Commandment #4: Be Frugal
Last night while cleaning the house, I found some old papers. Among the many memories, I found a document entitled “J.D.'s Ten Commandments”. I can't tell exactly when I wrote this, but I'd guess it was back in 1992 or 1993, just after I'd graduated from college.
My ten commandments were:
- Be physically fit.
- Be attractive.
- Don't waste free time.
- Be frugal.
- Maintain the automobile.
- Be curious.
- Be loving.
- Be productive.
- Have fun.
- Be rational.
The meat of this document are the supporting details beneath each commandment. They're a fascinating glimpse at my mind from fifteen years ago. For example, under “be physically fit”, I wrote “eat food that will prolong life, not shorten it”. As part of my productivity goal, I aimed to “write for at least three hours a week”. (Ha! Now I write at least three hours a day.)
It's fun to see which of these goals I've achieved and which I've missed. It's also interesting to note which goals have made me happy and which have not. I met my writing goal, for example, and this has been a source of fulfillment. But I also “learn to program in C”. This wasn't such a dream come true. I spent a year programming computers, and found that the work wasn't meaningful or enjoyable.
I did a poor job at following some of my commandments. My fourth commandment was “be frugal”, under which I set the following subgoals:
- Budget for a limit of $10 a week of personal entertainment.
- For something more than $10, save.
- Buy only Star Trek comics.
- Don't eat in restaurants.
- Utilize a savings account.
- Don't use credit.
- Pretend that life is a business venture.
I failed miserably at every one of these. In the decade after I made this list, I spent lavishly on personal entertainment. I never opened a savings account — if I wanted something, I usually just bought it on credit. I bought whatever comics I wanted, and ate in restaurants all the time. If I had followed my own admonitions, I might have been able to get a head start on retirement. Instead I found myself with more than $20,000 in credit card debt.
That's the bad news. The good news is that eventually I figured this stuff out. Eventually I learned to be frugal. If only I had learned these things back in 1992!
I still make lists of financial goals (though I don't call them “commandments”). Every few months, I draw up a list of my current income and fixed spending. I project big upcoming expenses (“plumbing repairs”, “vacation to Europe”), and then plot how much I need to save. This is as close as I come to creating a budget. The difference between 1992 and 2007 is that now I actually achieve most of the goals I set for myself.
If I can learn to handle money correctly, then anyone can.