It’s hard to save money. Human nature makes it much easier to spend than to save. Which is why many of us (including me) at times have trouble staying motivated to make the kinds of choices that are necessary to keep our budgets in line. I’m usually good at avoiding impulse purchases in retail stores, but I’m less disciplined when it comes to saving money on food.
We all have our weaknesses, I suppose. And in fact, acknowledging those areas where we have budgeting trouble is a good first step toward improving our behavior in the future.
Indeed, some spending decisions are clear cut – such as when you decide not to stop at Starbucks or not go to the mall.
But what about the other decisions? Those situations where making the frugal decision ends up costing more than you bargained for?
Walk or drive?
Here’s an example from my own life: last Friday my girlfriend and I were going to a restaurant to meet some friends. We don’t often eat at restaurants, but since I had already decided to spend the money for the meal, I was in a cost-conscious mood. And as it turned out, we faced a financial decision: how would we get to the restaurant?
One option was for us to take the subway to a station 7-8 blocks away from the restaurant. That meant we’d get off the subway, proceed through the gate, and make a 10-15 minute walk to the restaurant. The other option was to drive to the restaurant and pay for valet parking.
All things considered, the train ride and short walk sounded like a rather painless way to get to the restaurant. And we didn’t know how much the valet parking would cost (I estimated it could be anywhere from $5 to $15). So we decided to take the frugal option and take public transportation.
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As it turned out, the temperature dropped faster than we imagined, so we ended up having to wait for the train (in the cold), ride on the train, and then walk to the restaurant (in the cold). We also realized the neighborhood we were walking through was somewhat deserted and didn’t feel particularly safe at that time of night. (Not to mention, we were hungry!)
So, by the time we got to the restaurant, we had started to feel like our frugal decision was not the right one. When we got to the restaurant, we asked – out of curiosity – how much the valet parking cost, and were told it was $6.50.
I was reminded of an old Uncle Scrooge comic that I read when I was a kid and it seems quite relevant to this topic. It showed Scrooge looking all over town for a cheap haircut. First he stopped at a fancy barber shop, but he saw their price, and said “too much!” Then he checked at a less expensive barber shop, and again upon seeing the price said “too much!” After repeating this several more times at subsequent barber shops, Uncle Scrooge decided to go home and took out a pair of scissors to cut his own hair.
Unfortunately for him, his lack of hair-cutting ability lead to an unfortunate result. The last frame of the comic showed him staring in the mirror at his self-cut hair sputtering again… “Too much!”
So how do you choose?
The Scrooge comic and my own experience on Friday demonstrate how difficult it can be to find that balance between being frugal and overdoing it. In the first case, it wasn’t a major problem, because we still enjoyed our dinner and were none the worse for wear when we got home that evening. And sure, it’s nice to have a few extra dollars in the budget. But in the midst of that moment we would have preferred to spend the $6.50 and avoid the frustration of the waiting and walking in the cold.
And in Scrooge’s case, I suppose he probably survived okay, too, despite his unappealing haircut. Life goes on, as they say.
But it brings up a good question: for those of us working on saving money, where do we draw the line between being frugal and overdoing it? Especially when the dollar amounts are small and the inconvenience is substantial?
I’m still working to find my own answer to this question, and I’d love to hear yours. Where do you draw the line?