When Buying on Sale Isn’t Frugal

Make sure a sale item is a frugal purchase before forking over the money. I’m all about saving money.  You know that.  And I love sales.  I hate paying full price.  But there are some times when buying things on sale just isn’t the frugal thing to do.  You heard me.  Sometimes buying things on sale isn’t frugal.

When is buying something on sale not a good thing?

When you don’t need it

There’s no sense in spending money on something you don’t need.  You might see a sweater on sale for $9.99 down from $29.99, but it’s not a good deal if you have a week’s worth of sweaters sitting in your closet at home.  You’re spending $9.99 that you didn’t need to spend at all.

When you don’t have room for it

Clutter costs you in stress.  A cluttered home is a stressful home, as I’m finding out.  I recently got rid of 3/4 of my books.  Most of them were good deals from eBay, half.com, and other bargain places.  But they didn’t fit on my bookshelves, and I didn’t have room for all those books anywhere else.  I was stressed out from the clutter.  I can’t tell you how much better I feel now that my bookshelves are neatly filled with the remaining books that fit nicely.

If you buy something and don’t have room to store it, more than likely it will go unused, because you won’t have the room to use it.  I have a dream of buying a treadmill.  I love to walk, and the exercise would do me good.  But I know that I don’t have room to store a treadmill in a place that would make it easy to use.  So I know that even if I bought a treadmill at a great price, it would be a waste, because it would be a pain to store and use.  My guess is I’d use it for a week, and then I’d get sick of hauling it out and folding it up, and I’d stop using it.

When a sale isn’t a sale

It’s important to know your prices.  When I looked at the list for the Grocery Game this week, I noticed that taco shells were listed for $1.00 a box.  That’s a great price for my Grocery Game list store, Albertson’s.  But it’s more expensive than the regular price of taco shells at Winco, the other store I regularly shop at.  I know I can buy a box of taco shells for 79 cents at Winco.  Therefore, the sale price at Albertson’s would cost me more than paying full price at Winco.

When you buy too much

25 pounds of mangos for $10 isn’t a great deal if you won’t eat 25 pounds of mangos before they go bad.  Wastefulness is never frugal.  Before you buy a lot of something on sale, make sure you will be able to use it.

This is even true for things besides food and perishables.  If pumpkin pie spice scented candles are on clearance after Thanksgiving, figure out how many you’ll actually use, before buying 100 candles.  We live in a society where excess is the norm.  If one candle is good, 100 must be better right?  Wrong!  Don’t be excessive.  There’s no need to be.  Next year pumpkin pie spice candles will be on clearance again right after Thanksgiving.  So only buy what you will reasonably use in the next year.  Don’t go overboard.

The bottom line is that you always need to be aware.  Aware of what you need.  Aware of what things regularly cost.  Just because a store advertises something as “on sale” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good deal.

Have you ever fallen prey to a sale that wasn’t a great deal in the long run?  Are there other situations when buying something on sale isn’t necessarily frugal?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.


By , on Feb 18, 2008
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.


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  1. barb:

    Great post, terrific points made. I needed this. I recently “went weird” & bought something like 60 bottles of body wash from bath & body works because they were on clearance & a scent I really like. I also got a similar amount of hand & body lotion. I have the space to store, but really, that was crazy. I had a vague idea of donating most of it to a local womans shelter, but I really couldn’t afford it in the first place. It was “the sale”. I knew it was a good sale, but that doesn’t justify those amounts for 1 person living alone. I have to donate it, & learn from it.

    • Mitch:

      Cheers pal. I do appreciate the wtirnig.

  2. judy:

    i once bought a pack of cigs cause i had a really great coupon on them, and i dont even smoke! i gave them to my brother

  3. Matthew:

    You’ve made some good points, but I do have to take issue with one of them:

    For wastefulness, you said that “25 pounds of mangos for $10 isn’t a great deal if you won’t eat 25 pounds of mangos before they go bad.”

    But it depends on the normal price for mangos, doesn’t it? Say the normal price is 10 pounds for $10 and you normally buy 10 pounds of mangos. If you end up eating 11 pounds of mangos, you’re getting an extra pound of mango for nothing. Yes, you may end of wasting the other 14 pounds of mangos, but it is an example for wastefulness IS frugal.

    For most people that isn’t a problem; but I’ve found that in some circumstances, a sale that provides too much product is STILL cheaper then what I would have spent otherwise.

  4. This is a great article, Lynnae. I think I’ll forward it to my wife and mother-in-law!

  5. What really gets me is when places actually pre-mark prices up and then call something a sale when its actually MORE expensive than it was originally…

  6. Great post! I am working on getting to know prices by starting a pricebook. It’s a bit of work but worth it. Even buy one get one free deals are sometimes NOT a deal.

    I also have some opinions on this trend of buying massive quantities of stuff for pennies at places like CVS. I posted about what I feel are the problems with this on my blog (link above). I see women posting on their blogs about getting bags of stuff at CVS and paying only pennies or even getting money back. I don’t call that frugal, I call it greedy and wasteful.


  7. I am new to this whole “money saving” bit and I am so glad I ran across this post. Much needed, practical advice. Thank you.

  8. Ryan S.:

    Definitely if you don’t need something, a cent is too much. Also, waste is the real archenemy of frugality. In fact, I just wrote a post on that the other day :)

    I agree wholeheartedly that sometimes we do our worst spending when things are on “sale”.

  9. There is no space in out teeny tiny apartment. We have to reduce clutter. Thanks Lynnae!

  10. Great post!!! Thanks for the insight and reminders.
    I tend to buy “good deals” (i.e. FREE after rebate items at Walgreens) when I don’t really have the money for them at the time. Then it becomes a bad choice for me–even though they were free. You have to live in light of your budget!
    (Sadly enough….) :-)

  11. Sometimes the cheapest isn’t always the best either. I am going to be buying a digital camera, and doing some research is really helping me to make a better decision. I’ve also found that spending a little more for quality – yarns, sheets, towels – saves me both money and space over the long haul. There is nothing so awful as putting a lot of effort into a craft project and finding that the yarn pills badly.

  12. I also wanted to add one more: when you use credit to buy it.
    This reminds me of the Oprah show with the lady who had the most cluttered house I have ever seen. She kept buying and buying because they were all great sales!
    My main rule is: if I don’t need it we don’t get it. If it’s going to clutter my house we don’t get it either.

  13. Lynnae:

    @Ron- I like the Grocery Game too, though I’ve found I really have to watch what I’m buying to make sure I really need it.

    @Mercedes – VERY good point. If you’re going to pay interest, it’s not a good deal!

  14. Amy:

    Great post! I couldn’t agree more and it is definitely something I am trying to work on. I think this can be difficult when you do the thrift sales because it is only a quarter or a dollar…but if you don’t use it, is it really frugal? Excellent post- thanks for sharing!

  15. I especially agree with the point about knowing if it’s a sale or not… this is why I’ve recently started my price book, so I know what things cost.

  16. That’s one reason I try not even to go near stores if I don’t need something from them. Like if I’m buying something @ Target, I steer clear of the women’s area. Because I don’t need their sale clothes.

    In the past I’ve often bought clothes I shouldn’t. Mostly they were on sale or at places like Goodwill. I thought they might be useful and they were too good a deal to pass up.

  17. My wife and I struggled with this mightily in our battle with overspending thanks to coupons. We would find a great deal on something and just go nuts, buying 10 items with coupons we bought from eBay. Suddenly it hits you that just because you can buy 10 mustards for $0.50 each you really shouldn’t!

  18. Good post. All things that I abide by!

  19. Ron:

    I always use my “shrimp” example. If it’s a good buy and it won’t spoil (like shrimp) go ahead and stock up when it’s on sale, the best buy around, and you need it.

    My wife and I have been doing the Grocery Game and we absolutely love it. We have spent less on food during the past month than we have in over 5 years and we have money left over and a pantry full!

  20. LJ:

    I agree! It is a lot easier to find truly “good deals” if you are educated on what those deals are-just like your tacos, everyone needs to know what the usual and sale prices are for any items they are wanting to buy.
    Buying in bulk can save a lot of money, but not if you aren’t going to use all the stuff you’ve bought.

    Great tips!

    Take Care


  21. Kaye:

    Thanks! Too many people get caught up in “sales” and aren’t really saving anything! Thank you for the clarification, for those who don’t understand, on what frugal living is all about.

  22. Randall at CreditWithdrawal:

    This reminds me of an old Gallagher comedy routine where he talks about why his wife buys tons of useless stuff. The punchline, of course, is

    “Because it’s ON SALE”. And then goes into her talking about how much money she saved buying the stuff they didn’t really need.

  23. All the females of my family think that if you bought it on sale it is good, regardless if it is something you actually like, will use, or need. It took me years to break that habit. Every year or so now I get rid of half of everything–and still find I have too much–though I am finally down to the basics with my own clothes it is hard to keep a rein on the kids’ and my husband’s. Not buying often starts with deliberately staying home (because I STILL have a hard time passing up a good sale) though I have gotten better and will only buy something that is exactly what I am or what someone I know is looking for. (Having a really good thrift shop makes a difference.)

  24. Kathy:

    This is very good advise. I have begun my frugality journey. But about 2 years I started with my clothes, now I am to my possesions. It is a wonderful feeling once you let go.

  25. Sean:

    This is such great advice. We used to live by the rule “If it is not on our list, we don’t care if it is free.”

    After we matured in our spending habits, we keep an eye out for the items we use often and may need in the near future. If something is ridiculously cheap, we often will purchase an item or two just to give to someone in need.

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