What I Wish I Had Known When I Started Living Frugally


I’ve always been a fairly frugal person. I didn’t decide to be frugal one day or make a resolution on January 1 of any particular year. Evolving in the "frugal arts" has been more a path of gentle reminders and little lessons that have kept me on the straight and narrow. But early on, there was so much I didn’t know. As a younger person in my early twenties, frugality was a guiding, albeit much grayer concept, and I had no idea of the wide network of people who were following a similar path and having similar struggles.

If I could speak one-on-one to that fresh-faced 22-year-old just out of college, there’d be a few pieces of advice I’d give on the topic of frugal living — advice that might have saved him some stress, confusion, and money. (See also: The Two Biggest Mistakes People Make When Starting to Live Frugally)

It Gets Easier

Frugality is a skill. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Eventually, whole categories of expenses will buckle and fall to your instant and flawless number-crunching. Meanwhile, enjoy the small pleasures and keep your eye on the prize.

It’s Not Necessarily How Much You Make; It’s How Much You Save

Our society puts so much emphasis on making money and very little on saving it. Most people think the path out of money problems or the road to a more secure financial future is paved with higher-paying jobs. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with career advancement, without the fundamental skills on how to manage it, more money often means just more spending and bigger debt. But even with a very modest income, amazing feats of savings can be achieved with the right mindset and discipline. In short, never be fooled into thinking that you make too little to save, and never be lulled into believing that you make so much that you can catch up later.

Frugality Is Even More Important Than You Think It Is

Living within your means, living simply, and saving for goals and for retirement are important in ways you can’t even conceive of yet. As you get older, you’ll thank yourself for saving early, avoiding debt, and letting the magic of compounding interest do much of work for you. Though money isn’t everything, being on the wrong side of 40 is just a little bit “righter” when you have a firm grasp on the financial fundamentals.

There Are Young People Just Like You; You’re Part of a Movement

Though the idea of frugality may, at times, feel like the quaint sport of an older generation, take comfort — you’re not alone. In about ten years everyone will be connected via a network of personal computers, and you’ll see on a global level just how many folks are spurning over-consumption, living simply, and talking and writing about frugality. Stay tuned.

Frugality, Simplicity, and Sustainability Are All Petals on the Same Flower

It sometimes takes years to reach a vantage point where you can see how ideas are connected. Though they sometimes seem abstract, frugality, simplicity, and living sustainably are all part of the same idea. It’s nearly impossible to live a truly frugal life without simplifying and being mindful of the environment and sustainability concerns. As you grow into your lifestyle and connect with others, you’ll finally begin to see just how cohesive all of your disparate interests actually are.

Oh...and There’s a Big Recession Coming

Crystal ball time — in about 20 years, through a series of global financial missteps, the whole economic house of cards will tumble. Small successes now and larger lessons later will inform how prepared you are and how much of a personal adjustment you’ll have to make in response to some serious new economic realities. (Meanwhile, don’t invest in anything called "OTC derivatives.")

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Whatever lessons I’ve managed to learn so-far have come at the right time and in largely the right way. I wonder though, if I were to have a similar conversation with myself 20 years from now, what would my 65-year-old self have to say?

What do you wish you had known when you started on your frugal path? What’s the most valuable thing that frugal newbies should know? 

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Guest's picture
Debbie M

How susceptible are you to peer pressure? Some peer pressure isn't as strong as you might think (some of things your friends do are things they really don't care whether you do or not). And it's much more fun to be around peers who pressure you to be a better person. So join groups likely to have those kinds of people. And of course you can pressure your peers yourself by being a good example.

The main thing I didn't know when I was starting out is that you can buy a very used car so cheaply that you might not need a loan, and if you pick a very reliable model, it will still be a good car. Also, it's okay to take loans you don't need in college if no interest accrues until you leave school--just take that money and put it in a CD or I-bond or something, then pay the loan off before interest accrues on the loan.

Also, financial things keep changing--the best ideas today may not be the best ideas tomorrow, even if you have the same goals. And unlike high-tech, being an early adopter in financial stuff can make you money--the first I-bonds had the highest interest rates, for example. Online checking accounts paid a lot more interest at the beginning when people were afraid to trust them. And I bet the Target debit card won't always return 5%--just for now while it seems scary to give a store access to your checking account.

Guest's picture
Carl Lassegue

The second point is a very good point. I'm always tempted to think that only if I had more money, everything would be better. But if I learn how to manage what i have now, it's going to be a lot easier to manage money when I get alot more. Thank you for the awesome tips.

Guest's picture

Frugalness gets such a bad rep for the younger generations, but eventually is something that most people transition to at a point in their lives. This usually transcends due to a myriad of reasons, but I would assume that the two most prevalent in the last decade are because of debt or finally graduating to parenthood status. There is nothing in comparision that sparks a bigger transformation than being a parent.

Meg Favreau's picture

This might be really specific, but my frugal advice for my younger self would be "look around more before you pick an apartment." The first place I lived after college had way more space than I needed, and cost more than I would have liked.

Also, this is one I still need to abide by sometimes, but "Don't pick a big/expensive item on the menu just because you're really hungry right now. Something smaller will be cheaper and satisfy you just as well."

Guest's picture

Im still at my early 20s but looking back to how I was when I graduated from college and during my first job, man was I spending too much that I still ask money from my parents weekly. I decided to move into another country because I know I can't control myself from spending and decided to be LEGIT financially independent. I know that I still have a long way to go and many money problems will come.
Now, I am debt free and if there is one things that I learned (it applies to everyone really) never EVER get a credit card and say its only for emergencies when really, they're for shopping.