The Art of Improvising: Alternatives to Buying New

When you have a need or a problem, there's usually a solution that can be bought. Buying a solution is often the easiest and fastest way to solve a problem — but it also can be the most expensive.

When my husband and I were in debt-repayment mode and had our discretionary spending locked down, I began to see that there are alternative solutions to problems that I once thought could only be solved by buying something. Sometimes quality counts, but more often than not, I would choose a solution that required spending more than necessary, when some forethought might have yielded a solution that was less expensive (or even free). Or maybe if I had stopped to think about it, I'd have realized it wasn't a critical problem, and I could just choose to do nothing about it.

We set a strict budget while we were paying off our debt, so it was necessary to think about alternatives before every purchase to meet our payment goals. The great thing is that it became ingrained in me, and it's something I continue to try to do. Here are some of the techniques I use.

Repair what you can
Repair what you have instead of replacing it. You can do this with clothes, appliances, furniture, and cars. I know someone who used throw away a shirt when it was missing a button rather than paying to have it mended, or learning how to sew on a button himself.

But even if you're not apt to go the do-it-yourself route, sometimes paying for a repair is worth it when it's something that is expensive or difficult to replace. Last year I took my boots to a shoe doctor for the first time. I was ready to replace them, but I thought I'd try a repair shop first, and I was pleasantly surprised. The boots were re-heeled, the leather was conditioned, and they looked good-as-new. It would have been much more costly to replace them.

Delay spending
Put off the purchase. People do this if they lose their jobs or if they live paycheck-to-paycheck and run out of money at the end of the month. I do it as a game when the credit card closing date is coming up, just to keep the number as low as possible.

Simply shelf the issue for the time being. Give it a week or two. (Or 30 days.) You might even think of a better solution during that period.

You also can do this with regular services. See how long you can stretch out time in between haircuts, for example, especially if your cut is low-maintenance to start. Stretching it out just four more weeks in between appointments reduced what I spend in a year by one-third. And you know, so far my hair is just fine.

Rent, trade, borrow, or take
Can you borrow or trade for a solution? If you want a book or a DVD, try out a service like Book Mooch or Swaptree. Try renting tools if you won't use them enough to warrant owning them. See if friends or family members will let you borrow a tool or appliance (just be sure to send a lovely thank-you note).

Also, don't forget to check out sites like Freecycle for furniture, appliances, toys, and more. Items are given away for free; you just pay for the gas to pick up your stuff.

Plan ahead
Many times we overspend because we're pressed for time. Maybe you have to get a last-minute Christmas gift for a picky relative. The mall is typically where we end up in that kind of situation, and it's not likely that you'll find the perfect gift at a killer price when you're in a hurry.

Planning ahead gives you the time to find the perfect gift at a great price, or maybe even free if you're really creative.

Planning ahead isn't limited to gifts. You can plan ahead for travel, social events, house guests, and more. You can plan your expenditures for any situation that you know about ahead of time.

Find creative solutions to achieve your goal
There's usually more than one way to solve a problem or reach a goal. Craving Chinese take-out? Try making stir-fry at home. Want to have a fun Saturday night with your friends? Throw a potluck or host a game night instead of meeting at a restaurant. Bored and feeling the urge to shop? Try reading a book, going for a walk, or doing something creative.

I've found the most inspiration from fellow bloggers:

  • Instead of completely redecorating a room, try a bit of wallpaper and a fresh coat of paint.
  • Rather than buying new furniture, consider how a few yards of fabric might breathe new life into the furniture you already own.
  • Hate the fit of a dress, but love the fabric? Consider a refashion.
  • Overwhelmed by the expense of baby gear? Find frugal ways to make it yourself.

A quick Google search usually provides new solutions I might not have thought of on my own.

Do nothing
Just ignore the need and try to do without. A lot of times if you simply do nothing, you find it's not as bad as you thought. The best personal example of this was our decision to do nothing about replacing our second car. We also do this when we're swept off our feet by fancy kitchen gear, and then realize that our cast iron Dutch oven may not be as gorgeous as a porcelain enamel Le Creuset, but it gets the job done.

Make a habit out of questioning your purchases, and try a quick Internet search to see if there's a less expensive solution out there.

What about you? What have you done lately to improvise, get by with what you have, or find a cheap solution, instead of buying something new? Share your tips!

More about...Frugality

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