We are pretty frugal. We like to save money. Our friends and family have stories about how we’ve tried to save a buck or two over the years. This wasn’t always the case, though. Early in our marriage, although we had great jobs, we were just at the beginning of our earning potential. We implemented what we called the “Era of Austerity”; the goal was to really cut down our expenses so we could save and move those savings into investments. Our Era Of Austerity lasted ~5 years. We decided we had created a good-sized emergency fund, investment and savings account and could ease up. It finally felt okay to let off the throttle a bit. We still use these austerity measures from time to time and some are now part of the way we live.
Here are 15 ways to save money we learned during our self-implemented “Era of Austerity”:
1. Save on eating out
It occurred to us rather early that going out to eat was expensive and a quick win would be to slash this part of our budget. We never thought of it as a waste of money – we very much value going out to restaurants and searching out new ones or grabbing a meal at a favorite one. During our Era of Austerity, however, we decided to limit how many times we would go out to them and put parameters up regarding when we would go out. One of the most important things to us was spending time with friends and family and eating well, so we created a plan to eat well and also spend time with our friends and family.
- We invited people over to our place to have a meal instead of going out to eat. When we went through our marriage conversation, one of the things that came up throughout our conversation was how much we valued spending time with family and friends. For the price of going out to eat once, we realized fairly quickly that was nearly enough for a few dinner parties with friends. We could host a wonderful meal with booze for far less than going out to eat and it would probably be a more fun and intimate experience. And that’s what we did. We would invite friends and family over for a meal (taco night was a favorite) and we’d hang out and eat and drink well. I stole this idea from my parents. Mrs. Moneyaire’s parents are working class immigrants and going out to a restaurant was a luxury. If my parents wanted to spend time with friends they would host wonderful dinner parties or potlucks and we’d all spend a fun evening together eating, playing games and talking. Those nights are some of my best memories as a kid.
Pick and choose
- Going out to eat is an inevitable part of our social lives. Many times, hanging out meant eating out. We decided as a couple to keep eating out at restaurants to social events, i.e., when it involved hanging out with friends or family. We weren’t going to deprive ourselves the opportunity to be with our friends or family and decided we’d forgo dining out by ourselves to save money.
- If Mr. Moneyaire and I decided to eat out without it being a social thing, we would use our credit card rewards to eat out. By doing this our meals were typically free (we would of course tip, or do carry out) or would be pretty cheap, especially because we skipped the drinks and apps. We also would use our gift card rewards when we did eat out with friends.
Drinks, especially booze are very expensive out
- Drinks, especially alcoholic drinks, are super expensive at restaurants. How many times have you gone to a restaurant, seen a bottle of wine you recognize and think, “A single glass of this is what I pay for the whole bottle at Target!!” Alcohol is typically marked up by 200 to 400%. Quite the premium. In our early days we would skip buying drinks when we went out to eat, or we would go out to a restaurant having a special that evening on drinks if we really wanted to enjoy some wine, beer or cocktails. We would find places doing happy hour or half off bottle night etc. and enjoy half priced drinks and apps and invite our friends along too.
- This is a too often used and maligned way to save a few dollars, but we did skip pricey coffee drinks (unless we were out with friends, or if we had a gift card). Most of the time we would make coffee or tea at home or have it at the office. When the Moneyaires would go out for a cup of coffee (a favorite activity in the fall) we would use our credit card rewards to pay.
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2. Stick to the budget
When we first were married, our spending was a bit out of control and at the end of the month, although we’d be able to pay our bills, we didn’t have much leftover for savings. At first, this didn’t really bother us much. After all, we were earning pretty good entry level salaries and we weren’t going into consumer debt with our spending. That same year we were married, just before Christmas, the company we both worked at had layoffs.
It scared us both to see so many smart and hardworking people be let go from their jobs and have difficulty finding new ones. We decided that we needed to create more of a financial cushion and a plan in case one of us got laid off. Our plan ended up being akin to the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early). We decided that we needed to save and invest our money in case one of us was let go from a job and couldn’t find new work easily. We wanted our money to carry us in case we lost a job and couldn’t find work. Ultimately, we came up with a plan to get us to a point that if one of us were let go from a job in our 40s, it would be okay if we never worked a W2 again.
Crunch the numbers
To accomplish this we built out a spreadsheet to crunch the numbers. We figured out how much we would need to save given a conservative return over our given timeline. We realized we’d have to save a lot more than we were currently. To boost our savings, we drew up a budget that would tell us how much we could spend on food, personal care, housing, clothing, entertainment/vacation, cars, gas etc. for the month and ultimately for the year in order to save what we needed to. The budget we created together was really the driving force behind the Era of Austerity. We cut back on nearly every category and pumped up our expected savings budget.
I remember once that I wanted to go for a haircut, but I had already spent down my personal care budget for the month. I checked in with Mr. Moneyaire, and he suggested I wait a couple of weeks to get my haircut the following month. When it came to buying books, I took Mr. Moneyaire to the local library and got him a card to check out books. I know this seems severe and controlling but by keeping to our monthly budget we were able to shovel savings into investments. What helped us stick to our plan was communication and a shared goal.
Invest as you save
An important aspect we built into our budget was that we had budgeted amounts that would go into our Roth IRAs and into our after-tax brokerage account with TD Ameritrade. This part is critical; we didn’t just let our savings build up in our savings or checking account where the interest was basically nothing. We saved and then put our money to work. This was especially helpful to us when the real estate bubble burst and we were able to buy stocks at a discount because we were in a recession. As the recession ended and we went back to a growth period, our invested money grew.
3. Sell your unused stuff
Because of the smaller space (745 sqft) we opted to live in, in the early years of our marriage, we had to be militant about getting rid of stuff we didn’t love or use. We would post things online for sale. The money we would get would go straight into the bank. Selling our stuff also helped us realize how we needed to be more deliberate with what we purchased because what we received for our old stuff was a fraction of what we originally paid for it.
4. Resist the urge to buy things for the home unless they are two of three things: Useful, Beautiful (high quality) or Memorable.
The deals at Tuesday Morning or TJ Maxx are really good. I remember going shopping and being very tempted to buy this spikey gold metal sphere thing that was very well placed among a table of beautiful things at a trendy store. I picked it up and checked out the price. It was $28. I stood there thinking, that this $28 item was kind of ridiculous. It wasn’t anything that would be useful, nor did it mean anything to me, but it was beautiful. I put it back and just thought about what the value of that object and where that sphere would be in 10 years. It’d probably be in the $1 bin of a garage sale I’d be hosting. I walked away from the sphere.
We stayed away from buying the obligatory decorative items to fill space – we barely had any! Instead we focused on only getting things that we either needed or was 2 of 3 things; useful, beautiful or memorable.
For example, we took a trip to Greece, and we happened across a beautiful hand carved olive wood ladle. We needed a ladle and although it was probably more expensive than just buying it at a discount home goods store or an aspirational one, I bought it. Using that ladle to dish out stews and soups always makes me think back to that trip.
5. We bought stuff we needed secondhand when possible
Growing up there was a stigma associated with getting anything used. Grandma and Grandpa Moneyaire worked very very hard to break into the middle class and shunned going to a thrift store unless it was to make a donation. It took a bit of self-convincing but I eventually wandered into a thrift store and saw things I would normally purchase at the mall (the same brands!) just sitting on shelves for a fraction of the price. When we started hosting dinner parties and we needed serving platters, we picked them up at Goodwill and they still are put to good use even now.
6. Cut out stocking up
The food sitting in the pantry or fridge is money just sitting there, losing value every day. The average American household throws about nearly a third of the food brought into the home. We would buy just enough food to get us through the week before grocery shopping again.
We also cut back on stocking up on other household items like cleaning products, linens, towels etc. I distinctly remember fighting our small linen closet to fit the 10 bath towels we had next to the 5 fitted bedsheets. I was frustrated at the small size of our closet. Then it dawned on me… we were only two people in a 1 bedroom apartment. We didn’t need all those linens. 4 towels would probably be plenty as well as just a couple of sheets. One of the traps I fell into was trying to buy things when I saw them on sale. Stock up and save!! Right? The thing was, I didn’t need to do that, and even if I had purchased just two sheets at full price I probably would have saved money by not purchasing the other 3.
Don’t let your stuff dictate your housing
I see it on HGTV all the time: people acquiring so much stuff that they buy bigger homes just for the stuff. We didn’t want to fall into that so I knew we had to pare down and be more conscious of what we did buy. Think of all the space in your home as having value; the 5 sheets I had in my linen closet were taking up valuable space and it would be more cost effective to get rid of a couple of sheets instead of getting a house with a bigger linen closet to store them.
This was a tough one to swallow for Mr. Moneyaire. He had always viewed having his own car as a sign of his freedom; being able to jump in and drive wherever, whenever. However, financial freedom was more important than having an extra car for the added convenience. We were able to do this by making conscientious decisions to have short commutes and work in specific areas. We sold one of our cars and have stayed a 1 car family for the better part of 15 years. You better believe we’ve funneled our savings on opting out of a 2nd vehicle right into investments.
8. We leased our only vehicle
This runs counter to what many personal finance gurus espouse. We decided to lease our car because we didn’t want to finance a depreciating asset. Leasing is perfect for us. We don’t drive many miles (we usually do about 10 to 15k in miles every year). Also, going to a mechanic can cost hundreds of dollars on a car we may still be paying off. The time and cost it takes for car repairs, getting loaners or rentals while ours is getting fixed – its loathsome.
We decided to lease a reliable mid-range car that would have a low monthly payment. We’ve been leasing our cars for the last 13 years and haven’t regretted it. We get the newest model car; typically each new model has had increased fuel efficiency and all the latest technology and safety features. Because we lease a car that is well below our means, our monthly payments are low for us. We’ve never had to worry about maintenance issues or getting things fixed or the car starting. We just get in and drive.
9. We opted to live in a smaller home and in a lower cost of living (LOCL) area
This was a tough one for Mrs. Moneyaire. Mrs. Moneyaire had very much wanted to live in the city where many friends had moved to after college. They all seemed to be having so much fun exploring the city. Our friends who were opting to live in the suburbs were buying huge beautiful newly built single family homes. The temptation to go big was everywhere.
Mr. Moneyaire knew that spending less on housing, would propel us further towards financial independence than skipping coffees would. Living in a less costly place athan we could easily afford meant we could save a lot of money and speed our way to our financial goals.
10. We would gift each other using gift card money from our credit card rewards
When it came time to give each other gifts, we decided that we would gift each other with what we earned from our credit card rewards. If I had earned enough for a $25 gift card to Eddie Bauer (Mr. Moneyaire’s favorite clothing shop) it would get used around Christmas or a birthday towards a new shirt. The rewards were free money to us and the perfect opportunity to treat each other, guilt free.
11. Gifting each other Roth IRA contributions
What’s more romantic than financial security? This wouldn’t be our only gift to each other, but early on, it was the main gift. If your modified adjusted gross income is under $198k as a married couple (or under $125k if filing as a single) you can contribute $6,000 to a Roth IRA if you’re under 50 in 2021 or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older. We couldn’t always max out each other’s Roth IRAs; however, we would contribute as much as we could to each other’s Roths. We would take care of the administrative work to fund each other’s accounts, which wasn’t hard.
Our Roth IRAs have healthy balances now. Luckily, we did this early in our marriage. As our incomes grew, we phased out of being able to contribute to our Roths. (You can make partial contributions if your MAGI is 198k-$208k and you file jointly, or 125-$140k filing as a single). After you surpass those income levels, you are SOL regarding Roth contributions.
12. We are vigilant about investment fees
During this time we started understanding how to invest better and that fees were slowing us down. Every dollar we spent on mutual fund and advising fees was money that wasn’t getting us to our goal. We did our due diligence. We realized buying low cost index funds and ETFs would yield better returns sans the high cost of an advisor.
Our returns with our advisor always seemed to lag the market. The mutual funds we were in had expense ratios between .6% to 1.75%. On top of that, our financial advisor’s fee of .75%. Plus, early on, we had paid upfront load fees and in some cases still did. We were paying thousands of dollars in fees and getting less than market average returns. We were getting tired of this lackluster but super expensive, return. According to Ramit Sethi’s book I Will Teach You to be Rich, a 1% fee can eat up 30% of your gains.
Making tough decisions
We had a conversation with our financial advisor that was really difficult; it felt like a break up and he warned us we were making a mistake. He said all the right things to scare us; how risky it was for us to manage our money; how complicated it would be, how overwhelming and time consuming. He was pretty shocked and taken aback that we didn’t appreciate everything he had done for us. Also, we had agreed with his recommendations. Besides, after all this time, hadn’t we become friends? It was hard, and emotional. I second guessed our decision but Mr. Moneyaire was solid on the decision and we fired our financial advisor.
We opened up accounts at a discount brokerage and moved over our Traditional and Roth IRAs over. One of the best decisions we made was managing our own money. Our accounts have grown at a faster rate and have a lower cost than when we worked with an advisor.
13. We cut our entertainment budget
This was a hard one. Mr. Moneyaire loves reading and would buy all his books brand new. They are like his trophies. We would also do date nights at the movies, with a bucket of popcorn and drinks. They were easy, low effort and very expensive. It was hard, but we adjusted so that we could hit our long term financial goals. We decided we’d only purchase books if we had a gift card from our credit card rewards or from gifts. We started to use of our local library for movies and books.
Most of our entertainment budget went towards spending time with our friends. We still watch what we spend on entertainment; recently we’ve traded puzzles with friends instead of buying new ones and sharing board games. As we saved, invested and our net worth climbed to a more comfortable altitude, we spent more on entertainment.
14. Use credit cards for purchases and make sure those credit cards earn points
This one only works if you’re diligent about paying off your credit cards in full every month. If you carry a balance, stick to just using cash.
We researched the best cards for earning bonuses and got them. Then we used them when we made purchases to accumulate points. I would stick a piece of masking tape on our cards and jot down when we should use these cards. It reminded us which cards to use for different situations. If we pulled out a credit card you’d inevitably see “gas” or “groceries” noted on the tape. This helped us know which card to use to get the maximum rewards benefit. Our rewards would go towards purchasing new clothes or airline tickets or entertainment etc. It would go to the things in life that weren’t necessities but were nice to haves. One of our biggest wins was earning several hundred dollars in rewards towards a cruise to Turkey, Egypt and Italy.
Any purchase we could (without incurring a fee) we’d use a credit card that earned us points. Initially, we used a credit card with a rotating special rewards category and would max those out. Using credit cards also helps us track our spending and keeps us honest regarding where we are to budget. Which brings me to item 15….
15. Weekly budget meetings
We would have weekly budget meetings to track how we were doing towards meeting our budget goals. This was one of the key things that helped our our austerity measures stay the course. We’d go over our purchases and where we were to budget. We’d even discuss and plan purchases at these meetings. These meetings wouldn’t take long and were very insightful. We’d check to see how much we had left to spend for the month and if we needed to readjust. Communication was key during this self imposed era. It was also important to watch our accounts grow, celebrate wins and work together when things weren’t going well.
The Era of Austerity lasted about five years. What really helped us during this time was the understanding that these cuts were just temporary. It was difficult limiting our spending. It seemed like everyone around us got to enjoy the big and little luxuries we were denying ourselves. Somedays it was hard, and we weren’t perfect. However, we were consistent and we worked together. Five years of scrimping, saving and investing is literally paying us dividends now. We didn’t do anything complicated or complex. We worked to earn money, save as much of that money as we could and invested it.
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