There are many people that want or need to be frugal, but when faced with actual buying decisions they become overwhelmed and either do nothing or end up with the wrong thing. It would be nice if there were an easy formula, but there is not, and there can’t be. There are just too many variables. Luckily, however, there are systems that can be used to make the process simpler. The basic frugal equation is to satisfy a need or want by obtaining the highest acceptable quality for the least loss of resources.
The first question is whether this is a need or a want that you are seeking to fill. If it is a want, the process is as follows: Ask yourself what it is exactly that you are trying to achieve. If you think you want to go to Europe, for example, is it a desire for more excitement, or intellectual curiosity, or because you have friends there that you would like to see? How strong is the desire? And can it be satisfied any other way?
If the desire is strong and there is no substitute than you have identified one of your big dreams. That is a very good thing. It doesn’t guarantee success, but at least your compass is working. But, you might discover that it is not Europe per se that you crave, but the culture that exists there, at least in your imagination. This desire might be filled by a trip to a museum. Whenever you get the urge to shop, try this exercise. You may be very surprised at the results.
There are items that are in a gray area. You might “need” something for your work, but it doesn’t rise to the level of a true need as defined below. I had this problem recently with equipment I use as a writer. My computer is acting up, but I had no camera except the one on my phone. I didn’t need either item in the sense that my life couldn’t go forward without them. But, to do my job I did need both items. In the end I bought the camera, but am still using the errant computer. The reasoning is that I had nothing that fulfilled the function of a camera at the level required, while the computer still did what it was intended to do even if it is old and slow.
Once you understand what the true want is, and have decided to fulfill it, the next step is to apply the frugal equation of value for outlay. First-is there a non-monetary way to get what you want? Trade or gift economy? Can you get it used? If not, what is the likely best price available? I ended up buying a new camera at a deep discount. The price difference between the new entry level Nikon and a much fancier used one was not that great, and I didn’t feel I needed all the extra horsepower. I valued the warranty more. Sometimes the new thing is the best buy. But, nine times out of ten it will be the used item that is the best. The one thing that can’t be glossed over is the work. If you don’t dig around and ask questions you end up making an impulsive buying decision, and those are rarely frugal. Luckily, because this is a want and not a need, time is on your side.
Strangely, the fulfillment of needs is actually more complicated. There are only a few actual needs. The survival needs are clean air, potable water, a sanitary facility to get rid of wastes, food, some sort of body covering against the weather, shelter from sun, wind and water, and some kind of field medicine and first aid. But in our society, I must also include transportation, communication, clothing that is acceptable to the situation, and actual medical care.
The first question is whether these needs require a shopping solution or can be met in other ways. Can you trade, or do it yourself? Food, for example, is an easily DIY, easily barterable commodity, especially if you have a garden or livestock. Clothing can be made, traded, or obtained on the gift economy in a clothing exchange.
But, some things really do have to be purchased. Communication in our times relies on either phone or email, both of which involve interfacing with large companies. The answer to this problem will likely require a great deal of research. It is not often that I recommend pure price buying, but this is one of them. All phone companies are difficult to deal with, often sell less than optimal products and services, and charge outrageous fees. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for internet service providers. And, as large communications companies continue to merge, this will only get worse. The only thing to do is be very careful, understand the true costs, and try not to get roped into long contracts. If you have been diligent in connecting yourself to a local community you may be able to by-pass all this and get by with a land-line at the lowest level of service use the library and yahoo mail for internet service. Or, better yet, go back to snail mail and personal visits. If you can do that you have come a very long way to reclaiming a gracious life.
As for transportation, I have already covered the possibilities in another post. Suffice it to say that you are blessed if you live in an area that is walkable and has good public transportation.
The other things on the list of true needs are more problematic, particularly the medical care. Even if you have the actual cash to make a health insurance payment there is no guarantee that the company will honor the contract after they have taken your money. I have written about this before. Healthy habits, a little knowledge of herbal and alternative medicines, and perhaps some barter are the main lines of defense. If you need some kind of regular prescription medicine things get much trickier. As long as no political solution to this problem is reached it is a street fight out there. There are clinics, but if you are truly at survival level you may not be able to eat and get your meds. I would recommend going to the soup kitchen and food bank, but spending the cash on the clinic.
It may seem odd that needs are more difficult than wants to analyze, but it makes sense, really. If you have a want that can’t be satisfied, it may bruise your ego. If you have an unfulfilled basic need, your life may be on the line.