5 Smart Upgrades for Tight Times

Investing in a dog, maid service, and entertainment center can generate savings.


My good friend from college and I recently bemoaned the fact that we can't afford all the upgrades we would like, or even that we expected to have by age 30. I thought that by now I would have purchased a home, or at least live in an apartment with a kitchen that's been updated since the 1950s. My friend, who lives in Portland, wishes she had more of an emergency savings cushion.

But the fact that the job market is tight, which means my friend is probably earning less than she otherwise would be, and the housing market is tumultuous, which has made me put off buying a home, has also let us focus on making smaller upgrades that probably make a bigger different in our daily lives. Here are a few of the investments that, though relatively small, pay off every day:

  • Owning a dog. My friend and her fiance spend most of their free time playing with Winston, their adorable dog. He brings them a lot of joy, and only asks for food, water, and love in return. Without him, they would probably put a bigger strain on their weekend entertainment budget.
    • Paying for a housecleaning service. The idea of paying someone to clean your house can seem ridiculously indulgent, and even unethical. In her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich has harsh words for those who can't be bothered to clean up after themselves. But from a financial standpoint, paying for a once or twice a month cleaning can be an investment if it makes you more content with your small apartment or home, and less likely to year for an upgrade that would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars more each month. To me, a clean apartment feels like a bigger one.
      • Drinking clean water. Recent reports of lead in Washington, DC water sent me running for the yellow pages to find an alternative source of drinking water. For $20 worth of bottled water a month, I can ensure that we're not inadvertently being exposed to chemicals that could affect us later. I know many people will say this is an utter waste of money, given the widespread assurances that come from the folks that run the public water systems, but recent reports of inaccurate information coming from those sources made me decide to take the matter into my own hands. (As for the environmental concerns -- we'll be using re-usable 5-gallon jugs.)
        • Sleeping in high-quality sheets. It's true -- drifting off between silky soft sheets can make anyone feel like a king. And when a full set of luscious Egyptian cotton goes for under $100 at department stores and online shopping centers, why deny yourself?
          • Investing in an "entertainment center." A high-definition television, Wii, and Roku Netflix player puts video games, old French movies, and Hollywood at your fingertips every night. When you consider that a night out at the movies easily runs $40 for two people, beefing up the at-home options makes sense.
          • What small investments have you made that are paying off?