Should Frugal People Buy Junk?


I was trying to think of a good title for this blog post, but then I decided to just go with bluntness instead of flowery prose.

Story is like this.

I run a bunch of Facebook groups, including a local one for super frugal cooking. (And a local one for frugality in general. If you're interested in joining, send me a message to
A few days ago, I shared a link to my post on my latest super frugal shopping trip at the scratch and dent stores and someone in the group wanted to know "Just curious why anyone who is shopping frugally would buy chocolate instead of searching out healthier, cleaner foods?"

I just want to sit with that question for a few moments.

Do you, when you think about frugality, think that it means only what is absolutely necessary?

Do you, when thinking about frugality, think that it only applies to destitute people, people who are absolutely poverty stricken, with barely any financial means, if at all?

I'm going to get a little political here, even though I try not to be political on my blog.

If you said yes to the first question, I'll ask a further question.

Do you think that people that are getting financial assistance from the government should only be allowed to have what is absolutely necessary?

In the past, when I was thinking about food stamps, I thought that it should only cover bare bones nutritious things like fruits and vegetables, grains, legumes, oil, salt, flour, etc... so that people wouldn't starve, and would be able to have a nutritious enough diet. Why should the government pay for anything more?

So if you said yes to my questions, I want to say that I get you. I used to think similarly. But I have changed my mind, for very good reason.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I was destitute. No, really. I was. It was my anniversary and I didn't have enough money to pay my $50 credit at the local supermarket, so I definitely couldn't put anything else on the bill. I wanted to do something to celebrate but I had, I think, under $10 to spend on groceries for at least a week or two.

I bought some white flour. I went to the open air market and bought some cucumbers and white beans. I had sugar and yeast at home already. Yes, we lived off of homemade bread, cucumbers, and homemade baked beans. That was a miserable anniversary being as destitute as we were. I kept up that style of extreme frugality, the homemade bread, beans, and cucumbers, for as long as I could, until I just couldn't anymore. 
I broke down.

Even though my financial situation was just as bad, I went into a grocery store and bought junk. Pure junk. I don't even remember what it was exactly, I just remember having a spending spree with money that I didn't have, because the stress of the cucumbers, homemade bread, and beans, was just too much and unsustainable.

From that point in my life, I realized that I can't do it. I can't be so extremely frugal that I don't afford myself any little luxiries. That yes, treats aren't "physically necessary", but from a purely frugal perspective, my not spending on anything extra ended up with me breaking down and spending much more extra than I would have had I included little luxuries in my very frugal life.

So, for example, I started buying my kids ice cream when we went out. It was 50 cents a kid, so it only was $1 or $1.50, but it felt special. It was nice. The total only negligibly affected my budget, but because we weren't feeling as deprived, we were able to actually stick to a frugal budget on a regular basis. 

Additionally, something I did was starting to bulk buy and building up a stockpile. Now, granted, this was not easy at all. I knew how much money you could save by buying in bulk at low prices, but I didn't have any spare change with which to buy bulk. And yet it killed me to be paying retail prices for things. Fortunately I figured out how, and wrote this blog post on how to bulk buy with no extra money.

By buying bulk and having a stockpile, even though it took an initial financial outlay (which my blog post talks about how to manage), it managed to bring my grocery budget down overall, because I nearly never pay retail prices for anything. I buy things at good prices, from bulk stores, scratch and dent stores, or even when on sale at the grocery store, and put them in my stockpile to have around, and then when I need them, instead of going to the store and paying full price, or whatever the store is charging then, I get the benefit of the sale price from the item already in my pantry.

So yes, two big aspects of my frugal shopping strategies is a, include little luxuries, and b, buy things at low prices in large quantities, so you never have to pay full price for anything. So buying chocolates in bulk, at 29 cents a bar, a ridiculously low price for a treat, is exactly the type of frugal living I would suggest.

But the initial question begets another question as well.

Who should be frugal? Is frugal living and extreme frugality just for the destitute? (Because the original question seemed to imply that if you have so little money that you need to be extremely frugal, shouldn't you go for the most bang for your buck and not spend what little money you have on treats? But anyhow, as my original story points out, even when you're destitute, you still need some small luxuries to be able to continue the extreme frugal lifestyle you need to follow.)

See, I don't think there is a rule of who should be frugal and who should not be. To be honest, I think everyone should be frugal, at least according to how I define it. 

My definition of frugal is not "spend as little money as possible in all ways possible". No, my definition of frugal is spend less money on things that don't matter to you so that you have money to spend on things that are important to you. I will always be some version of frugal. Fortunately my financial situation today is much better than when I had only $10 to spend on groceries and bought just flour, beans, and cucumbers. And I still believe in being frugal and even extremely frugal. But even if I ended up a millionaire, I still would believe in being frugal. Spending less money on the things that don't matter to you so that you have money to spend on things that are important to you.

And to be honest, that's why I don't always love using the word frugal. Because people think frugal means penny pinching, always, in every way. I prefer to use the phrase "money mindfulness", being mindful of where your money is going, so at the end of the month, you don't look back and say "Where did all my money go?" or nearly as bad "Why is most of my money being spent on things that don't matter to me???"

So to the person who thought frugal living should mean buying only fruits and vegetables and other "clean food"- if that's what matters to you, then yes, that is where you should be putting your focus. 
But money mindfulness or frugal shopping will look different for every family. 
And in my family, it means buying treats in bulk cheaply, so that when you do want to have a treat, you don't pay full price for it.

And as for clean eating, I am of the school of thought that you need to nourish both your body and your mind. I try my best to have a very well rounded diet for myself and my kids, making sure to include nutrient dense foods in our diets, foods naturally colored the colors of the rainbow, good fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Yes.

But food is not just for your body. You also nourish your mind and your soul when you eat, and to do that, you need to eat foods that you love, foods that make your heart smile. And for me and my family, that is chocolate. And I am proud to include chocolate and other treats in our otherwise relatively "clean" diet. 

Because your soul needs nourishing too.

What are your thoughts on frugal living and treats? Do you just buy the "important things" and leave out treats when you're short on cash? Why or why not? If you are frugal, what things do you cut out that aren't important to you so that you have money to spend on things that are, and what are those?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I remember our destitute days, and remember the binge on junk food or sugar-sweetened rice, whenever we could. It was years ago. Now I think some of the craving was just that I needed calories badly, and junk provided them, easily. (Easy was important too, because I was working multiple jobs and trying to care for my family. Exhausted, yes.)
    So I don't judge anybody for eating fast food or sugar or whatever. Not all the time but sometimes? Why not? It's nobody's business. Folks should spend time with a person living like that before judging.
    though it's harder now, with blogs and vlogs and whatnot that showcase how people live. Followers sometimes gleefully watch for slipups. Or just anything that's not on-brand.

  2. frugal people should buy frugally the things they use. period. what these things are has little to do with it. we just invested in a 300L chest freezer that's paid for 2/3 of itself already in under a month. i was never able to stock up on perishables on sale in quantities large enough to last until the next sale. but i will admit that it is much easier to save money if you already have money.

  3. What an excellent post! I applaud your journey and the huge amount of self-discipline and good sense that has brought you to a much more secure place now. Anyone who has been on such a journey will understand that practicing only extreme measures will have an impact on one's mental health eventually. With nothing to look forward to it is hard to keep going. Measured, frugally-sourced treats help to maintain motivatation. Finding a bargain gives a good feeling and helps keep focus on long-term goals. Anyone who is familiar with your blog knows that you do not buy treats to the detriment of your or your family's health but to supplement the diet with something most non-frugal people would buy without a care.
    The idea that the poor should lead lives of necessity, austerity and deprivation because they only need nourishment for the body and not the soul is Dickensian. No one would argue that if you provide food and shelter for your children no more can be expected because there is more to a person's health than merely physical necessity provision. In the same way having nothing to look forward to will impact mental health which makes it less likely one's frugal goals will ultimately be achieved. If you are running an endurance race taking refreshment might make the difference between finishing the course or dropping out due to dehydration. A bar of chocolate can make the journey bearable and all the more so when it is a bargain!

  4. One of the things that my friend (quite frugal) "dings" me about is peanut butter. I happen to prefer a brand-name pb.... my justification is that one tiny spread of (my brand) is better than a thicker layer of generic pb. No argument about most generic items.... happily there, except peanut butter. Rationale is that I use less?

    I used your calculations... eat the good pb!

    1. Have the more expensive one if that's what you like our failing is coffee and I also like wine.

  5. We don't need to be frugal but We want value for our money. Some things are non negotiable like good coffee, but we will not buy it by the cup. Today we bought new trainers at double what we pay in the uk. But we are stuck in South Africa because of covid so needs must.
    The money we save being frugal gets spent on travel, so it is a matter of choice.

  6. If we had that much chocolate on hand we would eat way too much chocolate....But with that consideration aside, I'm definitely in favor of stocking up on treats when they're on sale.

  7. When our kids were little we didn't have much money but we had a large garden with plenty of fruit so every day we had a home-made pudding. I agree with everything you said. I don't have to be frugal now although I'm living on a pension and not rich but being frugal means I can spend extra on the things that matter to me and also keep some savings for emergencies. People wondered how I could afford a cruise. Well it was by being frugal in everyday things and still having little treats bought frugally.

  8. Everyone wastes money I feel. I'm curious though, in your story how did you end up buying junk if you had no money at all?

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