How I Became Frugal

Today I am going to be helping my dear sister with her budgeting. She’s working but has some debt, and I’m going to help her make a plan to manage her money better.

So I thought it was a good time to write about how I got my frugal on. It’s not a story of an epiphany or of high intelligence, but of need. Absolute necessity, and then I saw the value in it and decided to carry it on after the necessity had eased.

pennies woman's day (photo stolen from a Woman’s Day online article. It’s probably stock.)

I was not always budget-minded. As a kid I would wander around the house collecting coins to roll so that I could buy something. I remember the stinky metallic smell on my fingers while I sat in front of the tv rolling pennies, and then the joy of bringing the rolls to the bank to get MONEY!

By the time I was a teenager I was pretty into stuff. I would get jealous when friends had new Coach purses or new cars or fancy shoes. I was raised by a Mama who would say “No. It’s not practical” to the majority of my wants (clothes especially). And my dad loved to shop, but hated to spend time in stores. He would take us to the PX and tell us we had 15 minutes. We would race through, pulling what we wanted, and meet him at the register. Hopefully it would all fit. Rejection! Impulsiveness! Rebellion!

I took the rebellion against practical and the impulsive shopping habits into adulthood. I bought to bring happiness. I never had a lot of money, so I would buy lots of tiny, inexpensive pieces of junk – things that I could afford because they were $5 or less, but junk all the same – just to get that shopping high. I was surrounded by garbage I had paid for (or –gasp –put on a credit card) and didn’t really want. And I just wanted to buy more stuff.

I found myself in debt, making under $20,000 a year and wanting to quit my job. I had come into a small sum of money, and with it I paid off my debt. Not the most fun way to spend it, and now that we’re trying to buy a house I wish I still had that money in a bank somewhere. But I have to say, paying off the debt in one fell swoop was probably one of the better decisions I had made as a young adult. My credit was already damaged and I am still working to improve it, so removing debt from my life not only felt good but was beneficial long-term. I would probably still have that debt.

So I got out of debt. But I still was making next to nothing and I still hated my job.

Then I met my mountain man. He had a REAL JOB. You know – the kind that grownups have. He had a savings account and a 401K and owned a house way out in the ‘burbs. WOW. He was in the process of selling his house, and after it sold he moved into me in my dumpy little apartment in Seattle. My mountain man, then my live-in boyfriend, encouraged me to quit the job I hated. It wasn’t practical though – how could I quit my job without another lined up? “Just quit”, he advised, “I’ll pay the bills, you’ll look for a job and we’ll both be happier”. I think he was sick of hearing me rant every time I walked in the door.

So I did. And quitting that job back in 2005 required a major switch in my behavior. I couldn’t spend money thoughtlessly if I wasn’t making any money. I had to ASK for money to buy groceries, tampons, gas for the car. I didn’t like that, but my mountain man was willing. I was motivated to find work and I did, but the change in my shopping habits came primarily because I didn’t want to spend HIS money on MY impulses. With the potential shame of spending someone else’s money recklessly came my behavior change. And with that behavior change eventually came a change in mindset.

squawkfoxfrugal (Photo stolen from squawkfox.)

It’s always hard to get used to what comes on suddenly. I had a very drastic shift in my spending habits when I quit my job. It was hard, but I soon realized that I COULD live on less. And it wasn’t so bad. Sure, we didn’t eat out much, we had noodles for dinner a lot, and I didn’t buy shiny happy things on impulse. But we got used to it.

I started by:

  • Making a shopping list for the grocery store and sticking to it (and not shopping hungry)
  • Not going to stores that make me purchase impulsively
  • Finding inexpensive things to do for fun
  • Trying to buy things used when I needed to buy something (like clothes, household things)

Not so bad to manage. I hung on to those habits, for the most part, and built on them later.

Then when I started working again we tried to save some of that money. We did return to some of our unnecessary spending, but not by a huge amount. We saved little bits here and there, but I find it hard to save if there’s not something to save FOR.

Then we got engaged, and decided we wanted to go on a honeymoon. Ooh! Something to save for. We had a year. Could we pay cash for our entire honeymoon, in addition to some of the wedding expenses we were covering?

We did. It took planning. With every paycheck came calculations. How much for rent, bills, groceries? How much leftover? Factor in a date night, some money for taxes (I had opened a business and paid a lot of taxes) and save the rest. As soon as I got paid, I would furiously calculate. Then I would deposit my checks and IMMEDIATELY move money out of checking into savings. I knew if I could see the money in my account I would be tempted to spend it, (look at all that money!) so putting it aside was important for me.

And our money grew. We paid for our honeymoon and had money left over. We kept saving, but there was no longer a goal. We knew it was important to have a cushion though, so we just kept saving. Then my mountain man got laid off.

Two weeks later I got laid off.

I didn’t qualify for unemployment, having been a contractor.

Oh boy. Now we were living on one unemployment check, and looking for jobs when there were none to be had. Back to super-duper frugal.

And then, we both found work, but the frugalness had grown, stuck even more. We decided to start saving to buy a house. We thought about new ways to save. We thought twice about all our purchases. And now we have a (small) down payment and the capacity to afford a house and continue saving, because we’re planning to buy well within our means.

It takes a lot of work, patience, dedication and focus to become frugal. You have to make small changes, and work on them until they stick. Then add another, and another. You have to make changes that work for you. If you work a 40+ hour week, commute, have kids and a dog, baking bread and making yogurt are probably not on your short list. But planning a week’s worth of meals and shopping only once or twice can be, and it can save money and sanity. Lowering your thermostat, buying things used, cutting out the “extras” that you can live without can all work.

We make choices about how we spend our money. One thing that we choose to spend a lot of money on is food. I like to cook, the mountain man likes to eat. We try to eat local, organic, healthy, unprocessed, whole foods. It adds up. But we eat almost every meal at home or from home, so we don’t have other food expenses. We also choose to spend money on gas to go into the mountains for hikes, camping, mountain biking, and cutting our own Christmas tree. Experiences and quality home-cooked food are more important to us than fancy clothes, new cars, big houses.

It’s like being on a diet – you can crash diet out of necessity, but it’s not the healthiest option and it won’t last. You’ll feel horribly deprived and it will backfire. So you have to make small steps, work on each step until it’s second nature, and only then add another step. Start with a grocery list or lowering the thermostat or trying not to drive quite as much. (Right now the mountain man commutes about 100 miles a day, so that one is more applicable to me.) It takes conscious effort and practice and not giving up even when you have a slip. Jump back on the wagon and keep trying.

There are tips and tools available in my “budgeting mama” posts, two of which are already up – I’ve got one or two more in me.

And if I die tomorrow, having not spent all my money, not done everything in life I wanted to, not taken all those trips & bought all the cute shoes, at least I know there will be something left for my Pie.

It really feels great to live without debt. I don’t write checks for groceries on Sunday knowing it will take at least two days to clear my account, and I should get paid in the meantime. I don’t juggle credit balances and payments, I don’t dread getting the mail. I actually used to not open statements when they came – I couldn’t face it. It feels good to live without debt.

And I can’t take all those cute shoes with me, anyhow.


  1. megan, fantastic post. thanks to a fancy school, a car and a new camera for work, i am under enough debt to feel burdened by it. and, i make enough money that i don't have to think about those fun purchases that are not necessary, but also feel frustrated by not enough progress being made on saving for other important things in my life: a move to NYC & international travel. inspiring to hear how you've done it.


  2. hi there! making enough money to not have to think about how you're spending it is almost worse than having little enough to have to be conscious of it! I was lucky that I don't have student loans (thanks mom & dad) and that I haven't had to buy a new car... yet. Feeling the burden of debt is so difficult. I was always thinking about how I could make a little more money, sell something, give (sell) blood, and of course avoid the mail. And it's by no means over - even though we save I still sometimes feel restricted by our budget. But knowing that how I'm spending money is intentional and that (most) purchases are carefully considered has allowed us to save a significant amount over the past few years. I always feel like we're behind where I want to be, but we're on the right road. Good luck! With some careful planning and some practice in not indulging every whim, you'll totally get there.


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