This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and raising children at

The other day I went to a vintage clothing shop with a friend. I needed some simple summer staples: tank tops, skirts, shorts. I don’t like shopping for clothes, so I always try to go with friends who enjoy it and are better at finding great stuff than I am.

This is as high-priced as clothes shopping ever gets for me. I get most of my wardrobe from clothing swaps and the Salvation Army, but once in awhile I find myself in need of something specific and go shopping. I found a few nice tank tops that were reasonably priced, and a few pairs of pants for my husband. Mission accomplished.

I also found a ridiculous dress. It’s a bright blue flapper-style minidress. My friend tried it on, and when it didn’t fit her she urged me to give it a whirl. It fit perfectly. I’ve wanted a flapper dress since high school, and never had one.

But I wavered. After all, I don’t need a silly dress. It wasn’t on my shopping list when we walked into the store.

Then my friend looked at the price tag and said, “Look, it’s $8.25 cents worth of fun.” I was sold.

A small splurge
If I thought about it not as Stuff I didn’t need but as the fun of wearing this dress to a party sometime this summer, it seemed like a totally worthwhile purchase. I brought the dress home, showed it off to a few friends, and can’t wait to wear it.

Obviously this is the kind of splurge I can’t make all the time. If I did, my closet would be full of silly dresses I almost never wear. Stuff takes up space, and too much of it becomes clutter. This is one of the reasons I prefer to spend money on experiences. If I’m going to spend money on a good time, I like paying for my fun directly, rather than buying Stuff I think I’ll have fun with. In this case, I made an exception to my rule.

I won’t lie: I felt a little guilty afterwards. I’m the Not-Buying-Stuff Lady. What was I doing splurging on a dress I’ll wear once?

I thought of my new dress when I read Ramit Sethi’s recent post about the psychology of cutting back on small expenses like lattes. Essentially, he counsels against worrying overmuch about them. He writes:

Constantly over-analyzing tiny purchases is exhausting and ineffectual. This is one of the great joys of earning more money: I don’t have to worry about paying for cabs or picking up my friend’s drink. As a cognitive miser, this is a great relief. I can instead focus on the things I really care about.

Instead, Sethi wants to see you sweating the big stuff: finding ways to earn more money, automating your finances, and investing. He says the frugal focus on paring back your $10 splurges is really a distraction. You’re expending a lot of effort for relatively small gains. All the lattes you can drink won’t add up to more than learning how to negotiate your salary.

He’s right of course. I’m a huge fan of focusing on big things. But there are limits to his line of thinking.

Frugality is an important part of personal finance
Opportunities for the kind of big wins Sethi is focused on come up rarely. True, you can make them happen by seeking them out to a certain extent. You’re probably better off putting energy into starting a side business than you are clipping grocery coupons, for example. But anytime you get a chance to make a big impact on your finances, it’s a special occasion.

Small spending decisions, on the other hand, get made every day. You’re constantly confronted with decisions about whether or not to drop $4 on a latte or $10 on a vintage party dress. Any one of those purchases may be trivial, but the habits those purchases feed can get expensive.

One of the things I’ve learned in my frugal adventures is that I can’t always see the big wins coming. I cut my heating bills nearly in half last winter by hanging insulating curtains in the doorways to keep heat in my living spaces and out of our central hallway. That was just another one of the quirky little things I try to save money. I expected it to be about as lucrative as reusing plastic baggies or diluting my shampoo. In other words, the kind of thing that makes me feel good about how I’m consuming resources, but doesn’t save a noteworthy amount of cash. Instead, it saved me hundreds of dollars and made the house more comfortable to be in. This was definitely a big win, but it seemed like a quirky frugal move when I started it.

Another reason to practice thrift is to maintain a simpler, more frugal mindset. If I usually say no to impulse purchases, I’m more likely to say no to any given one. That leads to more money saved and less Stuff cluttering up my house, overall. If I typically shop around for the best value on something, I become more skilled at bargain hunting and cumulatively that habit pays off.

Even if the amounts saved are small, they’re significant over time. If you can permanently shift a spending pattern to save yourself $500 a year, it’s as if you’ve just given yourself a $500 raise. That won’t make or break your finances, but it’s money worth having.

Don’t become obsessed
What it’s not worth is obsessing over. If you have good financial habits, there’s probably room in your budget for the occasional splurge. No need to feel guilty about making them. The key is just to be aware that you’re deviating from your pattern, and to stay within your real budget. That is, the money for your fun has to come from somewhere. You may want to give yourself a little “mad money” each week to play with. If you don’t spend it, great. You can just hold onto it for a bigger splurge down the line. If you do find yourself trying on the perfect party dress in your neighborhood thrift store, you can indulge guilt-free.

I don’t have that kind of play money, but I’m thinking maybe I should, even if its a small amount. My spending plan is fairly detailed. My husband and I have talked about instituting an adult allowance for each of us, but the plan has never really taken off. As a result, whenever I spend money on some small luxury, I feel a little guilty. It may be that I can afford the $10, but I didn’t have the money earmarked for fun so spending it feels like cheating.

I don’t think I need to make more room in my life for spending. If anything, I’m looking to scale back on my expenses and save more. But I do wonder if I don’t need to adjust my spending plan to give myself some wiggle room. $10 isn’t worth feeling guilty over.

How do you make room in your life for small splurges? Do you tend to feel guilty over minor indulgences, or keep your focus on bigger things?

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