Want to Cut Costs? Get Yourself a Frugal Filter (or Two)

Plenty of people equate "frugality" with "deprivation." It ain't necessarily so. My personal mantra has long been "I save where I can so I can spend where I want." That's not deprivation — it's applying focus to my funds so I can create the life I want to live. (See also: How to Get Cash Back By Shopping)

Does that mean interrogating every purchase? Well, yes. But there's an "app" for that: the Frugal Filter.

For me, the Frugal Filter process sounds something like this:

  • Do I really need it?
  • Do I already have something that might suffice?
  • If I really do need it, is there a way to get it cheaply (thrift store, yard sale) or even for free (Freecycle, borrowing from a friend)?
  • If it's not available the cheap/free way, how else can I bring the price down? (Possibilities: Social buying vouchers, flash sales like Wise Bread's Best Deals Today, using an online price comparison tool like PriceGrabber.com, cashing in rewards points, ordering through a cash-back shopping site like Mr. Rebates or FatWallet, paying with a discounted gift card.)

Sounds complicated, but it very quickly becomes automatic. Whenever I want/need something, the Frugal Filter helps me find the best way to satisfy either situation.

Yes: Sometimes a want is a need. It's really OK to spend money. Just do it mindfully.

Example: To me, wanting to visit family or friends is a need. That's because I'd rather go for a visit than a funeral. So I search for the best possible airfare, inexpensive lodgings, and cheap or free ways to feed and entertain myself while I'm there.

The reason I can say "yes" without stress is that I'm pretty good at saying "no" to so many other things. That's a habit more of us could stand to cultivate: According to a recent survey from CouponCabin.com, 49% of U.S. adults feel bad about having bought things they didn't need.

The Fear of Missing Out?

Sometimes the answer isn't actually "no," but rather "not now." Should I shop for a new coat if my current one is in good shape, or go out to dinner if plenty of leftovers are waiting in the fridge? Nope, not now.

Later, maybe — but never at the expense of future financial needs. Paying for health insurance, saving for retirement, and putting money in an emergency fund are all more important to me than a constant stream of new Stuff.

Besides, saying "no" much of the time makes the "yes" days that much tastier. Whether it's a weekend away or just that new book you've been wanting, these indulgences are true luxuries because you don't get them all the time.

Too-frequent purchases are likely to lose their luster pretty quickly. Those accustomed to the latest and greatest of everything often find their satisfaction is short-lived. A new automobile, the hottest designer clothing, a 100G tech iteration, or some other shiny bauble is always on the horizon, tantalizingly out of reach.

Trouble is, nothing is out of reach if you stand tiptoe on a pile of credit cards. Thus the fear of missing out can lead to the fear of making payments — or, rather, having trouble making payments.

You Have Choices — Use Them

Fortunately, there's an "app" to help with the fear of missing out too. Call it Frugal Filter 2.0. Designed for those caught in the now-now-now cycle, this filter helps you cast an eye on what you have and what you think you want. To wit:

  • How much of what I own makes any real difference in my life?
  • What percentage of my salary goes toward paying for stuff I've stopped caring about, or even noticing?
  • Where do I want to be in 5 years — or 10, or 20 — and how do I make financial choices that will support those goals?

The operative word is "choices." Money is not some chaotic force over which you have no control. Your favorite clothier does not employ a tractor beam to siphon dollars from your wallet. Much of the world lives without eating in restaurants every night and buying new clothes every month.

That said, "frugal" does not mean "welcome to the no-fun zone." It means seeking frugal hacks. It means making smart money choices. It means big-picture vs. instant gratification. (Hint: Adults do not use the expression, "I just couldn't resist." Grow up, for heaven's sake.)

If you've spent some time on the buy-it-now hamster wheel, throttling back might feel onerous at first. But you'll be surprised at how quickly it becomes second nature to second-guess. You'll keep your car longer, or ditch the mall in favor of consignment shops, or decide that your current smartphone is smart enough.

Go ahead: Join the 51% of the populace that isn't stewing over unnecessary past purchases. You have nothing to lose except insolvency — and there isn't an app for that.

Donna Freedman is a top frugality expert and a great friend of Wise Bread. She currently writes for Money Talks News and her own site, DonnaFreedman.com.

Tagged: Frugal Living
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Guest's picture

I love the idea of "not now" because instead of feeling like I CAN'T have something, it helps me realize that there will be better timing. It's helpful when helping one's self into a more frugal lifestyle!

Guest's picture

Love, love, love Donna Freedman! I have been following her (and putting her awesome advice to use) for years now. With her advice I have attained many of my goals.

Guest's picture

I love (and follow)your idea of a frugal filter. Just today my husband and I were shopping for Christmas presents , and I found THE RING I'VE BEEN LOOKING FOR for about 15 years. The price was affordable to us, and my husband wanted to buy it right then and there. I told him "not now, it's not in the budget". Instead I had the salesperson write down all the specs, had it sized to my finger and had her give the card to my husband. Now all we have to do is wait for a special occasion.....

Guest's picture

Thanks Donna, for your thinking on this. Sometimes waiting makes you realize you don't really need something, which is good. You figure out how to work around it. And sometimes waiting clarifies your focus. Not only does it give you the opportunity to find a very good deal, but allows you the ability to evaluate the desired specs of that particular thing. No regrets.

Guest's picture

Great article! We will be linking to this great post on our site.
Keep up the good writing.

Guest's picture
Ro in San Diego

I also have been a big fan of Donna Freedman for several years now. My frugal filter isn't very complex, but not now sounds about right. I make a little game of shopping with friends who aren't frugal just to see how little I spend in relation to the next guy.

I have been ultra careful with money for several months now and got to spend the money on a vacation to see my kiddo in a distant state. Though I carefully priced, airfare, hotel, car rental I spent as much as was necessary to outfit my son's apartment to make it more comfortable. I admit many of the items were purchased at local thrift stores and quite a bit at dollar and discount stores, but all the items were needs/not wants. His gratitude to have us make his apartment a real home was worth saying "no" to a lot of opportunities to spend money these past few months.

Guest's picture

The idea of a filter is very smart. The more we can think about the purchase, the better. I find that the longer I do that, the impulse to buy wears off, and I feel relief that I avoided a mistake.

Even if it's something I actually need, I ask myself, 'Is it exactly what I want? Does it fit perfectly, right color or material or design? Or am I settling for less than I expected?' If I'm not sure, I don't buy. Often, an even better quality or better-fitting item will turn up later if I wait. Yes, I have some things I regret buying, and as Donna says, they were purchased on impulse. Even at secondhand stores, I'm cautious now.