We are not rolling in the dough, although sitting on my cozy couch, watching the snow fall on my field feels pretty luxurious. Our joint income approaches the US median of $62,175, if we push our side hustles. But we save aggressively, putting away over 50% of our earnings.
The change didn’t happen overnight, and it included several lifestyle shifts. I like to compare it to weight loss: there aren’t any magic tricks. It is the relationship between calories in vs. calories out, and focusing on the aspects of it you can control. While everyone wants the quick fix, it is through specific choices you make each day that you achieve what you want. With that in mind, here are some things that worked for us… as part of a wholesome savings diet.
- Know what you want
With any big shift, you need to have specific goals in mind as well as some working definition of why you want to achieve them. That way, you can check your actions against your desired outcomes. You also need to understand where you presently stand, to best paint the path of where you are going.
We started our journey to financial independence in January of 2017. We were mid-negotiations on 10 acres of raw land and we knew we’d be moving soon. In preparation for purchasing the land and the RV we were going to turn into a micro-home, we crunched all the numbers. This was our chance to simplify everything, and see how much money we could save in the process. At the time we had about $30,000 in savings. This was what we put away over a span of 3 years. We realized we could make our necessary purchases with roughly half of that, but the remaining number didn’t make us very comfortable. We decided to “pay ourselves back” within 18 months. We achieved that goal in under 12 months. The next year, in 2018, we vowed to double that number and we did. Our current goal is to have 100K by 2020. The “why”, while complex, can be narrowed down to a simple mantra “Independence and Freedom”.
- Reduce the big stuff
If you can reduce your biggest expenses, it will really pay off in the long run. For us, this included housing and transportation. Our rental (where we lived until May of 2017) cost $800 a month. This included utilities and came to $9600 a year. We now live in a micro-home on land that we own. Our cost of living is reduced to taxes and utilities, which comes out to roughly $3,300. That is $6,300 straight into savings. While I understand that our choice to live in 200 square feet is pretty drastic and not a good fit for everybody, reducing your housing cost in any way, saves money every month, so I really recommend looking into it, and finding a solution for you.
For transportation, we share a car. We always buy used vehicles (our current is a 1986 Volvo 244 with 135k original miles, a steal), which means no car payments and cheap insurance. When possible, we use our bikes. We also try to reduce the amount we commute. For our first 3 years in town Mr. Sweetspot had a 40-minute commute to work. We didn’t run the math until much later, but to our surprise the annual cost of such a commute is $3,386. Now we live .5 miles from my office, and when Mr. Sweetspot gets a gig out of town, we figure out the commute cost first and evaluate it against the depreciation on our car vs the potential for earnings. The key here is to get a cheap car and use it as infrequently as possible.
- Reduce the small stuff
This might feel counter-intuitive, but this is the field where you can make the most difference. The reason? Changes can be immediate. If you decide to reduce housing costs by moving, you can’t implement that decision tomorrow. By contrast, it takes one phone-call to cancel internet service. We’ve been without internet for almost two years, and it hasn’t made a dramatic impact on our lives. The savings? $1,680. The hubs also optimized our phone service, which now costs us only $8.25 per person per month. We’ve stopped shopping for clothes as entertainment. After going through Project 333, we have a good sense of our wardrobes and only buy the things we need. The cost is negligible: around $100 annually, compared to the $700 we used to spend on shopping sprees.
This leaves the two biggest areas: food and entertainment. We never overindulged with consumer electronics and cars, but this category was our weakness, prior to implementing frugality. The category of eating out/going out/snacks on the go used to cost us $9,100. That’s not even including groceries. Our current entire weekly entertainment/food/household budget is $120. This includes most items, except medical expenses and fuel. That totals $6,240. Again, while that first number doesn’t account for groceries, so assume groceries were another $100 / week (+5,200 annually) there is a savings of $8,060. This will take a lot of adjustment, but your wallet will thank you.
- Embrace your weirdness
Working Americans often engage in a “work hard play hard” philosophy that all too often leads to them being broke and exhausted. If you’re living in the US, the trend is to not save. By considering your savings at all, you’re already a non-conformist. Whether your goal is to be able to afford dentures in retirement, or to have the financial independence to raise the finger to the proverbial “man”, you’re bucking against the norm. You’ll be making some unpopular choices on the road to savings, and you need to embrace them. People might think you’re weird, and that’s ok…because you are.
It took us some time to adapt our social life to a micro-home reality, until we had the brilliant idea to invite ourselves over to friends’ homes and cook them dinner. What started off as a weird idea, quickly became “our thing”. We’ve since also hosted bonfires and dance parties on our land, and everybody has accepted that we won’t be joining them for a shopping trip, the annual “friends cruise”, expensive ski trips and get-aways, or most events that cost more than $60 a piece. We still get occasional teasing about our clunky car, but we’re comfortable with our choices. This is a true testament to the saying “Those who matter don’t mind, and those that mind don’t matter”. You may find out who your real friends are living an unconventional life style, but wouldn’t you rather know?
- Keep things fun & flexible
There is no denying the fact that you could save the most money living in a tent, eating nothing but beans and rice. If you’re there and thriving- awesome! For most of us, that is a bit too extreme. It’s easy to fall in the trap of saving money at all cost and forgetting to enjoy life. So, if you want to go have drinks with your friends- go. If you want to travel out of town, do it. Going back to the diet metaphor, an occasional treat won’t make a huge difference. A daily treat – will. So pick what matters to you, that which brings value to your life and then enjoy without guilt.
Remember to stay flexible. Different things might work for you depending on the situation. In the summer we work for a theatre company out of town for a little over a month. We’re out of our regular home, we work the exact same fairly long hours and things are a bit harder to manage. When we’re there, we adjust our weekly number to $150. This allows us to purchase some prepared items that we’d normally make from scratch and it makes a big difference to our quality of life.
- Comparison is the thief of joy
Congratulations, you’ve made lots of changes and you’re meeting your goals. Your savings have doubled in a year! You feel pretty great about it, and then you see an article from Mr. Money Mustache entitled “Notes on Giving Away my First $100,000” (this is only one of many examples of people on FIRE achieving amazing things). Suddenly you realize you didn’t make it at all. In fact, your number is quite insignificant in the grand scheme.
Let go of this type of thinking. This is a practice of jealousy, not frugality, and unlike the latter, it has no benefits. Additionally, there is no point in beating yourself up about not reaching a goal that you were never trying to achieve in the first place. If you analyzed what you wanted, why you wanted it, came up with a plan and achieved it, you are a success story. Celebrate your successes and make only one comparison: the you of the present vs. the you of the past.
I wish you the best of luck and I’m curious to hear if you have any tips that worked for you.