5 Habits That Help Me Save Without Trying

After I started reading personal finance blogs, I started wondering why I never embarked on a rampant spending spree. Lots of people seem to have a story that goes something like this:

I bought wholeheartedly into the “yuppie” lifestyle … we had a gorgeous dining table, but it was stacked full of credit card bills.

– Trent Hamm, The Simple Dollar

I’m not picking on Trent — he’s a fantastic personal finance writer, and I hope he knows I respect him. But I can’t relate to his experience.

I thought about Trent’s “gorgeous dining table” last night as I ate dinner on a table that cost $12.99 from Ikea’s discount section. My pots and pans are a hand-me-down from a friend on active duty in the Army. My couch was a freebie from a neighbor who moved away.

Hmm. My home screams “college student,” but I graduated 7 years ago. And I share the space with my boyfriend, who finished his engineering degree 10 years ago. We could easily afford “nicer” stuff. Why don’t we buy it?

As I mulled over this question, I realized I’ve cultivated a few habits that — as an unintended side effect — prevent me from developing those “wants” that lead to lifestyle inflation.

Habit #1: I Don’t Own a Television

I know, it’s cliche to be one of those anti-TV hipsters, so let me clarify: I love television. I love The Simpsons, The Colbert Report, and yes — I love The Hills, that show about beautiful rich girls living lavishly in Los Angeles.

But too much TV can lead you to compare your lives with the people on-screen. Why don’t I wear designer clothes like Carrie Bradshaw or live in a mansion in Bel-Air?

Our minds tend to see fictional TV characters as role models. These characters don’t need to be “wealthy” to create unrealistic expectations. Look at the cast on Friends, who were far from rich. Their apartment was designed to feel cozy and normal, complete with cooky neighbors and the occasional leak.

Yet no one could afford such a spacious apartment in lower Manhattan on a waitresses’ tips or a sous chef’s wages. Manhattanites, am I wrong?

My avoidance of the screen extends to movies as well. Watch too many flicks featuring a Range Rover driving suburban family with granite countertops, and you’ll start thinking this is “normal.” This is part of being an “adult.”

By the way, I’m not going to harp about advertising or reality television. Those two genres get picked on enough, so I’ll avoid repeating the chorus.

Habit #2: I Take Pride in My Home

From the way I described my apartment, you might imagine it’s a slummy little dump filled with empty beer cans and stale bread.

Not so. (At least, not usually). I take pride in the home, but I don’t equate “pride” with “expensive stuff.” I sweep the floors. I scrub the counters. I painted the walls sunshine yellow. I grow tomatoes and basil on the balcony and, weather permitting, I open the windows to let in fresh air. I even splurged on a $40 painting I bought on a trip to South America that looks gorgeous against our sunny yellow walls.

Despite having a small apartment with no guest room, friends are always dropping by. In part this is because I’m in a great location, but in part it’s because the apartment exudes an upbeat, welcoming vibe. The collection of free furniture dotting the space adds to its eclectic, fun feel.

Habit #3: I Take Pride in My Appearance

The same goes for my looks: I buy clothes that look good, not clothes that are on sale. But here’s a secret: you don’t need many clothes, especially if you love the ones you have.

Last week I wore the same dress to dinner with the same friend on Thursday night and Saturday night. Hey, if it looks good, why not wear it again? My dinner companion didn’t even notice.

But don’t take my word for it — Stella Brennan, a then-31-year-old sales representative from Wisconsin, decided to wear just six articles of clothing continuously for a month. No one noticed — not even her husband.

Her conclusion — “I don’t need all of these clothes” — merited its own article in the New York Times.

Habit #4: I Surround Myself With Frugal Friends

Don’t misinterpret that — I don’t pick my friends based on their spending habits. But I seem to attract people into my life who don’t spend lavishly. Some friends are trying to climb out of debt. Some are graduate students. Some work just enough to “cash up” for their next overseas adventure. Some are single moms. Some are struggling artists, some work in the nonprofit sector and some had a baby immediately after grad school.

The common trait? None of them throw around a lot of disposable cash. Sure, we all go out to dinner together on the weekends — but not one of my friends drives a fancy car.

It’s natural to want to keep up with the Joneses. Instead of fighting human nature, why not make sure the Joneses are frugal, too?

Habit #5: I Have Big Dreams

It’s easy to spend money when you’re bored. Money can endlessly entertain you: shopping, fancy restaurants, buying and installing a Playstation — there’s no limit to ways you can spend money to fill your spare time.

But I have big dreams — or rather, big goals — and I fill my time by pursuing them. These goals have changed over the years: lose 15 pounds, write a fiction novel, learn Italian. The common thread is that all these goals are extremely time-consuming and none of them cost much money.

Let’s say I spend $200 on software that helps me learn Italian, and I use that software 10 hours per week for 8 months. The amount of money I’ve invested compared to the amount of time I’ve used it is a far better value than if I spent money on short-term entertainment to fill my boredom.

The same goes for losing 15 pounds. Let’s say I join a gym for $35 a month. I go there 3 times a week for 1.5 hours at a time. This means I’m at the gym for 18 to 24 hours per month for a value of $35. This is a tiny time-to-money exchange compared to how much I’d spend to entertain myself by going out for drinks for just one night.

More importantly, when I’m not at the gym or writing a novel, I’m thinking about my goals. My focus is on things I want to achieve — not things I want to buy.

I could sit around all day writing about time-to-money exchanges, but here’s the real reason that most goals (other than a desire to climb Mt. Everest) can help you save money: your energy gets directed towards that goal, not towards entertaining yourself through spending and consumption.

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  1. says

    I fell into the television trap rather recently, and it actually was because of a commercial. Mike Rowe from Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” TV show kept popping up and telling me to buy a Ford. The hubby and I were shopping for a car at the time, and everytime we looked, we instinctively felt drawn to Fords…just because one of our favorite TV personalities endorsed it! Thankfully, we had enough sense to research the car before purchase and it was a good deal, but I was astounded by how much a commercial could influence two rather savvy individuals!

    • says

      @Christa — It happens to all of us! TV personalities can give us a feeling of knowing and trusting someone … so when they tell us to buy a Ford, it can be as powerful as our best friend giving us a recommendation!

  2. says

    Wow! I loved your article. I think we have a lot in common, lol. I saw myself in almost every point you made in your article and have a similar lifestyle. BTW, my gym membership is $25 per month :) but I spend less time there than you do. The reason I joined the gym, never liked the idea of paying for the gym, until I found a membership that A) is cheap, B) includes unlimited classes like yoga, cardio kickboxing, etc. Classes help me work harder than me doing my own workouts, but that’s just a personal thing :) So I love the class aspect to working out and if you go to a yoga studio or boot camp, each class can be 10+ dollars. This makes gym classes very cheap for me. :)

    • says

      @World of Finance — Thanks!! I’m glad you can relate — it’s good to know there are others “like us” out there! :-) Hooray for classes at the gym; my gym has a bunch of classes, too, and they totally help me push myself (plus they add variety to my routine).

  3. says

    Our friends can be split almost equally into two very different groups. One set that are very consumerist, constantly buying, expanding and upgrading. The other very frugal, concentrating on saving for the future and buying only what they really need.

    We love all of them, but find it a constant struggle not to take aim at the consumerist group and want to try to “keep up.”

    We’ve learned to not even try at this point, given it’s just not within our budget. I think our spending habits have started to rub off a bit, as I hear them saying things like, “It’s just not worth it,” or “we have to keep our spending down” – which are not phrases that are heard from them often.

    • says

      @Travis – Hooray for influencing your spendy friends to be more budget-conscious! …. I read an opinion somewhere that argued that services like Groupon couldn’t have existed 20 years ago (technology limits aside) because there was too much of a stigma associated with using coupons. But the more that “normal” people used coupons, the more the stigma faded, until we reached a point where we as a society LOVE coupons (and general bargain-hunting) and have embraced it wholeheartedly (Groupon, Extreme Couponing, etc.)

  4. says

    I also believe in a limited wardrobe. I have about 20 outfits that I wear all of the time and that I can use for numerous occasions and purposes. I don’t bother adding anything to it because I won’t wear it. It saves a ton of money.

    We also don’t have cable anymore so we spend a lot less time watching tv. It’s neat to see the other things you can do when you are aren’t glued to the tube.

  5. says

    Speaking of fashion…I decided recently to take pictures of my clothes and do a polyvore.com type of catalog of outfit possibilities. Just looking through some of their style ideas, I already have ideas of super cute outfits to put together with stuff I already have! yay!

  6. says

    I LOVED this post, and it turns out, we watch many of the same shows! I don’t have cable myself (I do have a tv which is used for DVDs and video games) but it’s rare that I watch shows…I’ll get my “fix” with the Daily Show, The Office, Parks and Rec and The Colbert Report when I have some down time or am doing a task that could use some background noise.

    I find the more tv I watch, the more I seem to spend. I’d like to say I’m “above” advertising, but something about the ads or the shows themselves makes me just listless, restless, and wanting to buy something. Weird, I know.

    I LOVE your point about goals. I think spending money for a purpose makes the best use of both your time and your money. Since I am a solid believer in ‘time being money,’ if you can get the most enjoyment and use them both wisely simultaneously, even better! I recently bought a pedometer (though I realize it might be seen as frivolous purchase) because I love walking through the neighborhood and want to start taking longer walks and tracking my progress. My goal is to lose 10lbs. :)

    I love reading your blog and totally love this article. Consider it tweeted! 😀

    • says

      @Shannyn – The pedometer is a great idea! I’ve thought about getting one, too, especially during the spring and fall when I take long walks around my neighborhood. Knowing how far you’ve walked is a great motivator for walking more!

      It’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re ‘above’ advertising, but everyone gets influenced … that’s just human nature.

  7. says

    So true, so true, so true. TV has really multiplied the # of ads we see everyday. Our kids get sucked into wanting to dress like their favorite stars on tv. Most toddlers know McDonald’s from a distance! We adults start to lust after new kitchens, furniture, & clothing from seeing it in shows.

    Lately I’m hearing people say things like, we’re saving for XYZ so we’re trying to keep our spending down. Friends tell friends about good coupons. Things are changing.

    Love your article!

  8. says

    Paula, I love your “smart money habits.” I am a huge believer in creating smart habits over time, and your money will grow and you won’t waste it on lots of stupid stuff! Great job!

  9. says

    These are all great points! The one about the TV is probably the biggest contributor to most spending habits. I have to admit that I take cues from celebrities and such, but it’s never to the extreme. For example, I may buy a designer purse, but it was designed by Guess, and it was only 50 bucks. Then I will wear it until the zipper falls off! lol I feel no need to clutter my life with a bunch of junk that I can’t take with me anyway.

  10. says

    I don’t watch television either. I did watch friends back in the nineties though and the apartment was Monica’s grandmother’s rent stabilized apartment. Rent stabilization is still here in NYC and rents are a fraction of market. I don’t understand the shopping as therapy paradigm either. I hate shopping. You have me beat on the dining table though; my cherry dining table which seats 12 and 4 chairs cost me $150 from an auction house.

    • says

      @JNU — Ah, rent stabilization makes sense (as to why Monica lived in such a big apartment). I remember the Sex and the City episode where Carrie had to move out of her rent-stabilized apartment because her building was going co-op, and she was distraught by the search for another apartment with the same budget (everyone suggested she move to Hoboken).

      I’m sure your dining table is nicer than mine, and as long as it was a great deal — it’s the value (of what you’re getting for your money), more than pricetag, that makes a deal good or bad!

  11. says

    Thanks for this incredible article.

    I was once a victim of what I like to call the “Shiny Toys Syndrome” – spending every red cent I had on new gizmos, clothes, food, and gadgets.

    It was until I realized that those thing were draining the life out of me that I began to refocus my spending on assets and liabilities.

    I posted an article that talks about why people struggle financially, and out of the 4 or so reasons, I was guilty of at least 3 :(

    While I know it wasn’t my fault that I was placed into the “real world” without a solid financial education foundation, now that I’m aware of it, I am responsible for my financial future.

    Thanks again!

    Make it a great day!

    Keep up the GREAT work!

    • says

      @Dhane – Thank you so much for the compliments, and good for you for recognizing — and giving a name to — “Shiny Toy Syndrome.” It’s easy to do so, especially because — as you mentioned — most people don’t get a financial education. They don’t teach this stuff at school (or at least, they don’t teach it at most schools! I certainly never took a class in any of this!) Good for you, and for all of us, for taking the incentive to learn about good financial management.

  12. says

    Every now and then I feel an overwhelming urge to buy an iphone – instead I downgraded from my Samsung smart phone to a regular cellphone with no data plan – I pay less each month, since I’m not paying for data, and I no longer keep comparing my smartphone to an iphone. It seems weird, but now that my phone is farther away from being an iphone, I realize more how much I don’t need one.

  13. says

    Such a good idea with the wordrobe! I have to admit, I tend to buy on sale, thinking I’m getting a good deal, but then half the clothes never get worn because I decide they look awful when I try and wear them! Lol! (I do try them on in the store too!) You have inspired me, next time I go shopping, instead of buying 4 so-so items looking so-so on, I’m going to stick to my budget, but buy one good quality item that looks great!

    • says

      @Jen — Excellent!! Let me know how it goes for you, but I’m guessing that the one great-quality item that you buy will be something that you LOVE and you will wear all the time!!

  14. says

    Great tips. I agree that not owning a TV is an awesome way to save money, read more, and spend more quality time with people.

  15. says

    These are very smart money habits. I’d say that I’m on board with most of these; no tv, frugal friends, big dreams. Though I did have a moment in my 20’s when I splurged and went into debt, but it wasn’t for a pair of shoes or the latest gadget, it was trying to become an entrepreneur. I learned a lot from the experience, so it was totally worth it!

  16. says

    Interesting comments about the clothes. I found a brand of sport polo that wears very well at the office. I liked it so much that I went back and bought extras. If I get any comments at all, they’re usually positive, but none about the frequency of wear.

    As for furniture, our last major addition is a *free* Ethan Allen couch from a neighbor. It’s a solidly built beast, much better than the balsa-wood contraptions that pass for new furniture these days. The color may be a little dated, but no matter.

  17. says

    Great perspective. I am the same way in a lot of ways. I spend money on things that will last and contribute to my goals. Tv is a time suck, so I find myself way more productive without one.

    • says

      @Jen — Before Trent became frugal, he used to be a big spender. He bought into the ‘consumption’ myth, and he went into debt. He bought a gorgeous dining table — on credit — but he found that it was constantly covered in bills. Then he reformed; he sold his dining table and adopted a frugal lifestyle.

      Many personal finance writers have a similar story, a story of reform. My story is different; I never became a big spender. This post examines why.

  18. says

    No doubt your 5 strategies are great because they work for you. Results don’t lie, in other words.

    On the other hand, I don’t use any of your strategies and still save money, likely more than 90 percent of income earners save even though I haven’t had a real job for over 30 years and only work 3 or 4 hours a day. I like spending money on clothes and dinners and trips. But since I started making a good income, I have been saving at least 25 percent to 50 percent of my pretax income.

    Here are some tips via quotes on how to save money:

    “Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.”
    — Daniel S. Greenberg

    “City dwellers who purchase sport utility vehicles must be [mentally] arrested or not highly evolved.”
    — Michael Enright, CBC Radio Host

    “Never buy expensive wine, luggage, or watches.”
    — H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

    “Never buy a thing you don’t want merely because it is dear.”
    — Oscar Wilde

    In short, as I stated in my most recent book, your best purchases will turn out to be the ones that you never made.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author, Innovator, and Prosperity Life Coach
    Author of “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 150,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and “The Joy of Not Working”
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

    • says

      @Ernie — So you’re saying the key to working 3-4 hours a day and still saving 25-50 percent of your income is through not buying fancy wine and watches? Hmmm. Something seems lacking in that advice ….

  19. Vicki Robles says

    So true, so true, so true. I’d say that I’m on board with most of these; no tv, frugal friends, big dreams. I recently bought a pedometer (though I realize it might be seen as frivolous purchase) because I love walking through the neighborhood and want to start taking longer walks and tracking my progress.

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