A while ago I noticed that in the frugality department, I was feeling stale, chafed, too busy to bother, and I’d slacked off. We’ve thrown away more food over the last couple of months than I could have purchased 20 years ago- which makes me ashamed.
I thought it might help to spend more online time with other frugal zealots. I wanted a refresher, a reminder, a tool to spur me on to do better with saving money. I added a couple extra blogs to my reading and I joined a couple lists- all frugal oriented, according to their descriptions.
Maybe I just got unlucky, but something I noticed is that a lot of the frugal tips on saving money are really about spending money.
It reminds me of a recent visit to a trendy little discount store near us. Everything they have is new, but they claim it is drastically marked down. It may be, but most of it is still more than I would pay. However, they do sometimes have some really amazing sales, where their discounted items are actually marked down to a price I’m willing to pay.
A few years back, around the time the Equuschick and Shasta were getting married, I wandered the aisles of that store looking for those really, really good deals to use as wedding decor. I picked up an adorable candle shaped like a miniature wedding cake- it was 2.00, marked down from 5.00. I bought some deep purple votive candles, also for the wedding. These were marked down to about a quarter per candle. I bought my girls some boy’s basket ball shorts ( my girls liked to wear them with a top for swimming in our creek). I picked up some large bottles of flavored coffee syrups- several varieties, to use at the wedding where we hoped to have a coffee bar, and I bought three or four other things just because they were so cute I couldn’t resist.
When the cashier rang out my purchases she looked at my receipt and brightly said, “You saved 126.00 today!”
Well, no, I did not. I spent fifty. I know, I know, it’s a marketing gimmick, not a factual math equation. But still. I did not ‘save’ 126 dollars because if most of those items had not been on sale I would not have purchased them at all. If I am not buying an item that eventually I would have purchased anyway, then I really didn’t save. I spent.
Here’s a tip for you. Pay close attention, because this important and complicated concept will enable you to always cut through the advertising and really discern whether you saved money or spent money. Ask yourself this question: Are you paying them or are they paying you?*
I know this can be a difficult concept, so let me put it a different way. If you’re the one paying out the money, you’re spending. You may be spending less than you would have if you hadn’t found the item on sale, and if it is truly an item you had to have one way or the other, no matter what, then you did save something. But for most Americans most of the time, when we ‘save’ money by buying something, we’re spending rather than saving. You may be spending less than you would have on an item that isn’t a necessity, and that’s not a bad thing, either. You may be able to afford to spend that money, in which case, there is nothing wrong with spending it. Retail organizations and purveyors of junk have to pay their employees and eat just like the rest of us. But don’t confuse spending with saving.
Let’s look at a hypothetical example: Cover girl make-up is on sale somewhere, say, half off. And you have a coupon that enables you to take another dollar or two off some item, so you can get a Cover Girl lipstick for .50. Or let’s even make it a quarter. Great deal, right?
Actually, that depends. For me, that would mean I spent a quarter I did not need to spend on something I don’t need to own. I almost never, ever wear make-up (well, this isn’t true any more, but it was true when I wrote this first) and when I do, I can’t wear Cover-Girl. Makes me break out. I would get more for my quarter if I tossed in a fountain and made a wish.
It would be worth the quarter, it would be saving money, IF you wear Cover-Girl and you will be able to use that new lipstick before it expires, or if you know somebody who does and you want to give them a gift. It would be worth it if you wanted to decorate somebody’s car or bathroom (only the windows and mirrors, not the paint job) and you planned on buying some window paint anyway. It might even be good retail therapy for you if spending a quarter satisfies that itch so you don’t spend five dollars elsewhere. There may be other situations I am not envisioning. But if you can get by without the Cover Girl lipstick or any substitute- and you would have gone without if it weren’t on sale– even a quarter is not a good saving money price.
When I write these posts, I am often a little surprised by the pushback I can get, usually from people who think I’m judging them for buying stuff. I’m not. Here’s where I am coming from. We have been so poor we had no food in the house and no money coming in to buy more food for another 24 hours. We had two eggs between us and the next 24 hours, and I dropped one and broke it.
We have been so poor we could not afford to get our power turned on and we lived out of an ice chest and went to bed and rose with the sun. I have washed clothes in the bathtub and hung them from an improvised line in a bedroom.
We have been so poor we couldn’t run the heat in our bedroom, and glasses of water literally froze at night.
When I was pregnant with my first child I owned two pairs of maternity pants and maybe four shirts. My mother bought them for me. For the entire pregnancy I alternated between those two pairs of pants. I was so sick of those clothes by the time my baby was born I could hardly stand it.
Granted, that was all a very long time ago, and I spend money I do not need to spend all the time now. I do not think buying something you do not need is a sin. But I still just cannot equate saving money with spending three times as much as I would have otherwise because it’s on ‘sale.’
Here’s what I consider frugal:
Thrift shops, yard sales- and even there, you have to be careful.
beans, rice, potatoes
cooking with sour milk
Making your own stuff, from scratch when it’s actually cheaper (you have to do the math)
Cloth diapers purchased at a thrift shop, yard sale, or given to you by a friend.
Checking out a movie from the library instead of renting one or going to the theater (At one point in our lives we went over a decade without seeing a movie in the theater, and my oldest children were in their teens before I rented a movie instead of borrowing one from the library)- or better yet, reading aloud together and/or playing a game and/or singing
Popcorn- not microwave- instead of chips
Not boxed cereals, even if they are on sale.
Realizing hamburger helper is not a cheap meal when you buy the boxed stuff, and making it from scratch.
Making it do
Using it up
Wearing it out.
I’m not trying to put down anybody who doesn’t do those things, I do not do them all anymore, either.
While being a good steward of what God gives you is an important spiritual discipline, you can be a good steward and still buy things you do not strictly ‘need.’ You can bless your family or others with them. You can make things beautiful, you can nurture others, you can show them you value them. I know there’s nothing hyper spiritual about baking your own bread and making your own laundry soap and going without boxed cereals- although there is some spiritual discipline to living within your means. I’m not belittling those who save money by spending more than I would on new stuff- I do buy new stuff, too. We’re not that poor anymore.=)
However, it’s not much of a blessing if you spend so much money on new books your family can’t pay the electric bill, or you are not paying back money you borrowed because you want steak instead of beans and rice, and you don’t care to note the difference between wants and needs.
And because of where we’ve come from, when I read those frugal sites which really just offer advice on spending money, I’m just thinking that surely some of the other people on those same ‘saving money’ lists are closer to being in the same boat of poverty we once were in than they are comfortable admitting. I’m wondering if maybe they are desperately looking for some more serious money saving ideas than how to spend more money buying stuff they weren’t going to buy at all before they found out about that sale. I wince at some of the advice, thinking about some of those readers who maybe hurting, and also may be young and inexperienced or insecure enough that they don’t yet know these truths.
We simply all do better at saving our money when we are accurate about the distinction between spending and saving.