Less or Cheaper?

Photo: J.K. Califf

It's always worth investigating cheaper alternatives, but sometimes it's even better to just use a little less of your first choice. (See also: Frugalize Any Recipe)

Back when I used to work as a software engineer, my wife and I invented a drink. It's just like a Cuba Libre, except instead of rum it has bourbon and instead of Coke it has Mountain Dew. We named it a Cubicle Libre, as I drank one most weekdays to celebrate each day's escape from my cubicle. Oh, and it has ice cubes. A Cubicle Libre has to have ice cubes.

In those days, I had plenty of money. I saved a lot, which is how I can now work as a writer and still make ends meet, but I also indulged myself in certain luxuries. In particular, I bought a moderately expensive bourbon for my Cubicle Libres.

The past few years money is a bit tighter, and I've experimented with cheap bourbon. The thing is, cheap bourbon isn't as good. So another experiment I did was using less.

We have some small highball glasses (perhaps more the size of an old fashioned glass). I also have a small shot glass that I bought during a trip to Germany many years ago. It has a line indicating 2 centiliters (which turns out to be 0.68 ounces — a bit less than half a jigger).

If I make a drink in one of those glasses with two ice cubes, that much bourbon, and enough Mountain Dew to comfortably fill the glass, I get a drink that's perfectly proportioned.

Now, perhaps this seems like a rather long way around to suggesting that a half-sized drink can be made for half the cost. But I offer it as an example of some more general principles. These smaller drinks are not just cheaper, they're better. That's because:

  • They're made with superior ingredients
  • They follow a thoughtful design
  • The tools I use to make them are meaningful — they have their own history
  • The construction of each drink is a small ritual

The first two points are where I thought I was headed when I started this post: Superior ingredients make for superior results, and taking a bit of care with the design of the drink let me make the most of the smaller quantities.

But upon reflection, I think it's really the latter two points that have real applicability to living large on a small budget.

Anyone can save money by using less, and saving money on quantity can enable spending on quality. But living large has little to do with the size of your portions. Living large has to do with meaning, and meaning comes from these other things — from care, from mindfulness, from ritual, from history, from companionship in both the work of making and the pleasure of consuming.

When you want to live large, put meaning ahead of either quantity or quality.

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Meg Favreau's picture

While I'm a strong supporter of this general philosophy, I want to second the specific example as well. I also believe in buying good alcohol and drinking less of it -- if I'm having a drink, I want to really enjoy it. This is doubly true since I like tequila, and the cheap stuff has some percentage of sugar water mixed in. Yuck.

Guest's picture

Bourbon and Mountain Dew????? Gahhh.
If you're going to ruin bourbon by pouring Mt. Dew on it, I think it's safe to use the cheapest "bourbon" you can find.

Philip Brewer's picture

Saw a movie once where the brash young man wanted a scotch and coke, and when the stuffy butler looked shocked at the notion, the man said, "I know, I know—waste of good coke."

Guest's picture
Rachel Crockett

Okay so this only applies to food and beverages then. Paying for a luxury or sports car but only drive it half the way to work is not a sound investment. And while some people could stand to lose some weight, I don't plan to suddenly purchase manchgo cheese and artisian bread for my grilled cheese but only use 1/2 the cheese and one slice of bread to make it as my meal. May as well just make it less often but at real portions.

Also you need to learn to use your resources better. Since you like mixing your bourbons in mixers, you never needed to ever buy midprice bourbons. You just have to know what you like and look to see if there is a well brand that offers similar flavor profiles. For instance, Kentucky Gentlemen is a well brand of bourbon, but is respectfully rated by Whisky Bible.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's true that some things only work if you use the whole thing. No point in buying a plane ticket to fly half-way (or even 90% of the way) to Europe, no matter how good of a deal you get. But even that's only partially true. Instead of buying a sports car and then only driving it part way to the destination, maybe it makes more sense to buy a sports car—and then arrange your life so you don't also need a station wagon. Or if you do need a station wagon, maybe instead of getting a sports car you get a motorcycle.

The general principle of using less works for lots of things. Half a grilled-cheese sandwich might make a pretty meager meal, but that doesn't make a whole sandwich the only alternative option. Maybe the half sandwich could be served with a salad or bowl of soup or side order?

The point is: Think carefully about what you really want, make your choices, and then imbue those choices with meaning. It's a lot more likely to lead to satisfaction than just going with more.

Guest's picture

Joseph Stalin is attributed with saying "Quantity has a quality all its own." I was pretty shocked to read that it was not an American - it sounds so American to me.

There are some things I would never give up my crass consumer ways for: only two handfuls of popcorn? a mere 12 ounces of a favorite diet soft drink? a single slice of thin crust pizza?!? All of these sound so frustrating I would prefer to forgo the experience all together. Popcornus interuptus? No Thanks!

Most of the time I probably settle for the cheap stuff, but I do understand where you are coming from. When my family reduced the restaurant budget it didn't mean we changed to fast food, it just meant we only go out once a month to a nice restaurant, or twice a month to a respectable sit down chain restaurant.

Thanks for the article Phillip, I am a fan but haven't been to wise bread in almost a year.

Guest's picture

Your "Cubicle Libre" made me laugh out loud! Decades ago one of my friends used to add vodka from his dorm bar to our vending machine Mountain Dews before we headed to evening classes. I enjoy reading your columns. This never ending recession is very trying, and this website provides some comfort.

Guest's picture

Buying quality will most often save you money in the long-term. I buy Rockport shoes because they are good quality and last. I could buy a cheaper shoe but they just don't seem to last as long. Some items, especially when it comes to groceries, we will buy what is on sale because the quality is usually similar to the name brand. If you comparison shop you can find quality products on sale.

Guest's picture

Your description of living large is so apt...and really the point you are making is just that:living large by investing those small, daily rituals with meaning. By contrast, a day spent in unmindfulness is living small, no matter what one's budget. This is a good reminder of prioritizing as well. Maybe the recession can teach us how to spend as well as save.