Uber Frugal Month: The Ultimate Guide To Saving More Money Than You Ever Thought Possible
Note: You can sign-up for the Uber Frugal Month Challenge at any time! Although we did the Challenge as a group in January 2017, you can start it on your own whenever you’d like. Just sign-up in the box below and you’ll receive an email a day for 31 days.
It’s Uber Frugal Month prep time! Welcome to everyone signed up for my inaugural Uber Frugal Month Challenge and, if you haven’t signed up yet, it’s not too late. Join over 6,000 fellow frugal sojourners committed to starting 2017 off by taking control of your finances. We have Challenge participants from Prague, the Netherlands, South Africa, Finland, Romania, Germany, Australia, Ireland, England, Wales, Canada, Scotland, Denmark, New Zealand, and more! What this tells me is that there are a lot of us who no longer want to be part of the consumer-driven machine. Who want more out of our lives. Who want to be authentic people, not merely consumers designed to spend money.
Our collective goal is to save as much as we possibly can during the month of January 2017–but that’s just for starters. The Uber Frugal Month Challenge is designed not only to save you money in one month, but to restructure your consumer mindset. What I’ve found is that after a month of extreme frugality, it’s unlikely you’ll return to your previous level of spending. Participating in an Uber Frugal Month (UFM) interrupts the cycle of hedonic adaptation and lifestyle inflation that we all fall victim to and instead enables us to discover the peaceful simplicity delivered by frugality.
Uber Frugal Month Challenge Signup
We all need some encouragement and inspiration! Starting the day you sign up, I'll send you an email a day for 31 days. Each email will have a tip, meditation, or other frugality enhancer.
Before we get started, be aware that UFM is the equivalent of frugal tough love. Yes, Frugalwoods is a judgement-free zone and yes, I believe there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to frugality and yes, we all have unique circumstances and factors at play in our lives. However. The Uber Frugal Month is intended to push your boundaries, stir your emotions, and yeah, possibly make you frustrated. But it’s frustration with a purpose. You’re expanding your understanding of your finances and–by extension–your life. So don’t short-change yourself, you’ve committed to doing it, now join me and do it!
Homework Time (similar to Hammer Time, but without the dance moves)
Since the Uber Frugal Month kicks off on January 1st (hungover or not!), I want to give you a bit of time to get your battle plan in place. Consider this your official UFM rubric, guideline, outline, and to-do list. Pour a glass of eggnog, snuggle up to your nearest greyhound, open a word document/spreadsheet/notebook (or all three if you’re a manic note-taker like me), and settle in for this long winter’s financial mapping exercise.
Step 1: Establish your goals.
Write down your answers to the following questions (several of which we’ve already discussed in our UFM Facebook page) and be as specific as possible. Avoid vague “to save more money” answers, since that’s a given. Instead, identify the heart of why you want to save more money and exactly how much money you want to save. Without an overarching reason or purpose, frugality is difficult to maintain.
- Why are you participating in this Challenge?
- What do you hope to achieve?
- What are your longterm life goals?
- Where do you want to be in 10 years?
- What about your current lifestyle might prevent those goals from coming to fruition and what can you do about it?
If you have a partner, it’s ideal to attack this exercise together. If you sense your partner might be resistant, you can blame me. Tell your parter the following: “I’m doing this Uber Frugal Month Challenge in an effort to maximize our savings and build a better future for our family and, as part of the Challenge, we’re supposed to discuss some questions with our partner. Can we sit down and talk through this? It would mean a lot to me.” Boom. I recommend broaching the topic with tasty snacks. Just speaking from personal experience. If you are the frugal half of your partnership and your other half is reluctant to embrace your frugal charms, check out the following post for some guidance: Reader Suggestions On: How To Convince Your Husband Or Wife To Be Frugal.
The basis for successful, joyful, longterm frugality is a defined life goal(s). For Mr. FW and me, it was moving to our homestead in the woods and pursuing work that’s meaningful and fulfilling. With that overarching principle guiding our actions, saving money isn’t a challenge for us. We want more out of life than what we can buy in a store and so we’re willing to sacrifice short-term desires (such as a peppermint latte) for longterm gains (not working 40+ hours a week for the rest of our adult lives). Frugality isn’t miserly deprivation for us, it’s liberation. We are freed from needing a lot of money, we are freed from competing with other people in a material goods arms race, and we are freed from the futile pursuit of happiness through consumerism.
For more motivation and insight into successful, goal-oriented frugality, may I recommend:
- The Joy That Comes When Less Is Enough (this is probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. It captures the essence of the happiness and peace that stems from embracing extreme frugality)
- Strategic Luxury: The Difference Between Frugality And Miserliness
- Perfection Is The Enemy Of Frugality (a lesson I remind myself of EVERY SINGLE DAY. no joke.)
- How A Year Of Extreme Frugality Changed Us
- Is Frugality Sustainable Without A Goal?
- How I Let Go Of Caring What People Think
- The False Choices That Steal Our Future
Step 2: Review last month’s spending.
We can’t move forward if we don’t know where we’ve been. You know how I harp every month on how important it is to track your spending? Here’s why. It is 100% impossible to create a savings plan if you don’t know how much you’re spending. And if you haven’t been tracking, fear not frugalyte, for now’s your time to start! I use Personal Capital for this task because it’s free and easy to use. Did I mention it’s free?
In reviewing your past spending, do not berate yourself and do not get discouraged. You’re participating in this Challenge because you want to improve. You’ve taken the first step towards making smarter spending decisions and frankly, you’re going to rock it. So, we ain’t got no time for whining and moaning.
Step 3: Categorize your expenses.
This is another step that’ll be easier if you’ve been using Personal Capital or another finance tracker. But if you haven’t, it’s OK, you can use a spreadsheet or a piece of graph paper or the back of your eggnog napkin. It’ll do.
This is no ordinary categorizing of expenses, my friends. This is the UFM categorizing of expenses and it goes a little something like this: Fixed Mandatory Expenses vs. Discretionary Expenses. Permit me to expand.
Fixed Mandatory Expenses
These are your cannot change ’em (easily) expenses. Hints: groceries do not count and you shouldn’t have too many items in this category. Appropriate fixed mandatory expenses are things like: rent/mortgage, debt repayments, and health insurance. This isn’t to say that these expenses couldn’t change in the future, but they’re pretty darn stable at present.
Everything else goes here. Welcome to the murky abyss into which our money mysteriously evaporates! But it is mystery no more: it’s now exposed on your spreadsheet/graph paper/eggnog napkin. This is the stuff we’ll epically frugalize together.
Step 4: What can I eliminate entirely?
Now that your expenses are divided between Fixed Mandatory and Discretionary, set aside the Mandatory items for the moment (we’ll come back to them later). Take a good, hard look at your Discretionary list and ask: what can be obliterated? Hint: this would be things like restaurant meals, pedicures, dog grooming, and cable. Anything that’s superfluous to your survival needs to go. This is the Uber Frugal Month after all and it’s your induction into the extreme frugality lifestyle. Let go of the unneeded expenses in your life and remind yourself of the goals you set in Step 1.
In addition to deleting expenses, this is an opportunity to simplify your life. A few years ago, I was stressing out over where to find inexpensive makeup. I spent a ton of time trying to piece together coupons and sales, when I had an epiphany: why not just stop wearing makeup?! Instead of struggling to consume something I didn’t need, I simply stopped needing it. Just like that, I transformed my outlook on what constitutes a need in my life (and yes, I did this while living in the city and working a 9-5 office job).
What in your life can you stop doing and stop needing? We build up so many unnecessary things in our minds as must-haves, when in reality, they’re only serving to weigh us down. For example, if you’re panicking over how to get your favorite cable shows without paying for cable: what if you simply gave up watching those shows? What would happen? What could you do with your time instead?
Here’s a few posts I’ve written on giving up just such things:
- How We Broke Our Eating Out Habit In 9 Steps
- How We Avoid Cable And Watch Free TV Online
- Less Makeup And More Confidence: My Frugal Beauty Manifesto
- Our Approach To Affordable, Responsible Dog Care
Step 5: Embrace the art of substitution.
I’m sure there were items in Step 4 that it pained you to eliminate–pained you to your very core! Fear not, for we have a frugal solution and it’s called “the art of substitution.” For elements of life that you’d rather not delete entirely, the key is to find their frugal analogue. Substitution is how Mr. FW and live a luxurious frugal life. We don’t eliminate the things we love most–we do them for less.
A prime candidate for substitution is a gym membership. Exercising is a good thing–don’t eliminate it from your life! But, it’s also something you don’t need to pay for. I’ll expand on this example to help jog your creativity for creating your own substitutions.
How we exercise for free:
- I love yoga and so, I used to volunteer at my yoga studio’s front desk for 30 minutes a week in exchange for free classes. My studio isn’t unique in offering this type of exchange–I’ve heard from friends and readers all around the world who have a similar arrangement with their yoga/pilates/ballet/CrossFit studio. Read more here: How Does Free Yoga Help Our Financial Goals?
- When we lived in the city, we took lengthy walks from Cambridge to Boston, around the river, and up and down the city thoroughfares. Free entertainment and exercise rolled into one. Bonus: both Babywoods and Frugal Hound LOVE walks so it’s good for the whole family (yes, even in the winter).
- Also in the city, Mr. FW biked to work every day (yes, even in the winter).
- Now that we live in the country, we hike through our woods almost daily. Since it’s currently winter and we have sub-zero temps and feet of snow on the ground, we’ve got our snowshoes on and Babywoods bundled in a sled. Except in the worst blizzarding conditions, we’re out there on the trail.
- For indoor exercise, I enjoy free yoga classes through Do Yoga With Me. There are TONS of free exercise programs online–many through YouTube–and you can find the style and level that suits you. Another one I like a lot is the 7 Minute Workout (probably because it’s only 7 minutes long 😉 ).
- There’s also the time-honored parent exercise routine of using your child as a weight. I lay on my back and bench press Babywoods, which she finds hilarious. We also stretch and play together, all of which gets the body moving.
- Mr. FW gets most of his exercise through farm labor–splitting and stacking wood, shoveling snow, clearing trails, etc.
- If you’re a dedicated weightlifter or avid runner, consider equipping a home gym with weights and a treadmill (but only if you’re actually going to use them).
Here are a few other substitution examples:
Mr. FW and I love coffee and didn’t want to give it up; so, we found a frugal source for our beans: Is Costco Coffee Any Good? We Bravely Discover (spoiler alert: it is, although we now get inexpensive organic Fair Trade coffee from BJ’s)
- We similarly adore seltzer water; and so: The Great Homemade Seltzer Discovery of 2015
- Friendships are important to us; hence: Maintaining Friendships And Frugality and Frugal Hosting Ideas For Hanging Out With Friends
The bottom line is: identify what you love, what makes your life fulfilling, and then find cheap–or free–ways to do those things.
Step 6: Reduce spending on discretionary expenses.
Now’s the time to reduce spending on the things we need to sustain us, but that have wiggle room. My favorite example: groceries! Oh yeah! It’s easy to gloss over line items like groceries because they are necessities. And while yes, food is a requirement, expensive food is not. Since food expenses were one of the most oft-cited reasons for participating in the UFM, let’s dig in to some examples.
We eat organic produce, delicious cheeses, meats, and more, but we do it on the cheap. Here’s how:
- What Does A Frugal Person Eat?
- How I Fight Food Waste At Thanksgiving And Beyond (aka you MUST eat your leftovers)
- Six Things We Never Buy At The Grocery Store
- Our Frugal Grocery List Revealed
- Why We Don’t Meal Plan
- Our Epically Frugal Lunch Recipe (works for dinner too!)
- Breakfast: The Hidden Destroyer
- Eat ALL the Things! (aka go through your pantry and eat what you already own)
- Frugalize Your Groceries
Other opportunities for reducing spending in this category stem from sources you might’ve previously thought untouchable, such as your utilities! Turn down your heat, seal up your windows, and spend less on electricity. For more tips, please enjoy:
- 11 Frugal Hacks to Stay Warm and Save Money This Winter
- The Surprising Benefits Of Not Turning On Your Air Conditioning
And another item for this category: Clothes! Clothes! Clothes! Let’s be honest: most clothes-buying is not strictly out of necessity (speaking from personal experience here… ). I was such a rampant clothes horse that I put myself on a clothes-buying-ban that has lasted THREE years. Three years, people. You don’t have to be that extreme, but I’d also posit you probably have enough clothes in your closet to see you through at least a few months.
Need some clothes-therapy? I sure did and so I wrote all of these posts:
- Why I Haven’t Purchased Any Clothes in 2.5 years (and counting)
- Why I’m Not Buying Any Clothes in 2014
- What A Year Without Clothes Did For Me
- Pregnancy Hasn’t Foiled My Clothes-Buying Ban: Here’s How
- Clothing Care For People Who Don’t Buy Clothes
- Maternity Clothes Are Like Christmas Trees: The Clothes-Buying Ban Continues
Step 7: Empower yourself to insource!
In combing through your expenses, identify every line item where you’re paying someone else to do work for you. Examples include: a housekeeper, a lawn care service, dog groomers, hairdressers, dry cleaners, photographers for family photos, home repairs–you get the gist. If you’re serious about elevating your frugality to the next level, it’s time to get serious about embracing the awesome power of insourcing. By doing all of this stuff ourselves, Mr. FW and I reap a three-fold benefit: 1) we save tons-o-money; 2) we learn new skills; 3) we permanently eliminate these expenses from our lives.
A few tips for getting started on your own insourcing journey:
- How Insourcing Strengthened Our Marriage (no joke!)
- How to Give Home Haircuts in 8 Easy Steps
- Final Frontier Of Frugality: My Husband Gave Me A Haircut
- 7 Ways to Become A DIY Hero
- Home Improvement the Frugal Way
- Extreme Frugal Insourcing: Repairing a Frozen and Burst Pipe with PEX
Step 8: Examine your habits.
Spending money is a habit and, like any habit, you have the power to change it. If you don’t like the fact that you rush out the door every morning and buy a $4 latte on the way into the office (that used to be me… ), then change it. Make your coffee at home and take it in a travel thermos. Another example: if you’re frustrated that your water bill is so high every month, examine how often you’re doing laundry and how long your showers are.
Evaluate your habits–you are what you repeatedly do and in this case, your budget is what you repeatedly spend. Think through a typical day–a weekday and a weekend day–and write down every juncture at which you spend money. Then, write down the solutions you can devise to instead save that money. I did this exercise a few years ago and outlined the results in this post: A Day In The Life Of A Frugal Weirdo. By bringing my attention to my daily spending habits, I was able to cut them out of my life permanently.
Step 9: Plan ahead.
A great deal of frugality has to do with the act of planning ahead. So many expenses can be avoided by making a plan! Here’s my example: every week, Babywoods and I take a day trip of sorts. We go to a baby play group and then to the grocery store and on errands. Since this trip takes us upwards of 4 hours, we both get hungry. But instead of swinging through a drive-through, I pack our lunches. It sounds deceptively simple, but consider how many times you’ve been running errands with your kids when everyone melts down from hunger and you have to stop at Panera? I also keep granola bars and almonds (for me) and cheerios and a few pouches of baby food (for Babywoods) in our diaper bag at all times. You never know when an errand will stretch too long and little tummies will be hungry.
Also in the food vein, if you know your weeknights are going to be crazy busy fests of cheerio-throwing toddlers (for example), then cook your dinners ahead of time and keep ’em in the freezer. Don’t buy loads of groceries for complex meals you’ll never make–simplify, streamline, and stop stressing.
Don’t put yourself in situations where you’re going to have to spend money. Aside from true emergencies (I’m talking ones that involve trips to the ER), there’s no excuse for not planning ahead. You know your life, your family, your responsibilities–you know how your week is going to shake out, so set yourself up for success! This helps not just with frugality, but with stress and frustration levels too. By accepting our reality (such as, we’re never going to cook boeuf bourguignon on a weeknight), we tailor our lives to fit and don’t set unreasonable expectations.
Step 10: If you do buy stuff, get it used (or cheap!).
For the things that you legitimately do need to buy, are you sourcing them as cheaply as possible? The used market– Craigslist, garage sales, thrift stores, and of course the Holy Grail of hand-me-downs (cue the heavenly chorus)–are your best bets. Also, join your local Buy Nothing Group–or, if your town doesn’t have one yet–start it! What I like most about shopping used is that I’m usually able to find higher quality, more durable items on the used market than I would if I bought cheap, crappy new stuff.
Need some motivation to start shopping used? May I recommend the following:
- The Myth Of The Gross Used Things
- 12 Ways to Get a Steal on Craigslist
- Our 12 Tips For Finding Roadside Treasures (aka Great Trash Finds)
For the stuff of life that can’t be bought used (toothpaste, dog food, sunscreen), price check to ensure you’re getting the best deal. Every week, Mr, FW and I make a grocery and household items list. For anything on our list that I don’t already know the price of, we price check between Amazon, Wal-Mart, and BJ’s.
I then purchase it wherever it’s cheapest. Since stores are unfortunately not uniformly cheapest on every single item they sell, I find this strategy to be an effective way of sniffing out the best deals. This takes us maybe 15 minutes a week and it’s well worth it for the savings we reap. Bonus: if you find price checking arduous, it just might encourage you to buy less stuff!
Step 11: Banish excuses.
I’m going to bet that for each of the preceding steps, the non-frugal part of your brain reared up with an excuse (I know this to be true because that’s what I did when Mr. FW and I created the UFM). The Uber Frugal Month challenges you to restructure your ingrained spending habits and it’s probably not going to be easy. Here’s the thing: you can make excuses all day long about why you can’t be more frugal, but at some point, your need to sit down and truly think through each of your excuses. You don’t have to justify your decisions to me or to your friends or to anyone else and you don’t even have to share them with the Uber Frugal Month Community. But you do have to be brutally honest with yourself about why you’re spending money.
Changing your spending habits is as much psychological as it is financial, because how we handle money is largely driven by our emotions. The actual mechanics of managing money are simple and straightforward. As with most things in our human experience, saving more money entails changing how we feel about our money. So consider this a financial therapy session and do yourself the favor of entering into it with honesty and a desire to change. Let go of defensiveness and knee-jerk excuses.
The top two most common excuses I hear for not embracing frugality:
1) I live in a high cost of living area! Yep, having lived in NYC, Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA, I’ve been there. And I assure you it’s entirely possible to live frugally in the city. In many ways, I actually found the city to facilitate greater frugality than the country. What I actually think makes city living more expensive is that everyday you’re confronted with endless opportunities to spend alongside the rampant lifestyle inflation of your neighbors. Here are a few inspirational posts for you city-dwellers: How We Live Frugally In The City and The Ultimate Guide To Frugal Boston Living (works for other cities too, I promise).
2) I have kids! Well, so do I. It’s certainly more expensive to have a child than not, but this falls into the same category as most other elements of our lives. We can choose to raise our children frugally, or we can choose not to. It’s certainly not quite that simple, but I also don’t think that being a parent precludes you from frugality. I would point out that some of the most notorious frugal weirdos have children: me, Mr. Money Mustache, JL Collins, Root of Good, 1500 Days to Freedom… and the list goes on. Since we frugal people typically value and prioritize our families, we also usually have children. A few posts for inspiration:
- Fighting Back Against The Baby Industrial Complex
- How To Raise The Best Kids Ever! Hint: Almost No Spending Required
- Why Retiring Early With Kids Can Be The Best Thing Ever
- The Ultimate Guide To Frugal Diapering
- The Gear You Actually Need For Your Baby (Or The Next Baby Shower You Attend)
- How I Make My Own Baby Food and Other Frugal Parenting Tales
Major Lifestyle Changes (deep breath, it’ll be ok)
If you’ve done all of the above, crossed your frugal grocery t’s and dotted your frugal no-eating-out i’s and still can’t save at the level you’d like, then something major needs to change. It’s time to look carefully at your Fixed Mandatory Expenses because at a certain point, you can’t trim around the money-saving edges any more. At a certain point, you need a larger reserve to draw on in order to save more. This, my friends, is the major lifestyle change component of the UFM. These changes are unlikely to happen during the one-month timeframe of the UFM, but you should start considering the below questions as part of the Challenge. As I mentioned in Step 1, if you have a partner, you’ll need to address these questions together.
Here are a few major lifestyle change questions to ask yourself and your partner (if applicable):
1) Do you need to earn more? Can you change jobs or advance in your field? Are you interested in taking on a side hustle to supplement your primary income? Should you sacrifice work-life balance in the short-term in order to be promoted at your current job? My thoughts on the topic here: Career Management: How We’re Reaching Financial Independence On Two Nonprofit Salaries.
2) Would moving help? Is your rent or mortgage draining your reserves every month? Could you move to a lower cost of living area or home? Do you need as much house as you have? Could you consider downsizing or perhaps renting instead of owning?
3) Should you get rid of your car (or one of your cars)? If you live in a city, could you get by without a car and instead avail yourself of biking, walking, and public transit? Could your family cope with one car as opposed to two or three? Are you paying off a loan on a too-pricey ride? Could you instead find an affordable, reliable used car? Recommended posts: Ode To An Old Car: Our Money-Saving Machine and Our Frugal Solution To The All-Wheel Drive Conundrum.
4) Are you paying to work? Sounds bizarre, but many of us expend a ton of money in service of maintaining our jobs. No joke! Here are a few examples:
- Childcare. It’s exorbitantly expensive no matter where you live or what method you use (daycare, nanny share, etc). Do the salaries of both parents effectively outpace your daycare costs? Or, could one parent stay home with the kids? Can you contrive a creative arrangement with either your current employer or by freelancing/consulting/working from home? In the age of the internet, I no longer think it’s a binary decision to work or not work. If you stay home with kids, you’re not cut off from the world or from earning money. I work from home as a freelancer and we don’t pay for childcare. I’m able to work while Babywoods naps and plays independently in the same room with me. It’s an unusual arrangement, but it actually works quite well for us as it provides flexibility and an income.
Commute. Is your commute so lengthly that you’re spending tons on gasoline, take-out food, and other conveniences because your time is so strapped? Could you move closer to your job to facilitate walking, biking or taking public transit to work? Or, could you work from home? If moving isn’t an option, could you find a job that’s closer to your house?
- Treating yourself. Do you hate your job? Does this cause you to spend money in order to assuage the frustration you feel over your work? Our culture inculcates the notion that if we’ve had a hard day, we deserve to treat ourselves–with take-out or a drink at the bar or a new pair of shoes. And yet, all this cycle does is ensure that we must keep working a job we hate in order to treat ourselves to soothe the balm of working a job we hate… For inspiration on breaking this insidious cycle, check out: Treat Yourself? More Like Defeat Yourself!
Conclusion (aka we’re finally done, I swear!)
I know this was a lot to get through and no small amount of work for you. But, this is what will create the basis for your financial future, which in turn will dictate the type of life you will lead. What we’ve discussed today are the mechanics of the UFM. These are the practical steps you need to take in order to save as much money as possible. Throughout the month, my daily emails are what will keep you in the right frame of mind to accomplish this. As you’ve probably surmised, the most important element of saving money is your own mindset. You have the power to decide whether or not you’re going to open your wallet and spend money. It’s something that is wholly within your control. And I, for one, have faith in you.
With that, I hope you find time to reflect on why you’ve chosen to participate in the Uber Frugal Month Challenge. The crux of successful, joyful frugality is spending in service of your goals and on the things that matter most to you. By identifying what you want out of life and eliminating spending that doesn’t get you to that final destination, you will succeed. I’m so happy you’re here with me and I can’t wait to get started together on January 1!
What do you need from me for a successful Uber Frugal Month? Let me know how I can help!
Uber Frugal Month Challenge Signup
We all need some encouragement and inspiration! Starting the day you sign up, I'll send you an email a day for 31 days. Each email will have a tip, meditation, or other frugality enhancer.