Pop quiz: What’s the most popular piece of advice on the internet about saving money?
If you guessed something about the Latte Factor — you know, that old saw about giving up your daily cup of caffeine from Starbucks to retire early — you’ve probably read more than your fair share of personal finance articles.
And I’m pretty sure that if you were planning to cut out your daily cappuccino buzz, you would have already done so by now.
Whether you do or do not imbibe in a fancy morning drink now and again, the trouble with so much of the advice floating around about frugality is that it makes it sound like a punishment. Something along the lines of, “If only you’d quit wasting your money on fancy things you don’t need, you could get yourself out of whatever mess you’ve created in your checkbook.”
Lecturing isn’t the answer. But changing your thinking about frugality can totally change your life.
The Worst Advice I’ve Ever Seen
On a beautiful Saturday in the not-too-distant past, I was riding my bike downtown to run some errands (more about why that’s a good move in another post). On my way to the bakery for our daily bread, I passed this sign:
Work harder? Maybe, if it’s something I’m completely passionate about.
But shop harder? No thanks.
I actually do my level best to do the exact opposite in my life: Shop less so I can work less — and love life more.
How Frugal Choices Changed My Finances — and My Life
A couple years ago, I challenged myself to live a more frugal lifestyle by cutting back on something in my family’s budget every week. The idea was that finding 52 little ways to save over the course of the year would add up.
And boy, did it ever add up.
I hit the low-hanging fruit first, like turning down the thermostat by a (nearly imperceptible) couple of degrees and refusing to buy my kids any more granola bars. As our success started to take off, I was inspired to find even more things I didn’t really need and jettison them from our budget.
By making changes that mostly affected things I didn’t care much about — that is, avoiding deprivation and still generally feeling happy and well fed — I was able to save over $11,000 that first year. And because the changes were sustainable, the initial savings snowballed into a grand total of $20,742 in the second year, as we happily continued not spending that money for another 12 months.
I threw the extra cash onto my mortgage and cut 10 years off of the amortization schedule. Then I stashed away a nest egg that allowed me to quit my job — and with it, my soul-crushing, 90-minute morning commute.
Like I said, the polar opposite of “Work hard to shop harder.”
What would you do with an extra 20 grand?
Maybe you could finally get out of debt. Pay for college. Invest in a beach house to rent out and eventually turn into a retirement home. Cut back your hours and spend more time with your kids.
The Real Secret to Frugal Living
If you’ve tried and failed in the past to embrace tips about frugality, it’s probably because, somewhere deep down, you’ve felt like cutting things out of your budget is a punishment that doesn’t allow you to enjoy your life.
And if you can’t love the life you’re living, what’s the point?
I’m here to tell you that frugality is a whole system of thinking that puts your big-ticket happiness ahead of small-time dopamine hits. It’s a philosophy that allows you to keep your eye on the things in life that are really worthwhile: time with your family, meaningful work, fulfilling hobbies. Getting your financial house in order is a means to that end because it gives you some freedom to focus on the things that actually matter most to you (for me, that freedom let me get out of a horrifying commute and spend more time with my family).
Once you get your priorities about what you most want out of life fixed firmly in your mind, it’s a lot easier to embrace the real meaning of frugality:
Frugality isn’t about getting by with less. It’s about wanting less.
It’s not enough just to Kon-Mari your house, skip the latte, or start cutting coupons. Instead, you have to change what you want out of life. Is your time with your family or your secure retirement worth a new designer handbag or a eating out three times a week? Buying those things may give you an adrenaline rush in the moment, but when you keep your eye on the prize, they become way less important.
They also start to be less tempting the more you practice saying no to them. Like any craving, the first step is not to give into it. With practice — and as you watch your savings snowball — you’ll find that you actually do want less of the material things you used to prize and much more of the good stuff that truly fulfills you.
If you’re inspired to embrace frugality as a philosophy instead of just a life hack, join me by subscribing to this blog. I’ll share the things that worked for me to cut back on spending as well as the emotional changes a life based on less spending has wrought.
Because I have to tell you: It’s life changing.
And you can do it too.