Lentil Casserole, Dish Soap, and Frugal Filters

My mother-in-law makes this absolutely delicious lentil casserole. I’m not sure of her exact recipe, but I know from home experimentation that this is a close approximation:

Lentil Casserole

1 pound dry lentils
2 cups water
1 large can diced tomatoes
1 cup diced bell pepper
1 cup diced onions
1 cup diced mushrooms (optional)
1/2 cup chopped celery
2 garlic cloves
1 1/2 tablespoons “savory” seasoning (equal parts thyme, cumin, coriander, paprika, black pepper, red pepper flakes, oregano, with two parts salt)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 375 F. Mix all ingredients except cheese thoroughly and spread in 9″ by 13″ baking dish evenly. Cover with aluminum foil (or other cover) and bake for 105 minutes. Add shredded cheese evenly on top and remove aluminum foil. Bake for 5-10 more minutes until cheese is thoroughly melted. Serve.

Great.. So What About It?

Several years ago, I had a minor medical issue that forced me to make some dietary changes. My mother-in-law, being the treasure she is, spent time figuring out recipes that would be in line with my needed dietary changes and still be enjoyable for the rest of the family, and in that process she came across this lentil casserole recipe.

It turned out to be a pretty big hit, and now it’s in the regular rotation of dishes that she makes when we come to visit. Everyone likes it at least reasonably well, and I particularly love it because it just hits this perfect savory taste and texture that I really enjoy.

A few years ago, I asked her where she came up with the recipe and she started pulling cookbooks out of various places. They had Post-It notes and other paper scraps thrown in to mark specific recipes.

From what I was able to understand, she simply goes through and marks recipes that are both inexpensive and seem tasty, and preferably ones that are easy. With cookbooks that have hundreds of recipes each, it’s usually easy to find recipes that hit all three criteria.

When I added a few specific dietary requirements, she went through her marked recipes and noted which ones met those new requirements as well, which still left her with a pretty significant list.

The Frugal Filter

What I found interesting about this process, and why I felt writing about it was worthwhile, is that “low cost” was really only one of her filters when choosing recipes to try. If a recipe didn’t seem tasty to her or to the people she was making it for, she didn’t bother. If a recipe seemed overly complicated, she didn’t bother. She did not simply go for the first recipe that was “cheap.”

I point this out because the idea that “inexpensiveness” is the primary or only filter people use when spending money is a very common misunderstanding of frugality.

If “the less expensive, the better” is your main filter for processing choices, then you’re being a cheapskate and you’re probably making a lot of suboptimal choices. You are most definitely not being frugal, and if you adopt that approach in life, you’re quickly going to head down a path of misery unless you are wired very differently in terms of internal rewards than most people.

Here’s the truth about frugality, at least as I see it.

When most of us are called upon to make a decision with a lot of options – and that’s how a lot of decisions are in the modern world – we typically use a handful of filters almost instinctively to quickly reduce the number of choices. That’s really the only efficient way to make a lot of modern life manageable. Without a bunch of instinctive filters, we’d go into lockdown just going through the supermarket or strolling through Target or deciding what website to visit or what movie to watch or what book to read or how to get to work.

Let’s say I’m at the store and I see “dish soap” on my list. I head to the section with dish soap and, lo and behold, there are a ton of options. If I stand there looking at all of the options, I’m never going to make a decision.

So, I start applying filters very quickly, almost without thinking. I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Right there, we’ve cut things down to three or four options to actually look at.

All frugality really says is this: once you’ve applied those filters, apply another one where you seek the lowest price per use among those you’d choose from anyway. That’s it.

Now, that’s not quite the end of the road. If you start applying a frugal filter to your decisions, it’s a good idea to give careful thought to the instinctive filters you’re already applying.

Let’s use that dish soap example again. Once I started really buying into frugality, I found that applying the frugal filter to the remaining choices usually pointed me toward a good choice, but I found myself wondering why I had eliminated some of the others from consideration. I had instinctively eliminated the store brand. Why? I couldn’t think of a good reason for it. I had instinctively eliminated a couple of other brands, too, and I wasn’t sure why. I often used Consumer Reports as a tool to avoid dodgy brands, but why not use it to elevate a few good ones instead and eliminate the others?

So, my original filtering process looked like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Of the three that are left, this one looks the best.

When I first started being frugal and applying the “lowest price” filter, the filtering process looked like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Of the three that are left, this one is the least expensive.

After thinking about it a little more and questioning a lot of my assumptions, my filtering process for buying dish soap now looks a lot like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. Consumer Reports says that these three brands are consistently good. I know the store brand is good, too, so I’ll include that. I don’t like lavender scent, so I’ll toss out these two. Of the three that are left, this one is the least expensive.

I like to think of frugality this way: frugality is about adding a “lowest cost” filter to your already-existing purchasing decisions, but it’s also an encouragement to rethink the filters you’ve always relied on to make purchases.

Back to the Lentil Casserole

This is basically the same idea that my mother-in-law applied to her choice to make lentil casserole for the first time for all of us.

She had a ton of recipes in front of her. She needed to filter them quickly. So, she applied a number of filters.

One was the “frugal filter”: it had to be cheap.

On top of that were a few others, which she used to determine what would make for a good meal: would people like it? would it be relatively easy to make? are the ingredients easy to acquire? There’s also the dietary filter: does it match Trent’s dietary concerns at the moment?

Here’s what’s worth noting: all of those filters are based on some value that’s important to her, much like the example of filters applied to buying dish soap.

She cares about her financial future, so she uses the it has to be cheap filter.

She wants to make a meal her family will enjoy because she cares about them, so she uses the will people like it filter.

She wants to have free time to spend with the family when they visit, so she uses the is it relatively easy to make filter.

She has relatively low access to ingredients and wants to, if possible, rely on things she already has on hand, so she uses the are the ingredients easy to get filter.

She cares about my health, so she uses the can Trent eat it filter.

After all of those filters are applied, she’s left with a small pool of choices, and from that she can make a more nuanced decision.

Low price is just one thing of importance among many in the things considered by a frugal person. It is not the only thing considered, nor is it the primary thing considered. The choice of lentil casserole is about a wide range of the things she cares about, not just money.

Adopting Frugal Behavior Is a Sign of Changing Values

As I noted earlier, however, adding a “low price” filter due to a fresh desire to be frugal is usually a sign that you’re probably going to reconsider a lot of the other filters you commonly use as well.

People don’t wake up one morning and decide to start cutting costs. There’s usually something going on in their lives, an ongoing change, that brings them to the conclusion that they need to apply different approaches to their finances.

For some, it might simply be a result of growing a bit older. Maybe you had a child or you’re now married or in a serious relationship. Maybe a career change is happening and your passions are changing. Maybe you’ve learned new things about the world and your perceptions of many things are shifting.

Whatever it might be, a renewed approach to frugality is very frequently a sign of shifting values in other areas of life, which means that it’s a great time to reconsider those other filters you use for making decisions.

For example, for me, adopting a more frugal and financially responsible mindset was directly due to a simultaneous significant change in my work environment, the birth of my first child, and the realization that some of my long term goals weren’t coming true. That triggered a lot of changes in terms of how I saw the world, and it was in that moment of internal rethinking of life that I moved in a very frugal direction.

However, there were many more values changing than just my money use – frugality was just one thing changing as a result of my changing values. I was now considering my child – a lot. I was now much more concerned about my own mental well being. I was feeling like I needed to make a career change that better matched the life I wanted to live. I was feeling like the ways I was spending my time and money weren’t in line with what I wanted out of life. Those things were just the start.

Frugality emerged from those changing values, but there were shifts in lots of things I cared about, and those shifts encouraged me to think carefully about all of the filters I used to make decisions, not just buying things, but how I used my time, my attention and focus, my energy, and so on.

Looking at Values Isn’t Easy or Obvious

The thing is, thinking about things in terms of what you value isn’t always easy or obvious. Quite often, we see the change in what we value by noticing that something makes sense in a way that it didn’t make sense before, or that something that used to seem like the right thing to do isn’t the right thing any more.

Sometimes, we just accept those changes without a second thought. At other times, we find those little nudges a bit troubling and ignore them until they become so overwhelming that we have to pay attention.

I’ll give you a great example of this. About nine months before my financial turnaround began, I was already noticing a lot of elements in my life that I was unhappy with. I could see a lot of little things in my life that were bringing me down, but I still wasn’t quite there. I wasn’t quite ready to change things. It took an even bigger impact, an inability to pay the bills, to bring about real action and change.

What I’ve learned since then is that when you start getting those nudges, pay attention. It means that your values are changing or something else subtle is going on that’s not in line with what you want out of life, and you’re far better off figuring it out when it’s a molehill than when it’s a mountain.

But how can you see this? I usually see it by looking real close at a decision I’ve made that I’m not happy with or, sometimes, a decision I’m far happier with than I expected.

Look at the Filters

Sometimes I’ll do something and then, a few minutes later or a few days or maybe a month or two later, I’ll think to myself, “I messed that up.” Occasionally, When I have that feeling, I know that something has shifted in my values that isn’t yet reflected in how I’m making decisions or behaving, and that means I need to figure it out or I’m going to keep screwing up. But how do I do this?

For me, the most effective way to do this is to look really close at that decision. This technique is often known as an “after action report;” here’s a summary of the general concept.

Basically, I try, to the best of my ability, to figure out exactly why I made that decision without judging it, then I go through and judge my reasoning. In other words, I try to figure out what filters I used to make that decision, then I question all of those filters.

I do that kind of thinking when I’m driving around or, sometimes, when I’m writing a personal journal entry. I just break it down as much as I possibly can, almost to a comical level, and then I look at all of those pieces.

So, let’s roll back to that dish soap example one more time. My old school decision making process looked like this:

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again. I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them. I prefer lemon-scented soap. Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad. Of the three that are left, this one looks the best.

Let’s say I later realize that the end decision I made was a bad one. Where did my decision making process go wrong? I’ll then rip that decision making process to shreds and try to tease out all of those filters.

I don’t want a tiny container because it’ll run out super quick and I’ll have to buy it again.
I don’t like these three brands, so I’ll skip them.
I prefer lemon-scented soap.
Consumer Reports says that these two kinds are really bad.
Of the three that are left, this one looks the best.

Was the problem that I chose a big container? Probably not.

Was the problem that I skipped over certain brands? Maybe. Why did I skip over them? What’s wrong with Brand X and Brand Y? This thought process led to the revelation that store brands aren’t really bad after all.

Was the problem that I insisted on lemon-scented soap? Maybe. Why did I insist on that? What’s wrong with scentless soap, or other scents? This thought process made me realize that I actually just didn’t like one or two scents, not that I particularly loved lemon.

Was the problem that I used Consumer Reports to eliminate bad brands? Maybe. Why did I do that? Why not use Consumer Reports for recommendations rather than eliminations? This thought process made me rethink how I used consumer reviews, focusing more on the common elements of positive reviews rather than one or two outlying negative reviews.

Was the problem with my choice between the final three? Well, why did I decide to choose the one that I did? Maybe I simply left out something I really care about in this final decision making process. This thought process made me realize that “low price” really should be in there, because otherwise I am spending more money and not really gaining anything I care about.

This might seem like obsessive nuance, but it really isn’t. If, by doing this, I reset some filters that I use over and over and over again for all kinds of decisions, then I am going to consistently make good ones in my life. I won’t come home with a bunch of purchases and not really understand why I made them or where all the money went. I won’t be troubled by having wasted a bunch of time on things that weren’t important to me. Or, at least, I’ll fall into those situations a lot less often.

I find that when I think about those filters in this deep way and conclude that there’s a better way to do it, it doesn’t take a whole lot of reinforcement or repetition to use the better filter.

In other words, doing this every once in a while for a single seemingly minor decision often ends up making a lot of decisions in my life a lot better in very short order. I’m far from perfect at this and I sometimes don’t evaluate the decisions that I should be looking at, but I know that when I actually do a deep dive on a poor (or a surprisingly good) decision, I end up doing everything better.

Again, a sudden urge to spend less is often a sign that you should be doing a few of these deep dives. It’s a sign that your values are changing in some way, and this is a perfect time to look at things with fresh eyes and make sure that the choices you’re making really are in line with what you care about now rather than in the past.

Making Better Decisions

A frugal and financially smart person is simply a person whose decision making filters include a desire to keep costs low and avoid unnecessary purchases. It is not their only filter, just one among many. Having said that, a person who values that kind of thinking often has other filters that line up well alongside it, because those filters are based on deep personal values that we have.

For example, frugal people often want to get the best value item, which doesn’t always mean the lowest cost item. It means the item that does the best job for the dollar, and that usually means knowing which items actually perform well and do the job you want. That goes beyond just trusting a brand name, because often the product that does the best job for the dollar is a “no name” product, a store brand.

A frugal person usually cares deeply about something else in their lives as well, whether it’s personal freedom or keeping their stress low or a strong spiritual life or philosophical stance. Often, their frugality is a way of expressing that value – for example, many spiritual and philosophical traditions hold frugality dear – or a way of achieving that value – frugality is an effective way to lower the daily “background stress” of life.

Those values are expressed in many ways, and the filters we use to make decisions are a powerful one. Those filters also provide a window into our values – they work both ways.

So, whenever you feel like you’ve made a spending misstep, or you get a sense that you’re making decisions that aren’t in line with what you really care about, or you feel like your life is running off the tracks of what you want from it, dive deep into some of those errant decisions, whether they’re big ones (like where to live or what job to take or whether to get married) or little ones (like what to make for supper or what kind of dish soap to buy).

You’ll often see the problem very quickly, and fixing that broken filter can make an enormous difference.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.