt, we were so amazed at the change in our children’s behavior and family life. That after we were debt free, we just kept going. My favorite memories are from around a camp fire.

  7. Our road trips tend to be on the longer side, 500-900 miles so packing meals can be a space killer. We keep it to fast food restaurants, bad as they may be for you, they are a good deal cheaper than any other eating establishments you go to, especially if you order off the dollar menu.

    We also try to pack snacks and drinks in an attempt to hold ourselves to two meals a day rather than three while we’re on the road. For overnites, we always stay in a hotel/motel that offers a complimentary breakfast. That alone saves a boatload, especially since the ones that include breakfast are also usually on the lower end of the rate scale to begin with.

    This isn’t a perfect way to travel, but it shows you can at least minimize costs by making some minor adjustments. We’re already saving a ton of money just by driving rather than flying.

    I like the picnic idea though, especially when the kids are young. They need room and time to run more than they need food even. When they’re teenagers, it’s a bit harder to cut costs because they have real appetites!

  8. This post made me smile. Frugality is freedom to figure out how to do things your own way. Although a picnic isn’t a revolutionay idea, it perfectly demonstrates this freedom.

  9. Matt says:

    A lot of our road trips in my childhood came with packed meals, snacks and picnics at parks. To me spending time with the family mattered more than the type of restaurants or meals we had out. My parents did their best to provide good times and a variety of experiences while also keeping the expenses down to be able to do this.

    Keep up the good work, I’m sure your children will feel the same way about this as they get older.

  10. ethel says:

    Like other commenters, I fondly remember such times as a kid. We took lots of road trips and always stopped for picnic lunches. To this day, when I travel with my parents, we always stop for a roadside picnic lunch, and I do so with my family now. Even when the food isn’t great, the overall experience is superior in every way to the vast majority of restaurants (though the internet has made it much easier and more fun to find great local road eateries for dinner time). It’s also a great way to find and enjoy local parks. To your point about frugality not just being about money, Trent, we sometimes use the money we’ve “saved” by having a picnic to get an ice cream treat for the kids later in the day. So, we don’t always save money, but it still makes for a great way to spend time together and DIY.

    @Kevin: even on long road trips we still do this. (Many of ours are about 1000+ mile trips into the mountains.) We just stop at a grocery store in the morning and refresh supplies. We keep a small cooler and rotate out ice, etc. Anything that doesn’t need to be kept cooled stays in the trunk. It works great for us and doesn’t take up that much space. Honestly, I’d much rather we minimize the other stuff we bring along with us so that we have room for the food and can enjoy a picnic.

    The biggest downside for me is living in a very hot weather climate, it can be less than idyllic to sit out in the sunshine at noon in August. But we still do it–we just make it a quicker meal.

  11. Ethel (10)–We’ll also do the grocery store run, but we also live in the deep south where the heat makes it uncomfortable to pull over somewhere.

    The main reason for not packing food though is that when we drive long distances, it’s often to visit with family so we’re usually, shall we say, overpacked to begin with! There are always things that need to be ferried back and forth.

    But thanks for the suggestion!

  12. Maureen says:

    Roadside restaurants have washrooms.

  13. dsz says:

    We were financially comfortable when I was growing up. My parents had paid off the mortgage, always paid cash for a new car and we always had a camper for weekends at the campground and road trips.
    I joke that I grew up in the car-we were never home on the weekends and took a two-week car trip every year and I don’t remember ever leaving the house without a cooler. Part of it was nutrition, part security (Daddy used to say if we were stranded in the woods for a month we’d be OK-Mama packed enough for an army) but I never considered the frugality aspect until I was grown. I tend to think nutrition/security was more important to her than saving money, it was just fortunate it worked out that way. They certainly were careful with money (hence the paid off house, cars, toys, and vacations) but my mother was passionate about caring for her husband and children and homemade food is always better-at least it was in my house. We ate out often both on the road and locally, but Mama’s meals always tasted better and the memories we shared are priceless (they’re not kidding that you SHOULDN’T feed the bears). On more than one occasion we were able to share with others we met in our travels-I was too young to understand the circumstances but at one point she just handed over the whole cooler to a family. It was just something we did, I can’t imagine travelling without a cooler full of goodies. Eating out is overrated, IMHO.
    Now we keep plug-in coolers in the cars (they heat, too) for our travels. I agree with Trent, I’d do it even if it didn’t save a cent.

  14. Richard says:

    I agree wholeheartedly.
    My grandparents have driven across more of Australia than anybody I know – and I know that they would never consider stopping in at a fast-food restaurant. They always packed a picnic basket with a few sandwiches, a thermos of coffee, and perhaps a little treat inside. What a lovely thing to be able to share – the care that goes into its preparation, and the enjoyment you have when it’s shared.
    Great post, Trent. The money saved is just a bonus.

  15. Trent:

    Once again, lessons about money along with lessons about life.

    I completely believe that there are always added benefits to adopting new money saving ways into my life. Usually, the two biggest are that I can spend more quality time with my family (i.e. picnics, fixing something around the house with my son, etc) or it allows me to begin teaching my son some of the lessons it took me a lifetime to learn. Either way, its priceless stuff

  16. Amy says:

    Packing a picnic is great for couples traveling without kids too! My husband and I just got back from a trip to Iowa last weekend and we packed a picnic lunch for the drive up. We stopped at a rest stop and had a very nice, relaxing meal. Iowa rest stops are beautiful by the way. Big grassy areas, sheltered picnic tables, free Wi-fi and very clean bathrooms. It was a great experience.

  17. Chris says:

    I can’t really remember much of any restaraunt stop we made on trips with our sons. But the times we stopped with a picnic and ate somewhere were memorable and picture worthy. I can distinctly remember conversations we had that were deep because it was just us and no one else within ear shot and we were away from the usual dinner conversation of schedules, plans for that week and what happened at work that day. Even if it cost more, it would be worth it to dine this way on a trip.

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