Creating a Habit of Frugal Living

The following is a guest post from Miranda Marquit. Miranda edits information about debt consolidation for

There is a lot written about the benefits of frugal living, and even tips on how to save money and live frugally. But one of the things I had trouble with as I began to live more frugally was getting started. Just ending the bad habits wasn’t good enough — and it was overwhelming to go “cold turkey.” Here are some things that helped me start living frugally:

Know the difference between needs and wants.

This is one of the most important aspects of living frugally. My husband and I tracked our spending for two months, just to see where all the money was going. Then we analyzed our spending habits. Were we buying things we didn’t need? Of course we were! We also discovered that some of our “needs” — things like the most expensive juice or eating out twice a week — weren’t really needs at all.

One way we learned to distinguish between needs and wants was to have a “waiting period.” Could we do without it for the waiting period? If we bought it, how long did we think we would actually need the item? If it turns out that we can get by easily without the item, we don’t buy it.

Pay for wants with money you already have in hand.

Life without a few wants would be a little grim. A few well-chosen, unnecessary, pleasures can make life more enjoyable. But when one lives frugally, one doesn’t spend a lot of money on extravagant wants. And one certainly doesn’t pay for wants with borrowed money. Part of our journey to get started living frugally was to institute a rule that all wants had to be paid for with ready cash — and only after our needs (and this includes setting aside money for an emergency fund and for retirement) had been taken care of. This meant that when we wanted a new video game system, we had to save up our ready cash for a couple of months.

Another thing that can help is to have an “allowance.” If you can count on regular income, and if you have enough extra after your needs, you can give yourself an allowance. But once that money is gone, you have to realize that it is gone. My husband and I have an “allowance” for an annual summer art fair with vendors from all over the country. We take cash, and leave the cards at home. Once our “allowance” is gone, it is gone. This helps us carefully consider our purchases, so that we only get what we really like, rather than coming home with a bunch of “stuff” that does little more than clutter the house.

Use a list

Every week before we do the shopping, my husband and I go through the house and make a list of things that we need. When we go to the store, we buy only what is on the list. If we have some “want money” available, we can use that for things not on the list. Shopping with a list can help you cut down on impulse buys. Another thing that helps? Look at the items in your cart before heading to the check-out line. Did some unplanned wants find their way into the cart?

Replace more expensive habits with less expensive habits

One of the best ways to develop new habits is to replace the old ones with better. Think of the expensive things that you do, and replace them with less expensive options. Instead of eating out, plan a special dinner that you make at home. Buy slightly more expensive ingredients, or ingredients for a more exotic meal than you normally eat. It makes the dinner special, but doesn’t cost near as much as eating out. My son loves “movie night” at home more than going to a theater. We make popcorn and sit on a blanket in the living room. It’s a little bit different, and doesn’t cost near what going to the theater does.

There are many less expensive activities that have the bonus of creating quality time with the family. Walks, bike rides, camping, trips to the park, sledding and other activities are inexpensive and promote family togetherness. Also, look for free and inexpensive activities locally.

Frugal living is a lifestyle. It can be hard to get started, but if you take the time to plan your moves and take a hard look at your needs and wants, you can change your habits so that you are living in a way that not only saves you money, but also provides you life satisfaction as a family.

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  1. Thanks for this list. I’m just starting out my new frugal adventures, so it’s always nice to be reminded of the small steps that make a big difference. I think the point of paying for wants with extra cash and only extra cash is a great tip and so important!

  2. I like this article. Very balanced view. I especially like, “Life without a few wants would be a little grim.”

    My wife and I have given ourselves an allowance each month for wants. We have also modified some expensive habits like eating out every meal on the weekends. Instead, to live within our means, we set a reasonable budget for eating out and we stick to it. Cutting back actually makes the food taste better!

  3. Good post. I’ve been practicing some of these ideas myself.

    Ever once in a while I’ll get a wild idea on something i might want to do or buy. I’ll do lots of research on what it would take. Usually I’ll end up deciding it’s not for me, or just too expensive. If the idea doesn’t go away, then it’s time to start saving up for it.

    Have also found that doing some less expensive things can be a lot more fun. Renting a movie is not only cheaper, the chairs and couches at home are more comfortable. Plus, you don’t have to listen to people talking throughout the movie.

    You are right that life without satisfying some wants would be pretty grim. Having a few extravigances can make life more fun. Not getting carried away with them makes each one more meaningful.

  4. Also, I agree that sometimes the list has to be a guide. After all, we can’t remember everything all the time. I like the idea of the cabinet door.

  5. > When we go to the store, we buy only what is on the list (in bold). If we have some “want money” available, we can use that for things not on the list.

    Good, if that works for you. I make also a list for shopping, but see it not as a limit but as guidance, especially not to forget certain things. I always forget to put something on the list, but I then think in the store about buying it anyhow if we will use it soon. If we won’t or it is above some threshold (50 or 100 dollars), I like to delay the purchase to see later if we really need it.

  6. My rule is, if it’s over $100 it goes on a list inside the cabinet door, with the date. If I still want it, after a YEAR, then I’ll allow myself to buy it (cash). A lot of times things will run their course and I find it’s no longer ‘wanted’…. of course, if I find one at a garage sale for a tenth of the price, I Will grab it! 🙂 Surprising how often one will show up at a garage sale, or a friend/family will be getting rid of something similar and then I won’t have to buy one at all.

    My grocery shopping is rarely by ‘Need’ – rather what’s a super good buy on sale with coupons etc. (and is something I do use) I stock up. I’m not comfortable without having about a year’s supply of food stocked in.