You Saved $128 Million by NOT Buying a Picasso! (And Other Strange Comments)

You haven't saved any money if you made a purchase or are going about your "normal" routine. You only save when to make a change to your spending habits.

Camping in AustraliaDuring my two-year round-the-world trip, Will and I spent hundreds of nights camping in Australia. We camped nonstop for about 7 months, or 210 consecutive nights.

When we told friends that we were camping, they remarked, “Think of all the money you saved by not staying at a hotel!”

Or not.

We never would have stayed at a hotel. If hotels were our only option — if camping wasn’t a consideration — we wouldn’t have gone to Australia. We would have stayed in southeast Asia, where guesthouses are much cheaper.

That comment from friends, though, formed one of my ideas about what it means to “save”:

You’re only “saving” money if you legitimately would have made a purchase, but refrained from doing so.

Savings, in other words, happens when we deviate from our habits.

“Today I saved $200,000 by NOT buying a Bentley!”

I’m going to assume that most people reading this blog post don’t eat caviar and fly on private jets. Does that mean you’re “saving” money every time you fly on a commercial airline?

Of course not. That’s ridiculous. You’d never entertain the notion of a private jet, so you’re not “saving” money by flying Delta or United. You’re just acting out your normal routine.

If you break that routine – if you skip your normal holiday trip to grandma’s house — you’ll be saving money. (You’ll also be upsetting granny.)

If you’re in the habit of getting weekly carwashes and pedicures, and you change those habits, you’re saving money.

You’ve purchased something in the past. Then you stop buying it. You change your habits. You alter your lifestyle. NOW you’re saving.

Don’t listen to people who say you’re saving money by NOT doing something that society considers “normal,” like driving an awesome car, sleeping in posh hotels or dining at fancy restaurants. If that was true, people should also say, “Think of all the money you’re saving by NOT skydiving twice a week!”

By the way, I’m not judging those expenses. There’s nothing wrong with any of these purchases, assuming you’re not going into debt for them and you’re saving at least 20 percent of your income. You’re just not “saving” if you opt out.

So … What Should I Do With This Information?

If you actually want to “save,” harness your energy and attention towards changing one habit.

Quit getting pedicures. Stop buying soda. Don’t eat out as much.

It’s great that you’re not succumbing to lifestyle inflation, but don’t pat yourself on the back and stop there. If you want to save, change one existing habit.

Take it one step at a time. Trying to “change it all” rarely works. Tweak one habit, stick with it for 30 days until it becomes a new habit, and then move on to the next one.

Next, invest your savings. If your mental focus is centered around frugality, you’ll have a tough time getting ahead. But if “saving money” is a stepping stone that allows you to invest more, you’ll soon become a rock star.

Like this post? Here’s another about habit change – looking at how we can weave new habits into our daily lives.


  1. says

    I had never considered the camping case. We did some extensive travel and camped a good deal, always considering we were saving money, but you make a great point, once it is a habit it is just money not spent. On the contrary, going to a hotel is spending money.

  2. says

    This is the same as when someone buys something that they didn’t necessarily need, “But it was on sale, and I saved X%/X$!” Uh, you didn’t really save anything because you still spent money on something you DIDN’T NEED (or possibly even necessarily want)!

    Not sure where this mentality came from, but I try to refrain from it whenever possible.

  3. says

    I don’t think I’ve ever thought I’m saving money by not living lavishly. However, I can probably change a habit or two to save more money. We live fairly frugally already, but I’m sure we could eat out less or I could reduce my Starbucks by one more day.

  4. says

    It’s like people bragging about how much they saved on clothes because that’s what the bottom of their receipts are telling them. They’re not saving money because they likely never would have paid full price anyway.

  5. says

    Well said Paula! Cutting back on existing expenses is the best way to start saving money each month and using that to pay down debt and get an emergency fund in place.

  6. says

    I was halfway through writing a very similar post. It infuriates me to no end when people buy $250 worth of clothing but claim, “but I saved $100 by buying at TJ Maxx!”


      • says

        BAH! The WORST.

        The more you buy, the more you buy. Check your bank account for some easy math!

        When you went shopping, did the total of your bank account go UP or DOWN?

        I rest my case.

  7. says

    I save TONS of money by only eating half a dozen doughnuts instead of a dozen. Cha-ching!

    I love the comment at the end of your piece about focusing on saving instead of frugality. Frugality will come when the savings plan is in motion…while saving isn’t automatic when you skip the appetizer at dinner.

  8. says

    I have to echo the statements about saving when you are buying, even though you wouldn’t have made the purchase without the so called “great deal”.

    My band have been looking to hit the road before too long and have been talking about camping when possible to cut our costs, I also think it would be fun.

  9. says

    I hear you loud and clear. A real expense I just cut a bit ago is wine. We have a tradition of having wine with dinner, but it REALLY adds up – especially at Canadian prices. I will be able to invest an additional $1,000 this year if I can keep it up. It’s a nice round number and I’m keeping the eye on the prize.

  10. says

    Great points! Every time we decide to cook at home rather than go out to eat we always pat ourselves on the back and think of our savings. It’s a much better feeling than eating a salty, high fat dish. As you allude, our savings and investments seem to grow exponentially more quickly compared to what it took to pay off our debt.

  11. says

    You’ve hit on a huge pet peeve of mine that I’m going to write about eventually. I started out as a “deal blogger” and quickly decided it was not for me because it felt dishonest. People are not going to get ahead financially by “saving money” on things they never needed to begin with. The Picasso example sounds ridiculous, but it is no more ridiculous than impulse buying some small thing just because it’s a great price. This false understanding of saving is a major impediment to people truly getting ahead, but peddling cheap stuff for cheap is highly profitable for retailers and some bloggers.

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