How Does Frugality Translate Into Wealth?

Success in personal finance is really a matter of the mind. It’s about having the awareness to see all of the choices you’re making and having the fortitude to consistently make good choices in terms of your money.

One of the big challenges, particularly for people first starting out, is to see the connection between frugality and wealth. Frugality as a sustained and natural habit leads directly to wealth, but that path is sometimes hard to see.

So, let’s walk through this, step by step. Let’s look at three pretty typical frugal changes a person might make.

First, you make the choice to eat one more meal at home per week. You replace a $10 meal eaten at a restaurant with a $2 meal prepared at home and you stick with that forever – let’s say, fifty weeks a year. This is a pretty big change.

Second, you replace all of the light bulbs in your home with energy efficient ones over the next month or so. You have 30 light sockets in your home, the average socket is on for four hours a day, and you’ve switched from 75 watt bulbs to 15 watt bulbs, saving you 60 watts. This is also a reasonably big change.

Third, you join a free ultimate Frisbee league in your town that’s sponsored by the parks and recreation association, which eats up two weeknights with free activities. On those nights, you would have been staying at home with 10 light bulbs on and watching television for two hours, but instead you walk to the park after turning all of that stuff off. This is a pretty small change, but we want one of those for comparison’s sake.

The first step is to calculate what you actually save per month and per year by these changes.

With the choice to eat a meal at home each week, you’re saving $8 per week over 50 weeks, which adds up to $400 per year. Per month, you simply divide that by twelve, giving you $33.33 per month.

With the choice to replace your light bulbs in a typical usage situation, we know that energy companies charge $0.12 per kilowatt hour on average. You’re saving sixty watts times thirty sockets times four hours, giving you 7,200 watt-hours per day in energy savings, or 7.2 kilowatt hours. At $0.12 per kilowatt hour, that’s a daily savings of $0.864, which adds up to $26.28 per month and $315.36 per year.

With the free ultimate Frisbee league, you’re turning off your lights, your television, and your cable box for two additional hours per day. Let’s say your television uses 80 watts, your cable box uses 45 watts, and your light bulbs are using fifteen watts each, as described above. That’s 140 watts, times two hours, times twice a week, times 50 weeks a year, giving you 28,000 watts per year. At a rate of $0.12 per kilowatt hour, that adds up to $3.36 per year, or $0.28 per month.

So, with just these three changes, we save $59.89 per month – or $718.68 annually.

If you’re astute enough, you can put that $718.68 into an investment account each year so that it will earn a 7% return each year. You start doing this at age 25. At age 65, you have $81,100.66.

Yes, switching light bulbs, eating one meal at home a week, and finding a free outside activity to do a couple nights a week – if you take the savings from these things and invest it – will eventually save you over $80,000.

There are two big tricks to really making this work.

First, find frugal tactics that are actually sustainable in your life. For me, these are either one-off things such as changing light bulbs or things that I try out and find that they integrate smoothly into my life. If something is a hassle or produces results I don’t like, I abandon that idea and shrug it off as something I tried that just didn’t work out.

Second, figure out what they’re saving you over your previous choices and save that difference. If you find you made a shift that saves you $5 a month but it’s completely sustainable, then have your bank automatically move $5 each month from your checking to your savings account. One good way to do this is to just have one weekly transfer that’s about a quarter of what you think you’re saving each month thanks to your frugal choices. Keep track of all of the changes on a list somewhere along with how much they’re saving you. Remember, even the little ones really add up over time.

Then, once a year or so, move that saved money into some form of investment. What you choose to do with that is up to you, but you should figure out what your goal is in relation to that money and invest accordingly.

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