Frugality isn’t just about saving money—it’s about using your money efficiently. And some methods of saving cash take more time and effort than they’re worth. Worse, some habits actually encourage you to spend more.
“What’s a worthwhile money-saving strategy and what’s not depends largely on your personal circumstances,” personal finance expert Stefanie O’Connell tells mental_floss. “For example, when I was making less than $30,000 a year, I would spend hours hacking costs—couchsurfing, taking public transit, DIY-ing everything. At that time, the extra $5 a day or $20 here and there really did make a significant impact on my financial life, even if it took an extra two hours to get somewhere or get a task done.”
O’Connell says that as she started to earn more money, her time became more valuable. The frugal habits that once worked in her favor no longer made sense. “Before I could meet all my monthly expenses and financial goals, I never dreamed of conveniences like taking a cab to the airport,” she says. “I only began to consider convenience over saving once I could more than meet my monthly expenses and financial goals.”
Your own mileage will vary, too, but we asked a few personal finance experts which money-saving habits generally aren’t worth it.
1. CLIPPING COUPONS
Depending on your method, couponing can be quite a bit of work. “You'll spend valuable time, attention, and mental bandwidth tracking and organizing your coupons,” Paula Pant of Afford Anything tells mental_floss. “But at best, you'll save only a small amount of money, and at worst, you'll wind up buying items you don't need.”
Pant has a point. Coupons actually encourage consumers to spend more, and they usually succeed in doing so. A 2003 study from NYU [PDF] found that customers actually spent more money on items when they shopped with coupons. According to the study, “When coupons were not clipped, [the households surveyed] were very value conscious and paid an average of $0.51 for soups but when they purchased the category using coupons, their average spending increased to 0.66.”
Personal finance writer Victor Lim has made his own case for resisting the couponing trend: “The thought of spending time searching for coupons, clipping them, and driving around town to score a whole bunch of free toilet paper makes my head spin,” Lim tells mental_floss. “While saving a buck or two is nice, I'd rather focus on bigger and consistent savings.”
2. BUYING SECOND-HAND PRODUCTS
While buying used items can save you money, the risk might in some cases outweigh the reward. Jonas Sickler of ConsumerSafety.org says the most important thing to keep in mind when looking to buy second-hand is to consider the dangers associated with buying certain products—especially baby items like car seats, cribs, and strollers—without knowing the items' quality or where they came from. “Frequently these items might be recalled, or simply outdated and no longer meet today’s safety standards. They may also be damaged, worn, or missing certain parts that make them unsafe for babies,” Sickler says.
You can look up recalls for all kinds of consumer products, from appliances to children’s products, on Recalls.gov.
3. BARGAIN SHOPPING
It’s fun to hop around garage sales and yard sales—just don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re saving money when do you so, says Pant. “Scavenging from sale to sale consumes hours of your precious free time, locks you into a consumer mentality, and baits you into buying items you don't need.”
The same goes for outlet shopping. Just because you score a great deal on a bunch of stuff doesn’t mean you’re “saving” money. Before whipping out your wallet, ask yourself whether the items you're about to purchase are ones you actually need.
4. GOING OUT OF YOUR WAY FOR GAS
“Once or twice a week, a lot of folks will ‘take the long way home’ to fill their gas tanks at an off-brand gas station that usually has the lowest prices in the area,” says Timothy G. Wiedman, a retired Associate Professor of Management & Human Resources at Doane University in Nebraska. Wiedman suggests considering a couple of factors in order to determine whether this practice is worth it.
First, you want to consider the amount of cash you’ll actually save: “If my 3500-pound SUV only gets 16 MPG in city traffic and I'm driving a total of 14 miles out of my way to tank up, is saving 9 cents a gallon when filling a 24-gallon gas tank cost-effective?”
Second, you want to consider the value of your free time. Is it worth the savings? “A lot of folks who consider themselves to be frugal, are actually penny-wise and pound foolish,” Weidman says.
There’s a case to be made for all of these habits. Maybe you like couponing or thrift store shopping—there’s certainly nothing wrong with spending money on things you enjoy. At the same time, you want to be mindful of your money habits, and that means acknowledging the time and effort involved with them. Money is important, but your time and energy are priceless.