Stay Connected

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

How do you decide if something is a tool or a toy?

When someone feels guilt over buying something a bit expensive for the house, they sometimes try to justify it to others by saying its an investment, or a tool. When you're buying something new for your house, do you ever have a moment of anguish over whether or not this purchase is worthwhile? Do you ever think to yourself, "maybe this is just a new toy"? And how do you decide if it's a toy or a tool?

I used to feel guilty about buying just about anything that would help me to get my work done. That is, until I came to what, for me, is a brilliant conclusion -- a worthwhile tool is something that helps me with my work, so that I can get on with even more productive activities, and thereby increase my productivity.

My new mixer is pretty, but that doesn't mean that it's just a toy. It's a tool that helps me to mix and knead the week's bread dough, with about 5 minutes of hands-on time. When I was mixing and kneading the bread dough by hand, I was spending up to 1 hour mixing and kneading the dough each week. Now, I am able to move on to the next productive task in minutes, instead of an hour. And because the mixer makes this work so easy, I am less likely to procrastinate.

An argument for "toy" or "tool" could be made for most items in our houses, depending on how you use it, and what it allows you to do sooner, and with more energy.

You and I surely would agree that a hammer is indeed a tool. But there's probably someone out there who would say, "what do you need a hammer for? When you can pound a nail in just as well with a rock from your yard?" Okay, so maybe that's an exaggeration, but what about this example:

How about a clothes dryer? Is that a tool or a toy. In my mind, a dryer couldn't possibly be a toy. I don't wake up in the morning eager to find something I can toss into my dryer. Yet, on another frugal living blog, the blogger was criticized for no longer hanging her laundry to dry. She was accused of being unfrugal, as if using her dryer was somehow akin to having a toy.

Yes, in the perfect frugal world, we would all hang our laundry to dry. And there would be no nasties like pollen, rain, birds, time or human energy. We'd probably also all be merrily jogging down to the creek to pound our clothes against a rock, on laundry day.

Fortunately, we do have the option of machines to do some of our work for us.

For the frugal living blogger, mentioned above, using her dryer is actually a very productive use of her possessions and time. By doing so, she can more quickly move on to other frugal activities, and increase her productivity. This is where something becomes a tool in my mind, when it can enable us to move more quickly on to other productive work.

I sometimes do like to hang my laundry. I enjoy it when I have time for a "slow" activity. And I can just enjoy the slowness of it all. But most of the time, it's much more efficient for me to toss everything into the dryer, so that I can move on to gardening, cooking from scratch, earning a small income, mending clothing, repairing furniture, etc.

You could drive around in the ungliest thing sold as a car. And because it was uber-cheap, you might consider yourself more frugal than others.. But I don't think that's the only thing you could be driving and still call yourself frugal.  I think frugal means buying what fits your needs, purpose and size, in addition to affordability. Clearly, a single woman who hauls around nothing more than her purse, on decent roads, in good weather, doesn't really need a 13-passenger van. But a very large family very well may. Most of us are driving around in "tools", something to get ourselves from point A to point B. And you know, I think it's okay if you choose the pretty "tool", with a nice color, shape and overall design.

A lawn mower is definitely a tool. In our house, no one starts the weekend with a shout, "yay! It's Saturday! I get to mow the lawn!" Ours is an electric mower. You may think, "why not a human-powered push reel mower?" Well, our electric mower means that anyone in our family can do the mowing. We did have a push reel mower, but only the men were strong enough to use it. Our yard is just large enough to need some assistance with the mowing, but not so large to need a riding mower. So our electric mower is a reasonable tool for the job. And yes, we still call ourselves frugal. We bought the mower that was the right size and power for our needs. (And we got a deal on it through a county "green" promotion!)

With my recent stand mixer purchase, I was really tempted by the commercial model at twice the price. I was even more tempted by the Hobart mixers. But really, unless and until, I start up that candy shop or bakery, those mixers are overkill. The right tool is the mixer that suits my needs and purposes, which I believe is the one I chose.

So, a tool is something that helps you to be more productive in your work hours. A clothes dryer certainly fits that description, as does a reasonable car, a stand mixer and yes, a hammer.

And what about toys? If you have toys, can you still call yourself frugal? In my book, someone who has no toys isn't frugal, they're deprived.

What is a toy?

A toy is something designed to bring joy and/or recreation to the lives of those who use it, which may or may not have any productivity value.

A game is a toy, there's great enjoyment in playing a game. Musical equipment may be viewed as a toy (if it's just for your pleasure) or a tool (if you make a living using it).  A surfboard is a toy. For the woman who just likes to polish the shiny things on her kitchen counter, and never really use them, well, a stand mixer is probably just a toy.

And toys are good! Without them, life would be dull, and we would soon wear ourselves out from lack of recreation. Some of our favorite toys include a piano, a TV, a radio in the kitchen, many computers, games and puzzles, and an outdoor fire bowl.

I don't think for a single second that anyone here has been critical of my choices (at least not out loud!). But I do think it's important for us all to understand what it means to ourselves to be frugal, and just what is a toy vs. a tool. We need to appreciate that toys are desirable too. I think understanding this will a) give us all more freedom to make our choices without guilt, and b) spot the lunatics on other blogs who criticize frugal living bloggers for the choices they make.

So tell me, what was the last "tool" you bought? Did you feel any guilt buying it? How did you get over that guilt?


  1. As you pointed out, we all need to do what is right for us. What I don't like is when we feel we have to justify our purchases to someone else whether it be a neighbor or someone in the blog world because it is not what they would chose. Or maybe that is really justifying a purchase to ourselves.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Yes, we need to assess our own circumstances and be confident in our decisions. Perhaps part of the "need" to justify an expense/purchase comes from not being totally confident in a decision. And the other part is knowing that people around us do sometimes make judgments or off the cuff comments. But I guess all of that is just a part of the human experience. I may spend my entire lifetime learning to see things from another's point of view.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  2. I remember the discussion about hanging up your laundry on the other blog, and I think the reason people were surprised was because outside of the US, this is the normal thing to do. I should really do my own post about it :)

    I often wonder if my food processor is a toy or a tool. I use it a lot (and can make things I wouldn't otherwise, like almond butter), but we did buy quite a fancy model (maybe more fancy than I needed). I'm hoping it will last a long time anyway.

    I bought a definite toy last week - a tablet! I compared prices for quite a while and finally bought one at a price I was happy with. I'm loving playing with it and will be using it when I travel and for blogging.

    1. Hi Economies,
      Your food processor could be viewed as either a tool or a toy, depending on how you use it, just like my mixer. To give you an idea of how valuable I think food processors are, I bought mine in 1983. I use it on average once per week, for making bread crumbs, pureeing pumpkin and other veggies, mincing meat for meatballs, chopping large volumes of veggies for my homemade salsa that I can, and other tasks. I know I save time with my fp, and I also think I save money. Saving time increases my productivity, as I can move on to other productive tasks more quickly.

      Your tablet will be a toy and a tool. I remember when laptops were considered "toys". New technology often gets branded "toy" status, I think partly because the items are so highly desirable, but also because we haven't figured all the ways to make the new item productive for us, yet.

      But remember, even if your tablet is a toy, having some toys is desirable, too! They bring us pleasure, and enhance the quality of our day to day lives. I'm all for having toys. And we'll each determine which toys suit us best.

  3. I think we get ourselves into trouble when we make judgments on choices others make without fully understanding their circumstances. We all have very different demands on our time and, yes, different likes and dislikes. I like to bake; for me, it's fun and relaxing. For one of my friends, baking is a chore. She is also frugally-minded, but she's more likely to purchase ready-made goodies. And that's okay.

    I struggle a little more with deciding when to do upgrades to our home. Do we pay off our home or can we update our kitchen first? While I can certainly "live" with our current kitchen, it would be nice to update it and make it a more pleasant space for cooking (more counter space!) while my family is young and I have a lot of cooking to accomplish. It doesn't fall under the "have to" category like a new roof, which makes my decision harder. I also wonder if I'm greedy for wanting this ... you know, there are starving children in the world and I want an updated kitchen ...

    1. Hi Kris,
      I understand the internal debate of "do something pleasurable and helpful for our family vs. save the world". I've had that discussion in my head many times. But the truth is I do listen to God's nudges to be even more generous. We take our giving seriously. But I also think its okay to do a few nice things for ourselves and our families.

      For ourselves, I did have a dark and tiny kitchen for many years. It was a one person kitchen. I could get stuff out of the fridge, unload the dishwasher and stir a pot on the stove without taking more than 2 steps. We turned a closet under the stairs into a pantry, because the kitchen had no pantry and not quite enough cupboards for the glassware and dishes. I stored additional dishes in the family room. My largest stretch of counter was 30 inches, and that's where I did all my meal prep and kneaded dough and used all appliances. It was also the only spot with an electrical outlet. We saved diligently for 14 years to redo and enlarge the kitchen. And as I see my kitchen as my primary workplace, I really don't feel guilty having made it a priority in our budget.

      But I get the thoughts about should we do something to help someone else with our money, instead of just ourselves. For us, we've been fortunate enough to do both.

  4. The last "tool" I bought was a slow cooker with three little crocks. It is cute enough that on first glance it looks like a in reality since I've had to change diets I need to cook some items separately for my family. Using a slow cooker is kinder to my energy bill -- both in power usage and in reducing heat in the southern summers. It also allows me to use tougher cuts of meat and have them fork tender.

    Now of course, I admit I have some kitchen toys, too. However, they serve a purpose -- usually of beautifying something, but that's okay. My husband always reminds me that we live frugally so we can do the things that are important to us and I'm good with that.

    P.S. I have been using my mixer for years and if it died today I would order another tomorrow without hesitation.

    1. Hi Shara,
      and those are good examples of things that to some people may seem like toys, but for your family are actually tools. And your husband is right, making thoughtful purchases is not only okay, but desirable. You've managed your budgets well enough that you can afford a few of life's fun things. They bring joy to our daily lives.

      I think the danger point with buying too many toys comes when a person buys the toys to fill a need that can't be filled by toys, or he/she can't afford the toys and are going into debt just to have a constant influx of new stuff (probably also trying to fill a deeper need). Toys can be a source of joy and entertainment, but they can also be an addiction of sorts, for some people.

  5. Gosh... I think perhaps I set off something here by teasing you about your new mixer! I hope you know I didn't mean that to be at all critical. :-)

    I think I have a hard time distinguishing between tool and toy. I guess my latest "tool" purchase would have to be my wonderful Bosch dishwasher. It cost more than a cheap one would have, and I have to use specific detergent in it, which isn't the cheapest, so I do have a tad bit of guilt about it.

    But, I've never had a good dishwasher before - one that you could just put dirty dishes in and they would come out clean. And I have to say, that thing makes me happier than any appliance ought to make anyone! Seriously, I'm often caught singing my little dishwasher song to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandee "Oh, I love my dishey washer... I love my dishey washer woo..."

    Thank god nobody but CatMan and my cats is around or they'd probably haul me off to the looney bin! But seriously, that thing makes my life SOOOOOO much easier, not having to deal with the drudgery of constant dishes, and chapped hands, yadda yadda yadda... it's kinda hard to tell if it's a tool or toy!

    And then there are my bikes... the road bike is certainly a toy since I only ride it for fun. But the other bike could be called a tool since I use it to run errands - but I still love riding it.

    I guess I think having a blurry line between tool and toy is a good thing, because it means that you've found a way to make your work enjoyable! :-)

    1. Actually, Cat, I knew you were just kidding me. So no worries there.

      But it did get me to thinking that sometimes we feel guilty when we buy something that borders tool and toy. For myself, I'll think, "gee, I'm able-bodied, I should be able to do this task without machine".

      But the truth is, while I am capable and able, I don't have unlimited time and energy to do everything "the old-fashioned way". And by doing something like mixing dough by hand (which would save about $7/ week), I may be pushing a more lucrative task off my calendar, like mending a pair of jeans (which could save me $20, if I'm talking about one of my hard to fit kids), or painting the house (which would save $$$$).

      I so understand spending for a dishwasher. Our last ones were horrible -- minimum of two times through to get dishes clean (unless I wanted to wash them by hand before loading into the dishwasher). And there were the numerous repairs. Really, I had so many repairmen at my house, I was able to pick their brains over and over about replacement machines. As soon as the dishwashers were out of warranty, we replaced them.

      And here's where you all may think I'm spoiled, or not at all frugal, or I buy a lot of "toys", I don't have one dishwasher, I have two. I use the second machine as a pot washer. Yes, I sound spoiled, I know. But by having this second machine, I am much more likely to cook/bake from scratch on a moment's notice, and not call for a pizza or run out for a bag of burgers. I've never done the math, but my guess is the second washer has paid for itself in my not getting take-out in the 5 years we've had it.

    2. I totally get it with the second washer. Since I got the new one I've started putting the pots and pans in there (well, the dishwasher safe ones anyhow) and it just makes a HUGE difference in my life not having to do them all by hand.

      At one point when I was still making the world safe for folk music, I was working full time (and then some) but still only making around $13K annually. So I was trying to cook everything from scratch to save money, but I was still in my 20's and didn't really have that many cooking skills, plus, I'd get home from work after 10pm, exhausted and starving. The result was that I was spending a ton of money eating fast food and Chinese takeout because I just couldn't face trying to cook under those circumstances. I finally decided that it would make more sense to allow myself a few packages of fish sticks and macaroni & cheese than to keep beating a path to the takeout window!

  6. My last tool I bought was a pair of garden clippers for $14. Do I need to weed and plant, no, but its been a relaxing activity that I enjoy and my neighbors enjoy the fruits of. Did I feel guilt, not one bit. Its the only tool I have bought for outdoors since everyone who lives here shares what they have.

    Now where it gets a little grey is my restoration of found items. I buy sand paper and occasionally paint but mostly I use what I have or is given to me. Again, this work keeps me active and sane. Most I give away rather than sell so its money I don't get back, but it allows me to feel as if I'm doing my part.

    I don't understand the mentality of criticizing a person for not fitting into some preconceived description whether its frugality, minimalism, or bigger things such as parenting. Why should we be made to feel as if we need to conform to anything?

    1. Hi Lois,
      Exactly! We are all trying to do the best we can with our choices, so there is no point criticizing another person's choice simply because its' different from ours. We usually don't know all the reasons for someone else's choices. When we hear the reasons we often think to ourselves, "oh yeah, I get that".

      Your furniture restoration gives you joy, and that makes life worthwhile!

  7. Sometimes I have this debate about the hair salon. I could, I guess, cut my own hair, or go to a 6.99 haircut place. Truthfully, I appreciate the help and guidance I get from my not-cheap stylist. We make a spot for it in our budget. If we couldn't afford to eat, I wouldn't be going, but each person has their own vision of where they are headed financially.

    If you are Warren Buffet, driving a fully loaded Camry might be very frugal! If you have a lot of debt, maybe the used car lot is frugal.

    Here's to supporting each other in our financial journey, whatever that looks like :)

    1. Hi Jen,
      it sure would be easier if there were a rule book that said, we each get to choose 5, or 6, or 7 things that are outside of our frugal living standards that we set for other areas of our lives. Then anytime you made a choice, like getting a not cheap haircut, you could just say, "that's 1".

      I've cut my own hair, trust me, it's hard to do, frustrating, and often needs to be fixed anyways! But I am willing to have another family member trim up the ends!

  8. When I think about this, I think of my grandmother. She grew up in poverty in a family of "subsistence farmers" (what you might now call Back to the Land, but it wasn't voluntary). She left home to work as a domestic at age 11 and sent money home to her parents. During the Depression and WW2, she would have used a wringer washer - the kind that women regularly lost arms in. From the 50s onward, her life increased in comfort and she enjoyed "all the mod cons." She would scoff if she knew I stopped buying paper towels and made my own bread. So it's all a matter of perspective!

    1. Hi anexacting,
      my dad felt the same way about home vegetable gardens. As a kid, he and his siblings had to do all the work for their garden (to feed 6 people), as their single mother was gone all day at work. He had all the veggie gardening to last a lifetime. He never wanted fruit trees either. His thinking was, "we have the money, and grocery stores sell very good produce, so why try to grow it ourselves".

      I'm glad we have both options in our lives. We can do things the old-fashioned way, or use conveniences, as we choose. There are times in life when the old-ways are satisfying, and sometimes when convenience wins out.

  9. I feel guilty when we buy anything new - always try for used first. We bought a luxury this month - a hot tub. Something we always wanted and now we can afford to purchase it with cash. Hubby has been pretty insistent that we fix this home, our forever home, exactly how we want it as soon as possible so that we can spend years enjoying it - I still feel a wee bit guilty though. It is not like we robbed anything else to get it so I need to get over it.

    1. Hi Cheapchick,
      I hope that you and your husband have many years enjoying your home and all it offers. Try to put aside the guilt. You've been responsible with your money. You're not going in to debt to have the hot tub. We're allowed a few items that bring us joy!


Thank you for joining the discussion today. Here at creative savv, we strive to maintain a respectful community centered around frugal living. Creative savv would like to continue to be a welcoming and safe place for discussion, and as such reserves the right to remove comments that are inappropriate for the conversation.


Be a voice that helps someone else on their frugal living journey

Are you interested in writing for creative savv?
What's your frugal story?

Do you have a favorite frugal recipe, special insight, DIY project, or tips that could make frugal living more do-able for someone else?

Creative savv is seeking new voices.


share this post