Swapping Convenience for Low Costs

The other day I was walking down the street when a young man approached me and asked directions to the nearest Tube Station. I live in Boston, not London. Our subway is called the T. I happened to be walking to the nearby station myself, so we walked together and got to chatting about travel, since he obviously wasn't from around here.

The young man was from London, it turned out, and had spent the summer traveling around the United States. He'd done it on the cheap. Five weeks of travel had cost him under $800 for food, lodging, and transportation.

How had he done it? By staying open to adventure. This young man and the friend he was traveling with had spent the summer hitchhiking, couch-surfing, and swapping odd jobs for food and shelter. And they'd had a great time.

In the fifteen minutes we walked together, he told me about the woman who drove them from Nashville to New Orleans. She was a trucker who taught them how to build a quick shelter using only a tarp, and they camped outdoors with her along the highway.

I also learned that he'd spent the past week helping a friend move into a new apartment in my neighborhood, and that they'd furnished the place almost entirely with found items from the street.

Clearly, this was a fellow cut from the same cloth as my own frugal heart. We talked about ways to save money for a few minutes. His bottom line:

People spend money to have ease and convenience. If you're willing to sacrifice those things, you can travel, or live, very cheaply. The trick is to find ways to enjoy your life and save money.

For my newfound friend, this meant finding adventure. By taking the roads less traveled, he was able to do more than save money. He got to experience America the way he wanted to: in the homes of people who live here, rather than at resorts and hotels. He was going home with vibrant, unusual stories about his time here. Those are experiences he couldn't have bought.

This kid didn't spring into frugality out of nowhere. He was inspired. England has a robust population of squatters: people who choose to live in abandoned buildings. Many of them have jobs, or attend school. They just choose to live in empty buildings instead of mainstream housing. It's a strange but thriving subculture.

My companion wasn't a squatter himself. “I could never do that,” he said. “But I've learned a lot from them.”

He'd observed this radical community and taken elements of their lifestyle into his own. He wouldn't want to sleep uninvited in abandoned buildings, for example, but he was happy to couch-surf for an entire summer, sleeping on floors and sofas rather than in hotels. Likewise, dumpster-diving was a step too far, but knowing people did it had made him brave about asking restaurants for day-old food that was about to go off.

He certainly wasn't traveling in luxury, but he was having a great time. And he wasn't going into debt to do it.

You don't have to be a footloose young traveler to adopt this frugal mindset. Last year, I participated in Katy Wolk-Stanley's No-Heat Challenge. She wanted to keep her heat off until November. Fine.

I bailed when it snowed in mid-October, but I live in a colder climate than Katy (who lives in Portland, near J.D.), who cheerfully pushed on through. Later, I discovered a community of people living in my area who use no central heat at all. They live year-round in unheated warehouses and artists' lofts and farmhouses, using only space heaters and stoves to stay warm.

I can't imagine ever doing that. I'm a delicate flower, and I spent my childhood in Tucson. As soon as the temperature falls below 60 degrees, I start whining mournfully for summer.

But paying attention to how the no-heat crowd lives helped me use less heat last winter. Between the major changes we'd made — like replacing our 40-year-old oil furnace with a new high-efficiency gas furnace — and our lifestyle shifts, we were able to cut our heating bill by hundreds of dollars per month. That savings made a huge difference to my ability to pay off our credit cards.

Whether you're looking to travel to exotic places, change careers, or just keep your house warm this winter, there's always somebody taking a more radical step than you are. Watching people who go beyond your own comfort zones can be inspiring. We can't all be vegans, but we can all try to eat less meat. Most of us would never want to become squatters or dumpster-dive for our dinners, but seeing others do so can be an invitation to examine our own lives.

Where are you swapping cash for conveniences you don't really need? Is there some radical change waiting to be made in your life? A baby step that you can take towards it?

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Kate
Kate
9 years ago

We’re experimenting with how far we can go without turning out the heating or air conditioning. Our house only has electric floorboard heating, and the Hydro company just jacked our rates up 15% with more to come. If we don’t at least TRY, we’ll go broke.

We managed to keep the summer bill down to 100 bucks, with 25 going towards the mandatory hot water heater rental, but I have to admit I’m worried about the impending winter… We won’t keep the heat off entirely, but we’ve got big thick comforters, thick socks, and good insulation.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

And we live in the capital of Canada- second coldest capital in the world after Ulaan Bator, Mongolia. If we can do it…

Roo
Roo
9 years ago

I think we English are in general more frugal than you north Americans. My mum is a complete cheapskate with the heating, she never lets us have it on. If I’m paying the tab for a holiday, then I’m staying in a youth hostel- my American boyfriend was a bit weary of this when we took a roadtrip together, until we had a much better time at a $10 a night hostel (rainforest hostel in Forks, WA) than we did in a Motel 6 for $55 a night. Now I’m a student, I have to be frugal to survive. I… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
9 years ago

“…they’d furnished the place almost entirely with found items from the street”

Am I the only one whose first thought upon reading this was “bed bugs and dog urine?”

Money Smarts Blog
Money Smarts Blog
9 years ago

I’m at a point where I do the opposite.

I have a lot more money than time, so if anything I’m looking for opportunities to spend cash for convenience ie hiring a cleaner etc.

Mike

Kristen@TheFrugalGirl
9 years ago

I get exactly where you’re coming from! I often feel that reading blogs does this for me. For example, Mrs. Green’s Zero Waste blog helps me reduce my trash even though I will never be able to go zero waste.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Ease, convenience, and safety… Hitchhiking is not a great idea.

If it didn’t take so much time to find an competent employee, we’d be trading more of our money for time than we are already. Though I am enjoying the rock hard arm muscles my DH gets from mowing the grass with a push mower each week.

Matt Jabs
Matt Jabs
9 years ago

Less of a baby step… we decided to have our local Dave Ramsey ELP real estate agents come to our home this week to go over the sale of our home. We can afford our home, but we just plain don’t need it. It has taken me some time to convince my wife of this fact, but she is finally on board and we’re hoping to sell before winter. Our house payment is around $1,450 and we hope to be able to rent for a maximum of $650 with an added bonus of lowering our utility costs. When it’s all… Read more »

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

I agree with Nicole. Safety has to be a concern. I would never do some of the things my male friends do when they travel — like hitchhike or sleep in their cars along the side of the road. Perhaps our society has taught us too well to be afraid? The convenience factor can really rack up the costs. This weekend, a salesmen tried to sell me a smart phone (I went in for a pack of DVDs on clearance) so I could check my email, browse the internet and take calls where ever, whenever. I laughed. When I’m out… Read more »

S.
S.
9 years ago

We can’t all be vegan?

And the reason is…

HollyP
HollyP
9 years ago

Maybe I watched too many cheesy movies in the 1970s, but you lost me at “hitch hike.”

Hitch hiking can be extremely dangerous, both for the hitch hikers and the strangers who pick them up. How long have you lived in the Boston area, Sierra? Long enough to remember the case of Gary Sampson, who hitchhiked and killed or attempted to kill three different men who offered him a ride in the summer of 2001?

lostAnnfound
lostAnnfound
9 years ago

Sierra, I live down the Pike from you and I feel the same way about the heat. If I can make it through October before turning it on, I feel like I’ve won a small battle 😉

Frugal Texas Gal
Frugal Texas Gal
9 years ago

Kevin, first I would say that it depends on where you found your items. I’ve always lived in areas with extremely prolific junk days-lots of usable things or things with minor repairable issues put out the night before trash day-when people walk around and recover what they want. I have a covered patio so I put out my patio umbrella last week and it was gone in five minutes. As for hitchiking, while I would never do it, we were talking about two healthy males I think-what they would do is not what I would do.

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
9 years ago

When I was a college student (years ago), I hitchhiked just about everywhere. It seemed safe at the time and many others hitchiked as well. I would never consider doing so today. Also, when I was still in college, a friend and I spent a summer in England and Europe. We managed to get by on about $12 a week each, staying at room and board places or sometimes by eating one meal a day or keeping hunger away eating large loaves of French bread. It can be done. But, I for one would gladly trade money for time and… Read more »

smirktastic
smirktastic
9 years ago

Yes, some of the comments are correct in pointing out that hitchhiking and space heaters can be dangerous. But you raise an interesting point. Look at the most radical step, the one that makes you say “I could never do that!” and back up one (or 2) steps and see what possible changes or lessons you can gain. And the No Heat Challenge is fun! Last fall we held off on the furnace until well into November, using our fireplace insert. We live in Wisconsin, so this is no small feat! However, this fall we do have small feet (ha!)… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

I wonder why Europeans are so much braver than us?

Back in the mid-90s when my brother went to be an exchange student in Germany, his host father told him and his brother to just sleep in the park if they went to Munich for a concert. He was just shocked – but it went fine. It wasn’t that long ago that there were hitchhikers everywhere in North America, too – there’s LESS crime now than in the ’70s, but people are more afraid.

Carrie
Carrie
9 years ago

Generally good advice, but one sentence made me shudder:
“they’d furnished the place almost entirely with found items from the street.”

Great way to pick up a very expensive case of bedbugs along with your free furniture. Ick.

Brooke
Brooke
9 years ago

I must admit I did have scary bed bug, creepy crawly thoughts go through my mind when I read this.
And regarding hitchhiking, while we all would love to believe that people are mostly good, it’s just not the case. Sit through the criminal cases being called at your local court house someday (anyone can sit and watch- most of the daily stuff is open to the public) and you will see what I mean.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
9 years ago

I might not choose upholstered furniture. Bedbugs really ARE making a serious comeback, and if the previous owner had pets the couch/chair might also harbor fleas. (As a young woman I cleaned a guy’s house and came home not just with a salary but also flea bites.) But I would take — and have taken — bookcases, lamps, small tables and the like. My entire apartment is furnished in rummage-sale, hand-me-down or found-outside furniture. The only new things are the bed and the kitchen table (and both were bought at discount emporia). I do without what a lot of people… Read more »

Steve
Steve
9 years ago

Brooke, I would argue that most people are good, but good doesn’t sell commercials or ad space so we don’t hear about it. Back before the advent of mobile phones, people trusted and relied on each other much more. Strangers helped those with flat tires. Kids went out to play without a constant line of communication to their parents. If you were meeting someone, you’d agree on a time and place in advance and trust that they’d show up on time. Now that everyone has a mobile communication device, we expect to be connected to everyone at all times. If… Read more »

Stephanie
Stephanie
9 years ago

I’m definitely scared of bed bugs now that I keep hearing what comeback they are making. I don’t buy clothes much, but I wonder if this would also be an issue in buying used clothes and not just getting used upholstered furniture. I really want to never ever have to deal with those bed bug crawlers.

suzy
suzy
9 years ago

I really liked this post. 🙂

Car
Car
9 years ago

This is how I feel about public transit. It’s annoying, crowded, and smelly but the money I am saving is probably over $500 a month. I can’t justify the cost of a car when the transit system here is fairly decent and insurance and parking prices are rather outrageous. (Toronto)

cerb
cerb
9 years ago

I enjoyed this post Sierra. I also get inspired by stories of people who do things beyond what would be my comfort zone. It challenges my thinking.

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco
9 years ago

I’ve never seen a bed bug in my life, although I believe the paranoia is more contagious than anything. Are they really that prevalent?

Sarah
Sarah
9 years ago

I liked this post so much I sent it to my husband. We just started the Total Money Makeover and decided to get rid of our cell phones! The Sprint customer service rep actually told us flat out that we were “radical.” Funny that it came up here, too!

We have been doing well so far, and learning to adjust. We’ll see how it goes.

Britta
Britta
9 years ago

Definitely a good take home message – be inspired even if you don’t plan to go all out. Little changes can make a difference, too.

Thanks for the reminder!

Andi B.
Andi B.
9 years ago

Now I feel like an arse. I was venting to my husband last night about how much I hate our kitchen. We live in a 480 sf studio and the kitchen is so small that there isn’t a single cabinet door wide enough to fit even a sautee pan. I store our pots and pans in the oven, but that means every time I want to cook I have to unload everything. Needless to say when trying to orchestrate dinner last night which required use of both the stove and the oven I was a bit miffed. But I really… Read more »

Niel Malan
Niel Malan
9 years ago

I am once again struck by how easy it is to be frugal in a rich country.

Unoccupied abandoned house? Furniture on the street? Old food that’s not spoken for? Not in Africa.

MDD
MDD
9 years ago

Great posting. I hate it when people say they can’t afford to travel as an excuse for why they’ve never lived out their dream or become more than just talkers. Out-of-the-box thinking is so important, especially when it comes to travel. If you’re willing to be frugal and creative, most travel can be done for less than what you’d earn from subletting your place back home. And if you actually want to travel and live out such dreams, then you also need to make daily trade-offs in your normal life to avoid debt and other things that trap you at… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
9 years ago

I was just thinking along these lines today. I could afford a smartphone but don’t need the convenience….saves about $90 a month. Gotta love prepaid phones!

Picking up furniture from the street…depends on the street and the furniture. With DDT gone, bedbugs are back! And now that we live in the south, I think cockroaches…ewww!

Karen B
Karen B
9 years ago

I love the article about rethinking things and being open to adventure. I’m all for it. In this case though, hitchhiking and sleeping in strangers homes I could never do for safety reasons. I love travel and am not into bus tours and I do think getting to experience the life of the locals can be the most interesting part.

KarenJ
KarenJ
9 years ago

We both have very demanding jobs that keep us away from home for upwards to 10 hours a day. I pack both lunch AND dinner, and save a ton on eating out. My husband can usually make it home for dinner and will fix something for himself, but recently started bringing his lunch in a cooler (he’s a realtor, so he’s on the road all day). We try to keep our air conditioning off as much as possible in the summer, but like Sierra, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to cold weather. I make sure to… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

It’s funny how afraid people are of everyone else. I hitchhiked once, when I ran out of gas on the side of the road. A friendly trucker stopped and gave me a ride to a gas station. Nothing bad happened (I’ve also had a highway patrol officer help in a similar situation). I’ve slept in parking lots when I found I was just too tired to drive anymore. Nothing bad has ever happened. I don’t even understand why people think this is particularly dangerous. It’s basically like camping. I’ve slept in spare rooms of people I’d only ever met on… Read more »

ali
ali
9 years ago

@ 25 – regarding Bed bugs it depends on where you live. There’s a big problem in NYC right now and several major retail stores have had to close due to bed bug infestations.

Carrie
Carrie
9 years ago

@25 Yes, they’re that big a problem. And I live in NYC, although interestingly I don’t know anyone personally in this city that has had bedbugs. A number of friends in Chicago have had the multiple-heat-treatment/pesticide/canine treatment repeatedly, and it’s neither fun or cheap.

Also, bedbugs or their eggs can live in any crevice in furniture, so just forgoing upholstered furniture is not a solution.

Fun reading here:
http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/b/bedbugs/index.html?scp=1-spot&sq=bedbugs&st=cse

MOR
MOR
9 years ago

Re: the hitchhiking, are most people out to hurt you? No, I certainly don’t think so. I think most people are good people. You’re far more likely to be hurt by a friend/family member/acquaintance than by a stranger. Though maybe someone you chose to ride with/stay with would count as an acquaintance, statistically speaking? I don’t know. However, like anything, you weigh the likelihood of harm and the benefits of risking it vs. the severity of potential consequences. For me, the potential severity of the consequences if you end up with a crazy outweighs the frugality or sense of adventure… Read more »

Becky
Becky
9 years ago

I agree with #29, Niel, who lives in Africa. I’m in Poland, and we seldom see usable things left on the street and edible food? It’s already going to someone. I even asked the city once about getting their grass clippings from their weed eating along the side of the road, but they use it for the zoo animals. Some things are easier to do in rich countries. And as for #3 about Englanders more frugal than N Americans. I’m not convinced. In England things are expensive! Probably it would be better to say that “some people from England are… Read more »

mike
mike
9 years ago

Regarding fear, I think people can all be summed up in two different categories. There are people who are afraid of experiences, and there are people who are afraid of being screwed over. 1. Fear of Experiences: The people who see the fear-based isolated incidents on the news (violence, kidnapping, muggings, etc) and over encumber their lives to prevent that stuff from happening to them or someone they love. 2. Fear of Being Screwed Over: The people who are so freaking cynical of everyone else, they create walls around themselves so that no one can get too close to burn… Read more »

El Nerdo Loco
El Nerdo Loco
9 years ago

To clarify: I have seen bedbugs in pictures of course, but I have never seen one in real life. Just like unicorns. Where are they? However, with this talk of infestations, I did a little search on the current plague, and while they are disgusting, they don’t seem to spread disease–unlike mosquitoes, which I positively detest. It says in the texts I’ve read that even nice hotels can have bedbugs, so nobody is safe. Places affected? Victoria’s Secret, Abercrobmie & Ficht… Bill Cinton’s office! The NYC library (2 bedbugs). I guess we are all safer if we stay locked up… Read more »

Steven@hundredgoals.com
9 years ago

I’m going to disagree with the few people who are banging the “safety” drum. Our world isn’t really that dangerous as what we’re led to believe. I’ve done my fair share of traveling and have only ever ran into any sort of trouble one time and that was a case of road rage. I’ve been to practically every major urban city in the United States and have never felt uncomfortable walking around, even at night. You just need to be aware of your surroundings and stay out of bad neighborhoods. One of my own goals in life is to hitch… Read more »

Sunny
Sunny
9 years ago

If sleep is a convenience then I am guilty. I turned our heat on at night mid-september. Our little guy still kicks his blankets off and would wake up several times a night because he was cold. I did switch him to his winter PJ’s and keep the heat at 55 at night.

David/moneycrashers
David/moneycrashers
9 years ago

I can sacrifice convenience to save money, however, I wouldn’t sacrifice time to save money. I know that may sound redundant, but if something is less convenient but doesn’t cost me any time, then why not?

In that case, its all about adjustment, and a key to becoming truly frugal.

Jaime
Jaime
9 years ago

I don’t like this article. Why should I have to give up convenience? This is why frugality gets a bad name and why I hate using this word sometimes, even though I know frugality is important, its because of articles like this that make frugal folks look bad. I will disagree, I think its dangerous to hitch hike, I know everyone has their version of frugality but hitch hiking is not for me. If you have the money and can afford it, why should you have to give up convenience? Why put yourself at risk? Why does convenience get a… Read more »

rb
rb
9 years ago

I have more money than time too. I prefer to sticking to coupons, check out the sales flyers, use the Entertainment book and adjust the thermostat to save money. Plus, the safety issues of hitchhiking!!

Sarah J.
Sarah J.
9 years ago

Although I doubt the world is as scary and dangerous as we are led to believe, it seems like most of the people on this post who are urging folks to be cavalier about relying on the kindness of strangers are men. Women are typically brought up to believe that safety is extremely important because, for the most part, we are smaller and weaker than men, and put ourselves in more danger when we hitchhike, squat in an abandoned building, or sleep in our car by the side of the road. If there is some dangerous criminal looking to cause… Read more »

Deb
Deb
9 years ago

We downsized from a 1700 sq ft city home to a 900 sq foot country home. We heat with just a woodstove now. Found new EPA approved one for a song on CL. So far, our wood is either harvested from our long neglected acreage/down & dead trees, donated by neighbors, or bartered for on CL. It can get cold up here in the woods in Wash State, and sometimes I do miss having a furnace. Constantly stoking the woodstove, cleaning the ash, hauling & stacking the wood can be a chore. But, our heating bill is virtually nonexistent, and… Read more »

Michelle
Michelle
9 years ago

@Jaime “if you have the money and can afford it” then it is a matter of choice about what you value. By all means, if you value convenience and can afford it, do it. If you can’t afford it or value something other than convenience, this article simply points out other options. The Londoner in this story is taking some risks that I would not, but that too is about trade offs and personal choice. I find it interesting to hear about what people are willing to do to make their dreams happen. @Niel. Great comment. I appreciate the reminder… Read more »

shorty j
shorty j
9 years ago

all I can say is, I hope this guy was showering! (let’s be honest: here in New York City, we have plenty of people who squat or porch-surf and don’t have or provide their own food or transportation because they are unable to. Yet no one lauds their frugality; they’re called nasty names and accused of leeching off the system. Choosing to live that sort of lifestyle is exactly that–a conscious decision, a choice, when many people don’t have the means to do that. Just… check your privilege, y’all.) ps. I’ve hitchhiked, in a situation where I almost certainly would… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
9 years ago

I appreciate this story. What a fascinating and creative way to travel. And good for you, Sierra, for striking up a conversation with this guy, something I need to do more of.

I also second what Tyler said. Despite what your local news reports, not everyone is a murderer or wants to kidnap your children.

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