14 Pricey Things You Shouldn't Buy (And What to Get Instead)

by Damian Davila on 1 August 2014 20 comments

Shakespeare said it best: "Fast bind, fast find; a proverb never stale in thrifty mind."

Savvy shoppers know that living a thrifty lifestyle doesn't mean that you have to give up on the finer things of life. The trick is to find cheaper alternatives to expensive purchases. (See also: How to Have an Above Average Life for Below Average Prices)

Here are 14 thrifty ways to enjoy affordable alternatives to big ticket items.

Food

Eat like a king without looking like a jester.

1. Caviar

If Family Feud were to ask "Name a food most people can't afford," caviar would be among the top two answers. A single ounce (28g) of Sevruga caviar can cost you between $108 to $125. If you try to buy one ounce of Osetra Caviar you have to be ready to shell out at least $200. Fortunately, U.S. produced caviar is rising in popularity. Buy buying U.S. caviar, you can score a two ounce tin for about $28.

2. Saffron

The saffron business is booming. With some farmers selling a kilo of saffron for up to $1,600, you shouldn't be surprised to be paying around $15 for a 0.02 oz. (0.5g) jar. The next time you need some saffron for a delicious paella, bouillabaisse, or risotto, turn to its close cousin: turmeric. You can get a 4 ounce bag (over 100 grams) of turmeric for about $4. To turn down turmeric's strong flavor a notch, use 1/8 teaspoon of turmeric plus 1/2 teaspoon of sweet Hungarian paprika to substitute for 1/4 teaspoon of ground saffron.

3. Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

You say Parmigiano-Reggiano, I say Pecorino Romano and Locatelli Pecorino Romano. The two latter cheeses are also Italian cheeses, made further down south near Rome. While a little bit saltier, they pack the same wonderful flavor that your Italian masterpieces need. Your wallet will thank you, too. Pecorino Romano and Locatelli Pecorino Romano go for about a $12 per round, which is $10 less per round than Parmigiano-Reggiano. This means you could buy almost two rounds for what you were paying before.

4. Basmati Rice

I love Indian cuisine, but if you look up any DIY videos on the web you quickly realize how expensive it can get to make a full Indian dinner. Top-notch cardamom, garam masala, basmati rice, and curry powder can put a serious dent in your dinner budget. The quickest way to save between $4 to $6 per 25-pound bag is to switch basmati rice for jasmine rice. This Thai rice pairs perfectly with any curry sauce.

Transportation

Getting around shouldn't be complicated and expensive. Not everybody needs a car, and even when you really do need one, you should consider consolidating into a single car. Make it less expensive to get around with these two cheap alternatives.

5. Bicycle

I have lived in several cities that I didn't need a car at all — all I needed was a bike. As much money as I was saving on gas, I still had to incur several expenses, such as keeping my bike secure, spending money on parking (yes, there is such a thing in congested downtown areas in which space comes at a premium), and replacing my bike whenever stolen or vandalized. Fold-up bikes are an awesome solution to do away with these three big expenses. Some people think that fold-up bikes are only available for $500. Actually, Citizen Bike has fold-up bikes starting at $169.

6. Car

For the cities that biking or taking public transportation is out of the question, you gotta have a car. For college students, young working professionals, and single parents, the cost of acquiring a car is often out of the question. Fortunately for them, ZipCar provides a viable option to access a car whenever they need it. With memberships starting at $6 per month or $60 per year, you can access a car in 22 U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Austin, and three international cities. If you don't want to commit to a membership, Zip Car driving rates range from $8 to $10 per hour.

Other alternatives for owning a car, are Lyft and Uber. When using Uber beware of surge pricing, which make the rate more expensive than usual during busy times.

Tech

Gadgets can make your life easier and help you make money. Here are ways to make four expensive tech purchases more accessible.

7. Tablet

Internet access is essential nowadays to get access to cheaper products and convenient services, such as mobile banking and email. Tablets are awesome tools because they combine the computing power of laptops and the portability of smartphones. Unfortunately, the cheapest iPad models start at $399 and alternatives such as the original Kindle Fire start at $119. And this doesn't include the cost of the Internet itself. If you're looking for a cheaper alternative, then consider Datawind's UbiSlate. This tablet starts at $37.99 for Wi-Fi-only and has a $99.99 offer that includes one year of unlimited basic mobile Internet.

8. Adobe Acrobat Pro

Business professionals around the world create and use PDF files to communicate effectively. An Adobe Acrobat Pro license costs $19.99 per month or close to $240 per year, over and over. There are several cheaper options out there (sorted in descending order of price):

  • Nitro Pro 9: With just $140 you get access to a software just as powerful as Adobe Acrobat Pro.
     
  • Qoppa PDF Studio: At $129 this software gives Nitro Pro 9 a good competition, especially if you are looking for reliable OCR conversion, page manipulation and markup.
     
  • CutePDF Professional: This user-friendly PDF editor allows you to markup your document in different ways. But with a price tag of $50, you shouldn't be surprised that you can do more than that. Still, it is suitable alternative for getting the job done.

9. Microsoft Office Suite

Microsoft has jumped on the cloud bandwagon and now makes it popular productivity suite available as a subscription service over the web. This provides major savings for you.

For example, it costs $219.99 to buy an installation CD for Office Home 2013 to get Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote and Outlook. Instead, with a cloud-based subscription (known as Office 365) you pay just $9.99 per month or $99.99 per year. Additionally, Office 365 is way cheaper than a CD license because it is always the latest version. If you buy a one-time CD, you have to pay again to upgrade to a newer version.

10. Smartphones

Next to tablets, smartphones are changing the way we communicate with each other. There is no need to spend more than you need to. Smartphones are no longer a novelty and there are several options beyond Apple and Samsung. Here are 4 powerful smartphones that aren't overpriced. There are plenty more available, too.

Travel

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

11. Hotels

There are several, cheaper alternatives:

  • Coachsurfing.org: With listings in 100,000 cities worldwide and 7 million members, you can stay at virtually every city in the world at the lowest possible cost.
     
  • Hostels: The two largest listings of hostels are Hosteling International and Hostels.com. Make sure that you meet the booking requirements (e.g. valid student ID) before paying for a stay.
     
  • Airbnb gives you access to local renters in over 34,000 cities and 190 countries at prices below hotels.
     
  • If you're a fan of The Holiday with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, then you might be into home swapping through networks, such as HomeLink, HomeExchange, and Love Home Swap.

12. Cell Phone Abroad

While international calls and roaming charges are incredibly expensive, there is no need to become completely unreachable just because you are traveling abroad. Here are two cheap alternatives:

  • If you have access to Wi-Fi, while abroad:
  • If you don't want to take your own smartphone:
    • Buy a cheap pre-paid cell and use it to receive calls. Unlike the U.S., several countries don't charge minutes to receive calls.
       
    • Research if a cell phone rental would make sense.

Entertainment

Here is how to play on the cheap.

13. Gym Membership

Keeping in shape through a gym can run between $20 to $50 per month. That's about $240 to $600 per year! There are two ways to get a cheaper gym membership. First, check out if your local Costco sells gym memberships and compare it to your current rate. Even if you have no Costco card, you can window shop at Costco. Second, find out if your health plan provides a fitness reimbursement program, such as United Healthcare or Harvard Pilgrim, or discounted gym membership plan, such as Kaiser Permanente. (See also: 8 Legit Ways to Use the Gym for Free)

14. Video Games

You can be a couch potato and still rack up a heavy entertainment bill. Let's face it, game consoles have always been crazy expensive. Stop paying $60 (or more!) per game and take note of these cheaper alternatives:

What is your favorite cheap alternative to an expensive purchase?

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Guest's picture
J Kratz

Your UbiSlate recommendation is ridiculous after noting "Tablets are awesome tools because they combine the computing power of laptops and the portability of smartphones. ". When you buy a tablet you get what you pay for. That 37.99 isn't getting you something that combines the power of laptops with portability of smartphones. I think the better answer here, if money is tight, is to question if you really need *any* sort of tablet. After that really look hard at what your expectations are and what price-level tablet is going to meet those expectations. For most that will be something like a Nexus 7 or iPad mini because of the speed, screen, and app availability.

Damian Davila's picture

I completely agree with you the UbiSlate is not meant for everybody. The article is focusing on finding cheaper alternatives to expensive purchases.

Guest's picture
PurchaseWisely

I just can't agree with a some of these.

Saffron: Saffron and turmeric don't taste anything alike. Saffron has a delicate flavor and turmeric is earthy and woody. Also, saffron prices are not as high as you quote, I just bought a .05 g jar of saffron threads at World Market (Cost Plus) for $5. If you're a World Market member and use your discounts when they're offered, you can get it for less than that.

Microsoft Office: If all you need is somewhat limited Word, Excel and OneNote functionality, get an Outlook.com account (formerly known as Hotmail) and you receive those plus cloud storage for free. Unless you have a business, the Outlook program isn't necessary for e-mail with Outlook.com and Gmail available. Gmail's versions of spreadsheet and word processing programs are next to useless - you can't even cut and paste by clicking, you get a message that you have to use keystroke commands, but the Outlook.com versions are quite functional. No monthly charges, which certainly add up over time.

Adobe Acrobat Pro: You can still get Adobe Acrobat Standard, you just have to know you can get it and look for it on the Adobe website. It's less expensive than Pro, offers almost all of the same functions and you do NOT pay for it annually - updates come with the purchase, and I bought mine two years ago for $140, updated two weeks ago. I use this every day. Nitro conflicts with other programs and CutePDF is useless.

Tablets: I purchased a Lenovo A3000 on Amazon a few months ago for $130 when my Kindle screen went black on the bottom half. Best thing I could have done, considering the price of a new Kindle, and the excellence of the Kindle app on the tablet. As I am over 40, and my eyes aren't what they once were, the larger screen is wonderful, my smartphone screen is too small to read much using the Kindle app on that. With many cities, coffeehouses, libraries and other public spaces offering free Wifi, and the Apple OS 7 ability to turn my smartphone into a hotspot, I'm never without Wifi coverage for my tablet at no additional cost - just be VERY aware of data usage if you use your phone as a hotspot. I don't need Wifi to listen to music that I've previously loaded or a read book on my Kindle, just a little planning ahead so I have what I want with me. I find I'm using it constantly for other apps as well, including the calendar, bluetooth connection to exterior speakers, DuoLingo for learning a second language and time-wasting games. :-) It was perfect for my needs, and much easier to carry than a laptop.

Damian Davila's picture

Thank you for the feedback, Purchasewisely.

Guest's picture
joy

Google drive/docs/sheets!!! Yes, many people have needs greater than what these will provide, but they autosave so you never lose your work and are AMAZING for collaboration - you and others can see each other typing in real time so it's great for fast revisions and you can see which cell someone else is on in the sheets - my whole business is built on these and I wouldn't have it any other way, even though you lose a bit of formatting options, but most of that is truly fluff.

Damian Davila's picture

It's such a funny coincidence that you should mention Google docs. This article was created and revised through Google Docs. The auto-save feature is such a lifesaver! I also love the integration with Gmail. Great tip!

Guest's picture
TJ Maxx

Switch to T-Mobile. Your plan includes unlimited and text when traveling aboard. Even though data is 2G only when traveling aboard, it's more than enough to use Yelp, Google Maps and Translate to help you find places.

Damian Davila's picture

There are no roaming charges for using data abroad?! Do you have a link where I could review the terms of the plan that you are describing?

Guest's picture
Guest

Interesting article, one recomendation I would make would be for a substitute for microsoft office. Open Office is a completely free office program which has a program for each aspect of microsoft office eg. powerpoint word excel... Also has the option of saving your work in any format so you can be sure it will work when opening it in different versions of microsoft office.

Damian Davila's picture

But what do I do if I really, really need Powerpoint and Excel? I cannot imagine a life without both tools, I used them on a daily basis.

Guest's picture

Damian, OpenOffice has programs which are practically identical to the Microsoft versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. It might take you a couple hours to learn what differences there are, but OpenOffice is free and Microsoft Office costs $100 a year - every year, forever.

Damian Davila's picture

JD Jackson, thanks for the tip. Hopefully it's not too many hours! :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Good list. I actually have a pay as you go cell phone plan (with T-Mobile) and was worried that I would need to pay expensive phone charges while I travelled outside of the U.S. (or that I would need to sign up for a cell phone plan). I found out though that international texts are just 50 cents each. Cell phone calls were a lot more expensive ($1.79/minute). I texted family/friends while abroad and felt reassured that if there was an emergency I could use my own cell phone to call the U.S.. You set up the international service just by trying to make a call or send a text while abroad. You'll almost immediately get a text message back telling you you can't, but that you are being signed up for the international service.

BTW, I forgot to mention that I don't even own a smart phone. I have an old flip phone.

Damian Davila's picture

$0.50 per international SMS? Ouch! With my current plan, I only have to pay $0.25 per international SMS. Hint: it is not T-Mobile.

Guest's picture
David Kuck

Even if you need Microsoft Office specifically and an alternative won't do, the CD is still cheaper in the long run. If Microsoft releases a new version every 3-4 years as usual, that's $219 for 3-4 years vs. $300-400 for the 3-4 years of an online subscription.

That said, I'm still using Office 2003 at home with no issues, so I'm guessing that $219 will last longer than 3-4 for the average home user. Business users are different of course, but still are better off with the disc version.

Damian Davila's picture

David, that's really old software, remember that Microsoft is no longer supporting those apps so you may become a target for malicious hackers. For more info, see https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/TA14-069A-0 and http://www.pcworld.com/article/2038505/for-securitys-sake-upgrade-to-a-n...

Guest's picture
Julia

I can't agree with the idea of replacing parmigiano with pecorino. Pecorino is made from sheep's milk and thus has a somewhat saltier and stroner taste, that doesn't go well with some pasta sauces. For an alternative that's easier to combine with all kind of ingredients, try grana padano.

Damian Davila's picture

Nice tip, Julia. Thanks!

Guest's picture
ACG

There is a new app for your phone called Viber that lets you make international calls and video calls, and you can get video games and movies from your local public library! I am also a member of Checkout51, save.ca, Zweet and Snap by Groupon, apps which when you take a picture of your receipt, can reimburse you for any items that are featured that week!

Damian Davila's picture

I haven't heard from Snap by Groupon, ACG. How does it work?