Many years ago, Mark and I decided that we wanted to be a family that learned to live with less money so we could have more intentional time with our family. Today’s article is an adapted excerpt from our Living With Less So Your Family Has More book and is all about how we learned to do that. Grab your copy here!
One evening more than twenty years ago, we sat at the dining room table discussing our monthly budget. Money was tight as usual. Living on less requires regular conversations about strategy and this was one such talk. “We have to get in our mind that we have more time than money,” one of us stated. That statement proved to be foundational in our thinking. In fact, changing our thinking about our balance of time and money was the first step in making right decisions about our expenses.
We still have those conversations. And honestly, our thinking has to be refreshed quite often because convenience can so easily overshadow frugality, especially on a day when your body is tired and your resolve is weak.
We revisited this recently when we were getting ready to leave for vacation. I (Mark) went to get the oil changed and the tires rotated. We had coupons for a free oil change at a dealership and a warranty for a free tire rotation at Walmart. The oil change took almost an hour, and I began to rationalize just having the tires rotated at the dealership. Walmart could take one or two hours for the tire rotation, and I didn’t want to spend my whole day waiting in auto shops. I decided that we had too much to do so I asked the shop to go ahead and rotate the tires ($20) and change the wiper blade on our back window ($18).
By the time I left, our “free” oil change and the conveniences I had rationalized had cost us nearly $40. My dear, frustrated wife reminded me that $40 (at that time!) was almost a full tank of gas. I hadn’t thought of that! Nor had I thought through all of my options. We lived less than three miles from Walmart. I could have dropped off the vehicle for the tire rotation and had Jill or one of my teenagers come pick me up. I didn’t need to spend my whole day waiting in an auto shop, as I’d rationalized. I could have gotten all the work done for about $8—which is what my total outlay would have been if I’d purchased the windshield wiper for the back window and done the labor myself. I lost my long-term vision for short-term convenience.
If a family chooses to live with less money, both partners need to buy into the concept of frugality. If one parent comes home for a season and you’re living on one income, part of that parent’s job description can be to make sure the family lives as frugally as possible. Sometimes, you can find the equivalent of a second income from saving money rather than making money! Understanding that finding ways to save money wherever possible is key to being a successfully thrifty family.
We have found that frugal families share several habits that help make them successful. Let’s explore eight Thrifty Thoughts that frugal families have in common.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #1: APPRECIATE
Have you ever known people who, even though they have all they need, still want more? There’s an initial excitement whenever they acquire something new, but that wears off quickly, and then the hunt for a new high begins again. You may find that this actually describes you. This person has likely developed an inability to appreciate.
Every new toy, new piece of clothing, new tool and new kitchen gadget is fun for the moment. Over time, however, it all falls into one big category labeled “stuff.” No special memories. Nothing stands out. It’s just all stuff. And none of it is really special—because there’s just too much for any of it to be special.
Our sense of appreciation becomes dulled. When we always give in to our wants and we rarely deprive ourselves, we might miss out on the simple pleasures in life. Sometimes it can happen when we miss out on the joys of doing something that we are accustomed to outsourcing. For instance, if you eat out more often than you eat at home, you miss out on the specialness of eating out and appreciating what it takes to make a great-tasting meal. And you miss out on really appreciating the art of cooking. Sure, not all of us will enjoy cooking. Honestly, I (Jill) would rather do anything else but cook. However, I’m learning to appreciate the nuances of new seasonings, and I’ve recently taken on the challenge of learning to cook tasty meals that are low in sodium and low-calorie, due to health factors in our family. (I also use Eat at Home Meal Plans to help me with planning and variety!) Sometimes a new interest or a new hobby can increase our sense of appreciation.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #2: RESEARCH
Thrifty families take time to research their purchases. They are so careful about spending money that they want to make sure they are getting the best deal and using their limited income wisely. When considering a purchase you can:
- Comparison-shop so you can find the best prices being offered. Many stores will match prices if you can produce an ad from one of their competitors. This is especially helpful with food as well as health and beauty aids you buy regularly. There’s no need to go from store to store to get the best deals. Go to your favorite store with your proof of prices in hand and ask them to match the price. Most grocery stores will do this. It takes time to look through the ads, but in this case, time is money that stays in your pocket!
- Ask friends and family about their past purchases. Most of us have a good-sized network at our fingertips that we rarely use to the fullest. If you need to buy a new appliance, send out an e-mail or use social media to ask friends and family if they have any recommendations of brand, style or store. We once did this when our dishwasher died, and to our surprise, a friend of ours knew someone who had replaced a dishwasher for aesthetic reasons. It worked fine, but didn’t have the look they wanted in their remodeled kitchen. They just wanted to get rid of it, so they agreed to give it to us if we’d come pick it up! Personally, we didn’t care what color it was—we just wanted something that worked. It was a win-win for both of us.
- Use the Internet. The Web is amazing—never has research been more available, right at our fingertips! If you are thinking about making a purchase, look online for customer reviews of the products you are considering.
- Interview your family members. Who will be using this item you are purchasing? What are their needs or expectations? What do they hope to do with the purchase? Do they have any insight or perspective you need to consider? Asking these kinds of questions is helpful in making an informed decision that is wise for all involved.
- Consider a previously-owned product. Depending on what you are looking for, eBay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and freecycle.org are great places to find new or gently used products at a discount.
- Shop a couple of different stores for the same product to get accurate and consistent information about the product. This expands your knowledge of the product and is research from a slightly different angle, but it can be very helpful in making a wise purchase.
- Resist rushing big-ticket buying decisions. A wait can give us time to research, and it can also help us evaluate if we actually need to make the purchase or if we might even consider doing without.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #3: ORGANIZE
There is a lot of advertising streaming into our homes: newspaper ads, coupon booklets, online coupons, discount codes, email marketing, coupon postcards and more. Having an organization system for all of these discount deals can save you a ton of money! Here are some suggestions from frugal families who make organization a priority:
- Make a list of all the restaurants in town that offer free children’s meals on a designated day each week. Design the list so it is categorized by the day when the offer is valid. This allows for a quick peek at the list to determine what restaurant might be the most affordable for your family to eat at.
- Save the weekly grocery-store ads in a folder in your car. If you go to the grocery store you’ll be armed with the deals of the week and you can ask the store to match its competitors’ sale prices.
- Organize paper restaurant and clothing-store coupons in alphabetical order and by expiration date. Carry the coupons with you in your car or purse. A coupon organizer works well for some and an 8 1/2″×11″ three-ring binder for others. The important thing is that you use a system that works for you.
- Create a “home” for you to compile coupons in each week. Once a week, sit down and cut out and organize your coupons using whatever coupon organizer system you devise. The key is to establish a routine.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #4: SWAP
Our country has a long tradition of bartering. Doctors used to be paid with fresh chickens and produce; farmhands were provided free room and board. In today’s culture, we seem to have lost the fine art of bartering, but living-with-less families need to consider the concept.
Our family bartered childcare services for years to allow us to take an inexpensive, consistent date night. We found a family with similar parenting styles and children of like ages, and set up a regular schedule of swapping childcare services. Our kids loved playing with their friends, and we loved the time for just the two of us. Even on the nights that we did the babysitting, we found our children played so well together that we actually had a bit of a break ourselves.
During the kids’ preschool years, Jill traded “days off” with a girlfriend. Every Tuesday was the trade day. One week was Jill’s day off, and Sue would watch our kids. The next week was Sue’s day off, and Jill took care of her kids. Neither spent a dime to make it happen, but both reaped the benefits of the exchange.
What talents do you have to offer to someone else? When we wanted our son to receive extra tutoring at a local learning center, we could hardly afford the $250-per-month price tag. After Jill learned that the director of the center was writing a book on learning challenges, she offered her publishing experience and editing services in exchange for a lower monthly fee. The director was willing to make the trade, and we both benefited from the arrangement.
Many times we’re afraid to ask for these kinds of arrangements. But the thrifty parent needs to consider all options to make sure there’s actually money in the bank at the end of the month! And with so many home businesses out there, the possibilities of bartering are even better. When Jill was teaching piano and giving voice lessons, she would have gladly bartered guitar lessons for one of our children and art lessons for another.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #5: QUESTION
When considering a purchase, the frugal family is willing to ask themselves two tough questions. The first is, “Do we really need this?” The second: “Is there any other option for us?”
Years ago, we were once again faced with a broken dishwasher (we seem to have a problem with dishwashers, don’t we?). When we looked at our financial picture, we realized that purchasing a dishwasher would have required us to go into debt. That was something we were trying hard not to do. So we asked ourselves, “Do we really need this?”
The answer to that was “no.” A family can live without a dishwasher. We’d certainly love to have one, but we don’t absolutely need one. Then we asked, “Is there any other option for us?”
The answer to that was “yes.” We actually had three dishwashers in our house, and they even had names: Anne, Evan and Erica (we only had 3 of our 5 kids at that time). While Mark and I had been without a dishwasher early in our marriage, our kids had never had to wash dishes by hand. We decided it could be valuable for us to provide them with this experience. Remember the concept of appreciation? After nine months of washing dishes by hand, we all had a special appreciation for the new—to us…it was actually used!—dishwasher we finally found. We also found that we had some wonderful one-on-one time with one of our kids each night after dinner as we washed and dried the dishes together. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best financial decision for us at the time.
Another thing we can question is why we need all the fancy toys that are available for our children these days. Have you ever noticed how a young child is often far more interested in the box that a toy came in rather than in the toy itself ? Why don’t we get the hint? Children really don’t need fancy toys. A few well-chosen everyday items can go a long way in keeping a child busy. Got any of these around the house?
- Laundry basket
- Pots and pans
- Wooden spoons
- Kitchen funnel
- Boxes of various shapes and sizes
- Chocolate pudding (great for finger painting)
- Old clothes for dressing up
- Old socks (make great hand puppets)
If you have these items, you have just about everything a kid needs in the first few years of life! Sure it’s nice to have a few toys, but it’s not as necessary as we’re led to believe. Simple is just as effective and a lot less expensive. The frugal family questions the status quo and decides to do things differently.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #6: MANAGE
The frugal family knows what stuff they have and where it is. They understand that both time and money can be wasted by having to manage too much stuff. When it comes to material things, the less we have, the less we have to manage, clean and organize.
I (Jill) used to be amazed at one particular friend’s home. It was always neat and tidy. One day I looked closer, though, and noticed that it wasn’t especially clean, but you really didn’t see that because it was well-organized. And when I carefully evaluated her neat home and our messy one, I came to realize what really made the difference: My friend had less stuff than we did!
Over the years we’ve learned to simplify a lot in the “stuff ” category. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve found a few strategies that make a huge difference.
- Give it away. When you are de-cluttering, get it out of your house the very same day if you can. Donate it to Goodwill or your local mission. Make sure to keep a list of what you’re donating and get a receipt so that you can take a deduction on your taxes for a charitable contribution. Put a DONATE box—we use an extra laundry basket—on each level of your home so you’ll have a place to put items or clothing you discover you have but don’t need anymore.
- Give everything a home. When I start seeing piles on my kitchen counter, I realize that I am either not using the “homes” I have established for things or that I need to establish new homes. Recently I noticed that I was piling up ads and coupons I’d pulled out of the paper but hadn’t had time to peruse and cut out. I realized that I needed to create a home for these things, and the kitchen counter wasn’t an option. I created a hanging folder for the coupons and ads and put it in a file cabinet. Now those items have a permanent home and I know where to find them when I need them.
Manage how much stuff is actually coming into the house with these strategies:
- Don’t watch commercials on television. The less you are exposed to commercials, the less you are tempted to buy things you don’t really need. A one-hour show usually has twenty minutes of commercials.
- Don’t go to the mall or a store without a purpose in mind. Window shopping can cost a lot of money and bust the budget before you know it. Don’t look at catalogs unless you need something specific. In fact, call the catalog companies and ask them to remove you from their mailing lists. Everything in the catalog is online anyway, so if you need something, you can still find it.
- Don’t buy anything unless you’ve decided in advance where it will live in your home. If our kids have heard us say it once, they’ve heard it a million times when we are picking up: “Everything in its home, please.” Thinking about its “home” before you purchase it just might cause you to decide that you don’t really need it.
- Resist bringing things home just because they are free. Every year our family hits the county fair. One stroll through the exhibit area nets an armful of free items. But clutter isn’t freeing: it’s constricting. So these items really aren’t free then, are they? They cost you stress. Don’t hesitate to say no or stop by the trash can on the way out the door.
- Stop the junk mail! Opt out from marketing mail on this website. This will keep them from selling your name and address to other companies. Also don’t fall for sweepstakes gimmicks and drawings. These are designed to secure your address for future advertising. If you don’t fill out the forms, they won’t get your address.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #7: REDEFINE
We did this with paper napkins. Several years ago I gathered cloth napkins we had tucked away and rarely used, stored them in an easily accessible dining room drawer, and stopped buying paper napkins. When we sit down to dinner we grab a cloth napkin. The only time I buy paper napkins these days is if we’re hosting a large gathering at our home.
What if we evaluated our “necessities” more often to see if they really might be luxuries dressed up as necessities? Some of us are already doing this. Have you determined that water bottles are not a necessity? A travel mug or reusable water bottle that we fill from the tap works just fine. Another family we know has determined that they won’t purchase expensive cleaning products. They make their own by mixing vinegar with water in a spray bottle. This kind of thinking is a huge strategy in living a less-is-more lifestyle.
THRIFTY THOUGHT #8: GENERATE
The frugal family values creativity and generates ideas rather than accepting the usual way of doing things. I once heard a mom share that she had taught her kids how to play “Coins in a Bucket” one summer afternoon. She took a five-gallon bucket, filled it with water, and tossed a quarter in the bottom. She then gave her boys a handful of pennies and they each took turns dropping pennies one at a time into the water. The first penny to land on the quarter is the winner. Talk about simple! A bucket + water + a quarter + a few pennies = hours of fun. And the best part, she said, was digging the pennies out of the water to cool the boys down on a hot day. Now that’s some frugal family entertainment!
One winter day we sent our boys outside with a bottle of bubbles and a bubble wand in their gloved hands. Do you know what happens to bubbles when the temperature is below freezing? They freeze like glass balls and provide great entertainment, even for a preteen!
Who says that having fun has to cost money? Too many of us default to thinking that the best entertainment is found at the movie theater, an expensive theme park or a major-league ballpark. While those kinds of activities are enjoyable on occasion, the family that’s looking for frugal fun can find it right at home with a little bit of inspiration. Generate some ideas of your own or try these no-cost favorites we often forget about:
- Card games: solitaire, double solitaire, hearts, spades, Go Fish. As the kids grow older, teach them more complicated games like euchre or gin rummy. Our grandkids love playing double solitaire and Kings in the Corner with us!
- Board games: Monopoly, Candy Land, Scrabble, Life, chess, checkers, Clue.
- Yard games: Tag, hide-and-seek, beanbag toss, water balloons, hopscotch, Frisbee.
- Outdoors: Fishing, hiking, biking, picnic at a park, free concerts in the park, Frisbee golf (free in most cities), scavenger hunts.
- Indoors: Build a fort with blankets and kitchen chairs, make an appliance box into a hideout, read a book aloud as a family or play jacks.
Sometimes all we need to do to generate some new ideas is to get the wheels turning in our own head. If you need some more ideas, check out our free list of 30 Screen Free Activities for Kids!
The frugal family learns how to think outside the box. They question commonly accepted standards and ask themselves if there is another way of looking at things. They stand up to adult peer pressure.
Their commitment to frugality over convenience keeps them in the mindset that they just may have more time than money. Rethinking expenses helps us redefine priorities. And that’s an important step in becoming a less-is-more family.
What about you? Anything you’d add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!
Looking for more? Grab a copy of Living With Less So Your Family Has More!
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