Celebrating Frugal Role Models

Saving money and controlling your spending can be hard. Really hard. I’ve been consciously managing my money and getting out of debt for a couple of years now, and I still struggle with it every day.

Some days I’m a recyclin’, reusin’, thrifty rock star. Other days I splurge on take-out just because I’m too frazzled to go to the grocery store. It’s a balancing act. I’m making forward progress on my debt and living within my means, but there are plenty of little slip ups along the way.

Real-life role models

I wrote recently about the importance of using clear financial goals to stay on track. Another powerful motivator for me is peer pressure. I tend to spend money like my friends do, so I try to seek out friends who spend (and save) money the way I want to.

We can’t all have a real millionaire next door like J.D. does. Most of us don’t have one person in our lives who is a single shining example of simple living. So I seek out a variety of frugal role models. No one person does everything exactly the way that’s best for me, but if I look around I can get frugal inspiration from many of my friends and family.

When I want to get new clothes, for example, I don’t go to the mall. I host a clothing swap or visit the Salvation Army with my friend Johanna, who is extremely savvy about thrift store shopping. I know if I go with her, I’ll spend $20 at most and walk out with a bag of clothes that will win me plenty of compliments when I wear them. I’ve learned to avoid shopping with friends who prefer to cruise through new clothing stores. In fact, most of my close friends are frugal converts who get their clothes second-hand like I do.

While Johanna is my go-to girl for clothes shopping, I can’t model my travel plans after hers. She can afford some pretty awesome travel, and that’s where she chooses to spend her money. I love to travel, too, but to do it at all I need to do it on the cheap. Since I’m usually traveling with my kids, my primary role model for thrifty travel is my mom.

She traveled a lot with me and my sister as children, and watching her do it taught me how to save money doing it myself. We pack our own food from home rather than buying overpriced junk at the airport, for example, because that’s how Mom did it. I’ve become an expert at scouring for deals on plane tickets. When we travel, we nearly always stay with family and friends rather than in hotels. We spend our time connecting with the loved ones we’re visiting, or taking advantage of the free sights and experiences a new city has to offer. We use libraries and discount passes to get access to all kinds of great stuff.

Perhaps the closest person in my life to the perfectly frugal, “millionaire next door” type is my friend Sarah. She’s far from a millionaire, but she’s a great role model. She’s been an inspiration to me since we were teenagers. She’s always lived on a low income, as a graduate student and then as an adjunct professor. She’s managed to stay almost entirely out of debt while living close to, or even below, the poverty line. She does it the old-fashioned way: by tracking her spending, staying connected to her goals and values, and spending less than she earns. She took on a little debt when she became a mom, and she’s diligently paying that off.

One of the best things about Sarah is that she’s not afraid to say, “I can’t afford that.” This is an invaluable trick for navigating social situations. It can be hard to pass up a dinner out or a concert when all your friends are going. Sometimes it seems rude to turn down an invitation to go out for cocktails. I’ve been known to overspend under social pressure. Sarah sticks to her budget, and will quite cheerfully say, “Sorry, I can’t afford to go out this week. Let’s have a picnic instead.” She’s always ready with suggestions for free or low-cost fun.

Online inspiration

Another great source for frugal inspiration is books and blogs like this one. In addition to the other great writers on GRS, I love reading:

These writers bring a personal perspective to their blog posts that makes me feel like I’m talking to a friend. A smart, frugal friend who cares deeply about conserving resources. Personal resources like spare change and global resources like fossil fuels. These blogs inspire me to make small, specific changes in my life all the time, and they also keep me focused on the big picture.

All these role models serve an important function for me: They show me what’s possible in my own life, and make me feel like I’m part of a community of people who do these things, not a lone saver in the consumer sea. Saving isn’t sexy. It’s much more fun to go shopping, gather with friends at a swank cocktail bar or book a winter cruise. Connecting with people, in real life and online, who are choosing a simple, frugal life makes it easier to make and sustain those choices myself.

I think a lot of us tend to live similarly to those around us. No matter how much we may try to eschew it, we subconsciously keep up with the Joneses. The trick is to encourage simplicity and frugality by cultivating close relationships with people who are living the way we want to live, and spending the way we want to spend.

Who are your financial heroes? Who has inspired you along the path to frugal living, or helped you stay focused on your goals? How do financial role models influence you?

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