J.D. is on vacation. This is a guest post from Gail Vaz-Oxlade, a Canadian financial writer and host of the television series ‘Til Debt Do Us Part.

Frugality is all the rage. And a good thing too. With the economic situation as it is, we had better learn to take pleasure from the simple things if we want to keep our sense of balance and be able to sleep at night.

The rise of materialism
Before the advent of retirement savings plans, government pensions and a social safety net, most people had to save without incentive by living modestly. Frivolous, uncontrolled spending was virtually unheard of because the risks were so huge. If you go into homes that are 60 years old, the cupboards are tiny. That’s because nobody had much stuff. Kids slept two or more to a room, sometimes two to a bed! And people made do with just one or two of anything.

How many different pots do you have in your kitchen? How many pairs of shoes do you own? What about sweaters, t-shirts, pants, skirts, bottles of perfume, ties, scarves, purses, face creams? How about CDs and DVDs? What about sound devices like radios, stereos, iPods? How many telephones are there in your house? How many televisions? How many tools, hair clips, sets of dishes?

How much of your life’s energy have you converted into Stuff?

Learning to live modestly
Never mind beating yourself up for past waste. That’s a waste of energy too. But think about what you’ve been spending, and what you might need that money for in the future — like food or medical care. Think about how much you already have, and whether you actually have to spend any more money for while. Maybe it’s time for a Spending Holiday.

Figure out what it takes to live modestly for a month. You’ll need to cover your regular bills, such as:

  • Mortgage or rent
  • Utilities
  • Car payment and gas for work
  • Food, etc.

Once you think you’ve got the bare bones covered — the bare bones — then look at how much cash you think you’ll have to spend (since many bills come right out of your account.) Planning to spend $600 this month on everything from groceries to gas to your sister birthday present? Cut that in half and challenge yourself to live on less.

The power of saving
Before you throw your hands up and say, “Ridiculous”, just try it. There’s no failure here. It’s an experiment. It’s to see if it can be done. After all, even if you miss by $150, you’ve still spent much less than you thought was possible. Hit the mark and you’ve experienced living modestly and saving money at the same time. Double Whammy!

How much could you save every year if you decided to live modestly? How much less Stuff would you have? How much happier could you be?

Save just $200 a month by living modestly, put it in an RRSP (or Roth IRA) earning an average of 5%, reinvest your tax refund, and in 25 years you’ll have $90,000. Save $300 a month and you’d have $134,000. Save $500 a month and you’d have $224,000. Amazing!

Living modestly usually means battling the motivations to spend: advertising, friends and their new acquisitions, the mall. It often means taking a  little more time to find what you need, and really really really wanting it before you buy it. And it means being willing to accept that what you already have is good enough.

I have so much Stuff that’s not only good enough, but great, that I shouldn’t have to spend a cent for quite some time. I wonder how long I’ll last?