Frugal Spending: Five Questions to Ask Before You Buy

By Mike Peterson
In July 22, 2013

There’s a misconception out there that “frugal living” is somehow synonymous with “deprivation” – that frugally-minded folks never spend a dime and always purchase the cheapest, bargain-bin option when they do find themselves forced to part with a few hard-earned dollars. It’s a misconception that I think turns a lot of people off.  After all, who wants to live in a constant state of self-denial? 

People who are new to saving and budgeting often feel like financial responsibility is an all-or-nothing deal.  As in, “save it all and spend nothing.”  Here’s the thing, though:  Frugal people, in general, don’t deprive themselves all the time.  And they do spend money – they just do it a bit differently.  Although they may make purchases – even “fun” purchases – from time to time, they very rarely make impulse buys.  Instead, they think every purchase through carefully and thoughtfully. 

Want to spend smarter?  Here are five questions most frugal folks ask themselves before they spend money:

  1. Can I really afford it?  This is probably the single most important question to answer before you make a purchase.  It sounds simple and straightforward, but the question of being able to “afford” something is more complex than it might seem at first.  What you’re really asking yourself is:  Can you pay cash for whatever item you want to buy?  Can you afford to make the purchase – and still pay your bills, buy groceries, make your credit card payment (if you have one), and stash away a few bucks in savings? 


If you can’t pay cash, and if you can’t buy it without throwing your budget completely out of whack, you shouldn’t buy it.  End of story.

  1. Am I tired/bored/hungry/stressed?  Have you ever gone to the grocery store hungry?  Ever hit the mall after a particularly stressful day at the office?  If so, you know where I’m going with this one.  People make weird decisions when they’re not feeling their best.  Before you drop your hard-earned money on something you might regret the next day, take a moment to make sure you’re in the right state of mind.  Take a nap, eat a snack, go for a walk – and then see if you still want to make the purchase.

  1. Why am I buying this?  There are many, many reasons that you might choose to purchase something.  Your reason may be purely practical, such as:  “My car battery died.  I need my car to get to work, so I have a good reason to buy a new car battery.”   Or, you may decide to splurge on an occasional “fun” item, such as: “This new book/movie/video game came out.  If I buy it, it will provide me/my family with XXX hours of entertainment, which is actually a pretty good value.” 


Sure, you could argue in both cases that there are other options besides spending money (for instance, you could take the bus to work, and you could rent or borrow said book/movie/game rather than buying it).  But in both cases, there’s some thought behind the purchase.  These reasons are very different than something like: “Hey, that widget is marked down!  I can save 25% if I buy it right now!” or, “If I order in the next five minutes I can get two widgets for the price of one!” 

See the difference?

  1. Can I get a cheaper one somewhere else?  Although the stereotype is that frugal people don’t like to shop, many of them get quite a kick out of finding the best deals on things that they were planning to buy anyway.  Bargain hunting isn’t just fun, though – by taking the time to do some comparison shopping, you can save some serious cash.  And thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible.  You can also use the web to search for substitutes, older models, or alternatives that might cost less.  Either way, you’ll save!

  1. What will I have to give up if I buy this?  Chances are, you don’t have an unlimited supply of money.  Before you make any purchase, you should take the time to consider all of the other things you won’t be able to do with the money you’re about to spend.  Maybe that purchase means that you’ll use up your spending money for the month.  Or perhaps you’ll have to forego dining out for a few weeks, or you’ll need to cut corners at the grocery store.  


Whether you’re spending $10 or $100, you should be aware of how a purchase will affect other areas of your budget.  You’re much less likely to make wasteful purchases if you think about what you’re giving up – not just what you’re getting.

True frugal living isn’t about deprivation. It’s not about being “cheap,” either.  And, it’s not just about saving money:  It’s about making thoughtful spending decisions.  The next time you decide that you want to make a purchase, ask yourself these five questions.  You might be surprised at how many purchases you don’t make – and how much money you save as a result.

Mike is the author of “Reality Millionaire: Proven Tips to Retire Rich” and he has been published in a variety of local and national publications including Entrepreneur Magazine, Deseret Morning News, LDS Living Magazine, and Physicians Money Digest. He holds a B.S. in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

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