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Frugality: The Essential Money Survival Skill

Someone recently asked me to share my number-one financial tip that would make the greatest impact on a person’s financial well-being. For someone who can speak for hours on the topic, that’s a daunting task. I wanted to quote the late Dick Wagner’s advice to “Spend less, save more, and don’t do anything stupid,” but that sentence contains three tips. I had to pick one.

I chose “spend less.” The greatest common denominator of financial success is not talent, IQ, career choices, income, inheritance, investment choices, being in the right place at the right time, or luck. It’s frugality.

Someone who has mastered the art of frugality has an essential survival skill. Their ability to save, to squirrel away money in times of prosperity, enables them to roll with almost any financial calamity. They tend to master their money rather than let money master them.

Frugal people find saving somewhat of a game. They get high off of building savings and finding bargains. They clip coupons, shop sales, and buy generic store brands. They buy used everything whenever possible, especially large ticket items like cars, appliances, and furniture. They do as much home maintenance themselves as is prudent. They rent things they won’t use much rather than buy. They don’t smoke, drink in excess, or do recreational drugs. They cook at home a lot. They pay off credit cards monthly, take on debt carefully, and pay down debt ahead of time, if possible. They find affordable ways to do the things they enjoy.

As frugal people accumulate wealth, they don’t give up their thrifty habits. As an example, I have a client who chose to vacation in Ireland this year. Why? It was a bargain. He got $700 roundtrip tickets by snagging a one-day sale on American Airlines.

Even though the external trappings of frugality are easy to spot, becoming frugal is really an inside job. If you aren’t naturally a saver, it’s not easy to just decide to become frugal. Changing to thrifty habits because you know you “should” doesn’t work any better than just deciding to lose 20 or 60 pounds does. Lifestyle shifts like this take something more than cognition.

To develop frugality you need to change your mindset about and your relationship with money. How do you do that? With intention, persistence, humility, patience, and curiosity.

There are many ways to begin changing your money mindset. I recommend starting with discovering the subconscious beliefs you have about money and how it works. I call these money scripts and have written about them in my books and blog.

Next, you may want to uncover the roots of those money scripts. This involves taking a look at how money was viewed in your family growing up and chronicling the positive and negative life events that have happened in your life. We help clients do this with two exercises called the Money Atom and the Money Egg. Slowly you will see themes emerge that completely explain why frugality is not your strong suit. This understanding is the foundation for change.

It is also valuable to find an accountability partner, someone who is frugal themselves, to be a mentor. This is similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program’s recommendation to find a sponsor. It’s a tried and true model that produces results. Another option is to look for a financial coach or financial therapist in your area or available to meet with you online.

Becoming frugal doesn’t mean becoming a miser or depriving yourself. It means using your money thoughtfully to support the life you want to live. And it is a mindset you can learn.

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