The last time I traveled from North Carolina to New York I brought only a backpack. “Is that all you packed?” my mother asked when I walked into her home. “I travel light,” I replied. Which, while accurate, was not the whole story. The truth was that I didn’t want to pay the $32 baggage fee and — much to my mother’s chagrin — I’ll suffer almost any small indignity to save a few bucks.
Some people call these decisions frugal. Others, like my mother, call me cheap. The reality lies somewhere in between: I believe most luxuries are not worth the money. Given the choice, I’d rather opt out.
While a life without luxury may seem extreme, austere, or just plain boring, it can yield surprisingly rich results. Below are four ways I’ve scraped by on the bare minimum and gotten more than I bargained for.
Luxury doesn’t really matter at 30,000 feet
If I were a commercial airline, I’d be Spirit Airlines — cheery exterior, cheap as heck, with a bad habit of last-minute cancellations.
Spirit describes itself as the “ultra low cost carrier,” which they achieve by charging extra for, well, everything. You’re allowed a single carry-on, but that’s it. You don’t get to choose your seat, there’s no Wi-Fi, and forget about complimentary snacks. Even a printed boarding pass costs $10, a money grab so blatant I can’t help but admire it.
Flying coach is never luxurious anyway, and Spirit doesn’t try to dress it up with inflight entertainment or free peanuts. Instead, they get me from point A to point B, where I can spend all the cash I saved on memorable experiences. (As it turns out, the price of a checked bag is about the same as two tickets to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.) You might, however, want to bring a library book and extra granola bars because delays are common. It only seems fair: You get what you pay for.
My grocery store is cheaper than yours
Aldi, a deep-discount grocery chain, was recently described by CNN as “unapologetically and brutally efficient.” They’re not wrong.
Costs are kept low through a series of minor inconveniences. Shopping carts are locked up and released with a quarter, which you retrieve when you return your cart to the corral. There are no charming displays or artful end caps. Items are haphazardly stacked in the boxes they were shipped in. Most stores don’t carry paper or plastic bags, and after the cashier scans your goods, they dump them back into a cart and briskly direct you to the bagging area.
But here’s the thing. Despite the lack of customer service, Aldi’s generic groceries are just as good as the ones you’ll find in a high-falutin’ specialty store. (Try the Fudge Mint Cookies — you’ll swear they were baked by an actual Girl Scout.) Rather than pay for frivolous perks, I prefer to put in some work and feed myself for less.
Goodbye Apple, hello Republic Wireless
Once upon a time, my husband and I had iPhones. They were fine, except for the fact that we were spending over $100 a month on unlimited data. Then, two years ago, I discovered Republic Wireless, a no-contract cell service that keeps costs low by defaulting to Wi-Fi whenever possible. When there’s no Wi-Fi, it borrows time on other networks. For the low price of $25 a month, I get two GB of data, and since I’m generally at home or at work, this is plenty. The only catch is that we had to switch to Androids, which was an adjustment at first. Some of my apps didn’t work, or weren’t as slick as their iOS versions. Even now, I occasionally deal with dropped calls and spotty service, and my sisters hate the fact that I’ve turned our group texts green.
On the bright side, I used to talk about wanting to spend less time on my phone and treat it as a tool rather than a toy. By adopting a cheaper service that’s just clunky enough, I’ve finally achieved that goal.
My full-service gym costs $35 a month
When it comes to exercise, I like variety. Running, yoga, cycling, weight lifting — for me, an ideal week includes everything. If I were attending boutique studios for each of these activities, those $25 classes would quickly add up. And so, instead of succumbing to the cult-like seduction of hot yoga, Crossfit, or SoulCycle, I belong to the less-alluring alternative: my local YMCA.
For $35 a month (less if you’re truly low income; they offer membership on a sliding scale), I get access to a huge variety of workouts. Do I sometimes wish the best jump rope was always available? Or that there are any classes on Sunday besides Zumba? Or that I could lie peacefully in savasana without hearing the clang of barbells and grunts of powerlifters? Yes, yes, and yes. But overall, I prefer the humble charm of the Y, the unique cross section of society I sweat alongside. In this case, “no frills” means “access for all,” and that’s an ethos I’m proud to support.
When I choose these cheaper options, I like to remember it’s not because I’m an ascetic killjoy. It’s because I’d rather save my money for things I truly value, like charitable donations, new houseplants, hardcover books, craft beer, and my 401K.
Rather than settling for less, I’m making a conscious decision to choose more. And what I’ve gained by embracing my “no frills” life is, to me, priceless.