When Frugality Isn’t Enough

The following guest post is from Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar.

I’ve been a fan of Frugal Dad for quite a while. This site offers a tremendous amount of specific and smart advice on how to reduce your spending and get a strong financial foothold. It’s advice that everyone can use and apply to their lives.

Sometimes, though, it just isn’t enough.

I have a friend named Max that I’ve known since I was a little boy playing in the sandbox. Max is a single father with two children – his partner basically left him holding the bag. He only has a high school education, and he made several poor choices after high school (drug use, mostly) that left him with a poor local reputation, a poor credit history, and a small criminal record.

Since those days, Max has cleaned himself up, taken responsibility for his two girls as a single father, and found them a comfortable place to live. But, given his past, he doesn’t have many opportunities for individual achievement – many people balk when they see his record and don’t bother to give him a second chance. He currently works at a minimum wage job in a paper factory, taking every overtime hour he can get, and also mows lawns when he can. Even after working physical labor sixty hours a week, he still comes home and tries to be a good parent to his daughters, one of which has a learning disability.

To put it simply, when you add up the cost of transportation to and from work (a fifteen minute commute each way), housing, the food needed for him and his family, clothing, and a few little things for his daughters, Max doesn’t have any money left over at the end of the day. He does everything he can to scrimp and save – he shops for groceries at Aldi, buys most of his clothes and his kid’s clothes at yard sales, and doesn’t even have cable or a cell phone.

But, sometimes, it just isn’t enough. He’s come very close to having his power turned off – the power company doesn’t tolerate him being late even a day on his bill because of his poor credit history and personal record. When his car breaks down, there’s no emergency fund he can tap.

For Max, frugality has been stretched to the limit, and it’s just barely enough to keep his mouth above water.

As bad as the situation sounds, though, it’s not hopeless for Max. He’s trying several things right now that may help him escape the precariousness of his situation. Here are seven tactics that he’s using – and that anyone in a similar situation can use to help themselves.

Repair and strengthen relationships with family and friends  Your family and friends are the best people to turn to in a pinch – but many people in a pinch, instead of reaching out to those around them, tend to withdraw, ashamed of the troubles they’re having. Don’t. Everyone has difficult times in their lives, and it’s those people around you who will help you through those situations, no questions asked. As Max repairs his relationships with family and friends, they reach out to him, offering to help him watch his kids as he mows yards and so on, in order to help him get his feet firmly on the ground.

Build relationships with community leaders It seems somewhat cliche to say, but small business owners and community leaders are often the people who will be the first to reach out to others that are clearly trying to better themselves, taking a chance on those who are obviously working hard and committed to their families. Max looks for opportunities to do this through his business (lawn care) and through community events – he’ll be the first to show up and try to help out with community activities and so on. This has already paid off – one individual has helped him out by giving him a good place to live with extremely low rent. He has hopes that another may be able to offer him a solid job in the future.

Get involved in community groups, such as churches, clubs, and volunteer boards So how do you get started building these relationships with people in the community? You can start by going to places where people congregate for positive purposes – churches, civic organizations, or community volunteer groups. Join a local church, start attending services, listen to the overall message (and don’t get bogged down in the specifics), and meet people who are involved. Go to some community activities. Whenever you hear about an opportunity to volunteer, jump on board when you can. You’ll meet people who will provide you with help, support, and opportunities all the time if you’re willing to put your time and effort out there to help others. If you want to turn your ship around, this is the way to fill your free time.

Start your own initiatives for earning money Look for ways to earn money on the side. Do you have any particular talents that can be put to work on your own, like fixing computers? Even if you don’t, you can still start up a simple initiative, like low-cost lawn care for people nearby. Filling your spare time with flexible work like this not only puts more money in your pocket, but gives you something you control, one where you’re not necessarily judged by the mistakes of your path, but by the quality of work you can produce now.

Realize that, if you have strikes against you, you will have to work extra hard to win people over This is simply a fact of life. Many mistakes in life can’t be undone, and they often follow you wherever you go. Instead of beating yourself over the head with them, feeling guilty and descending into self-pity and blaming others, just realize that it’s still up to you whether or not you succeed, but that you’ll just have to work extra hard to get ahead. Look at your past mistake as a challenge to live up to, not an excuse to give up.

When great short-term opportunities come along, take advantage of them – and don’t squander the proceeds Sometimes, life hands us opportunities: a job offer, a ridiculous deal, a quick task that can earn some quick money, an inheritance, or a gift. Don’t let these opportunities slip by – jump on board every one that you can get. Then, when it’s over, don’t just blow your windfall in celebration – feel proud, but put that money to work for you in an emergency fund or in paying off debt. The fun comes in not worrying as much about that big debt load or about what happens the next time the car breaks down – your celebration should culminate in lasting peace of mind.

Don’t let go of your frugality if things start to turn around If you’re persistent and keep scrapping to get ahead without giving up, eventually you will start to break through a bit. That’s not the time to let go of your frugal habits – don’t breathe a sigh of relief and go buy an iPhone. Instead, keep your diligence and start building up a healthy surplus. Pay off all your debts. Build up an emergency fund. Start saving for your long term future (retirement, college for your kids, and so on). Once those are taken care of, then you can look at some personally enjoyable options, but even when that happens, never forget that it was frugality that helped make this path possible for you.


  1. As someone just starting out, who has made some bad decisions, I appreciate stories like this. A good reminder why we’re trying to change our lives and become as responsible and financially secure as possible.

  2. This is a great post for a few reasons: it’s spot on and it also highlights complaints that Trent gets a lot on his site from people who claim he makes “too much” money and that his methods don’t apply to them because they make less money.
    That’s fine, but then go out and do something about it, frugality is one aspect of it, but you can’t save for retirement and your kids’ college with peanuts, you have to have something to work with.

  3. People in Max’s situation should also check into government subsidies. They will probably qualify for free/reduced school lunches, WIC coupons, help w/utilities, etc. You do not have to be “dirt poor” to qualify. Many times the income limit for a family of four is in the low 30K range. There is also Angel Food Ministries, a low cost quality food program for anyone (no income limitations).


  4. I totally agree with A.M.B.A. There are a number of government and state-sponsored programs that can help people in his position. Food stamps will ease the food cost burden, free/reduced lunch at school for his daughters, there are even some programs that will give the children free school uniforms if he is able to qualify.

    I’m not sure where he lives, but there are usually jobs that allow one to make more than minimum wage. Where I live, a physically fit person can get with a mobile home moving crew and make $150 per day. Granted it is physically demanding work for 9-10 hours per day, but at least it would help him to get ahead quicker than working overtime at minimum wage. It would pay to look around.

    It is hard to see stories like this and it makes me grateful that I planned my life and career since high-school. It wasn’t easy for me — coming from a family of six living on $16K-20K per year plus food stamps — and I had to make my own way everywhere I went. I paid for things in high school myself as well as in college. Now I can say that I have a good career and excellent pay and benefits because of the choices I have made. I am proof that it is possible to make it even when starting from very little.

  5. MAx can definitely get out of his situation if he works hard enough at it, and I am speaking from personal experience.

    It’s tough. It’s double tough. But it’s not impossible. In fact, it’s not as hard as you might think. It’s a lot of consistent, little steps that add up over time to make everything okay.

    The seven steps above are an excellent start. I would recommend taking an active hand with rebuilding his credit score as well.

  6. I haven’t enjoyed an article on your website this much in a long time. What a great story of someone slowly working their way to something better. Your advice couldn’t be better. Church and social organizations are some of the best places to meet the right people who can open doors for you. Our church (LDS) has a complete program for helping a person get back on their feet – and networking opportunities abound when a person opens up and lets their needs be known. And congrats to your friend for stepping up and taking care of his kids – regardless of the situation, he deserves tons of credit for the hard work that is required.

  7. I like hearing stories like this because whenever I feel like I’m in a tight spot or I’ve got it difficult its nice to have a reminder that there are people out there taking responsibility for their actions and their lives when they’ve got even less and in some cases virtually nothing.

    Thanks for sharing Trent

  8. I just want to applaud “Max” for stepping up to the plate. Too often we don’t acknowledge the single Dad out there. Bravo.

    This was an extremely encouraging post. Take baby steps Max and stop to smell the roses along the way.

    At the same time this post also had me wondering: what does the author think is “enough”. Max has his health – his daughters love him. He has a job. He puts food on the table. So he doesn’t have a cell phone – so what? Does that mean that Max hasn’t reached success. Too often I am saddened by what people view as success. (see http://www.letterstoelijah.com/2008/07/how-do-you-measure-success.html )

  9. This was an awesome posts.
    It’s not all about money – but also about the networking and attitude involved in making your life better!

    Great examples!

  10. Great post!

    Shows that financial status is not just earning and saving strategies, but also about building one’s character and relationships.

  11. Excellent post!
    I would agree with some of the other commenters, please make sure that Max is availing himself of all of the social services that he can. Food Stamps, free lunch, child care subsidies as well as phone and electric subsidies.
    Angel Food Ministries is absolutely one of the best values.
    It is wonderful that this man is turning his life around and stepping up to the plate for his girls.

  12. What a wonderful post, and a huge wake-up to remember how blessed I am. Thanks for the great story and the motivation it provides.

  13. Nice post.

    I think the most important thing to gather from it is:

    “Not all mistakes can be undone”

    Teaching your children that some choices in life affect the rest of their lives. This post is an example of that. We all live by our choices.

  14. @Dana

    I would suggest reading some of Trent’s blog at The Simple Dollar before questioning what he considers “enough.” Trent’s reference to no cable or cell phone was pointing out that “Max” clearly has a good grasp on what is necessary spending and what isn’t. The Simple Dollar has done much to help others get ahold of their priorities in life and to reframe their financial thinking, mostly due to his down-to-earth approach to his own journey out of debt.