Updated on 09.03.11

Is This Frugal Idea Worth It for Me and My Family?

Trent Hamm

Often, when I try out a frugal idea and it ends up being a post on The Simple Dollar, I struggle with the question of whether or not this is actually a really good frugal idea, both for my family and for the families of the people reading the post.

I’m in a situation where time is really at a premium. Most evenings end not with a couple hours of casually watching television, but with a collapse into a heap of exhaustion. I’m often up by 6 AM and I’m still loading dishes in the dishwasher at 10:30 that evening. We have three young children, my wife works in a demanding career path, and I’m running a small business that demands a significant amount of creative focus. Time is the element that is at a premium at our house.

In other households, it’s money that’s at a premium. They’re limited by their economic situation, but they have at least some amount of time on their hands. Still others find themselves pinched by other factors (like disability or energy) or by combinations of the above factors.

There’s also a wide variety of living situations and interests. I have single readers, married readers, readers with houses full of children, readers in tiny apartments, readers with huge gardens and readers with none, readers with three cars and readers with none. Different frugal ideas work differently in each of these situations.

How do you really know if an idea will work for you? In all likelihood, the person giving the tip is in a different life situation than you are, whether you read the tip here or on another site. Is it relevant? Is it useful to your life?

Here are some specific things that I look out for when deciding whether or not a frugal tip is really going to fit into our lives.

Does it require a lot of time, particularly time all in one block? If something is going to require me to plunk down a couple hours of time all at once, it had better save a lot of money or it’s not going to be worth it for me. Six years ago, before I had children, that might not have necessarily been true. Today, with three children running around and a small business to manage, time is something that’s really valuable to me.

Is the savings rate per hour enough to entice me to invest my time? If I’m investing an hour just to save $0.50, it’s not going to seem compelling to me. I can easily earn way more than that in another frugal activity or in some work task. My usual threshold for attracting my interest based soley on the savings rate is somewhere around $10 per hour of time invested. If it’s much less than that, it’s going to take something else to get me into it. Your rate may be more – or it may be less than that.

Is it something that seems fun? If something looks like it’s an interesting activity, I’m much more likely to try it even if it returns very little. Usually, this means a project that I can get the entire family involved with or something that’s in line with a personal interest of mine, like soapmaking.

Is this something that’s in line with another value of mine? I’m a big fan of things that cut my personal energy use, not just because it saves me money, but because of the positive energy use impact of that decision.

Is this something that’s permanent? I tend to be more interested in frugal options if the positive consequences of that action are permanent or just completely replaces a previous activity. In other words, it adds no additional time demands to my life beyond the initial change. For example, air sealing my home is a permanent change that requires no additional continuous activity. Using LED light bulbs is a change that doesn’t require me to do anything different over the long haul.

The key thing to note here is that the reasoning for various frugal activities varies from person to person. Your reasons are going to be different than my own. Another reader’s reasoning is going to be different than you or I. There is no right or wrong here, just different lives.

Instead, it’s important to recognize what makes a good frugal tactic for you. When you look at a list of tactics, not all of them are going to match your life. The key thing is to know what exactly you’re looking for so that you can easily go through that list and pull out the ones that have potential for you. Remember, if you pull out two things out of a list of a hundred and those two things actually save you money, then the list of a hundred ideas was worthwhile for you.

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  1. David says:

    This is one the wisest, humblest things you’ve written. Good job sir.

  2. John says:

    If you’re time is at a premium, why are you doing your own dishes? In this economy, you could find someone to do your household chores for $8/hr easy.

  3. krantcents says:

    Time or money at a premium? Sometimes I do things to save time other times for money, it depends if principles are involved. Sometimes I do things that some would say is a waste of time or has very little monetary value. In other words, sometimes I do things for fun or pure enjoyment.

  4. rosa rugosa says:

    Trent, This is a good post because it really acknowledges your audience.
    I concluded a while ago that you get so many negative posts because you don’t acknowledge or interact with your readers – analogous to kids acting up in order to get their parent’s attention. Just my two cents worth.

  5. RMJ says:

    Trent, what I wonder for your investment of time is this – is whether or not a frugal activity will make for a worthwhile post/article a consideration? If you’re looking for material for this blog or for another paid writing assignment, will that make a frugal activity with less obvious returns worthwhile for you?

  6. deRuiter says:

    I’m with John #2. Hire a little help. Of course you do hire some in a way, putting the children in paid daycare and one in public school. I’ll bet there are many eople in this economy who would be delighted to do a couple of hours of housework a few days a week to earn a minimal amount of money freeing you and your wife for more creative activities.

  7. Gretchen says:

    Interesting post placement (after the bus thing) and timing (after many lack of moderation complaints and I, belive, at least one vacation.)

    At some point, something’s gotta give. Hire out and/ make the kids do some chores. At least one of them is old enough at this point.

  8. valleycat1 says:

    Loading the dishwasher at 10:30 PM? Clean pots/pans etc as you go, or put them in to soak once the food is in the serving dish. Make cleaning up after meals part of the total meal time. If two or more people are working on that, it really only takes about 15 minutes at the most – & we do all our dishes by hand. Our final rule: anyone that eats helps clean up (even toddlers can usually get their dishes to the person washing, put away the salt/pepper, or help wipe down/sweep).

  9. jeff smith says:

    Nice. Very wise. Can’t do everything.

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