On the journey to financial independence, there are two crucial halves of the same, inevitable equation: the income side and the expenses side.
Unfortunately, most of us can’t just decide to inflate the income side of the equation at a moment’s notice (although there are definitely strategies you can implement quickly to make more money). The good news? Most times, you are the gatekeeper and sole authority over the “expenses” side.
If you’re just trying to spend more responsibly and you’re not in a dire financial situation, you can slowly and leisurely change your habits so they stick. There’s no need to go from cold brew to cold turkey immediately—that’s not very sustainable, after all, and increases your chances of backslide if you aren’t completely bought in to the value of frugality yet.
(I am confident, however, that once you see the effects in your bank account over a few months, you’ll be sold.)
And as we’ve discussed before, so much of money—and our personal spending habits associated with it—is emotional. It’s intertwined so closely with our sense of self and the lifestyle choices that make us “us,” that making changes that don’t feel right can be downright threatening to our identities.
What kind of young professional am I if I’m not constantly toting around the iconic white cup from Starbucks? How will others perceive me if I choose to forgo buying every new pair of trendy shoes Adidas releases on a suspiciously rapid cadence, and instead wear the same pair of old Nike Roshes for three years?
As someone who works in brand marketing, I want to turn the fun-house mirror around: Brands intentionally position themselves in such a way that feel intrinsic to your lifestyle so you feel you have no choice but to purchase, parade and push their products.
There’s no better way to guarantee a repeat customer than to create a brand that feels like it melts into part of his or her personality.
In this way, “things” become a means to make statements about who you are, versus serving some sort of rational, utilitarian function. Why else would people (ahem—definitely not me) own 12 pairs of imperceptibly varied black lululemon leggings?
That said… there is a way out.
And, as I’ve mentioned before, finding your way out of the consumerism hamster wheel enables you to actually enjoy the few-and-far-between indulgences you allow yourself, rather than come to expect them.
It starts, unsurprisingly, with awareness—awareness of your weak spots. Mine, as hinted above, is lululemon. Personal finance and discipline seem to dissipate in the rare retail air of a lululemon store.
Slap a purple markdown sticker on something my size and—9 times out of 10—I’ll be in a semi-hallucinatory state in the dressing room, picturing myself gallivanting in and out of the studio or walking the dog in said gear, blasting a subliminal message to all of Dallas that I, Katie Gatti, am fit and chic.
How to hone in on your own trouble spots? Take the Marie Kondo method and simply identify what you own way too much of.
Maybe it’s makeup (does it make you feel more attractive?). Maybe it’s shoes (do they make you feel cooler?). Maybe it’s restaurant food and drinks (do they make you feel more plugged-in, socially?). The parenthetical theme, of course, is that the brand or purchase category is providing some external satisfaction that transcends the obvious or explicit.
In my example, the subtext was “fit and chic.”
Psychological preaching aside, the point is this: you don’t have to cut everything out immediately. It can be a slow transition, made easier by a more reasonable middle-ground solution or stepping stone.
I’m going to address certain transitions that worked well for me in two major discretionary categories:
While I’ve already beaten the lululemon horse (stationary bike?) dead, retail in general is something sneaky that used to somehow crop up (usually in the form of crop tops, ironically) on each credit card statement.
Usually, I wouldn’t even remember what I bought when I saw the $150 or $200 line item on the statement.
But these purchases were the direct result of a hobby that used to take up a lot of my free time—walking around malls like Highland Park Village or Northpark.
Simply put, you’re going to be far less tempted to buy something if you never come into physical contact with it.
Even if you love walking around the mall for fun, you’re probably exposing yourself to storefront after storefront of needless temptation. I promise, walking around outside is heaps more fun.
Big retail brands have made a concerted effort and investment in turning shopping into an experience in itself. Why? Because getting you in the store is step #1.
Obviously, sometimes you do actually need to buy something. While the ultra-frugal approach is to buy used or not at all, here’s my middle-ground solution:
Be intentional about what you need to buy and only go to a store armed with that intention—not to aimlessly wander around and look.
Now that I’ve gotten better at actually hating spending money, I’m able to go window-shop with friends on rainy Saturdays and feel little to no temptation. But at first… it was really hard.
Ultra-frugal: Only buy used
Transitional frugality: Only go to stores when you have a specific item in mind, and once you’re there, allow yourself to enjoy the experience
Food, drinks, and coffee
Without a doubt, the category that I’ve cut out most noticeably is food. I used to hit $400 or $500 in restaurant food monthly—with EASE.
I’ll still pat myself on the back that, relatively speaking, this isn’t THAT bad. My friend-who-will-not-be-named told me recently he spent $1,800 on restaurant food last month. He eats out or orders takeout every day.
Obviously, I was HORRIFIED. Is my bitchy judgment showing?
It shouldn’t be, considering I’m the girl who used to pay $3.70 for cold brew every morning without batting an eye.
Allow me to paint a picture:
You buy your Starbucks (or other boutique coffee shop) cup every morning. A few days a week, you grab lunch from Chipotle, Chick-Fil-a or another local spot. You get apps and drinks via happy hour shenanigans two nights per week with friends, and you almost exclusively eat at an over-priced brunch spot on Saturdays and/or Sundays—lest we not forget the Friday and Saturday evening drinks at the bar and the inevitable late-night pizza or tacos!
When you list everything like that, it sounds like… a lot. But when you’re living it, with these purchase decisions sometimes 12-18 hours apart, it feels completely normal.
That’s the type of lifestyle that was skyrocketing me to $700 monthly restaurant budget overages. The crazy thing is, I just felt like I was keeping up with the people around me.
If you’re cringing at how much you identify with the spending habits above, don’t panic—I’m not going to tell you to strike that spending category dead and switch over to 24/7 rice and beans.
After all, money is meant to be enjoyed—and believe me, it’s possible to enjoy your money and food without spending yourself into an anxious, calorically dense hole.
Here’s what worked for me:
I weaned myself off the $3.70 cold brews by switching to $2.44 drip coffees (I know, baby steps) and then, a few weeks later, realizing I could just drink apartment coffee for free.
If you live in a house or an apartment without a coffee machine in the lobby, another great intermediary, baby step is buying fancy coffee (like the Starbucks cold brew or iced coffee in the jug) from the grocery store before switching over to the cheapest alternative—making it yourself.
By choosing a grocery store brand or a product that still excites you, you’re more likely to stick with the plan instead of bagging the whole thing and blacking out three cars deep in the Starbucks drive-through.
This gives you a chance to break the coffee shop habit long enough to experiment with making coffee yourself at home without undergoing the grumpy caffeine lows that typically accompany giving up fancy coffee.
The takeout trap is slightly harder to escape, since it’s equally about convenience (or so it seems).
Stopping at a restaurant or ordering takeout delivery is ridiculously overpriced (and actually fairly time-consuming, if you’re driving around town on a daily basis to do so), but some people hate cooking so much that they’re willing to spend the time and money to avoid the inconvenience of making their own food (again, I say, a little ironic).
The middle-ground alternative? Buying pre-made food from a grocery store’s deli section.
Most grocery store chains have parts of the store where you can get sandwiches and stuff prepackaged. Rotisserie chicken, mashed potatoes and salad by the pound, even robust sushi offerings—it’s all at your local Kroger or Tom Thumb for 1/3 the price of the restaurants down the street.
Keep in mind this is the “Wean yourself off restaurant food habit” plan, not the sustainable plan—but it’s a lot easier to go from East Hampton Sandwich Co.’s $15 lunch to a $6 Whole Foods sandwich than it is to go from that same boujee sandwich shop to buying canned food at CostCo.
The first step is making the grocery store a weekly routine, rather than hitting up Uber Eats every night.
Again, it’s merely a stepping stone toward better habits because you have the means to take it in baby steps.
(But, tough love moment: if you’re in massive debt and eating out every day, what the actual f*** are you doing? Money is meant to be enjoyed, but that assumes you HAVE the money in the first place—spending money you don’t have is the fastest way to put yourself in a really bad position, and that’s not enjoyable for anyone.)
Ultra-frugal: Shop from stores like CostCo and Sam’s Club, purchasing things in bulk and getting your average meal cost down to around $2
Transitional frugality: Buy pre-prepared or easy-to-assemble meals from the grocery store, averaging about $5-6 per meal
Cue my spiel on meal prep services: I think they’re kind of a rip-off, especially the ones where you still have to do all the cooking yourself. You’re literally saving one step—looking up the recipe and going to the grocery store, and you’re paying a fat premium for it.
Maybe better than restaurant food with tips and such, but still, you’re averaging about $10/meal which is astronomical and, by the way, more expensive than dining-out choices like Chipotle and Chick-Fil-A.
(Y’all remember when the Chipotle burrito bowl was the financial yard stick against which everything was measured? “That costs 2.5 burrito bowls.” I miss college.)
To figure out how much you’re averaging per meal, simply take your weekly food spending (whether that be grocery or restaurant—in most cases, a combination of both) and divide by 21: 3 meals per day for 7 days a week (assuming, of course, that your weekly food budget actually covers all 21 meals).
And for the non-discretionary…
I’ve written in the past about turning expensive hobbies into side hustles, but I want to do a post soon about seemingly non-negotiable costs: rent, utilities, etc. and how to trim the fat off your “needs” budget.
I’ve also posted several times about working credit card rewards in your favor to achieve free travel—whether that be the Sapphire Preferred, the American Express Platinum, or actual how-tos on redeeming 50,000 points for over $1,100 in value.
While all of these tips and tricks in the financial independence community are valuable, I still maintain that habitual frugality is the means by which we’ll eventually reach our goals. Happy cost-cutting!
The young woman's money guide for all the things you're too embarrassed to ask your friends. Build the life you thought you were too broke to afford through managing your spending habits, travel hacking, and simple, smart investing.
Full-time Brand marketer at Southwest Airlines, part-time Yoga Sculpt teacher, occasional Waffle House Model and reformed materialist.
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