In my day to day life, I naturally gravitate toward frugal options. I prefer to make a meal at home rather than eating out. I prefer to buy store brand options for most things. I love hitting sales in the produce section. My idea of a great family vacation involves camping in a national park, particularly when we have a free national parks pass. I love digging for bargains. I love the lack of stress that comes from not having any debt and earning more than we spend and having some money in the bank.
But what made me have that mindset? What kinds of things shifted my thinking in that direction? Obviously, at other points in my life, I was much more of a big spender. What brought about that shift?
I started making a list of the factors that made me frugal. I realized pretty quickly that some of the elements really did pre-date my turnaround – the foundations for the change were in place even as I was spending big. However, it took a few more elements for everything to really click into place.
So, without further ado, here are ten things that shaped my sense of frugality and my overall financial outlook, in roughly chronological order.
This story really has to start with them.
My father was a “jack of all trades” kind of person. He worked most of the time in a factory making construction equipment, but he was often laid off from his job, particularly when I was younger. To keep things afloat for our family, he seemed to constantly have all kinds of side gigs going on. He was an avid gardener, with gardens on an incredible scale for an individual person. He was a small scale commercial fisherman. He raised small amounts of livestock – pigs, chickens, goats, and rabbits. He did all kinds of odd jobs, from small car repairs to welding to foraging for things like fungi and wild ginseng. He always made sure that there was food on the table, a roof over our head, and clothes on our backs.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom and a frugal powerhouse. Her goal was to seemingly spend as little as possible in a given week so that we’d have money available when bigger moments came around. She did this by constantly doing things to cut our spending. She would do laundry and hang it out on the line in any and all weather short of a downpour or freezing temperature. We virtually never ate out and often had meals centered around what came out of the garden or the deep freezer or what was on sale at the grocery store. She was an avid reader, but we didn’t go to the book store for books, we always went to the library.
They each set financial examples for me, but in different ways. My father showed me the value of having a lot of skills and a lot of different income streams. If one faltered, you could always pick up another if you had a wide range of skills. My mother showed me the value of frugality and watching where pennies went.
Those values were embedded deep in me. In some ways, my years of “big spending” were something of a rebellion against them and an attempt to explore other avenues, but the underlying values were still there.
Growing up lower middle class
As you might guess from the above story, we didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. I think lower middle class is a decent description of our average financial state, though it varied a bit (both upwards and downwards) during my childhood and teen years.
Most of the people I went to school with had substantially more family income than my own family did. They always had things that I wished I could have. They went on trips and participated in things that were simply not things we could afford.
Even given that, I still had a really good childhood. My memories of childhood are almost entirely good ones. We didn’t travel much, but I remember a lot of camping trips and a lot of evenings doing things together as a family. We didn’t have lots of stuff, but we always had what we needed and we often had at least some of the things we wanted. We didn’t have an amazing fancy house and it didn’t have a ton of space, but it kept the rain and the cold out.
If my childhood taught me anything, it’s that you don’t really need to have a lot of money to have a good life. All you really need is enough clothes to keep you warm, a roof over your head, food and water in your belly, something to engage your mind and body, and good people in your life for friendship and guidance. That’s all children really need. That’s all people really need. Everything else is just extras.
The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn
My aunt subscribed to this newsletter after hearing about it on the Donahue show that she watched faithfully. She received it in the mail on a monthly basis when I was in high school and she’d leave the newsletters out on her side table for anyone to read in a nice neat stack.
I remember leafing through them at the time and finding some of the ideas pretty creative, and I remember thinking to myself that it was interesting that people who had the financial means to buy pretty much whatever they wanted would actively choose to do these things. Some of the articles in the Gazette touched on that idea, linking the idea of frugality to having minimal money worries and a lot of freedom in terms of lifestyle choices.
Those articles came into my life when I was first really beginning to understand that people might not necessarily choose to invest their lives in chasing the standard American dream and might want to chase other dreams that might center around other life ambitions. At that time, I secretly dreamed of becoming a novelist, and The Tightwad Gazette really planted the idea in my mind that a person could actually pursue such goals without falling entirely into the “starving artist” trap.
I didn’t see frugality as a tool with which to build the life you wanted until I spent a few afternoons reading a pile of those newsletters. Before that, I perceived frugality as something one did out of necessity, not out of choice. It’s actually a useful tool no matter what your life situation.
My best friend, girlfriend, and eventual wife Sarah
Sarah and I were friends in high school, but we didn’t start actually dating until we ended up attending the same college. Neither one of us knew anyone when we started – there were no pre-existing social networks for either one of us aside from each other – so that gradually pushed us closer and closer together.
Sarah is the one person in my life that I’ve never felt that I had to impress. I could completely be myself with her and never feel like I had to be something else. Most of my best memories of our years as friends and our later years when we were dating were of incredibly simple things, like just watching movies or going on walks or things like that.
When you couple that sentiment with her natural inclination to enjoy the simpler things in life and my own upbringing, we often found ourselves enjoying simple things, and we still do.
My first forays into frugality and fixing our finances were strongly supported by her, and it was through that process that we rediscovered a lot of the things that we enjoyed doing together that we had replaced due to having money. We started making meals together again. We started going on a lot of walks together again.
It was because of that shared history and our shared comfort level and our open conversation that we were able to make that financial turnaround happen.
Titan by Ron Chernow
For a long period in my life – most of the 2000s, actually – I devoured biography after biography. Politicians. Artists. Businesspeople. Religious leaders. Cultural icons. I was hungry to learn about the lives of those who had accomplished big things.
My big goal with each biography I read was to intentionally pull out one or two things that meaningfully applied to my life and then spend some time trying to meaningfully apply it.
During that period in my life when I was just starting to be more open about turning my financial ship around, I happened to be reading Titan by Ron Chernow. Titan is a biography of John D. Rockefeller Sr., the founder of Standard Oil. He pulled himself up from nearly nothing to build one of the largest companies in the world.
The big element I took away from this book was Rockefeller’s insistence on keeping track of every single penny in not only his personal life, but in his businesses. He kept a ledger of every expense and every dollar brought in. His success was in no small part built upon careful tracking and careful consideration of every single dime.
I attempted this practice for a while. It was really my first attempt at keeping track of every dime that I spent. What did I learn from it? Well, when I actually went through those expenses at the time, I couldn’t help but conclude that I was spending way too much.
One might think that this experience alone would have shaken my financial path of destruction that I followed in my early adult years. It didn’t, but it certainly unsettled things and it likely helped set the stage for things to come. Plus, I think it’s somewhat responsible for my continued use of spreadsheets and You Need a Budget for tracking my expenses, even to this day.
Camping and hiking
When Sarah and I were first married, our vacations were elaborate. In the first few years of our marriage, we traveled to London, to Edinburgh, to Vegas, to Seattle, to Mexico City. We stayed in nice hotels and enjoyed ourselves.
However, one vacation in particular really stood out as memorable. For a good week, we camped on Mount Rainier and in Olympic National Forest. The two of us just stayed in a tent and did a ton of hiking and talking and exploring.
After that trip, we both realized how much we loved camping and hiking. They’re really inexpensive hobbies (once you have some basic gear) and they provide the backbone for really inexpensive getaways. Plus, there’s a certain DIY element to those kinds of experiences.
Since then, our travel has been more and more directed towards camping and hiking. In the past decade, we’ve spent our summers in countless state and national parks, exploring trails and building campfires and just enjoying nature. I’ve come to enjoy camping and hiking as incredibly relaxing and renewing experiences.
Camping and hiking, more than anything else, taught me that I don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to feel relaxed. I can find it anywhere if I just open my mind and heart to it.
Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson
I read this biography of Benjamin Franklin while my wife was pregnant with our first child, and as with the many other biographies I read, I tried to take something out of it that I could use in my life.
Here, the lesson I took away is that a person could consciously work on their virtues and actually practice being a better person. There was a section of Isaacson’s biography covering Franklin’s years as a printer in Philadelphia that discussed how Franklin used a little pocket notebook to work on the virtues he desired for himself that he felt he was weak on. I actually wrote about this process not long ago on The Simple Dollar.
I tried doing this for a while as I finished up Isaacson’s biography and tackled Franklin’s own autobiography and found it to be pretty challenging, but in a good way, one that makes you feel like you’ve actually pushed yourself in a better direction. I’ve revisited this practice over the years in various ways.
So, what does that have to do with shaping my frugality? Well, frugality was literally one of Franklin’s thirteen virtues. I remember finding the practice of that virtue to be easier and more meaningful than I expected at the time, which I believe really set the stage for the financial direction that was to come.
Becoming a parent
In late 2005, Sarah and I became parents for the first time. For the first time in my life, I felt wholly responsible for the well being and safety of another life. My son’s life was completely in my hands. His well being and growth was in my hands. What was I going to do?
I was absolutely scared to death by the prospect of parenthood. I felt like I could barely manage my own life, let alone take on the responsibility of raising a child. This shift in perspective largely occurred during Sarah’s pregnancy – prior to that, I thought I was ready to be a parent, but as those months passed, it became clear to me that I wasn’t ready and that I could barely manage myself.
Those first few months of parenthood were a major adjustment. I began to really feel the weight of how the things I was doing during his infancy were going to shape him. He needed to be held and loved. He needed to be fed. He needed to be warm and safe. He needed to hear my calm and happy speaking voice.
Along with that, I needed to consider his future. What was his childhood going to look like? His teen years? What about growing up and leaving home, something I had done myself not too long before that? I was now going to be the parent in those roles, not the kid. How would I ever be ready?
That experience of parenthood gave me a lot of food for thought that weighed heavily on my heart and eventually led right to the doorstep of my financial epiphany.
Julius Rock from Everybody Hates Chris
At the time when our first child was a baby, one of the better sitcoms on television was Everybody Hates Chris, a sitcom based on the troubled teenage experiences of comedian Chris Rock. It was one of those shows that manages to bridge the gap between funny and genuinely thoughtful and I found myself watching it regularly.
The character that stood out to me on the show was Julius Rock, the father of the main character. Julius was a solid, level headed, and reliable father and husband, portrayed with a lot more respect than many sitcom fathers, at least in my eyes. He worried a lot about his family and made a conscientious effort to be involved in their lives.
One of his biggest quirks, however, was his strong frugality. He was extremely, extremely careful with his money and his family’s money. He carried it over the line to “cheapness” sometimes, but quite often, it was clear that he was trying to be careful with his money so that his family could always be sure to have a roof over their head and have what they needed.
Julius Rock had a profound impact on my consideration of what it meant to be a father and a husband, in the sense that part of that responsibility was to make sure that my family always had what they needed, even if it were sometimes at the expense of what I wanted.
Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
When I finally hit financial rock bottom, I already had most of the pieces in place to carve out a better direction for my own life, but it was Your Money or Your Life that truly kicked it into high gear.
My initial move when I realized that I needed to turn my finances around was the same as it always was when I hit a problem in life or a subject I didn’t fully understand: I started reading. I went to the library and checked out tons of books on personal finance.
Your Money or Your Life clicked like no other book did. It drew upon all of those pieces that were already in place in my life and gave those pieces a shape and a worldview that I didn’t quite have before I opened that cover. It really was a framework for a lot of elements already present in my life and it pointed me in a new direction, one that eventually led to The Simple Dollar and debt freedom and potential financial independence from work in the reasonably near future.
I really encourage you to read my series on the book, where I dig deeply into the impact this book had on me.
As I look back over my life, I realize that I spent most of it assembling the pieces of my frugality and financial outlook, but I didn’t put them all together in a sensible way until after I had been married for a few years and had a child. Before that, I stumbled through life without any real financial direction; it took those life changes and the ability to put all of those ideas in a real framework for things to change for us.
What are the pieces that make up the puzzle of your financial foundations? What brought you to the point where you’re reading this article and thinking seriously about your finances? Perhaps most importantly, how can those things keep you moving forward?