Frugal NationFrugal Nation

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.

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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.