Beware false economies.

th-1While preparing to write “Craziest ways to save a buck,” today’s post over at my day job, I was by turns amused and a little disturbed by what young people consider “crazy” frugality.

The post was based on a contest offered by DoSomething.org. Students 25 and under are invited to send in their wildest money-saving tips. The prize is a $4,000 scholarship, so send any students you know over there to enter.

But is getting books and CDs from the library now considered nutty behavior? What about locking up a debit card, using coupons, carrying a water bottle, eating leftovers or doing laundry at a relative’s house – any of those sound wacky to you?

Worse than that, though, were the false economies. For example, more than a few students said they brought home condiment packets and napkins from restaurants to save money. But if you’re broke, what are you doing in restaurants? How much did you spend in order to get a few cents’ worth of free taco sauce?

Or how about some of these:


“I never turn on the heat in my house. Instead, each winter I heat the living room with wood.” If it gets cold enough to break plumbing in an upstairs bathroom, you’ll wish you’d kept the furnace at 50.

“I made a fire to cook outside to save money.” But are you getting a varied enough diet this way? You can, or should, eat only so many hot dogs. Are other meats being cooked to the proper temperature?

“Turned on the stove in the winter instead of the heaters.” Kitchen stoves were not designed for heating, only for cooking. If you’re using a gas stove to do this you’re risking a potentially fatal buildup of carbon monoxide, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Besides: You’re still spending money for the electric or gas, Einstein, and once again you run the risk of expensive-to-fix frozen pipes.

“I would do everything in the dark to save money on the electric bill. I spent a lot of time at the library finishing homework.” Clever, until you trip over the sneaker you couldn’t see in the dimness. See you in the ER – there’s lots of light there!)



More iffy choices

“I canceled having gall bladder surgery and cut down on fatty foods instead.” If you’re a candidate for surgery then you’ve already got gallstones. Cutting down on fatty foods may or may not prevent a flare-up. If you do have an acute attack, you’ll wind up in emergency surgery – which is more expensive, more invasive and harder to recover from than the outpatient, laparascopic procedure.

“Walking 8 miles home and collapsing in exhaustion just to save some bus money.” Once in a while would be okay. Regularly? Probably not a good call because it wears out your shoes faster and you’re likely to be too tired to do frugal things that are more cost-effective. For example, you can save several dollars per load by washing clothes in the sink and it really doesn’t take that long. (Ask me how I know.)

“I rarely wash my (clothing) to save up money for my future so that I can afford necessary items in the long run.” Um, don’t you have access to a sink? Are you not worried about offending co-workers and/or fellow students and faculty?

“I spray hairspray on my clothes to get rid of static instead of spending money on dryer sheets.” Where do you find free hairspray these days? Instead of using fabric softeners, try white vinegar in the rinse cycle – cheaper than hairspray.

“I dove into the pond to pick up all the coins I could see…one dime, the rest were pennies.” This might be trespassing – and if you forget to take your phone out of your pocket before you dive, this frugal hack won’t be particularly cost-effective. On the other hand, it’s kind of like washing your clothes.


Savings vs. true cost

These were just a few examples of what I’d consider penny-wise, pound-foolish tips. Maybe they’ve never seen consistent, conscientious frugality in action, which is why they’re going so all-or-nothing for stuff that ultimately isn’t saving much.

I’ve got nothing against recycling cans, walking instead of driving, or picking up coins. But plenty of the ideas on that site aren’t smart frugal hacks. They’re tactics that may save in the short term but could end up costing the practitioners money, health or reputation.

The student who eats nothing but ramen for weeks at a time probably won’t drop dead in Econ 101. But s/he will likely become very run-down and thus vulnerable to whatever’s going around the giant germ factory that is the average college campus. Sickness isn’t cheap, even with a student health system, and a sick scholar just won’t do as well in his studies.

Someone who rarely/never does laundry won’t die from stinky shirts and socks. However, s/he may be blowing a chance at things like research projects. Who would you take on as an assistant: the reasonably well-groomed person or the one with whom you couldn’t stand to share an enclosed space?

Readers: Have you ever dropped a frugal habit because you realized it wasn’t really saving you any money?

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  1. I used to buy almost anything on sale that ended up being only a few cents or free after coupon, sometimes even driving all over town to get my bargains. Then I realized that a lot of the things I was buying was going bad before we used it in my cabinets. Even at $0.25, it’s not a bargain if my family doesn’t use it. So I’ve started to be a lot more careful about what I get on sale, making sure I only buy what my family will use up before it goes bad.

  2. Hairspray to get rid of static? Flammable, plus sticky. Yuk!

    • everyone used to do this when I was young. We would spray our legs right before church so our nylons didn’t build up static with our dresses. Don’t do it now. I don’t even buy hairspray anymore 😎

      • Donna Freedman

        I bet you also remember putting a dab of nail polish on the beginning of a run and praying it wouldn’t spread. I can’t tell you the last time I wore nylons.

  3. Katherine

    I too was so hooked on coupons that I bought everything I could. It doesn’t save you money if you end up throwing it away. So now I only purchase what I know that we use. If I get something for free that we don’t use, I drop it off immediately at a donation center, before it expires. Currently, any unused or expired coupons go directly to Coups for Troops. It’s a win win.

  4. Ro in San Diego

    My frugal habit was shopping at Big Lots and spending way too much money on my bargains. I would easily purchase between $50 to $100 per visit.

    I learned that I am able to afford better/ higher quality products if I purchase the item with a coupon when it is on sale. It’s a bit more work but I’m finding it worth the extra effort.

    I also stopped shopping at Costco. The bargains I would bring home were usually the wrong size for my small family and there was waste. I hate wasting anything!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Ro: I hate waste, too. When I did “12 ways to prevent food waste” for MSN Money, I was startled to read that North Americans waste an estimated 209 to 253 pounds of food per person each year.
      Think of all the people dying because there’s nothing to eat — and then think of the people who toss out two-day-old leftovers because they’re “bad.” Sigh.

  5. Those really were hilarious frugal tips offered by the under 25 set. Did you make them up or were they real? Because, as you pointed out, there certainly wasn’t much common sense mixed in.

    My only other comment is the need for fabric softener. I have never used any in my whole life. My belief is that it is an acquired need. My clothes certainly seem soft enough to me and I live where there is exceptionally hard water.

    But, to each their own.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Anne: Nope, those were all submitted to the contest — and I couldn’t use all the iffy ones I found. (Follow the contest link if you want an eyeful.)
      I don’t use fabric softener, either. I used to, on the baby’s cloth diapers. These days I’d be tempted to try the vinegar thing first.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

      • Funny, now they tell us NOT to use fabric softener on diapers because it makes them less absorptive. That was our gateway to just not using fabric softener at all, most of the time.

        The paragraph about “nutty” behaviors is all stuff I do regularly (well, not the neighbor’s house laundry any more – but we did that for years to avoid the price-gouging coin-op machines where we were renting). These kids are only a few years younger than me, but the iffy responses tell me they’re as poorly educated about finances as I was when I was in college (a free T-shirt for a credit card? Sign me up!). We really need to do a better job at teaching these skills from the start.

    • Ditto Anne about the pointlessness of fabric softener. It not only makes your clothes stink of industrial perfume and makes your towels supremely nonabsorbent, it gums up your washer or dryer — the stuff accumulates and lays down a coat of difficult-to-remove stickum.

      • Donna Freedman

        I don’t use it these days…but at the time, I was hand-washing the diapers in Philly water and drying them on a rack. The fabric softener kept them from being boardlike.

  6. hiddeninplainsight1

    That’s just crazy! You’ve got to be frugal but within reason. I mean walking around smelly, with nothing in your belly but ramen noodles for weeks is off-putting to even the people who love you!

    • Donna Freedman

      Agreed — especially since hand-washing is an option if you don’t have quarters for the laundry, and more nourishing foods are available if you learn a few basic cooking techniques.
      When I was really broke I did all my laundry by hand, including the baby’s diapers; not fun, but bearable. You can buy lentils, rice, carrots, an onion and a bunch of kale for not much money and eat very well, nutritionally speaking (especially if you had some spices).
      Full disclosure: I like ramen. In fact, I’m having a package of it for lunch, with a side of vegetables and a dish of homemade yogurt. But I wouldn’t want to subsist solely on ramen, because it’s full of fat and sodium.
      Incidentally, that homemade yogurt worked out to $1.15 per quart thanks to on-sale milk. Good food doesn’t have to cost a lot. We’re doing our kids a disservice by not teaching them to cook while they’re still at home.

      • My grandson is eighteen-years-old and wants to go away for college. My daughter lamented that he did not even know how to wash clothes. He left food on dishes when she made it his chore to wash them all summer two years ago. She finally let him off the hook because “it is easier to do them myself than to get him to do them right.” YES, I am horrified!

        He won’t get a job. He doe not know how to cook anything. Instead of making breakfast, he stops on the way to school and gets fast food. He does know to save his birthday and Christmas money for fast food and Itunes.

        He asked his mother why he should not take such a long shower when she told him that it was costly. “Why should I worry about water when it is included in the rent?” “Because the landlord will go up on the rent if we use too much.”

        I would be afraid to ask him how he was frugal. My daughter does him a disservice and calls it “love.” Her Daddy told her when she was young that housework was my job and she and her brother should not have to vaccuum, wash a dish, clear the table, vacuum, or sweep. No, they did not have to do it every day. At his house, they were paid to do his new wife’s “chores.” Yes, I was the mean mother.

        He is a great student and is never in any kind of trouble.

      • Donna–one way to preserve the brightness of t-shirts, blouses, or any light-colored clothing is to give it an occasional dose of water softener (Calgon). You’d be amazed at all the gunk & sludge that collects in your clothes if you have hard or mineral water. It may even take more than one treatment/soaking, but it does cut down on having to buy new because things become dingey. It’s well worth the cost of the softener.

    • I re-wear clothes that aren’t dirty or smelly after the first time around. But I think the limit in winter is about 2 wears for an outer shirt (like when I wore a t-shirt under a blouse) and 3-4 wears for work-only pants (because all I do is sit, no hard labor). And I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

      • Donna Freedman

        @Liz: Nothing’s wrong with it, in my book. But more than one student claimed to “seldom” or “never” wash clothes. Blech.

        • Scooze

          OMG my partner is a high school basketball coach. The kids today do not wash their uniforms after every game – they were shocked when they heard that is expected. Today’s kids have a different definition of “dirty” clothes. This is not frugality, it’s something else which I do not understand.

  7. And I thought using old socks as dryer balls was a little nutty. Not so, thanks to your article. I have yet to dive into a pond! I feel so much better about being me.

  8. Reta Davis

    In shorthand: Hmmmm,Dryer sheets. 50+ in a pkg at $Tree. Don’t have to remember to put vinegar in when the rinse cycle starts. Use them for things that get major static cling only. 50 lasts me forever. Use vinegar a lot for cleaning house,though. Great stuff.
    Big wake-up call: $200 electric bill last November when I moved here. Even when I had a roommate and we weren’t all that conservative, there was never a bill that high. Bought $40 of CFL’s, replaced every light bulb in the house, made myself remember to turn off anything not in use, and reevaluated my laundry practices. (Thank you, Donna F.) Was washing way more than I needed to. Outerwear can be worn more than once if not really soiled, duh! What a concept! Use the dryer some in the winter, hang everything out in the summer. Turned the propane hot water heater way down, use only 2 electric (oil-filled) radiant heaters to keep the house bearable. No, it’s not toasty, but I have lots of sweatshirts and fat socks. No frozen pipes this frosty winter either.
    I think being frugal means being always mindful. I am very low-income so if I don’t really neeeeeed it, I don’t buy it. Shopping is not recreation. Redefined what is necessary for me to live a simple,comfortable life.

    • imjunipernow

      OMG, this made me remember a woman I worked for a long time ago who HAD to live in a huge house for appearances sake, but had to heat it with portable kerosene heaters because she couldn’t afford to turn on the furnace!

    • I can save you even more, Reta — use only half of those dryer sheets at a time. Works great.
      I also use dryer sheets to keep suitcases and shoes from smelling funky — and used ones are good for applique, if you’re into quilting.

      More than you ever wanted to know…

      • Reta Davis

        I know it, Cindy! Dryer sheets can be helpful for a lot of things–dusting computer screens, too! I didn’t mention before that I am a dog groomer and have major pet hair around here. Dryer sheets are good for helping collect it in the dryer filter. Rock on! Yea for “handy hints.”

        • You can get by with 1/3 of a sheet, instead of a half — goes even further.

          Used dryer sheets are also good for keeping the inside of suitcases fresh (especially when you’re on a long trip), and they make great smooth seams for easy applique. (Back the applique piece, right sides together. Machine stitch on the actual line, clip edges, cut a slit in the dryer sheet, turn right side out and press…then trim the dryer sheet away. Applique in place on a background.)

          • Donna Freedman

            According to Mary Hunt, you can mix one part fabric softener to three parts water and spray the inside of the dryer with the mixture before turning it on.

  9. imjunipernow

    Confirmation that people believe “frugal” or living within or below ones means equals doing without.

    • Donna Freedman

      Good point! Just as some people believe that dieting or exercise must be unpleasant if it’s to be effective. 🙁

  10. Frugality is good but surely theres got to be limits. I once saw this woman tell how she used olive oil and lemon and something else (i’ve forogotten now) to make a facial moisturiser. Crazy!

    • Actually making you own face and body products is both frugal and eco-friendly. Body products are not regulated and many contain questionable toxins and chemicals. I use olive oil and castor oil to clean my face (The oil cleansing method) and I use coconut oil as a facial moisturizer at night. I also use coconut oil as body lotion for myself and my kids. Coconut oil and baking soda make a great facial scrub too. It’s really not that crazy. I make a lot of my own cleaning products too. A few basic ingredients and I can whip up a batch of whatever I need. Not so crazy and quite inexpensive. We have saved a lot of money on toiletry and cleaning products.

    • That would not only be frugal, it might be a healthier alternative. It is actually more earth-friendly.

  11. My ex would have car wrecks that only did body damage. They were often more than fender benders. He would collect the insurance, consider it found money and blow it. Then, our insurance would go up. I had no say in insurance or car repair. Our insurance was so high that he never actually “made” any money. Plus, his car just looked awful.

    We sold a perfectly working car for $100 to a needy friend because we could not get more than that because of every portion of the car having damage.

  12. I’ve just spent two hours + that I’ll never get back, to read them all, and I’m still looking for the crazy part. Some of the spelling needs improvement; thank goodness they are students.

    • Donna Freedman

      I didn’t see a lot of “crazy.” A publicist thought that the “ate nothing but mayonnaise sandwiches” was crazy. Maybe ill-advised, and certainly yucky, but crazy? Not really.


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