Do any of these words bring to mind a lifestyle full of joy and freedom? Oddly, they don’t. Instead, they bring to mind images of Scrooge and dreary, turn-of-the-century London slums. (Not sure why that last image comes to mind, but it does. Possibly from reading Oliver Twist!)
For those of us who do live lives of frugality, penny-pinching, and, yes, thriftiness, the reality is quite different. My family has been debt free for many years, with only a house payment and utilities as our expenses. While we aren’t exactly rolling in dough, neither are we over-burdened with stuff and all the responsibilities that come from owning too much stuff.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years and a handful on my own To Do list:
- Give yourself a cash allowance every week or month and when the money is gone, it’s gone. Even having $10-20 and knowing you can spend it on ANYTHING YOU LIKE, adds some fun to the month. This will help you avoid those moments of self-pity when it feels like you never get to treat yourself to something special, and then, when you do spend, you know the money is there and there’s no stress about whether or not you can afford it.
- Check your banking account online often. Look for unauthorized expenses and those little expenses that can add up quickly. It helps you feel like you’re in control when you know exactly how much money is in your account and where it’s going and if there are any fraudulent charges, you can contact the bank immediately.
- Find friends who also want to live a frugal lifestyle, rather than with people who have expensive tastes. If you hang out with people who absolutely must have the latest technical gadget the day it comes out and they spend money like it’s water, pretty soon you’ll begin to do the same, or you’ll end up feeling depressed when you don’t spend. Who needs that additional stress?
- Have no spend days. Once you are able to go 1, 2, 3, and 4 days without spending a dime, then challenge yourself and your family to a full week of no spending.
- If one member of the family is more frugal, more of a saver, send THEM to the store with a list. They’ll be more likely to stick to the list and avoid impulse buys. If I run to the store to buy 4 things, you’d better believe I come home with 30 or 40. My penny-pinching daughter? She’ll stick to that list like white on rice!
- Make saving money a game. What are the very cheapest meals you can make? If you spent $500 on groceries this month, can you spend $475 next month and $450 the next?
- On Sundays, sit down with your family and plan your spending for the week. Know what you will need to buy and this helps avoid buying things you don’t need. This will also help surprise expenses that the kids might spring on you at the last moment, such as fees for school activities.
- If possible, have a set amount of money automatically deposited from your paycheck into your savings account. There’s a very good chance you’ll never miss it. If you don’t make a point of saving money on purpose, it will never happen. Use this 52 Weeks Savings Plan, too.
- Carry cash for your spending money. It’s harder to spend it than it is to swipe a card. Those plastic debit and credit card remove you from the actual transition of cash. After all, it’s just a swipe, right?
- Take advantage of pre-tax Health Savings Accounts and employer contributions to a 401K, if those are offered by your job. Every benefit offered by your company, even if it’s just a bag of coffee beans per month as offered by Starbucks to their employees, is there for the taking. (By the way, Starbucks is an excellent employer. Review their benefits here.)
- Keep track of your financial progress: savings, debt repayment, mortgage/car pay offs, etc. This is so motivating — and get the family involved. Right now, my own family is saving up for an extensive vacation, and we have savings goals for each month. Not surprisingly, both kids are eager to get summer jobs, so they can add to the kitty!
- Use tax returns strategically: pay off debt, use it as your emergency fund, divide it by 12 and use it toward a monthly expense, etc. If you normally get this little “windfall” from the IRS, give yourself at least 3-4 weeks before spending it, a “cooling off period,” if you will. That will give you time to prioritize expenses and decide how much you want to set aside in savings.
- Watch your attitude and be grateful for what you have. It’s easy to become discouraged and even depressed when money is tight, but our grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through the Great Depression not only survived but many of them have said those were the best days of their lives. Why? Certainly not because they had every creature comfort and a huge bank balance, but because it was a time of families and communities pulling together, encouraging one another, and finding creative ways to make the most of what they had. If they could do it, you can, too!
- Stay away from malls and stores! You can’t pray, “Lead me not into temptation”, and expect to not be lured by tantalizing merchandise in stores and your favorite mall!
- Do the same for your kids. They are immersed in messages that tell them they must own certain items, dress a certain way, emulate one celebrity or another and spending time at malls and stores will only further drive home the message that happiness and acceptance by others can only come by spending money. Not a good foundation for their adult years.
- Spoil your kids with things that don’t cost much, if any, money – story time with mom, a trip to the dog park, story time at the library, “Hot Chocolate Night”, etc. This is when it really pays to keep track of restaurants and fast food joints that have “kids eat free” days. Combine that with a special night out for just you and one of the kids, and that’s a really inexpensive way to make your kid feel like a million bucks. In our house, we call this, “Girls Night Out” and “Guys Night Out.”
- Know the difference between needs and wants and make sure everyone in the family understands this, adults included! When my son has a long list of things he absolutely must have, I have him list each of them on a separate PostIt note and put them on the fridge. A few days later, I ask, “Is there anything on that list you don’t really want or need, after all?” One by one, the PostIts come off the fridge as he realizes he was just acting on impulse. If there’s something left after 3 or 4 weeks, he then begins saving money to buy it.
- Sign up to become a mystery shopper. This is a tricky way to get a nice meal out and be reimbursed. I’ve done mystery shopping for several companies over the years. It’s not the easy, get-rich-quick job that some claim, but once you get in with a few companies, you can pick and choose which jobs to take. Now, I only, and very occasionally, shop my absolute favorite high-end restaurant. For a $45 gift card to that same restaurant, it’s not a bad investment of my time!