It’s a common misconception that if you are thrifty, you are cheap. You’re a penny-pinching ninny who doesn’t care for material pleasures, owns a piggy bank (or some other coin-stuffed animal), and absolutely refuses to LIVE, because living would mean going out and spending your hard-earned dollars instead of hoarding them in the bank for those extra pennies in interest each year.
This is, as you might have gathered from the title, not always the case. Sure, there are some people for whom saving is a reward all unto itself, that desire no pleasure beyond that of a steadily inflating investment fund and for whom Mint.com is like pornography.
And you know what? Good for them. They’ve found what makes them happy. Let’s leave them to swim in their vault of gold coins (Scrooge McDuck style) and talk about saving while still enjoying everything else in life. I’ll give you a rundown of 5 different approaches and concepts that should be considered, and hopefully one or more will be palatable enough for you to make use of.
1. Buy Secondhand
Once, not that long ago, shopping at a consignment store would be seen as very hipster, edgy and antisocial (who knows why…probably something to do with Communists). While this may still be true in some areas, largely the Buffalo Exchanges, Plato’s Closets and, yes, even the Goodwill’s of the world have become quite mainstream, with people from all economic classes, cultural backgrounds and age groups filling the aisles, all looking for a good deal on gently-worn clothing and accessories in their size. Even better, you can find just about anything on Craigslist (insert Casual Encounters joke here), from cars to computers to crossbows to many other things that start with ‘C’ (other letters of the alphabet are also represented, though probably grudgingly). Hell, you can even find garage sale-style classifieds on Facebook these days. Bottom line: if you want to pay a mere fraction of an item’s cost, consider buying it used and you can safe a lot of money (and this is technically recycling, so good job!).
2. Buy Refurbished/Reconditioned/Recertified
For those of you who don’t know what a refurbished/reconditioned/recertified product is, basically it amounts to a company taking a product (usually electronics, but not always) that has been returned for some reason and reselling it after going through and fixing whatever problems might exist. I know, I know, it sounds a little iffy, but consider this: a computer that is put through the reconditioning process is cheaper, closely inspected and rebuilt to meet the specifications of a new computer, and generally comes with all the trimmings that a new one would (though usually in a different box).
I personally have had fantastic luck with Apple refurbed computers and iPods and Dell computers and monitors that have been refurbished (in fact, I almost hate to buy new products from them sometimes, as the one time I’ve had a stuck pixel on a Dell monitor was the one time I bought one new!). You can check out Apple’s refurb store here, and Dell’s refurb outlet here.
PS: Keep in mind that there are very non-reputable refurbishers out there…usually 3rd party companies that buy up bad stock to get working just long enough to sell to well-meaning and good-looking people like you. Be smart and Google-search any online company before dealing with them to see if any complaints or forum conversations about them rise to the top. Generally, though, buying a refurbished product from the company that originally produced it should be a safe bet (they don’t want to put out shoddy products with their name on it).
3. Buy the Outgoing Generation
I get it, I seriously do. You’re an early-adopter, and to keep your maven street cred, you need to get the newest styles, newest technology and newest products as soon as they come off the assembly line (sooner if you have a friend who works the conveyor belt). It’s your thing! It’s cool! All the same, we live in a very consumerism-obsessed society, and it would be smart to take a close look at the specs and benefits of the newest of the new gadget before dropping your paycheck on it. Most companies will release new revisions to preexisting lines (again, this mostly applies to electronics, but also to cars, clothing, etc) that are mainly fodder for press releases and not much else. These new versions might have a new function, different color scheme or a button on the elbow (the elbow? What the hell?), but a lot of times the 20% markup over the previous generation will not be a worthwhile investment and you’d be better off buying a more proven and cheaper version. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to buy a lightly used version off of someone who is upgrading (suckerrrrrs).
4. Pay Up-Front
This probably won’t come as a surprise to most of you but it cold use reiteration all the same: if you can buy something up-front, do not charge it instead. I know, I know, it’s just so easy. You put that new XBox game or new pair of slacks on your card and forget about them, but then you end up paying more for something you should have just bought outright. I call this idiot tax, because honestly people, if you are exchanging the fruits of your labor (money) for the fruits of someone else’s labor (Super Monkey Ball), then both fruits should already be planted, grown and ripe before the exchange is made.
Another way to look at the Pay Up-Front model is explained eloquently by Trent over at The Simple Dollar. Trent says that you should consider the total cost of owning something before deciding on whether or not to buy it, as the product that is cheaper at first (lower cost to buy) might end up being far more expensive over the course of its lifetime (resources it consumes, cost of upkeep, cost of time, etc). You can read Trent’s article here.
5. Fewer Possessions
The idea of saving money by having fewer possessions seems like a tough, spartan approach to being thrifty, but hear me out, because it actually has benefits above and beyond just saving some change.
When you reduce the number of things you own (hopefully by selling them or donating them, not by destroying them), you create value for someone else, you reduce the amount of space you need to hold your stuff, and you free up extra money to be used on other things. A really positive way to approach this is by appealing to your own consumerist needs: if you have fewer things, then the things that you DO own can be top of the line. It’s like getting rid of three golf carts and buying a Prius. Upgrade! Plus, getting rid of excess ‘stuff’ is very therapeutic.
I go through my apartment once a month and donate or sell anything I haven’t used lately, and every single time I do it’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Who knows? The whole process could end up saving you money on a psychiatrist, as well.
Update: April 23, 2016
A list post. The popularity of these hasn’t abated in the years between now and when I wrote it, but my writing them, thankfully, has. I really don’t enjoy this kind of writing; it feels less like me when I read it back, because the format isn’t very friendly to one’s own voice.
These practical posts are also something I write on social media and in my newsletter more, these days — sometimes a handful of years ago, Exile Lifestyle became a platform I used more for big ideas than tidbits of advice. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, I just didn’t want to compete in that space: it’s a corner of the internet that requires more frequent updates than I was willing to commit to, and requires a lot of listicles, linkbacks, guest posts, partnerships, and so on.
Realizing that, actually, was part of why I moved away from seeing myself as a blogger and instead refocused on being an author. It was a little while after writing my first book that I started calling myself an author in part because the blogging thing had become such an integral part of my identity. But the blogging world was becoming a roiling sea of pop-ups and Flash-based banner ads; I wasn’t into the level of marketing that was required, and the overt enthusiasm for consumption as a first priority. Writing books (and more essay-like, big-picture blog posts) I could write about things I cared about. Doubling-down on the listicle-based blog-thing, I would need to bring everything back around to a sales pitch. That wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. That wasn’t the type of work I wanted to do.
It’s also worth noting: I don’t think I’d discovered the term ‘minimalism’ at this point. The only person really writing about it online was Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. It certainly was the pop culture phenomenon it’s become in the years since.