Get Rich Slowly readers submitted a couple dozen articles while I was on vacation, but one story was mentioned more than any other. Several people sent me a New York Times piece by Christine Haughney called “Every Penny Counts“. Haughney writes about six New Yorkers who scaled back their lifestyles to save for a larger goal: homeownership.

Here’s how one couple did it:

In a city synonymous with luxury and spending, Ms. Lee, 30, and Mr. Agüero, 35, decided to do without. They gave up smoking to cut costs, they stopped meeting friends after work for beers, they didn’t buy new clothes, and they stashed away tax refunds and as much of their earnings as possible. Whenever they wanted to buy drinks, gadgets or cookware, they asked each other: “Do I want an iPod or a house? Do I want a latte or a house?”

This last method is a great tool to use whenever you’re pursuing any large goal, financial or otherwise. If you’re trying to lose weight, ask yourself, “Do I want a piece of cake, or to be able to wear my old clothes?” If you’re working to pay off debt, ask yourself, “Do I want a Wii, or do I want to be debt-free?” If you can learn to couch your decisions in these terms, you can often arrest bad habits before they get out of control.

One of the New Yorkers says, “It was hardest not to spend in the beginning.” This is a fundamental truth of frugality (or any other form of self-sacrifice.) When you’re used to indulging yourself, making the switch to austerity can be a challenge. You may feel like doing without just isn’t worth it. Eventually, though, you’ll begin to find joy in things that cost little or nothing. You’ll learn to make do without. It’s not about masochism, but about changing your point of view.

The article profiles another man who had trouble saving until he found motivation by associating with like-minded people. “A lot of pressure to spend and splurge wasn’t around because everybody was saving to buy real estate,” he says. By hanging out with people who have goals similar to yours, you can share ideas, and obtain support. (Just as a recovering alcoholic shouldn’t spend time with friends who drink, it’s probably best not to “go shopping” with friends when you’re trying to get out of debt.)

Haughney’s article describes the mindset that Dave Ramsey calls “gazelle-like intensity”. It’s a single-minded focus on pursuing a financial goal. The goal for the people in the article is saving for an apartment. Dave Ramsey’s audience is generally saving to pay off debt.

This article is good, but I’m curious about other techniques people use when working toward large financial goals. I’m a huge proponent of the debt snowball, for example, because I’ve seen its power in my own life, and heard how successful others have been in using it. Other techniques that I’ve used in my own quest for debt elimination include:

  • Keep your goal in mind. My goal is to be debt-free by the time I turn 39 next spring. This is the most important thing in my life right now, and it influences everything I do. Sure I make mistakes along the way, but I don’t let them get me down. I remain fixated on my goal.
  • Boost your income. This is the most-neglected technique for achieving big financial goals. If you want to save a large sum of cash quickly, you must make sacrifices. You’re going to have to find a second job, or work longer hours at your current job. You may have to sell some of your stuff, or learn to make money from your hobbies.
  • Be patient. Persevere. Progress can seem slow at first, but will accelerate with time. Things will get easier. You’ll learn new techniques. You may receive support from unexpected sources. Together, these things will help to accelerate your success.

How well do these methods work? In just over three years, I will have paid off $30,000 in debt and begun to fund my Roth IRA. Yes, I’ve made sacrifices — especially my free time — but you know what? I don’t care. It feels great to finally be licking my debt, to have taken control of my financial life.

I used to be skeptical that this sort of thing was possible. It seemed to me that success stories like these applied to other people, but not to me. Now that I’m approaching the end of my own personal finance success story, I’ve changed my mind. I believe that anyone can save for big goals if they’re focused enough, if they understand that every penny counts.

[New York Times: Every Penny Counts]

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