Most people aren’t great with money. This unfortunate fact has been hammered home by study after study that finds few Americans have the savings necessary to cover even small unexpected expenses. At the same time, the words “thrifty” and “frugal” still have negative connotations that lead people to assume that a frugal life is a boring one. In actuality, that’s not the case at all.
Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it means to be thrifty and how I’ve come to embrace the concept in my own life. What I realized is that a major part of that process is changing the way you think about money and personal finance in general. With that, here are three tips for getting into a thrifty mindset and learning to be better with money.
Focus on what you’re gaining, not what you’re sacrificing
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about my version of downsizing and how doing so can help you prioritize your spending on things that matter to you. The same concept applies to everyday personal finance, even if you’re not making grand overtures like moving to a new city or living as a digital nomad. Whenever you make an effort to abstain from certain types of spending, it’s important to keep in mind what that decision is enabling you to accomplish.
When you put this paradigm shift into practice, a funny thing can happen: you start enjoying not spending. In fact, as I also recently wrote about, my wife and I have reached the point where spending on large purchases is actually somewhat scary to us. With our larger financial, personal, and lifestyle goals in mind, it’s easy to overlook the things some might think we’re missing out on — be they big, fancy items or smaller daily splurges.
If focusing on your larger money goals isn’t enough to help motivate you to save, you might find value in various savings challenges and other gamifications meant to make saving fun. These types of challenges can often be found on blogs, social media, or even in the App Store. Moreover you can always set up your own challenge ideas — focusing on depositing certain amounts of money or eliminating a specific type of spending — and even ask friends or followers to participate.
Admittedly I’ve never formally taken up a savings challenge but I do get similar glee just from watching some of my side savings accounts rise. For example I set up a weekly transfer in Clarity Money a while back that I often forget about and am happy to rediscover. As pointed out at independent.co.uk, this type of automated saving can also have a game element to it if you set specific goals for your fundraising and find a clever way to reward yourself once that goal is reached (like perhaps using the cash to buy something fun).
Finally, one of the misconceptions about personal finance is that it outlaws all types of splurges, with good spending and bad spending being clearly defined in black and white. While some bloggers and experts may take a harder line than others, byui.edu says you should think of things as being a bit more subjective and customizable.
Case in point: one of the most classic examples people point to when it comes to wasteful spending is the so-called latte factor. Technically this term is meant to apply to a number of small purchases, but make no mistake that overpriced coffee is a prime target of many frugal advisors. Yet, even though I proudly live what I consider a thrifty lifestyle, Starbucks is consistently one of the larger monthly expenses my wife and I have.
How can this be? Simple: we enjoy going to Starbucks a few times a week and so we make room in our budget to make that happen. Despite us gladly paying $5 for a cup of coffee, we’d have a hard time swallowing a dinner bill in excess of $30 a person. Meanwhile, surely certain foodies would gladly drop $100+ on a great meal once a month or more but will stick to Foldgers for their morning fix.
My point is that, when it comes to splurging, it’s not what you’re buying but how you budget for it. As long as you’re still meeting your other money goals, what’s wrong with spending a bit of your money on things and experiences you enjoy? After all, it’s called personal finance for a reason.
Small things add up extremely quickly. It’s true that the absolute difference in cost for a single item between the expensive store and the cheap store is usually only a matter a dollar or two or three on average. At times it seems “why bother? I’d only save like $1.25 on that.” But you’re not getting a single item. You’re most likely getting dozens of items dozens of times a year.
So even an average of one dollar per item times 50 items times 52 weeks a year is $2600 a year. And that’s only for one dollar less per item on average. It could easily be thousands more depending on what you get, and if you pare your shopping list down (“make do”) and really bargain shop you could spend hundreds less per month.
But a note about “bargains“: Your shopping trips should be made because you are going to buy a specific set of things that you need, so if you stumble on a “bargain” or a “great sale” on something you don’t actually need and weren’t intending to buy: that is not a bargain.
You’re minding your own business when you spot something “awesome” for sale. Or maybe there’s an event coming up and you’d like to spend a lot of money preparing. Or maybe you want to surprise everyone at Christmas with extravagant gifts. You might try to justify a purchase like that, telling yourself that it’s just a one-time thing and you can pay it off next month by skipping your budgeted restaurant trips.
But don’t do it! It’s a trap! Because next month you either won’t skip the restaurants, or more likely, there will be a new “one-time” “awesome” thing. You know there will be. Honestly, you know it, and it’ll get the exact same justification, just like the “one-time” expenses you’ve justified in the past.
Much better is to save up a little extra ahead of time so you have enough in free cash for something amazing when it pops up. If you don’t have enough, well, better luck next time.