And I get it. Thinking and talking about budgets can seem, oh, so boring and like such a downer when there’s so much life to be lived, so much fun to be bought.
But here’s the thing: being frugal can actually be incredibly freeing and empowering.
It can buy you – over time – a level of choice and independence in your life that the YOLO attitude can never accomplish. And in more stark terms -- it can save you from debt and impoverishment.
I know this because I’ve lived it.
It’s a story that has its beginnings many, many years ago. Here’s what happened.
Starting with Nothing
As I’ve mentioned more than once before, when my husband and I started out a few decades back, we had very little by way of money or personal possessions.
When we arrived in NYC after my time doing graduate studies overseas, all our belongings fitted into the 2 large suitcases we were allowed to bring on the plane.
Beyond that, we owned the very basic and spartan furnishings my Mom had managed to buy for us at tag sales or that she passed along from my childhood home. I am grateful to her to this day.
Those consisted of:
- a mattress on the bedroom floor that served as our bed;
- 2 basic bureaus for our clothing (in addition to the tiny closet in our equally tiny apartment);
- another mattress on a box spring in the living room that served as our sofa;
- a card table and two chairs for the kitchen;
- and enough linens, pots, and utensils to get us started with the daily functions of sleeping, bathing, cooking, and eating.
I was the sole breadwinner while my husband finished his degree, and my salary working at a non-profit agency at the United Nations was very modest - $13k.
Unemployment hovered around 10%, so I was fortunate indeed to have found anything at all. Half my take-home pay went to pay rent on our approximately 300 square foot apartment an hour’s subway ride from my job.
We also had to cover his tuition at the College of Staten Island campus of CUNY, which was truly a bargain, but still a chunk out of my 13K salary. All this meant that things were financially tight – very tight – and we really had very little discretionary income to speak of.
To give you an example, we could not afford to go out at all, so the first purchase we made for our apartment was a tiny 12-inch black and white TV set to provide us some entertainment beyond the library books I always read. It sat on its own cardboard box for many a month before we replaced that makeshift media stand with a free table we found on the street.
We got about 5 channels total on the set, but it was enough for us. My recollection is that the TV cost about $50, and it represented a major purchase for us, but was still way cheaper than going out for entertainment. I reckon it saved us hundreds of dollars over the 4 years we owned it
That was one of many frugal measures we took to save money at that time. It also helped that I received a small raise before the end of my first year at the agency, and was also able to earn some extra income from overtime my boss offered to me. It meant long hours – I often did not arrive home before 8:30-9:00 pm, due to my long commute - but I was grateful for the chance to improve our financial situation.
But here's the thing. Even with with the added income, we did not alter our day-to-day lifestyle at all.
Mind you, we did choose to allocate a portion of the extra earnings to the purchase of the cheapest plane tickets we could find to visit my husband’s family in Europe once a year.
That was a spending priority for us and much more important than deli lunches, or dinner out, or movie tickets, or any other indulgence available to us in “the city that never sleeps”.
But the vast majority of our increased income went towards savings.
And that practice continued throughout the four years my husband was in school. We banked any extra earnings, including those from my salary increases and promotions, and any odd jobs or short-term employment that he was able to find during school breaks.
Then, just before my husband graduated, our income jumped by 40%, thanks to a terrific and welcome promotion for me. We felt like we had hit the lottery. And we certainly felt like we had weathered the worst of the poverty years.
But we continued our frugal ways nevertheless, laser focusing on saving the down payment for a home. This goal was made inestimably easier by our move out of the crazy expensive NYC housing market when my husband's company relocated.
The new, far more affordable real estate market in the area around the new corporate headquarters enabled us to accumulate the money we needed much more quickly. So it was not long before we were able to follow my Mom’s wise advice and buy a modest two-family house.
The income from the tenant helped pay our mortgage, and enabled me to be a stay-at-home Mom with our first child. I also took on a small job delivering newspapers, which provided a small side-income that covered the car payment on the station wagon we needed and also added to our savings.
We continued to keep our expenses as low as possible and used the rent we received from the tenants to pay down the mortgage and build equity in our home.
Without a doubt, the decision to buy and live in a multi-family property proved to be one of the best ones we ever could have made for our financial security. It allowed us to weather more than one housing bubble and subsequent crash without a major blow to our economic well-being.
Even when our house value plunged, the rent we received made our monthly payments small and manageable, and buffered us from stress while the market rebounded. Eventually we had saved enough that we were able to move again, this time to a larger 3-family, and we rented out the entire first home for income.
Over time, we bought and sold a few more properties, and I managed them while raising and homeschooling our sons. The rents we received and my husband’s good job as an engineer provided us with a steadily rising income every year.
Still, we were nowhere near rich, and we never really changed our spending habits.
Frugality remained the order of the day even as the paychecks got steadily bigger. Among other things, we faced substantial college expenses, even though all our boys excelled at their studies and earned generous scholarships to help offset costs.
Our savings and thrifty budget got us through. It is a matter of personal pride to me that we were able to help each of our boys graduate from college completely debt free. That would not have been possible if we had lived more extravagantly, instead of the modest way we did.
Financial Disaster Strikes
Then, in 2010 we learned in very stark and real terms just how fortuitous our lifestyle choice was.
That year disaster struck when my husband was laid off from his job of 24 years, and our income was slashed by 75%. In that miserable job market, it soon became clear how very unlikely it was that my husband would find employment with anything even close to comparable pay and benefits.
So there I was just finishing graduate school for my teaching license; we still had 3 sons in college; we had our own retirement to think about, and it was the middle of the Great Recession.
Things were not good. At. All.
Even with our savings and with the mortgage paid off – accomplished with the help of rental payments – I don’t think I have to tell you that it was an extremely stressful time.
Given the grim employment prospects around the country, we came to recognize that we would have to figure out how to make a living on our own.
Fortunately, our savings provided us with enough of a financial buffer that we could afford to buy some time for ourselves. We made the decision to have my husband focus full-time on developing an internet venture related to one of his life-long passions.
So for a while we lived off his unemployment checks and our rental property earnings while he worked on building the business. Eventually, I found a teaching job, and that helped considerably. But our income was still less than half of what it had been.
In those years, we did not add to our savings, but we managed to make enough to cover our expenses so that we we were not depleting them either. And we managed to live just fine without having to make an enormous effort or huge sacrifice to tighten our belts since we had never developed lavish tastes or lifestyle choices in the first place.
Eventually, the internet business developed and grew so that it began to generate a solid income. While it did and does not come close to matching my husband's corporate salary, we've discovered that he is much happier than he ever was in the Fortune 500 world.
With the combined incomes from our various revenue streams, we live very comfortably, and are once again adding substantial amounts each year to our retirement funds, while still enjoying some of the nicer things life has to offer empty-nesters, such as travel.
We count ourselves blessed to have come through the recession in good financial shape.
While we are not wealthy, we are on very sound financial footing, which is a whole lot more than many people I know who’ve endured bankruptcies, foreclosures, and business losses during these tough economic times.
We are still on track to be able to retire in comfort, despite what amounted to a forced early retirement.
None of this would have been possible if we had not been careful and frugal as a matter of habit.
It was that lifestyle that provided us the cushion we needed to get through the leaner times -- which turned out to be years-long -- without irreparable harm to our long-term financial situation. And it was that lifestyle that enabled us to take the setback in stride without feeling like it was a huge sacrifice.
In retrospect, I sincerely believe it was a blessing in disguise that we had to manage on such a tight budget at the beginning of our lives together.
That period of time laid the foundation for our entire attitude about money matters. It forced us to make mindful decisions about our finances. It also taught us that we could survive and get by quite comfortably with minimal material possessions. And it established living and spending patterns that have served us well for a few decades now.
We have no regrets about our decision to keep our needs simple and to resist ratcheting up our lifestyle and spending more as our income rose. Quite the contrary.
We consider ourselves among the lucky ones and are grateful we managed to avoid buying into the pervasive consumer culture around us. Those choices undoubtedly allowed us to avert catastrophe with my husband's long period of unemployment, and afforded us some peace of mind that we would otherwise not have had.
It’s my absolute conviction that frugality and a minimalist approach to spending pays big dividends in the long run. It's no get-quick-rich scheme, but I recommend it as an approach to living that can ultimately give you choice and control over your life in very meaningful and powerful ways.