Thursday, April 14, 2011

Frugal Flexibility

This posts' title "Frugal Flexibility", is a play on the phrase "moral flexibility". By "frugal flexibility" I mean looking at issues pertaining to frugal living from more than one perspective to make financial decisions, much like someone with moral flexibility would do with moral issues. Sometimes when discussing frugal living, people tend to narrow their perspective. For example, there are proponents of frugal living always look at price and suggest buying the lowest-priced goods regardless of other factors. Others might suggest strictly covering necessities thus making all unnecessary purchases decidedly not frugal. Proponents of frugal living with strong environmentalist values would probably consider buying more expensive green products more frugal than buying cheaper ones that damage the environment. They'd see the cheaper product as costing society more in environmental problems, and thus more expensive as a whole than green products that actively prevent environmental problems. As human beings, we all approach topics, more or less, from our perspective. Our perspective is usually reflective of our personal values and is at times hard to step out of. It's for this reason that ideas about frugal living vary from source to source and are sometimes difficult to clearly define.

In this post, I will discuss some goods where I step outside of my usual frugal perspective. Generally, my perspective revolves around a lowest-price focus. I suppose this influence is directly from my mother, a woman who manages money exceptionally well by buying lowest-priced everything. My view is similar in most areas, except unlike my mother who isn't influenced by anything outside of price, there are some issues I care about that also affect my purchases. Let's get to it.

Frugal flexibility example #1: Oral Hygiene 
After years of brushing my teeth with the cheapest toothbrushes as a teenager (courtesy of mama bear), I decided once I got my first job that I would purchases my own toothbrushes. The cheapest toothbrushes are usually the most basic. They usually contain a small portion of bristles, none of which are in any different shape. The high end ones, I've noticed, contain a portion of circular bristles placed strategically in the middle of the normal bristles. I've heard that this circular potion serves to help you brush correctly and cleans your teeth more thoroughly than the plain set of bristles on the cheap toothbrush. I'm not a Dentist, so I can't tell you for certain whether or not high end makes much of a difference, but I can tell you that my teeth look and feel cleaner than they did when I used the cheaper toothbrush. I practice the same spending habits with mouthwash and toothpaste. I'm not opposed to buying a generic version of any of the products mentioned above, the problem is that usually there is a generic version available of the basic product (i.e. Colgate Total) but not for the high end product (Colgate Pro Clinical). Oral hygiene is simply something I'm not willing to take chances with. I'd rather spend a two or three dollars more per month on products, than deal with dental problems.

Frugal flexibility example #2: Jeans
This is one of the areas where I truly employ flexibility. I have always, and will always, be against buying clothing at full price. I always look for sales, scout thrift stores, accept clothing friends don't want if I happen to like it and check eBay for used clothing prices. Granted, I'm not going to pretend I'm anti-materialistic and anti-name brand clothing like some frugal extremists are. I consider clothing to fall under the category of artistic expression, and thus I don't subscribe to the "only shallow people care about how they look" mentality of some people within the frugal living community. If you don't mind wearing shirts with holes and stains in them alongside twenty year old jeans to avoid spending money on new clothing, that's fine by me. For those of us who have a sense of fashion but feel guilty dropping more than twenty dollars on a pair of jeans to satisfy that desire, there are ways to do so. I always search Ross and TJ Maxx for quality new jeans at a reasonable price. They sometimes carry Levi's that retail for sixty dollars for twenty dollars or less. Thrift stores, especially those that cater to a younger crowd and purchase unwanted fashionable clothes (Plato's closet), are great places to find stylish Jeans at exceptionally low prices. I will sometimes go to an expensive store and find a pair of jeans I like to look up on eBay. This is accomplished easily. Simply look at the tag and see if the jeans have a special title, most of them do. for example DKNY has a type of jean I like they call "Bleecker". Simply search "DKNY Bleecker" on eBay and look for jeans sold at prices lower than your local retail store. Trust me, before resorting to buying pricier jeans, I was fond of buying cheaper jeans. I used to buy most of my jeans from Target or Wal-Mart. I stopped doing so because I realized jeans sold cheap were jeans made cheap. I'd end up spending more replacing worn out pairs than I do on a pair of Levi's that lasts me for years.

Frugal flexibility example #3: Alcoholic bevarages
When I was younger and enjoyed throwing large parties, I would buy the cheapest kind of beer I could find so I could get a ton of it. For such an occasion it was usually Miller High Life. You can get an 18 pack of Miller High Life for about the same, or only slightly more than it costs to get a 12 pack of Bud Light. These days, now that I don't throw large parties and live a settled down lifestyle, I prefer to purchase premium. Yes, I understand the frugal argument against doing so makes sense, i.e. you get the same feeling (drunkenness) from Miller High Life that you do from Newcastle Brown Ale. I know that's the case, but since the occasions where I drink now I'm not trying to get annihilated, I make my choices based upon taste. Since alcohol is not a regular purchase for me, if I'm going to have a few drinks, I prefer to spend a little extra on Heineken, Newcastle or Red Stripe for the sake of taste. Like I do with Jeans, though I'm buying the premium product, I still search for deals. I usually try and go to a gas station or grocery store I know has the kind of beer I like at the lowest price. If I ever came across beer coupons (the modern day fountain of youth), I'd probably use those too.

The aforementioned spending decisions show where I veer from my usual "lowest-price" attitude concerning personal finance. This is because I don't see frugal living as a simplistic issue. Getting the best deal can't always be done strictly by examining the numbers. My point is not that we shouldn't care about seeking the lowest price in all situations, but that we should also consider criteria outside of price such as quality and durability in order to establish the true best deal. For this reason, I consider frugal flexibility a good thing. I'm sure there are plenty of instances where you too veer outside of your general rules in order to satisfy various needs. Such flexibility is what makes being a smart consumer and frugal living practitioner so interesting.  

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Source Of Inspiration

My first experiences with frugal living occurred in childhood. Long before I ever knew there were people intentionally living frugally, I noticed my mother's crazy money saving habits. I have fond memories of going to McDonald's after church with my mother and my little brothers. After ordering our food, instead of spending the extra dollar or so for a fountain soda, my mom would drive up to a nearby soda machine in the plaza and purchase twenty five cent store-brand beverages. She would purchase three sodas, for less than the price of one small soda at McDonald's. At the time I didn't think much of it as I was so young all I cared about was the pleasure of enjoying fast food and soda. These days however, I look back on such small strategic moves with a sense of pride in my mother.

As the years progressed, my attitude toward my mother's frugal ways would change in accordance with my lifestyle. Between the age of around eleven up until I was fifteen, I was quite annoyed by her spending habits. In these days I'd constantly call her "cheap" and was irritated when we waited longer than most families to acquire video game systems. I'd go to friends houses, where a full twelve pack of coke was put in the fridge and available to whomever, and wonder why my mother wouldn't do the same. She would purchases twelve packs of coke and place them in her bedroom, only taking out one per day for each of us to have with dinner. As there were never cold sodas readily available in the fridge, her storage idea worked because no one would drink more than one soda a day. Our twelve packs of soda would last the entire week. I suppose she must've known that someday I'd agree with her practices, as every-time I called her cheap (and even when I do playfully now) she always laughed about it and never took offense.

I first began to truly admire her ways and notice her deep-rooted influence on me when I got my first job at sixteen years old. As I spent the entirety of my paychecks on fast-food, mall outings with friends and collecting music, I began to get a sense of value. It was pretty evident that money was easy to spend and that many things cost more than I had initially thought. I suddenly went from thinking my mother was the cheapest woman in the world to one of the smartest. Memories of brand new school clothes and trips to Busch Gardens came to mind and I realized how my mother's shortcuts left her with more money available to spend on the things she values. What was more interesting was how her habits had become ingrained in mine. When we would go out for fast food for example, my friends would all order premium combos costing somewhere between five to eight dollars. My regular meal choice was three dollar menu food items and a free cup of water as my beverage of choice. While certain friends of mine didn't mind buying forty dollar jeans at the mall, I refused to pay that much. I would instead spend my time scouting Beall's Outlet, TJ Maxx and Ross for twenty dollar jeans. It appeared that one way or another, a little bit of mom's "cheap" tendencies had rubbed off on me.

These initial inspirations are what motivated me to practice and write about living frugally. My mother never really thought of the way she lived as frugal. She doesn't read frugal living literature. She learned to be that way from her mother. Her mother, my grandmother, was raised in a farm environment understood much about preserving resources and living on essentials. Frugal living is so natural to them it's not something they'd ever feel needed a title or explanation. Although I'm nowhere near where I would like to be, I do have plenty of deep-seeded frugal inclinations that steer the way I feel about finances. I've met very few people my age who are cheaper than I am. I nearly always get clothes, electronics, sneakers, movies and albums at lower prices than my friends do. I've always enjoyed discussing saving money and money management and that is what I enjoy about blogging about frugal living. Thought I take pride in my frugal inclinations, I know there is still plenty for me to learn and plenty to improve upon. As I continue on this path, that is precisely what I hope to do.