How A Year Of Extreme Frugality Changed Us
Last March, Mr. Frugalwoods and I got serious about frugality. You could even say we become hardcore frugal weirdos. To prove it, we launched our Uber Frugal Month experiment. We slashed our already meager spending and started saving more money than we’d ever thought possible while still, you know, eating and bathing (even we have limits, people). We’d hatched our wild early retirement homestead plan and wanted to see just how far we could push frugality. Just how little could we spend and still enjoy life?
One Year Later
I realized the other day that we’ve been living the uber frugal life for over a year now and, it has become such an ingrained aspect of our existence that I didn’t even notice its anniversary. This is a great sign to me that we’re no longer ticking off the days ‘til financial independence and no longer giving much, if any, thought to our frugality. It’s just who we are. In much the same ways as we brush our teeth (not even with cheapo toothbrushes either, might I add), walk Frugal Hound, and look forward to pizza Fridays every week, frugality has become habitual and second nature (can it be first nature?). But, getting to this place was a process.
To be honest, the first month was difficult. I’m not going to sugar coat it for you, we had to work hard to get this frugal. People don’t just wake up one day and start saving over 70% of their income without a bit of a fight. After all, anything worth having takes discipline. At the outset, we had to think through our days and find ways to create efficiencies and form our frugal weirdo manifesto.
Our Culture Says: $PEND All Your Money (or at least most of it)!
Our dominant culture is geared almost entirely towards creating a life centered on spending money. Advertisers have engineered their reach such that we’re endlessly inundated with ads prompting us to buy. And many of those ads are intended to play upon our most base human emotions: fear, survival, and pleasure. We’re told we must have a new car every few years in order to be safe, new clothes every season in order to be accepted, and fine dinners out on the town every week because we deserve it. Clearly it would be counter-productive for anyone to run an ad that touts the merits of, well, not buying anything. And so, we’re left with a society that outwardly only values spending. Carving out a life that’s removed from this compulsion isn’t terribly common and doing so requires some grit and a good deal of creativity.
What we found that first month is that we’d relied on money to solve our problems for us in the past. We weren’t ever obscene spendthrifts, but we assuaged our dissatisfaction over our stressful jobs with dinners out, I hobby-shopped for thrift store clothes, and we’d buy gadgets for our house that we thought would increase our enjoyment of life.
Give Yourself The Gift Of Frugality
We discovered that once we stopped doing those things, we actually came into a deep and lasting happiness. The ability to find contentment with one’s surroundings and belongings is a recipe for enduring joy. And this is why I now believe that frugality is a gift you give yourself for a lifetime. Since Mr. FW and I aren’t executing frugality for just a month or even a few years, but for the rest of our lives, we’ve come to appreciate its wide-reaching implications and effects. Our lives are now simpler, less stressful, contain fewer decisions to make, involve far less arguing, and we have much more free time to pursue hobbies and self-learning (like how to cut hair and replace exterior window trim, for example).
Looking back on that first challenging month, I honestly felt overwhelmed at the prospect of living more frugally. I wasn’t entirely sure where to start since we were already spending far less money than our peers. I wrote Uber Frugal Month in large part as a instruction manual for myself. As we navigated each element of ultimate frugality—groceries, pet care, home maintenance, entertainment, personal grooming, transportation—I made notes that transformed into the utmost frugal challenge.
At first, it was a concerted effort for Mr. FW and I to deconstruct our traditional notions and expectations with regard to how money works. We had to create a parallel understanding of our lives—one that no longer concentrated on money as the only way to attain things or define success or direct how we spent our time. Once we removed spending as a regular, daily activity, we realized how very little we missed it. Having a conscious plan around every dollar we spend is now our modus operandi and every time we fork over our cash, it’s done with the full understanding of what that money means.
The Big Three Is A Big Joke
I’ve heard financial gurus say that as long as your decrease your expenditures on the big three—housing, food, and transportation—you don’t need to worry too much about the rest of your budget. As you might have guessed, I don’t buy into that philosophy one iota. Sure, this is an acceptable approach if your goal is to save more than the dismal 10% that’s fairly standard in our country.
But if you want to achieve the type of frugality that’ll enable you to retire early, you’ll need to focus on every single aspect of your spending. Mr. FW and I had so many “blind spots” in our spending before we started our own extreme frugality regimen that I’m almost embarrassed to think about it. We thought we were doing a good job—and we were saving more than half of our income—but we weren’t tracking our spending or paying attention on our savings. Money just sort of slipped through our fingers when a trip to Target to buy two things ballooned into a $100 spree or a dinner out left us $50 poorer.
Interestingly, since assuming the consummate frugal mantle, our standard of living hasn’t changed much at all, which tells me that most of our previous spending was waste. It’s not like we had to make dramatic changes in our lives—we weren’t jet-setting around the globe one day and eating rice and beans the next. Yet, our savings rocketed up to well above 70%. How? Through purposeful, goal-oriented spending.
We decided to start from the assumption that we’d spend $0 each day and that every dollar we did spend was a debit against our future. Instead of spending until we hit a pre-designated amount, we weren’t spending at all—unless we had to. I greatly prefer this mentality in lieu of budgeting because instead of highlighting what we can and can’t spend (which is what a budget does) it’s about creating goal-based spending parameters (which are much more sustainable in the long-term and also easier to follow).
We made it through our first month and decided that, since we’d had so much success and hadn’t suffered, we’d continue. I noticed that by about the third month, everything felt much more automatic and familiar. The whole endeavor stopped being a struggle and transformed into a lifestyle. As with any other radical change in how we live, just about anything is possible when it’s guided by a focused goal.
During these past 16 months, I also put myself on a clothes-buying ban. And this was a no-holds barred, no exceptions ban. I haven’t purchased a scrap of clothing during this time frame–not one sock or shirt or anything else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the first few rocky months, not buying clothes became the most ordinary thing in the world for me. At first, I was very conscious of the clothing ban. I thought about it a lot and I panicked a bit when I knew I had an event coming up that I’d normally buy something new for. But gradually, I just stopped thinking about it. Now, I’d be hard-pressed to name the last time I even so much as thought about buying clothes.
And don’t think for a hot second that I’m using my pregnancy as an excuse to run out and go shopping. I’ve received so many hand-me-down maternity outfits from my sister and some friends that I’m going to try and go as long as I possibly can without buying anything (hopefully the whole pregnancy!). I’m still wearing my regular, looser-fitting clothes and I’ll continue to do so until I need to move into my maternity hand-me-downs.
Life Events Are Not Excuses To Spend
There’s no reason to rush out and spend just because something new is happening in your life. Marketers prey on our life events as spending opportunities, but we can fight against that. Just because we’re getting married, got a new job, having a baby, going on vacation, selling a house, or moving–these aren’t all automatic reasons to go buy a bunch of stuff. Sure, they’re all thrilling transitions, but there’s no reason to celebrate them with spending.
What Mr. FW and I discovered over the course of this year-plus of profound frugality is that it all boils down to three simple things:
1) Routine and habit. If you get out of the habit of spending, it becomes very easy to continue not spending. Just as buying a coffee everyday is a habit, not buying that coffee is similarly a habit. The absence of actions truly can become a routine. Our mode of not spending is so ingrained at this point that we don’t have to budget or even think twice about whether or not to buy something. We just don’t buy it.
2) Be on the same page as your partner. If you share your life with someone else, you’ve got to be on board with this plan together. One person can’t continually tempt, taunt, or otherwise persuade the other to spend when they don’t want to. Collaborate and aim your efforts on a shared goal–you’ll find strength in pursing this jointly.
3) Have a goal. I totally sound like a broken record on this front, but it’s the guiding principle that enables our success. We are so completely focused on our goal of financial independence and early retirement to a homestead in the woods that spending on junk we don’t need (such as clothing) feels like a ridiculous allocation of resources. When your options are 1) stuff or 2) a long-term aspiration, it’s pretty clear which one will win out. Short-term desires pale in comparison to what you want out of life.
One Year Of Extreme Frugality Down, No End In Sight
Since we rounded the corned on year one of extreme frugality without even realizing we were passing the milestone, I feel pretty confident about our ability to continue on with this lifestyle into the future. This year will bring us an exciting new curveball–our first baby–but we’re thrilled at the prospect of childrearing in the frugal way.
It can be done as countless early retirement parents before us have shown (I’m looking at you, 1500 Days to Freedom, Root of Good, and Mr. Money Mustache) and we’re up for the challenge. So far, we’ve spent exactly $10 on Babywoods–for a baby bouncer from a garage sale. Since those things appear to be 1) very popular with babies, and 2) over $60 new, I’d say we’re in good shape. And, we found an exersaucer (upwards of $100 new) for free by the side of the road on our walk home from that garage sale, so we’re pretty pleased thus far.
For us, frugality isn’t a passing fad, a challenge, a struggle, or a depressive mindset. It’s a liberating way to structure our lives to enable the greatest freedom of all–freedom to do what we want with our time. And when you think about it, time is the only thing we truly can’t control or make more of in our lives. I can’t think of a more worthy trade-off.