Counteracting the “Sameness” of Frugal Living

One complaint people often make when they settle into a more frugal lifestyle is that their life begins to take on a feeling of “sameness,” in that each day feels more similar to the others than it did before they made frugal changes to their life. (This same shock is being felt by people under stay at home orders, too, for similar reasons.)

I’ll give you a great example of this. Many people settle into a routine of eating out fairly often, and this gives them an opportunity to visit different environments and eat different food very frequently. As people shift toward frugality, that often translates into eating at home more often, where the environment is more or less the same every day.

Another example, this taken from my own life: before I made frugal changes, I used to go out on the town a lot for entertainment’s sake. I went out with friends after work for drinks and appetizers to different places. I frequently went golfing. Sarah and I went to the movie theater all the time. As we became frugal, those things dropped out of our life and we spent a lot more time at home.

Yet another example is the idea of retail therapy or shopping for entertainment. Many people get into a routine of going to a wide variety of places to shop and buy things — it provides entertainment and an outlet for stress. As people become more frugal, they begin to consciously avoid stores and thus spend their time elsewhere.

These factors (and others) often create a sense, especially at first, that a highly frugal life, where you’re careful with your discretionary income, is a dull and “same-y” life.

My belief, as someone who’s been pretty frugal for many years, is that the idea of frugal living as dull and “same-y” is a phase that passes, brought on by a period of transition between the activities you used to do and the full wealth of options that frugality offers which people may not have discovered yet if they’ve recently made big frugal changes.

Let’s delve into what that means, and I’ll use our story as an example.

As I noted above, Sarah and I used to live a lifestyle where we ate out several nights a week, we went out frequently and we bought lots of things. As we transitioned to being more frugal, many of those things initially went away. It was easy to see how to cut things, but it wasn’t as easy to see how to replace them.

So, for a while, we did live a very “stay at home” life (something pretty familiar to folks who have been doing it without their choice recently) and, yeah, it was boring at times. We even went through a period where, out of boredom, we somewhat rejected it and reverted to some of our earlier lifestyle patterns.

Over time, though, we figured out how to live a frugal life with a variety to it that we enjoyed. What follows is a list of some of the things we did that, to me, made a huge difference.

We varied locations a lot with our home-prepared meals. We started eating lots of picnic lunches and suppers. We would cook on the grill and eat outside. We bought some inexpensive tablecloths, different centerpieces and candles for our table, which varied the look of our dining area.

We started having a lot of potluck dinner parties. This added even more variety to our meals and to our social lives. We simply started having people over for supper pretty often, asking them to bring a side dish or a drink with them, and they often started reciprocating, which meant that we were often having dinner at the homes of our friends.

We explored low-cost hobbies and activities that we hadn’t done before. We made it a point to fill our evenings and weekends with things to do, with the only filter being that they were low cost and seemed at least potentially interesting. We started going to tons of community events. We started doing a lot of hiking and trail walking (something most can do during stay at home orders). We started volunteering. We started checking out lots of Meetups in the area (some of which are meeting virtually right now). Sarah and I both enjoyed reading, but we made it more social by joining book clubs.

This might seem hard to believe, but between the dinner parties and the community events and the meetups, we actually had more good friends within a year or two of changing our lifestyles than we had before those changes. I have more good friends right now than I’ve had at any point in my life.

How to live frugally while still having fun

1. Learn how to make a wide variety of meals. Some of the sense of “sameness” comes from eating the same handful of meals that you’re familiar with preparing. Make a conscious choice to expand that repertoire. Learn how to make lots of meals that you like, using meals you remember enjoying in the past as a starting point. Sure, they might not be easy at first or particularly great the first time or two, but the quality of the meal and the efficiency of preparing it will get better and better over time.

2. Learn how to vary the experience of meals at home. Eat some meals outside. Have some picnics. When you do eat at your dinner table, put a tablecloth on it sometimes, or change up the tablecloth. Put a candle on the table or some flowers. If you have multiple places to eat at home, vary those up.

3. As the situation allows, start having dinner parties with friends. This won’t work well during social distancing, but as that fades, have dinner parties with your friends. Invite them to your home, make the main course that you’ve become familiar with making, and invite them to bring a side dish with them. Invite lots of different people, and over time some of those invitations will start to reciprocate, which means a variety of meals and dining locations and partners to dine with.

4. Intentionally explore new hobbies. Wikipedia has a huge list of them. Find a few that seem interesting to you that you can start digging into at a low cost. Many of them don’t require anything more than your smartphone to get started, and a lot can easily be done even during periods of social distancing.

One angle to take on the hobby suggestion is to turn some avenue of self-improvement into a hobby. This approach has been very powerful for me over the past several years. Pick some aspect of yourself that you feel could use some improvement, then look at improving that aspect of yourself in a frugal way. When you’re satisfied, dial it back a little and move onto a new aspect. You might work on improving your fitness or building a useful skill, for example.

5. Intentionally do something different on consecutive evenings. It can be very easy to fall right into a routine of doing the same thing night after night and then find yourself getting bored with that routine and chafing against it. If you had homemade pizza for dinner and then watched a movie one night, pack sandwiches in a picnic basket and go to a park the next night and follow that with an evening trail walk. If you’re stuck at home on consecutive nights, have a completely different supper on those nights in a different place in your home, then spend the evening on very different activities — a movie one night, sure, but then play a game the next night, read a book, have FaceTime chats with your friends, go out and lay down on a blanket and stare at the stars and identify some planets and constellations or take an online class. If you’re outside of a stay-at-home order and feel good doing so, your options only grow from there.

What you’ll find is that there is an extraordinary amount of variety to be had in frugal living — it’s just that it’s not served up to you automatically. Rather than having variety in the form of going to a different restaurant or visiting a different shop, you have to create and choose that variety for yourself.

Humans are creatures of habit, and because of that, our natural instinct is to create a routine. If your routine is going out to a restaurant each night, variety is easy to create, but when you’re frugal, you have to put a little more into it. The variety is infinitely abundant, it’s just not served up to you as readily, but with a little effort, you can have a wonderfully varied life while still being quite frugal.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.