Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

My grandmother used to say that my dad was penny wise and pound foolish. Dad would hem and haw over the cost of laundry detergent, but was very laid back in the bigger spends—buying a house, getting a new car, taking the family on nice vacations, and being an all-around generous guy. To her point, one summer after my parents had made a big trip to visit me studying abroad in Australia (while they were also paying for my private university tuition), my dad drove back to a store when he realized he had been over-charged 20 cents on cups of yogurt.  In his defense, he had purchased ten yogurts, so it was a full $2.00 he was refunded.

I used to think this was ridiculous, but then couple months back, I quit my job, and now it makes sense. After seven years in marketing, I decided to give up a very well-paid career for the passionate pursuit of writing for a living. I had saved the equivalent of a livable year’s salary as the cushion—and I suppose the deadline—until writing projects pay the bills. 

This “livable year’s salary” I speak of is just that: enough money to pay my non-negotiable existing expenses (rent, utilities, cell phone, car payment, gas, car and health insurance, student loan payments, and groceries). I also accounted for a small discretional budget  ($200/month) for the extra costs of being social in the city: eating an occasional meal out and getting drinks here and there. The budget was designed, however, with the intention of cutting back from my out-all-weekend-every-weekend, fully-employed spending lifestyle.

Much like every diet I’ve ever tried, the plan has been giving way to lapses in willpower. The “liveable year” has already been cut down to a “liveable ten months” due to some regrettable budget-diet cheats (I’ve had trouble saying no to meals with friends after my monthly discretional budget has been spent). But the steak dinner of my budget-diet cheat was booking a two-week trip to Europe this summer. I justified it by saying, “When will I ever have this time again?” but the trip easily cut a month out of my cushion budget.

That’s when I stepped it up with a page from my dad’s playbook. I’ve clipped coupons before, but it was always a recreational habit. Now it’s become a hardcore addiction. I may have minimal willpower when it comes to entertainment expenses, but I have military-grade discipline when it comes to saving on groceries. It’s hard to assess for sarcasm without hearing my voice, but just know that I have none whatsoever when I say: What a thrill!  It feels like beating the system when I can leave the grocery store with over 40% in savings on my regular groceries. Coupons have become the Splenda substitute of my budget-diet, and I’ve used them to justify many of my budget cheats.  Sure, I just bought fancy cocktails on a weekday, but I also just saved $1 on two boxes of Triscuits. It’s bound to even out. Right?

My coupon fixation came to a head last week when I was at the grocery store with my boyfriend, with whom I am lucky enough to split my grocery bill (and, you know, rent, utilities, life partnership, joy). Unlike me, he is not an over-spender. But on this particular grocery trip, he really, really wanted a loaf of Challah bread from the bakery. It was $5.50.

This. Was. Ridiculous. $5.50!  That was approximately $4.25 more than the loaf of bread that was on sale with the coupon! And for what? A slightly less stale, more delicious sandwich?  No. I was on the verge of hyperventilation in the middle of aisle two when he gave me the one eyebrow “you’re nuts” look and reminded me: “You just booked airfare and hotels for two weeks in Europe without batting an eye.”

“Well I’m going to pay for that by saving on groceries!”

Oh holy Jesus. I’ve become the west coast version of my Australia-trip booking, yogurt-returning father.

It hit me later (after I lost the battle of the bread) that I was never going to sustain my cushion on careful grocery shopping alone. We would need to save that $4.25 on that loaf of bread for about 25 years to make up for the cost for both of our trips. Bigger spending cuts are in order: This upcoming trip will have to be the last for awhile; I’m going to have to just-say-no to dining out for some time; and I should probably reconsider my vehicle choice when my lease is up in December. In the meantime, I’m bound and determined to find a more reasonably priced loaf of Challah. I’d love to go back to Europe, but I don’t want 25 years of crappy sandwiches to save up for it.


Caila Ball is a Los Angeles based writer. She often gives advice in areas where she has no expertise here and here.


10 Comments / Post A Comment

I’m ashamed of how much I related to this piece – I’m very vigilant about the minor recurring expenses (groceries, coffee, gas) but then I turn around and drop large lump sums on theater tickets or perfume on a whim.

(Well, not a whim, but I’m very adept by now at the mental acrobatics it takes to justify a larger expense.)

Equestrienne (#862)

FINALLY! It’s about time The Billfold addressed couponers. I may shell out for some pretty ridiculous stuff, but I’ll be damned if I ever pay more than $1.00 for toothpaste!

elizabeast (#629)

I come from couponing people, but I’ve always been a little too embarrassed to get serious about it. (I get stuck on the part where couponing feels like the least sexy, youthful thing ever.) But I’m about to move away from everyone I know, and I know this is my chance to get really into couponing without being self-conscious.

Jobeans (#227)

Something I’ve been wondering for a while—is couponing really effective for higher-end quality, as well as non-processed foods? I went through a more coupon-intensive phase a while back but I felt like a large majority of the coupons i found just did not apply to the kinds of fodos I’d want to eat.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@Jobeans I agree to an extent – I think coupons very much focus on those “middle of the grocery store” items that are best to avoid. I’d rather not even walk down them, if I can, because there’s just too much temptation. Processed, expensive, unnecessary. Except pretzels, those are great.

Equestrienne (#862)

@Jobeans I think manufacturers are definitely moving to combat these concerns. There are more and more coupons available for organic items and even fresh produce, you just have to know where to look. Admittedly, the majority of my savings with coupons comes from purchases of health/personal care items and cleaning supplies. But really, you can save A LOT! Promise.

I try to go for penny foolish but pound wise, personally, whether it’s in finances or dieting. I’d rather have exactly what I want but just abstain from some things entirely than NEVER have anything I want aside from a few big-ticket items. I think of it as my Theory of Acceptable Losses.

deepomega (#22)

Ack! Leasing a car???

chic noir (#713)

Here’s the way I look at it…

You save on the small stuff to splurge on the things you really enjoy.
So you make your own coffee at home because with all the money saved, you buy a ticket to Europe during the low season.

I wish there were cupons for fruit and vegtables.

Josh Hsoj (#3,380)

I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who suffers from penny-wise syndrome. It’s hard to combat the euphoric feeling of elation coupled with the small victory of saving, this joy reinforces the bad behavior.

To combat this I’ve started tracking my expenses in the major areas. Auto expenses, insurance, food. Find out which area you’re spending the most money each month and focus on saving money there. Then maybe when you splurge on something, it might balance out more. At the least, you can turn a compulsion into a smart way to save money in a most relevant way.

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