This post is from GRS staff writer April Dykman.

“A rich life without a lot of money.” — That’s the tagline of a blog I’ve read almost as long as I’ve been reading Get Rich Slowly, and long before I had an emergency fund or paid off my consumer debt.

Frugal Babe (FB) is the blog of a 31-year-old woman living in the suburbs of a fairly large city. She started the blog while she and her husband were paying off $38,000 in business start-up debt. It was good debt used to start their insurance brokerage business, but to someone who never had debt other than a mortgage, she was keen to pay it off as soon as possible, so she became even more frugal. Her efforts paid off, and in 2007 they made the final payment.

When I first started reading Frugal Babe, I was in a much different place.

  • I had credit card debt.
  • I liked to shop online when I was bored.
  • I thought that getting excited about Goodwill treasure hunts and putting an extra $50 of found money into an IRA sounded like the miserable life of a cheapskate.

Many times, I found her posts annoying. In reality, I was uncomfortable because she was doing what I knew I should be doing: spending my money on things that mattered, saving the rest. Her attitude toward money enriched her life and made her happy, whereas the way I was handling my own finances made me feel guilty.

Thankfully, I stuck around. Here are some of my favorite bits of advice and thoughts on frugality from Frugal Babe’s blog.

On the high costs of children
In 2008, the FB household became a family of three with the arrival of a baby boy. In true frugal style, FB managed to keep baby-related expenses far below what most people spend, choosing instead to buy only the essentials so that she could open a college fund for her son. She wrote:

If you have kids, don’t believe all the hype about everything that you “must have” for them. They really don’t need much. Provide food, health insurance, shelter, discipline, exercise, and love, and things will work out just fine.

The two major expenses that came with having a child were his health insurance premiums (about $100/month) and a monthly deposit of $100 into his college savings account, which she says is optional but great if you can swing it. Most baby Stuff was purchased used, other than a car seat and mattress. FB’s mother spent a day with her making cloth diapers (some cut from old t-shirts), bringing their total diapering costs to less than $100, and her son is now a toddler. Their second-hand, high-efficiency washing machine keeps water usage for washing diapers very low.

Note: The business FB and her husband started allows her to stay home with her son, so she doesn’t have childcare expenses. Obviously, that’s a huge expense for parents who don’t have the option or choose not to stay home with the kids. Still, the basic idea is that you don’t need all of the Stuff that Babies”R”Us might have you believe.

Lesson: Don’t let others convince you that you have to have things that you suspect you can go without.

On spending for value
Frugal and cheap are two different things. Cheap people only care about the price tag. Frugal people care about value and are willing to spend where it matters. For FB, an eco-conscious, healthy lifestyle is something she and her husband value, so a big chunk of her budget goes toward organic, local food. They also buy in bulk, and with a recent move to a house with with a big yard, they’re growing a great deal of their own food, as well. FB is happy to spend extra on food and health:

I’ll keep on being frugal in every other aspect of my life, so that I can buy the best food I can find and not bat an eye when the Vitamin Cottage cashier tells me my total is $345. It’s money well-spent.

Another example of spending in line with her values is her son’s mattress. After reading about chemicals and toxins in mattresses that off-gas for years in regular mattresses, it was important to FB to purchase an organic crib mattress for her son. She researched options for a couple weeks, and one she liked was $300. When she found it for $229 with free shipping, she ordered it.

Lesson: Try to get a good deal, but prioritize value.

On saving where it doesn’t count
FB always takes a long-term view of potential purchases:

If I need a shirt (okay, I don’t really need any shirts, since I have plenty — let’s say I want a shirt instead), I know that I can go to a thrift store and get a great shirt for under $5. Or I can go to the mall and spend $40 for a similar shirt. After I wash them each a couple times, I won’t be able to tell the difference anyway — the $40 shirt won’t bring me any more pleasure than the $5 shirt, so why the hell would I pay an extra $35?

FB runs a business from home and she’s a mother of a toddler. She doesn’t need a fancy wardrobe, so she doesn’t have one. But even if you have a professional job, it’s worth giving thrift stores a shot. (I admit I rarely have luck at these places, and I really dislike shopping in an actual store, so I chose to streamline my wardrobe instead.)

Another example is her cars:

My car is 19 years old, my husband’s is 20. They are both going strong. We bought my car from the original owner in 2003, and paid $2,300. We have only had to do a couple of minor repairs on it over the years. Bonus: driving an old car means that you can just purchase liability auto insurance. The savings we get from not having comp/collision on our cars allows us to purchase far more than the state minimums in terms of liability insurance. I’d rather be well-covered in that regard.

Lesson: Spend on what matters, and save on what doesn’t.

On DIY
Ugh. This one kills me. On more than one occasion, I’ve purchased something to solve a problem, only to see FB whip out a cheap — or free — DIY version a few weeks later.

For example, I wanted a reusable bag that could fit inside my purse so that I wouldn’t have to take home plastic bags when I made a stop at a store. I bought the Blue Avocado Pod bag for $10 that folds into itself and has the cutest carabiner attached to it. Nice, right? But then, just a few weeks later, FB took about three minutes to sew an old tank top into a reusable bag. It was free, and it’s far more eco-friendly than a Pod bag, even with the Pod’s recycled materials.

Lesson: Think about cheap or free solutions before buying a solution to your problem.

On giving and mindful spending
In the late 1990s, FB was a teacher in the Peace Corps in Tanzania. She had a student with great determination who came to every study session she offered. He would take time off and earn money to pay school fees, and then return for another semester of school. He did this all the way through college. (It’s extremely rare for someone in his part of the world to make it to college, as most of his peers didn’t make it through high school.) But his tuition and fees were going up, so FB’s parents, who had helped with a portion of his tuition for the last several years, chipped in with FB to help him pay for school:

Giving someone an education is a gift that keeps on giving. If we didn’t send money to help pay his tuition, we could go out to dinner every week this month. Or buy a bunch of new clothes at the thrift store by our house. But we don’t need to go out to dinner (we prefer our own cooking anyway). And the clothes we already have are just fine. While $200 is a lot of money for us (as is $600 for my parents), it’s a fortune to a student in Tanzania. So I will happily include the money from us when I wire my parents’ money next week. If we have to tighten our budget to do so, that’s okay.

Lesson: Spending on what matters to you puts you in a position to help others.

You don’t have to make FB’s values your values, but it’s worth asking yourself if you’re spending your money mindfully. When you’re considering a purchase, ask yourself if it’s something you’ll value in the long-run. Is there a free or inexpensive solution that gets the job done? (Could I have attached my own silly carabiner to a DIY bag? Yep.) From Frugal Babe, I learned that creating a lifestyle based on your values (and no one else’s) gives you freedom and a richer life.

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