When Should You Substitute Your Expenditure With Something Cheaper?


Joanne Poh



Once upon a time, I was lying under a tree by the Singapore River in the CBD during lunch break at work on a cheap yoga mat from Watsons, eating my lunch of homemade pasta salad and watching the world go by.

Then I realised that most of the other office workers running around me in the Boat Quay area were probably spending about $20 on their lunch breaks. My lunch break had cost me almost nothing, and was a good substitute for an expensive lunch—no queuing, no waiting, no crowds.

That got me thinking about substitution. When we give up something expensive in exchange for something cheaper that fulfils the same needs, we are essentially practising substitution.

But still, you might argue, if I were to substitute a night out with my friends for a cheap but lonely and boring evening alone in my room, I would be a very miserable person.

Well, when you practise substitution, the idea is to identify what you really want to gain from the more expensive option, and then find a cheaper substitute that fulfils those same needs. For example, when you have an expensive lunch on a working day, is it because you want to eat that food or is it because you just want to accompany your colleagues?

Here are three situations and how to find a substitute in each that makes you happy:


Should I take a taxi?

There are times when taking public transport drives me insane, and I’d rather brave a thunderstorm on my motorcycle than be jostled on the MRT. On the other hand, sometimes I’d rather vegetate on the bus for an hour than ride my bike under the scorching sun, even if it will save me 40 minutes.  For most non-car-owning Singaporeans, the heaviest transport spending happens when taking taxis. But it’s all too easy to fall into the habit of doing it regularly—I have a friend who takes a taxi to work every single day because he’s gotten so used to waking up late. So how do you know if you should take a taxi today?

  • You want a comfortable ride – If you’re injured, are ill or are just damned tired and a comfortable ride, preferably one in which you can sleep, is a top priority, that might warrant taking a taxi if the MRT and buses are packed. But during off peak periods, if you can get a seat on the bus or MRT, that can be a good enough substitute.
  • You just need to get from Point A to Point B – If you’ve got ample time, buses and the MRT are an acceptable substitute—despite the delays they are generally reliable, and cost so much less than taxis that it makes sense to use them when you can.
  • You need to get home but missed the last train – If you’re lucky enough to be served by one of their routes, the Night Rider and Night Owl bus services make an excellent substitute for taxis on Fridays, Saturdays and eves of public holidays. While the wait might be a little long, once you get on they generally move very quickly as the bus takes an express route and there’s no traffic on the road. The Night Rider service costs $4.50, while the Night Owl service calculates fares based on distance.
  • You’re pressed for time – If it’s an emergency and a taxi is the fastest way to get somewhere, by all means spend that extra money.


Should I have a coffee at that hipster cafe?

Western-style coffee in Singapore is expensive compared to many other developed cities in the world. While a coffee in San Francisco might set you back US$2.50 and an espresso in Rome would be a mere 2 euro, hipster cafes in Singapore are charging about $4.50 to $6.50 for theirs.

  • You want good coffee – If you like something a little nicer than kopi, you can get a moka pot and brew your own coffee at home, or even invest in a Nespresso machine.
  • You just need to stay awake – You’re too sleepy to taste anything anyway, so a $1.50 kopi from the coffee shop downstairs or free coffee from your office pantry should be a good enough substitute.
  • You want to hang out with your friends – While gossiping at a quaint coffee house is an appealing thought, if you’re in a nice area you could also buy a drink to-go from a food court or kopitiam and sit in front of the sea behind Vivo City, in the rooftop garden at Orchard Central or by the waterfront at Marina Bay Sands.
  • You want to sit in a stylish hipster atmosphere – Okay, fine, indulge your inner hipster.


Should I buy that designer outfit?

While you might furiously debate the pros and cons of getting a car, buying clothing and other fashion items is something few people really bother to think too hard about. The only thing that concerns them is whether the item looks good and whether they can afford it (and sometimes not even the latter).

  • You want to try out this new trend – Substitute your designer buy with something from an inexpensive fast-fashion brand like Cotton On, Forever 21 or H&M if you’re jumping on a new trend, as once it goes out of style you’ll want to forget it ever happened.
  • You need clothes for work – Assuming you intend to remain in the workforce for a while, higher quality clothes would be a good investment. However, instead of turning to designer brands for your office shirts, consider getting some tailoring done if you plan to travel to Thailand, Vietnam or China. Decent bottoms like pencil skirts and pants can be bought at high fashion brands like H&M or Forever 21, which are a decent substitute because let’s face it, they look the same as designer in boring black.
  • You have a wedding or other formal function to attend – If you don’t attend such functions often, it’s pointless splurging on an expensive dress or suit. I know people who buy a new dress for every wedding they’re invited to. Girls can get away with wearing whatever’s in their wardrobe—you probably have lots of serviceable dresses anyway, while men can just wear office attire. If it’s a really huge event (say you won a prize at the Oscars or something), rent a designer dress for $80 to $150.
  • You want something nice to wear – Sometimes, there’s no substitute for a pretty dress, a well-cut shirt or a nice pair of shoes—unless your wardrobe is already bursting with them. Raid your own wardrobe and you might find you already have lots of beautiful clothes. If that’s really not the case, by all means treat yourself to something a little more expensive if you can afford it—but before waltzing straight into Hermes, be sure to check less expensive labels to see if you can find a cheaper substitute that looks just as good.

What expensive items do you regularly substitute for something cheaper? Tell us in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.