Too often in our society we are told, either subliminally or outright, that having massive material wealth is the key to success, and therefore the key to happiness. The “people who matter,” are paraded in front of our eyes on TV and in the press with the biggest houses, the shiniest cars and the hippest clothes. (Lest we forget, they are also often paraded in front of our eyes with the biggest drug addictions, the most dysfunctional families and the longest criminal records.)
Some say, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” To this I say, bullshit. She who gets the most out of her life wins, hands down, every time.
This doesn’t mean that money is bad, or having money and material wealth makes you rotten to the core, but I think there’s something significant to be said about living frugally, and spending your money where it really counts. There’s also something to be said about what we actually need. If you take a long hard look at your life, you may conclude that many of your expenses (and desires) are extrinsic: you want them because someone convinced you that you wanted them.
Perhaps you’re in college, or saving up to buy a home, or to go on an extended lifelong dream vacation. Maybe you’ve got a family to support or loans to pay off. Perhaps you’ve decided to defer or invest your income for retirement. In any of these scenarios (and more), you’re looking for ways to save money. You’re in the market for some frugal living.
Being frugal means being economic with your money and your resources (even your potential money and resources.) On the one hand, you’re conserving what you already have. On the other, you’re limiting what else you acquire. Not to be deliberately obtuse, but frugal living means that you need to spend less money. So you also need to learn to survive on a smaller budget.
I’ve searched hundreds of tips for living frugally, and in my opinion they all boil down to five basic idiot proof rules:
1. Determine “need” vs. “want”
This axiom applies to both what you buy and what you already have or use.
-Do you need an enormous brand new house? If not, rent one for less money each month (and put the rest in your rainy day fund.)
– Cars: same rules apply. Pre-owner cars cost less and a good quality, fuel efficient model will last ages. Join a carpool. Maybe you don’t even need a car. If your city has public transportation, use it whenever possible. Ride your bike.
-Shiny objects: Clever advertising is often the reason we are seduced into buying things we don’t need, like diamond earrings and conditioner with fake vitamins. You need to wash your hair, yes. You don’t need to spend $20 on mascara. Shop generic brands for most of your cosmetic and cleaning needs.
-Electronics and other doodads. Pick up your cell phone. Call a friend. Is it ringing? If they pick up, say hello. If that worked without any major complications, rest assured you do not need to upgrade your cell phone every five minutes.
2. Do it yourself and make it yourself. There are numerous services we pay for without thinking for a second that we could probably do them ourselves. (Or get our boyfriends to do them for us. Still free.)
-Cook at home instead of eating out. Make a shopping list and stick to it. Bring your lunch to work instead of hitting up the drive through.
-Simple home and car repairs are easy to learn. You can even Google the instructions.
-Skip the drive or the ride and walk or bike to work, school or the store whenever possible.
3. Quality over quantity: It’s not how many toys you have, it’s who has the shiniest, cleanest, most well maintained toy.
-Keeping up repairs on cars, bikes, appliances and electronics will save you time and money in the long run.
-Save up for one big weekend with family or friends instead of blowing money at the movies or the club every Saturday (you’ll still spend less.)
-Buy fresh ingredients at the grocery store, or low price brands of canned or jarred foods. Processed and packaged foods tend to be more expensive.
-Invest in fewer high quality clothes that last longer, rather than going nuts at every sample sale. You can even find designer clothing at thrift stores and consignment shops.
-Skip the daily run to 7-11 for a six pack, and try drinking occasionally, in moderation.
4. Be time, money and energy conscious.
-Turn off lights and electronics when they are not in use.
-Try showering (in the hotter months) or washing clothes in cold water. Dry them in the sun. The clothes, that is.
-Keep a budget of household expenses and income, including bills. Be aware exactly how much you have (actual money, not credit) available to you each month.
-Make a plan for cooking meals at home each week, and then create your grocery list. You won’t be tempted to throw extra stuff into the cart. But don’t buy a cookbook. You can search recipes online for free.
-Combine errands. My best friend’s father takes to running errands with a Zen like single-mindedness. Bill Flanagan believes that a shopping day is a shopping day. All shopping, car washing and pet vaccinations will take place on a predetermined day of the week. This saves on time and gas and limits the amount of time you are inundated with commercial propaganda. I have to admit that part of the reason this philosophy is so appealing is that “shopping days” are also “drinking beer when shopping is finished days”. Needless to say I have adopted this practice wholeheartedly.
-Include some vegetarian meals in your weekly routine. Meat is pricey.
5. Be a free-gan
-Take advantage of free events in your town or city, like concerts, fitness classes, workshops and lectures.
-Go to the library. Libraries have so much more to offer than just relatively clean public bathrooms. They also have books. And DVD’s. And the internet. All free. Just make sure to return everything promptly: I’m convinced that libraries are not supported by government funds. They are supported by late fees.
-Make good use of free public areas for parties, picnics, or for your workouts. A run in the park or a hike on local trails costs nothing, and is just as effective as an hour on the treadmill, so cancel your gym membership and save even more.
Frugal living doesn’t have to feel like a punishment or a step backwards. It also doesn’t mean being a Scrooge, so tip your waiters when you do eat at a restaurant.
Think of it as insurance against financial disaster, while you also save up for your future or to buy things you really want or need. If it really bothers you that you don’t have what the people on TV have, turn off the TV. You won’t see them anymore and you’ll save money on electricity too. Gradually you will see and feel that you made the right choice. You chose the things that really matter.