Spend a bit more, but still save money
Do the math: If it makes sense to pay a little more upfront, find room in your budget.
For example, "grow some of your own food" isn't possible for someone who lives in a condo. You can put a few things in pots, but that's not the kind of savings you'd get from a backyard full of vegetables.
It also won't work for people who are physically unable to dig and delve, or for those who live in places inhospitable to gardens. I'm thinking about the town of Bethel, Alaska, with its near-constant wind, planting-season temperatures between 41 and 55 degrees, permanently frozen soil just 3 feet under the region's infertile soil and water that gets delivered by truck.
Another interesting thing about Bethel: It's cheaper to buy pre-bagged salad there, because the cost of the water to wash lettuce and other veggies more than makes up for the premium you pay for pre-cleaned greens.
Sometimes, you really do have to spend to save.
How much you "should" spend on life's essentials is a very personal issue. Some people would never join a chapter of The Freecycle Network, whereas others think it's nuts to pay for a desk or lamp when people are giving such items away for free.
Your amount of free time also matters, as does your choice on how to spend that time. A prime example: We know it's cheaper to cook at home, but some people either can't or won't do this. Buying a rotisserie chicken, a bag of greens and a half-pound of deli potato salad is still cheaper than ordering pizza or taking your family out to eat.
Paying for convenience?
Some frugalists turn couponing into an art form, regularly snaring groceries and toiletries for free. But there are also people who can't cope with supermarkets.
Melissa Tosetti of The Savvy Life blog tells of a woman who regularly spent $1,500 a month on food for her five-person family, much of it on restaurant meals.
Tosetti suggested she read the food ads, create menus and shop for those items only. But the woman's life was so "chaotic" that she couldn’t shop regularly, and any time she did hit the store she was so overwhelmed that she invariably overspent.
So Tosetti suggested a new tactic: grocery delivery. Some frugalists would say that the $17-a-week fee is wasteful. However, the woman's monthly food budget is now $750.
She spent. She saved.
This applies to other aspects of life -- and that it goes in the other direction, too. If you live in a townhome with 30 square feet of lawn, it hardly makes sense to buy a top-of-the-line mower with all the bells and whistles.
But if you live on a giant, grassy spread? Buy one for the long run.
"It is very easy to automatically reach for the less-expensive item. However, routinely purchasing the cheaper item can cost you more in the long run," says Tosetti, the co-author of "Living the Savvy Life."
Do the math
That doesn't necessarily mean paying retail, mind you. I've gotten household goods, furniture and name-brand clothing at thrift stores and yard sales for next to nothing, items that lasted for years and years.
I never buy shoes secondhand, however, due to foot and back issues. When the Rockport walking shoes I wear go on sale and there's a free shipping code, I'll buy four pairs at a clip.
Not because I woke up wanting to drop $300 or more on footwear, but because I know it could ultimately save me money. Suppose my last pair wore out and the replacements weren't on sale?
A close friend does the same thing with clothing. She's curvy, extremely short and no longer a girl -- in other words, it's devilishly hard to find age-appropriate clothing. When she finds a pair of pants that fits, she'll buy all the shop has in stock even though she's not thrilled to go over-budget on clothes. Who knows when she'll find a similar item again?
Note: The spend-to-save tactic should be applied strategically. It's not permission to buy anything you want on the grounds that it might save you money down the road. But if you've done the math and can honestly say it makes sense to spend more rather than cut corners, find room in your budget. Sometimes it pays to have someone else wash your lettuce or to deliver it to you.
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My daughter did figure out that paying "mow and blow" twice a month was considerably cheaper than marriage counseling!
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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.
ABOUT 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.
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