Frugal By Choice

If you were to ask my 27-year-old self what frugality means, I would have probably lumped the word in with people who are cheap.



In those days, I used to stroll breezily through the streets of Seattle, browsing all the super kitschy shops in the Capitol Hill district where I lived. Believe me, there was no shortage of those shops. I’d buy completely random things: a super 8 camera (which I think I used once), funky candles, pillows, and other home decor which I thought were all part of my cool identity (c’mon, it was Seattle in the 90’s!).

I would also go downtown, which was very close, and spend a lot at Nordstrom and The Bon Marché, and then pick up a bunch of things at Pike Place Market. I freaking loved shopping in Seattle.

While Mr. Frugalwoods and I enjoy/attempt to survive our very first month as parents to our daughter, Babywoods, I have a delightful slate of guest posts from my friends lined up for your reading pleasure. Today, please welcome the terrific Tonya from Budget & the Beach!

By: Tonya

And then there was music. I spent so much on CD’s and live shows. I’m pretty sure 4 of 7 days of the week, I was seeing live music. And I was meticulous about displaying my thousands–yes thousands–of CD’s in my fancy CD holder.

I always had pretty good jobs in my 20’s and 30’s. I was in and out of debt, but never much, and I never had any student loans. But aside from contributing to my company 401K, I was really doing a piss poor job of saving any money. One look at my old diary entries tells me that: “Dear Diary (ok, I never used to write that), “I really have to get better about saving money” (I did write that… a lot!).

Here’s the gist of most of my 20’s and 30’s when it came to money: I was absolutely mindless. You made money, you spent money, and you had a good time.


Me on the beach volleyball court

In my last long-term relationship, I thought my boyfriend was super cheap. I could not understand why he didn’t want to go out to nice dinners and have all these nice things (except for all his cycling equipment). But it was really me that had no concept of good money habits, not him.

You’d think my wake up call would’ve come when I was laid off in 2008, right at the start of the recession, but sadly, I pissed away a good majority of my savings on beach volleyball lessons, eating out, and traveling… with very little freelance work coming my way.

I was 38 at the time and still hadn’t followed any type of budget, or devised a plan of making my savings stretch. I try not to look back with regret, but it’s hard not to. I guess you can only live and learn.

My rock bottom came when my car was towed the day after Valentine’s Day in 2012. I started a blog talking about money, and realized I needed to drastically change my life.

Frugality As A Necessity

Me in 2007 before I got my financial act together

Me in 2007 before I got my financial act together

I think there’s a huge difference between being frugal by choice, versus being “forced into it” like I felt I was. Dinners out with friends had to be cut, I had to see fewer movies at the theater, and every potential purchase became a harsh internal deliberation. It was a drag, and I was very pouty about it.

Frugality As A Game

After a year or two during which frugality felt hard, I started to make it into a sort of game. What could I cut from my life? What could I sell or just get rid of? What side hustles could I take on to earn some extra cash? Saying “no” to friends’ extravagant birthday parties or girls’ nights out gave me a pep in my step that I had willpower. Not getting any more parking tickets felt like a big “FU” to “the man!” OK, I can get used to this!

Frugality As A Choice

And finally there came a time where frugality no longer felt like just a necessity or just a game, but a way of life. Now I walk by tempting racks of magazines without blinking an eye (I can read them for free at the library!). Saying “no” to events that cost money that I don’t want to spend does not make me feel guilty. Seeing friends with fancy cars or clothes does not make me feel envious (not feeling envious of friends’ travel, however, I’m still working on… ).

Coffee_coverThe most important things that has come out of this whole journey of spending to frugality is this: mindfulness. As in, I have it now.

I went through SO much of my life completely mindless about money. And when I stop and think about it, just where are all those “things” I bought in my 20’s and 30’s that made me happy? Nowhere! It took me forever to get rid of all those CD’s that I had accumulated. Knowing that you seem to get rid of 80% of the things you usually buy, makes not buying things (without mindful consideration) a pretty easy decision.

When it comes to frugal living, I am by no means as hardcore as the Frugalwoods, but frugality is not a competition. It’s simply a way to be smart about your purchases and know why you are spending and saving. That is now my definition of frugality.

Tonya is a video editor and writer living in Los Angeles. She chronicles her journey of becoming financially independent, and navigating the rocky waters of freelancing in her personal finance blog Budget & the Beach. You can follow her on Youtube & Twitter at @beachbudget.

How do you define frugality in your life?

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56 Responses

  1. Great story! I love the idea of being frugal by choice. It’s very much what we mean by “pretending to be poor” and we also find frugality fun. We have respect and compassion for those frugal by necessity (and we believe in practicing generosity), but living below your means is a freeing choice so that you can decide where your money goes.

  2. This post really resonates with me. If I had all of the money I spent on lunches and dinners out since I graduated college, I would probably be in early retirement right now. I didn’t have the foresight that Mr. and Mrs. FW had and, unfortunately, I have made really piss poor financial decisions, too. Growing up “poor” put a real dent in my adult, financial decisions. I wanted to keep up with The Joneses. Not only did I want to keep up with them, I wanted to be them. Aside from not spending a ton on college and saving quite a bit in my retirement accounts in my 20s, I was making plenty of really crappy money decisions, too. I was spending like there was no tomorrow. That only led to a financial disaster when my fiance and I broke up and I needed to start living on my single income. On top of all the spending I was accustomed to doing, I also stopped contributing to my retirement accounts just to keep the lights on. It was a decade-long disaster for me (Interestingly, I actually posted a blog about this today). But, it also gave me focus and made me realize what is really important in life. And what is really important, isn’t STUFF you can buy at the store. Maybe, perhaps, life means just a little bit more 😉

    Mrs. Mad Money Monster

    • I’m with you that even if I was 10% better with my money in my 20’s and 30’s I would have been WAY better off than I am now. Fortunately I just got a good full time job, but I plan on living just as frugally as I was as a struggling freelancer to so I can sock away a lot of money and catch up!

  3. Mrs SSC says:

    We try not to use the word ‘frugal’ too often because my husband has bad associations with that word. But what helps for us is for every purchases thinking “Do we WANT this or do we NEED this?” That even works for ice cream!!!! But that has made a huge difference in our spending, without having to think we are frugal – instead we like to think we are being mindful.

  4. I love “frugality as a game” — that’s definitely been the most motivating approach for me thus far.
    It’s really interesting to me though that you see your journey as a progression from necessity to a game to a choice/mindset. Now that you put it that way, I think I might actually be moving from “this is a game” to “this is a choice”. I wonder how many people go through stages like that. Thanks — this gives me something to think about. 🙂

  5. Noreen Valentine says:

    I am not a frugal weirdo but I am careful about money; for me, it’s “sport”. I’ll always thank my father for it. He always told us to save, that he would not be responsible for us (6 of us) when we reached the age emancipation. It amazes me when I meet a person that does not save. My father used to have a saying that I have Googled many times and cannot find. It starts “Save! Not for money but for independence, without which no man…” and I cannot find nor remember how it ends. If anyone can finish this verse, please share.

  6. Mark Ouellette says:

    Nice story. I think everyone has at least one wake up moment in life with money whoo’s where we get the chance to reflect back at our lifestyle and make that course change before hitting an ice burg and sinking. I have been fortunate enough to have many of these when it comes to money. But I have also had the opportunity to learn from these events and make the changes so I eventually come out ahead and a better wiser person. It is nice to hear others in the some boat as me and are living life with similar goals to get ahead in life while enjoy life without the stresses and worries that being debt and living pay check to pay check bring.

    • That’s great you have able to come out ahead!

      • Mark Ouellette says:

        It’s always an ongoing battle. We have come out ahead but we are fortunate and lucky to have a big shovel to make money mistakes. with We continue to repeat history but somehow we correct course and do a little better. We are weak in many areas with spending and allow life to take advantage of us and spend blindly through the year. I think what saves us though is we each max out our 401k but we could save a lot more by choice if we payed more attention. We also do not have debt except for a mortgage and a car we had to purchase that will be paid off this next year. I am not looking to retire soon, maybe 10 years out more or less, but what I am looking for is the choice. To have that sum of saved cash that will allow me to have the choice to retire if a job is not fun anymore or I desire to do something else. I am living to do things in life. The money I am saving now is to allow me to maintain and continue to enjoy the things I live to do now. It would be great to ski the winter away, bike the summer away, hike the spring and fall and enjoy all those things I like to do now. It is a costly lifestyle but it brings me great happiness and joy. I have heard so many say money cannot buy you happiness. Well I have never seen happiness on a shelf for sale but I sure know this Money pays for all those things I love to enjoy doing. It buys me the freedom to live life to my fullest.

  7. Marcia says:

    This is a great story, and I can relate to much of it. We’re the same age (at least, I was also 38 in 2008, ha!)

    I remember the freedom of my 20s. I was also not in much debt, and enjoyed earning real money. I got frugal in my early 30’s, and don’t even remember why, really. Maybe living in So Cal and realizing if I ever wanted to buy a house…

    In any event, we bought that house (teeny tiny house in Santa Barbara), and as we were cleaning out the rental, I found it. I found a credit card statement from my 20’s when I was living it up in DC.

    It was a little over $1000. That was typical for a month.

    And it was 80% food. Some days, I ate out breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The deli guys knew what I wanted when I walked up. I was taking classes some nights and playing in volleyball leagues 2-3 days a week (indoor, it was cold there), and then, of course, my team would go out for burgers (or in my case, buffalo chicken sandwiches) and a few beers after. Good lord. It’s also no wonder that my late 20’s were punctuated with a 50+ pound weight gain.

    Now, of course, I spend more than that on daycare, but hey, at least I can afford it! I take pride in dishing up (homemade) soup and grilled cheese on a Friday night instead of ordering pizza. I gleefully walk past the clothing sections of stores. (But I do like magazines, and will buy them on vacation only!)

    • The only time Ill buy a magazine is for a plane ride. For some reason the fluffy stuff helps me be a little more at ease on take off. I know, weird. But yes, I went out to eat ALL the time. I guess one good thing about being an introvert and in my 40’s, I don’t feel a big need to do that anymore.

  8. holly says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m 50 and only now getting my act together financially. Yes, its pretty late in the game, but better now than never. I don’t spend time regretting the past though. Life is truly a learning lesson as we go.

  9. Hannah says:

    It seems like we all take these weird journeys to frugality wherein at first it hurts and doesn’t feel like a choice, and then later we actually start to enjoy it. Of course, I personally think that I have so many wants that I have to set up my environment for frugal success.

  10. Cheryl says:

    Being frugal is about being wise with your money. Saving through your retirement plan at work, doing IRAs, making smart investments like your home for the future. It also means not blowing the remaining money on frivolous things or cluttering your space. My fiancée retired from the military and started a new job making good money. House paid off, no loans, good retirement savings, money in the bank, but he is still not blowing money. He buys quality things that last, a hardcore DIY guy changing his truck’s oil, home repairs, mows his own lawn etc. He prefers a hike, kayaking or hunting over an expensive hotel, show and eating out in the city for recreation. We are doing canning and dehydrating foods for Christmas gifts, rather than junk family members don’t need or want. And like the frugalwoods, my guy cuts my hair for me, saves me hundreds a year and he gives a great haircut.

    • Does your guy have a brother he can introduce me to? 🙂 In all seriousness, I think that’s great!

      • Cheryl says:

        He does, but both are on their second wives, and not so good with their money, and I would not dream of asking either one to cut my hair. I was previously married and while I would rather not go into details, the lack of financial responsibility my ex had, that resulted in us losing our house, was a contributing factor to the end of the marriage. So having a guy who can make smart decisions is not only a breath of fresh air, but I think financially smart is very sexy. And I really like having my hair combed and the scalp massage I get each time he trims my hair. While I dreaded the trips to the salon as a hassle, I remind my guy when I need my ends done, now every other month versus 8-10 months.

  11. Suze Wannabe says:

    Fascinating story! Seems it doesn’t matter if one grew up rich or poor, being trapped by the lack of money is our greatest motivator.

  12. Melinda says:

    At first I started to read this and thought to myself, “I’m getting tired of all these Financial Independence blogs touting how they spent all their money, but now they have their act together.” Then it hit home, again, that I did that too. I sat there for ten minutes thinking “…BUT if was fun!” Really? I look back and think, yes, that is exactly what I did, mindless tchotchkes shopping. How much further along would I, we, be today if I hadn’t lived that way. I am almost 60. We are retired, and very fortunate to be retired, BUT, we spent so much money back in our earlier days of YOLO, that if we had that money now, retirement would be more comfortable. To all of you who are getting the frugality mind set in your youth, I envy you. I do though have great appreciation for being retired, financially independent, and able to learn, even in my later years. Frugality is actually a more peaceful way to live. In order to stay financially independent and retired, we have to be “mindful”, but we are on board with that! I appreciate these blogs and the feedback portion. You all keep teaching me over and over again. Thank you!

    • I think the reason that people write about that is they hope people can learn from their experience and not go through what they went through. I know that’s one of my main goals on my blog. I too envy these youngsters who have their stuff together at such a young age (well, young to me).

  13. You pretty much described my financial “thinking” (more like lack of it) in my 20s and early 30s. I have hadtoslowly learn about frugality and intentional spending as I’ve worked to clena up my act and pay down a lot of debt.

  14. Melanie says:

    I love this post. I also lived in Seattle during those years, and shopped at all the same exact shops doing the same exact things. I’m sure we crossed paths at the Urban Outfitters in Cap Hill while buying silly books I’d never read and overpriced clothes I’d never wear. Yes that was me in the Nordstrom cafe, treating myself to lunch after yet another trip to salon shoes! Sorry if I nudged you out of the way at the flower stand at Pike Place Market. I’ve grown as a person since then. It’s hard not to look back on those things with regret, but there really is something empowering about switching up that power differential in the relationship with money. Even when frugality is a matter of necessity, I figure if I can grow my financial skill set in lean times, then I’m set, because when money flows into my life again I’ll be better equipped to handle it with gratitude and intelligence. Saying no to things feels good.

    • I love this: “I figure if I can grow my financial skill set in lean times, then I’m set, because when money flows into my life again I’ll be better equipped to handle it with gratitude and intelligence.” I might have to use that quote in something. 🙂 And yes I totally shopped at that Urban Outfitters when I lived on the hill. I lived across the street from the B&O Cafe and was at that place all the time too, and bought take out from Boston Market like daily. I don’t think that’s there anymore. 🙂

  15. I look at frugality as a tool to help me reach my financial goals. Whether you make $30k a year or $100k a year, frugality is a great tool. I’m trying to be more frugal but it’s definitely a work in progress, I need to grocery shop and cook at home more for sure. I also like to treat it like a game – why pay full price for things when you can find coupon codes or negotiate with someone on the phone?

  16. Marie-Josée says:

    I love reading Mr. and Mrs. Frugalwoods’ blog and many other personal finance blogs which focus on frugality; it gives me a lot of food for thought . My husband and I are not frugal: we spend a lot of money on food (high quality, mostly organic), we crank up the heat in our home in the evenings and during the weekend, as I like to be warm without wearing layers, and we love to travel. Food, wine and travel are where our discretionary income gets spent. I do consider that we are informed consumers. When we purchase things or expériences, we consider not only the expense, but many other factors, the main one being the impact of our choice on the environment as well as ethical considérations. Your post was very honest and refreshing – thank you! I’m glad you have found full-time employment – it certainly has it’s perks, such as regular pay and benefits. I’m also really happy that this will give you the opportunity to travel, debt-free.

  17. Sarah says:

    I love hearing stories of what turned people onto frugality and what drives them to keep going. 🙂 Thank you for sharing.
    I moved to Seoul, South Korea after college to teach kindergarten. To be honest I was very naive with money, and I just wasn’t really sure how far my salary would take me. My main priority was to travel, so without any calculations or budgets, I just decided to not spend money unless absolutely necessary.
    When my time in Korea came to a close, even with as much traveling as I could possibly jam in, I had somehow managed to bank about 50% of my yearly salary. I didn’t even really realize I was doing it. I think the main factor in my accidental frugalness was the people I surrounded myself with. They were genuine souls who cared about experiences more than possessions, so the Joneses to be kept up with were frugal traveling adventuring spirits. 🙂
    I’ve bounced around a lot since leaving Korea, but I’ve taken the lesson of contentment and the joy that comes from releasing consumerism from your life.

    • That’s awesome! The fact that you weren’t even aware of the fact you saved 50% of your income means that frugality probably comes pretty naturally to you. And yes, having like-minded people to surround yourself with does help. In that regard, my PF friends are pretty frugal, but many of my friends IRL aren’t…or don’t have to be.

  18. Phyllis says:

    In a “I love Raymond” episode his mother was asked why she had saved money in secret of her husband. She said in case he had turned out a irresponsible or cheating husband she would have the means to leave him and make it on her own. She said, “Money is Freedom”. I heartily agree! Having money saved makes living a little safer.

  19. Terrell says:

    To me, frugal means being intentional and thoughtful with money. I was raised in a house that did not spend money frivolously, so living this way is totally normal to me. I have never had debt. In fact, I just purchased my first new car this year with cash. I also turned 40 this year and feel the need to simplify. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending less money, but living in a leaner way, if that makes sense. As I get older, the definition of frugality changes a bit.

  20. Mortimer says:

    Fantastic post. Choosing frugality and treating it as a game rather than a punishment is a perfect way to improve both your mental and financial states. What I hear again and again in your post and others like it is the sense of liberation that comes from choosing to treat money as a means for freedom. And from freedom springs happiness. Thank you for sharing your story.

  21. Marissa says:

    I’m on social security disability, so even when I wasn’t into “frugal living”, I was still being frugal without even knowing it. It wasn’t until, I think, last year that I started the envelope system without even knowing it and stuck with it. Shortly after that, I began budgeting my money so I knew where my money was going. That is what feels good to me. I know where my money is going! ^^ Before the envelope system, I spent my money, but I never budgeted my money into categories. Doing that, I was spending my money, but always wondering and hoping I still have enough money at the end of the month. I still hope I have enough money to last until the end of the month, but it is just a habit of mine since social security does not give out a living wage. But living with a person like my mother who helps me out sometimes helps out a lot during my life at the monent. ^^

    So I think the envelope system and budgeting your money is very important. I know budgeting doesn’t work for everyone, but as long as you know where your money is going, that is always a good thing. ^^

  22. Reformed Spender says:

    I, too, had a long term relationship in my twenties with someone I thought was cheap. He had cheap habits that I now consider winning hardcore frugality. He folded up the bottom of his pants at home so the hems wouldn’t fray. He rinsed and reused dental floss. He didn’t gun the car engine when driving uphill. He searched extensively for a good deal on a used car. When his car was in storage he jacked it up and stored the tires separately. He turned the water off when away on vacation. He always ate at home. He had a mending kit. He built snowmen and played guitar for fun. It drove me crazy. He had $30 000 in savings in his mid-twenties, had traveled the world, including cycling Australia on his Cannondale bike. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t spend that money on a house. Duh! That’s why he had savings. He’s probably steadily working his way to his first million in savings. It took me fifteen years to catch on. I was so dumb.

    • Wow impressive!! I don’t know about reusing dental floss though. But I’m pretty skittish when it comes to oral hygiene. I know of one coupe sharing a toothbrush to save money and that grosses me out. But different strokes for different folks! And look at him now!

  23. Quiche says:

    I can relate to this so much. I was so irresponsible with money in my college years. (Extra cash?! LOBSTER DINNER!) *strangles younger self*

    I’ve gotten so much better with money since then, but it’s still a struggle. My willpower with friends is really low…I find it hard to tell people I’m on a budget and don’t have the money set aside for entertainment or nights out so I end up shifting my budget around just to please people. It’s definitely gotta stop.

    • I’m sorry that’s a struggle for you Quiche. I knew there would be some fallout with a few friends once I switched to being frugal, but again it was having to, not by choice. Let’s just say it weeded out the people I probably didn’t need in my life anyway. Most, fortunately are very supportive, and you may find that too if you try talking to them about it. They might appreciate a friend who is someone they too can do frugal things with.

  24. Lindsay says:

    Great post. I think the word “frugal” has a lot of negative connotations – like you’re being forced into doing it against your will, and you’re a failure at life because you’re not buying all the other shit people buy. I love it when people own up to “bad” labels and turn them into something good and show us how all our ideas are backwards.

    For me, the word “tomboy” is sort of the same way – growing up, people said I was weird and needed to wear fancy dresses and makeup. That’s not my style, so I really owned up to the word “tomboy” and made it my own. Who wants Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens when you can have treehouses, bows and arrows, and saws? 😀 Embracing this “negative” label has changed the course of my life, just as the label “frugality” does as well!

    • I love that!!! Even today I was having a conversation with one of my friends about what the Frugalwoods are doing and I could tell there was some pushback. Hey, no one said YOU had to live that way, so why are you getting so defensive. I think it takes a strong person overall to go against the grain. Nice job!

  25. Amy K says:

    I think it is great that so many people are taking charge of their personal finances. Having the freedom of not living paycheck to paycheck is very liberating. We live in a society where we are encouraged to spend on every turn, and then get depressed when we see what it does to our bank account. For the ladies that are brave enough to have their husbands cut their hair at home, I imagine that first haircut must have been a very scary thing.

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