Updated on 04.08.09

The Little Things That Make You Happy

Trent Hamm

One of the most constant criticisms leveled against me (and against anyone who talks about frugality regularly) is that, in order to save a few cents, one must abandon the simple pleasures in life. “YOU’LL PRY THIS MOCHA LATTE FROM MY COLD, DEAD HANDS!” people will write to me in a fit of vengeance.

Here’s the truth: if that mocha latte actually brings significant happiness into your life, the last thing you should ever do is give it up. Giving up something you love in order to save a few cents isn’t frugal, it’s cheap.

Instead, a frugal person would look at it from several different perspectives.

Is it the item itself that is bringing happiness? Quite often, we tie good feelings and memories into a material object that actually aren’t related to the object at all. I talked about this a while back – I realized that my daily visits to the coffee shop weren’t about my joy from drinking coffee. Instead, that twinge of pleasure I got came from memories of trips to the coffee shop when I was in college. The happiness I got was free and not really tied to that day’s coffee order at all.

Is there a equal-quality substitute that can save you some cash? Many people criticized my post about homemade laundry detergent – it only saved me eighteen cents per load, right? What a cheapskate!

Well, I could make 52 batches of that homemade laundry detergent in about fifteen minutes. This saves me $9.36. I’m not reducing the quality of the detergent, either – my homebrew gets my clothes just as clean as the detergent I normally used.

Any time you can find a roughly equal-quality substitute for something you use regularly, you save money. There’s no reason to not check out generics or homemade versions of staple items – if they’re not up to your personal standards, go back to the name brand you were using before. If it does the job in a way satisfactory to you, stick with the less-expensive version.

So, what about that daily latte at the coffee shop? Why not try a smaller size one morning? Why not try a different, less-expensive coffee shop once? Perhaps you can just go to work and drink the coffee there – take a bottle of good creamer with you to add that flavor. There’s no reason at all not to at least try the lower-cost alternatives available to you – and if you find one that clicks, adopt that alternative as your new standard and watch yourself save money each time.

Is this actually a worthwhile use of my time? If I can’t save money at an hourly rate of $20 per hour invested in the frugal task, it’s not worth it to me (unless I’m doing it for other reasons as well, like brewing homemade beer).

Take the laundry detergent, for example. That single batch takes e about fifteen minutes and saves me $9.36. That earns me an after-tax hourly wage on the project of $37.44 – definitely worth fifteen minutes, particularly when I can somewhat multitask with that time (my full concentration doesn’t need to be on the bucket when I’m stirring it).

My time (and your time) is too valuable to waste on nickel-and-dime frugality.

So, how does this apply to the latte in question? Maybe you’ve found a coffee shop that has a good price on lattes – and you just can’t match the quality elsewhere without matching the cost and matching the time invested. If that’s the case, then by all means enjoy your latte at the coffee shop.

Here’s the real story. A cheapskate always chases the bottom line, regardless of quality of the experience. A spendthrift just takes the first offer that comes along and insists that this is the best way of doing things.

On the other hand, a frugal person doesn’t just accept the first offer that comes along. They try to find ways to get that same experience and quality and value for a lower price – or find the best bang for the buck in their lives.

Don’t give up your daily latte. Instead, just look for the best value you can get on that latte, because if you drink one every day, every penny you save on that daily latte really begins to add up. And that same truth applies to almost everything in your life that you do with any repetition, from flipping on a light switch to brushing your teeth.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Alan Schram says:

    This topic is definitely something worth thinking about. I really feel as though we should be paying more attention to what we’re spending our money on. I would argue that it is absolutely okay to spend money on a daily latte, as long as we recognize the amount that we’re spending and we’re okay with the price that we’re paying.

    It is when we spend money simply out of routine (daily latte) without getting pleasure (like how your memory was giving you the happiness, not the coffee) that we are being foolish with our money.

  2. Johanna says:

    What does homemade laundry detergent have to do with “the little things that make you happy”?

  3. I totally agree that frugality is not about giving up the things you love–it is about determining what things are important to you, what things you can live without, and how to get the best deals on the important things. Sometimes, a latte can be one of the important things to you. There is nothing wrong with that. Frugality involves careful research and decision making. It is responsibility.

  4. Baker @ Man Vs. Debt says:

    You know what makes me happy? Making homemade wheat thin crust pizza with banana/jalepeno peppers!

  5. leslie says:

    I think this is great advice! Many frugal tips will say to cut things out completely, which is a pretty big jolt for a lot of people causing them to instantly become defensive and refuse to listen to the advice.

    So instead of saying “give something up,” you say, “tind a way to get what you want, cheaper” it turns this more into a challenge for the consumer while letting them keep the item they enjoy.

  6. Daisy says:

    As always, a great post, Trent. I think, for a lot of people, the trick is finding the fine line between buying a few things here and there that make you happy and making the mistake of directly linking your happiness with things you buy; what a daily struggle that can be for some people!

    Have a great holiday weekend!

  7. Jeff says:

    I think there’s a distinction missing here. For most coffee-shop goers, it’s not only the coffee that floats their boats, but the process. Home-brewed is cheaper, but you don’t get to waste away your morning listening to the muzak and sweat blue-hair stories. I can’t reallly put a value on that stuff.

    For laundry detergent, few people (I’m guessing) get off on the process, let alone the type of detergent you use. So why not go with a cheaper solution if neither really makes or breaks the laundry washing experience for you?

  8. Molly says:

    I think this is ironic – because just this morning, my partner and I went out to a coffee shop for a breakfast/anniversary date. Why this is frugal: it is an alternative to a very fancy/3x as expensive breakfast, and it’s probably more tasty and comfortable to me. Plus, I then got to take my extra (and delicious) latte to work and enjoy it there!

  9. Natalie says:

    This is really petty, but when you use “mocha latte” as a singular item, it makes me think you have never had either one and cannot identify with those that really enjoy them. Unless people are double fisting, they are having a mocha or a latte.

  10. Lance Ware says:

    Great advice. Sometimes I find myself stuck between being cheap and frugal. I always find that I am being too frugal on small expenses and too cheap on big expenses on wanting to do the opposite later.

  11. Dave says:

    This was a good one, what I got was, Turn the brain on, and think! use some balance, Don’t spend or for that matter do anything just becuase thats how you have been doing it, if you realize it has a value to you, keep at it, if not you save money or time.
    Try something differant now and then,

  12. George says:

    I have always enjoyed a little slice of happiness from my mocha lattes, but I chose to give them up for Lent. Now, six weeks later, I’m enjoying the anticipation of having one on Sunday morning and imagining how good it’ll taste.

    I know that it’s pretty much the same hot drink that I was having every couple of days back in January and February, but I know that it’ll bring me more happiness if I just have one once in a while. It’ll be cheaper too.

  13. Dan says:

    To Buy is sacred. To consume is Divine.
    He who has the most Toys wins.
    These and others have been our Mantra
    for far too long. I’m having a coffee watching my son and his buds play ball hockey and learn to skip rope, That beats buying crap any day of the week.


  14. Sunshine says:

    trent, what a great explanation!

    @ Baker@Man vs Debt: I very quickly read through your comment and read “Making homemade wheat thin crust pizza with banana and jalepeno peppers!” My first thought was bananas and jalapeno peppers? On pizza? That is so weird, but I bet it’s good. I re-read your comment and it made so much more sense!

  15. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    An economist would say this is a weighing of the marginal cost and the marginal benefit when deciding whether to make a purchase. If you value the latte at $2 but the cost is $3, you shouldn’t make that purchase. At anything less than $2, obviously you should.

    He would also take into account the opportunity costs. He only has so many dollars to go around so if he can also buy something for $2 that he values at $5 he should buy that instead of something he values at $1.75, even though it makes logical sense to buy both.

    The criticism of this approach is that it assumes that consumers will act rationally, when we know, from other mediums of behavioral science that they often do not.

  16. Bavaria says:

    I think it is ironic that people search your ideas for saving money, and then criticize you for giving them ideas for saving money. Pretty silly. Thank you for all your inspiration and for all the money saving options you have suggested. I have used several and it has been very beneficial. Keep up the good work!

  17. leftymarine says:

    Very good observations. Frugality definitely requires THINKING about “is this a good way to save a little more, or not?” I know that I preferred buying coffee than making at home–before I bought a self-grinding coffeemaker. Convenience + quality at the same time. Haven’t looked back since.

  18. Dawn says:

    One thing you don’t mention Trent, is that sometimes the frugal alternatives turn out to be much *better* than the old standbys. I just read another blogger who found a list she made a few years ago on things she would never give up – on it was frozen pizza. But now she makes her own homemade pizza and would never go back because hers is so much better. Personally, I love to make my own lattes at home. Not only can I control the ingredients, but I like the process. It is a nice quiet time in the morning. I wouldn’t have known how much I enjoyed it though, if I hadn’t tried it.

  19. Kevin says:

    I think that what makes someone happy should not be tied to a thing. For example, a latte is such a small, insignificant pleasure compared to helping someone be able to go to sleep with a food in their stomach, or being a part of distributing a vaccine to those who would never have been able to receive it, or giving a child an education that would not have happened otherwise.

    The joy derived from a daily latte is nothing compared to the joy of truly benefiting someone’s life for the better. So I say give up the latte, grow up, and actaully spend your money on things that really bring happiness.

  20. stephanie says:

    more lattes and laundry detergent? i might go mad.

  21. Trent- What’s your “after-tax hourly rate” for your car loan? What are the opportunity costs of buying a brand-new car, as opposed to buying a used car with cash?

    I bought a new car, but then again, I don’t preach the virtue of saving a few bucks on laundry detergent. You seem content to consistently ignore the big $ saved in favor of a few dollars here and there. Why not do both?


  22. Jade says:

    Speaking of coffee, I like having my Starbucks twice a week, but I try to keep it down to once every week or two. Lately I’ve been stressed out and needing to decompress more often, so I’ve been having my Starbucks 3 times a week. Oh well, hopefully once I’m done helping my grandma move she’ll buy me a Starbucks gift card.

    I used to drink the stuff every day though, or even twice a day. Then I discovered that I have a caffeine allergy. But even before I quit because of the allergy, I had switched to getting my morning coffee from the pot my dad always brews and never finishes anyway and just adding a hot chocolate packet to it to make it seem more like a Starbucks mocha. Did the trick, helped me cut back to just afternoon coffee runs on days where I had to work in the evenings as well.

    Now I don’t drink coffee for the buzz, I get decaf mochas, and hot chocolate is still better than I can make at home, and the smaller sizes make me just as happy. So I’m getting tall or kid size hot chocolates and the occasional tall mocha, or iced mochas on hot days. I’ve gone from spending $50/month on Starbucks to $100/year.

    So to make a long story short, yes my Starbucks is something that makes me happy, but I’ve cut back as much as I can before I cut into my happiness level, which comes out to about $100 a year. So I buy Starbucks gift cards, sometimes I can get $100 of gift cards at Costco for less than $100. Or I can cash in my $40 Discover cashback bonus award and get a $45 or $50 Starbucks gift card. Always looking to make it cheaper!

  23. My Journey says:

    I am sure you have in the past, but can you provide some insight into homemade beer…I tried and kinda failed.

  24. Kim @ money for disney says:

    It’s all so individual. I buy only clearance sale or thrift store clothes and my furniture comes from Craig’s List. I look forward to laundry hanging season here in Maine. I coupon and bulk cook. I enjoy thrift. That being said, I go on a lot of vacations. I take a lot of personal satisfaction in the intensive family time traveling gives us. We learn and play and laugh together. Those memories mean so much more to me than the latest shoes or expensive dinners. I have a friend who never travels, but has put tremendous effort into having a beauitful home with a pool and a keg fridge. They entertain several times a week. Their expenditures were fairly necessary for the type of life they dream about. In ten years, they have never been on a vacation and spend very little on entertainment outside their home. We all pick and choose what is meaningful. The only miserly people are the ones who are so tight that they receive no joy from their life.

  25. My friends and family know I love Starbucks so a gift card is what I often get for Christmas or birthdays.

    I was talking to one of the guys at Starbucks over the Holidays and I told him I viewed my pumpkin spice latte as a mini vacation rather than a cup of coffee.

    He nodded and told me he heard that quite often. Financially I can’t afford one everyday but that is definitely my chosen “frugal luxury” and a darn cheap vacation.

  26. Ken says:

    WE each have to decide what we can and can’t live without. If we aren’t willing to make a few cuts then it’s safe to say we don’t want a cheaper life. If someone has enough money to have all they want and still reach their financial goals, so be it. On the flip side, don’t blame the economy if you haven’t really made changes that can improve your ability to provide for your family.
    Good post.

  27. cv says:

    I think about this sometimes in relation to bringing versus buying my lunch at work. I try to bring my lunch most days, but sometimes end up buying it. Sometimes I’m bored with homemade food or I’m really craving the french fries from the place across the street, and then it makes sense for me to spend a few dollars to get the happiness that it brings me (since I can afford that level of spending). Buying my lunch because I was lazy or didn’t plan ahead or forgot to bring my lunch, though, doesn’t increase my happiness at all and costs a lot more, so it’s something I try to avoid.

  28. Em says:

    Although I understand your point here, the buying things that make you happy rhetoric isn’t something I can get on board with. That line of reasoning only reinforces our collective consumerist culture.
    Should I spend more than I really need to simply because I think whatever thing I’m spending it on will make me happy…? Conflated constructs of self-indulugence as a neccessity aren’t really going to get us anything but more debt, less savings, and a culture of people that expect lattes, take out food, and comic book collections to replace the contentment of enjoyed experiences and interpersonal relationships.

  29. Josh says:

    If you watched slickdeals.net, you could have gotten 180 loads of actual laundry detergent for $10.

  30. CM says:

    The hubby just went back to work after a 6 month layoff. To pick up some extra cash while he was out, I started mystery shopping. Now I do it just to give us a night out, mostly doing restaurants, movies, bowling and a few retail store shops (which helps with Christmas shopping). I get reimbursed for expenses, plus often get paid a small fee. We have 3 kids in college and 2 in high school, so we never had much of a budget for these “night out” expenses, so this has been great.

    Oh, and I think the pizza has banana peppers, not banana bananas. And the homemade laundry detergent is great! On Nov. 5, I spent $30 on supplies and have made 3 batches. We still have alot left. Since there are 7 of us, I was spending at least $20 a month on High Efficiency laundry detergent. So I broke even mid December and have been washing FREE ever since.

    My recent money saver is shopping for groceries on line and having them delivered. Online fee $10, which I have coupons for every week, and $6 delivered, which I would have spent in gas. They take coupons. They deliver to your door. Of course, I still do some shopping at Wally world for the things that are always cheaper there, and just shop the sales at the online place. I just got my Easter ham free with a special they were running. My cost for 14 people for Easter dinner?
    Potatoes 5 lbs $3, mustard $1, pineapple $1, soda $4. Already have the carrots, but ok, $3. Total cost $12. Grandma is bringing dessert.

    Keep writing, love the ideas!

  31. Robyn says:

    I have a comment on a bigger aspect of this post – it seems there are references often to the contentious side of frugality – people defending their methods and ideas on how to save money, or defending what they want to keep buying. I’ve found that it makes my life less stressful to not talk about my frugal ideas, but to go quietly about my life doing what seems best for me. If people notice great. But it sure puts some people on the defensive and creates heated conversations (I’m not talking about what goes on here – this is part of the mission of this blog). It does not make sense to me that someone is sad about their finances but continues to buy lattes. But I don’t focus on that. I just don’t buy as many lattes anymore and carry on with my day.

  32. Marie says:

    I have to comment on the cheap laundry detergent. While it may be well and good to try the cheaper ones, please remember to try them on clothes you might not care so much about first. There are a couple of brands that have faded our clothing, and were not worth the savings.

    For handwashing, one can try castille soap (Trader Joe’s sells it, but maybe you can find it elsewhere.) One drop goes a very long way. It also has many other uses.

  33. Ashlee says:

    Thank you so much for this! This is exactly how I’ve learned to go about my spending & budgeting issues. Money CAN buy happiness if you spend it wisely & spend the majority of your money (well other than on necessities like heating & electricity) on the things that make you happy. If good food makes you happy spend more money on food than others do. If a fancy car REALLY makes you happy go for it (within your actual income, you still have to be smart about it!) No matter how rich you become this should always be how you think of money & buying things. I know I always will! (By the way I’m 18.)

  34. Ron says:

    I may be going off on a tangent here, but I think a distinction should be made between happiness and pleasure. See “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama. While I agree that it may make sense to keep buying that latte if you really enjoy it, I don’t think it brings you happiness. It brings you pleasure. You might find more happiness by giving up on the pleasure of that latte and doing something else with your time and money (and getting off that caffeine addiction!).

  35. IRG says:

    Great point about the distinction between “happiness” and “pleasure.”

    We humans do get a lot of PLEASURE from spending, at times, on stuff, etc. It’s been pleasurable over teh years to take nice getaways, to wear well-designed clothing, to decorate a home and to purchase books, among many pleasures. (Like that first great cup of Joe in the morning. Or hot tea on a cold afternoon.)

    But real happiness? Ah, now that is another matter entirely.

    I’m happy when I have a day where I can breathe easily and am not in pain. When I can see and be with my friends.

    I’m ecstatic when I can meet my monthly bills or when a job is done and someone benefits from it.

    And I’m very happy when those I love are choosing to live their lives with awareness and integrity. And not worrying about what doesn’t really matter.

  36. Mel says:

    @ Erica: I think the point isn’t so much the actual outcome (continuing the daily coffee or not), it’s the decision process – Trent did outline his process and the reasons why the new car made more sense for him. In the same way, if someone looks at their daily coffee or bought lunch or whatever, and decides for whatever reason it makes sense to continue with it, then that’s fine. The bad thing is to keep doing it “just because”.

  37. Sue says:

    I like the comment about the latte — actually I love a morning latte and I figured out that by buying a relatively inexpensive espresso machine [about $200 complete with frothing wand] that I could have my morning latte at home and it would pay for itself in a few months — so I didn’t give anything up, just thought of a more effective way to get it

  38. Sharon says:

    Erica, there is also a difference between investing more in a longer-term, greater-value product than getting a cheap immediate solution to the problem that will require re-solving again soon.

    And no, folks, I’m not saying a car, a depreciating asset, is an investment. I am saying that a new car that gets high mileage can been seen as being greater value than a cheap junker that will last you a few years and that may cause regret if gas goes back up to $4/gallon again. A new car that will go 15-20 years and gets driven into the ground until it is replaced while saving a substantial amount on fuel costs in that interval is not a bad decision.

    The same reasoning goes into buying (investing in)an expensive, high-quality coat, suit or purse that you will use for many years instead of getting a cheap item from the thrift store that will need to be replaced quickly. Also, dressing well can have hidden benefits, in terms of confidence, higher-paying jobs, promotions, etc. as people respond positively to a sharp-looking, confident person. The price that matters in the end is cost per wearing, not purchase price. Wear that coat 1,000 times and a $500 coat is much cheaper than a $20 coat worn 40 times.

    Personally, I have learned to never buy the cheapest electronic device. The middle-range always proves to have the features and value I am looking for, and the cheapest ends up disappointing.

    Neither decision is necessarily “wrong.” Sometimes I go one way, sometimes the other.

  39. Razlan says:

    I used to buy two litres of Sunkist orange juice at S$4.50 per litre every week. And I realised that a store-brand version taste about the same, equally refreshing, but only at S$3.00 per litre. That’s frugality, with more happiness (enjoyment of orange juice + satisfaction that you saved).

    Thanks for this blog. I am learning so much and felt so much better to be a frugal person.

  40. Nelson says:

    @ Erica- #15

    You nailed it. Nice.

  41. Mary says:

    I buy the cheapest brand of coffee I can find, and then splurge with Hazelnut Coffeemate creamer. It’s that wonderful hazelnut flavor that makes my one cup of coffee everyday very special. I put it in my thermos and enjoy it here at work.
    I love this site!! Keep up the good work!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *