Listen, I get it. I come from a long line of thrifty people. It’s in my blood. As soon as the weather is warm enough, I’m out there every Saturday with my mom, scouring the neighborhoods for tag sales (I live in the South now, but, y’all, it’ll always be a tag sale to me). Over the years I’ve managed to find priceless antiques, top shelf brand purses, and amazing vintage clothes—all at basement prices. My mom loves taking people to her house and making them guess how much she paid for things, then giddily explaining that it only cost her 25 cents for her amazing wall-hanging.
But now, I have a family of my own. And after years of being underwater with college debt, houses, cars, and the general insane expense of having two kids (seriously, how does an eight-year-old eat so much?), I’ve come to believe that there are certain non-negotiables when it comes to purchases. When it comes down to it, you want quality things for the most important components of your life.
Some of these really aren’t that expensive, some of them are. But I’ll make separate arguments and reasoning for each one.
Why does this matter?
No, I’m not saying you should go out and drop Benjamins like it’s 1997. I’m saying that moms have a habit of putting our own wants and needs on the back-burner. Of compromising for everyone else. No, a great cup of coffee isn’t going to change your life. But it can make a better, kinder moment. It might help you later that day, that month, that year, to find a little more zen in your life because you put yourself in a valued place for a bit.
It’s tempting to get cheap pillows, I know it is. But remember this: You sleep on your pillow every damn night of the week. You might scoff at a $100 price tag, sure. But a good pillow will last years and can make or break your bedtime routine. When it comes to good sleep hygiene, there’s no better first step than making sure your neck and back and shoulders, all places where I personally store a lot of tension, are kept nice and comfy all night long. I’m a big fan of Costco when it comes to finding foam pillows, my preferred type. But there are plenty on Amazon that will do the trick, too.
Life is too short for crappy coffee, I say. Sure, this likely has something to do as my years as a barista. But one thing I can no longer abide by is awful coffee to start out my day (tea = same thing). I can’t even drink regular coffee (hi, anxiety, nice of you to hang out with me every second of my life), so I’ve got to stick to decaf, and that’s even harder since decaf is significantly more expensive and significantly less tasty. My approach? Pour over coffee method with these beans. More than whole bean some places, maybe. But the taste makes my morning ritual fabulous. And still a helluva lot cheaper than going to Starbucks.
Okay, sure. If you have superhuman skin, that’s fine. If any old moisturizer doesn’t bother your face or cause you to break out in hives and Mt. Vesuvius-sized pimples, cool. Ignore this advice. But it’s my face. I really like to think hard about what I put on my face. I spent years, years I tell you, trying to find a moisturizer that wouldn’t leave me in agony. When I finally found one that I could use every day—Andalou Naturals Clarifying Oil Control Beauty Balm Un-Tinted with SPF30—and had SPF in it (something that usually triggers the nasty reactions mentioned above), I honestly didn’t care how much it cost. Moisturizing your skin is just about the most important thing you can do for your face, regardless of your age. Cheap, fragrance-ridden, questionable ingredient-filled tubes might be tempting, but again this is something going on your face. Your face. If there were ever a place to make sure you’re playing it safe, it’s there.
7) Shower heads.
Showers? What are you on about, Barron? Listen, I may have spent the better part of my graduate school career thinking about the Middle Ages, I never once took for granted that most blissful of modern conveniences: a hot shower. When it comes down to the end of a day, my brain is fried, my everything hurts, and I start seriously contemplating climbing out a window and running away to Bali… Well, there’s a good shower. Our house was built in 1968, and the fixtures it came with are what I think of as Army Grade. You know, they spit out water so fast at you, it’s like being pelted with glass. A $40 Waterpik later, and suddenly my shower is a spa, and I’m as happy as a clam… until I hear that scratching at the door.
Funny story. Once my husband Michael bet me that I owned more pairs of shoes than he had board games. I knew he would lose, since he’s already into the low 100s, but he had this perception that I had dozens and dozens of pairs. Turns out I had 16. I’m very picky with shoes. Y’know, women’s feet—just like their bodies—come in all shapes and sizes. And walking around all day in pain just isn’t my idea of living. When I get new shoes for work, or for play, I spend some serious time researching. Recent favorites include Franco Sarto boots (I have a red pair that wear like slippers and have clocked hundreds of miles in) and Merrell Women’s Vapor Glove Trail Running Shoe shoes. Target has some great shoes, sure. But my high arch and high bridge means that most shoes = aches. It means I get fewer shoes, sure. But I just can’t abide by aching feet. As my father in law says, “Oh, my dogs are barkin’.” I avoid the barking dogs like the plague.
5) Crafting supplies.
Yes, this can easily get out of hand. But bad paint and bad yarn are just a waste of money. Sure, that three-skein pack seemed like a good idea. But now you’re stuck with it for a whole afghan and it’s turning your fingers blue. Which is really weird considering the yarn itself is red. Better to save up for a really nice set of oil paints than struggle through a whole set of acrylics that just don’t get the job done. When it comes to your hobbies, make them count. Don’t break the bank, but make a list of what’s most important. Paint brushes: non-negotiable. Palettes: maybe not so much.
Two-Buck Chuck. Just put it down. Just walk away. Two dollars for any amount of fluid is too good to be true. Plus, ever since I read about dead bird wine I can’t even abide by the stuff. I’m not telling you to pay $30/bottle. In fact, I try to stay well under $15 if I can help it. Between Trader Joe’s (I suggest their Epicuro wines if you like a great value with lots of flavor) and Whole Foods (they carry a Globerati brand that is about $12/bottle and comes in a bunch of varietals), you can do really, really well for yourself.
The art of writing may be dwindling, but not for me. When I’m at work I like to take notes, less for posterity and more just to help with memory later on down the line. But I’ve tried cheap pens and the result is always rather sad and unsatisfying. Paper Mate Inkjoy pens are one of my favorite new lines, and it’s far from pricey. Sure, there’s always Mont Blanc to save up for someday, but I’m happy with these colorful ones that suit just fine, whether I’m writing my next novel out longhand or scribbling a note to my husband. There is a special kind of rage I experience with crappy pens, and really, I prefer to avoid that if at all possible. No one should have to endure that fury, really.
2) Herbs & spices.
I know it’s tempting to go the McCormick route. But the quality of herbs and spices really matters when cooking. Not just because it adds good flavor, but because it’s one of the best things you can do to brighten up your meals without paying a ton. Sure, saffron might be a little out of the price range. But finding a local spice shop—I’m lucky to have Savory Spice Shop here in North Carolina—means access to freshly made blends. Throw out old herbs and spices. They’re tasteless and awful. Get good ones, and experiment. It’s an investment that will please everyone at the dinner table. My personal favorites as of late include Szechuan peppercorns, cardamom pods (amazing in aforementioned coffee), and Vietnamese sweet lemon curry.
1) Your purse.
Maybe you’re not a purse person. Then this isn’t a big deal for you. But my purse isn’t a status symbol—I couldn’t care less if I’m packing Michael Kors or Coach or Tori Burch (and LOL—yeah, none of those are even close to my budget). But what I do care about is something that fits my laptop. Some diapers. My wallet. My iPad. And it’s got to be able to take a beating, look cool, and essentially be a Bag of Holding all at the same time. I spend more time researching purses than I do researching cars. Some of my favorites include B. Makowsky (great cellphone slip pockets on the outside, high quality, and often available on clearance at Marshall’s) and Betsy Johnson (non-leather, most usually, but with lots of pockets and pizazz). I’ve actually taken a two-pronged approach. On the weekends I wear a cross body B. Makowsky bag that I got at a consignment store (I didn’t say you have to stop being thrifty!) and during the workweek it’s a Betsey Johnson tote I snagged at Stein Mart (they carry far more than old lady sunglasses and jogging suits). I swap my phone and my wallet between the two, and it’s worked incredibly well.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. A few others I could have included are vacuum cleaners, nail polish, and mascara. But maybe that’s another list altogether.
Either way, there are two factors at work here: Some are about the long tail, others are about better single moments. No matter what your time frame, if you save up for the purchases that really matter, it means less stress later on. And hope that you find little moments to put yourself first, instead of everyone else.
What are your non-negotiables?