This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale at

The other day I was walking down the street when a young man approached me and asked directions to the nearest Tube Station. I live in Boston, not London. Our subway is called the T. I happened to be walking to the nearby station myself, so we walked together and got to chatting about travel, since he obviously wasn’t from around here.

The young man was from London, it turned out, and had spent the summer traveling around the United States. He’d done it on the cheap. Five weeks of travel had cost him under $800 for food, lodging, and transportation.

How had he done it? By staying open to adventure. This young man and the friend he was traveling with had spent the summer hitchhiking, couch-surfing, and swapping odd jobs for food and shelter. And they’d had a great time.

In the fifteen minutes we walked together, he told me about the woman who drove them from Nashville to New Orleans. She was a trucker who taught them how to build a quick shelter using only a tarp, and they camped outdoors with her along the highway.

I also learned that he’d spent the past week helping a friend move into a new apartment in my neighborhood, and that they’d furnished the place almost entirely with found items from the street.

Clearly, this was a fellow cut from the same cloth as my own frugal heart. We talked about ways to save money for a few minutes. His bottom line:

People spend money to have ease and convenience. If you’re willing to sacrifice those things, you can travel, or live, very cheaply. The trick is to find ways to enjoy your life and save money.

For my newfound friend, this meant finding adventure. By taking the roads less traveled, he was able to do more than save money. He got to experience America the way he wanted to: in the homes of people who live here, rather than at resorts and hotels. He was going home with vibrant, unusual stories about his time here. Those are experiences he couldn’t have bought.

This kid didn’t spring into frugality out of nowhere. He was inspired. England has a robust population of squatters: people who choose to live in abandoned buildings. Many of them have jobs, or attend school. They just choose to live in empty buildings instead of mainstream housing. It’s a strange but thriving subculture.

My companion wasn’t a squatter himself. “I could never do that,” he said. “But I’ve learned a lot from them.”

He’d observed this radical community and taken elements of their lifestyle into his own. He wouldn’t want to sleep uninvited in abandoned buildings, for example, but he was happy to couch-surf for an entire summer, sleeping on floors and sofas rather than in hotels. Likewise, dumpster-diving was a step too far, but knowing people did it had made him brave about asking restaurants for day-old food that was about to go off.

He certainly wasn’t traveling in luxury, but he was having a great time. And he wasn’t going into debt to do it.

You don’t have to be a footloose young traveler to adopt this frugal mindset. Last year, I participated in Katy Wolk-Stanley’s No-Heat Challenge. She wanted to keep her heat off until November. Fine.

I bailed when it snowed in mid-October, but I live in a colder climate than Katy (who lives in Portland, near J.D.), who cheerfully pushed on through. Later, I discovered a community of people living in my area who use no central heat at all. They live year-round in unheated warehouses and artists’ lofts and farmhouses, using only space heaters and stoves to stay warm.

I can’t imagine ever doing that. I’m a delicate flower, and I spent my childhood in Tucson. As soon as the temperature falls below 60 degrees, I start whining mournfully for summer.

But paying attention to how the no-heat crowd lives helped me use less heat last winter. Between the major changes we’d made — like replacing our 40-year-old oil furnace with a new high-efficiency gas furnace — and our lifestyle shifts, we were able to cut our heating bill by hundreds of dollars per month. That savings made a huge difference to my ability to pay off our credit cards.

Whether you’re looking to travel to exotic places, change careers, or just keep your house warm this winter, there’s always somebody taking a more radical step than you are. Watching people who go beyond your own comfort zones can be inspiring. We can’t all be vegans, but we can all try to eat less meat. Most of us would never want to become squatters or dumpster-dive for our dinners, but seeing others do so can be an invitation to examine our own lives.

Where are you swapping cash for conveniences you don’t really need? Is there some radical change waiting to be made in your life? A baby step that you can take towards it?

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