Have you ever wanted something so badly but balked at its price tag? I have. Many times in fact.
When I face a dilemma where I really want something but don’t want to spend money on it, I have two options:
1. Practice self-control and forget about it; OR
2. Find something similar at a much lower price.
I follow #1 (self-control) in most cases. However, I can document various instances where I successfully find affordable substitutes for something I strongly desire.
And this strategy has saved Mr. FAF and me a lot of money.
I love sushi. There have been many weekends over this past year when I thought about buying sushi from the Wegman’s near my house.
The problem is that Wegman’s sushi, though less expensive than restaurant sushi, is not cheap. It’s $13 per plate.
One time I walked 30 minutes to Wegman’s (I don’t have a car in DC) to enjoy the sushi as well as the live music at the store.
After those surreal moments, I just wanted to come back and enjoy the sushi again. But I told myself not to. I decided to buy seaweed from a Chinese grocery store (10 for $3) and started making veggie sushi instead. I didn’t trust myself enough to mess around with raw fish.
The craving faded away although the desire still creeps in every once in a while.
One weekend I made the mistake of walking 30 minutes to a nearby mall in the 90 degree DC summer weather. When I got to the mall, I didn’t want just water. I wanted ice-cream.
I wanted it so badly that I didn’t even think about looking at clothes anymore. I needed the sweetness and creamy texture of ice-cream to cool me down. I was obsessed over ice-cream cones and mint chocolate.
It didn’t help that I had a small lunch earlier. And walking for 30 minutes in the scorching sun apparently burned all of the calories I had gotten from the food.
There was a Haagen Dazs store at the food court that could help satisfy my ice-cream obsession. But I just couldn’t bear the thought of spending $5 on a tiny scoop of ice-cream that would disappear after 2 minutes.
My brain started to process alternative solutions. I decided to buy 4 Nestle vanila ice-cream cones from a nearby Target for $3.58, which I thought was much cheaper than a $5 Haagen Dazs ice-cream scoop.
I ate two cones right at the mall and brought two home. I felt so satisfied and happy that I didn’t think much about looking for sales anymore.
Korean spicy noodles
There has been a craze about Korean mukbang on Youtube where people upload videos of themselves eating food and making money from it.
One popular challenge is eating the super spicy Korean instant noodles. Seeing how people slurp on their tasty-looking noodles makes me want to do the same.
One weekend, I craved Korean spicy noodles so badly I couldn’t stop thinking about it. However, I had three challenges to make it happen. First, I don’t have a car and can’t drive to an Asian grocery store to get the noodles. If I order it from Amazon like many people do, it will be much more expensive than just getting it from the store.
Second, I can’t really handle a lot of spice due to my Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Third, I’m making a conscious effort to eat less instant noodles for health reasons.
I eventually decided to make my own version with the noodles made from green bean starch (healthier than instant noodles) and the Korean gochujang sauce (spicy and tasty) I already had at home.
Spicy noodles made from green bean starch
I added lemon juice, sugar, soy sauce, canned tuna, and cabbage to the mix. It was delicious! And the best thing is that my craving disappeared right after I finished what I made.
Pho is my comfort food. I grew up eating it on a regular basis (I’m Vietnamese). I think about pho when it’s cold outside, when I’m sick, or when I just want to have something soupy.
However, there’s no pho restaurant within walking distance from our house. There’s also no bus route to the nearest pho restaurant. The only thing that can help me satisfy my craving is instant noodles since it’s fast and delicious.
Pho and its cheap substitute – instant noodles
I love KFC. I like the smell, the crunchiness of the skin, and the juiciness of the meat. And the best part of all is that it doesn’t cause me any stomach problems. I once tried the fried chicken at Shoppers, and it just gave me bad stomach cramps.
A meal from KFC can cost around $10. Plus, there’s no KFC within walking distance from where I live, so I usually just buy the Rossetti chicken at the grocery store for $4.99. The chicken usually lasts me for a couple of days instead of one meal.
I still try to not overeat in order to keep my weight in check. But I make an effort to not buy groceries that I don’t need. If you wonder what I eat with such a low food budget, you can check out my diet here and here.
Every Friday I’d ask myself the same question: Do I need to do grocery shopping? I definitely don’t want to starve myself or put my health at risk to save money.
But instead of getting into the habit of doing grocery shopping every weekend without knowing if I need to buy anything, I’ll first check the inventory in my fridge, freezer, and pantry.
Despite the urge to buy new groceries, I look at what I have, especially in the pantry and freezer, and think hard about what dishes I can make with the ingredients at hand. And it usually works. I do grocery shopping on average once every two weeks when I live by myself (while Mr. FAF is in another city).
Mr. FAF and I always talk about traveling to Europe, Asia and touristy places in the US like Hawaii, Key West, New York, and Alaska. However, we haven’t been able to do that since traveling is currently not one of our priorities.
We get a kick out of making a big extra payment to our mortgage and seeing the mortgage principle decrease every month. For us, it’s enjoyment in itself. Traveling at this point would be fun, but we wouldn’t be too happy to see our bank account when we come back.
We have been exploring free parks and museums in the DC area. We also plan to do some short road trips this summer.
Traveling for work is also a great option to minimize travel expenses. I’ve been able to travel to 3 different cities in the US and one country in Asia, all of which was paid for by my employer. It was for work, but I of course got a lot of sightseeing done on those trips.
Sightseeing when I was off work on business trips
When Mr. FAF was interviewing for a new job, he also traveled to two cities on the West Coast for free. The companies paid for his hotel, air tickets, car rental, and meals.
Europe and other expensive destinations will just have to wait until we pay off the mortgage on our house and have more disposable income for entertainment and traveling.
Toys/clothes for Baby FAF
When I gave birth to Baby FAF, Mr. FAF and I were not in a good financial position. We were two poor grad students with two meager stipends and were living in two different cities more than hours away from each other.
With my friends’ help, I was able to gather a lot of hand-me-down baby clothes, toys, and gadgets for our son. I was and still am grateful for all the help. We were able to save more to spend on the co-payment for Baby FAF’s birth and many other baby-related expenses.
Mr. FAF and I are now in a much better financial state than before. But I still try to find hand-me-down clothes and toys for Baby FAF. I will only buy clothes or educational toys that we don’t receive from other moms.
I want to give our son the best things we can possibly afford. However, the best investment we can make for him is his education, not fancy toys or clothes.
Hand-me-down clothes and books for Baby FAF I got from neighbors and yard sales
Substitutes to me exist in various forms (i.e. food, clothes, traveling). I definitely want the optimal options (i.e. Haagen Dazs, brand-new clothes for Baby FAF, traveling to Europe). But what I want is not always what I need.
I learn that self-control is an absolute must when we try to stay on a budget and prioritize our long-term goals in life. Sometimes I just can’t resist the temptation and the urge to get what I desire. But I’ve realized that getting the next best thing I can afford can weaken that desire or make it disappear altogether.
And that’s how Mr. FAF and I stay frugal while living an enjoyable life.
What about you? Do you also have substitutes for expensive items that you want but are not willing to spend money on?