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Stupid frugality tricks

Not all savings tips are created equal. Some aren't worth your time. Some might decrease your quality of life in exchange for pennies in savings.

By Donna_Freedman Mar 14, 2012 4:32PM
Image: Woman counting money (© Jose Luis Pelaez, Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images)Two enduring icons of the frugality movement are Ziploc bags and dual-ply toilet paper. Apparently any frugalist worth his salt washes and reuses the former, and separates and re-rolls the latter.

Full disclosure: Some of my quart-size freezer bags are on their fourth tour of duty preserving wild (and free) blackberries. Why throw the bags out if they still work?

But turning a dual-ply TP roll into two single-ply rolls seems counterintuitive: Wouldn't you need to use more of the single-ply tissue, thus negating any savings? (And why not just buy cheaper single-ply to begin with?)

Done right, frugality means the smartest use of available dollars. But some money-saving tips are false economies (see "single-ply roll," above). Others might not be worth your time, or may distract you from smarter ways to cut costs. Some affect your standard of living in exchange for relatively small savings. (Post continues after video.)

Put it this way: A fabric softener sheet can be used at least twice. (Or maybe skipped entirely.) But if you spend an hour to make laundry soap that saves 2 cents per load, is it really worth it?

Diluting your dinner?

It depends. Maybe you make your own sudsy stuff out of concern for the environment. But not everyone has the time or the inclination, especially when laundry soap goes on sale and there's a good coupon.

A few questionable "frugal" tips I’ve heard:
  • Opting out of health insurance, even if you can afford it, because you "never get sick." (Good luck with that.)
  • Diluting foods to make them last longer. (It works, but your spaghetti sauce tastes like watery ketchup.)
  • Pretending you're a hotel guest to score a free breakfast. (Your parents must be so proud.)
  • Taking a huge bunch of napkins and condiments from fast-food restaurants. (Seriously, you think that's OK?)
  • Putting your kid into too-large or otherwise inappropriate clothing just because you got it for a quarter at the yard sale. (It's not like you have to listen to the teasing.)
  • Working an extra part-time job even if it means hiring a sitter, relying more on convenience food or takeout, and becoming increasingly stressed and exhausted. (What are you earning per hour when all is said and done, especially if you wind up sick?)

I'm well aware that some folks have to watch every penny. You're talking to a former single mom who washed all the laundry by hand -- including the cloth diapers -- because she couldn't afford a laundromat.

Be smart about watching those pennies, though. Think critically about time investment cost versus ultimate benefits, especially if your days are already crowded.

Pick your spots

For example, you could spend an hour getting auto insurance quotes. Compare the potential savings of that hour (hundreds of dollars per year) with time spent unrolling and re-rolling a few packages of toilet paper (little or nothing).

Changing your insurance is a one-time tactic, obviously. Watch for everyday cost-cutting measures as well, such as learning basic cooking techniques, becoming a one-car family, cutting cable TV temporarily (or permanently), kicking a bad habit (smoking, drinking to excess), taking in a roommate or finding cheaper ways to have fun.


Frugal tips are like any other financial advice: Use what works for your situation, and ignore the rest.

Just make sure the tips you choose are worth it. You get only 24 hours in a day, but toilet paper goes on sale all the time.

More on MSN Money:

Apr 6, 2012 11:04PM
Doing without health insurance is like Russian Roulette.  July of 1998 I was stricken with pancreatitis & spent 6 months out of work.  During that time I had 3 different hospital stays & 2 surgeries.  The first stay was for 49 days, 38 in ICU.  The hospital stay ALONE was 238K.  Without health insurance, we would be paying the rest of our lives or filing bankruptcy.  If you can't afford health insurance, get a plan with a higher deductible.  Insurance is for catastrophic situations.  Was it worth it for me & my family?  You bet!  
Mar 14, 2012 7:11PM
I try not to take too many of any given condiment or napkin. That said, they inevitably give us too much of everything at the drive-through window. (Which, as frugal folks, we NEVER visit. Cough, cough.) So I try to keep those on hand in the kitchen so they don't go to waste. They were also handy when we ran out of ketchup and I kept forgetting to buy more.

What I really don't understand is how anyone would think it' s a smart bet to get rid of health insurance. A bad chest cold combined with my husband's severe asthma ended in a 4-mile ambulance ride and a bit under 4 hours in an ER bed. The bills came to over $3,000. Imagine if he had had something that lasted more than a couple of hours...
Apr 9, 2012 9:06PM
There are things that you can live without, be healthier for it, and save money.  I know people who make $10hr. that smoke, drink, have cable tv, and smartphones.  They can easily live without those things and have more money to save for better living conditions, get out of credit debt, or for fun.  Here are some frugal tricks:
*Designer clothes can be had at clubs like Costco, Sams, Ebay - for huge discounts
*Give up excess tobacco and alcohol- they are expensive and harmful to your wallet and body
*Cable tv- TV is paid for by commercials, which cable has too. You pay them to watch what should be free?  People watch too much TV as it is. Over the air TV is good, and free.
*at&t, verizon are making money hand over fist. Until people realize that there are better deals out there. Metro is much less per month, same 4g smartphone capabilities and unlimited everything.

Mar 14, 2012 10:14PM
The extra napkins and ketchup that they give when you go through the drive thru are also great to send with the college kids.  My daughter just has a little dorm fridge, which helps save money on the meal plan, and those extra ketchup packages come in handy when microwaving hot dogs etc in the dorm.
Mar 22, 2012 5:20PM

I have dressed my 4 year old in about 70% clothes from yard sales, though now that he's 4, and it's impossible to find jeans that aren't ripped, let's say this year about 50/50 but my rule has always been, if it's nothing something I'd wear, I'm not putting him in it. While you can often if not always find great clothes for the 2-3 and under crowd at a yard sale, that still looks great, the older the get, the less you can buy because it's torn, stained, or stretched out. On occasion, buying a year or so ahead I have bought things at yard sale that I pull out and think yikes! This is wayyy too faded, or stretched out, what was I thinking? And I've donated or tossed it, but I don't lamet over the 25 or 50 cents I'd spent on it, because I'd rather my son look nice, than be embaressed! Most other parents know how your kid looks is a reflection on you...!! Just as I'd NEVER EVER and have NEVER EVER let him have a dirty face or clothe sin public, I'd NEVER dress him where he looked like a bum.


That said...right now, his size 4's are too small, and the 5's are too big, so I've the feeling the next few months, in publis, he's going to be wearing the few clothes that fit the best, until he's grown into his full summer wardrobe! Heaven help us if he stains them and I can't get it out!!

Mar 15, 2012 8:39AM
FYI: Laundry soap takes about 15 minutes to make.  It's environmentally sound and clothes smell great when they come out of the washer.  Most recipes are for 5 gallons, saving much more than a couple cents.  1 cup of borax is about 1/12th of the box, as is the washing soda.  So about 8.00 for 12 5 gallon batches saves lots of cash.  (my bars of soap cost me nothing, but you can add 99 cents for the bar of Ivory. 
Mar 21, 2012 11:00PM

Regarding the TP comment - I have actually read that you use the same amount of TP whether it's single ply or triple ply. It is definitely true in my house, I used a coupon to try a big brand of 2ply and it lasted LESS time than the inexpensive, warehouse club brand single ply that I was buying.

Mar 24, 2012 4:47PM
@Sarah: I like that rule. If I wouldn't wear it, I shouldn't expect anyone else to, either.
Those really beat-up duds are good for play clothes if your kids like to get down and dirty. But I wouldn't make my kid wear, say, lime-green socks with Christmas trees on them just because I found them for a dime on the clearance table.
Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

Mar 24, 2012 4:45PM
@Sue Joy: While house-sitting for a friend in Alaska last summer I found a bunch of TP being remaindered at Walgreens. Why it was remaindered just puzzles me; it's not as though the stuff goes bad. But of course I bought every package they had, probably 15 in all, because it was all marked at 99 cents -- even the double-roll packs. I left some with my hostess and gave the rest to a relative up there. Things are expensive in Alaska due to shipping, and normally that double-roll TP would have cost three times what I paid.
Some of it was Quilted Northern triple-ply. I'd never used that kind before, and I'd have to agree with you:  I can't figure out what difference it makes. Maybe three-ply tissue is a marketing issue.
Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.