Updated on 07.14.09

Frugality’s Sacred Cows

Trent Hamm

20090705-K10D-8538_2000px.  Photo by coneslayer.I define frugality as getting the maximum value for your dollar while living squarely within your means, which is a pretty reasonable definition. I wouldn’t expect someone making $15,000 a year that doesn’t sweat what they eat to make the same food choices as someone making $50,000 a year who highly values the quality of their food, for example. The person with more income might have a “bang for the buck” that includes organic milk and farm-raised eggs, for example, while the other person won’t care and buys the least expensive milk and eggs at the store. Both are fine, because both have resulted from a personal realization of what’s valuable in their life and an effort to seek the best value for their dollar with those personal values in mind.

Take me, for example. I’m much closer to that person who makes $50,000 a year and puts a lot of personal value into food. For me, there is added value in seeking out farm fresh eggs, the kind that have a rich yellow yolk that bobs up way above the egg white. There is a big added value for me in buying milk at a premium directly from a local producer, where I can watch the cows grazing in the field eating fresh grass and I can see that the cattle aren’t being given hormones to drive milk production.

At the same time, the only factors that I personally value in cars are reliability and fuel efficiency, as long as the car has enough size to seat my six-and-a-half foot frame. Nothing else really matters to me at all – I don’t care whether the car is upscale or economy, new or old.

This brings me back to the idea of sacred cows – dogmatic ideas that some people believe must be followed if you are to be considered “frugal.” If you don’t follow these ideas, you must be wasting your money.

I think the idea of such sacred cows are stupid and limit the options for finding the best value for people.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. If you’re buying a car, many frugal people believe that the discussion begins and ends with cars that are at least three years old. If you even consider anything else, you’re throwing money away on depreciation and you’re, flatly, an idiot.

That perspective is very limiting and sometimes draws you away from the best value. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I’m about to replace that incredibly fuel-inefficient 1997 Ford F-150 that sits in my driveway with a van to haul my family around. I have enough cash in the bank to simply pay for the new vehicle, so the danger of a loan isn’t a factor, either.

Now, a “frugalista” might say that I should start shopping around for used vans and look for the best deal on used ones, sell my truck, then put together all of the cash and buy the vehicle. Clearly, that’s one approach. I did some research and I found a used 2003 Toyota Sienna with about 80,000 miles on it for $10,200. Since my truck is an utter rust-bucket with almost 200,000 miles on it, I might be able to get $1,000 out of it with some footwork, meaning my cash outlay for that vehicle (after negotiation) would be about $8,000.

But simply subscribing to that philosophy leaves out an option that’s at least worth consideration. My F-150 qualifies for the “Cash for Clunkers” program, which equates to a $3,500 voucher on a new vehicle. A new Sienna is $24,000, but also has a $1,500 discount on it and, with negotiation, I can get the price down to $22,000. Thus, my cash outlay for the vehicle – with 0 miles on it and a warranty covering all repairs up to 100,000 miles – would be $18,500.

The $10,500 you would pay for the first 80,000 miles (as compared to the other option) would be the most reliable miles (meaning no uncomfortable breakdowns at inopportune times), plus those miles are covered by warranty.

I’m not saying that the new Sienna is the best deal, but what I am saying is that it’s at least good enough to carefully consider and to subscribe to the dogma that one absolutely must buy used is not good. Doing so can cause you to miss a real value.

Similarly, many people will jump in and say that I wasn’t really looking for the best “deal” when I’m shopping for a van because I didn’t bother to look at vans with poor reliability data. And that’s true – my focus is on vans with strong reliability data from Consumer Reports, and that means my focus is first and foremost on Honda Odysseys and Toyota Siennas, with a few other models trailing behind and other models that make me shudder.

But, remember, my value with buying a vehicle is reliability. I don’t care about leather seats or stow-and-go seating or a drop down DVD player or any of that stuff. All I want is a vehicle that’s not going to die along the side of the road, and I’m willing to pay more for a vehicle that’s more reliable on average.

That, to me, is frugality at work. I know what my core values are and I seek out the best “bang for the buck” with regards to those values. Doing that with both eyes open causes me to consider things that violate the “rules” of frugality. And, frankly, I don’t care – I’m finding the best value for my own situation, not yours.

Another example of how sacred cows can be dangerous comes from buying generics. According to the old rules, buying anything other than generics is a complete waste of money and the coupon sections in newspapers are a scam to trick you into buying overpriced household goods unless they’re huge coupons that get the price down below that of a generic.

I completely disagree with this “rule.”

A while back, I wrote (fairly controversially) about using cheap garbage bags. What I found is that using the generic garbage bags resulted in bags ripping and food all over my kitchen floor. I wound up buying name brand bags (and using coupons and bulk buying techniques to get the cheapest price per bag) because those bags didn’t break on me. For me, it’s not a “bargain” if you wind up with food all over your kitchen floor, even if that is the cheapest bag.

I have a similar issue with window cleaners, but in a different way. I’ll take out a squirt bottle, put in two cups of water, three tablespoons of vinegar, and half a teaspoon of dish detergent, swirl the bottle, and get to work. This cleaner costs me pennies and does the job – so why would I ever go to the store and buy it? My core value here is whether or not it gets the window clean (it does) and whether or not there’s a big time investment getting there (there isn’t). I follow a similar logic with my homemade laundry detergent and with cooking at home.

Once you start looking at frugality through the lens of “getting the maximum value for your dollar while living squarely within your means” and you consider what you actually truly value (and that means a lot more than money), many of the tired old dogmatic rules start to fall away. Yes, they still work as a good starting point, but when you start throwing out any idea that doesn’t subscribe to dogma, you’ll find yourself missing out on opportunity after opportunity to maximize value in your life.

A final note: this kind of absolutism invades anything people are passionate about. There are “absolute” rules about food, about any hobby you can imagine, about clothing, about exercise, and so on. Most of the time, those “absolute” rules are exactly what they are for frugality – they’re nice starting points, but if you make them your ending points, you’re limiting yourself and your perspectives.

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  1. kat says:

    Great post! Everyone has different points of view, I will pay for good whole bean free trade coffee, but will not pay top dollar for cleaning supplies or for brand name items. I will however pay higher prices across the board rather than give a penny to Wal Mart. I also will pay higher for goods and especially food that is not from China.

  2. Consider compiling a list of all the sacred money cows! This may sound odd, but some things become so fixed in our brains as unquestionably true that we’re not even aware of it anymore. And these days, anyone who really wants to get in touch with their financial situation should revisit these tenets.

  3. Kevin M says:

    Good arguments, Trent. I think this goes hand in hand with people that consider frugality a synonym for cheap.

  4. Joe says:

    I totally agree – I had started following Dogma a few years ago with a similar car purchase. I wanted a Honda Accord with low miles. When I started looking, I would have only saved 2-4K by buying used, and paid a higher interest rate than with buying the new one. Bought the new car and couldn’t be happier!

  5. Dan says:

    This is all true, Trent. People need to remember that the key behavior in frugality isn’t spending less money, but rather actively thinking about spending and understanding where your money is going.

  6. J says:

    Amen, Trent. I like to say that I abhor zealotry of any stripe. Your arguments can be easily applied to politics, computer operating systems, nationalism, religion or any other lifestyle choice that people will argue about endlessly because they are “right”.

  7. Katie says:

    I agree fully! I am willing to spend a little more cash on good food and restaurant food, and much less on a vehicle (that I really needed). There are lots of kinds of food that I LOVE and simply do not know how to make yet (though I will try to learn!).

    I also believe in buying something that will last for as long (or longer than) as I need it. I don’t have enough “savings” from purchasing lower quality items to open a huge account that will accrue lots of interest. I’ll lose all the cash on fees at this point in my life, and I value the environment and I appreciate reliability.

  8. Joseph Tanner says:

    To me, being frugal is getting the best bang for your buck, and living within your means. Maybe you want a Mercedes and buy a four year old model for under $20k vs nearly $60k for a brand new one. Maybe you like to go on cruises, but are perfectly happy paying $600pp for a 14-day cruise vs $1500pp for a 7-day. Maybe you realize that taking your kids to the toy section in Goodwill lets them really play with the toys there and see what they like. Maybe you buy organic milk and peanut butter for your kids, but get regular for yourself.

    We put a lot of thought into what we spend our money on. I’m sure many people think a lot of the decisions we make are stupid. My wife’s family is bad about this. Saying it’s stupid that we’re wasting money on trips, stupid that we bought a “trailer” vs a real house (it’s a manufactured home, built using the same materials as a regular stick-built, and much cheaper; we did our research!), etc. If we always made the “smart” choices…we’d be in worse shape and wouldn’t be that happy.

    So, are you spending less than you earn? Do you try to make intelligent choices about how you spend your money? Then when someone tells you how wrong you are, just shout “LALALALALALALA!” really loud (might have to use your inside voice if in a public area).

  9. Staffan Zobel says:

    Looks like someone is out defending his decision to buy a new car. Again. Maybe a guilty conscience gnawing away at the back of your mind?

  10. Luke Grand says:

    Another example that came to mind was around real estate. How many times have we been told to buy instead of rent, or rent instead of buy, or not pay off the mortgage early for the tax deduction, etc?

    The best approach involves looking at these spending decisions from all sides, and then making the one that makes the most sense for you and yours.

  11. dsz says:

    I agree, it all comes down to balancing your resources and priorities. Maybe this is my own sacred cow, but I’ve never bought a used car and don’t intend to. I see it as merely buying someone else’s troubles. I buy a new car and drive it until it’s beyond repair. In 28 years we’ve had 4 cars-all baseline models, all brand new and all over 150,000 miles. My ’98 Civic has 238K with barely a hiccup and I paid $10,000. That works out to less than $85 a month. Maybe a used one would have been less but I’m not willing to take that chance. I know she’s had regular service and no one else drives her so I know she’s treated well. I’ve gotten teased about her but she starts every time and I’ve converted several people to Hondas merely by showing up to work in the same car every day for seven years and not missing any work for major repairs. OK, I’m bragging but the original exhaust system lasted over a hundred thousand miles-how can you not be happy about that? Buying her new assured I not only got the best years of her life but that those best years lasted much longer.
    I value quality and reliabilty and that, to me, means simplicity, even if it costs more up front. I buy mostly one-ingredient foods, simple, well-made clothing and shoes and baseline appliances and electronics. I’m almost rabidly anti-bells and whistles. There’s no radio in my car, my laptop is a lease-return from eBay, and I’ll probably never own an ipod. Some friends giggle at that, but I was able to quit my job to be a SAHM to the cat.
    Challenging our preconceptions can give us the freedom to pursue what’s truly important to us and our families.

  12. Molly says:

    Where is that sign?! I would love to visit the “Village of Frugality”!

  13. stefanie says:

    I agree with your basic intent here, but I have to comment on the issue of privilege because your first situation doesn’t keep this in mind. You compare someone making $15K who “doesn’t sweat what they eat” to someone who makes $50k who “highly values the quality of their food.” The person making $15k might also conceptually put a high value on the quality of their food, but can’t use their money to reflect that in all food purchasing cases simply because they don’t have the means to do so. That someone who makes $50k can do this is based in economic (and possibly educational, racial, gender, etc.) privilege.

    I really like this blog and the assortment of topics you write about here Trent, but time and time again you completely obscure or ignore the factor of privilege. One can only have 480 ways to make more money if they’re employed in the first place, have enough education and opportunity to work in a non-manual labor position, have child care opportunities for their family, etc. It’s time to recognize privilege and talk about it as a factor in personal finance.

    I am an unemployed student with a partner who together will be living solely on student loans that total less than $19K/ year (after tuition and fees and books) come next month and I am still incredibly privileged to even be a student and be able to survive on loans. I value the quality of food I eat, but I don’t always have the money to reflect those values. I’ll have a PhD in less than a year’s time, but due to my field of study and the economy, I will be lucky if I get any job right after graduation, let alone an ideal one in the place I’d like to live the next couple of years. But I still recognize that I’ve got loads of privilege (based on my education and skin color primarily).

  14. Rob says:

    Ones intelligant choice to anothers is stupid. Ones frugality to anothers is cheap. Balance is the key. About money, its simply getting the most from your ALREADY taxed dollars. I like coffee. I used to go to starbucks, and buy their overpriced stigma. Then I used to buy their bags they sold in the store. Then I used to buy even cheaper in Sams. Then I found a store brand from sams, and costos that is not only cheaper, if I grind my own, but about the same. Just gotta be smart. I dont like wasting money. Thats what frugality is about.

  15. I love this article but you should stop defending your decision to purchase a new car. You say you don’t care what people think about your choice yet you continually make it a point to restate your argument for making the purchase, putting yourself in a position where it seems as if you are in defense mode against your “enemies”.

    The premise of this article is spot on, I just would like to see other sacred cows instead of hearing about your car so much.

    My 2 cents!

  16. tambo says:

    I think you VASTLY underestimate the value of your truck. In my personal experience, almost ANY pickup that runs dependably could get at LEAST $1500, even if it was rusted out all over the place. Yours, last I remember you mentioning, had a ‘little’ on the back bumper. Last year, we sold a 1989 Silverado that was rusted so badly the back window was coming loose (and there were holes in the bed) for $1250.

    For a trade in, sure, maybe you’d net a thousand, but on the open market, you’d get between $2,000 and $3,000, most likely. Maybe more. You just need to associate with more farmers, carpenters, and folks who do physical ‘need to haul stuff’ jobs.

  17. I think we have to acknowledge that there are two different people types here. Trent, you said you have the cash to buy a new truck without a loan, that puts in the group that has the option to go with the better long term value. It’s a different story for the person who isn’t in this position (but an excellent incentive to get there!).

    To use the truck analogy, if you have choices (you can afford to purchase a new truck with all the expense that goes with it), you might go for the better long term option, in this case the new truck. But if you have more constrained options (lower income, more debt, lower savings or what ever) you might be overshooting your budget with the new vehicle. Lot’s of people have done that.

    A lot of people right now are suffering financially from the overhang of the better quality/better deal course that, yes, might be the way to go on paper, but was nonetheless beyond their means. (Enter longer term financing deals, co-signers, etc. to close the gap).

    If you’re the $15,000 a year guy, you probably would be better off setting a budget that you don’t exceed no matter what, even if it excludes the better long term value.

  18. coneslayer says:

    #10 Molly, the sign (and village) are in rural Cambria County, Pennsylvania, near Prince Gallitzin State Park.

  19. J says:

    Good post, I have been wrestling with the car “sacred cow” issue myself the last few weeks. My wife gets back from a year long deployment in Iraq (we are both in the military) next month and we will need to buy a second vehicle. We sold hers before the deployment since it was having some reliability issues and we didn’t have a use for second car during her deployment. We are debt free, have cash to pay for a car, and the total value of our vehicles will be less than 50% of our income, but I feel incredibly wasteful and foolish buying a new car. I am a big Dave Ramsey fan and find his advice typically very wise. He often states that you should have over a million dollars in the bank before buying a new car. However, like you, I value reliability and don’t wish to hassle with repairs. If we buy something, it will likely be a Honda, and we will drive it to for at least 10 years. The cost/benefit numbers clearly show to me that buying used makes more sense if I only look at the numbers, but I value increased reliability and reduced “hassle factor” with new car purchase which are not easily quantifiable. I also like the idea of knowing the vehicles complete history.

    In addition, I am thinking about the environmental impact- contributing to more cars on the road causes me to think twice. The energy used to create a car is significant. I remember reading somewhere it takes over 100 million BTUs to build a car. A gallon of gas has about 100,000 BTUs, so you are talking about the energy equivalent to almost 1000 gallons of gas to just make the car-that is a lot of carbon emissions. With that said, not sure if my not buying a new car and buying used will reduce the amount of new cars produced.

    Not sure what I will do, but your post definitely gave me more to think about. Thanks!

    Appreciate any more thoughts from other readers on the subject?

    P.S. I think the standard Toyota warranty is 36,000 miles- not 100,000, but I could be wrong, so double check before buying if this a factor in your buying decision.

    Stefanie, great comment and reminder to most of the simple dollar readers that we are very fortunate and privileged to even worry about these types of problems. Having seen real poverty and lack of choice in many parts of the world ( to include some in the US), we are truly blessed and privileged!

  20. guinness416 says:

    I think there’s an orthodoxy online about this stuff – food for home cooking, travel, books and even wiis are all very much “acceptable” splurges in moneyblogs and their comments sections, but premium cable or a boat would be howled at. I agree this stuff is all personal though, who cares how much one’s neighbour spent on their car?

  21. tambo says:

    Oh! I have a problem with ‘cash for clunkers’ because, often, it’s folks like you turning in your ‘clunkers’ which are still-working vehicles that someone of lesser means might get YEARS of use out of, and cash for clunkers’ whole purpose is to get older vehicles off the road (crush them). While I understand the need for fuel economy, this process completely ignores a vast swath of the populace who buy, drive and continually re-sell (recycle) used vehicles because they simply cannot afford a car payment and full coverage insurance (like your $15k a year person with a limited food budget). Trent, please, if you don’t want your truck any more, sell it to someone who will appreciate and use use it. There’s more to the bottom line than just money.

  22. jc says:

    tambo, how is it frugal for trent or someone in his position to leave $2500 or even (optimistically) only $1000 on the table so that someone else who buys it MIGHT be that person that makes $15k a year? there will still be plenty of those vehicles that are BETTER choices (better fuel economy, for one) that won’t qualify for the cash for clunkers or whose owners will miss the window, or not be able to switch to a more fuel efficient vehicle, thus will still be available for people of lesser means to recycle the old fashioned way.

    trent’s example is a perfect demonstration, ironically, of just how badly this program will distort the market for new & used cars over the course of the program. so we agree that the program is a disaster, though perhaps for different reasons.

  23. Someone mentioned a list of Sacred Cows….Starbucks, I think!! Cutting daily expenses like that is the first thing mentioned by any mainstream article on frugality, and it’s the first thing blasted by anyone criticizing frugality.

  24. Gotta also take exception to your first example. Maybe it’s just my neck of the woods, but every time I go to the local organic co-op, I would say that 75% of the shoppers there are students or grad students. They are more cognizant of food choices, partially as sustainability choices but for the most part, younger people seem to care more about their bodies. Here I am in my late thirties and I get damn tired by the end of the day, that sometimes I don’t want to fuss with what I eat. I’m a high income earner who had four items of the McDonald’s dollar menu tonight.

  25. WilliamB says:

    I like your emphasis on value over dollar amount (when one can afford to do so, of course). Frex, my work clothes are pricy but last 10-20 years.

  26. tambo says:

    Fwiw, my local paper (small town North Central Iowa) had two 1997 pickups (one a Chevy, one a Ford F150) listed for sale Thursday for $6,000 each. The way I calculate that, it’s a $2500 profit OVER the clunkers program. In southern Iowa – Ford Country – Trent could very possible get even more money for his truck.

    I know that often we must look at our personal financial straits and make decisions strictly for monetary reasons. But Trent’s often commenting on how he bases a great deal of his decisions based on other things. Nutrition. Neighborliness. The environment. How is selling a used vehicle any different?

  27. Oskar says:

    I think that absolute rules are mostly adhered to by frugal people who are afraid they would stop being frugal witout them….i.e. they have not yet made it a lifestyle.

    The main reason for being frugal is to be able to spend on the things that really matter, I have friends who are very good with their money but still own guitars that cost more than most peoples cars because that is their interest. And other friends whos cars cost more than their houses, from my perspective that is perfectly OK if you have the money and that is your true interest. Buying a Mercedes for 50K if you don’t care about cars is worse than buying a Ferrari for 150K if you are truly interested. (again obviously if you have the money).

  28. reulte says:

    MoneyMateKate – good point, sometimes we are oblivious to what’s right in front of us. I’d love to read more about taking a ‘sacred cow’ and discussing it. I think we’ve already done one about buying a used vs a new car.

    Stefanie – I read the statement as (to phrase it differently) someone who doesn’t sweat what he eats and makes $15K vs someone who prefers particular food choices and makes $50K. Even people who make $15K can make some choices – if only buying an apple over 2 packages of ramen soup once a week. I’ve been in such a situation myself but options and opportunity are everywhen when you look. I’ve stopped by a neighbor’s house and asked if I could have all the pecans that had fallen from the tree into his yard. Not a problem. I’ve volunteered to pick peaches from another neighbor for a share of the loot. Again, not a problem. I’ve plucked wild strawberries and cactus fruit from the woods. I’ve even dug up cattail root (now that was an inedible disaster!)

    Tambo – I think there is also a safety issue here. Many older vehicles (Hey, I’m not against older vehicles per se; currently I drive a 10-year VW) are not safe and shouldn’t be driven, not even considering the lack of fuel economy and the clouds of smoke coming from the exhaust and engine. Yes, sometimes they can be fixed but sooner or later comes a point of no return. I believe Trent has said that driving the truck worries him. Is it ethical to sell an unsafe vehicle – even with complete disclosure?

  29. T'Pol says:

    Very good post.

    Before every purchase, I think about my values associated with that. For big ticket items, I take a piece of paper, jot down what my values are on top, then draw a line vertically in the middle of the page and make a pros and cons comparison. Sometimes I even attribute values to each pro and con and see if this “analytical” approach is in sync with what my “gut” tells me. Always worked for me so far.

  30. Tordr says:

    Great article.
    To phrase the article in some other way.
    Having sacred cows is stupid, even if it is fugal sacred cows.
    Please more articles on the choices behind the choices we make. The things we take for granted, but are not absolutes in any way. I just watched a program where English youths where put to work in an Indian textile factory and with Indian wages. It did not go so well, and that made them concious of their frivolous spending back home. They had many sacred cows that needed to be abandoned.

  31. prufock says:

    I agree with pretty much everything you said here. In regard to “generics”, there definitely IS a difference in quality between some store/no names and big brand names. For instance:

    Ketchup – Heinz, period. Generics are merely passable, and will do in a pinch, but when it comes to taste, nothing I’ve had beats Heinz (keeping in mind I’ve never had “gourmet” ketchups).

    Peanut butter – I’ve found generic brands tend to be one of two extremes, very dry or very greasy. Kraft is my go-to brand, and lately I’ve been buying their unsweetened version, but most name brands are good (Jif, Skippy, etc).

    These are just two examples, but brand definitely makes a difference sometimes.

  32. Tracy says:

    We’re struggling with this very issue. A 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee with over 185,000 miles on it. Reliability is a definite issue. Hubby wants a brand new car for the first time in his life. Here is where we differ. I would find the cheaper smaller commuter vehicle and hopefully pay about $10,000 for it (advertised for $9995). He wants a Subaru Forester…base model retails for $24,000. We qualify for the $4500. Trouble is, like Trent, hubby is well over 6′ tall. Can’t fit into a small car. grrrr. Have to finance it and will end up with a sizable payment. Definitely a challange. I want to keep looking, he says he’s done looking and wants what he wants. A true struggle.

  33. A.Marie says:

    Awesome article! I just had to say something to Tracy: My hubs and I were in the same situation 2 years ago that you are in now. He is tall, I am short. I thought that a smaller commuter vehicle would be awesome; he didn’t really want to be “squished” into something. Since he was going to be driving it most of the time, we went with a vehicle that he would be comfortable in. We did have to finance it, but we decided to cut back in other areas so that we could pay more every month and get it down to a 3 yr. loan. Like you said, it is a true struggle!

  34. Craig says:

    reulte – a 10 year old car isnt safe enough and shold not be driven anymore? Seriously? I don’t argue that new cars are being made safer every model year, but a 10 year old car is perfectly safe to drive.

    Tracy – I am also well over 6′ tall and comfortably drive a Honda Civic 30k miles per year. There are many smaller cars that arent comfortable for taller people, but they are out there and that should not be an excuse to not get one.

  35. Mike S. says:

    No real comment to the content (good article though), but I just wanted to let you know the origin of the photo in case you don’t know. Frugality is a very small village in Central Pennsylvania, probably about 20 miles or so from where I grew up. It’s near Prince Gallitzan State Park. I wish I knew the origin of the name, but I don’t. When my parent-in-laws were driving through the area with us once, we saw a road sign for Frugality, in which my father-in-law declared that would be the perfect place for my mother-in-law to live (she has a bit of a reputation for being on the cheap side!!!).

  36. Emily says:

    One option that is available around where I live is to donate a used vehicle to a local charity for a tax deduction. My boyfriend’s parents donated a truck that wasn’t running anymore to a program that teaches teenagers to fix cars. The tax deduction they received for the donation was more than the truck would have sold for, there was no hassle selling/moving the vehicle as the charity picked it up, and they did a good deed to boot.

  37. Valeria says:

    You didn’t address your biggest and silliest sacred cow about autos – your idea that a foreign car is automatically better than an American car. After a string of foreign cars which gave me endless grief and misery, I have had 3 GM cars in the last 24 years. One was bought new and lasted 14 years. The second was bought 5 years old and I drove it for an additional 6 (and sold for a reasonable amount). The current car, a Buick, was 5 when I bought it, is now 9 years old and has never failed to start or go. A friend has a a Lincoln with close on 12 years and 250K miles. Compared to my experiences with Homdas and VWs and my observations re neighbors with Toyotas and KIAs? Well, the sacred cow that American cars aren’t durable and reliable is not borne out by experience.

  38. katy says:

    ..making $15,000 a year that doesn’t sweat what they eat to make the same food choices as someone making $50,000 a year who highly values the quality of their food, ..

    I don’t understand what ‘doesn’t sweat what they eat’ means. I would like very much to eat better quality food but cannot afford to do so.

  39. katy says:

    Yes, there are still food options with cooking from scratch -always better and tastier IMHO. But We do the best we can with what we have.

  40. Christine T. says:

    I will pretty much only buy new cars now that I have a higher income. When I was younger I bought a “lemon” which had everything wrong with it you could imagine. And I broke down everywhere I went. I did have a good used car experience though, my grandmother gave me her used dodge omni and I drove that forever! But basically the bad experience of the lemon makes me not want to risk whether a car was truly well cared for by the prior owner. Maybe if I had more knowledge of cars that would not be as much of an issue.

  41. Pattie, RN says:

    Stephanie, I understand the concept of acknowledging one’s blessing…be it parents who valued education, a quick mind, or being born in good circumstances. However, I sense an underlying message in your post that assumes that the “wrong” skin color or upbringing is an insurmounatable obstacle to sucess in life. I offer that your view is a particulary insidious and damning form of racism, one that I find more onerous and disturbing than any KKK rally. One need only look at the White House and Supreme Court to negate your bias. In fact, in many cases being the “right” skin color and male is a barrier to advancement. Please reconsider your ever so subtle racial views.

    In addition, let me add that your income level doesn’t impress me much. For four long years, I was a full time student with children in private school with well nourished bellies on my husband’s income of #18 K. My degree is in a profession with essentially zero unemployment…will yours be??

  42. Jennifer says:

    @ 25 prufock — I hear you on Heinz, which generates a great deal of brand loyalty on ketchup — but here is an interesting story. My financial advisor indicated that he (who is pretty frugal) was also brand loyal to Heinz ketchup. His wife, without his knowledge, put a generic ketchup into the Heinz bottle, and told him weeks later what she did. He didn’t notice.

    So…sometimes we need to check our loyalities and perceptions, it’s just money down the drain.

  43. KC says:

    I thought a vehicle had to be older than yours to qualify for the “Cash for Clunkers” program. Doesn’t it have to be 25 years old?

    Also you guys talk about the value of Trent’s old truck. Remember it has nearly 200k miles on it. He’s also said it needs pretty significant work. His estimations on value are probably right. Those other advertised 97 trucks probably have lower miles and don’t need excessive work like Trent’s.

    As for sacred cows I’m one of those about buying used, but I also am a luxury car driver. You would likely be foolish to buy a luxury car new instead of used. However my husband wrecked his Civic a few years back and wanted a new Camry. We looked at the used ones (new body style) and they were just as expensive as the brand new ones. So we bought a new one – it was a no-brainer. But I still believe used was the way to go. My husband lost money because he as too picky – wanted a specific kind of car with the newer body style and he wanted a stick – had he been ok with other models and an automatic I could have found him a better deal. But if your needs are specific you can certainly make a point such as yours (and my husband’s). BTW it is hard to find a good used mini van – they are a lot like trucks – people usually get their money’s worth out of them and don’t trade in too often.

  44. Lily says:

    Excellent article – applies to all facets of life. It’s about looking outside the box.

  45. Gigi says:

    My favorite sacred cow is that you have to go out to eat to celebrate birthdays or whatever. We’ve cut eating out almost entirely out of our budget for cost and because I’m usually disappointed in the food, even the high end places. I cook at home, (the favorites are always steaks and fettucini Alfredo with chicken and broccoli). We’re relaxed, can take as much time as we want, make as much noise as we want, and when its warm our deck is great for dining . I do miss having someone doing the clean-up, however!

  46. DebtorinNYC says:

    You have made some excellent points.

    I think that when deciding where to spend money and where to be frual, it just comes down to personal choices and preferences.

    For example, I love coffee. During the week, I do not buy coffee out-I simply drink the junk at work. However, on weekend I am not frugal and I splurge on iced coffee. (Starbucks will give you the refill price if you bring in your cup. It’s about 50 cents).

    So I sacrifice quality sometimes, but not always.

  47. Ryan says:

    Trent, just curious, but have you considered purchasing an SUV?

    Gas mileage is about the same as a van, and you get the benefit of be able to tow large items.

  48. We’re all (me too!) getting caught up on specifics like a car buying situation (always a tough one) or coffee or ketchup, but I think big picture, we need to re-examine all assumptions, in every financial category, and be ready to be open to alternatives.

    Over the years, in my home we’ve been making it a policy to consider any option available in spending decisions, including ones we once thought of as taboo. It’s pretty routine for us to send out emails to friends and acquaintances, describing our situation and asking for advice for issue X. But by working “out of the box”, we’ve made major money saving changes in how/where we have our cars repaired, where we shop, where we buy our clothes, etc.

    We’re not always concious of the many ways we’re propagandized, but a big one is in spending habits. You almost need to wipe the slate clean of assumptions and habits, then be open to all the possibilities. We’re not completely “there” yet, but it’s uplifting to realize that we have more contol (and choices) in regard to spending and buying than we ever dreamed a few years ago.

  49. Eddie says:

    Speaking of buying a new car; the best deals I have found were at impound lots. These cars have been impounded for whatever reason and you (the buyer) only have to pay the impound fee on the cars which range from 700-1200.

    The best part is that they are not salesmen and you can wait for the type of car you want and bring a mechanic to look at the car before you take it off the lot. So I suggest looking up impound lots :)

  50. Jane says:

    One assumption we had to re-think was that you should shy away from used appliances. When we got married, we didn’t really have the money to buy more than the cheapest new model of a washer and dryer. We ended up going to a used appliance store and bought a 10 year old Kenmore washer and dryer set for $300. It was so much cheaper than new, and four years later they are still going strong. The appliance salesman basically said that low end new washer and dryers are crappily made and will probably break before an older, originally more expensive model would. The one we bought had a six month warranty, so we could know that we weren’t purchasing a lemon. If you’re short on cash, I would seriously think about it. But I would only buy from an actual store, not from Craigslist (unless it is dirt cheap).

  51. Melody says:

    We all definitely need to address our ‘sacred cows’ in every area. I agree with Kevin above – when you really do ‘wipe the slate clean’ and start re-building, you will find there are many more options than you originally thought! For example, with our office solutions we’ve managed to go from paying several hundred a month in various hosted services to less than $50/mo! That includes CRM software on the web, website hosting and our VOiP service. Best of all, we really haven’t had to sacrifice anything in functionality. It’s all about digging past the stuff thrown in your face and finding the gems. If you have the $$, the ‘in-your-face’ stuff can be great. But when you don’t, you’re often surprised to find with a little digging, there are many options beyond the “glossy, front-page ad” world. I believe more and more folks are finding those solutions every day.

  52. A few days ago, I wrote a post about 10 things I’m not cheap about. When making a purchase, you need to look at all the factors. Just because something is cheap, doesn’t mean it’s frugal. For example, I love Clark shoes. I could go to one of the big box stores and get 4 pairs of shoes for the price of one pair of Clark’s, but my Clark’s will last a very long time and they are oh so comfortable. I would probably buy and wear out four or five pairs of the big box store shoes in the same time I’d wear out one pair of Clark’s.

    You have to look at the total cost of the purchase: price, features, quality, and other factors.

  53. Bill in Houston says:

    Some of the frugality tips I’ve seen posted on the web just seem so unsanitary. One big pet peeve of mine is the one about “washing out plastic bags for re-use.” I don’t find that frugal, I find that cheap. If you have no choice I understand, but don’t use these things over and over. You probably are NOT getting them fully clean, which means mold and other bacterial contaminations.

    My stepmother asked me about my plastic bag use during a visit back in April. She noted that I used a lot of sandwich bags and asked why I didn’t reuse them. I responded, “that sandwich is made with turkey, which is frozen now, but after thawing and warming could contain salmonella. Putting it back in my lunchbox after use for later washing can spread the bacteria around.”

    I’ve had food poisoning before, and it wasn’t nice.

    I buy the one quart sandwich bags in bulk, 500 at a time. That costs me seven bucks. So, 1.4 cents a bag. Even if I happen to use four bags a day I save less than thirty dollars a year. My health is worth far more than that.

    Sorry, got off on a rant there.

  54. Lora says:

    I agree with moneymatekate that an article that includes a list of frugality sacred cows might be eye-opening, even for those of us who are actively seeking to be frugal. Much like your take on trash bags, we recently switched from cloth diapers full-time to disposals whenever our son is being cared for by others (full-time care). Certainly, this may be a bit more expensive, but we had reached the point where we dreaded coming home to clean out multiple dirty diapers that sitters left for us (squeamish but wonderful sitters otherwise). We decided that associated coming home to our son with dread at the thought of his diapers wasn’t fair to any of us. We are very happy with this change, and so are the sitters.

  55. Kristin (42)–I’m like that with sneekers (excuse me, “tennis shoes”). I’d rather pay more for a name brand that will last a couple of years and wear well at the same time, than to spend a lot less on a pair that’ll fall apart in six months.

    Bill (43)–Beyond unsanitary (but along the same line) none of us should make frugality so critical in our lives that we’re spending inordinate amounts of time cutting back expenses. If we do, we risk reducing the amount of time that could be spent earning more money, either through primary jobs, side ventures or learning new skills.

    It could be a case of it being six of one, half a dozen of the other, but earning capacity should take precedant over saving money, if only because while you can only cut back so much, but earning, at least in theory, has no ceiling.

  56. WilliamB says:

    I wash out plastic bags because I want to reduce the waste. I wash out my treasured Glad Produce bags because they’re not on the market any more. I ain’t perfect: if the bag is yucky or seems contaminated, I toss it. (I really ain’t perfect: I toss them when I’m really tired or fed up as well.)

    Defintely YES on considering total cost and not just upfront cost. Shoes are an excellent example, although I know someone who ruined her feet with expensive shoes because she never thought to have her foot size rechecked over the years.

  57. Meredith says:

    Although I understand that this was a quick analogy, a “frugalista” doing enough research might find the perfect balance between the 2 approaches. It’s not enough to dismiss either side. Running the numbers–and not just one one days’ classifieds–is the only way to know for sure.

    Recently in the market for a minivan ourselves, we watched prices for several weeks, checked at new dealerships for incentives, and kicked tires on several weekends.

    Only after all our research did we find a van that was newer than we thought we’d buy (10,000 miles) at a price $8,000 less than the cheapest new van we could find.

  58. Ace Davis says:

    This post recalls my dad’s oft-invoked formula: Value equals function divided by cost (v=f/c).

    You really can’t assess the value of a potential purchase until you have first identified the precise functions you deem essential. Clearly specifying those functions up front makes it easier to ignore extraneous features and to compare alternatives while shopping.

    Cost transcends price to include all resource expenditures needed to accomplish those functions over the life of the product.

  59. LC says:

    @ 25 prufock – I agree with Jennifer about Heinz. I am from Pittsburgh and everyone was so snobby about Heinz but they did a survey and of course everyone said they only ate Heinz and it’s definitely the best. In a blind taste test a generic version was preferred by almost everyone.

  60. Tara Bartee says:

    Details and anecdotes aside, the point of this article is to always challenge your assumptions. Sometimes things that were true last year are not true this year.

    I know I get overwhelmed with all of the information available on everything and would like to assume certain rules of thumb or sacred cows could be relied upon. It would be easier to NOT think. Most folks on these pages are thinkers and just need to remind themselves that change is constant; Things that were not true last year are sometimes true this year.

    I buy at least one can of generic tomatos every year to confirm brand names are still a good value for me.

  61. reulte says:

    Craig (#27) I didn’t say a 10-year-old car wasn’t safe. I simply said “many older vehicles” weren’t safe. I even mentioned my own car is 10 years old.

    Katy (#30) Some people aren’t concerned about pesticides or mercury in fish or GMO’s in food crops. They just aren’t. Because they aren’t, they don’t bother screening them out of their daily food intake or trying to make a choice between organic and regular apples (I was about to write “inorganic apples”). Many people who make more that $50K “don’t sweat” what they eat either.

    Kevin (#39) Wow – I really like the idea of emailing friends/family for ideas and advice about a particular problem. I bet many times you get a reply of “Hey, I’ve got an unused one in the attic you can borrow/have”. I’ll have to incorporate that into practice.

  62. Kate says:

    Love the articles Trent. I also love generics, for the most part. As you said, we all have to decide what things are worth on an individual basis. Sorry to hear your generic bag ripped, maybe if you recycle the glass in your garbage, it wouldn’t be so heavy.

  63. deRuiter says:

    Trent, You can’t possibly see that cattle AREN’T being given hormones to boost milk production. It is impossible to “see” something which doesn’t happen. And if they are given hormones, it would be in their feed, which you would not see because you’re not in the barn when they are fed while being milked. You are told they are not given hormones in their feed, and you are taking that statement at face value.

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