When Being Frugal Went Wrong – Tales From The Cheap & Nasty


I love a bargain. We all do here at Wise Bread. But after a few personal disasters from being cheap, I opened up the topic to some of my fellow Wise Bread bloggers. What did they do to save a buck and how much did it cost them? If you have a story too, it could win you a $25 Amazon Gift Certificate. So on with the madness, starting with my own clash with frugal fate.




When I was a college student I was always looking for ways to save money. As you know tuition and housing isn’t cheap, so after the bills, books and supplies I wasn’t left with that much extra cash for food and nights out.

However, my friends and I always managed to save 5 pounds (around $10) for a Tuesday night curry-fest at the local Indian restaurant (I’ll refrain from using their name as it’s now under new management). For the silly sum of $10 we each got:

3 different servings of curry – Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Bhuna and Beef Vindaloo

2 servings of rice – White and Pilaf

2 naan breads – plain and Kulcha (a naan filled with spicy meat)

2 onion Bhajis with dipping sauce

1 plate of poppadoms with mango chutney

1 pint of ice-cold Carling Black Label lager

It was a mountain of food. We’d starve ourselves all day and pig out on Tuesday night, not needing to eat again until Wednesday evening. It was terrific, we’d take over 2 hours at the restaurant eating and drinking and taking time to let the food go down. We loved it.

Of course, we always got what we called “The Japanese Flag” the next morning, which is a completely non-PC way of saying we got diarrhea. But we figured it was all the spices.

Then, one Thursday morning we were reading the local newspaper and the story on page 5 turned us all white. Our favorite curry house, which we had been going to for 1 year, had been shut down because they had been serving dog and cat in the curry. Not all the time, but enough that we knew we’d eaten our fair share. They also had some serious sanitation issues, including cross-contamination, out-of-date food and some personal hygiene issues (I can't mention them here, but we all felt sick for days). I assure you this is no urban legend, my folks still have the paper-clipping to prove it. I can eat curry again, I still love it, but the flashbacks come and go.

Moral of the story: A cheap meal may contain a nasty surprise.


The California bar exam is the most grueling test I have ever taken. It is a three day test of your endurance as well your legal knowledge. I knew it was going to be rough ride. That's why when I found out the exam was being held at a Sheraton hotel, I promised myself I would get the best room possible.

The Sheraton, of course, was counting on this. They knew most law students would pay almost any price to get a room there so they jacked up their prices accordingly. When I called for a reservation, they only had two rooms left: one ridiculously priced suite on the top floor and another room on the second floor that was $150 cheaper. Although I had promised myself to get the best room possible, I just couldn't pass up the $150 discount. It's only a room right? What could possibly go wrong?

Big mistake. It turns out no one took that room because it was right next to the elevator. Every five minutes I was treated to either the screeching sounds of elevator gears or the drunken tirades of hotel guests who got off on the wrong floor. I did pass the bar despite not getting any sleep for 72 hours. But till this day I still kick myself for risking so much over a relatively trivial amount of money. That was the worst $150 I have ever saved.

Moral of the story: A cheap room could cost you a good night’s sleep.



The birthday-party goody bag for my children and their friends has been my nemesis. The concept is not so bad: give partygoers a bag of small treats. But if you have 10 kids and each trinket costs 50 cents to $1.00, it adds up and is an unreasonable amount to spend on a bunch of junk.

When my youngest turned three, he invited three friends to his birthday party. I decided I’d get one big item for the goody bag (these kids had limited experience with parties so I figured I could get away with giving one large item), which was a toy fishing pole with magnetic fish (the fishing line caught the fish with its magnet) available at a very inexpensive price at the grocery store. So I saved on the goody-bag items and avoided a drive to Toys R Us or Party City.

I bought four fishing sets so I’d have a back-up if one broke. Only one child could come to the party, so I had three back-ups. Just as the party ended and in the presence of the friend’s mom who had arrived to retrieve her son, I presented the token gift to the innocent three-year-old. He played with it briefly but the fishing pole broke immediately; the magnet on the line came loose upon contact with the magnetic fish. So I retrieved another set, and then another, and, then, the last one. All broke.

My frugality with goody bags and gifts ended that day, almost.

This year, many birthdays after the fishing-pole incident, I spied Matt Christopher (sports series for kids) books for $1.00 at the outlet store of an early-education catalog company, whose main office just happens to be a couple of miles from my house. The prospect of filling a goody bag with something inexpensive and somewhat valuable was just too much to resist. So, I collected several copies, added a few pieces of chocolate to each bag, and reached goody-bag, frugal-mom nirvana.

Still, I have learned my lesson not to be ultra-frugal when the consequences of frugality impact someone besides me.

Moral of the story: Saving money on gifts may not help you save face.



My dad is a great guy. He's a very smart man, a hard worker, and completely dedicated to his family. He really is the essence of frugal, a guy who is pretty much content with the same wardrobe for 20 years at a time, the guy who relishes leftover food and cheap wine.

He is not, however, a mechanic.

Dad's always been fond of buying used, and slightly obsolete. Cars, computers, whatever - if Dad can buy something that's cheap and out of style (but still useful), he will.

Now, we're not a big boating family, but we had a house near a lake and we all agreed that buying a boat was a great idea. So Dad went out and found the ugliest mustard-yellow boat available. There is no describing how hideous that boat was. Fugly from top to bottom. But it ran fairly well.

Until it didn't.

Dad, being Dad, decided that he would crack open the inboard/outboard and give it ago. Several days and a few more broken parts later, Dad asked a neighbor for some repair advice. Upon hearing that Dad was attempting to fix the motor by himself, our neighbor Gus, probably wiping away tears of laughter, said, "You get to break three parts during the repair, and then you have to take it to a mechanic."

Classic boat-owner's mistake, apparently.

Now, I have faith in Dad's abilities, to a point. We once fixed the bumper on my Honda Civic, which had been lowered considerably in a rearend collision on the 101 outside San Mateo. The mechanic guesstimated that the repairs (lifting the bumper back up into place) would run about $700. Dad wasn't having that.

For $4 worth of screws, that car looked as good as new.

But boats are a different beast, and a motor is more complex than a bumper.

In any case, Dad learned at that point that there are some DIY projects that really shouldn't be DIY. Oil change? Sure. Transmission rebuild? Not so much. His little repair project cost him an extra few hundred bucks.

We still have that God-awful boat, though. It still runs, except when it doesn't.

Moral of the story: Do-It-Yourself can easily turn into Do-It-Twice.



One frugality tip I often see repeated is to take advantage of cheap haircuts at hair dressing academies. Every time I read said tip, I cringe.

See, I was your classic broke college student, living on ramen noodles and cheap beer, when my friend decided she was going to have a lavish Christmas party. This party was to be a dress up affair which was not the norm in the rock'n'roll circles in which I hung out. A date, I needed a date!

I worked up the courage to ask a gorgeous guy I was crushing on, and he said yes. The week prior to the party, I was in full-on girlie grooming mode, slathering my face with Clearasil to avoid any pesky zits. I also decided that I should get my hair trimmed, but my wallet said otherwise.

I decided to walk up to the local hair school to get my Louise Brooks bob neatened up. Everything looked fine and dandy when I walked out the door, but when I got home that was not the case. I had sideways and crooked bangs! Upset, I trudged my way back to the school. The instructor, who was a 90s version of Maynard G. Krebs , told me I was full of it "We cut with the shape of the head." Well I knew my head was not crooked!

His turtlenecked and goateed highness summoned all the nearby students to watch his corrective actions to my bangs. So now I did not have crooked bangs, I had no bangs. Mind you this was before "baby bangs" were a common sight. With no solution in on the horizon, I decided just to deal with it. The next morning I woke up to not only bang-less hair, but a face that was peeling like a lizard from the large amount of acne products I had put on my face that week. No amount of exfoliation would correct it. There was no way I was going to miss this bash, hair and face be damned!

I ended up having to put Vaseline on my face in order to even do my make up and managed to work some magic with a bottle of Aqua Net to my poor hair. Luckily, the drinks were flowing, the lights were dim, and my crooked haired, scaly faced self still got a kiss under the mistletoe. After that experience, I will never put my hair on the line just to save a buck.

Moral of the story: Cutting costs with your hair can leave you red-faced.

Got any stories even more disastrous than these? We’d love to hear them. Remember, it could win you a cool $25 Amazon Gift Certificate. One commenter will be randomly chosen and contacted through email. Deadline to enter is 7/20.


All photos courtesy of The Stock Exchange. Many thanks.

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Guest's picture

My father is a "DIY" guy as well, and actually a good one. Us kids, however, who were always nominated to be his helpers...were not as good as he. But, as his children, we were automatically his cheap help. Why hire someone to do the job when you have 3 kids? One summer, we got an above ground pool, which, to save money, he was going to put up himself..unfortunately, we got the job of helping. We spent an entire summer digging the hole. I will never forget that summer, I was only 12, my Sister 14 and my brother 15. Yes, you have to dig a hole for an above ground pool, not a deep one, but a hole nonetheless. Disgruntled workers we were, spending our summer digging a hole in the Florida heat, and then having to "sift out all rocks, sticks and debris" to ensure the liner would not tear....as young kids, we did a half-hearted effort to say the least, especially since he was at work and not there to supervise. There were many kool aid breaks! After the hole was done and the pool was up.....he ended up having to drain entire the pool 3 times to get rocks out from under the liner, (which we missed in our half hearted effort, and he found with his bare feet trolling the bottom) to ensure they did not rip the liner! He probably could have hired 2 guys to do the job for less than the cost of the water to refill that pool twice!

Justin Ryan's picture

About twenty years ago, when I was five or six, my family went on a trip to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This was long before Pigeon Forge became what it is today; back then, it was pretty small, and there weren't a lot of shops and restaurants around. My mother, in one of her flashes of frugal brilliance, booked us into a motel miles from anything, because it was the cheapest in town.

Of course, our car broke down just in time for dinner, so we set out to walk. Unfortunately, we walked in the wrong direction, away from the few places there were to eat. We made it about five miles or so (probably less than that, but it seemed like it to me) before we realized what we did, and turned around to go in the other direction. We made it back to the motel, exhausted, and still hungry, so we had to just keep walking. The first place we came to that we could get something to eat was a small convenience store. Apparently, someone else had the same problem, because all they had was a container of ham salad and a package of hotdog buns. So, we ended up exhausted, eating ham salad on hotdog buns, miles from anywhere.

Moral of the story: Cheap is nice, but never book into a hotel without food within smelling distance.

Guest's picture
Hannah Beck

We were a young military family with little money to spare. My husband had a temporary assignment for 6 months and we couldn't afford to move our furniture so we decided to rent. We found a nice house to rent but it was unfurnished so we hit the want ads, trying to find the basics to get us through. We answered an ad from someone selling a rather nice-sounding sofa and chair for little money. They told us to come that afternoon and to bring a truck so we rented one and went there, as instructed. The furniture had those plastic slipcovers on it, the kind your legs stick to when you sit on it. The price was right and the furniture looked good so off we went and put the furniture right in place in our house. We decided we couldn't stand the plastic covers so we took them off and all was well until later that night.
We decided to go enjoy our new furniture so we went to the living room, flipped on the lights and.....roaches running everywhere! Dozens of them, hundreds of them! Roaches gone wild! The furniture was infested but we didn't know until it got dark and they came out, happy to be free of their plastic prison!
I have a great phobia of bugs. We tried calling the people from whom we bought the furniture but they wouldn't talk to us. We begged them to take the furniture back and they hung up on us. They were free of their problem and now we were stuck with it. They didn't seem to care at all.
e had to have the house exterminated and then needed maintenence visits every month after that. We had to get rid of the disgusting furniture and I was so traumatized that I had to sleep with lights on all night, trying to keep away any stragglers.
It was a mistake we never made again. The next time someone wants to sell you their furniture, beware of plastic slipcovers and be sure to inspect the bottom of it at night,....and bring a flashlight.

Andrea Karim's picture

Hannah, that's TERRIBLE.

And it's giving me inspiration for a "How to deal with people who have screwed you over" post.

Guest's picture

Andrea, I look forward to reading it!

Guest's picture

I don't think I can begin to top the curry story, and I'm very thankful for that.

My frugal disaster was when I decided that my 8-year-old son and I would take the bus from Guanajuato, Mexico to El Paso, Texas. It ended up being a 36 hour ride, during which I got no sleep, my son got locked in the bathroom and the passenger next to us vomited several times. Nuff said. Next time we'll fly.

Guest's picture

Generally, I find my frugal tips to be quite satisfying and rewarding. However, there have been exceptions:

1. I recently ran into trouble with my 02 Honda Civic, a car which I had been previously delighted with. One day my power locks weren't working, the brake dash indicator light was on and the AC was blowing out cold air. I was hoping it was just a fuse issue, but given my luck, it needed a new multiplex unit/fuse assembly box...which would cost about $250, with labor. I had it installed at the local Honda dealer (I know I should probably avoid the dealer) and after installing this part, the AC still blew out hot air. The Honda tech took quite a while trying to figure out why this was the case, and reached the conclusion that the "thermal protector set" was to blame. It's a cheap part, but I was quoted FOUR hours of labor (approx. $400) to install it.
Since the dealership was kind of a drive from my house, I purchased the part online myself and found a local shop to install it.
I was told, “yes, we can install your part (1.5 hours labor vs. the 4 the dealer quoted) but we're not sure that will fix your AC, since we didn't diagnose it.” They recommended that it be re-diagnosed for $85. I declined, as I was so sure that the thermal protector set was the answer. Of course, it wasn't...which means I lost about $200 between the part and the labor, and of course, ended up paying for the new diag. At this point in time, I am told that I need a new computer (ECU) which is going to cost me $499 plus an hour of labor! This ECU is refurbished, so it's actually less than a new one, but comes with a lifetime warranty. Don't ask me why it costs as much as a real computer.
If this doesn't fix my AC I am going to lose it!
Moral: Make sure you know what is actually wrong with your car before you go about making expensive repairs.

P.S. Does anyone know about consumer's rights in regards to car repair. For example, if I had let the Honda dealership install the part (which they diagnosed as being the problem) and that didn't do a thing, would I be responsible for the costs?

Guest's picture

Taking a grungy boat (24 hour trip) instead of flying (2 hour trip). Got seasick, ran over my vacation time from school, had very little 'vacation' that wasn't spent moaning over a bucket.

But I saved a hundred bucks! Pleh. Not worth it.

Guest's picture

Generally, I believe in the idea of generic disposable diapers. They work great with my almost 9 month old daughter.

But, for my now 3 year old son -- when he was born I tried many MANY different brands of generic disposable diapers with him. And seriously? They ALL leaked. I cleaned up so much poop off him and his clothes and myself.... it just was not even funny.

I don't know if he has a weird shaped bum or what, but only one, every expensive, name brand ever worked to contain anything at all with him. I gave away bags and bags of generic diapers to friends who could use them.

So the generics cost me a fortune. lol

Ah well. I should have tried cloth diapering.

Guest's picture

I wrote about being frugal backfiring on me a while ago. I tried brushing my teeth with baking soda. While my teeth felt squeaky clean, my wife said my breath smelt like poo.

You can read my whole experience here: Frugal Experiment: Brushing Teeth With Baking Soda

Guest's picture

I've moved several times, and with each move I have to restock any kitchen supplies. For awhile, I have been reduced to cooking ramen in my rice cooker. Time to buy new pots/pans. But being a broke student, I shuddered at the price of complete, stainless steel cookware. Even single pieces cost at least $25, which I still thought was too much. And then, I found the Dollar Store, and I thought I was in heaven, because it was full of cheap cookware! For under $10 I restocked my kitchen with pots, pans and some utensils. I thought I was so smart for saving so much money. Well, the very first time I boiled a pot of water for pasta, the lid of the pot cracked and splintered into millions of pieces of glass (I bet it was really plastic). Later, when I let the pot cool I noticed the bottom had turned black and after a few scrubs, I punched some holes through the cheap, thin "metal." The utensils were cheap plastic and the spatula started melting when I made stir fry. All said, those Dollar Store kitchen supplies didn't even last one week without falling apart. Needless to say, I went out to buy a decent set of cookware- one that doesn't fall apart with regular use! No more Dollar Store!

Guest's picture

I have always been very thrifty. As a teenager, a friend told me you could use mayonaise as a hair conditioner. Just use a dollop on your scalp after shampooing and rinse. After drying my hair, it was greasy. I washed my hair several times with the same results.

Time was running out that morning and off to school I went with slimy hair. Being young, I told my friends about what I had done and all my teachers found out. And I was the brunt of jokes all day. As soon as I got home from school, I washed my hair several more times using the entire bottle of shampoo. Finally, the oil slick was gone. How much did I save after all the water and electricity I used; zilch.

Guest's picture

This actually happened to a friend of mine. His father was very frugal and got some free paint from his buddy that worked at the County Road Commission. They painted their house with the yellow paint. A little bright looking, but it spruced up the house and best of all, the paint was free.

I went to pick my friend up that night. While driving down their dark street, his house stood out amongst the rest. Turns out the paint was the same fluorescent yellow used to paint the stripes down the sides of the road. The house glowed! So much for a bargain. They ended up painting the house again.

Moral: Sometimes free isn't free.

Guest's picture

My friend found a great bed (frame, mattress and all) on the sidewalk outside his house. Brought it in, slept on it, a week later: nasty case of scabies.

Back out on the sidewalk it went, this time with a sign warning the next frugal person of the dangers lying in wait.

Moral: Don't get your beds from off the sidewalk.

Guest's picture

Andrea..., are you my sister??

That's scary and funny. My dad taught me a very valueable lesson about allowing professionals to do what they are good at.

Sorry about the mustard boat.

Guest's picture

Guestimate is not a word. Please inform everyone you know and make sure that no one uses it again. This has been a polite warning from an anal retentive person who gets way too irrationally annoyed by the word guestimate.

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