Still shopping? Me, too. And who wants to gift junk people don’t need? Forget about jelly of the month club. Give gifts that will keep your frugal friends and family members saving all year long.
- Rechargeable batteries. Keep powering toys, flashlights, and other gadgets with less cost to you and the environment.
- Glass storage containers. Packing lunch and storing home-cooked leftovers is so much easier with the proper containers, and glass ones are healthier and easier for re-heating food.
- Cloth napkins. I love cloth napkins, not only for their cost effectiveness, but because they work so much better than cheap paper napkins.
- College fund contributions. This is the gift that keeps growing with the child, and adds value throughout his or her life. While toys and clothes begin depreciates as soon as a kid touches them, compounding interest will grow your gift over the next decade or more. And it’s tax deductible if you contribute directly to the fund.
- Wool. Barring wool allergies, wool sweaters, socks, or scarves are a great way to help a frugal gift recipient stay warm throughout the winter, ‘cause you know they’re too cheap to turn up the heat. Wearing wool saves us hundreds of dollars a year in heating costs, and of course we buy it at thrift or outlet stores. (But you might not want to give thrift store socks for Christmas. Just sayin’.)
- Camping gear. Open the Door to a Lifetime of Vacation Savings by lowering the entry cost of camping. We save over $1000 a year on vacations by camping, but wouldn’t want to without our tent, camp stove, air mattress, and sleeping bags.
- DIY reference materials, such as books on gardening, DIY home repair, cookbooks, backyard chickens, honey bees (our next venture) or any other book supporting a money-saving hobby or endeavor. Here’s my favorite Indian cookbook. And my favorite bread-baking book: Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day book. These are the types of books that I’d rather own than get from the library since we consult them so often.
- A bike. Biking for frugal transportation seems to have made a comeback via the illustrious Mr. Money Mustache. At least, this is what sold Neil, and since then he saw fit to gift me a bike (purchased on Craigslist). You can read about my embarrassingly ungrateful initial response on my personal blog. I’ve repented, and this year my other wish (besides cloth napkins) is a bike hitch so I can haul the kids around in our (also from Craigslist) bike trailer. Helmets are also a good gift for anyone whose brains or beauty you wish to preserve.
- For the new parent: temporal lobe thermometer: This thermometer is so quick & to use, my kids like getting their temperature taken. It also seems more sensitive than traditional ones.
miracle swaddler: This blanket gently helps keep those arms swaddled much longer than other styles.
white noise: A small, portable white noise machine is ideal for travel, even if it’s just to put your baby down to sleep at a friend or grandparent’s house. It’s also great for hotels and camping.
rechargeable batteries: Battery-operated toys are bound to enter your house. This set will save you loads in the long run.
12. For the handy man: (suggestions from Neil)
drive socket set: I’ve been preaching this to anyone who will listen lately, once you go 1/2″ for automotive work, you won’t go back. If you or a loved one will be doing any work on their car in the near future, I cannot recommend highly enough to get 1/2″ drive sockets. Most people use 3/8″ drive, and it’s nothing but frustration and busted knuckles.
wire strippers: These auto-stippers are a tool you didn’t know you needed until you use one. They perfectly strip wire of any common size without breaking the conductor. Much better and faster than using scissors or traditional strippers.
loupe – LED illuminated: These loupes are really fun. Easy to use and show the kids stuff close up. Bugs, carpet, newspaper, wood, all fun when viewed through a loupe.
wood-splitting ax: This Fiskars Axe is the only way I am able to split my own firewood. I am not a giant lumberjack; I cannot wield a 8-10# maul for a few hours at a time. This thing is light, swift, and well designed. It makes splitting wood fun.
drill bit set: Get these if you own a 1/4″ drive impact driver. Makes it into a small electric impact gun. Very useful and fast for backing out bolts/ nuts.
13. For the home chef:
pressure cooker: I never knew how amazing pressure cookers are until I received an electric one as a gift. It has saved dinner on more than one occasion when I forgot to thaw meat, or got home later than expected. It can cook bone-in frozen chicken pieces in less than half an hour. It also makes meat way more tender than other cooking methods.
instant pot: I don’t have one of these, but I’ve heard it’s the pot to end all pots. It’s a programmable pressure cooker, slow cooker, rice cooker, yogurt maker…you name it, it can do it. It’s priced very reasonably compared to purchasing one or two of these other devices. If I didn’t already own a pressure cooker and slow cooker, this would be on my wish list.
good knife: A good knife makes cooking sooo much more enjoyable–and safer.
14. For the kids:
Craft supplies or Play-doh: Replenish crafty consumables.
Zoo or children’s museum membership, sports class, Highlights magazine subscription: keep them entertained throughout the year with fun activities or subscriptions.
16. For the whole family:
Whirlypop: We make all our popcorn in this stovepop popper. It makes excellent kettle corn as well.
Board games such as the Busytown Game (for younger kids): This game has the whole family work together to win.
Museum or zoo memberships.
Happy shopping! I hope you find something for everyone on your list.
What other gifts keep on saving? What is the most useful gift you’ve ever received?
This post contains affiliate links.
The very act of shopping makes me feel like a sucker. Here I am at the mercy of a retailer, a helpless consumer who needs to buy things I can’t or won’t make. At the same time, I’m really glad I don’t have to spend my days shearing sheep, carding wool, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, and sewing clothing. That would suck. I hate sewing on buttons.
If we need something out of the ordinary, we wait to see if we can make do without it or fix what we already have. Next, we exhaust options like freebies, gifts cards, hand-me-downs, Craigslist, garage sales, or eBay (depending on the item).
But if I have to go the typical retail route, I avoid paying full price if at all possible. One strategy that has saved me a lot is shopping in the wrong department. This works particularly well for certain sizes of clothing and shoes, but also for some specialty items. Just think about it: you are in the clothing section, held captive to these awful prices because you need a bathing suit.
Here are some examples of discount finds I’ve made by shopping the wrong section.
- Kids XL bathing suit bottoms instead of women’s Small: $8 instead of $22. Same brand.
- Kids tennis shoes: $20 instead of $60. Same brand.
- Juniors undergarments instead of women’s: one quarter of the price. Same brand.
- Toddler clothes instead of little boys (for sizes 4-5T): $4 instead of $8. Same brand.
- Boys undershirts instead of girls’ camisoles: $1.50 each instead of $2.50 each. Same brand.
- Sunhat in gardening instead of fashion accessories: $10 instead of $20. Same brand.
- Baby Advil & sunscreen: in medication/personal care instead of baby: half-price generics available.
- Travel mugs: in dishes instead of travel or lunch box section: $8 instead of $20.
- Kids-size fishing pole in fishing section vs. one in toy aisle : $8 instead of $16 & way more durable.
- Pretty blank cards in stationary, instead of individual greeting cards: a box of 20 or even 50 can cost the same as a single greeting card.
A few tips:
- Look outside of specialty areas. If you are in a specialty section, you might pay more for the same item. If it’s an item only sold there, you’re out of luck. But if you can think of another area where it might fit, check it out. It might be half the price.
- I realize not everyone can fit children’s clothes, but if you or your children can span two departments, the smaller size section will usually be cheaper. Toddlers overlaps two sizes with kids. Babies overlap one size with toddlers. Kids’ shoes overlaps several sizes with adults’.
- Steer clear of end caps and seasonal displays. There are often less expensive, sometimes better quality options in the larger departments.
- When shopping secondhand, small women’s items are sometimes misplaced in the girls’ section. I don’t go digging through the entire thrift store aisle of kids’ clothes, but sometimes just walking by will notice an item that looks too grown up. Scored my last pair of shorts this way (J. Crew, $5), as well as a couple sweaters. Maybe this happens with boys’ clothing too?
If this sounds time-consuming, it isn’t. Glance through two departments and compare prices. If you live simply, avoid clutter, automate errands, and don’t shop as a hobby, these expeditions for non-routine items should be few and far between.
I hate feeling like consumer sucker. Don’t you? Brainstorming alternatives is second-nature to those pretending to be poor. It’s not extra effort. It’s only natural. We enjoy it. Seeking creative alternatives and solutions is fun!
Have you ever found a great deal by shopping in the “wrong” department? Tell us about it! What are your other thrifty shopping tips?
The Advent of the Ugly Christmas Sweater
When did you attend your first Ugly Christmas Sweater party? And how much did you spend on that embroidered, bedazzled beauty (or beast)?
Back in 2004, one of my hipper college roommates (they were all hipper than me) suggested we throw an Ugly Sweater party. It’s been so long I don’t remember how much my ugly sweater cost, but it was definitely less than $5. Neil also snagged one for a few bucks and still proudly sports it through the holiday season and beyond.
During a recent visit to the thrift store, I noticed that the Ugly Sweaters were displayed prominently, and over-priced compared to their Regular Sweater counterparts. There was no shortage of discounted jolly jumpers cast off by retired elementary school teachers when my roommates and I shopped for such treasures. Twelve years later, Ugly Sweaters are sold by just about all major clothing retailers, and you can even buy “designer” ones for $40-65 in horrifying prints such as:
Perhaps my fashion sense is a bit outdated, but I’m fairly certain that NO MAN SHOULD EVER LET THAT MONSTROSITY TOUCH HIS BODY! Or woman, for that matter. Neil’s opinion of Santa Centaur sweater: “It’s funny, but not $40 funny.”
But I suppose tastes will vary, so I’ll get to my actual points:
- Trends are stupid.
- Marketers can get people to spend money on anything.
- Fashion is futile.
- Value is relative, but sometimes it shouldn’t be.
The Ugly Sweater In Your Budget
I don’t think I even need to elaborate on those. So let’s end with some application: There is probably an Ugly Sweater in your spending. I’m talking about that line of your budget that owes its existence to a marketing ploy, a cultural myth, or an old habit that’s gone too long unchallenged. Maybe the line item itself is legitimate, but the amount is just nutty, and you can’t see it because Ugly Sweaters have become the norm. You’ve become inoculated against their ugliness and re-conditioned to view them as hip, or at least passable.
I have no idea what your Ugly Sweater is, but I urge you to find and unravel it. One likely culprit is consumer debt. By which I mean anything outside of student loans or a mortgage. Especially a car payment. A lifestyle of continuous consumer debt has only become an acceptable norm recently. Borrowing money all the time used to be as tacky as a Santa Centaur shirt. Living on less you than you make is precisely what we meant by pretending to be poor, and it’s a reasonable but often overlooked financial option with loads of benefits like financial flexibility.
Here are some Ugly Sweaters we’ve discovered in our budget:
- Haircuts for Neil. He’s growing his hair to his knees instead. Just kidding, I learned how to cut it.
- Haircuts for our boy. Neil’s job.
- $50 dates. Since we don’t get out often, we would budget (and spend) $50 every time. While we’re willing to splurge sometimes, we’re trying to get out more and spend less when we do with options like splitting entrees, going to our favorite less expensive restaurants, and buying ice cream at the grocery store. (Also, we visit places like parks, thrift stores, libraries, and coffee shops.) More on why you can’t afford not to date your spouse soon.
- Buying wine by the bottle. Unless there’s an amazing rebate, we’ve found less expensive ways to imbibe the occasion adult beverage. We are not ashamed of buying box wine.
- Christmas Lights. We’ve gone all out on outdoor lighting in the past, and probably will again, but we’ve reigned it in the last two years in order to focus on some big short-term financial goals.
- Buying all-new Christmas gifts. Last year my wonderful mother suggested Goodwill was a perfectly legitimate place to buy thoughtful, useful Christmas presents, and we heartily agreed. We only buy for a select few people this way, but we save a lot buying our kids and each other certain pre-owned gifts. For example, the two-year-old’s Christmas tricycle is totally coming from Craiglist.
- Hang-drying laundry. We started saving about $25 per month in electricity when we stopped using our dryer so much.
- Wearing jeans with holes. I used to throw out jeans as soon as they wore holes in the knees, because that was “not my style.” Then I realized I could keep wearing them for some time before they actually qualified for scrap bag status.
- Cloth diapering. Though we are currently using disposables until (hopefully) potty-training soon, we saved thousands by using cloth diapers. More on this in an upcoming post I wrote for another site.
- Buying boneless, skinless chicken breast. Now I buy whole or bone-in chicken pieces and it saves a ton.
What do you think of the Ugly Sweater phenomenon (literally and figuratively)? Any idea what your Ugly Sweater spending might be?
What if ads showed the true landscape of over-consumption?
We all know ads tell lies to twist us into spending. Yet their manipulative power is hard to resist. A useful frugal hack is picturing a new purchase in your home, rather than the sleek, minimalist settings depicted in ads. That stuff is not coming home to a vacuum. There’s nothing sleek or minimalistic about buying stuff you don’t need, and no matter how pretty something appears in a display, it’s not going to make your home look like a Williams Sonoma spread.
I find it immensely ironic that ads portray sparse and immaculate scenes, when over-consumption only creates cluttered chaos. No one gets rid of all their equivalent possessions as soon as a new purchase crosses their threshold. Advertising sells the double lie that more stuff will improve your environment when it’s more likely to over-crowd it.
Here’s the Kohl’s ad that triggered this tirade:
Those two plush toys look so cute, simple, and minimal here. But who in the world has only two plush toys, one book, and one blanket on their kids’ shelf? These toys almost look like they put themselves away. Believe me, they didn’t.
Of course if you want or need something, buy it! I’m on a shopping-ban ban. But surely we don’t need to let these ads fool us into thinking that buying more crap is going to somehow make our homes look better–more orderly, organized, or peaceful. More stuff has just the opposite effect, just as buying a new outfit isn’t going to magically shrink your waistline to match that of its Photoshopped model.
More stuff doesn’t make you or your home skinnier. It just adds to the madness. This is why the minimalists are minimizing. So let’s just have fun critiquing a few ads:
Who the heck has a White Couch? If I bought a white couch, it’d stay that color for about 5 seconds. Especially next to a honey wand! Worst idea ever.
I don’t have a cream pitcher (or whatever those things are called). Will the one pictured make my table this pretty? Not a chance. We’re still working around the Thomas & Friends placemat. And am I the only one with multi-chromatic possessions? Maybe that’s why none of my shit matches.
The ad shows the drill literally in a vacuum. I guess that makes sense. It’s the only reason I can imagine why the pieces are all in the same place. I know nothing about drills, except that their habitats typically look more like chaos of my garage, in which any given tool can rarely be found when needed.
New electronics are also pictured in a blank white space, without the maze of cords, cords, and more cords emanating from my existing electronics.
Where are the cords?! That should be considered false advertising. Also not shown is this sleek machine’s dusty future with the loosely curated collection of antiquated computers drawn by an unseen force into my basement. It just seems wrong to add to this disaster:
Much of frugality is about simply not buying when you don’t need to. I’m comfortable with purchasing well-thought-out wants as well. But getting a handle on why you shop, and how to resist the million and one ads we’re assaulted with daily, goes a long way toward spending less than you earn. And that is the secret sauce to gaining financial flexibility. It’s much of what we mean by pretending to be poor—living below your means to leave room for options like saving, investing, giving, traveling, and volunteering.
Next time you’re faced with a decision over a purchase, look beyond the ad and visualize your own home. Will that purchase solve a legitimate and ongoing problem? Or will it add to existing problems like debt, clutter, and distraction? Only you can answer that, but I encourage you to ask.
I hope I haven’t tempted anyone with those marketing masterpieces above. Hopefully that last image scared any consumer lust right back out of you.
What are some other lies ads sling? Do you have a trick or mantra that helps you resist over-spending?
Many news stories are featuring families that follow shopping bans for a year or more. I applaud anyone who makes a major change to improve their finances, and the sentiment has strengthened my resolve to resist needless spending. I’ve encouraged those looking to break a recreational or therapeutic shopping habit to try this tool. That said, I’ve refused to jump on the shopping ban bandwagon. Shopping bans are banned from the Pretend to Be Poor household. Here’s why they aren’t for me:
- Rules are made to be broken. The very nature of the human heart rebels against rules, and imposing extra, unnecessary rules might not be the best way to stimulate financial self-improvement. As soon as I’m not allowed to have lattes, what am I thinking about? LATTE LATTE LATTE LATTE! But if you need to, ban lattes till the cows come home.
- Goals are more motivating than rules. Finding a positive motivation, like focusing on specific financial goals like debt payoff, saving for a major purchase, investing more aggressively, or giving to a charity can be a lot more effective than a big fat NO that ultimately incites rebellion.
- I want purpose and principles to order my life. I’m not interested in reducing spontaneity or socializing because I’m so controlled by an artificial constraint. For example, one of the principles that separates effective from faux frugality is counter-intuitive: instead of budgeting how much we should spend, we strive to see how little we can spend. We don’t follow this to a tight-wad extreme, but make sure we meet our family’s needs, practice generosity, and prioritize relationships. To be ordered by purpose and principles means I’m not going to spend $4 a day on coffee because I know what that $4 a day could do in the stock market, or for an impoverished kid in a developing nation.
- The personality factor. I firmly believe there is an element of personality that affects our finances profoundly. I’m a saver, married a saver, and if anything, my tendency is to resist buying things when I should. For example, Neil has been threatening to throw out my beat-up shoes for six months now, and tries to find excuses, like the fact that I wore them when the toilet overflowed, as reasons to do so. (I sanitized them.) Small children and pets all seem drawn to my jeans’ growing knee holes, and Neil suggested I might be taking the PTBP thing a little too far. (I’m just protecting my nicer jeans from the harsh effects of motherhood.) I realize shopping bans allow for purchasing needs, but I’d rather decide what I need as I go than trying to make an all-inclusive list ahead of time. That’s just my personality though. For other temperaments, if the shoe fits, have a shoe-shopping ban.
- Having children inflicted an involuntary shopping ban on me. I remember rushing to the store to secure a “mom” bathing suit the day of a family pool party, since the (hand-me-down) string bikini top seemed downright dangerous with a nursing babe in arms. Bathing suit shopping with kids is a very relaxing experience. My son detached all the bikini straps and threw them in the aisle while yelling made-up words. Then he sneaked behind a mirror into a forbidden nook, and returned only to push said babe around in the stroller at breakneck speed.
- I’ve automated my spending to a large extent. People often imagine being frugal is super hard work. Sometimes it is (ask my husband who’s been fixing our cars), but mostly it’s easier to simply not go to stores and not buy things.
- Like certain forms of minimalism, shopping rules can be as materialistically focused as over-spending. For example, if I spend too much time thinking, talking, or writing about why I’m going to keep wearing my holey jeans till they rip right off my body, I might be just as focused on material goods or money as if I went out and shopped for new—even (gasp!) brand name—ones. I’m not saying all shopping bans are ill-focused; I’m just recognizing the extreme I’d be tempted toward.
To wrap up, I wouldn’t inflict my shopping-ban ban on anyone who needs a habit-breaking hiatus. Here are some questions to help you determine if this tool would help you:
- Do you know where your money goes each month? (I.e. do you follow a budget?)
- Do you shop or drive-thru when you’re emotional or bored? Is shopping or stopping for food/drink a hobby or habit for you?
- Have you tried to break the habit before, without much success?
- Are you saving and giving away money on a regular basis?
- Are you able to window shop or go to stores without buying anything?
- Are you able to enter a store and buy only what’s on your list?
- Do you have way more things than you need in a particular area (clothes, shoes, accessories, electronics, movies, books, tools, etc.)?
- Is your entertainment or restaurant spending significantly more than you want it to be?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, you might consider a shopping ban. If you’re not ready to go all in, here are some other ideas to try first:
- Automate errands with Amazon Subscribe & Save.
- Limit frequency of shopping trips.
- Use cash envelopes for problem budget categories.
- Budget a small amount of fun money for splurges.
- Develop a Healthy Aversion to Spending.
- Try pre-gaming restaurant dining.
- Write down your financial goals and why you want to reach them.
My next post will reveal one of my best hacks for spending less when I do shop.
Have you tried a shopping ban? How did it help? Have you banned shopping bans? Why?