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!

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Sam
Sam
10 years ago

We are fans of the $100 rule, for every $100 a item costs we have to wait one day, so a $500 purchase requires a 5 day wait etc.

Anything over $300 has to be discussed between us and agreed upon even if it comes out of our allowance monies.

Holly
Holly
10 years ago

Halloween is often more fun when you plan ahead and use your talents and/or creativity; My son says his favorite costume started with a t-shirt cut to the shape of a vest; we dyed it w/brown Rit dye, and laced the front with brown leather shoelaces. We bought a piece of bright breen posterboard and made a mask. A blue l/s shirt and old, beat-up pants and he was ready to play Shrek! Cost < $4.00. Happy Halloween!

Roxanne
Roxanne
10 years ago

We have a phrase that we use to great dramatic effect when we’re brainstorming lower-cost solutions:

We could buy something new … OR … USE WHAT WE HAVE!

Ben
Ben
10 years ago

use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without… oldie but a goodie

Alexandra
Alexandra
10 years ago

Intead of buying new, I try to keep expensive things in an excellent state of repair. For example, today the AC guy is coming in to inspect our AC unit. In my annual fall inspection, I noticed that some of the insulation covering the wires of the unit had worn down. He is coming to see if the insulation needs to be replaced or repaired. Although I may be spending about a hundred bucks to keep the AC unit in good repair, that hundred bucks could save me several thousand if the snow and salt from the winter ruins the… Read more »

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

I definitely agree with your pointers on “Delaying” and “Planning Ahead” which often go hand-in-hand. The great thing about delaying purchases is that you often realize that you don’t even “need” the item at all after a cooling off period. And, of course, any successful financial life involves planning long-term for your future. I believe the make-or-break decisions often involve the big intermediate purchase decisions, like vehicles, major appliances, home remodels, home purchases, etc. Plan ahead and do these things wisely, and it sets the stage for lifelong success. Even after all of financial chaos of the the past year… Read more »

Little House
Little House
10 years ago

I recently mended some of my favorite cargo pants, and they came out really cute. They are accruing more holes, since I wear them so often, but I love the patch job I did the first time so much, that I’ve decided to patch the new holes as well.

Also, for Halloween, the theme at work was cowboys/cowgirls. I ran into a thrift store for a cowboy hat and purchased one for $2.00!

Planning ahead and delaying purchases works wonders toward saving money, I completely agree.

Lesley
Lesley
10 years ago

Related to the “creative solutions”, ask people who have faced similar-ish problems to the one you are trying to solve. Example: My DH has a pricy effects pedal for his guitar that he needs to take with him to practices and such, but it needs to be handled gently. For a long time, he kept it in the original packaging, but eventually that fell apart. Music stores sell specialty boxes that run hundreds of dollars… way too much! So, he asked some other musicians, and finally one of them told him about a type of tool/hardware box that works perfectly… Read more »

No Debt Plan
No Debt Plan
10 years ago

Don’t forget Craigslist. I wrote something today on not only finding bargains on Craigslist, but using negotiation tactics to save even more money. I haven’t found FreeCycle to be of any value for anything I would want to buy, unfortunately.

Tyler Tervooren
Tyler Tervooren
10 years ago

I’ve been “making do” with a 20-year-old pickup for 6 years. It’s broken down a few times, but the repairs have always been minor and I’ve been able to fix them myself. When I was interning at my job, I secretly dreamed of finally getting something new when I was hired on. Just before I received my offer, I was talking to my boss. He looked me square in the eyes and said, “Whatever you do, DO NOT buy a new car.” Something about the way he said it really stuck, and I found that giving up that “dream” was… Read more »

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov
10 years ago

Hey April, By using less items–as well as re-using–we simplify and improve our lives. And by repairing things, we become empowered and less reliant on others. Not only do we save money, we exercise our inventiveness when we re-use items. It’s fun. It doesn’t mean we don’t buy new things when they’re clearly more effective, but when we find new ways to use existing stuff–or prolong its use–we work out our brains while fattening up our wallets. Life is also simpler, since we stop becoming as addicted to new gadgets and other shiny toys. We see items as tools to… Read more »

Valerie
Valerie
10 years ago

Eat it up,
Wear it Out,
Make it Do,
Do without.

Never fails to save money.

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

I use delay tactics most often, sometimes even accidentally because I just run out if time. But I also love wandering through the house if I need something and thinking, “Ok, what could I use instead?” That’s my favorite because it usually also gets an item I hadn’t been using back in use, plus I almost always end up decluttering in the process. It’s a win-win-win.

April
April
10 years ago

@Oleg–What a timely comment! I’ve been considering a new Mac laptop, too, as mine is even older than yours. I’m scared that I’ll put money into upgrading and adding wireless (yeah, no wireless, it’s that old), and something major will fail on it, so I’ve elected to do nothing for now. The problem is that I need to be more portable with the freelance work I’m doing. Your comment gave me some more food for thought!

Craig
Craig
10 years ago

A lot of times doing nothing really is the best option. Depending on what the situation is you find that there really is no need to spend time and money getting something new.

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

For when you’re craving an updated look for your home….besides painting as mentioned above, I have found that some other cheap things can help your place feel new: 1) De-cluttering and cleaning. I can’t emphasize this enough! Having new empty space and open space on your bookshelves–it feels just like new. 2) Rearrange the furniture you already have. Paint old wood furniture either pure black or pure white–it will instantly look chic. 3) Take down your current window treatments and toss them. Unless it’s your bedroom you probably don’t need them, and it will make your place look brighter and… Read more »

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

Use up your travel size toiletries before you buy new bottles of shampoo and bars of soap to use at home. And pick up new stuff from the hotel every time you travel!

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

My husband is a genius at this. My 3 year old is moving into our daughter bedroom. For our first child my husband build a wood changing table with shelves for our first kid, which also holds baby clothes and accessories in baskets. In the big kid’s room a big drawer previously holding doll clothes was emptied out and put into now empty basket, her clothes moved in. The empty changing table/baby-clothes-holder was moved into the kid’s room. We were able to fit all the various children’s books spread all over the house into it. With a table lamp on… Read more »

John Steed
John Steed
10 years ago

April – great post! We recently had a problem with our PC – the operating system (Windows XP) would not boot up. Since it is a pretty old computer (as you could guess from the o/s!), we considered replacing it. However, it’s mostly just used for surfing the internet and doing household finances on a spreadsheet. Like Oleg, we concluded that we didn’t need a new machine with a faster processor. So we took it to a great computer repair shop, and they revived it – and threw in some extra RAM – all for less than $200. Should work… Read more »

RichHabits
RichHabits
10 years ago

Well said in this article. We must try to see if we can save money by fixing than buying.

bethh
bethh
10 years ago

I’ve been sort of wanting a crock pot for a year but never got around to buying one. I mentioned to a coworker that I might like to borrow hers, and another heard and gave me one that was headed to her garage sale!

Now if only that would happen with a food processor!

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

I recently repaired a damaged surfboard. I could have taken it to a professional, and the repair would have cost about $50. Instead, I opted to repair it myself. Getting all the supplies requires to do this cost me about $170. The board has now been repaired, and I have enough supplies left for probably 50 more repairs, each of which will have no additional cost. But this is common — if you’re short on cash, it may be cheaper to pay a pro once than it is to equip yourself as necessary to do the repair yourself. Bikes and… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

deciding when delay is a positive step can be tricky. For example, the car guys sometimes tell people, “you can live with that situation” and sometimes say “you have to get that problem fixed immediately!” Certainly, one time not to delay or put off is health care — including dentist and eye exams. Even if you don’t have dental insurance, it is a lot easier to afford a filling than a root canal. And yet lots of people think regular dental appointments are optional… I’m not a dentist, nor related to any, but I’m convinced that over the years I’ve… Read more »

Magda
Magda
10 years ago

“If you want a book or a DVD,” … try your local library. You don’t have to pay for shipping, and you may even find out about other services they offer (public movies, computers with internet, printing, classes). Also, you reduce clutter in your home because the books and DVDs get to go out again.

(Except for those library sales with their take home more books than I could physically carry for under $20. Currently, we’re “doing without” enough bookcases.)

Jay
Jay
10 years ago

Another way to keep expenses down is to keep organized. Just this morning I put bathroom cleaner on my grocery list for the week. I then thought to look in the collection of household cleaners I already had. Low and behold a brand new bottle was already down there, probably left by my last roommate.

Often times we have to go out and make impulse of quick purchases because we forget we already have the tool to get the job done. This is why I have 12 putty knives and 50 paint brushes. =cD

Dlyn
Dlyn
10 years ago

One of my biggest cost savers is that I work for a community college where I can take classes for almost free (fees & books not included). So now I get to upgrade my job skills and next semester I’m taking computer repair classes to update our old computers.

But when craving Chinese, most times I have to have take out. I CANNOT make it like my favorite restaurant and feel like I’ve wasted food trying and I still end up craving it.

retired
retired
10 years ago

Look for someone down sizing they will get rid of items,deal for item you want you never know when someone will take you offer.

I am paying off medical bills
I am now working on supplementing my retirement.
For those who read this site which has given me great encouragement. I am leaving a Google check out coupon code. Guess where I got the name for the code.
getrich09
This code will be good from 10/24/09 -11/15/09
Discount: 5.0%
Restrictions: Purchase over $20.00.
Limit 1 per customer.
while supplies last!
http://florida-house-deals.ecrater.com/

http://florida-house.ecrater.com/

Erica Douglass
Erica Douglass
10 years ago

Hey April, If your laptop has a PC Card slot, I have a new, never-opened wireless card that I could ship you for the cost of shipping. I bought it for my mom’s laptop and we ended up just replacing the internal wireless card. Email me at erica at erica dot biz for details. If I have to buy new, I like shopping at discount stores. We’ve saved a ton on new kitchen gear by shopping at Homegoods. Even those 20% off coupons at BB&B don’t compare. We just bought a wok for $10! For big items, I pretty much… Read more »

David/Yourfinances101
David/Yourfinances101
10 years ago

When faced with this situation, a became a do-it-yourself-er, to an extent. Started fixing lots of stuff around the house.

There are also other alternatives to buying new. With repsect to tools, I now rent a lot (mostly at Home Depot) and I buy used a lot as well (garage sales, pawn shops etc).

Put your mind to it and you’d be surprised how many different ways you can pare down your spending.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

@ Jay, keeping track of tools is key! My DH and I both had certain tools when we combined households. Since then we’ve accumulated more. We have several duplicates in the cheap-screwdriver class. We have way too many paintbrushes! All because we used to not store everything together in a designated place. Now we are organized and know exactly what we have (i.e., too much). Improvising and DIY can mean big dollars spent on grooming. I do my own nails, haircuts, and hair color. With long hair in my city, a cut and color was upwards of $200! Doing it… Read more »

atexasgirl
atexasgirl
10 years ago

What you already own is always cheaper than what you want to buy. Always.

Debi
Debi
10 years ago

A great place to find used items is at estate auctions. Be prepared to spend some time, and be prepared with a “do not bid over this price” in your head. I found a $650 snowblower which looked brand new for $70. A leaf blower for $2. Dishes and pots and pans can oftentimes be found in “box lots” for under $5 for everything in the box. Great for dorms, first apartments, bargain hunters. Our best money saving tricks: Do it yourself repairs and building projects. Repurposing items for new use.

Andrea
Andrea
10 years ago

My husband wanted a footstool/ottoman. I was looking around at thrift stores and regular stores. And then I looked in my basement. We had an old footstool with a torn cushion(the cushion is separate from the stool part. I sewed the cushion up and then covered it with a piece of very discounted($5.62) “decorator” fabric that coordinated with our sofa(it’s solid dark blue, the fabric is patterned dark blue). I’m looking for some furniture for a home office-hoping to turn up an old table as the basis for a desk on freecycle or at a yard sale.

Marie
Marie
10 years ago

Building is the sister cheap behavior to fixing. If you build your computer, you’ll be able to cherry pick the high-end parts you need and go cheaper on the not-important parts. Plus, you’ll be able to repair and upgrade it cheaper every after.

I just blew up a $90 power supply, but because I built the machine I knew how to take it apart. Diagnosis: it needs a ten-cent fuse.

My next project is to repair a 2003 Powerbook with a jumpy screen.

Golfing Girl
Golfing Girl
10 years ago

With Baby #2 on the way, we thought we NEEDED a minivan. Turns out we only “needed” it since the dog wouldn’t fit between the two carseats in our Honda Accord. Since we only take the dog on monthly trips to Grandparents, we’ll just fit everyone in our paid for ’95 Jeep (including the dog) as long as the Jeep runs fine. That would have been an expensive ride for a dog!

Rose
Rose
10 years ago

I wanted a new look for our not so old bathroom, the oak vanity was bland, but still as solid as a rock. My goal was to have it look like a peice of built in furniture. I painted the vanity white, and applied small, painted wood appliques on the fixed top panels, painted the existing brass pulls with a metal, nickel colored, paint pen. Then, in a move that I am STILL patting myself on the back for….I wanted ‘feet’ to complete the illusion of furniture, but found that these unfinished feet could cost anywhere from $12 to $30+… Read more »

Rosa Rugosa
Rosa Rugosa
10 years ago

I’ve come to place more value on waiting as a strategy (I was always into immediate gratification) because it has some real benefits: the pleasure of anticipation, the opportunity to research and find what you really want, the chance to save more money to get the best, instead of settling for a less satisfactory model, and yes, sometimes the realization that you don’t really need the item in question at all.

Steve Roehling
Steve Roehling
10 years ago

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate that “frequency of use”, not just cost is a good way to determine the value/ROI for something. This helps me weigh whether to purchase new, purchase used, or perhaps a cheaper new alternative. For example, one of my hobbies is woodworking, and I used to buy expensive tools from Bosch, Porter Cable, etc. However, these tools would often sit in my garage for months or years between uses. I’m now just as likely to buy a cheap alternative from Harbor Freight, improvise with another tool, or change my plans to accommodate the tools… Read more »

Chiot's Run
Chiot's Run
10 years ago

Buying used is also another option. I just blogged about our new love of local auctions. I’ve seen people buy boxes of towels for $2, etc. You have to learn to love the hunt and to be patient till you find what you’re looking for!

Becky
Becky
10 years ago

I recently gave my husband’s Levi’s 501 jeans new fronts. I live in a country where new ones cost close to $100/pair and we’re not planning a trip to the states til Feb. (He only likes this brand and style–not a thrifty move on his part, but he was that way when I married him).

Anyway, I spent a couple of hours putting in “big” patches on three pairs of his pants. He now can wear them for work til these patches tear out.

JC
JC
10 years ago

I’m playing around a with a storage solution at the moment – using the bags from a number of bag-with-magazine offers to use as storage. One reason I do this is that I have tried boxes, drawers, cupboards, hanging shelves to store clothes, spare bathstuff, sheets etc. It never works out properly, partly because of the layout of my cupboards and space. I often buy bags for little cost at op shops, thrift stores etc, but there are seldom large numbers of the same kind available. I have found that zippered “storage solutions” bags cost 10-20 dollars at the supermarket,… Read more »

JC
JC
10 years ago

1)I have a sponge/squeegee which had a short handle, too short for washing the kitchen floor, which I wanted to to with this as I could get into small spaces with it. I unscrewed the head and rescrewed it onto a long broom handle in the cupboard. With this new long-handled squeegee/sponge, I washed my kitchen floor. 2)I had a microfibre sponge floor “broom”, bigger than I needed. It consists of a microfibre pocket that fits over a plastic base. Since I like gloves for dusting I’m cutting up the microfibre broom pocket, plus a couple of new spares I… Read more »

Rob Bennett
Rob Bennett
10 years ago

“Delay spending” is the one that works best for me. The people who sell us stuff spend millions developing advertising campaigns aimed at generating within us an emotional desire for stuff we don’t need. The result is that a high percentage of stuff we buy offers no real satisfaction. We are scratching an imaginary itch with a high percentage of purchases. I’m not so hot on self-denial, however. So I need an alternative itch to scratch to take my attention away from the phony one. So my trick is to create Advertisements for Saving. I create a specific saving goal… Read more »

JEM
JEM
10 years ago

For us it comes down to that concept of treating your belongings as if you wouldn’t be able to replace them to begin with. It has changed how we view our stuff. Just think about what you would do with that pair of pants if you knew you could not replace them. It’s an alien concept in our society. It motivates us to plan ahead to learn a new skill set so we can fix that computer or couch. We try to learn something new every six months. It not only keeps our brains active but we try to learn… Read more »

busymom
busymom
10 years ago

I am very careful to buy clothes for our family only on sale; we were recently at Macy’s and my seven year old saw a winter coat she loved and wanted, but the price tag was $80 — way out of budget for us (although I got a great deal of jeans for my older girl.) Yesterday we were at Kohl’s and lo and behold that exact same coat we saw several weeks ago was on sale for $29 — we were both ecstatic. I also recently got a pair of pants from a thrift store for $1 — can… Read more »

Tansy
Tansy
10 years ago

I enjoy the challenge of using creativity to improvise. Much more fun than shopping… Older, secondhand items are more likely to be repairable than newer ones which are sometimes designed to be unrepairable:(planned obsolescence). It’s ironic that older, quality items are cheaper than shiny new low-quality stuff. In your tip on planning, I’d add that if you do decide to buy a brand-new item, be sure it IS repairable. I think paying a bit more up front saves money in the long run, if you must buy new. An example of this would be cheap furniture made of particle board,… Read more »

Tenbat
Tenbat
10 years ago

I saw this same post more than a week ago on mnmlist:

http://mnmlist.com/7-ways-to-avoid-buying-new-stuff/

Leah
Leah
10 years ago

Definitely love this list! I usually live by this but forget about it for some big stuff. Last year, the vacuum at my house wasn’t working. The house (and stuff in it) was provided by work, but I had a vacuum and used my vacuum all year instead of worrying about the work one. Around the end of the year, when I had to move out, I let work know that they’d need a new vacuum. Someone suggested that I bring it in for the maintenance guy to look at. He took it to a repair shop, got it fixed,… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

Defintely agree with the “delay purchase” theory. 9 times out of 10 you’ll decide you really don’t need to make the purchase if you just stop and think about it for a little bit. Great list!

Ralph
Ralph
10 years ago

I used to be an impulse shopper. Learning to delay purchases has done wonders for me.

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