Frugal Tips That Annoy the Heck Out of Me - Live Like a Mensch
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Frugal Tips That Annoy the Heck Out of Me


Couponrific photo courtesy of expert couponers Julie & Heidi from West Linn & Gillette, USA

This morning at the gym, I was perusing AARP magazine (I read it for the articles! Really!), when I came across a piece by Jeff Yeager, the self-proclaimed Ultimate Cheapskate. Now, Mr. Yeager offered some great advice to the readers on ways to reduce spending. But I still found myself getting annoyed with his article, as I often do with articles dealing with frugality, in that some of his advice will not work in anything resembling the real world. So, even though I myself have been guilty of writing these kinds of frugality articles, I have decided to share with you the frugal tips that drive me most crazy:

1. Drive less. Okay, I am a committed environmentalist, a runner, and one who truly enjoys running what errands I can on foot. However, this advice is completely insane for most people.

First of all, without driving, getting my son to school would be next to impossible, considering he can't walk that far and the main drag that his school is on is not exactly bicycle friendly.

Secondly, unless you work at a job wherein it's okay to arrive sweaty and gross, riding a bike or walking to work is really not that feasible. It's also not necessarily safe. When we moved to Lafayette, J was thrilled to be about a mile from work because it meant he could finally bike to work. Except he can't, because even though it's only a mile away, it's a mile of heavy traffic with no bike lanes. We all like J very much here at Chez Mensch, and we'd prefer he didn't get clipped by a semi on his way to work.

Third, walking, riding a bike, or even taking public transportation really increases the amount of time you need to spend commuting. I personally already feel as though my days are not getting their allotted 24 hours, let alone adding to my regular travel time.

Finally, my big problem with this advice is that very few people will see any kind of real change in their finances by driving less unless they actually give up a car. I admire those people who are able to do this, but that's just not feasible for the majority of Americans. We live in a car-centric society. Even if you run errands once a week on foot, you're not really going to notice a huge difference in your wallet.

What I'd prefer to see: Articles giving very specific advice on how to improve mileage and maintenance on cars, as well as specific ideas for how to start car pools. It's not enough just to tell us to drive less. Give us ideas of how to do it, or, barring that, give us ideas on how to make driving less expensive.

2. The Latte Factor. This one annoys me so much I've already written about it here and here. This idea was coined by David Bach, who showed that small expenses add up. Specifically, he claims that if you buy a $5 latte five days a week for 50 weeks of the year, you're wasting $1250.

He's not wrong about that--it's just missing the point. Yes, spending a little money on something every day will add up to big bucks over time. But the sort of people who are actually reading frugality advice have already given up their small daily luxuries. I've never seen anyone who spends $5 every day on a cup of coffee also clip coupons, give up their car, and hang out their laundry rather than use a dryer. People who are spending money every day on a small luxury are probably also spending money regularly on big luxuries, which are a heck of a lot easier to cut out than the small ones.

Also, it's incredibly frustrating to click on a link that says "try this one tip to save $1000 per year!" and find that it's just another incarnation of the Latte factor. We get it, okay! Small amounts add up.

What I'd prefer to see: More behavioral economics-based ideas on how to make saving easier. It's hard to think of small amounts as being worth much of anything. In fact, studies have shown that we are more likely to spend four $5 bills rather than one $20. So it can be very difficult to rewire our thinking to make the small amounts worth saving. I'd love to see some concrete suggestions for doing just that. It's a heck of a lot more helpful than just saying "stop buying expensive coffee and bank that money instead!"

3. Downsize. Now, I am absolutely a proponent of small home living. Our first house was only 1180 square feet, and our current home is only slightly larger at 1600 square feet. And that's just fine by me. Less house means less for me to clean (poorly), less to heat and cool, and fewer rooms where I could lose a two-year-old who is running away from the prospect of a bath.

But let's say you already live in a 4500 square foot house and you're having trouble making ends meet. Does telling you to sell the house and downsize really help at all, especially in this housing market? Add to that the fact that moving is not free, even if you have a friend with a pickup truck and a free weekend, and this advice becomes basically useless. Downsizing is not something that is going to reduce immediate costs.

What I'd prefer to see: People who bought more house than they can afford need specific advice on ways they can cut expenses. For example, I never see anyone advising McMansion owners to shut off parts of their homes, just like impoverished gentry used to do with the old homestead in the early 20th century. Making what you own more affordable is going to be much more helpful than saying "Sorry, you should have bought a smaller house!"

4. Buy a car that gets better gas mileage. This one really gets under my skin, because it's become such a holy grail among car buyers that they completely ignore every other aspect of car ownership. Yes, excellent mileage is a great goal, but if you have to spend $20,000 in order to improve the price at the gas pump, something is seriously wrong. Also, driving a Prius like a jerk (that is, lots of starts and stops, heavy on the brake, lots of wide open throttle) is going to be worse for the environment/your wallet than driving a Ford Fusion responsibly.

What I'd prefer to see: Real suggestions about good quality cars that are inexpensive to buy and maintain. You can find this information on car blogs, so I see it because my husband has an intravenous Jalopnik feed, but you don't see such information among money folks. Instead, you get throwaway advice like "buy a car with good gas mileage." Also, better advice on how to drive in order to (responsibly) maximize gas mileage would be truly helpful.

I'm just as guilty as the next finance writer for suggesting glib one-sentence advice for improving finances. The problem is that so much of what we write is of the Top 10 list variety, and there really is only so much you can say in that short a space. But once you've gotten far enough into frugality that you are regularly reading frugal tips, then most of this glibness is completely useless.

What tips do you hate reading over and over again?



EmilySRL said:

YES! All of those articles that have been floating around places like Yahoo and MSN for the last few years irk me to no end. I am so happy, and relieved, to see that I am not the only one frustrated by this re-hashing of the same tired, and useless advice.

Tips that bother me:

Couponing as the holy grail of saving - can be helpful, but often, buying off- or store- brand is cheaper. But not always.

Across the board buying of non-name brands - again, can be, but if you do have coupons, or the national brand is on a good sale, or if the non-name brand contains an allergen...

The Latte habit one really sticks in my craw, for all the reasons you say, but also because then I do start to feel guilty that one day I treat myself to a $2-3 cup of something, knowing full well that I could have brewed coffee at work for much less.

Basically any tip that says "Don't do this" or "Always do this" is making vast assumptions about everyone else's reality: their income, their method of payment, frequency of payment, financial reserves, ability to buy a milk frother to make lattes at home, availability of discount grocery stores, availability of a variety of grocery stores, availability of public transport, ability to walk/bike... I get that assumptions have to be made when one is writing to the entirety of the general public, but these articles feel so far removed from the reality of someone living in a non-major metropolitan area who is actually living frugally.

January 25, 2013 9:14 AM

haverwench said:

"Third, walking, riding a bike, or even taking public transportation really increases the amount of time you need to spend commuting."

This isn't as clear-cut as it might seem. Yes, your morning commute will take more time--but it won't be wasted time. When you drive to work, the only thing you are doing with that time is getting yourself to work. When you bike or walk to work, you are also getting exercise--so even if it takes half an hour each way, that's an hour you don't have to take out of the rest of your schedule for a workout. And when you take public transportation, the time can be spent reading or (with modern technology) checking e-mail or getting started on work, so the morning commute also doubles as either productive time or needed recreation/relaxation time. There's nothing either productive or relaxing about swearing at traffic.

To me, the biggest problem with this tip is that, as you point out, "very few people will see any kind of real change in their finances by driving less unless they actually give up a car." In fact, taking public transportation, if you already own a car, will probably cost you more (though for me, back when I used to work in an office, it was worth it for the other benefits I just cited above).

"People who are spending money every day on a small luxury are probably also spending money regularly on big luxuries, which are a heck of a lot easier to cut out than the small ones."

This is the BIGGEST problem with most frugality tips, as far as I'm concerned. They focus on all the penny-ante stuff, and they ignore the fundamentals: housing, health care, transportation, and food. Cutting out a $4 daily latte won't do you much good if you're spending 50 percent of your take-home pay on rent. Moving to a smaller apartment, or finding a roommate, will make a much bigger difference and will leave you a few dollars to spare for an occasional luxury, like a cup o' froth.

"People who bought more house than they can afford need specific advice on ways they can cut expenses."

Well, there are some pieces of specific advice you do hear fairly often, like refinancing. Taking in a boarder could be another, major one. (For those who are renting, however, downsizing is very sensible, a I noted above.)

"driving a Prius like a jerk (that is, lots of starts and stops, heavy on the brake, lots of wide open throttle) is going to be worse for the environment/your wallet than driving a Ford Fusion responsibly."

I'm amazed at how often I see this. What's the point in owning a hybrid if you're going to drive it like that? Do these people think that buying the greenest car on the market is a "get out of Hell free" card, or something?

I do think, though, that like the other tips, this one has a kernel of truth to it. You may not save by choosing a hybrid (that's what we concluded when we last shopped for cars two years ago), but there's a lot of variation in the fuel efficiency of traditional gas-powered cars. Trading in a massive SUV for a more efficient small or midsize car (assuming it's still big enough for your family) of the same age should definitely yield some savings.

January 25, 2013 10:46 AM

haverwench said:

@EmilySRL: regarding the "ability to buy a milk frother to make lattes at home": if you have a microwave, you don't need one. All you need is a microwave-safe jar with a lid (the lid doesn't have to be microwave-safe). Seriously. Put the milk in the jar, shake it for 30 seconds, then take off the top and nuke it for 30 seconds. You get steamed milk on the bottom and foam on top. It's making the espresso to go with it that requires special equipment.

January 25, 2013 10:47 AM

frugal_fun said:

Let's see - what tips do I see repeated?

-Cut cable/landlines - this is the "Latte Factor" again. We haven't had cable or landlines for years. Where do I cut if this has been gone for years?

-Downsize - Yes, if it's just the 2 of you in 4000 sq ft. McMansion or you're renting too much space by all means downsize. What do you do if you've got 3 kids and bought the smallest house you could in a nice (but not upscale) neighborhood? Do we downscale our neighborhood to save $200 a month?

-Coupons - we eat Paleo (aka Fresh food). They don't make coupons for that, although they have loss leaders. Clipping coupons will only give me papercuts.

-Cars - I totally agree that the only way to realize savings is to let go of the car. Driving less is the latte factor - gas really isn't the biggest expense of a car. Many publishing houses are in big East Coast cities where sometimes people don't even bother with Driver's License because they'll never use them. The rest of the USA pretty well requires a car to have a middle class lifestyle/job. The idea of driving less in rural areas is just good for laugh.

This is very timely for us because 2012 was a rough year and hubby and I sat down again to discuss (again) where we could cut. In all seriousness, there was nothing vaguely acceptable anymore. Our mortgage is less than the rent on the same space and we're refinancing. We have old cars (one of which needs replacing). We have high deductible health insurance and because we eat well and live carefully, we don't need it. In fact the only reason we used it in 2012 was for a non-preventable issue with our infant daughter.

We were left with that we needed to increase income. It's really the only way from here to continue to save money with 3 kiddos. :(

January 25, 2013 4:21 PM

bobi said:

Most of the articles you cite are written for the uninitiated but truthfully I don't mind re-reading this stuff. I'm a longtime devotee of Amy Dacyczyn and her Tightwad Gazette and consider myself a black belt tightwad. I kind of get a kick out of Jeff Yeager too. Anyone who reads Amy's writings can better understand how some of this small stuff works and trust me, it works! As for your questions, the only one I can give insight on is about mileage...google "hypermiling," I heard of this a few years ago and started doing it and the results are pretty amazing.

January 25, 2013 9:32 PM

Thomasina said:

The Drive Less advice should include a suggestion to look at one's routes and the order of errands.  It should also include a suggestion to try to combine errands OR make it a habit to only 'run out' for stuff once a week.   I've seen people think nothing about running out for ONE thing at the drop of a hat because they just ran out of something OR because they just want it now.   Doing that sucks up alot of time as well as money.

I'm amazed at how often someone will jump up and jump in the car because they need a B-Day card, or they are doing their nails and are bored with the colors they already have on hand, or they decide they want X for dinner but don't have X at home...  You can drive less if you stop all the running out for just one thing.

January 29, 2013 4:57 PM

Live Like a Mensch said:

Several months ago, I wrote about frugal tips that annoy the heck out of me . Apparently, I'm not

June 13, 2013 1:40 PM

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