The Two Biggest Mistakes People Make When Starting to Live Frugally

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"I've turned over a new leaf in life!" You exclaim from the highest mountain about your newly adopted frugal lifestyle. You've seen the light — possibly through dire financial necessity — and you understand that with a few lifestyle changes, you can live frugally with relatively no pain and lots to gain.

Living frugally, after all, is en vogue. Brown-bagging is in, sushi is out. Home-brewed coffee in, Starbucks out. Curling up with a good book in, rounds of drinks at the bar out. Macrame Christmas presents are in, shopping at the mall is out. You're full of frugal lifestyle ideas and are excited about getting on this bandwagon. (See also: 25 Frugal Changes You Can Make Today)

Making the Investment to Be Frugal

So you head to the grocery store in preparation for your new frugal lifestyle. Your previously empty fridge will be stocked to the hilt with inspirational ingredients that will fuel your new frugal gourmet life, and you're determined to create works of culinary mastery that will serve up nutritious dinners yielding leftover lunches you'll be excited about the next day.

You look forward to bragging to your co-workers about the awesome lunch you'll be toting. They might even become so envious, you'll start cooking up big batches of your soon-to-be-famous dishes and selling them for an extra few bucks on the side. Now that's how you make frugal cool, baby!

You reel yourself in. For now you just need to learn to cook something good and stock your fridge. But since you had an empty fridge to begin with, this is a frugal investment.

Next in your shopping mission to live frugally, you stop at the bookstore. Books provide hours and hours of entertainment, so even though they may cost the same as going to a movie, they last so much longer, and you can enjoy them over and over again.

"Wow — it's been a while since I've read anything," you think as you browse the bookstore. You're inspired by so many books, you can't seem to choose. So you don't. You buy the lot.

The last stop on your frugal shopping spree is Starbucks. If you're going to start bringing coffee from home in the mornings, you need a nice travel mug to tote it in — and some nice beans to get you started. (Wait a minute — that's a pretty nice French press coffee maker there. The coffee will taste much better from that, and you're much more likely to be excited about your daily coffee if it's really high quality. This is most certainly a frugal investment worth making — something that will be paid off with a few weeks of no lattes, anyway).

So in the name of getting ready to start living frugally, you've made a hefty investment. But it's all worthwhile, right?

Off and Running...

Now you're ready for your new frugal life. You cook a terrific meal that's so good, you entertain the idea of hosting frugal dinner parties and showing other people how to do it. This is easy! You can't believe you didn't start this whole frugal lifestyle thing earlier.

After dinner you curl up to your new book and fall asleep in a state of frugal bliss.

The next day your frugal lunch is delicious, and you don't even mind eating it in the company of your coworkers who have ordered their standard sushi lunch. You love sushi too, but frugal tastes better.

You think of all the other ways you can live frugally. Inspired by your initial success, you're ready to take your life to frugal extremes.

...But Too Fast?

Maybe you last a week of living with your new frugal choices. Maybe longer. But at some point you wonder how long you need to live like this before you're allowed to splurge. You've been so good — cooking meals at home (it's a lot of work!), brewing your own coffee (which isn't nearly as good as Starbucks), brown-bagging your lunches (which are good, but not sushi), and staying inside reading your books (which are getting a little bit boring).

You haven't even reached a break-even point of your "frugal investment," and you're wondering when you can splurge. The sense of deprivation is starting to kick in. Frugal may be cool, but it's definitely not happening.

The Two Biggest Mistakes People Make When Starting to Live Frugally

The above examples of adopting a frugal lifestyle are, of course, exaggerated and slightly parodied. Although there are people out there who fit this profile to a "T," there are also many more who make choices about becoming frugal that don't cost as much money. Either way, these examples demonstrate two major mistakes people often make:

Mistake 1: Spending Too Much Money to Be Frugal

Although in some cases you need to spend a little money to save a lot of money, generally, this is not part of the frugal mentality you need to adopt. Beware of shopping sprees in the name of adopting new frugal habits; until you know the habit is maintainable, it's not worth spending the money. (Besides, there's usually a more moderate or creative approach to the task that costs less.)

Mistake 2: Doing Everything at Once

Turning your life upside down overnight in the name of starting to live frugally is a recipe for disaster. Living frugally isn't about sacrificing everything and depriving yourself; it's about making balanced choices that allow you to live large on a small budget. By swinging from one extreme to another, your ability to strike a frugal medium — one that is actually a maintainable lifestyle — is remote.

Deprivation is not frugal. Although adopting new frugal habits might require some initial compromises, miring yourself in deprivation in the name of living frugally only invites a financial rebellion before you've even made any headway.

How to Really Start Living Frugally

Instead of turning your life upside down in the name of becoming frugal, here are some suggestions for how to start living frugally:

  • Ease into new frugal habits in a way that's comfortable, not shocking. If you're going to start brown-bagging lunches, for example, and you're used to eating out every day, then start with leftover lunches three days a week. This still gives you a lunch out two days per week to look forward to — and you're still saving money overall.
  • Adopt frugal lifestyle ideas one at a time, and incorporate them into the framework of your life. It takes 21 days of doing something to make it a habit, so allow yourself this time to weave new frugal habits into your routines. After bringing lunches to work becomes comfortable to maintain, shake up your coffee ritual by only treating yourself to Starbucks on Mondays and Fridays. Let this habit sink in, then tackle another area of your life.
  • Instead of always adopting new frugal habits, try deepening a habit you've started. Leftover lunches going well? Then try cutting down lunches out to one day per week. Liking your home-brewed coffee? Maybe Starbucks can wait for Saturday mornings only. Or maybe Starbucks can become a thing of your past altogether.  

Staying Motivated

If you want to start to live frugally, you'll best get there slowly and methodically — as unglamorous as it sounds. But in this slow-and-steady approach, it's easy to lose sight of the ball. Remember that you decided to start living frugally for a reason, and that reason is attached to a goal. If you stick to living frugally in a manageable way and track your progress, you'll reach those goals — and then some.

Your frugal lifestyle is just that — a lifestyle, not a passing fancy.

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Guest's picture

Some good advice. I'm too frugal for Starbucks, I have never been in. I'm British and know how to make a good cup of tea! I have just started picking up bargains on the London Stock market, the return on which, I hope will make life easier when the recession finally ends. In the meantime, I can live frugally quite easily. I have investments made in previous frugal years and no debts.

Guest's picture

I did the same with a Vegan lifestyle. I started with breakfast, as that was easiest, then I worked on snacks, so that I would not sabotage myself. Now I am onto the main meals. Also I do not feel the need to 'not cheat'. I have milk in my tea, that may take a while to stop, but I do not eat meat, I do not eat eggs or cheese. It is a journey, not a line in teh sand goal.

Meg Favreau's picture

I agree on the idea of the journey -- it's a great way to approach any eating changes (or any life changes, really!). When I started eating healthier a couple of years ago, first it was a couple of salads a week...then only making bread with whole wheat flour...and so on.

Guest's picture

Great idea on how to transition into a healthier eating lifestyle!

Guest's picture

Too true! I have to chuckle at this post, I see a little of myself in the beginning. I tend to want to do things cold turkey, but you are right, working in slowly makes building a habit more likely to be sustainable. Cooking for yourself and being frugal is easier said than done. This takes so so much energy, shopping and getting the right ingredients, and making sure to use them before they go bad takes so much planning. Not to mention the clean up time. If you really try it for a while, you realize that eating out at the right places or ordering takeout is sometimes a really good deal.

Guest's picture

It is learning to find that happy medium that can be the hardest part. At times it seems sustainable to only eat 3 week old leftovers and other things of the like, but the reality is that this is not sustainable. At the same time, splurging on Starbucks a couple times a week may be a tad unsustainable as well. Though, if sustainability [ie the long term] is the aim, then there is a great chance of eventually being able to craft that frugal lifestyle.

Guest's picture

Yep. It can be costly to live frugally as well if not careful. Just because something is on sale doesn't mean you need to stock up on large quantities. You still need to purchase other items which will only run up the total. Homemade soups and stews is a good basic but vegatables out of season can be costly. Check out frozen veggies. That way you will be able use them at anytime instead of wasting fresh veggies. There are numerous other ways to be frugal as the following posts suggest.

Guest's picture

These are really good points. I've actually been going through a big pantry purge so that I can figure out what I already have on hand before I try to make more frugal moves. I'm finding that I have a huge stockpile of miscellaneous stuff that I had forgotten about.

Guest's picture

Living frugally is not as negative as it sounds..It just means bringing some course adjustments to your life to make it more meaningful

Guest's picture

One other thing I would say is a big mistake I have certainly made - giving up entirely if you "fall off the wagon"! This is true in all kinds of things, not just frugality. If you try to eat healthier, and one day you get frustrated and eat three chocolate bars, don't give up and drop your whole initiative. Just accept that you ate it, and go back to eating healthily. Don't be derailed! Exercise too - if you ignore it for a week, just get back to it again, and don't say "What's the use?" I have sure done this a few times when I've gotten frustrated and splurged. Then I dropped the whole "frugal thing" for a while ... And regretted it.

Guest's picture

My husband and I both grew up in families with limited income so we know the feeling of being "poor". We enjoy a frugal life style (using/re-using, using things up) but we do not deprive ourselves of what we deem to be a pleasure to us. Now retired, exploring parts of America on road trips, lunch fixings in the cooler on the back seat, but dinner and a nice hotel at the end of the day is fun and frugal. Next year's plan is 2 months in Europe, utilizing public transportation and eating what the locals eat. To us being frugal means living life to the fullest.

Guest's picture

Since you mentioned books I thought it would have been a good idea to say that a library if much cheaper than buying books. We didn't CHOOSE a frugal lifestyle, we were thrown into it from losing a job. I don't know many people who "decide" to be frugal, we are all just forced into it by the economy so there is no going out and buying things to be frugal, you just end up having no money for all your basics, like oil changes in the vehicle, food, etc. These things are necessary but if you don't have the money for it then they don't get taken care of. My husband's truck is sitting with a broken serpentine belt and he has to find another means to get to work because we don't have enough money for food so the serpentine belt gets put on the back burner in favor of food. And any of you wise guys start criticizing that we still have internet then I only have to remind you that some things are signed up for under contract and such decisions are usually made when a family still has two jobs and doesn't think that they will soon have to go without, also these things are automatically payed for from the bank account so there is no just pushing the payment to a later date.

Guest's picture

Extremely valuable points re: forced fruaglity versus 'choosing'. I too wish she'd mentioned the library. With all the state/city budget cuts, if they aren't used, we will lose them!!

Guest's picture

I was also wondering why the library wasn't mentioned, instead of bookstores. And I think it's a modern myth that internet is a luxury; if my husband and I were to face another period of unemployment, internet would be one of the last things to go. You search for jobs online, and some places only accept applications online. I mailed a paper application to a university because I was having trouble with their website, and they sent me back an email that they couldn't accept paper applications. It's true that the library has internet, but applications for federal employment can involve essay questions and take hours. Not to mention the free things that are available online--TV shows, podcasts, newspapers and magazines, Freecycle, medical advice, phone calls via Skype. I think you should keep your internet if at all possible when your contract runs out.

Guest's picture

I would also suggest for someone that feels the need to own books, (like myself) used book stores are a great option. i just couldnt get into using the library, i like to be able to reread at my leisure.

i doubt too many people on here would criticize someone for keeping internet. it is pretty darn essential to finding work. and going to the library to use internet every couple days could mean you missed the chance to reply to a prospective employer. if one does not live in a place with readily available wifi (stolen from others), paying for internet or library might be their only options.
besides contact with potential employers, friends (who might have job leads), family etc. internet offers low to no cost entertainment.

Guest's picture
Von C.

I have always lived frugal, don't know any other way to live. All those extravagant expenses aren't necessary for life. I owe no money to anyone, everything I own is paid for. If you keep in mind that there is a reason for living this way and don't start thinking that you are being deprived of something it isn't a hard life to live. My husband had trouble with living frugally for a long time, but when the recession hit and he could still have anything he wanted and still got retire at 58 like he wanted to, he finally got it.

Guest's picture

This is a great article! I have a friend who claims to be frugal because she uses coupons and only buys items that are on sale but 95% of what she buys she doesn't need so in a since she is the opposite of frugal. I think the main idea of those who are successfully frugal is to live simply and only purchase what you need. Those who cannot define a need from a want or get a high from buying something just because it's discounted can't be successfully frugal. It's not just a life style it's a way of thinking too!

Guest's picture

Sometimes you think you are being frugal when you buy cheaper cost items but in the end you end up spending more money because cheaper usually means it will not last as long as you want it to last. When it breaks down or become unusable, then you have no choice to spend the money again. To save money, you must become a smart spender. There will be situations where it makes sense to spend more to buy a better quality product.

Guest's picture

There are some things that you should never sacrifice quality for just to save since it becomes 'hazardous' to your safety or health. As you mentioned, these are usually the bigger or more important things in life (including items indispensable in the home) such as appliances, vehicles, food (in terms of it being safe, i'm not telling you to spend a LOT on this) and education to name a few. It is usually the added up little things and habits that you spend on that makes the dent in your finances. Movies, eating out, regular salon or spa treatments, shopping sprees every payday - these are the things that one should cut back on or try to get cheaper...

Guest's picture

Frugal=library, not bookstore.

Guest's picture

Your article made me laugh, because what you are saying is so true! I know too many people who start towards a goal like this, or dieting or exercising or whatever only to try and change too much too fast and completely fall off their "new way of life" wagon. Baby steps towards lasting change is a much better way of succeeding.

Guest's picture

I'd like to add that is a sustainable frugal choice for book lovers! (And it's more than just paperbacks...)

Guest's picture

Lots of good tips here especially the one about not doing all things at once. I can vouch for that!

Guest's picture

I think it is very easy to fall into the trap of poverty=frugality. In reality, some people have grown up in a frugal environment where their parents' spending habits were conservative - including limited spending on luxuries and attempting to save money where they can. If you were brought up in such a family, your intuition is probably to act the same.

For people who were brought up in free-spending surroundings, they are more likely to be accustomed to a more liberal spending behaviour. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, it can be difficult to break this pattern, especially if you're still in the same family environment.

Living frugally in an environment which thinks in the same way is obviously the easiest. An example of a difficulty to be frugal: in many developed countries, friends meet in pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues - all of which cost money. If you want to socialise; you have to spend money. This cycle can be very difficult to get out of -- reducing expenditure, means reducing social. Such a consumption-led culture doesn't mean you cannot be frugal, but it does present real limitations.

Guest's picture

Living frugally allows you to live richly in ways that you choose. It can be really simple and lovely to live frugally. I like to have style with my frugality - designer clothing bought second-hand, travel to Europe with home exchanges, and eating wonderful meals, cooked at home. Make no mistake - frugal is not the same as cheap. And, I don't clip or print coupons.

Guest's picture
Ben M

Unless you are doing this by necessity, I strongly agree that frugality needs to be taken in baby steps and be made part of a routine. If starbucks is your thing... figure out how you can do it cheaper. Instead of buying books... go to the library or buy from a second hand store. There are so many ways to find creative ways NOT to spend money.

Guest's picture

I agree plunging in too deep and too fast to any new plan such as being frugal often leads to disaster.
My biggest and best frugal tip to others is not to have too many kids. I cannot tell you how tired I am of hearing people with 3 or 4 kids complaining about the cost, it's not like they did not know in advance that kids cost money.

Guest's picture

You are right and you are wrong. Some folks have a *much* easier time having kids than others. You sound like the type that isn't so lucky,,, they are worth all the 'complaining'. You sound like you don't get that.

Guest's picture

This is hysterical living frugal. Try living poor. Get laid off from your job, then be told that your going to retire soon and its in the companies best interest to hire someone with less experience. There is ZERO public transportation in our city, and the Municipal library closed due to budget cuts. We are a community of 95K. Retire soon my fannie! I am 50 cant retire until I am 72. The money magnets destroyed our 20 year 401k.

Guest's picture

I like the meat of this article but I was left hungry for examples. There's plenty of room to expand.

Guest's picture

Get carded - at your library!

Don't buy books, borrow them from the library. Call ahead, but usually all most libraries require is some i.d. and proof of address.
You can even get free eBooks and audio books at most libraries, that you can download at home or wherever you access the internet. Multipurpose that smart phone!

keep saving!

Max Wong's picture
Max Wong

Great article Nora! However I have one correction:

Macrame Christmas Gifts = Never In

Guest's picture
Glenis M

I enjoyed this post as I've always been "frugal" - I call it "good with money." I agree however that it's important to have something to look forward to now and then. I don't always bring my lunch and I do like to eat out somewhere special for special occasions.