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Gradual Frugality: Finding Enjoyment in Saving Money

This is a guest article by Leo Babauta, originally published on shizennougyou on April 3, 2007. Leo, the author of Zen To Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System writes about achieving goals, creating habits, productivity, personal finances, frugality and more at his blog, Zen Habits.

On Zen Habits, I detailed some of the things I have cut out of my life in order to save money and eliminate my debt, such as cutting my own hair, cutting out cable TV, becoming vegan, working out at home instead of the gym, brown-bagging it to work, never going out to clubs or the theater, and more.

An anonymous reader then commented, sarcastically, “Here’s another way to save money. Lock yourself in a box until you slowly die of starvation and/or boredom.”

I understand that sentiment. When I list out all the things that I’ve cut out of my life, it sounds horrible, even to me. But here’s the secret: if you cut things out a little at a time, it doesn’t seem hard at all.

And here’s another secret: living frugal isn’t that hard at all — in fact, it’s extremely enjoyable!

I didn’t cut out all the things on my list all at once. That would have been quite a drastic change, and I’m not a fan of drastic changes. My philosophy is that changes should be made gradually, with baby steps, over a long period of time, otherwise they won’t be sustainable. Want to lose weight? Don’t try to drop 30 pounds in a month — lose a pound or two each week, and over the course of a year you’ll lose 50-100 pounds!

The same goes with frugality. Cut out one thing from your life, or change one spending habit, every couple weeks, and over time you’ll have cut out a lot of unnecessary spending. The thing is, you get used to the changes, and after a while you don’t notice that those things are gone. Sure, cutting out cable TV was a big change at first, but after a month or so, we didn’t miss it at all. Now, it seems crazy to have cable TV all the time. We go over to other people’s houses, and they’re glued to the TV all day long. That’s not a criticism of them, but an indication of how our lives have changed. There are other things we love to do besides watch TV, and if you’re creative, they can be fun and cheap!

Here are my tips for gradual frugality:

  • Start out by making a list of things you spend money on each month, big or small. List all your monthly bills, but also the little things you buy, like magazines and books and DVDs and gadgets and car washes and lattes and beer. It’s helpful to track your spending for a month — I just did it in February and it was very revealing.
  • Mark the things on your list that are optional, not essential to living. There may be quite a few, if you haven’t been trying to be frugal until now.
  • Choose a small goal to start. Don’t choose anything too outrageously difficult. Just choose something small that you think you could do without, perhaps magazines. This shouldn’t be something to which you’re addicted; that should be saved for later. The reason for starting small is to give yourself a chance to be successful in the beginning and then build upon that success for even bigger successes down the road.
  • Stick with that one change for at least two weeks. A month would be even better if you can be that patient. After those 2-4 weeks, choose another item on your list. Make it a small one again, perhaps slightly bigger, but nothing huge. Repeat this process every 2-4 weeks, and you won’t notice much of a change.
  • Celebrate every success! It feels good to accomplish a goal like this, and you should be proud of yourself. Reward yourself (but nothing too expensive!).
  • Put your extra money towards debt or savings. If you’ve cut out $20 a week on small purchases, put $40 extra every paycheck towards paying off one debt, or put it towards savings if you don’t have debt. That’s a small amount, but it’ll add up to $1,000 every year. And as you cut out other things in your life, that amount will grow every month.
  • Have fun for free or cheap. Don’t let this process of frugality be a process of suffering. Have fun while you’re doing it. Cutting out going to expensive restaurants? Pack a picnic and go to the beach or park instead. Cutting out your weekly movie night at the theaters? Rent some old movies on DVDs, pop some popcorn, and cuddle together with your significant other or family. Be creative! There are lots of great ways to have a blast on little money.
  • Enjoy the process. You are cutting back on things to achieve a financial goal. That in itself is very rewarding. Always keep a positive mindset. If you feel like you’re having a difficult time, it will be difficult. But if you only allow yourself to think positive thoughts about your process of frugality, it will be as easy as pie. Speaking of which, making pie is a great thing to do for cheap!

Photo: pittaya

Updated May 5, 2014 and originally published July 25, 2011.

About the author

Leo Babauta, the author of Zen To Done: The Ultimate Simple Productivity System, writes about achieving goals, creating habits, productivity, personal finances, frugality and more at his blog, Zen Habits. View all articles by .

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar 1 Luke Landes

Making frugality as painless as possible the way you suggest is the key for many people. Taking the first step in any change is difficult, and making that first step easier makes early success come faster, and that feeling of success can help motivate working harder for future success.

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avatar 2 Anonymous

My students think I am crazy but I have been poor and I do not want to go back. It is infinitely preferable to choose what I deny myself than to have circumstances dictate it. I have become monastic in my lifestyle in order to choose How I live my life and how I spend my money. I understand that life will not work out the way you plan it and I want to be prepared this time. Great website!!!!

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avatar 3 Anonymous

This whole article is bogus, absolute nonsense, every heard of the term “retreat into the inner citadel”. Its when people con themselves into thinking having less and less and less is ok and good simply because they cannot have more. Instead telling to cut back everywhere, why not tell them to EXPAND there means. sell stuff on ebay, start a part-time business, start a decent blog and throw ads on. Your kidding yourself if you think cutting back will make u feel better!

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avatar 4 Anonymous

Having less is ok. Maybe you don’t believe that, and that’s fine. But don’t ridicule others for having a different mindset. This post is not defeatist. It does not say, do not succeed, do not expand, do not strive for better.

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avatar 5 Anonymous

okay so do you not believe that growing has its struggles as well? The list goes on and on for what you need to grow through resources and time.

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avatar 6 Anonymous

their . . . not the

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avatar 7 lynn

JohnN: When does it end? Stress out over more commitment to others in a job. Cutting back gives a sense of well being. A true sense. Pride that you recycled and had a moment of creativeity. Pride that you accomplished something as simple as cooking a meal for pennies and watching a bank account grow. Life is good!! for some of us.

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avatar 8 Anonymous

There are 2 ways to save more money.

One way is to cut expenses and the other is to increase income.

Some people are good at cutting expenses and others are good at creating new income. Because you do one, doesn’t mean others can do the same.

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avatar 9 skylog

very true paul. i agree, although, i will add that even if you do one does not also mean you can not do the other.

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avatar 10 Anonymous

This is so true Paul. I’d also suggest to minimize the use of credit cards to save money as well. When bills are not paid on time, bank charges heavily on us.

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avatar 11 Anonymous

Actually… i totally agree with the article…

Gaining more and more… hmmm … let me see.. for a population explosion.. i dont think this is a good idea..

The above steps which I have been practicing for a long long time is the best way you can understand yourself…

The more you want.. the more blinded you are.. (simple.. but yet so complex..)

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avatar 12 Anonymous

Hi all … thanks for the comments. Regarding John N’s comment about cutting back vs. expanding:

I hear your point, but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I do both. I think frugality is an important starting point for many people who overspend and are getting themselves into debt … but it makes sense for others as well. If you’re trying to increase your income, why waste it by needless spending?

Think of it this way: If you currently make $30,000, and then make an additional $10,000 through your website or ebay or other side business … does it make sense to spend most of that extra income, or would it make sense to cut your spending even more — if you cut your expenses by $5,000, you’ve just given yourself a $5,000 raise, in effect.

I suggest that people do what works best for them, but for myself, I am frugal while at the same time, I have increased my salary, I make extra money through free-lancing, and I have a decent side income through my website. Combine them and you’ve got a winner!

Thanks for the excellent point and the opportunity to clarify my article.

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avatar 13 Anonymous

Good post. I agree. You do not need loads of crap in your life. Stop living a life dictated by advertisers and companies who just want you to spend your hard earned money buying their crap. Free yourself from the addiction. Think for yourself. Take a holiday instead, give the extra money to charity, relax, go easy on the limited resources on this planet.

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avatar 14 Anonymous

I agree 100% with the retort to the cutting back vs. expansion arguments.

I make a fairly substancial income. My wife stays home with the kids. I save about $30k a year for retirement. But, I have no savings for short term needs (like buying a new house). Subtracting $30k from my income still leaves a fairly decent ammount. My wife asked if I wanted her to work to make more money. I said that was not an acceptable solution. Her making $20k-$30k a year isn’t worth the affect on out kids (having to put in daycare). Cutting back on little things is a much better solution. We’ve already figured out how to cut out $120 a month and it has been relativel painless.

This also gives me the peace of mind that if I lose my job, our real expenses are less.

Great discussion!

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avatar 15 Anonymous

This post reminds me a bit of Small is Beautiful by E.F. Shcumacher. He argues that you can have an economy of production and abundance once you get rid of the habits that persuade you to consume. Once you stop being beholden to consuming people what other people make, you can free up time to be create and produce expirences, which end up having more value over the long run than small consumable goods.

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avatar 16 Anonymous

When I consider that around 20,000 children a day die of hunger related causes (about one every five seconds) it makes going to the movies once a week rather than twice a week seem pretty easy. In fact sometimes when I start to think about all the things I’d like to have for myself, my kids, or my granddaughter I think about what it must be like to watch your child starve. Kind of puts things in perspective. We have been sold a bill of goods that says to be happy we have to have _____ . I fight this battle on a daily basis. Great article.

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avatar 17 Anonymous

LESS IS MORE.. nuff said

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avatar 18 Anonymous

I can understand the focus on limiting what you buy. Expanding income is for another day.

I grew up not well off, and know that there is no feeling better than money in the bank. It allows one to stop thinking about money and live, even when the unexpected happens.

I also have the uncanny ability to be attracted to the most expensive items in a shop!

I brown bag lunch, Netflix instead of cable, buy consignment furniture (always get nice comments about my home, no IKEA here), have nice quality clothes that last a long time, found that going to bars really isn’t that much fun since it’s always the same old story.

The first thing I’d recomend is to slow impulse buying. Just think about each item you are buying before you get into line, and ask “Do I really need this?”

Second, keep a water bottle in your car. Get one from REI, EMS, or other hiking store. This keeps you from stopping at 7-11 when you are thirsty, saves a buck or two or more a day. Fill it with tea or iced coffee or whatever from home if you want.

If you don’t piss it away a little at a time: 30th birthday spent in Puerto Rico, Ritz-Carlton Concierge level, $500 dinners. Spend it when it counts!

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avatar 19 Anonymous

I agree that less is more. More things don’t equal more happiness. What makes our life truly rich is enjoying the present moment, being with friends and family, listening to music, appreciating nature, etc. These don’t have to cost a lot or much at all.

When we stop grabbing, clinging, striving for more more more, then we can slow down and really enjoy life.

Also frugality is different for everyone. Maybe for a film buff, they would cut out other things so that they can have money to spend on films.

Depending on age and whether you have a family to provide for, what you need to sacrifice will be different. When you’re single you can be more indulgent in your spending even if you don’t have a lot of money. When you have a family (like I think Leo’s site says he has 6 children!) then you don’t mind making sacrifices for the betterment of your family.

Another thing about ‘less is more’ is that this way of living is really good for the environment too.

Everyone should live their life in the way that makes sense for them, but if you’re looking to become better at frugality (to save for “expansion” in your future) then this post is a good place to start.

Nice writing as usual Leo!

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avatar 20 shellye

Great post! I agree with the above comment about “cutting back in some areas so you can spend more in others.” It’s all about balance and moderation.

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avatar 21 lynn

Balance and moderation. The keys to a content life.

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avatar 22 skylog

amen lynn, amen. if only it were so easy to achieve.

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avatar 23 Bobka

We all like to get a good deal in using the funds that we have. However, there is nothing to be gained by cutting out enjoyable things (as defined by whoever is spending his/her own hard earned money) just for the sake of cutting back.. If you find cable TV enjoyable, then spend the money on it and enjoy! If you enjoy a spartan life, that’s OK, too! It’s also OK to reallocate. Your money is yours to save or spend as you see fit. Just remember that when you die, you can’t take it with you.

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avatar 24 wylerassociate

those are some good tips. To save money, I cook at home most of the week, don’t go out to movies, shop at sam’s club, subscribe to netflix, spend more time visiting friends, going for walks, exercising more often.

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avatar 25 Ceecee

Frugality is a little bit of a game to me—-a challenge to see if I can create something rather than buy it, or find it used or on the cheap. It can be satisfying to live with less stuff and enjoy simple pleasures.

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avatar 26 Cejay

I honestly like being frugal. I feel like I am more in touch with myself, with my family and with the world. I do spend for things that are important to me. When we want a good meal ou then we go to a nice steakhouse. I do not feel deprived since I think of fun things to do. I enjoy my life and would not trade it for anything.

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avatar 27 Anonymous

I agree,being frugal does not mean we need to deprive ourselves of what matters to us.
Cooking at home and taking a bottle of tea from home is not only frugal but also healthier.
Recycling/exchanging old clothes and things is not only frugal, but also fun(both for kids and adults) and environmental.
It also gives you the “right” to treat yourself to something costly you really like;-)

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