Spending to Save: Frugality and Expensive Food

My post the other day on Kona coffee met with an interesting reaction from a couple of readers who suggested that it was flat-out hypocritical, even insane, to buy coffee at $25.95 a pound and at the same time blog about how to cook frugally and manage food costs.

Now, being called insane is nothing new for me. But I do take umbrage at being called a hypocrite. Therefore, I'd like to use this post to discuss frugality and how we think about it here at Casual Kitchen.

But first, I'd like to put the issue, as I see it, in the form of a broad question to my readers:

Is it possible to enjoy expensive things and yet still be frugal and financially responsible?

For us, the answer is a clear yes--but obviously the expensive things must be done in moderation. But I would love to hear reader thoughts and opinions on this question, especially if you have a view that differs from ours.

Here's how we think about expensive purchases at Casual Kitchen: we actually use expensive purchases to encourage ourselves to be more financially responsible rather than less. Let me explain with some specific examples:

1) We use expensive purchases as a reward for an accomplishment. This works in two ways: we might celebrate large successes (like funding a two-year emergency fund or quitting a crappy job) with a really fancy dinner out, or we might celebrate small successes (like making it through a particularly hard day of work) with a glass of single malt scotch--with the size of the glass depending on the difficulty of the day.

2) If the purchase is a durable good, we usually hesitate a bit and try and make sure it's an item we are likely to use heavily. Then we make sure we buy a high quality item that we are confident will last a long time. That way we are much more likely to get our money's worth out of the purchase.

3) If the purchase is of a service or an experience (e.g. travel, an expensive dinner out, or even fancy Kona coffee), we try never to let it any aspect of it be an afterthought. We try to make these types of purchases carefully and mindfully, so we can maximize our enjoyment of the entire experience.

In my view, the real villain appears when one starts taking the nice things in life for granted. Once you start accelerating on the so-called hedonic treadmill, it gets much harder to manage your spending. Furthermore, a hectic life spent bounding from one fancy experience to another can be surprisingly bereft of mindful, positive experiences. For those of you who are interested in pursuing these issues beyond the realms of food and cooking, I recommend reading Juliet Schor's book The Overspent American.

Readers, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this complicated subject. Do you agree with me? Why or why not?

Related Posts:
How to Be a Satisficer
A Simple Way to Beat Rising Food Prices
Cooking Like the Stars? Don't Waste Your Money
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Rising Food Costs
How to Defeat the Retail Industry's Ninja Mind Tricks

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Barb Szyszkiewicz said...

I agree with you....I enjoy finding ways for my family to eat well using ingredients purchased frugally. We enjoy our food without feeling deprived. But every so often, it is nice to be able to have a "treat" that is more extravagance. Yes--we make a big deal out of that treat, so it's not just another meal. Frugal eating most of the time allows us to be more extravagant when it is time to celebrate.

Jenna said...

Where I once reached without thinking for the cheapest item on the shelf, I've found the more I cook from scratch and the more I keep "real" food in the house instead of quick junk - the better the quality of items I DO buy when I'm at the store.

We don't eat much junk food, so it IS cheaper to splurge on the high end products for the times we use them. I think our country has a hard time understanding value over mass. Yes, you COULD buy 10 bags of dicount instant coffee for the same price as the Kona - but I'd rather have one amazing cup to savor first thing in the morning over the half a dozen cups of pencil shavings steeped in mud of the other.

Daniel said...

Thanks Barb and Jenna, good points all. Thank you for your thoughts!


Jin6655321 said...

Sometimes, just a little bit of expensive splurge ingredients (like a shaving of good cheese, a dash of truffle oil, a sprinkle of pine nuts, etc.) can make your frugal meals taste really rich. The better your home cooking taste, the less likely you are to eat out. I buy "extravagant" ingredients that keep for a long time and use as needed. The better the quality, the less you need. I'm always surprised at how long a block of good hard cheese last.

D. S. Foxx said...

Good coffee can end up being less expensive than the cheap stuff--not to mention healthier! Frex, I drink Sidamo dark-roast black, and brew it a cup or two at a time, where pre-ground canned miscellaneous stuff gets cardamom or vanilla or some other flavorings, plus sweetener, something in the dairy family...and it gets drunk by the pot.

I've always thought "frugal" meant spending wisely, not just cheaply--coffee's one of those things where quality _matters_, so it seems like a wise enough purchase to me.


Amanda said...

Well said, Daniel. It's important to remember that we all have our priorities, and our "must haves" that make our lives livable. For you that might be Kona Coffee. For me that's the occasional $50 dinner out (maybe once every other month). It's why we're frugal--to be able to enjoy those things once in a while.

IMHO it's important not to judge. One person's glance at my blog one might think I'm fiscally irresponsible cooking with lamb--what I don't mention is that I get that lamb on last-day-of-sale markdown in a 1/4 lb package and freeze it until I find enough for a meal.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. Choosing to live a frugal lifestyle doesn't have to mean total deprivation, and ---- mmmmmm---Kona!

I feel that as long as I'm meeting my financial goals, budgeting for little splurges is just fine.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all the above posts... frugality doesn't mean deprivation- it's means prioritization! It's spending the money on what you REALLY want and saving everywhere else to be able to do so easily and without credit. One can be frugal and still have one or two priorities that in another lifestyle would merely be one more example of lavish excess. I think the key points you made are that you are -mindful- about what you spend.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you completely about the purpose of thoughtful contemplation about the ways in which you spend. In fact, I chaired the construction of our town's new fire headquarters and the renovation of our town library, and used just such a philosophy to guide our decision making. Without sacrificing quality, we managed to have several features on each building that benefited the taxpayer and the personnel. We were stringently frugal, but left room for important features with a higher price tag. Now that my husband has been unemployed for four years, this is even more helpful for our mental health. Thanks for a great blog. I love reading about your culinary adventures. Best, Alyson Stone

Daniel said...

Jin: I really like your thinking on splurge ingredients.

DSF: I've never had Sidamo coffee--I'm going to have to look for it. A high quality cup of coffee makes life worthwhile, doesn't it?

Amanda: agreed--being frugal generally allows a person to have the opportunity to splurge occasionally. Good point.

Anon: I hear you on meeting financial goals, but it seems to me that this will be increasingly difficult with the stock market and interest rates only going lower. This is the one thing I'm quite concerned about right now.

Thomas: I like your thinking on prioritization! I'll have to write up a post on this concept. Maybe I can call it "Splurge Triage" :) Thanks for the idea.

Alyson: Thank you so much for the compliment and the positive vibes! Also, congrats on your work in your town and thanks for telling us all about an application of these concepts that expands beyond just cooking.

Thanks everyone!