If you want a quick object lesson in a personal-finance "frugality versus cheapness" vein, you have come to the right place. I wanted to be frugal, but I was cheap… and the result was that I was neither frugal nor cheap. What did I do? I skimped on a grill.
I think most people like grilling outside. It’s a communal activity, and it tastes really good. Even if you’re a vegetarian (several family members and friends of mine are) you can do some great stuff with a grill. I grill sausages and chicken and fish, but also portabella mushrooms and peppers and onions. The possibilities are endless, and topping it all off with a beer and some nice weather is one of the best ways to spend time outdoors.
Like most Manhattanites, I relied on other people’s grills. In Manhattan it’s illegal to grill with charcoal or propane (although I think electric grills are allowed) because of the fire hazard in a densely-packed city. People ignore it occasionnally but the Fire Department guys (correctly) will come down hard on you. When I moved to New Jersey I was seized by thought of getting my own grill, and decided to go for the purist’s choice: charcoal.
You can debate charcoal vs. propane vs. electric this way – I listed them in descending order of tastiness but ascending order of easiness. Charcoal is a mess, but tastes great. Electric is terribly simple but doesn’t do much more than a stovetop would. I thought I would go for a charcoal grill. Me caveman – fire good!
At a local orange-themed home improvement store I noticed a very inexpensive little grill about the size of two shoeboxes for $25, I think. I thought "ah hah! An excellent way to save money by only buying a conveniently small grill!" This grill worked just fine – if you were cooking for one. I quickly realized it would not do if you had even a couple of guests over.
So what did I do? I went back to the store and got a slightly larger round grill with legs. You’ve probably seen the type. This one was slightly more expensive, but a little bigger. I thought, "well, at least I’ll have enough room here!"
I’m sure you can see this coming. We had neighbors over for grilling one night and the huge amount of food we prepared for 6 of us (we wanted some leftovers) required, in the end, dragging my neighbors’ gas grill over to cook. The charcoal grill still tasted better, but it was painfully slow and too small to cook for 6.
After all of that, I have decided to buy yet a larger grill. I’m not anxious to go the propane route, but there’s only so much bigger you can go with charcoal – plus there’s mess and smoke and cleanup that is greatly reduced with propane or electric grills. I’ll probably end up spending another $100 – $200 for a grill. I will have to avoid the temptation to just buy another cheap grill since then I’ll end up in the same place again.
The lesson learned is that by trying to buy a small, cheap grill I have already wasted approximately $80 or so, and probably cost myself a lot of irritation and extra charcoal trying to grill for others in stages rather than throwing everything on the grill at once. If you are trying to be cheap, you’ll lose every time. Frugality sometimes means planning ahead and buying something more expensive that will be more durable, useful and practical in the long run.