The Downsides to Common Frugal Living Tips

by Emily Guy Birken on January 15, 2013

librarySometimes our quest to cut down expenses can lead us astray. Not all frugal tips and hacks are created equal, and trying something that worked for someone else might even end up costing you money. Here are four common frugal living tips that often backfire, and what you can do instead:

Cut Your Own Hair

Personal finance bloggers recommend this tip to not only lower your expenses but also increase your self-sufficiency. And this is certainly an idea that will work for some individuals, especially those who have hair that looks good buzzed.

But for a lot of us, cutting our own or a family member’s hair is a good way to show up to work looking unprofessional or unkempt. After all, it takes time to learn a new skill, and there are no do-overs if you mess up a haircut. Often times, a disastrous home haircut will just result in a professional fix, meaning you spent the money anyway.

The Alternative: Get your hair cut at a beauty school. Though it may seem counterintuitive to have someone who is learning how to cut hair do your ‘do rather than do it yourself, this can be a great way to save money on haircuts and still look great. Beauticians-in-training have instructors to help them, and as long as you are very specific about what you want, there’s little risk that you’ll look like the Bride of Frankenstein—and certainly less risk than if you DIY.

Buy in Bulk

There are two issues with this ubiquitous piece of advice: First, buying in bulk assumes that you have the storage space for all that additional product. This is why you often see extreme couponers on television looking like they live in a storage bunker.

Second, saving money by buying in bulk requires both organization and discipline. You may save money per cracker when you buy the 50-lb box, but it’s no savings if you end up eating them all in the first week rather than portioning them out. You’ve not only overspent on the crackers you ate too quickly, you’re also overspending on calories.

The Alternative: Buying in bulk is a kind of skill. You need to learn how to portion out bulk items and find space for them in your home. If you (like me) find that you simply cannot trust yourself with the jumbo sized package of Oreos in the house, it makes sense to only bulk-buy those things that are both non-perishable and that you have room for.

Borrow from the Library

As much as I love the public library, it’s not necessarily a completely free resource. If you’re used to purchasing books, music, and DVDs without ever having to worry about a due date, then you might find the library quite expensive. (True story: I once owed the library $42 in overdue fines for a single DVD. I had missed the movie in the bottom of my library bag before I went out of town for a couple of weeks, and I came back to a doozy of a fine).

I’m not saying that borrowing items for free from the library isn’t a great deal. It’s just that unless you are on top of your borrowing and your schedule, you may still end up spending money.

The Alternative: If your library has email alerts, sign up for this service right away. It can help you to stay on top of due dates and avoid fines. In my case with the DVD (although that has hardly been the only instance of my owing the library big bucks), an email alert would have let me know that I had missed returning something before several weeks went by.

Buy Seasonal Items after the Season is Over

Now that we are officially post-Christmas, you can see incredible sales on any number of Christmas-related items. And it does make sense to spend a fraction now for something that will be back in season (and back to full price) in less than a year.

The problem with this plan is similar to the one with buying in bulk. Purchasing Christmas ornaments now (or fall clothes, etc) means you have to be organized enough to find a place to store them until next year—and remember that you have them when this season rolls around again. If you’re not naturally organized, you might find that you remember your post-Christmas Santa suit purchase in July 2014, after you forgot you owned one and had to buy a new one for Christmas 2013.

The Alternative: Be a selective shopper in season. It’s possible to find good deals even in the midst of the season. For those people who are organizationally challenged, spending your time and energy looking for sales during the season makes more sense than trying to force yourself to be organized.

The Bottom Line

Frugal tips are often presented like things everyone really ought to be doing. But we are all different with varying skills and abilities. Someone just starting to learn budgeting and frugality should focus on tips that work for them and recognize the limitations that might keep them from using every tip. Otherwise, it might be an expensive lesson.

Do you have any other frugal living tips that might end up not being so frugal?

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Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom who is passionate about personal finance. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana with her mechanical engineer husband and her toddler son. She blogs about parenting at The SAHMnambulist and about the funny side of money at Live Like a Mensch.
  • Great post! I must admit I always cut my own hair, but a few of my mates who are girls go to beauty colleges to get the discount! 🙂

  • Many do it yourself tips can be very costly if you don’t really know what you are doing!! Thinking electric and plumbing for example. Being frugal can mean calling someone once and learning from that repair person, instead of breaking things even more.

  • I have been cutting my own hair for over 6 years, but that is because it works for me. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. I also agree with Pauline. Sometimes DIY will cost you more if you have no idea what you are doing.

  • These are all great points, all too often we get caught up in saving a quick buck here or there and you can lose sight of the big picture. Still, I think I want to investigate my wife cutting my hair as my work place doesn’t care about appearances.

  • Arrgh! I have about $2 in library fines that I still have to pay right now. Thanks for reminding me of my stupidity:)

  • The biggest problem that I face trying to live frugally is having to deal with the denial for 15+ years in a row… You can’t have that. It’s just too expensive. After a while, we all break and start buying the things you want.

  • moneybulldog

    Some things are just a false economy. I have cut the kids hair though, it’s easier than getting them to sit still for the hairdresser!

  • Some Frugal tips just aren’t practical. e.g. You aren’t going to attempt cutting your own hair if you have a job, not unless you want to get the sack for looking an idiot that is.

  • We don’t cut our own hair but we get it down by a stylist in her own home for cheaper.I should hope if one doesn’t know how to cut hair they wouldn’t bother cutting hair. It’s similar to those that say, “I can build a house, trade, what trade, who needs that?-Common sense. We buy in bulk all the time if we can but only what we use as the cost is worth it (I’ve done the math) for items we use. It’s personal opinion really, what one thinks is right might be right for them and not others. I’ll stick with the library, never had to pay a late fee in me life.

  • Jana

    I have a friend that tried to cut her daughter’s hair and it turned out to be a huge disaster. She’s still trying to find the money to get it fixed.

    And as far as the library alerts, I do have that service. I set reminders on my phone and I have my library’s app on my iPhone and iPad so there’s technically no excuse for my late fees. But yet, I still have them. Carelessness and forgetfulness is not easily corrected.

  • Student Debt Survivor

    I once tried to dye my hair at home (back when I was in HS and I was dying my hair all the time). I figured I could save myself the $80 my hairdresser charged and do a few highlights myself. Wrong! I messed up royally, ended up with greenish/gray hair and ended up paying $160 for my stylist to fix the mess I’d made.

  • Great post! I do cut hubby’s hair but it’s too easy, I think we’d do it this way if money wasn’t an issue. I do however have my hair professionally cut but recently made the switch to a less expensive hairdresser to save some molla. I very rarely buy in bulk either because I don’t like my money being ‘tied’ up in items I may not use for weeks. the only things I tend to buy in a larger than normal quantity (costco type shopping) is garbage bags, dishwasher tabs or toilet paper- the price is so significantly cheaper and it’s a consistently used item.

  • Great post! The haircut tip is so true, that only works for a small percentage of us. I buzz my hair (and my sons) so it saves us a ton of money. But my wife more than makes up for our savings though… 😉

  • I shudder to think what might hair would look like if I tried to cut it myself!

    I think the tips of reusing Ziploc bags and paper towels couldn’t possibly end well after very long…

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  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice thought.

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  • Jenny @ Frugal Guru Guide

    If you can’t find things you bough out of season, you have a severe clutter or even hoarding problem and probably shouldn’t be buying ANYTHING until that’s solved!

    As far as beauty school–I did that in high school to get a perm, and they literally dissolved some of my hair. NOT GOOD. As far as whether an at-home hair cut will do–it depends on your style and the skill of the cutter. Some people can’t even trim hair across levelly. (Don’t ask how I know!) Others have learned quite elaborate hair cutting techniques.

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