Borrowing, renting, substituting, and doing without

Photo: Philip Brewer

Finding deals is a key topic on Wise Bread, and for good reason--finding a great price may make something you want affordable and make it easier to stretch your resources to cover your needs.  There's a lot here about the tactics of finding good prices--knowing where to look, knowing how to negotiate, being willing to wait, and so on.  This post, though, is about four other tactics for frugality--tactics that, for me, make a much bigger difference than finding deals.

Personally, I'm a big fan of doing without.  I'm with Henry David Thoreau:  "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone."  This is no solution for things that you need, of course, but for things that you merely want, it really is.  My own preference is to pick only a few wants, and that satisfy those wants fully and deeply.

Where you can't do without, consider substituting.  In particular, consider substituting a cheap thing for an expensive thing, but that's not the only possible substitution.  Considering substituting something that you've already got for something that you'd have to buy new.  Consider substituting something that you can make for something that you'd otherwise have to buy.

One special category of substituting is renting.  For things that you simply want to experience, but that you don't really need to have, this is perfect.  Some people look down on renting, especially when it's done in a way that seems intended to give others a false impression--renting expensive jewelry to wear to an event, for example.  To my mind, though, it's perfectly reasonable to, for example, rent a powerful sports car for a week, so that you can learn what it's like to drive one.  Doing it so people will think you're richer than you are seems kind of lame, but also pretty harmless.

Finally, as what can be viewed as simply a free version of renting, there's borrowing.  This covers a wide range of options--borrowing from friends, neighbors, relatives, etc.  This is a really important option to consider--nothing will raise the standard of living of the whole group more than sharing.  Getting in on the borrowing requires two things--first, you need to show yourself to be the sort of reliable person who returns borrowed things promptly and in good condition.  Second, it helps a lot to show yourself as the sort of person who is willing to lend as well as borrow. 

One reason that I tend to gravitate to these options rather than "deals" is that so many deals are specifically structured to give you a taste of "the good stuff."  Airline upgrades are often cheap, on the theory that once you fly business class you won't willingly go back to coach.  Wine stores have regular sales on premium wines, hoping that, after some number of cheap bottles of expensive wine, you'll decide to upgrade your cellar.

With that in mind, it's important to be careful about a special category of borrowing that's distinct from the personal borrowing from friends and neighbors:  Borrowing from sellers or producers.  Becoming an "opinion leader" of any sort can result in opportunities to borrow new cool stuff, in the hopes that your use of it will influence others to consider buying the item.  Sometimes, though, companies will pretend that this is what they're doing, when what they're actually doing is trying to get you to add their item to your list of things you've got to have.  It's the same logic as the pusher:  the first one's free.

Deals are great, but don't let a search for deals blind you to these other options.  And always take care to manage your tastes.  It's fine to decide that you only want the best--but only if it means that you'd rather do without than settle for second best.

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Guest's picture

This is great when applied to college textbooks. Many books can be borrowed, done without, or even rented!


Guest's picture

Not only is doing without great for your pocketbook, it works wonders for your creativity and ingenuity! Instead of cable TV, DVD rentals, and new books, CDs, or DVDs, you find yourself rediscovering the lost art of conversation, storytelling, and diarying. All excellent trade-offs, if you ask me! ; )

Guest's picture
Debbie M

You could write a whole entry just on substituting. The hard part is just noticing what alternates exist. For example, I just heard (in a comment to Self-Reliance) that you can use a scythe to mow a lawn. I never would have thought of it on my own. Advantages include that it doesn't need gas and it takes up less space to store than a lawn mower. Looks scary, though.

Here are some substitutions I've actually made (at least sometimes):
* certificates of deposit instead of savings accounts
* then online high-interest savings accounts instead of CDs
* buying durable instead of new but flimsy (cars, clothes)
* manual things instead of electric (can opener, pencil sharpener)
* interesting necklaces instead of interesting shirts
* walking instead of driving
* auditing classes instead of taking them for credit
* reusable things instead of one-use things (plastic containers instead of baggies, handkerchief instead of tissues, cloth bags instead of plastic, rechargeable batteries)
* toaster oven and hot plate instead of oven (while our oven was broken--would also work during a remodel)

I'd like to hear about more creative examples than mine!

Guest's picture

I don't have a car but use City CarShare when I need one. For long distances, I rent. I don't have to deal with the expense (or hassle) of insurance, parking, maintenance... And because I'm charged for every trip, I'm forced to think first whether driving to my destination is really necessary or if can get there using public transportation or biking.

Guest's picture

Great post!

I think people would be well served to do more renting-- if you don't use an expensive item, vehicle, or tool regularly, you should be renting it as you need it.

Guest's picture

Ten months ago we moved into a rental house without appliances. We bought a refrigerator but were able to get a free stove--the only catch was that the oven didn't work. The cooktop was fine, though. We cook three meals a day at home most days, so I was convinced we couldn't get by without an oven. However, we quickly learned to make do what we already owned--a toaster oven, bread machine, and crockpot. We did purchase a $40 electric roaster oven around Thanksgiving, but that's far cheaper than a new stove. We recently bought a house that has a built-in oven in great working order, so by learning to do without for a few months, we saved ourselves several hundred dollars.

Philip Brewer's picture

The range of things that you can substitute for stuff that you don't have is so huge I couldn't begin to scratch the surface--and yet kind of idiosyncratic.  (I'd be hard-pressed to get by without an oven, because we bake bread at least once a week, but I'm sure we're making do with substitutes for things that other people couldn't imagine getting along without.  For example, we don't have a microwave.)

Examples like these are a great way to get people thinking their own creative thoughts.  Thanks!

Torley Wong's picture

GREAT point about "opinion leader" — as enviable as it seems at first to get "free" goodies, even on a temporary borrow-basis, there's always the reciprocal pressure of having to do something in return. And it especially sucks if you get stuff that you didn't find useful and you get hammered to give a favorable testimonial (in addition to being saddled with it), when that wouldn't be honest.

Moral of the story: remain free of debt, not just financially but creatively!

Guest's picture

I had to figure out a substitute this week when our dryer conked out on us with 2 loads of laundry done and wet. I hung everything over our porch railings in the front and back of the house. Thank goodness it was a sunny week so everything dried! I had thought about borrowing my neighbors dryer but I kind of liked doing this better.
I am very glad to be getting my dryer back on Monday however.
And no - I don't have a clothes line nor a place to put one really.

Guest's picture

These ideas make sense regardless of the state of the economy.

I particularly love the idea of borrowing and renting. It's hard to do in a big city where neighbors are not necessarily friendly or open to sharing or where friends don't live close enough to borrow things that can't be transported via subway or bus.

Even in this economy, there are still far too many people who are resistant to sharing and conserving resources via the methods you mentioned and that's just sad, not to mention wasteful.

For most of us, it takes a huge event to get us to wake up to what we really need versus what we've been conditioned to want.

We didn't enter the world with a lust for stuff. It's acquired via the influence of our society (and very few are immune; most people have at least one area where they "gotta have" stuff).

It's even harder these days, again, despite the economy, depending on your community or social and professional circles, to practice a "less is more" approach to living.

It isn't being frugal to follow the ideas you explored. It's about being resourceful.

And you have to be vigilant. Stuff creeps up on you and what often starts as buying just one thing...leads to more and more and more.

Many of us do not do drugs, drink, smoke or overeat. But we do have addictions to stuff, whether it's books, electronics, home decorating or cars.

What we have to remember is that the more stuff we have and/or want, the more we are slaves to it.

Reason enough to give pause before purchasing anything.

Guest's picture

I refuse to buy things to help me save money (for instance coupon organizer) and will make do with my own homemade version (old checkbook cover). I will conciously make do with less (using 1/2 a dryer sheet equals no difference in your laundry). I try to live by this everyday. When I do have to buy things my money spent represents a thoughtful value based purchase. Great ideas others here as well.