My best frugal tip: find enjoyable ways to spend money, and remember them

Personal finance

All too often, we ignore the enjoyment of the purchase process by focusing all our attention instead on the dollar figure being spent and the value of the item.

Trying to get great deals isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve found a far more effective and long-lasting way to be frugal: by remembering the enjoyment I felt spending money on a few special items, I’m far less motivated to spend casually. The reason this works is that most items you’re interested in buying will pale in comparison to your memories of acquiring your most treasured objects.
Here’s my decision-making process when shopping for fun. If I see an item I like, I go through the following list of questions:

  1. Why do I like it? Is it because it reminds me of something I already have and haven’t used in a while?
  2. How unique is it? (Very few things are truly unique.)
  3. How good is the quality of the item?
  4. If I buy the item, am I in a time and place where it will help me treasure an experience for years to come? (In most retail shops, the answer is no.)
  5. Do I feel as excited about owning it as I did about one of my memorable items? (If not, then I’ll walk away and save my money for a more worthy purchase in the future.)
  6. And finally, how much is it?

A few years ago, I received a beautiful silver Navajo bracelet from the artist, who was a friend I’d made while teaching in for several summers in a row. I had bought jewelry from him before for as gifts from friends and a large pendant for myself, and it was just a kind gesture from his part.

It was truly one-of-a-kind, a beautiful and striking, heavy, modern sterling silver cuff that was also atypical of traditional Navajo designs. My friend demonstrated how he he had made the piece using an experimental way he was trying to sterling silver, without sand. He’d also let me try working with silver before, and I learned really quickly that I’d starve if I ever had to make a living from making jewelry.

Every time I wear the bracelet, I’m reminded of all the wonderful time I spent in Monument Valley. Sometimes I’ll see a nice bracelet for sale, but it never compares to the uniqueness and meaningfulness of the one I received. I’ve gotten so many compliments on the piece that my biggest problem has been finding other jewelry pieces to pair with it when I wear it. On the other hand, having thought so highly of this bracelet, I’m not tempted at all by silver jewelry I see in retail department stores or jewelry cases.

I almost always try to buy direct from artists because purchasing this way is just that much more rewarding. As the buyer, you get the enjoyment of meeting the person who created the beautiful object you’re about to own; you know the item is authentic; the price for the item is less than what you would have spent had you bought it through a middle man; and the artist benefits from receiving more money for the object than he would have from a gallery. I’m willing to spend more when buying direct from an artist because the personal interaction is that much more worthwhile to me than the anonymous transaction that takes place in a retail outlet.

I’m pretty sure this logic is also the reason my husband and I almost never eat out, and even more seldom at expensive restaurants, because I end up focusing so much on the two restaurants we’ve enjoyed the most so far that they’re difficult to compare against all the other restaurants we’ve tried.

The first restaurant was called , or The 13 Hunchbacks, a small trattoria in Florence, Italy. It’s located in a tiny back alley, packed with locals, and has the best steak (bistecca alla fiorentina) that I’ve ever had, with the unfortunate side effect that no recipe I’ve found for Florentine steak has ever come close. The steak was tender and pounded thin, served over fresh greens, and with a light and complex marinade or sauce made with balsamic vinegar and other ingredients or herbs that I couldn’t identify. Dessert was a deceptively simple plate of different cheeses, nuts and honey that again had a flavor and consistency that I’d never tasted elsewhere. If you ever go to Florence, it goes without saying that you ought to try this restaurant.

The second place was the restaurant at El Antiguo Convento, near Madrid, Spain. El Antiguo Convento (The Old Convent) was built in 1674 but was renovated into a fine hotel several years ago. The rest of our trip to Madrid that year was a disaster: I played stupid tourist and had my wallet stolen; we were witness to a gruesome fatal accident on the freeway; and yet, the memory of having the best meal I’ve ever experienced lingers on. After speaking to Mastercard for 30 minutes about my wallet, I’d headed over to the restaurant, where my husband had taken the opportunity to order for us both , and where although we were the only diners, the staff was sympathetic to my situation and had kept the kitchen open just for us. My fluster and frustration with myself and my wallet soon disappeared along with the meal. The thing I remember most was a sublime foie gras pate appetizer served between several thin filo sheets that just melted in your mouth.

Neither restaurant came anywhere close to being what would be considered an exorbitantly expensive meal. But between the wonderful dishes, the enjoyment of traveling to a distant land, and the memories they helped create, we find few restaurants worth dining in in comparison while we’re in the States. So, we spend less money eating out, and instead buy a few local cookbooks wherever we travel, and cook at home, occasionally trying a new recipe to remind us of the good food found elsewhere.

Give it a whirl. Try elevating the best experiences you’ve ever had with spending money so that unnecessary purchases fall by the wayside. Perhaps that this method works best for those who, like me, lean toward “all-or-nothing” personalities. But no matter what, all frugality requires is being consciously involved during the purchase process. The next time you find something tempting at the store, consider it thoughtfully, and maybe you’ll find times when dollars are better off being saved for a future opportunity where your money will buy you far more than you thought.

It reminds me of a quote from a travel book I’m reading called Motoring with Mohammed. The author, once shipwrecked in Yemen (of all places), returns there to retrieve some valued notebooks of his writings, and ends up discovering it’s near impossible. His friend consoles:

“Don’t worry about the stories you lost. There are always more to come, and it only takes a few good ones to keep us going.”

If you’ve read this far, now it’s your turn. What are the most enjoyable purchases you’ve ever made?


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My guinea pig.and cat – it almost felt like money was a formality, like I was paying for the box that I took them home in.

Free Money Finance

Festival of Frugality…

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Festival of Frugality. For those of you who don’t know, this carnival is about frugal living and saving money. (BTW, entries not matching this description have been left out.) I’m sticking with my…

Madeline Benham

In 1993, I was divorced and not particularly wealthy. I was in my mid-thirties and suspected I was falling in love with the man who is now my husband. He is a fun-loving man who has always been self-employed, partly so he can travel. He asked me to go to Santa Fe with him for the weekend and I realized I didn’t have a weekend bag. At a wonderful, exclusive men’s shop here in Oklahoma City, I purchased a beautiful bag made of a kilim. It was $500 – a lot of money for me in 1993. Its strap and fittings are leather, but the bag itself is a rough and beautiful kilim. I bought it and went to Santa Fe – and then to many other places. That bag went with us on our honeymoon to Paris. The bag is till in excellent condition, because it’s so well made. I got it out last weekend to put leather cream on the straps and I remembered again the thrill of falling in love with my husband and going off on adventures. It’s hard to match that with any new purchase. Better to save, I think, and wait for some special experience like that again.


Thanks for sharing your experiences. I too have a dog (and hopefully soon another) for whom the price isn’t a concern, though I acknowledge I’m lucky to be in that position.

And Madeline, your bag sounds lovely! So many of my favorite things are associated with travel, too. I’m definitely in the spend-a-lot-for-a-few-treasures-than-a-bit-on-many-things camp. By the way, I and several outsiders tried our hands at Navajo basketweaving, beading, and rugmaking while we were there and learned quickly that the prices they charge for their labor on those items are worth every penny!