Newsflash: I am frugal.
It’s actually not news to anyone who knows me. I wear my frugality on my sleeve, and preach my penny pinching practices to anyone who might ask. People are surprisingly eager to learn my frugal-Jedi ways once they learn that we’re living debt free as a single income family in a quasi-wealthy NYC suburb. “What’s your secret?” is the question I usually face. The funny thing is, the only “secret” to being frugal is this: live within your means. It sounds so easy, yet too many people think it’s too hard to do.
Let’s break down this concept of spending less than you earn:
1. First, you must have a source of income. That usually means having a job. If you have one, that’s great, you can skip down to #2. If you don’t have one, you need to make finding one your job. I know it can be easier said than done, but unless you’re sitting on a mountain of cash or have won the bazillion dollar jackpot (or are financially healthy in some other extremely lucky manner) you MUST make finding a source of income your priority. If you are unemployed and in a state of financial hardship, don’t assume that any job is beneath you as earning $7 an hour flipping burgers is $7 an hour more than you would have previously had to afford your necessities. Look outside the box, go beyond your comfort zone. Try alternative ways to earn money (ie selling on eBay, dog walking, babysitting, etc). No matter what, be persistent. Checking craigslist.com for a half hour a day is not going to get you employed. Think of it this way- until you are earning an income to support your basic needs, finding a job will be your 9-5 job.
2. Your lifestyle must not dictate your finances, but rather your finances must dictate your lifestyle. Whether it’s financing a new car vs buying a used one, buying name brand food vs generic or purchasing new clothes vs thrift shopping, we face scenarios daily which require making decisions that impact our financial state. In this regard, all we need to persevere towards a financially comfortable lifestyle is discipline to make the right decisions. If you want the fancy smart phone (which requires an additional data package and calling plan) that everyone else has but can only afford the simple cell phone with the basic calling plan, say no to the smart phone. It’s never worth the stress of accumulating debt just to keep up with the latest fads. And at the end of the day your friends will not be sizing you up according to what platform you use to update your Facebook status. In short, only say yes if you can afford it, and always say no if you cannot afford it.
3. Budget, budget, budget. Figure out how much you earn vs how much you spend, and fine tune those figures until you reach a state of financial harmony. If you don’t already diligently track your monthly finances, you’d be surprised to find all the potential “leaks” in your spending habits. That $6 coffee and bagel with cream cheese that you pick up every morning on your way to work? It’s costing you upwards of $1500 a year, when you could be preparing it at home for a measly $300 a year. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck (which, in my mind, is no better than being over your head in debt), consider all of your expenditures and see if you might be able to make cuts to contribute toward paying off debt or building an emergency fund. And speaking of…
4. Pay off your debt. That monthly credit card carryover balance, student loans, monthly car payment – you pay fees in the form of interest on all of those balances. Why not wipe them out as quickly as possible so that someone else isn’t taking your money for fronting you theirs? Pay off small debts with higher interest rates first, sometimes all you need to feel progressive is seeing the number of envelopes in your mail begin to dwindle. Dave Ramsey has coined it the “Debt Snowball Plan“, and I think it’s an ingenious way to tackle the concept of debt reduction for people who feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.
5. Build an emergency fund. Once you’ve tackled the debt, make sure you have a plan in place so that you don’t have to turn to building more debt in the name of unexpected expenses. There is something empowering and comforting about knowing that I have a hunk of cash at arm’s length if I need it in the case of an emergency. I do feel the need to point out however, that part of it being an emergency fund is being able to determine what, exactly, an emergency is. I cannot define for any single person what their emergencies would consist of, but I can certainly tell you what an emergency is NOT. Needing cash to buy that new LCD television at Best Buy because it’s on sale for a good price this week: NOT an emergency. Coming up with the money to purchase the new limited edition Jordan sneakers before they’re sold out: NOT an emergency. Finding the means to take a new guy/girl on a date to a fancy restaurant to impress them: NOT an emergency. For these scenarios and countless more, please turn your attention to the following:
6. Open a savings account to, er, save. Aside from an emergency fund, you should have a reserve flow of cash that you won’t feel guilty about dipping into in the case of a non-emergency. These kinds of accounts are great for building discipline and learning to plan ahead financially. If saving is a foreign concept to you, take baby steps and start small. Set aside a small amount of money toward buying that new television, expensive pair of shoes, or fancy date. And when you’ve reached that goal marker don’t forget to treat yourself to it! Sometimes we just need to be rewarded to feel accomplished and build the determination to keep on truckin’. Next, set a larger goal like saving for a vacation. Once you’ve reached that, maybe big time goals like saving for your first home won’t be so intimidating and out of reach!
And those, my friends (I hope I’m not moving too fast… I know the relationship is still fresh, I hope you don’t mind me calling you my friends!), are the main building blocks to finding your financial happy place. You’re probably thinking “what does this have to do with being frugal?”. Well, frugality is about knowing where you stand financially, establishing smarter spending habits, and using your resources efficiently to meet your goals. Sound familiar? It should, I just covered those topics in my ramblings above Living within your means is the backbone of frugality. Knowing this secret, carry on young Jedi, and may the frugal force be with you.
So now that I’ve covered the basic components of frugality, do you consider yourself to be a frugal person? If not, what do you think about frugality and would you ever try to incorporate it into your life? Feel free to answer the poll below and/or comment below.
Whether you’re a veteran or new to the game, check back for new tips on living the frugal life!