Going to frugal extremes?

Let’s face it: we can’t control the market’s mood swings, solve international debt crises or control rising costs across the board. Instead, we fight back where we can: by controlling our spending habits and tweaking our budgets. Since the recession first hit, frugality has once again become trendy and people strive to find even more ways to save cash.

But are we taking some money-saving habits to extremes? While most people agree that theft and pirating are unethical, some strategies like extreme couponing, stockpiling and freeganism have been generating a lot of buzz. Some people say these practices go too far, while others say there’s no arguing with savings to the tune of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Are these extremes strategies impractical — or is there something we can learn from them? Here’s a quick look at the ideas generating the debate.

Extreme couponing

How it works: Coupon clipping is trendy again, but some people are willing to dedicate hours to searching, clipping, downloading, organizing and shopping all over town to use dozens of coupons. There are numerous articles, e-books and even a reality TV show, Extreme Couponing, dedicated to the topic. You may have seen some extreme examples — like people buying hundreds of dollars worth of groceries for less than $100, or buying years worth of toothpaste or deodorant because it was nearly free.

What’s the draw? There’s the thrill of getting a great deal, but coupons are a money saving strategy that most people can use. It doesn’t require a lot of sacrifice or skill — just some time and organization. Not everyone has the option to work overtime or start a side business, and even kids can get involved with this practice.

The challenge: In order to reap the major rewards, you’ll need to invest a lot of time and energy — and coupon clipping has become a part time job for die-hard clippers. However, some experts say that time could be put to better use — like generating more income through a part time job or side business. We could also focus our energy on “big gains’ instead, like monitoring our investments and saving on big expenses like insurance and housing.

You may have noticed that coupons aren’t always for products you use — especially healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. Many people stockpile items they don’t need simply because they are cheap. Remember the mantra of bargain hunting: it’s only a deal if you need it and you’ll use it.

Worse yet: grocery store competition isn’t as fierce in Canada as it is in the U.S. — and coupon policies are different too. Unfortunately, many extreme couponing strategies don’t work for Canadians.

What we can learn: You don’t have to move to the U.S. or turn coupon clipping into a job, but it’s a tried-and-true way to trim a little off your bills. Some of the strategies of extreme couponing may work for a few rare retailers here — like coupon stacking or hunting for double coupon days.

You also don’t have to sift through piles of newspapers either. Deal finding websites, user forums, RSS feeds and email notifications can take some of the guesswork and time out of finding the deals.  (See Click your way to savings and Frugal living online for more ideas.)

Stockpiling (or investing in food or non-food items)

How it works: You probably don’t think of non-perishable food items, over the counter medications, batteries and duct tape as investments, but some say they’re a good place to put your cash. The price of everything seems to be skyrocketing while people’s salaries and savings fail to keep pace. If you know you’re going to need something, stock up now before price increases hit — especially if you can find good sales. You’ll save money in the long run and have supplies on hand in an emergency.

We’re not just talking a couple of months worth of items — think years if you’re really planning to dodge increases. Examples? If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you could buy three years of your allergy medication. Love rice and legumes? Buy a few of those big bags to counter rising food costs.

The challenge: Many people don’t have the room in their homes let alone in their budgets for stockpiling. Going into debt — or buying items instead of paying down debt — can also cost in interest charges. Rather than “invest” $500 in goods, that money could yield better returns in retirement savings.

Besides, there’s always a risk that items won’t get used at all, or they could get damaged or destroyed. Even non-food items can go bad, so it’s important to pay attention to expiration dates. Some items like gas or batteries can be dangerous to store.

The takeaway: Whether this strategy works for you or not, it will make you think carefully about your needs, budget and storage space — none of which is a bad thing. The line between “enough” and “too much” is different for everyone, so this strategy may work for some items and not others.

Another benefit of stockpiling is emergency planning aspect. You may not need a two-year supply of any particular item, but experts warn we should all be able to manage for at least 72 hours in an emergency. Food and water aren’t the only worry — we may also need pet supplies, medications, toiletries and duct tape, to name a few. (See Preparing for an emergency for details.)


Would you sift through garbage to find food and other usable items? While dumpster diving has garnered plenty of attention, there’s much more to the movement known as freeganism. The philosophy is to live an anti-consumerist lifestyle, taking only what we need and preventing waste.

Yes, scavenging is part of the practice — like searching through garbage for food that is “still good”, foraging in the woods for edible and medicinal plants and reclaiming usable items left in the trash.

However, many of the practices aren’t so strange — like taking or leaving furniture at the curb, swapping books or clothes with friends or participating in a community bike share program. “Freegans” also hold free entertainment and education events as well as workshops where can barter skills or learn to DIY. Cycling or walking rather than driving is emphasized, and people are encouraged to exchange both goods and services.

The challenges: While few people would argue against preventing waste and getting things for free, there are health and safety concerns too. For instance, food and items are often thrown in the trash with good reason — they could be unsafe, damaged or expired.

Some of the other tenets of freeganism make many people uncomfortable — like working less (to avoid supporting a “money economy”) and squatting. Free travel strategies like hitch hiking, couch surfing and freight train hopping can be also be a safety risk.  Some freegan practices even flout laws as well as social norms by encouraging shoplifting, trespassing, employee theft and returning scavenged items from the trash to the store for cash. (See Why Freeganism? for more information.)

The takeaway: You don’t have to go dumpster diving or even consider yourself a freegan to adopt some of the money saving strategies — like avoiding disposable items and leaving the car at home more often. Growing your own food is also part of philosophy — and a pleasurable hobby — but the main lesson here is to rethink what you need, what you buy and what you waste.

Overall, these three practices have seen plenty of debate for good reason: there are pros and cons, and even some questionable ethics involved. However, it’s important to remember that different things work for different people — and to different degrees. It doesn’t hurt to take a closer look at things that seem unusual or impossible. You might just find a new tip that works for you, even if you ignore the rest.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Allkindza

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