How Finding Substitutes Saves Me Money

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.

Sushi

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.

Wegman’s sushi

Ice-cream 

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

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

KFC

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.

Groceries

My grocery bills for March and April were under $90 which is almost half of USDA’s thrifty food budget of $163.30/month. Don’t worry. I’m not starving myself nor am I anorexic.

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).

Traveling

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

Conclusion

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?



39 thoughts on “How Finding Substitutes Saves Me Money”

  • You are a master at finding cheaper alternatives and not giving in to cravings! I definitely need to work on my self control haha.

    I’m ashamed to compare my grocery budget to yours. We are TERRIBLE at saving money on groceries. I know a lot of the tools out there, but convenience and shopping quickly tend to win out for me. Plus, my husband likes to have a meat, a vegetable and a starch with every meal, which while healthy, is certainly more expensive.

    One of the best ways I find a substitute is with clothing. I follow a lot of fashion bloggers and often fall in love with items they are wearing, but refuse to spend the money they do. I am a big fan of finding a similar look for less.

    • Thank you, Courtney! I can’t take all the credit since I also give into temptations sometimes. I think a lot of people, myself included, still have problem lowering the food budget since we all love to eat! I like finding deals for high quality dresses too! ^.^

    • Thank you, Lance! I think it might be because other people can see the brands that we wear, but not the meds that we take. I’m a big fan of generic drugs too! My best friend (working at a pharmaceutical company) said that the ingredients of generic and brand-name drugs are sometimes pretty similar, so we can save a lot by buying generic drugs 😉

      • Wow, that’s a really good insight! I have to admit I feel a bit conscious of the brands of food I bring in and keep at work, which totally plays into that.

  • Great way to finding a balance between want and satisfaction! I also make sushi at home sometimes, it’s really not that hard and it’s delicious. You could also try imitation crabs if you don’t want to mess with raw fish.

  • I love that many of your cravings are food-based! I also have a weakness for instant noodles. To delude myself into thinking it’s healthy,” I add in veggies and use just half of the seasoning packet.

    I substitute going to the movies with delayed viewings on Netflix. I can’t stomach paying $10+ for a ticket. Even though I don’t get to watch movies right when they come out, I enjoy them for a lower cost on Netflix or check them out from the library for free.

    Thanks for the tips all around. It’s smart to be able to exert self-control.

    • OMG I love instant noodles too haha! I grew up eating instant noodles on a regular basis. It’s not healthy, but I just think it’s delicious! I don’t like spending $10 on movies either. Youtube is my best friend! 😀

  • Great post as always Ms. FAF! One of the things we seem to crave the most is pizza- I have an upcoming blog post that details how we make our own pizza for very cheap, and it always squashes the pizza craving.

    The only thing I’ve found that isn’t good for substituting is eyeshadow. I love drugstore makeup because I don’t wear it nearly enough to justify spending $100s of dollars on it. However, with eyeshadow, I used to by 2-3 cheap $10 palettes because Youtube videos promised me that they were 99% identical to their designer makeup brand counterparts for a fraction of the price. …I’ve learned that my makeup skills are VERY basic and that I need all the help that I can get! A year ago, I splurged on a $50 eyeshadow palette and that’s completely killed the urge to buy eyeshadow. Since I used to buy 2-3 cheaper drugstore palettes a year hoping to find ONE that would work well, I’m technically saving money.

    Also, I’ve learned the hard way that if you have a lobster craving, imitation crab meat is MUCH cheaper but will not help fulfill the craving. Better to just spend a little more and buy lobster from Chinatown, haha

    • OMG I support lobster from Chinatown town lol Whenever I go to Great Wall, I feel bad for those fish swimming in the tank, but I also think it’s great we can get fresh fish #conflicted @_@

      I don’t spend a lot of money on makeup, but I agree with you that some things are worth spending a bit more money on. With makeup, I think it’s important since it can affect our health if we buy a low quality product. 😉

  • Substitution is such a money saver! And also a huge help when you’re a picky fiend like me. I go off book all the time in cooking to avoid putting things I don’t like into food (mayo-free coleslaw, anyone?).

    Aren’t Haagen-Daz bars the worst? I’m loathed to pay the per-bar price, but the box of them disappears in three days, so I just stay away. It’s a pretty good arrangement; during vacations I’ll usually loosen up and cough up the money for some deliciousness!

    • I usually buy a box of 16 ice-cream cones from Costco. It’s so much cheaper than buying the 4-piece pack from the grocery store! Haagen-Daz is good, but it’s expensive! >_<

  • I did a lot of substitution when I was young too. It’s pretty awesome that you could take a few days during business travel to relax. I’m sure you’ll loosen up after you’re more comfortable financially. Being frugal is good when you’re young. 🙂
    You probably can find sushi grade tuna in grocery store. Can you make pho at home? Pho Ga is pretty easy and very cheap.

    • I did some sightseeing after work. Also that time we could stay past the weekend, so it was definitely a great opportunity to explore the cities. I think I will loosen up down the road. Right now our budget is tight, so I have to watch what I spend #frugalwife >_< I tried to make pho at home once, and it just wasn't the same @_@ I take it you've made Pho Ga before hehe? Most people have Pho Bo (beef noodles), but I love Pho Ga too!

  • I know I said it before but…ARE WE TWINS. Half of that list is something I do. Especially sushi!!! I have a central market near me and they have good sushi for not as much as it would cost in restaurants.

    Stop giving me post ideas! Now I totally want to write one! 😛 I’m going out for Korean noodles today hehehe. You want foodporn?

    I’m already collecting baby books and I don’t have a baby haha.
    “However, the best investment we can make for him is his education, not fancy toys or clothes.”
    And love! Don’t forget love! I think my parents devoted too much time to education and I’m still dumb, they could have just spent more time with me ;)!!!

    • Haha you should write a post about your list, Lily! I’d love to see it hehe. Korean noodles sound yummy! Did I mention I LOVE noodles? haha

      I totally forget to mention love (Oops!). You are a SMART woman! You’re collecting baby books? Now I’m starting to think I’m going to be Auntie FAF soon. <3

  • I started making sushi last year since we love it so much and it’s so expensive!! It does take a long time though and I don’t use fish either! These are some great ideas for substitutions–I like the idea of buying a package of ice cream. I don’t know if any cones would have made it home with me though!! 😂

  • Spicy korean noodles sounds delish! Can you share your recipe? I would love to try one that’s already been given a thumbs up 🙂 Great frugal ideas as always too!

    • Thanks, JM! I honestly don’t have a recipe since I just threw everything together. Improvisation works! 😉

  • I find out your blog a few ago and had almost finished reading your articles. Keep up the good work and continue doing what you think is right for you and your family. I am from singapore and lived in US for over 25 years. I still have very strong Asian thinking like we have to be frugal and saved money for future .
    You are my inspiration and l look forward reading your articles every week.

    • Aww thank you so much for your kind words, Sor! Your comment made me smile. I’m glad you enjoy reading the posts. I will try my best to keep it going! 🙂

  • Haagen Dazs is crazy expense for ice cream. Good thing you have had a substitute in mind and settled for some Nestle cones that as satisfying as a scoop of Haagen Dazs.
    I always go for store brand items as substitutes than the premium ones. Kirkland Signature from costco sticks out as one of my favorite store brands.
    Most of the clothes and toys we have for our 1 year old is either from hand me downs or using store gift cards from friends and relatives. It’s not worth spending retail price on clothes he will wear probably once or twice.

    • I like Kirkland Signature too! We have everything Kirkland from boxers for Mr. FAF to mouthwash for all of us. Costco is one of the stores we frequent the most! 😀

  • I’m a big fan of looking for substitutes or alternatives because often times you aren’t really less happy with choosing the alternative and cheaper choice. The biggest thing is buying generic versus name brand…I rarely see the difference. Oh and for Pho…I’m a big fan too. Is there some way you can buy the broth and the noodles to make it at home?

    • Agreed! I always try to buy generic brands when I can. I’ve tried making pho at home, and it wasn’t a big success. They also have instant pho, but it’s just not the same. I think I really need to improve my cooking skills! >_<

  • We also stick to hand me downs for baby clothes, etc. Also, the library is AMAZING for kid stuff and we don’t even live anyplace like DC. Ours has puzzles and toys you can check out as well as books, movies, and music. They also offer a ton of free kid and adult activities, including storytime in multiple languages. I am willing to bet that your DC libraries are even better!

    • I’m glad you found great resources at the library. We live about 1 mile from our local library. Baby FAF doesn’t really read yet, and I got him some old books from our neighbors. But my MIL goes to the senior club at the library, and she loves it!

  • My wife and I are huge fans of using Craigslist to find great deals on gently used items or even finding free items. We got a free baby pool that normally costs $60. It’s worked great this summer and the only thing wrong was it hd a small leak. Easy fix by adding a quick plug 🙂

    • Wow that sounds like a great idea! I also thought about buying Baby FAF a baby pool, but there are a lot of mosquitoes in our backyard, so I’ve been putting it off. I’m glad Craigslist works out well for you! 🙂

  • Reading this post reminds me how fortunate we are to live in the suburbs. We’re literally 5 to 13 minutes away from all kinds of grocers (Walmart, trader Joe’s, ethic foods,….), restaurants, theaters, malls, pharmacies, schools, etc. No need to plan our day around the terrible DC weather or metro. Rain or shine, we can just walk out the door, get into our car and get to where we want to go right away. Much more convenient than living in the city. Also groceries are generally cheaper here, too. The expense of owning a car just pays for itself. No wonder many young couples, once they start a family, immediately move to the suburbs, especially to our neighborhood.

    • Hi Mohegan, I’m glad you live in such a nice area! We live in the suburbs too, but not everything is within walking distance. Now that I’m getting older, I really don’t want to be cramped into a tiny condo. I’m ok living farther away from the city for more space 😀

    • Oh wow I’m impressed! I have tried making banana ice-cream before, and it was good but pretty basic. I agree with you. It’s healthier than store-bought ice-cream!

  • Yes, there aren’t any shortcuts in life. Winning is more about identifying and utilizing your opportunities by way of hard work and commitment. I still remember those days when I had just taken up my first job and was asked to feed my insurance premium by my self. I was quite confused, but with time I have gained what it takes to manage my finances responsibly.

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