The Hidden Key to Frugality: Seeing More of the Options

Recently, I was talking to a friend that I hadn’t seen in ages about what we might do if Sarah and I visited them. Naturally, we started talking about sharing a meal.

My friend immediately suggested that we meet and dine somewhere in her area and offered up a handful of suggestions. I looked them up and it turned out that they were all pretty pricy.

I made another suggestion. “Maybe we could just meet in a park somewhere and put together a simple picnic. You can just bring some stuff you have on hand and we can bring the rest. Just tell us what we should bring. We can stop at a grocery store on the way.” To me, this sounded better anyway, as it let us be outside in the nice weather and enjoy the beautiful landscape of a park rather than the ordinary decor of a restaurant. Even better: the cost of such a picnic for all of us was far, far less than any of those restaurant options – and likely cheaper than any restaurant in the area.

This idea had never even crossed her mind. She seemed to love the idea, but it had never even occurred to her to do such a thing. She had simply locked onto a few particular options (mostly expensive restaurants in the area) and chosen from among them.

I’m not here to shame my friend or anything. What she did is something that we all do: we’re trying to solve the so-called “problem of choice.”

What I mean by that is that in any given moment or situation, we’ve got a ton of different choices we can make. If we were to examine all of those choices, we’d never get around to actually making a decision. So, instead, we instinctively rely on some simple rule that we pull out from somewhere inside of us to cut down the options drastically. My friend’s internal rule was obvious: a good friend is coming from out of town and we’re going to share a meal, so let’s go to a good restaurant together so that it’s a simple dining situation and we can focus on conversation.

We make this kind of mental cut-down all of the time. We do it when we’re grocery shopping and see 35 different kinds of pasta sauce, which we quickly trim down to a couple of options. We do it when we’re thinking about what we want to do this evening. We do it when we’re choosing a book at the library.

We’re faced with a ton of options, so many that we can’t really devote adequate time or consideration to each one. Instinctively, we find some way to pare down those choices into a tiny subset, and then we make our choice from that subset.

One of the most powerful things I learned during my transition from being a heavy spender to being a rather frugal person is that altering that instinct of paring down choices was absolutely crucial in living a more frugal life.

My instinct, when I come across a situation with a multitude of choices, is usually to cut off most of the expensive options right off the bat. When a friend comes to town, I don’t even consider a dinner at one of the most expensive places around. When I’m buying pasta sauce, I don’t even consider the stuff that costs several dollars a bottle. When I want to read a new release, I don’t even consider buying it at the bookstore. Instead, I start considering the options that are left. Maybe we could have a dinner at the park, or I could make something at home. Maybe I’ll buy this inexpensive brand that doesn’t add any sugar to the sauce, or this medium-level brand that’s on sale today. Maybe I’ll check out the book at the library, or wait until it’s in paperback, or put it on my Amazon wish list.

That’s my initial instinct, but that instinct did not come naturally. I had to build up that instinct within myself, and it’s really not easy to change that kind of instinct. Here’s how I manage to reprogram those kinds of instincts.

First, I started second-guessing a lot of my choices when I had more time to think about them. I started thinking deeply about my specific shopping or dining or other choices when I was driving my kids to soccer practice or waiting for the dentist or using the bathroom or anything else that didn’t require my mental focus. I’d go back through those situations where I spent money and I’d simply walk through them, piece by piece.

I would try to re-evaluate those situations through the lens of a factor that was really important to me and that I wanted to change in my life, which, at the time, was being a more frugal person. I wanted to make those decisions in a way that was more careful with my money and my time and my energy – but particularly my money. So I would try to re-evaluate the things I had done solely from the perspective of money. Did I do things in the least expensive way possible? Were there other approaches that were less expensive that didn’t bring other problems to the table.

Along with that, and I consider this the most important part, I started intentionally looking for more options than the ones I initially considered.

For example, let’s say that my gut instinct when my friend came to town was to go out to eat at an expensive restaurant and that I initially chose from the three or four best and most expensive places in town because my instinct was to cut the many, many options down to those three or four places. But what if I looked at more options? There are a lot of places to eat within a 30 minute radius of here. There are also many possibilities centered around making food myself.

The question becomes how do I actually filter down all of these options? A good place to start is to ask why I filtered them so quickly down to the three or four expensive places. Well, my reasons there were that I wanted to have a good meal with my friend, one that wouldn’t require me to invest my attention in food preparation when he was around so that I could instead focus on my friend, and perhaps, to a lesser extent, I wanted to impress my friend with my restaurant choice.

So, if my goals really are to have a good meal that we’ll all enjoy, to be able to focus on my friend instead of food preparation, and (to a lesser extent) impress my friend, how can I achieve those things while spending less money? As I noted earlier, why not have a picnic meal at the park? I could choose a park with a great natural view and pack some interesting foods to eat that might surprise his palate. With a picnic, the food prep work is done in advance – we don’t even have to stop our conversation to order food! The location and some nice food choices would serve the lesser desire to impress, such that it is.

What other choices are there that could fulfill those goals? I could make a meal at home that’s largely finished when my friend arrives, with the table already set, and I could just toss the dishes in the sink when it’s done, which would make for a good meal and time to focus on a friend rather than a meal. The “impress” part would come from a decent homemade meal and the openness of my home. I could also seek out a low cost “hidden gem” restaurant in my area, which would definitely cut the costs and perhaps impress my friend with my bargain-finding ability.

What this thinking process does is that it allows me to reset the instinctive “cutting down” of decision making in my mind, moving me to another set of options in common situations. When a friend comes to town now, I usually think of a picnic in the park (as I did with an old friend from Wisconsin just a month or so ago when he and his family came through town) or a simple dinner at my house (as with a visit from another old friend less than a week ago) or a low cost “hidden gem” restaurant (as with an old co-worker a month or so ago). My cut down includes the old desire to be able to focus on the friend, but it adds in the cost constraint and reshapes the desire to impress. That’s now my instinct in those situations.

This type of “reshaping” of my spending instincts takes time and it also takes creativity and assessment of more options than I once considered. I can’t just rely on the expensive instinctive choices that I relied on in the past. Instead, I have to figure out what my real constraints are, then look for options in my life that meet those constraints. The thing is, once I begin to see that there really are a number of options that fit those new constraints, that old instinct starts to fall and the new “instinct” starts to rise. The new choice becomes the automatic one.

If you follow this process with the decisions you make in your life, you will start to reshape your instincts over time. That’s exactly what happened to me as I gradually shifted from instinctively wanting to spend money to instinctively finding other options. When I do find situations where I instinctively want to spend, I put time and thought into rebuilding that instinct in a better way. Again, the challenging part is creativity and thinking about more options than you’re initially considering.

Master your instincts and you master your spending.

Good luck!