This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

In the past few months, I’ve had a noteworthy number of conversations about the trend toward frugality. More of my friends seem interested in finding ways to save, I can’t throw a rock at the Internet without hitting a money-saving “hack,” and, during a job interview, I had a lengthy discussion about how “personal finance is now trendy.”

Get Rich Slowly reader and money blogger Mrs. PoP noticed it too, and wrote about it on her blog:

“Recently I’ve begun to notice something a bit unusual. An interest in personal finance seems to be becoming more common, and dare I say, trendy… Maybe I’m just drawn to [friends'] comments because of our own interest in personal finance. But maybe, there’s also a chance that personal finance — in a non-gimmicky way — is actually starting to be ‘cool’.”

I don’t think it’s just our imaginations. There’s proof.

Americans prefer saving to spending

Gallup poll from December 2013 found that Americans are more interested in saving money than they used to be. The results were enough for Gallup to declare that spending less is likely to be the “new normal.” They even went so far as to say the “new American pastime” might be saving money.

Forty percent of those polled say they’re spending less in recent months, and 28 percent said they were spending more. There are a couple of points worth noting about this statistic, however.

  • Respondents may not have gauged their spending accurately, especially considering the poll was taken around the holidays. “Although self-reported spending is up overall this year, with additional gains through Thanksgiving week, Americans don’t necessarily perceive themselves as spending more.”
  • In 2010, even more people reported spending less — 57 percent. “This suggests many Americans no longer feel much of the pressure to save that they felt during the recession.”

But despite feeling less pressure, there’s still evidence that more Americans are interested in good money habits.

In a press release, Gallup wrote:

“Americans themselves say they prefer saving money over spending it, by 62% to 33%. However, this has not always been the case. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, Americans were more evenly divided.”

Post financial crisis, Americans are indeed more interested in saving. And even better news, household debt (presented as a percentage of GDP) has also fallen to 81 percent from 98 percent in 2009.

Gallup’s findings mirror another study, which found that a large percent of Americans live below their means. According to the FINRA Investor Education Foundation survey, 41 percent of Americans “report spending less than their income.”

“36% spend about equal to their income, and 19% spend more than their income,” the survey reads.

Of course, there’s the flip side to the coin. FINRA’s survey found that over half of Americans (56 percent) don’t have an adequate emergency fund. Americans are still struggling, and perhaps they don’t have much choice but to change their ways.

As a whole, it’s an indication that Americans aren’t financially secure just yet. There’s a lot of work to be done, and the shift toward wanting to save more and spend less is at least a step in the right direction.

Art imitating life?

Remember the ’90s? Remember Monica and Rachel’s sweet New York apartment? They even had a coffee shop downstairs, where they spent a lot of time and, presumably, a lot of money.

Remember Fight Club and American Beauty? Those pre-recession movies taught us lessons about materialism, over-consumption and the superficiality of living the American Dream.

Fast forward to 2014, and we’ve got Girls, a show about broke twentysomethings who move back in with their parents, borrow money from their parents, and struggle to find jobs. And, maybe it’s a coincidence, but two of 2013′s most critically acclaimed movies, Nebraska and Inside Llewyn Davis, carry themes of hardship and futility. If art imitates life, I think we’re witnessing it.

There’s also Extreme CouponingExtreme Cheapskates and the Thrift Shop song. Pop culture even reflects our cynicism toward the one percent – Wolf of Wall StreetAmerican Greed and, of course, every reality show that features rich people with unsavory personalities.

In 2001, we discussed the issue of over-consumption in a college class. We talked about the drawbacks of it, and most of us agreed it was superficial and dehumanizing. Someone argued – WhyWhat’s so bad about wanting to spend money? Why does it mean you’re superficial? It’s a good point because, as college kids with no personal finance experience, we were all missing the mark.

Eventually, the drawback of over-consumption is a loss of control. For most people, the desire to consume — to keep up with the Joneses — becomes overwhelming, and they lose control of their finances.

And while money is just money, we need money to live, and not having it can really mess up your psyche. You end up buying more stuff to make up for it, trying to maintain some semblance of control. Then, before you know it, you’re in debt and, as Tyler said, “the things you own end up owning you.”

We all know this happens — and over the past several years, we’ve seen it happen.

Shift vs. trend

As Sam, the Financial Samurai, pointed out, sometimes it takes having our backs against the wall to change our financial habits. Of course, that’s not the case for everyone; but as a country, I think that is what’s happening.

I don’t think it’s a trend toward frugality as much as it is a cultural shift. Sure, the percentage of Americans interested in spending less was higher immediately following the crisis. But, overall, the desire to save more and spend less has stuck. It seems most Americans want to develop good financial habits not as a crash diet but as a lifestyle change.

“In a follow-up question, Gallup finds that the 40% ‘spending less’ crowd is more likely to see their sudden thriftiness as a new, normal pattern (28%), rather than temporary (12%).”

Americans taking control

For years, we over-consumed. We were encouraged to over-consume, and it put us in a bad place. We lost control.

But life, and the economy, has its ebbs and flows. We shift our views and behaviors in line with our environment. And the change in economic climate has stayed pretty gloomy over the past six years.

Sometimes it takes a while for a silver lining to emerge. But the good news is, this lingering gloom has finally inspired people to regain control. Backs against the wall or not, there’s a shift toward saving and financial education, and that’s good news.

This article is about Choices, Consumerism, Savings

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This article is by staff writer William Cowie.

Amid the hubbub of stock-market activity last week, the House of Representatives quietly approved a new law giving Wall Street an exclusive monopoly on funding for smaller businesses – including even your little side hustle. Sponsored by Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), it goes by the innocuous-sounding name of “H.R.3623 – Improving Access to Capital for Emerging Growth Companies Act.” (As with all U.S. legislation, you can find all the details on the official Congress website: There was enough support, apparently, to allow the bill to pass to the Senate for the next step in its passage.

Buried in the fine print toward the end of this pending legislation is Section 4, which reads “No source of capital shall be permissible from any entity not accredited by the Securities and Exchange Commission as an approved investment banker or broker/dealer.”

Translation: Small business can obtain its capital from no source other than Wall Street. Effectively, this cuts off other sources of small business funding like loans or investments from family members, crowd-funding, peer-to-peer lending, or even old-fashioned “Main Street” bank loans. Apparently, the sponsors see this as a means to “protect small businesses from themselves” by insisting that only “trained professionals” (i.e., Wall Streeters) have the necessary expertise to offer financing that doesn’t put small businesses at risk.

Not everyone sees it that way. “What do suits on Wall Street know about running a small business in Peoria?” fumed Satch Miller, owner of four bakeries in Peoria, Illinois. Added Melanie Walker, President of Sedona First National Bank in Arizona, “No doubt, that powerful Wall Street lobby is taking aim at crowding out family-owned banks like ours, who have always been there for our friends and neighbors.” Indeed, it seems several lobbying firms representing Wall Street firms had a hand in drafting H.R.3623.

If you generate any side income, from blogging to selling your cookies at a church bake sale, the new law (full text here) will require you to add a certification to your 2014 tax return, stating that you took no capital or loans from anyone but an investment banker registered with the SEC. This is eerily similar to individual taxpayers who are now required to file a certification of health insurance coverage with their tax returns. Wall Street, it appears, is poised to shove Main Street commercial banks and your parents out of its way in its quest to dominate all financial transactions.

Consumers are not affected, which may account for the scant media coverage, but small businesses definitely will be. Rather than debate the merits of the new legislation, let’s focus on how you can comply with a minimum of fuss. The first thing to do is to check your calendar again.

What day is it? April 1. If we got you, smile! So you can relax, you don’t have to use Wall Street for anything if you don’t want to.

The H.R.3623 bill is real, but a casual glance at the actual text will reveal it’s just a common-sense amendment to make life easier for smaller businesses. But it had such a catchy title, I couldn’t resist. The quotes, and the certification requirement are fake — hopefully you got an April 1 chuckle or two out of it.

Wall Street

Wall Street is not fake, however. Neither is the nation’s scorn. If you had your dander up at the notion that Wall Street is fleecing ordinary citizens to feed million-dollar incomes, you’re not alone. A reader recently contacted us, calling himself a “contentious objector to Wall Street.” Freudian slip, or deliberate phrasing, contentious objector seems to describe millions. Why is this? What drives this groundswell of anti-Wall Street sentiment?

From an unscientific (hey, I admitted it, no shooting the messenger, please) glance through blogs and articles on the Internet, it seems the hate toward Wall Street stems from:

1. Pay — Average salaries are about $500,000 at Goldman Sachs, over a quarter of a million dollars at J.P. Morgan Chase and so on … and for what?

2. Contribution — Wall Street bankers don’t overtly contribute anything to the economy. Paul Volcker, king of all bankers at one time, famously declared that banking’s only real contribution to society was the ATM machine.

3. Manipulation — With their high-speed computers and super-high-speed communications lines (some even moved closer to the NYSE to shave a few nanoseconds off the time it takes to complete a trade) these anonymous Wall Street drones rig the market so you and I don’t stand a chance.

4. Domination — With their million-dollar lobbying efforts, they succeed in crafting legislation that shifts their risk to ordinary taxpayers while they keep all the rewards. Haters point to the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, and the subsequent propping up of the greedy banks when their risk-taking blew up in their faces (without a single CEO getting fired) as evidence that Wall Street now dominates Capitol Hill.

5. Arrogance — Perhaps more of an emotional stereotype, it may be difficult to put a face on this sentiment, but it’s there.

What About You?

Two questions — one that matters and one that doesn’t:

A. How do you feel about Wall Street?

You probably have a ready answer, filled with various measures of steam and dander. However, this is the answer that doesn’t matter. How you feel about Wall Street doesn’t do you any good, other than the occasional after-dinner rant with a few friends.

B. What do you do about Wall Street?

Like the weather, Wall Street is what it is, and we are not going to change it. The smart people focus their attention on how to get ahead in this system, flawed though it may be. Jeff Rose gave us a list a few weeks ago of investments off-Wall Street; but like it or hate it, Wall Street dominates the investing landscape and is not going away anytime soon. If you have a 401(k) retirement plan in the USA, you’re tied to Wall Street since the law requires that those plans can only invest in mutual funds.

Given that, what are your options?

1. Get out of day-trading. In the ’80s and ’90s, when the stock market was on a long-term bull run, it was relatively easy to make money day-trading. Those days are gone. The market is too volatile, and this is the prime area of focus for those Wall Streeters with their mega-computers and superfast communication lines.

2. Start with index funds. J.D. Roth has said it hundreds of times, but index funds capture entire markets or segments. No Wall Streeter is big enough or rich enough to move an entire market. And they compete with each other too much for them to work in cahoots with each other.

3. Avoid the conventional mutual funds your company’s adviser wants to steer you toward. They talk a good story, but the stats prove fewer than 20 percent of them beat the market even BEFORE their egregious fees. And it’s never the same 20 percent, so an index fund is guaranteed to beat any one over the long haul.

4. Take a long term view. Wall Street doesn’t. This is why Warren Buffett so handily outperforms them. Every quarter, your Wall Streeter is fired or gets a bonus. They can’t afford to take a long-term view. You can. You know the market’s going to fall again. It always does. But it will recover again. (It always does that too.) Most people sell after a market crash and blame Wall Street. Smart people don’t. They stay the course and buy some more to reap even more reward when the market recovers (as it always does).

5. Contribute, contribute, contribute. In the beginning, almost all of the value of your fund will be from your contributions, because 8 percent (or whatever you get) will never add up to much early on. But as time passes, the more you contribute, the more there is to fuel the inevitable growth.

If you do these things, you’ll come out ahead. Whether Wall Streeter X makes millions or joins the unemployment line won’t make any difference to you. You can make the system work for you. And every year thereafter, you may be able to pull the April Fool’s prank on some unsuspecting Wall Streeter. :)

This article is by staff writer Honey Smith.

I was really struck by Kristin Wong’s recent article “Overwork and the illusion of a ‘high-paying’ job.” It’s not something that I’ve had to deal with personally, though I’ve seen people close to me wrestle with it. As an attorney, Jake makes a six-figure salary at his new job, but probably works 80+ hours in a week.

While this is undoubtedly tough (on his health, on his personal relationships, on his sanity), it’s also the norm in his industry. He tried going out on his own for awhile, but it turned out that he didn’t really work any less. He just spent his time on different things, primarily administrative tasks. And he was making less than half as much.

He concluded that if he had to work that much anyway, he might as well make the big salary that goes with it. And this time around he’s much more focused on paying off his student and consumer debt as quickly as possible. Because of my own employment situation, however, I’m going to approach Kristin’s question from the opposite angle: How much of a reduction in pay are you willing to take for the sake of work-life balance?

My day job

I now make $42,000 per year. When I took this job way back when, I viewed it as purely transitional. I needed to make money right away, and this was the first job I was offered. But I believed that I would get another job, making significantly more money, within three years.

I’ve interviewed for other jobs since then. I’ve even received an offer that I decided not to take, since they low-balled me by quite a bit. Like April Dykman, I attempted to negotiate but was shut down – hard. Was it because I’m a woman? Who knows. However, after my experience, I vowed not to apply for a position unless the low end of the posted salary range was at least 10 percent more than my current position.

But these days there’s more to it than that. You see, in the beginning I had no choice but to scrimp and save and pay down my great big debt on my (relatively modest) salary. Since I started my day job, I’ve paid off more than $15,000 in consumer debt. When I started writing for GRS, I was down to the last $5,000 or so — I’d already paid off over 10 grand! I’ve also paid off over $8,000 in student loans.

I’ve finally reached the point where, after saving for retirement, paying my bills, and allocating some money for fun, I have $300 or so left over each month. At the moment, some gets saved and some is used for extra student-loan payments. Additionally, I’ve been expanding my side gigs so, while I do need my day job, I don’t rely on it for everything.

The beauty of debt payoff

Take Kristin’s original hypothetical …

“Let’s say you have a choice between:

“A) 40-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year, and

“B) 75-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year.”

… and let’s modify it a bit. Say, instead, you have a choice between:

A) 40-hour-a-week job that pays $50,000 a year, and

B) 80-hour-a-week job that pays $100,000 a year.

IMO, that’s when you get to the really interesting questions. How much do you enjoy your job? How much do you need the money? Do you feel a duty to live up to your potential? Are you willing to sacrifice spending time with your family and loved ones? Give up your hobbies? Is time worth more than money? How much more?

As J.D. and many, many others on GRS and elsewhere have pointed out, the beauty of paying off debt is that you’re able to live on less. These days, I’ve got a bit of a cushion. I’m happy to say that it’s been years since I cried after going grocery shopping or didn’t wash my hair for a month because I couldn’t afford shampoo. Yes, both of those things happened.

I undoubtedly still have a long journey ahead of me. However, having some of the debt-related pressure taken off me leaves me free to enjoy a corporate culture where work-life balance is truly valued. I also enjoy feeling confident that I can handle any situation that arises. I both like and trust my colleagues. While I do keep my eyes peeled in case an exciting job opportunity comes along, I don’t feel pressured to take another job just because of the salary.

All your time has value, not just the time you spend working

As Kristin pointed out in her article, there are many people who don’t struggle with this choice. Why? Because, well, for them, it’s not a choice. Maybe they can’t get the “high-paying” job for whatever reason. Maybe they’re in too deep and have to take the “high-paying” job even though they hate it. Everyone’s journey is different, and there are lots of valid reasons for that.

But I keep thinking about this quote: “If I had no money, and I was struggling to pay my debts, and I lost my job, I’d definitely take the first job I could find. I just think, if we can, we should strive for more than that.” But more than what, exactly?

The obvious implication is that we should strive for more money. And sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Sometimes it’s even necessary. However, ultimately money is just a tool to get us the other things in life that we want. It can buy Stuff. Meh. It can buy Experiences. Better. And it can buy Time (not the magazine). Yea!

And fortunately, there are a couple of different ways to buy Time. One way is to save up enough in advance to achieve Financial Independence. Then you can choose not to work at all, or to only do work that interests you in whatever amount you desire. That way has been achieved by some people and is a goal for many more.

I think there’s another way to buy Time, though. I get to leave work by 5 p.m. every day and I don’t need to think about it until I get in the next morning. I get all the federal holidays plus generous sick and vacation time. Yes, you can get those things by “paying your dues” until you’re important enough to demand them. But there are other ways.

What’s worth more to you — time or money? Why?

Jim, a reader of our Facebook page, shared some of his personal finance journey in Facebook comments a while back, and readers commented that they’d like to hear his story. We reached out and asked him if he would elaborate so we could share his story with the Get Rich Slowly website readers. This is part 1.

Some reader stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success or failure. These stories feature folks with all levels of financial maturity and income. Want to submit your own reader story? Here’s how.

First, let me be clear, I never went hungry in the extreme “poverty” sense. But I did have a few mustard-and-sugar sandwiches in my life because that is what we could afford between paychecks. My parents had always given my sister and me “just enough.” If we wanted more, we needed to save our meager allowance because they were living paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford more. To this day, I believe it’s what helped me get to where I am today. I realized at an early age that it was all on me. I knew going in I was never entitled and that has been very helpful in this journey.

There were two lessons I vividly remember growing up concerning money. First, around 8 years old, I remember saving weeks and weeks for a large Lego set because Dad told me, even at that age, if I wanted something, I’d better save for it. He may even have had a deal with me that he would pay half and, knowing him, he would count it as one of my birthday presents because that is how he is. Anyway, it seemed like I must have saved $50-plus for this set of Legos back in the ’70s. Well, I clearly remember playing with it years later and thinking, “Boy, I worked hard to save that and for what?” The joy was gone, apparently. This was a very important lesson that I carried into my adult life (thankfully).

Second, I will never forget sitting at the bank drive-thru with my latest paycheck in hand when I was 16. It was a measly $76 for two weeks’ work (part time at a bowling alley). Even then, my parents made me use this money to pay my bills and reminded me to “use it wisely because that is all there is.” I remember waiting in line, looking at those numbers. I thought, “How am I going to live off of this in two years?” It was then that I truly realized that life is going to be difficult because it’s all on me. After all, my dad constantly would remind me “you better have a plan when you are 18.”

Over the next few years, I would need car payments, insurance/fuel and upkeep, a new transmission, a new windshield, college tuition. (My parents would help pay but kept a running tally of the debt I owed. I never had a student loan.) Some of the emergency purchases were my fault, like when I was driving a little too fast and hit the curb, destroying my wheel and tire. I was definitely a little foolish, immature and slow to learn about how to live responsibly. It seemed like every few weeks, something would break or I would do something stupid and would need to dip further into debt.

Now I was 20 and about $7,000 in debt and making a little over $3 an hour in the late ’80s. My life was spiraling out of control, it seemed. I was in college, but I had no idea what I was going for, where I wanted to be when I finished. I just knew this was the next step after high school. Deep down it was a frustrating pattern and I wasn’t smart enough to get out of it on my own.

Financial counseling at 20?

Sometime during this confusion, I saw a pamphlet about free financial counseling. I don’t know what it was that caught my attention, but I believe things happen for a reason. The counselor changed my life and I know that, because of him, I have changed a few people’s lives too. Hopefully, out of this story it could change yours.

Honestly, I don’t remember most of what he said. But the one thing I do remember has stuck with me for the last 23 years. He said the secret to changing your life financially is to track every penny for two months and live within your means, which I diligently did.

I vividly remember the small notebook that I kept on top of my dresser so that each day I would be reminded of my task at hand. Each day, I marked each and every single expense down to the penny. (That was the secret — “to the penny.”) So I wrote it down.

  • Day 1: .25 for a soda; 1.67, hamburger and soda; 4.50 for bowling; 6.99, CD.
  • Day 2: .25 for a soda, 2.23 for a meal, 7.50 for gas, etc.

Then I added it all up. I was shocked how much I spent on eating out and sodas and realized a lot about myself.

That was the goal of the exercise – shock value. I quickly realized everything you spend goes into an abyss. If you take an ATM withdrawal for $40, how many times do you say “Where did all that money go?” and then head back and withdraw again or, worse yet, go to the nearest bank (out of network) and pay the $2 fee? Oh, by the way, don’t forget to write that fee on the piece of paper. This was the beginning of what some would call my “cheapness.” It seems now, no matter the size of purchase, I am thinking about that notebook (not that that’s a bad thing). It was the beginning of a behavior change, which is absolutely necessary if you’re going to change your life. I always questioned myself: “Will this purchase or decision get me to my goal?”

After a while, I would take my notebook and forecast my expenses — one month out, two months out, six months out. It was actually fun. It was like I was my own comptroller controlling the company’s finances. I would write it all down in the notebook: income/expenses, strategic goals, and the positions I wanted to be promoted to within the company. I’d think to myself, “If I spend only X on food this month, I could put the difference against the credit card and this pay raise (all of it) would go to paying off this old car loan.” I wouldn’t reward myself just because I had been sacrificing and I “deserved” it. I hadn’t reached my goal yet. Any found money or new money would go directly against debt. As you can imagine, there were lots of numbers, plusses and minuses, percent signs for interest rates, and mental notes in that notebook.

Beyond finances

Because it was on paper and I was consciously thinking about it, I soon found I became more focused, and my bosses at work noticed it too. After starting out in the warehouse, they gave me a few raises and promoted me around the company. I found a lot of inspiration as well, and I felt more responsible, and people saw me as more mature. Soon I believed that I was starting to get on the right path. It was hard to ignore the naysayers. A few called me “brown-noser.” Even more would call me “cheap” and look down on me or mock me. Still, I stuck to my new goals that were in my notebook. In my mind, I knew where I wanted to be someday.

It became a game to me. As I paid off each obligation, I put that money toward the next most expensive debt — and so on and so on. I never rewarded myself for paying off another debt; I just felt more and more relief from the burden of debt. The reward was the success of achieving a small goal. And it was all being tracked in that notebook. I could look at my notebook and see my hard work in action.

Setting goals

The other part of the game – a challenge I gave myself – was to reach a milestone each month. At the end of each month, I had a set balance, for example, $100 for my checking account. Whatever my balance was above that amount, I would allocate half of the difference to savings and the other half to the debt at hand. Putting monies in a savings account was my reward because, at the time, 9 percent was the going rate for a regular savings account. (It’s hard to believe compared with today’s rates of .04 percent, if you are lucky.) Also, convincing people back then that my way was the path to success, when interest rates on savings accounts were 4 or 5 or 9 percent, was a whole lot easier than it would be today.

I also educated myself on the difference between interest paid monthly, quarterly or annually because it makes a big difference when you are trying to make your money work for you. I would advise you to do this as well. I would scour the difference between bank accounts and CD rates to ensure the bank was providing me the most to help me in this journey. Today, I am not sure the effort would pay off as well, but the effort would be worth it to prove the commitment to the end goal: financial independence

Night after night, I would sit down with my notebook and I would do the math and forecast my monthly interest payment in my savings account so that I knew I would have $236 at the end of the month, way before I received my monthly statement. And you better believe, I would never pay a penalty fee to the bank. I would watch my money like a hawk.

Granted, it was hard and boring. I bought nothing except the basic necessities. I remember opting for water instead of the much-loved soda. Definitely no more music, and new clothes were non-existent. No more regretting a purchase like I did my Lego set when I was 8. I dropped out of college because I didn’t know where I was going with it anyways. I questioned all purchases and asked myself how I would feel three days from now — would I still be happy with this purchase? I still bowled, but instead of practicing 10 games, I cut it to two. I cut out bowling leagues, which was hard, but I found I loved saving money more because I had a vision. It was not easy and I sacrificed. Some would consider it boring and definitely being cheap. But somehow I knew what I was headed for…no guarantees, but I believed.

For three years, I diligently tracked where all money went. It was no longer difficult and became part of my life. I have read that if you want to break a habit, it will take three weeks typically. I definitely broke the habit of foolish spending. I stopped buying “stupid” stuff and slowly started building my net worth.

Finally, it happened. I paid off my Dad (lowest interest rate) last and I felt relieved. “I have a clean slate,” I remember thinking. “I can go anywhere from here.”

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. It can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a paid or professional writer and is just learning about money like you are. Unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed.

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