Fifteen Things I Skimp On

A couple of days ago, I posted a list of fifteen items I don’t skimp on. That list mostly consisted of extremely heavy use items and maintenance of my health and my most expensive purchases (homes and automobiles).

So, what do I skimp on? In truth, I skimp on a lot of things… but they’re mostly things that don’t seem to affect my quality of life when I spend less on them. This article lists fifteen of those things.

A few caveats:

This list doesn’t include stuff that I just don’t buy. I don’t spend my money on most junk food options. I don’t buy a lot of hobby supplies, either, outside of the occasional board game or book. This list focuses on things that I do buy regularly, but where I seek out the lowest possible price.

This list is my preferences, not yours. You may not want to skimp on some of these items. So why am I sharing this list? The goal is to give you ideas and to see that other people do skimp on a lot of common purchases.

Also, this list isn’t a be-all-end-all. I skimp on a lot of things; this list is just fifteen of them that I felt merited some additional comment. I’m a big believer in the idea that you should skimp on everything but the things that are actually personally important to you and, for me, that list is actually pretty short. I had a much harder time coming up with my list of fifteen items I don’t skimp on than I had coming up with this list.

My hope is that you come away with some new ideas on things that you can cut back on in your own life without sinking your quality of life in any way. Remember, frugality isn’t about misery; it’s about maximizing the value you get out of every dollar so that you have the greatest overall value in your life.

Let’s get started!

15 Things I Skimp On

Wine is something that can often be found on our dinner table. Sarah and I will often have a glass of wine with our dinner and sometimes we’ll have a glass in the evening after the kids are asleep.

However, neither one of us have ever tasted a big difference between wines based on their price point. We’ve tried a bunch of wines and while we’ve found some that we both thought were “bad,” that list of “bad” wines were completely disconnected from the prices.

In fact, we’ll usually just drink Charles Shaw wines at dinner. For those uninitiated, Charles Shaw wines are sold at Trader Joe’s and are often colloquially referred to as “two buck Chuck” because many of the bottles are available in the $2 to $4 range.

This philosophy is backed up by this study which concludes that “[i]ndividuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more
enjoyment from more expensive wine.”

Undershirts are thin shirts that are worn underneath other shirts for the purposes of absorbing body perspiration (and perhaps a bit of background color for your outer shirt). Since these aren’t visually apparent to other people (unless you’re wearing an outer shirt that’s unnecessarily thin), you don’t really have to worry about appearance when it comes to those shirts.

I basically just buy the cheapest tight white t-shirts that I can find for my undershirts. As long as they’re reasonably comfortable, they’ll work just fine. I’ll bleach them and wear them until they’re literally falling apart, which takes quite a while.

I do own some nicer t-shirts that are made to last, but these aren’t in that category. It’s the undershirts that I skimp on.

Freezer bags are a category where the store brand seems functionally identical to the name brand. I often use pint-sized freezer bags for things like making bulk breakfast sandwiches. I tried Ziplocs once with a coupon and they worked great. However, I usually just buy the cheap store brand and they work great, too.

Because of that, I just buy the cheapest freezer bags. I reuse them, too, by turning them inside out, rinsing them a bit, and letting them air dry on the counter, then sticking them back in the box. So a single box of generic freezer bags can last for a very long time around here.

I should point out that I don’t think Ziplocs are bad in any way here. This is just a category where the generics seem to work really well, too, so I don’t see a reason to buy anything other than the cheapest option.

Washcloths and hand towels are items that we buy in bulk at the warehouse club and use until they’re falling apart. Since they’re mostly just pulled out of a cupboard and used to clean things, the patterns and colors are quite unimportant on these items.

Our usual strategy is to wait until enough have worn out that we’re struggling with rotating these items, then we’ll go to the store and buy one of those bulk bundles of washcloths and/or hand towels. These go straight into the rotation.

Also, we keep a drawer with a lot of hand towels in it right in our kitchen which basically eliminates the need for paper towels. When there’s a mess, we just grab a hand towel, clean it up, and toss the hand towel into the laundry room to be tossed into the next appropriate load.

Exercise equipment is something that I rarely spend much on at all and, when I do, I buy it secondhand.

Why? The only exercise items you’ll find in our house are free weights and jump ropes – you can almost always find them at secondhand sports stores. We don’t own a treadmill or an exercise bike or any of that stuff. Instead, we use the sidewalk and a real bicycle for those needs.

Sure, there are periods in the winter where running outside is really miserable, but it’s not worth buying a treadmill to cover a handful of deep winter days. On those days, I just find other methods of exercising inside if the bug bites me.

In truth, most of our exercise is done with body weight, doing things like yoga, push-ups, abdominal crunches, and so on. This requires very little equipment and, when you do buy it, you can get the cheapest option available.

Over-the-counter medications are often completely identical to the name brand versions. Aspirin contains aspirin. Acetaminophen contains acetaminophen. You get the idea. The active ingredient in both is basically identical.

If I’m thinking of buying a medication and the active ingredient in the medications is identical, I will always skimp and buy the cheaper one. There’s no functional reason that I can come up with not to do so.

This does mean that when I’m buying a new medicine, I’ll need to compare the generic to the name brand and see if they’re different in terms of their active ingredient. It is extremely rare (at least with the things that I buy) that there’s any difference at all.

Kitchen staples such as sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and so on – items that are extremely simple staples that are simply a part of more complex recipes – are items that I will always buy in their cheapest form. If I want whole wheat flour, I’ll buy the cheapest whole wheat flour.

Most of these items are made up of one ingredient. While there may be minor differences between them – such as one brand of flour being “fluffier” than another – proper kitchen use – such as sifting the flour – undoes most of those differences.

I’ve made countless baked goods with lots of different ingredients and in the case of flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and so on, I can’t tell any difference between the brands, so I just buy the cheapest brand.

Cleaning supplies are another product where I just can’t see why I would spend money on a “premium” brand. After all, the goal is straightforward – removing dust, dirt, and grime – and that doesn’t require rocket science.

In truth, I’ll often just add vinegar to empty squirt bottles and use that to clean most things around our house. I use plain white vinegar as my “default” cleaning agent, relying only on other things (like a paste of baking soda) for severe stains.

This extends to things like bleach, where I’ll just buy the cheapest container available – bleach is bleach, after all.

Bottled water is another purchase that I don’t dole out the money for. I don’t even buy the cheap cases of bottled water, let alone the expensive ones.

Yes, I do spend money on this – on the “bottle” part, at least. I’ve actually broken Nalgene bottles before and actually had to purchase a replacement water bottle… but my current primary water bottle is actually a freebie, so I guess I don’t even purchase those that often.

My usual strategy is to just have a few refillable water bottles around which I can fill up with tap water (or tea) and store in the fridge. When I get a hankering for a beverage, I can just reach in the fridge and pull out a cold bottle of water, then just toss that container in the sink when it’s empty.

Don’t buy into the myth that bottled water is “cleaner” or “better” – the truth is that tap water is held to a higher cleanliness standard than bottled water is.

Gasoline is an item that I always buy at the cheapest price that I can find, which is usually either at my local warehouse club or at the gas station that has a “fuel saver” program that I cash in once a month or so. I buy the normal gas at the lowest octane that the station sells. I have seen very little benefit from buying anything else – nowhere near the value of the price difference.

There’s a little caveat here. I buy the low octane gas because that’s what’s recommended by my owner’s manual for my car. Most cars specify in their manual that low octane gas (the cheap stuff) is just fine, but there are models out there that specify better gas.

I simply can’t perceive any difference between the “cheap” gas and the premium gas in my car, so I don’t spend more.

Baby clothes are items that your baby will only wear for a little while before he or she outgrows them – and your baby is very likely to spit up on those clothes a time or two. Given those two factors, I have never seen the need to dress a baby in anything beyond the least expensive clothes I could find. You don’t need to worry about the clothes lasting forever, after all.

We bought most of our baby clothes at secondhand stores. We received more as gifts at baby showers for our first child. Most of those clothes were handed down to our younger children when they arrived on the scene. After our third child, many items were shared with cousins and others.

Sure, it can be “cute” to play dress-up with your baby in expensive adorable clothes, but those clothes are going to be rarely worn and are likely to be spit up on, plus babies look adorable no matter what they’re wearing.

Breakfast cereal is something that I always pick up in generic form or with a coupon. I consider it a waste of cash to buy the name brand version of breakfast cereal.

When I go to the store, I look for generic boxes of the kinds of cereal that my children like the best – usually a generic Cheerios. I’ll also grab coupons for those types of name-brand cereals and I’ll compare prices to see which is cheaper.

Honestly, for simpler cereals like Cheerios, the generic version and the name brand version are pretty much identical. There is very little functional difference between the generic and name brand version unless you’re buying some specialized flavored cereal, which we avoid anyway.

Bath soap doesn’t need to be bought in a name-brand form. We just buy soap in bulk at whatever is available at the lowest prices.

Our family doesn’t have any skin issues other than a bit of dry skin in the winter, so we don’t have any special needs that require expensive soaps. Our focus is on getting clean and removing all of that dust, dirt, and grime from a hard day of play. You don’t need name brand soaps for that.

I do prefer body wash in the shower, but I’ll just buy whatever is the least expensive option and I only use a drop or two, so it seems as though I get more showers per dollar out of a big bottle of body wash than a bar of soap.

Greeting cards are just an easy way to let someone else write a sentiment for you. I don’t mind buying a very simple greeting card with a very simple sentiment or a blank center, but I see no need for an elaborate card of any kind.

My perspective is this: I have X dollars to spend on someone for a particular occasion – a birthday or a holiday or something else. Let’s say I’m going to spend $5 on someone for their birthday because I intend to send a card. Why not just fold a piece of card stock in half, write a nice birthday note, and slip a $5 iTunes gift card in there, saying that they’d probably get more enjoyment out of that “card” than an expensive greeting card?

Not only that, a handwritten note means more. When it’s handwritten, you know the sentiment came from their heart. It’s not just a regurgitation of what a clever greeting card writer said.

Denim jeans are something I wear pretty much every day. They’re very comfortable and durable, no matter the brand. And it’s that “no matter the brand” that really matters to me.

If a pair of jeans has the right waist size, the right inseam length, and the right fit, it’s going to work for me. I don’t care what the label says or anything else. I like to be presentable, but I have no interest in “skinny jeans” or anything like that. I just want something that doesn’t look atrocious and is comfortable and durable – that’s all I want.

You don’t need a name brand for that. In fact, the cheapest jeans in the store tend to provide those features quite well. The only thing I do when buying jeans is check the seams to make sure they’re well-made – and, honestly, I’ve found more examples of poor seams in the more expensive jeans than the cheap ones.

Final Thoughts

As I was assembling this list – and culling that list down to fifteen things – I kept noticing that there were a few trends that held true throughout these items.

One, I tend to go cheap on “simple” items. Things like basic clothing and basic kitchen staples are items that I will certainly try in their cheapest form and I’ll usually stick with them, too. My concept of what I functionally need from those items is pretty straightforward and the generic versions almost always meets those needs.

Two, I usually prefer homemade alternatives, if possible. I like making my own greeting cards, not just because they’re cheaper, but because they have a more personal effect. I can’t see why I wouldn’t just bottle my own water or put a bit of white vinegar into a spray bottle for cleaning windows. Buying products in these cases makes no sense to me especially when buying anything beyond the cheapest version (like simple blank greeting cards).

Three, I love experimenting. I will always try the cheap version of anything I buy or anything I do, just to see how it works. If the cheap version fails, it’s no big deal because I’m not out too much. Even in those cases, I still walk away having learned something from the experience. Quite often, though, I learn that the cheap version has no negative impact on my life compared to the expensive version and it leaves more money in my pocket.

Again and again, I come back to the core idea that frugality is about finding the best value in whatever it is that you’re doing, but that requires really understanding what it is that you truly value. That’s easier said than done, particularly at first, but I find that the more you’re willing to try new things and see how “cheaper” alternatives work, the more you find that an awful lot of them stick around in your life.

The more “skimping” strategies that stick around in your life (because you discover that they really don’t have a negative impact on you), the less you’re spending on your day-to-day life and the more value you’re getting for your dollar on all of those areas of your life. You’re getting the same quality of life as before, but it’s costing you less and less. This leaves you money to pay off your debts, save for retirement, and do all of the things that you need to do to secure your future and bring about a sense of financial peace.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.