Frugality is a major part of our financial independence strategy. Since we live on only one income and save the other one, we have to be quite careful with our spending.
As I’ve mentioned many times, my perspective on frugality is to spend as little as possible on things that aren’t as important to us so that we can spend adequately on things that are important to us.
Still, there are a number of things that I simply don’t skimp on. Buying the “dirt cheap” version of these things seems to cause more problems in my life than the savings will ever be worth, so instead I either choose to buy these items “for life” (meaning I shoot for highly reliable versions of the item) or I buy the best “bang for the buck” version I can find (relying on recommendations from trusted sources like Consumer Reports).
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does provide a great example of some items that I don’t skimp on.
Let’s get started.
Shoes provide the buffer between your feet and the ground. A cheap pair of shoes causes foot discomfort, blisters, and other foot ailments, making the simple act of walking around that much more painful.
I usually have three pairs of shoes: a pair of sandals for daily use around the house and in the yard, a pair of athletic shoes for exercise and vigorous activity, and a nicer pair of shoes for appropriate occasions. In each case, I’m concerned with a long lifetime and adequate foot comfort. I want shoes that will last for years without causing blisters or other problems.
My current sandals are Keen Newport H2, my current athletic shoes are ASICS Gel-Fortius TR, and my dress shoes are Clarks UnRavel casual Oxfords. All of these have lasted for years (except for the ASICS, as they were recent replacements for some nearly decade-old athletic shoes), were recommended by a trusted source, and were shopped for with great patience until I found the right price. I tend to wear them until they’re on the verge of falling apart.
Again, I don’t have any allegiance to specific brands. I tend to just read comparative shoe reviews when I need a new pair looking almost entirely at comfort and lifespan, identify some quality “bang for the buck” options, then carefully shop around for them and look for sales while using up the last few months of the life of my previous pair. I want my shoes to last and last with comfort and I’m willing to pay for that.
Car maintenance is key. I want my car to be as reliable as possible for as long as possible and the best way to do that is to simply follow the maintenance guide in the owner’s manual. It tells you exactly what you need to do and when you should do it.
My usual strategy here is to look at my car’s manual after each maintenance, note when the next maintenance is, and add a reminder to my calendar one or two months down the road to check the mileage on my car and see if it’s time for that maintenance. So, for example, if my car is at 125,000 miles and the next maintenance is at 130,000 miles, I’ll put a reminder in my calendar to check in two months to see if it’s at 130,000 miles yet. If it is, I take care of that maintenance. If it’s not, I just add a new calendar entry.
I don’t mind doing the maintenance myself if it’s realistic, but there are things that I simply don’t trust myself to do, in which case I use a trusted repairman that I’ve used for all of our vehicles to take care of it.
It can be easy to “skimp” on maintenance and push off an oil change for a few thousand miles or push off other things for far longer than you should, but doing that risks several things. It risks an undesired breakdown, which can happen at a poor moment and cost you a lot of money. It can also reduce the lifetime of many of the parts of your car, which also costs you money. That’s not worth it to me, so I don’t skimp on maintenance, not even a little.
Home maintenance essentially follows the same philosophy as car maintenance, except that the schedule isn’t quite as clear as simply opening up your car manual.
Instead, I usually rely on our copy of the Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, which a friend gave us as a housewarming gift. It contains a pretty good checklist in there, which I actually moved over to my calendar so that it just reminds me on the first of each month that I should check on certain things around the house.
If you’d like to see a similar list online, check out this post over at Art of Manliness, which contains most of the same stuff.
Again, I don’t “skimp” on these things. It mostly takes time and a few dollars worth of supplies, but it keeps our home and most of our major appliances running well and repair-free. We’ve lived in our current home for more than seven years and have not experienced a major appliance failure (other than our son breaking our dishwasher… *sigh* … long story).
Mattresses are something that I would never, ever encourage anyone to skimp on. To put it as clearly as possible, if your mattress is causing you to not sleep comfortably or is producing back pain (or other kinds of pain), get a new mattress. Period.
You need a good night of sleep. The mattress you sleep on has more to do with that good night of sleep than just about anything else in your home. Don’t let your mattress prevent you from getting the sleep you need.
During my first year or so of professional life, I had an awful mattress, one that caused me to toss and turn and usually left me with back pain in the morning. Upon getting married, Sarah and I invested in a new mattress, one that we’re still using to this day. Neither one of us wakes up with aches and pains (unless we exercised too hard the day before) and neither one of us has any problems sleeping.
The key is to do your homework. If you feel you need a new mattress due to poor sleep or back pain, spend some time studying mattresses and identify several that will meet your needs. Find prices for them online and then, if you choose to buy in a store, bring in those online prices and request a price match. Mattress salespeople have a ton of leeway on pricing (in my experience) and will often happily price match in order to get a sale.
Food items are another thing I’m not afraid to spend money on if necessary. If I want a good cheap meal, I have plenty of opportunity for that. I know how to make lots of good meals from rice, beans, and other cheap staples.
However, like most people, I want variety in my meals, and that means buying other ingredients and experimenting a little. I also want healthy meals with good quality ingredients.
Like it or not, that’s not cheap. When I want to add some cheese to a meal, I want to add cheese – not that watery, plastic-y stuff that doesn’t even taste like cheese. When I want eggs, I want farm fresh eggs with a golden yolk, not eggs with a pastel yellow yolk. I want vegetables that weren’t raised on a steady diet of herbicides and pesticides.
I care about what I put into my body and that unfortunately sometimes means spending more on food items.
Medical and dental checkups are no different than home and car maintenance, in my eyes. They’re maintenance for your body.
I’m lucky enough to have medical insurance that provides for some free checkups, but I follow the exact suggestions for checkups from my general practitioner, my eye doctor (though I sometimes skimp on the glasses replacements), my ear doctor, and my dentist. The specialist checkups require a small co-pay, but it’s well worth it.
Sure, it takes time. It shoots a couple of hours each time I have one of these appointments and most of the rest of the day is shot after an eye appointment (thanks to those wonderful dilating eye drops). However, I’m always on top of any real medical concerns I have and I don’t have to rely on paranoia and WebMD for my medical information.
I want to be around for as long as possible and without checkups, I might never notice medical problems sneaking up on me. If I can catch them in the bud, the treatment is likely to be much less expensive and much less traumatic than waiting around until it’s causing real issues.
Socks fall into the same category as shoes. You rely on your feet all day long and, in my experience, socks can cause just as much foot discomfort as a poor pair of shoes.
Most of the time around the house, I don’t wear socks at all. I simply wear sandals. However, when I do wear socks – when I’m exercising or when I’m out and about – I want socks that won’t rub against my feet and will keep moisture off of my feet, and I prefer socks that will last through many washings. You don’t get socks like that at the dollar store.
Right now, I’m actually struggling with socks. I used to be a devout customer of Gold Toe socks, but in recent years, their quality has fallen substantially (as have their prices) as they seem to be transforming into a lower-cost and lower-quality brand (that’s just my impression).
I have a few pairs of Darn Tough Socks that are made of merino wool and I’m blown away with the quality of them (and the lifetime warranty), but they’re pricy. They seem to have no seams at all that touch my feet, they’re soft without generating wear on the bottom of my feet when walking a lot, they wick away all moisture no matter how much I’m sweating, and they seem very sturdy. In the future, I will likely just hunt for sales on this type of sock.
When I do have a good pair of socks, I tend to wear them until they are actually falling apart (or cause some kind of foot irritation).
Tires are related but not entirely the same thing as auto maintenance. With tires, you often have a plethora of options, different seasonal needs, and different situations.
I tend to take a strong “safety first” perspective when it comes to tires. I do a “tire tread” test pretty frequently using a quarter – I just stick in the quarter with Washington’s head facing the tire and if the tire doesn’t touch his head, it’s time to get new tires. You can also use the tire tread indicators to check, but I’m usually concerned if the tread is even close to those indicators.
I’ve experienced tire blowouts in the past when I was a “cheapskate” with my tires. I have children in the vehicle now and the last thing I want is a blowout when I’m rolling down the interstate with my wife and my side and three kids in the back.
Tire buying can be a fairly confusing process. I strongly recommend reading this How Stuff Works guide to tires as it will help you find the right kind of tire for your vehicle. It’s usually not the tire that the car shop will try to sell you first.
Another valuable tip is that tires really require maintenance. You should keep them properly inflated (with free air at the gas station) and rotate them regularly.
Yet another valuable tip: haggle! Don’t be afraid to price out similar tires at different stores and use those prices as a basis for negotiation. Many shops have free reign to negotiate on tire prices with you (at least to a certain extent) – they’ll often price match to keep you in the store rather than see you walking out. I’ll often figure out what I want online, find the price for those tires, then call around to different shops looking for prices when I decide to buy.
Safety equipment such as bicycle helmets and pads are things that our family never skimps on. It’s not worth it.
It’s a good idea to keep safety equipment out of the sun when you’re not using it to avoid any UV degradation and if it looks banged up or has lived through an incident or two, it’s time to shop around for a replacement helmet. If you’re not sure, there are great guides online for inspecting safety equipment, like this bicycle helmet guide.
I’m not an expert in any way on most safety equipment. I just tend to keep an eye on the equipment we have and inspect it regularly. When a new piece is needed, I’ll research that piece and usually look for the best “bang for the buck” option (after all, I don’t need a custom-molded bicycle helmet when I only ride every once in a while). The biggest way we don’t “skimp” on safety equipment is by avoiding using old items as they begin to wear out.
Pens are one of those things that I use a bunch of times every single day. I am constantly jotting down notes on a pocket notebook or a scrap of paper and keeping those notes in my pocket to organize a few times a day.
Because of that, I really don’t like dealing with pens that clog up after a few uses or that explode in my pocket. I don’t have the time or the desire to deal with these kinds of cheap pens.
On the other hand, I don’t go for the expensive pens, either, because I tend to lose them. I know that as often as I pull them out and use them, I’m going to inevitably misplace them. It just happens.
So, I use a “middle ground.” I really, really like the Uniball Signo 207 Ultra Micro pens. They cost between seventy five cents and a dollar each, but they never fail on me and I’ve never had one explode in my pocket on me. I’ve ran several of these completely out of ink, which means I’ve used them an incredible number of times. I have never done that with a cheap pen, ever. Plus, since they’re only $0.75 – $1 each, I’m not in a panic if I misplace one (I don’t like it, but I don’t go into a panic – I can move on with life).
When I skimp on pens, I inevitably get some cheap pen that clogs up after several uses and never writes well again or else it blows up in my pocket getting an ink stain everywhere. That’s just unacceptable and useless.
Toilet paper is a minor “splurge” that’s all about the comfort. I’m quite happy to admit that I’ll spend a little more to be comfortable at those key moments.
In this category, I just stick with Consumer Reports‘ recommendations. Up until a year ago, they used to recommend White Cloud Three Ply, but after a manufacturer switch, the paper seems to have drastically dropped in quality. Now, I use Charmin Extra Strength.
To save money here, I tend to buy it with a coupon and in the largest packs that I can find.
Cell phones are the one thing on this list that I would cut back on if our finances ever shifted. However, I find myself using my cell phone many, many times a day for making calls, sending texts, taking notes, taking family pictures, checking my calendar, and so on. I couldn’t really live without it.
Our strategy is usually to get the best smartphone that comes for free with our cellular service, which is usually the previous generation iPhone (although I’ve used Android ones in the past, too, and I’m not really a “zealot” on either side of the iOS vs. Android debate). I don’t feel the need to have the newest cell phone – we’re currently both using phone models that are at least a generation or two old.
This does mean we have the additional cost of a data plan, which is something we’d drop if we were ever in a tough financial state, but it’s something Sarah and I both rely on personally and professionally.
Kitchen tools are simply not worth skimping on. I’ve had too many cheap “nonstick” skillets work well for a year or so, only to find that a meal is ruined due to some peeling Teflon, leaving us with an unusable skillet that has to be replaced. I’ve had cheap kitchen knives that couldn’t cut anything to save their lives. It’s just not worth it.
Instead, we tend to follow recommendations from Cooks Illustrated for minimal kitchen items. We keep a few cast iron pots and pans, use just a few knives (but good ones), and stick to glass bowls and well-made multitasking items in our kitchen. We don’t want a lot of stuff, just a few well-made things that work for a lot of different tasks.
We make a lot of meals at home and, with a busy family, we need tools we can rely on that just work and don’t have disastrous Teflon-based failures or cause bloody fingers because we have to chop like a maniac.
Garbage bags are an item I’ve mentioned before. We don’t buy the cheap ones here for a number of reasons.
First, I’ve had cheap bags split on me many times in the middle of our kitchen, causing trash to go all over the floor and causing a bunch of time to be wasted while I picked up garbage and used another trash bag and a bunch of cleaning supplies. I don’t like that experience – it’s not worth saving a few cents on garbage bags, even if it’s just one bag failure per box.
Second, in order to avoid splitting on cheap bags, I only fill them about two-thirds full, which means that I’m using three cheap bags for the same trash as two better bags. It also means I’m taking out the trash 50% more of the time.
So, I’ll get the same amount of trash carried out with a 48 count box of cheap bags as I would with a 30 count box of better bags, plus I’ll spend less time carrying them out and avoid a kitchen floor disaster or two. I’m happy to pay twice as much per bag for that.
For the last few years, we’ve bought Glad ForceFlex bags in bulk at our local warehouse club. They have yet to fail; even in the rare occasions when something has actually punctured the bag, they didn’t slice all the way to the floor, meaning we could just slip another bag around the problem. I only recall that happening once or twice and I’ve never seen a complete failure.
Other people are among the most valuable things in my life. Without the people I care for most, my life would be a lot more empty.
When I do choose to buy a gift for someone or help them out with something, I intend to do it well. There is no point at all in giving a cheap gift that I can see. (Note that I didn’t say “inexpensive” gift.) How does that possibly show that you care?
My friends, family, and loved ones are worth the world to me. I’m never going to show it by just wrapping up whatever’s on sale and giving it to them. If I’m trying to be frugal, I’ll make them something using my baking skills or some other personal talent. Regardless of what I do, I’ll try very hard to think of something they’ll appreciate.
The people closest to me are not something I’ll ever skimp on.
In the end, most of these items come down to a couple of things. They revolve around maintaining what I have – my body, my home, my car – or on specific items that I use a lot and cause inconvenient time delays when they don’t work well – pens, garbage bags, toilet paper, and so on.
So, what do I skimp on? Tune in two days from now to find out!