When you’re trying to save money, it’s easy to make the mistake of being too strict with yourself. Like a person starting out on a new diet, you think you’re going to cut out every single treat and shed pounds – or pay off debt – as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this strategy can easily backfire.
Any dieter knows that after meal after meal of carrot sticks and hard-boiled eggs, you can suddenly snap and find yourself devouring a whole pint of ice cream. In the same way, when you spend months scrimping and pinching, clipping every coupon and refusing to eat out at restaurants, the frustration can build up until you crack. Next thing you know, you’re on a wild spending spree, blowing through all the money you’ve saved and more. Financial experts call this problem “frugal fatigue.”
The solution to frugal fatigue is the same for the budget-watcher as it is for the diet-watcher. You need to make your plan a little more flexible, giving yourself the freedom to splurge – in a small way – so you don’t feel deprived. Being able to enjoy yourself while you’re saving money, instead of putting off all pleasures until you reach your goals, is the key to sticking with your budget for the long-term.
Understanding Frugal Fatigue
The basic cause of frugal fatigue is simple burnout. You tighten your belt so much, for so long, that eventually it starts to feel like you can’t breathe. But by that time, you’re so used to going without that the idea of loosening your belt by one little notch never occurs to you. Allowing yourself to indulge at all feels like giving up, so you give up completely and start spending money right and left.
Factors That Contribute to Frugal Fatigue
Frugal fatigue can happen to anyone who’s been on a strict budget for a long time. However, there are several kinds of pressures that can speed the process along. These include:
- Temptation. The average American sees hundreds, if not thousands, of sales pitches every day. Every attractive window display, highway billboard, radio jingle, and online banner ad is carefully crafted to grab your attention and convince you that you want, even need, whatever it’s selling. The more of these messages you’re exposed to, the harder it becomes to resist.
- Unexpected Expenses. When you’re struggling to save, any unexpected expense hits you especially hard. You’ve been working so hard, day after day, just to put away a few extra dollars, and suddenly along comes a big medical bill or a major auto repair that wipes out all your savings. This can lead you to feel like all your efforts are hopeless and there’s no point in even trying. You’ll never be able to save anything, so you might as well spend your money and enjoy yourself.
- Unrealistic Goals. Normally, setting financial goals is a good way to motivate yourself to save. It’s easier to pass up little luxuries like a daily latte when you know that extra $4 a day will help you fund a fabulous vacation or buy a new car. However, this strategy can backfire if the goals you set are too ambitious. For instance, if you’re aiming to save up a down payment for a house, but you’re only managing to put aside $10 every week, you can save for months on end and the goal will still look as far out of reach as ever. This feeling that you’re getting nowhere can lead you to abandon your goals and start spending again.
Warning Signs of Frugal Fatigue
Not everyone who’s on a budget gets frugal fatigue. It all depends on how hard you’re pushing yourself and how deprived you feel. Here are a few warning signs that you’re suffering from frugal fatigue and could be heading for a crash:
- No Social Life. When you’re on a tight budget, you’re often forced to turn down invitations to go out for meals, drinks, movies, and other outings. Unless you can find more affordable ways to socialize, such as going on a hike or getting together for a potluck dinner, you end up feeling lonely and cut off from your friends. Before long, the stress and isolation lead to frugal burnout.
- High Money Stress. When financial anxiety is keeping you awake at night, it’s easy to crack under the pressure. To push your money problems out of your head, you pretend they don’t exist and start spending like mad – even though you know it will make things worse in the long run.
- Not Reaching Any Goals. If you feel like you’re saving every penny and not getting any closer to your financial goals, your motivation fades quickly. Financial advisor Joseph Ritter, speaking with The Street, says you should set financial goals that you can reach within six months, or a year at most. If it’s been over a year and you haven’t reached any of your goals, that’s a sign that you’re trying to push yourself too far. Pulling back and setting new, shorter-term goals will help you stay on track instead of burning out.
How to Enjoy Cheap Luxuries
The best way to avoid frugal fatigue is to include a line in your personal budget for luxuries. You can label this as “fun money,” “mad money,” or even “blow money” (because it’s money you can blow on whatever you want). Building these just-for-fun expenses into your budget keeps you from feeling deprived while also keeping your spending under control.
Of course, if you’re on a tight budget, your “mad money” spending is likely to be very low. However, if you can manage to spare just $10 or $20 a month, you can find a surprising number of things to treat yourself to on that amount. To get you started, here are a dozen ideas for cheap luxuries you can enjoy even on a bare-bones budget.
1. Good Coffee
For coffee lovers, there’s nothing quite like treating yourself to a fancy espresso drink at your favorite coffee shop. Unfortunately, at about $4 a pop, it’s an expensive treat. If you stop in at Starbucks for one of those bad boys every morning, your coffee habit will run you about $120 a month.
Fortunately, there are two ways to cut this cost down to size. The first is to indulge, but less often. If you hit the Starbucks once a week instead of every day, you can indulge yourself for only $20 a month. In fact, you might even enjoy your favorite coffee drink more when it’s a special treat, rather than an everyday habit, according to studies in the field of happiness economics.
The other alternative is to learn to make gourmet coffee at home. Instead of buying your favorite coffeehouse brew by the cup, buy a pound of the coffee for about $10 and get roughly 36 cups out of it. You’ll be able to enjoy a cup of it every morning and have enough left over to share with friends.
For an extra $10, you can buy yourself a French press coffeemaker as well. It’s simpler to use than a drip machine, and many coffee snobs say it produces a richer-tasting brew. Or, if you prefer espresso drinks, you can buy a stove top moka pot for $20 to brew your own espresso. You can also make steamed milk on the stove top and create your own foam with a whisk.
To put the finishing touch on your at-home coffeehouse experience, treat yourself to a pretty cup or mug to drink it from. You can find fine china pieces at thrift stores like Goodwill for as little as a dollar apiece. Choose something with a special color or pattern that makes you smile every time you use it.
2. Fresh Flowers
Nothing brightens up a room like a bunch of fresh flowers – and they don’t have to be expensive. Here are a few ways to enjoy blooms on a budget:
- Buy Them Cheaper. There’s no need to spend $20 or more on a bouquet from the local florist’s shop. A $5 bunch from the grocery store is just as good for adding a splash of color to your room.
- Spread Them Around. You can make that bunch go even further if you split it up and put a few stems in a vase in several different rooms. Then you can enjoy them no matter where you happen to sit down.
- Choose Longer-Lasting Blooms. You’ll spend a lot less on fresh flowers if you don’t have to replace them every few days. Orchids, carnations, chrysanthemums, gladiolas, alstroemerias, and lilies can all last two weeks or longer in a vase if you take care of them properly.
- Make Them Last. The two keys to keeping your flowers looking good as long as possible are to keep moisture in and bacteria out. First, make sure whatever container you put them in is completely clean. Then fill it with lukewarm water – not too warm, not too cold – and add a tablespoon of sugar and two tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar for each quart of water. Before putting the flowers in the vase, trim the stems at an angle with kitchen shears to give them a larger area to absorb water. Also, trim off any leaves that will be below the surface of the water so they don’t rot and smell bad. Every couple of days after that, empty out the vase and repeat the whole process – cleaning the vase, trimming the stems, removing any wilted blooms, and adding fresh water, sugar, and vinegar.
- Grow Your Own. If you have a yard, setting aside some space for flowers lets you enjoy fresh blooms all through the growing season at practically no cost. You can buy wildflower seed mixes for different climates that contain a blend of flowers, so there’s always something in bloom from spring through fall. Even if all you have is a patio or balcony, you can still make room for a potted rosebush that can provide a few blossoms for cutting.
3. A Great Shower
Your morning shower sets the mood for the whole day. If you start off your day trying to get clean under a lukewarm trickle from an old, clogged shower head, you’ll arrive at work frustrated and grumpy. But if you spend those first few minutes of the day under a lavish, luxurious flow of water that you can adjust exactly to your taste, you’ll feel refreshed and ready for anything.
It’s possible to spend $200 or more on a luxurious “raincan” shower head with a wide, gentle stream – but you can get a great shower experience for much less. There are shower heads available for $20 or less that can deliver a powerful, invigorating stream, even if your home water pressure is low. Top-rated models include this Siroflex shower head from Italy, this adjustable-flow Delta shower head, and this water-sipping Niagara shower head. Check out reviews online before you buy to see which one produces the kind of water flow you prefer.
To finish off your decadent shower, dry yourself with a big, soft, fluffy towel. Wirecutter recommends the ultrasoft Fieldcrest towel from Target, which costs only $12 for the regular size or $20 for the extra-large bath sheet.
4. Fancy Toiletries
Another way to make your daily shower more luxurious is to pamper yourself with a fancy soap, shampoo, or other product that you absolutely love. Choose something with a scent that delights you, so you can start off every day with a thrill for your senses.
Here are a few ideas you can try for $20 or less:
- French Milled Soap. Many beauty buffs swear by this type of high-end soap. Each bar is run repeatedly through a series of heavy-duty rollers, giving it a smoother texture that doesn’t dry out easily. Fans say it produces a much richer, creamier lather than ordinary soap. The South of France brand costs around $5 a bar and comes in scents like jasmine, lavender, lemon verbena, and orange blossom honey.
- Body Wash. If you prefer a liquid body wash or gel, there are lots of choices recommended by style mavens for their moisturizing properties and luscious fragrances. Elle suggests Dove Go Fresh as a budget pick. It costs around $5 for a 22-ounce bottle and comes in a variety of scents, including cucumber and green tea, pomegranate and lemon verbena, or pear and aloe vera. For guys, Huffington Post recommends Every Man Jack, available in manly fragrances like mint, citrus, and sandalwood.
- Shampoo and Conditioner. Treating yourself to salon-brand hair care products is a lot cheaper than a trip to an actual salon, and many users swear it leaves your hair looking just as good. These products are pricey, but a little goes a long way, so a $20 bottle can keep you looking great for quite a while. Brands that show up repeatedly on “best of” lists include Matrix Biolage, Nexxus City Shield, Moroccanoil, and Kerastase.
- Shaving Oil. For guys, what can make all the difference to the way you look – and feel – is a smooth, close shave. Many experts say softening up your whiskers beforehand with a shaving oil can drastically improve your shave. Well-rated brands include Pacific Shaving and American Crew.
5. Cozy Bedding
If a great shower starts your day off right, a comfortable bed brings it to a great close. Here are a few items that can make sinking into bed at night a luxury:
- High-Quality Sheets. The top-rated sheets at ConsumerSearch are these Mellani microfiber sheets. They’re soft yet durable, backed by a lifetime guarantee, and cost only $25 a set. Or, for cold winter nights, consider a set of flannel sheets to keep you warm and snug. These Threshold sheets from Target are highly rated and cost around $25.
- A Great Pillow. The right pillow can make all the difference to how well you sleep at night. Soft yet supportive memory foam pillows are a splurge pick, usually costing at least $50. However, when you consider that you spend about a third of your life in bed, that’s still a great value in terms of cost per hour of enjoyment. If you prefer a squishier pillow, there are well-rated fiber pillows that cost less than $20 apiece.
- A Mattress Topper. A plush mattress topper can make your old, flattened mattress comfortable again. Memory foam mattress toppers, the most popular type, conform to your body and cradle you in comfort. This DreamFoam gel mattress topper, which starts at around $40 for a twin size, is a top pick at ConsumerSearch because it doesn’t trap heat like other memory foam toppers. This isn’t exactly cheap, but it’s a lot less expensive than buying a whole new mattress.
6. Extra Cushy Toilet Paper
Toilet paper may seem like a silly thing to splurge on, but after all, using the bathroom is something we all have to do several times a day – and there’s no denying that the paper makes a big difference to the experience. When you’re using a thick, plush paper that feels like a soft bath towel, a trip to the bathroom becomes a little moment of luxury in the middle of a busy or stressful day.
Plus, as luxuries go, it’s really not that expensive. Testers at Wirecutter found that the best, softest, most effective toilet paper you can buy costs about $6.50 for a dozen rolls, or $0.54 per roll. Buy it in bulk, or use coupons, and you can get that down to $0.44 a roll or less.
According to the Toilet Paper Encyclopedia (yes, there really is such a thing), the average person takes about five days to go through a roll of toilet paper. So, at $0.44 per roll, the monthly cost for good toilet paper is around $2.54. By contrast, if you buy the cheapest store-brand paper, at around $0.32 a roll, you’ll pay $1.92 a month – only $0.62 less.
In fact, the difference might not even be that much. As Wirecutter notes, the good toilet paper gets the job done with fewer sheets per use, so you probably won’t go through it as fast. That makes springing for the cushy stuff, rather than scratchy, single-ply sheets that tear easily, a real no-brainer.
7. A Gourmet Meal at Home
When you’re on a tight budget, dining out at fine restaurants isn’t on the menu. At the high-end steakhouse Morton’s, a meal for two of filet mignon, with potatoes and vegetables on the side, would come to $100. Add in a couple glasses of wine, after-dinner coffee, tax, and tip, and you’re looking at close to $200.
However, you can still enjoy gourmet meals on a budget if you’re willing to be your own chef. As this article at The Balance notes, the actual ingredients in a filet mignon dinner only cost about $8.50 per person, or $17 for two. It’s easy to find instructions online for preparing a steakhouse-quality steak in your own kitchen, or you can get high-quality flash-frozen steaks delivered to you from companies like Omaha Steaks. You can add a bottle of a good, inexpensive wine for around $10 and a pot of homemade coffee for less than $1.
So, for just $28 total, you can cook and serve a gourmet meal for two at home. To make it a real fine-dining experience, serve the meal off your best dishes, with nice cloth napkins and candles on the table. This is a great way to enjoy a romantic date on a budget.
8. Go Out for Dessert
Although it’s possible to cook a fantastic meal at home, sometimes what you really want is the experience of going out to eat. At high-end restaurants, in particular, a big part of the pleasure comes from sitting and soaking up the luxurious atmosphere. But even at a mid-range eatery or a simple diner, there’s something satisfying about having someone else wait on you instead of having to take care of everything yourself.
One way to enjoy this pleasure without spending big bucks is to go out for dessert only. You can go to a place that specializes in desserts, such as The Cheesecake Factory, and enjoy dessert and coffee for two for $30 or less. Or you can go to a diner and savor comfort foods like pecan pie, strudel, or an ice cream sundae. Two desserts and two cups of coffee, including tax and tip, should set you back less than $20.
9. Spiffy Socks
It’s amazing how much difference a new pair of socks can make to your mood. When you’re used to shoving your feet into old, worn-out socks every morning, carefully rearranging them so your toes don’t poke through the holes, putting on a brand-new pair of socks feels amazingly decadent. They envelop your feet in soft, stretchy comfort and get your whole day off on (ahem) the right foot.
The effect is even greater if you choose a pair of socks in a bright, cheery color or funky pattern that brings a smile to your face. Every time you glance down at your feet, you’ll get a little tingle of happiness just looking at them.
Best of all, this is one luxury that’s amazingly affordable. Even fancy novelty socks cost usually no more than $10 a pair, and discount stores like Burlington or Marshalls often carry assorted patterns for as little as $3 a pair. For wintertime, you can treat yourself to a pair of wool socks, which will keep your feet warm and dry even when they’re wet. Retailers like L.L. Bean and REI carry them for around $10 a pair.
10. A Shoe Shine
While you’re dressing up your feet with some snazzy socks, consider polishing up your shoes to match. In many cases, putting a nice shine on an old pair of dress shoes can make them look new again. Seeing that bright leather surface gleaming up at you will make you feel like kicking up your heels.
Paying someone to shine your shoes may sound like something that only happens in movies from the 1950s, but there are plenty of places left that still perform this service. Many Nordstrom department stores have in-store shoe shine booths where you can get it done for just a few bucks. You can also drop off your shoes at certain stores and shoe repair places to have them polished. There are even a few independent shoe shine stands scattered across the country, particularly in large cities such as New York and San Francisco.
Of course, you can also do this job yourself. All you need is a can of shoe polish, a brush, and a soft cloth. You can pick up a shoe shine kit for around $12 online or at drugstores, and they’ll last you through multiple rounds of spit-shining.
11. Cheap Entertainment
When you’re trying to save money, the entertainment budget is often one of the first things to get slashed. These days, even a movie ticket costs nearly $9, so an evening at the movies for two, including popcorn and drinks, can easily come to more than $30.
As for live theater tickets, they’re completely out of reach. The average cost of a Broadway show is now more than $100 a ticket. Even in a cheaper city, such as Cleveland, seats start at around $40 per ticket.
However, pinching your pennies doesn’t have to mean sitting at home every night staring at the walls. If you know where to look, there are plenty of ways to have fun on a tight entertainment budget, such as:
- Second-Run Movie Theaters. Watching movies at home is fun, but there’s something special about the experience of seeing a film in a theater with other fans. At second-run movie theaters, you can enjoy a night at the movies for less than $5 a ticket. These sites show movies that have already run once in theaters, from classic films of the ’40s to last season’s blockbusters. The advent of home video has made this type of theater less common than it used to be, but according to Cinema Treasures, there are still over 200 of them in operation across the U.S.
- Rush Tickets. At many theaters, you can get tickets to plays and concerts at a steep discount if you buy them at the last minute. For example, the site Broadway for Broke People lists rush tickets to Broadway shows at prices ranging from $20 to $40. Students can sometimes combine rush pricing with student discounts to score tickets for as little as $10 each.
- Student and Amateur Productions. You can often see student or amateur productions of popular shows for prices ranging from $5 to $25 a ticket. Don’t assume that “amateur” means “low quality,” either. When you see a production at a drama or music school, you’re watching trained performers – the professionals of tomorrow – at a bargain price.
12. A Bottle of Bubbly
Nothing says “let’s celebrate” like the pop of a cork and the fizzing of sparkling wine being poured into glasses. While genuine French champagne can cost $40 or more per bottle, you can get the same festive thrill with domestic sparkling wines that cost $20 or less. This Thrillist article recommends several decent, drinkable vintages priced between $7 and $15 a bottle.
This list of cheap luxuries is only the tip of the iceberg. Once you get in the habit of thinking about it, you can figure out all kinds of other ways to indulge yourself on a strict budget.
If you’re a clothes horse, you can treat yourself to a monthly shopping spree at your favorite thrift store. If you’re a foodie, you can splurge on a costly delicacy like a pound of good cheese or fresh berries. You can spring for a copy of your favorite guilty-pleasure magazine off the newsstand, indulge in a salon manicure, get your car washed, or buy yourself one pair of fancy undies. The possibilities are truly endless.
What are your favorite cheap luxuries to enjoy on a tight budget?