Sometimes, the most frugal option is to spend money. Don’t fall out of your chair or topple over your standing desk–it’s true! Indeed, it’s rare that I advocate for forking over cash, but there are instances where avoiding the cheapest choice translates into frugality in the long run. And that, my frugal weirdo friends, is strategic frugality–also known as the inherent division between the lofty frugal and the lowly cheapskate. To illustrate my point, enter exhibit A: the Frugalwoods storm door.
The Tragic Tale Of Stormling
Our erstwhile storm door, we’ll call her Stormling, was the quintessential example of the dirt cheapest storm door on the market. Stormling (who was installed by the previous owners of our house) was rickety, thin, and altogether not fit for our excessive northeastern winters, as evidenced this year. She met her demise thanks to a few hearty (by which I mean outrageously gigantic) wind gusts, not to mention the borderline inappropriate amounts of snow and ice we received here in Cambridge this winter. Mr. Frugalwoods, my inveterate handy person, did his best to repair Stormling, but to no avail.
The door was far too shoddy to bear up under his repair efforts and one day, another piece broke off. Yep, a piece of the door fell off. Stormling also no longer closed properly, which meant the seal that a storm door is intended to form betwixt your front door and the great outdoors was no longer happening. Being frugal weridos who don’t rush out to buy things the minute something breaks, we bided our time. Buying in haste often yields poorly thought-out decisions and overpayment.
We considered toughing it out with Stormling–after all, frugal weridos are no strangers to coping with mild inconveniences (hint: this is what separates us from people who constantly separate from their money in order to make their lives easier, which I like to call “less realistic, more materialistic”). But after about three months, we realized that we weren’t going to be able to 1) repair Stormling or, 2) make it through another winter with her. Plus, her frame was bent to such a crooked degree that we couldn’t replace the glass front with a screen front as we’re wont to do in the hotter months in order to avoid incurring yet another expense known as air conditioning. Boo, Stormling.
Can We Find It Used? Pretty Please?
Mr. FW gamely scoped Craigslist, garage sales, and the side of the road for possible replacement doors. Since we’re willing to wait for a good deal, it wasn’t an issue for us to sit tight and see if an excellent used option popped up. Sadly, it turns out that the only people getting rid of, or selling, storm doors were in the exact same position as us–trying to offload a busted door. We nearly toted a door down the street (which was in the trash of an open house we went to a few weeks ago), but then measured it (never leave home without a measuring tape!) and realized it was far too large for our humble entry.
Fun fact: we know exactly how big our front door opening is thanks to the exorbitant number of items we’ve carried through it ourselves, including: two beds from Craigslist, a couch from Craigslist, a leather armchair from Craigslist, a dining room table from Craigslist, a hand-me-down crib & changing table (thank you awesome friends with older kids!), and a slew of other sundry bits. At any rate, suffice it to say that thanks to our house’s advanced maturity (ok I won’t play coy, it’s over 120 years old), the door frame opening is rather petite.
After this enthusiastic but ultimately futile attempt to obtain a used/free door, we trekked out to Home Depot (on a Saturday, no less… I still have shivers thinking of all those crowds) in Frugalwoods-mobile (aka our minivan with all the back seats taken out, which makes it a sort of oddly-shaped, covered flatbed truck). Mr. FW, being a planner and researcher, mapped out online which door he wanted to buy and even wrote down the aisle in which it resided. After circumnavigating the parking lot on foot to find one of those flat, roller cart-thingys, we dashed into the appointed aisle and started inspecting doors.
We discovered that Home Depot helpfully has all of their doors out on display, so we were able to run them through their paces. We looked disgustedly at Stormling’s new facsimiles and migrated our way up the price chain (for reference, these cut-rate doors are $104). The door Mr. FW had originally designated for us was fine and as advertised. However, we noted that one model up was significantly sturdier. The doors looked nearly identical, but the slightly more expensive pick was remarkably better made…
In light of our travails with Stormling, we started to seriously consider this pricier door. At $317, this door (henceforth known as Stormzilla) was $81 more than the $236 door we’d originally selected. And so, we debated the merits of this $81 price increase. Stormzilla was clearly of a higher quality with the most significant difference being a much thicker gauge of aluminum. Since thickness is what you might call a mission critical element of a door, we felt the additional expense was warranted. Stormzilla also has dual weatherstripping, a separately installed and very hardy handle, and an awesome slider to transition from glass to screen (genius!).
We quickly decided it was worth it to us to get a door that was obviously better made, would last longer, and endure our winters. Another reason we’re so wedded to having a superlative storm door is the fact that our house lacks any type of porch overhang or entryway. We depend on our storm door to keep the rains and snows off of our interior wood floor–not to mention to serve as a barrier against drafts and general cold air infiltration. And so, we bought Stormzilla.
If we were cheap, and not strategically frugal, we would’ve gone with the least expensive, flimsiest $104 door, which likely would’ve encountered the same traumatic fate as Stormling… And then we’d be right back in that same Home Depot aisle again next year. But, in considering the long-term potential of the products we purchase, Stormzilla was the undisputed victor. Since we plan to rent out this house in a few years, we felt all the more vindicated in our selection. Renters are typically hard on a house and having a rugged, well-made door in place will hopefully ensure its longevity.
Another factor we considered with our purchase of Stormzilla is that she greatly improves the curb appeal of our house. When we first moved in, we changed the house numbers and mailbox from dreadful black and white metal (the mailbox even sported wretched faux metal lace) to sleek, but relatively thrifty, stainless steel. The difference in the outward appearance of our house was astounding. And, we knew Stormzilla would have a similar impact. Stormling was trimmed in that unfortunate black, lacy trim as well, which made our front door look like the entrance to some sort of third-rate cantina. It was not so good.
Don’t Cheap Out On Home Repair
Something we were reminded of (yet again) in this process is that the people who formerly owned our home–though they were lovely folks–did just about everything as cheaply as possible. While they obviously did the work themselves (not exactly something you want people to say when they see your handiwork…), they habitually cut corners, avoided fixing the root of problems, and essentially glossed over anything amiss with paint. Lots and lots of paint.
Mr. FW, who prefers to deconstruct down to the core of an issue and fix it from the inside out frequently invokes the former owner’s name in vain. It’s not that they tried to do the wrong things, they just did much of the work haphazardly. Seeing the results of those quasi-labors around our house are constant reminders to us that cheapest is usually not bestest. Cutting corners in home repair isn’t a viable way to save money–it’s a way to absolutely ensure you’ll spend more money and time over the years fixing what you should’ve fixed properly in the first place.
Installing Stormzilla naturally yielded a number of such exciting discoveries, including the fact that they’d glued (glued??) Stormling to the trim and furthermore, hadn’t painted the wood trim underneath the door enclosure. You always want to paint bare wood since it seals out moisture and prevents rot.
And so, Mr. FW’s supposedly quick task of installing Stormzilla morphed into an hours-long ordeal of fixing the short-cuts of the previous owners. Fortunately, he enjoys this type of work and we’re both committed to leaving things better than we found them. There’s no sense in installing a new door improperly.
Another fun revelation was that the screws attaching Stormling to the trim had been badly stripped and then painted over. To get the screws out, Mr. FW had to Dremel a slot in each screw and then back them out. Who knows how the previous owners managed to strip screws when installing them, because if you install something properly and with new screws, they shouldn’t be stripped… They also used what could only be described as waaaaaay too much caulk under the flange of Stormling, where is wasn’t actually doing any good and just created a giant mess for Mr. FW to peel away while installing Stormzilla.
Once Mr. FW corrected the eccentricities of the previous installation, he found the new door very easy and straightforward to install. Stormzilla and her instruction manual were clearly not the bargain basement option.
Given our commitment to insourcing, we saved the $200 that Home Depot would’ve charged us to install the door. Plus, I bet if Home Depot installed the door, they wouldn’t have fixed the surrounding door frame. Yet another example of why it’s best to do things yourself–not only did we save money, we prevented future problems from cropping up with our door frame. When you pay someone to do something for you, they’re typically looking to complete the project as quickly and as cheaply as possible. After all, they’re not the ones who have to live with opening and closing that door every single day.
Strategic Frugality (aka the point of this ramble)
While this is a ridiculously long description of our storm door adventures (and hopefully you’re still reading…), I think it lends a broader lesson on strategic frugality. Even though I evangelize spending as little as humanly possible on a regular basis, I also recognize that spending can be shrewd. Knowing when to pay for long-term quality is a key element of living the successful frugal life.
One of the reasons why Mr. FW and I buy so few things is that we own a number of rather expensive items that have lasted us, and will continue to last us, for years. But beware: if you’re going to go the route of buying more upscale, durable options, you’re committing to those items for the long-haul. You can’t be sashaying out to replace them every few years because you want something new, shiny, or in a different color. Nope. You’ve got to be in it to win it with your swanky items.
If you’re curious about the other not-so-cheap stuff we’ve purchased over the years, check out 10 Shockingly Expensive Things We Own. But please note, I’m not advocating that anyone buys any of these things to replace perfectly good items you already own.
Incorporating strategic frugality into our lives is a classic long-play. There’s usually no short-term, immediate gain in this approach. Rather, the savings are reaped over time. Much like saving over 70% of our take-home pay (and that’s not even counting maxing out our 401Ks) every year will pay off in the future, strategic frugality is all about calculated, intentional actions that are focused towards your overarching goal in life. You could say it’s like being a frugal ninja.