The Art of the Alternative

We’ve all read a statement like this one: If you pack lunch instead of going to Chipotle every day, you’ll save $1650 per year. That would be $158,000 if you invested it for 30 years!

People like to frame money choices in terms of opportunity cost, or the power of perpetuity. And for good reasons. It’s true that your latte habit + your chipotle habit + your new car habit could mean you’re never going to get out of debt. But when we state that your lunch-out routine is going to cost you $160,000 over the next 30 years, a lot of us just shrug and think, Oh well. That’s probably not that big of a deal in the scheme of things. Because in real life, few of us are good at making epic financial decisions every day at lunch time. When we’re hungry, no less!

It’s helpful to look at the big picture, but sometimes we need to focus on the details a bit more. What if you could have a delicious lunch AND gain $160,000? We all have to make trade-offs. But it doesn’t always have to be about the trade-off. What if you could find something nearly as good, just as good, or even better than what you’re currently spending on? In many cases we can have both with just a touch of effort, planning , or creativity.

[Here’s the Chipotle chicken copycat recipe.]

Out of the box thinking is key to learning the art of the alternative. Normal people jump at the easy, obvious consumer solution, regardless of the price tag. Smart people don’t. They fix. They re-purpose. They thrift. They trash-pick. They accept that Life is Not about Your Preferences. But to sustain their low-cost lifestyle, they also must learn the art of alternative. And they actually enjoy the process of brainstorming and discovering solutions quite a bit. It’s gratifying in a way that standard consumerism can never be.

Allow me to illustrate the art of the alternative. And I want to hear your examples in the comments.

  • We’d love to have the woods as our backyard. But we live in the suburbs, 20 minutes’ drive from a national park. Our solution? Drive to the park, hike in the woods.
  • We’ve also dreamed of owning a bit more land for hobby farming. For now, we’re Rockin’ the Burbstead on our 0.1 acre of backyard. For us that includes chickens, bees, maple syrup, fruit trees, a wood pile, and a garden.
  • And we love the beach! Instead of pricey peak-season visits to tourist beaches, think March camping at a Florida state park with a beautiful beach. Think summer trips to the Great Lakes. Think off-season, rewards-fueled trips to whatever beach we can get to cheaply.
  • I’ve never met an Asian cuisine I didn’t like. Yet going out gets expensive. We still do on our monthly dates, but I’ve learned a number of good dishes from Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking and a descriptively titled cookbook, Chinese. My international friends have helped me learn, too. Hint: do not buy “curry” sauces from the regular grocery store. Find a good Asian grocery in your area.
  • Are you an entertainment lover, or just a fan of a particular show? You don’t need cable, or even Netflix. You need a library card. Our friends check out a stack of DVDs each week in lieu of paying for any cable or Internet (!).
  • You’re frugal, but also aesthetic, so you don’t want your clothes or furniture looking like they’re from some grandma’s garage sale? Two words: buy used. Nowadays you don’t have to garage-sale your life away searching for the perfect piece. Search Craigslist. Try Facebook buy-sell-trade pages and other local resale pages. Go to the thrift store. Of course, garage sales are perfectly wonderful, too.
  • Your kids want to play sports, but it’s getting too expensive? At the early ages, explore barter-and-trade options. My mom used to clean my gym in exchange for a discount on my gymnastics fees.
  • If you love to travel, learn how to travel-hack using credit cards. Get into a good hotel points program if you travel for work. But also, start camping. Borrow some gear or just buy the basics. It’ll open the door to a lifetime of low-cost travel. Did you know Disney World has a camp site?
  • I loved my fancy-schmancy gym membership, but when it got too expensive, I did everything from exercise videos in my basement, to a women’s fitness class at a church. It was harder than anything I’d ever done at the gym! Pretend to Be Fit!

The beauty of the alternative is that you’re not missing out, and you don’t feel deprived. It’s a sustainable way of living because you’re satisfied with your solution. As a bonus, you’re also defying the absurd suggestions of consumer culture–that you are useless, helpless, and incapable of doing anything besides spending all your money.

So what alternatives have you come up with? Does anyone else enjoy the act of finding alternatives, too?

19 Responses to “The Art of the Alternative”

  1. Tonya says :

    I prefer to have potlucks with my friends over eating out. I also will go have a coffee with a friend, but it doesn’t have to be a latte. It can be a simple $1.29 coffee and a good long conversation. Movies are also expensive so I’ll have people over to watch redbox or some other streaming channel for cheap!

    • Kalie says :

      Having people over vs. going out is a great alternative. And a simple, inexpensive coffee date is a great option when you do want to get out with a friend. And we go to the movies so rarely, I’m always shocked at the price when we do. I can’t believe how much it costs now!

  2. Barnaby says :

    Totally agree. I don’t believe in sacrificing everything just to end up with a big sack of cash at the end of my life. It sounds like you have found a good middle ground that is fulfilling, yet doesn’t break the bank.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, a lot of finding alternatives is about feeling satisfied along the way to financial goals. It doesn’t make sense to eliminate everything you like that might happen to cost money, but those costs can often be minimized.

  3. Amanda says :

    I like rustic, farmhouse furniture. Over the last few years, Alan and I have built and finished a few great pieces (table, headboard, bed, wall hangings) for the cost of economical (and sometimes free) materials. They look great. And we’ve gained new skills along the way – we just sold our first piece of handmade furniture a couple of weeks ago!

    • Kalie says :

      Learning new skills or about new resources is a truly enjoyable part of the process. What a cool skill you’ve gained, and now you can enjoy your own hand-crafted furniture.

  4. DC YAM says :

    Agree with all of this! It’s something people need to be more cognizant of. It’s why I don’t mind my $10/month Planet Fitness membership. Is it REALLY that much worse than a $50/month membership to Anytime Fitness? I don’t think so. I’ll save the $40 a month!

    • Kalie says :

      Gym membership is a great example. In most cases, it doesn’t even seem possible to use all the benefits you’re paying for at a primo gym. And like you said, can it really be that much better? Surely you can stay in shape just as well for the $10 per month.

  5. Julie says :

    I think what I have learned over the years to help stay out of restaurants, is to spend just slightly more on groceries. When we really bare bones it on the food, we felt deprived and didn’t need much of an excuse to charge or pay for a restaurant meal. Now with a few more items (and great recipes and learning to cook more) our meals and snacks are quite tastey and the lure of the restaurant is barely there anymore. It has saved us money in the long run. Now we mainly go to restaurants on really special occasions planned out ahead of time, if at all.

    • David says :

      Another thing that helps is having good tools and small appliances in your kitchen. For example I used to buy expensive bread from a local bakery even though I had the skills to bake my own. Finding time to go through all the steps was the problem. Now I toss about 45 cents of ingredients into a bread machine and push a couple buttons. Three hours later I have a fresh baked loaf of bread that is better than I can buy in any store. Good cookware, knives and other kitchen tools can be expensive but they take a lot of the effort and sometimes frustration out of cooking. That makes me more likely to do my own cooking.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that having the right tools makes it much easier to cook. Same goes for DIY home repairs or car maintenance. And if you can get those tools used sometimes, even better!

    • Kalie says :

      That is a GREAT example, Julie. The temptation to go out really decreases when you can look forward to tasty meals and snacks at home, and feel satisfied with those options. I also spend a little on convenience foods like frozen ravioli or other easy-to-prepare meals to ward off that temptation to go out when it gets hectic. It doesn’t have to be an every day thing, and it’s so much less expensive (and healthier) than even a fast food meal.

  6. Harmony says :

    Taking a moment to consider alternatives can be a powerful financial strategy. Cell phones were a big one for us. We always went with one of the big companies that you see everywhere – never even considering whether there was an alternative. Now that we’ve switched to a one of the lesser known providers, we save at least $100 per month.

    Don’t get too comfortable – always try to think outside the box!

    • Kalie says :

      I’m so glad there are more alternative cell phone companies than there used to be. I am still with one of the big ones, but on a wifi only plan that is very affordable. At some point if I want to pay for data, I’ll switch. So far I’ve been content without it, and am putting off the hassle of switching and the expense of possibly needing to buy a different phone.

      Yes, it helps so much to think outside the box be open to change.

  7. Chiino says :

    Great points here. With a few little lifestyle adjustments, you don’t feel like you’re missing out. I exercise at home, like yourself. YouTube has all the content I need, so TV and music subscriptions aren’t worth the money. You’ve given me ideas for others too!

    • Kalie says :

      We’ve found plenty of free content, too. And we don’t even have time to watch TV enough to justify the costs of subscriptions. Especially with many really good libraries in our area.

  8. Jess says :

    Wow, I’d love to hear more about how your friends get along without Internet.

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