Beware These False Economies

While preparing to write “Craziest ways to save a buck” for MSN Money (that’s my day job), I was by turns amused and a little disturbed by what young people consider “crazy” frugality.

The post was based on a contest offered by DoSomething.org. Students 25 and under were invited to send in their wildest money-saving tips.

But is getting books and CDs from the library now considered nutty behavior? What about locking up a debit card, using coupons, carrying a water bottle, eating leftovers or doing laundry at a relative’s house – any of those sound wacky to you?

Worse than that, though, were the false economies mentioned by some. For example, more than a few students said they brought home condiment packets and napkins from restaurants to save money. But if you’re broke, what are you doing in restaurants? How much did you spend in order to get a few cents’ worth of “free” taco sauce?

Or how about some of these:

“I never turn on the heat in my house. Instead, each winter I heat the living room with wood.” If it gets cold enough to break plumbing in an upstairs bathroom, you’ll wish you’d kept the furnace at 50.

“I made a fire to cook outside to save money.” But are you getting a varied enough diet this way? You can, or should, eat only so many hot dogs. Are other meats being cooked to the proper temperature?

“Turned on the stove in the winter instead of the heaters.” Kitchen stoves were not designed for heating, only for cooking. If you’re using a gas stove to do this you’re risking a potentially fatal buildup of carbon monoxide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besides, you’re still spending money for the electric or gas, Einstein, and once again you run the risk of expensive-to-fix frozen pipes.

“I would do everything in the dark to save money on the electric bill. I spent a lot of time at the library finishing homework.” Clever, until you trip over the sneaker you couldn’t see in the dimness. See you in the ER – there’s lots of light there!)

More iffy choices

“I canceled having gall bladder surgery and cut down on fatty foods instead.” If you’re a candidate for surgery, then you’ve already got gallstones. Cutting down on fatty foods may or may not prevent a flare-up. If you do have an acute attack, you’ll wind up in emergency surgery – which is more expensive, more invasive and harder to recover from than the outpatient, laparoscopic procedure.

“Walking 8 miles home and collapsing in exhaustion just to save some bus money.” Once in a while would be OK. Regularly? Probably not a good call because it wears out your shoes faster and you’re likely to be too tired to do frugal things that are more cost-effective. For example, you can save several dollars per load by washing clothes in the sink and it really doesn’t take that long. (Ask me how I know.)

“I rarely wash my (clothing) to save up money for my future so that I can afford necessary items in the long run.” Um, don’t you have access to a sink? Are you not worried about offending co-workers and/or fellow students and faculty?

“I spray hairspray on my clothes to get rid of static instead of spending money on dryer sheets.” Where do you find free hairspray these days? Instead of using fabric softeners, try white vinegar in the rinse cycle – cheaper than hairspray.

“I dove into the pond to pick up all the coins I could see … one dime, the rest were pennies.” This might be trespassing – and if you forget to take your phone out of your pocket before you dive, this frugal hack won’t be particularly cost-effective. On the other hand, it is kind of like washing your clothes.

Savings vs. true cost

These were just a few examples of what I’d consider penny-wise, pound-foolish tips. Maybe they’ve never seen consistent, conscientious frugality in action, which is why they’re going so all-or-nothing for stuff that ultimately isn’t saving much.

I’ve got nothing against recycling cans, walking instead of driving, or picking up coins. But plenty of the ideas on that site weren’t smart frugal hacks. They’re tactics that may save in the short term but could end up costing the practitioners money, health or reputation.

The student who eats nothing but ramen for weeks at a time probably won’t drop dead in Econ 101. But s/he will likely become very run-down and thus vulnerable to whatever’s going around the giant germ factory that is the average college campus. Sickness isn’t cheap, even with a student health system, and a sick scholar just won’t do as well in his studies.

Someone who rarely/never does laundry won’t die from stinky shirts and socks. However, s/he may be blowing a chance at things like research projects. Who would you take on as an assistant: the reasonably well-groomed person or the one with whom you couldn’t stand to share an enclosed space?

Readers: Have you ever dropped a frugal habit because you realized it wasn’t really saving you any money?

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  • Kerry Aggen

    Just a quick line about picking up coins from a fountain – those are people’s wishes, dammit! I know, that’s corny, but seeing coins in fountains gives me a bit of a “pick-me-up” – I remember that I’m not alone in wishing for things to be better, and that others also retain hope in their hearts and minds!