I have to be honest with you: I can’t help but cringe when I see so-called “financial advice” that is focused exclusively around crazy ways to go great lengths to save a few dollars here and there.
But on the flipside, I also know that you need to prioritize your savings and investments if you want to enjoy more freedom, flexibility, and autonomy in your life.
(That’s why every year, our main financial goal is simple and straightforward: save at least 30 percent of our gross income.)
Usually, people fall on one side of this fence or the other: they’re either so focused on their future goal of financial freedom that they obsess over savings to the point that they could be missing out on living fully today.
Or they’re caught up in looking rich, rather than actually being wealthy — so they spend at least as much as they make (if not more) and fail to save, leaving them tied to the whims of their bosses, jobs, and paychecks for most of their lives.
Future-Focused or Fueled by FOMO?
The thing is, I completely understand both these perspectives, and no matter where your own financial habits fall — there are pros and cons to being super saver and someone who spends freely.
If you’re future-focused…
- PROS: You’re likely going to be very much on track to hit your long-term financial goals and reach a point where work is optional. You’ll enjoy a lot of security and stability, and will likely have more power over your time. You won’t be tied down to any work obligation in the future, because you worked hard today to create enough wealth to provide you with complete financial independence.
- CONS: All this freedom and enjoyment comes in the future — and tomorrow is never promised to any of us. There are so many things outside of your control that could completely derail the future you want. “YOLO” might be an annoying phrase shouted by short-sighted millennials… but it’s not exactly wrong, is it? If you’re so strict with your spending today that you deprive yourself of meaningful experiences, you could be left with a big pile of cash in the future — and an even bigger pile of regrets for missed opportunities to live your life.
And if you spend everything you make now?
- PROS: You’re probably living life to the fullest — especially if you actually spend on experiences, not things. People who travel extensively and actively spend time with people they care about tend to be happier than people who are so focused on frugality that they refuse to spend on anything (even investments in memories with friends, family, and loved ones). “Now” is the only moment we really have, and you’re probably not missing a bit of it if you spend freely today.
- CONS: While the future isn’t guaranteed, it’s very, very likely that you’re going to get there at some point. And when you do, you’re going to need money to continue funding your basic needs and expenses (not to mention the lifestyle you got used to over your working career).
I believe true financial success comes from balancing these two extremes. Money is a tool, and it’s meant to be used — today and tomorrow. You can leverage your income to build wealth and achieve financial independence in the future and enjoy your life along the way to your goal.
One of my main missions as a financial planner is to help people live well today while still planning responsibly for tomorrow.
Of course, that’s much easier said than done. That’s why I want to offer you a glimpse into how I create this balance in my own life.
Here are a few ways that my wife Kali and I practice some degree of frugality in our lives — and how we determine when we can spend instead of trying to save more money.
We Try to Save on Large, Fixed Costs
Your daily latte is not going to be the one thing that prevents you from reaching financial freedom. But your choice to overspend on the big things in your life could be.
Here are a few examples:
We choose to rent because it means not spending a cent of our income on property taxes, home maintenance and repairs, and other costs associated with homeownership. This way we can minimize surprise expenses and plan our monthly savings amount more accurately.
We drive an 11 year old car with 120,000 miles for now — and when it comes time to buy a new vehicle, we’ll save by purchasing (not leasing) a new-to-us car and driving that one for another 11+ years.
We research big, one-time purchases (like the furniture we bought to replace some of our old hand-me-downs) to find cheaper options and alternatives to expensive products when those expensive products don’t actually add any real value to us.
(We shopped at Target and Wayfair and Amazon for the furniture after browsing West Elm and Pottery Barn; we were able to find similar items for far, far less.)
We avoid recurring monthly costs when we can: we don’t subscribe to magazines; we take advantage of free fitness classes and the gym in our apartment building rather than keeping memberships to fitness studios; we use Netflix instead of cable.
Collectively, those recurring costs that we don’t have free up a lot of money for other things.
We Save on the Little Stuff When It’s Simple to Do So
That doesn’t mean we just ignore the little purchases. Those can drain your budget quickly if you don’t pay any attention to them.
Here are some of the simple ways we cut back on the little things that can add up fast:
- We don’t waste time clipping coupons, but we do shop at a local (and very cheap) grocery chain, Market Basket, instead of going to Whole Foods.
- We don’t go to yard sales or shop at Goodwill, but we do accept secondhand or hand-me-down items when they’re offered.
- We don’t avoid little impulse buys, but we’ll download apps and sign up for loyalty programs so we can get deals and save money when we do make purchases.
One of the easiest ways to save money is just to avoid luxury products or brand names. Almost anything you need to buy is going to come in a few different flavors: cheap, average, and expensive.
You don’t have to not spend; you just need to avoid the most expensive product when it makes sense to do so. We try to aim for the “middle of the road” product most of the time (or go for generics instead of big brands).
Long Story Short: Being Mindful of Your Money Goes a Long Way
None of this stuff is particularly exciting, revolutionary, or ground-breaking. It’s really basic stuff and I’m sure you’ve heard or read this “money-saving advice” a million times before.
The real insight that you should walk away with is this:
If you want to live well today while still planning responsible for tomorrow, you have to pay attention to your money.
That’s really all we do. When we paid attention and realized Market Basket is literally half the price and often the food quality is better than what the local Whole Foods offers, we chose to shop there.
The specifics, like “we go to Market Basket instead of Whole Foods,” are just the tactics. The overall strategy at play is being mindful of our money.
Kali and I talk openly about our money, from saving to spending. We both look at our budget multiple times a week. We’ll update each other on purchases we made when we weren’t together — not because anyone is looking over someone’s shoulder or judging individual spending, but so we can each stay informed and aware about what’s happening.
And we question just about everything.
Almost every time we go to spend money, we’ll ask ourselves, “what is the value we’re getting out of this — and is it worth the price?” Sometimes, the answer is yes and we happily spend on whatever it is (usually an experience or something we can share with other people).
But other times, the answer is, “no, it’s not worth the cost,” or, even more often, “no, this particular option isn’t worth the expense — but here’s an alternative that offers the same value for a lower cost.”
Simply paying attention, staying aware, and being mindful of your money can help you tune into when it makes sense to spend on — and when you could do without (or switch to a less expensive alternative) and still be perfectly happy about it.
The #1 Tool We Use to Allow for Responsible, Guilt-Free Spending
Those are some of the ways we focus on spending less (without going overboard on the frugality). But how do we balance that with spending freely and without guilt?
We use our goals as tools.
Again, our #1 financial goal is to invest 30 percent of our gross income each year. Right now, we do that by contributing to our retirement accounts and brokerage accounts. And we use automatic contributions to make sure that happens before anything else.
We don’t even consider that money as available to use. It goes straight into investments, without question or deliberation.
If we left it up to discussion every month, it’d be much easier to say, “well, maybe this month we should use that money to take a trip…” and then spend it instead of put it away to help grow our wealth.
It goes into the accounts, period.
Then we get to look at what’s left over for that month and decide how we’d like to use it. This is where the guilt-free spending comes in.
We already took care of our savings goals, so now we’re free to use the rest of our cash flow for the month on whatever we’d like.
We use a flexible budget to enjoy more freedom in our month-to-month spending. We don’t strictly budget for every little thing or category of spending.
- Look at the “net” amount we have available for monthly spending (net monthly spending amount = our gross income – taxes – contributions to all savings and investments).
- Account for money that must be used to pay our fixed expenses and bills, like rent, utilities, subscription services, insurance, and so on. We subtract this from our net monthly spending.
- The result of net monthly spending (#1 above) – fixed expenses = money available for discretionary spending.
- We have a spreadsheet where we track every purchase made and dollar spent throughout the month. Each entry into the spreadsheet subtracts from the money available for discretionary spending. There are no rules on what we spend on, but how much is limited by what’s available.
This process allows us to spend freely on whatever we’d like without guilt. We don’t suffer from FOMO because we get to do what we want, and we choose a frugal approach to the things that don’t matter as much to us.
The only rule is that once the “money available for discretionary spending” amount hits $0, there’s no more spending for the month — so we have to carefully manage our purchases so we’re not hitting $0 before the last day of the month.
If You Struggle to Balance Spending and Savings, Think About What’s Important to You
Still, you need to be motivated to contribute to your savings and investments first if you want to avoid the temptation to spend everything you earn each month.
We find it really helpful to get clear on what’s important to us and what we want. That provides the motivation we need to stay on track and maintain both our automatic contributions to our retirement and brokerage accounts and make extra, manual contributions to other savings vehicles.
In fact, we periodically sit down with James Clear’s list of core values and identify our top 5 values as individuals and as a couple. Why does this matter?
Because that, along with understanding what “success” looks like to us, serves as a reality check on the life we want — which helps us avoid buying and spending based on what other people might think is desirable or a marker of success.
It’s why we feel no pressure to buy a home even when most of friends either own houses already or are actively looking at houses. It’s why we don’t spend a lot of money on stuff and don’t really keep up with trends.
We don’t need it, but more importantly, we don’t feel like we have to conform to buy what everyone else buys, or purchase what other people think is popular because we are very clear on what we actually want.
In addition, we have a “money meeting” every month where we come together for a few hours, review all of our finances, and check in with our goals. That allows us to see our progress, which is inspiring — but also gives us both the space to consider our goals on a regular basis and make sure we’re still moving toward what’s important to us.
I like keeping this quote in mind:
Don’t use money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.
It’s a great reminder to:
- Spend below your means
- Focus on what you actually need
- Buy what you want, not what someone else says is important
- Use your money on experiences, not things
If you can follow those four tenants, you’ll be well positioned to begin balancing the desire to enjoy life today while still planning responsibly for tomorrow.