ILLUSTRATION BY JONAN EVERETT
I’ve been frugal as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I diligently saved my allowance and any spare change I could scrounge for the summer carnival. My favorite places to shop were Big Lots and the Dollar Store. As a teen, most of my wardrobe was pieced together from thrift-store finds.
At times, however, I felt a bit stigmatized for being so cheap. Some of my friends thought I was too much of a saver — that I was living a sad, deprived existence. But to me, frugality is a practice in resourcefulness. And resourcefulness is all about being creative and making the most of what you have.
My frugal friends understand how much fun it is to be cheap.
They tell me that by saving money, you have more options, and thus greater freedom. Here’s what I’ve learned from my favorite frugal friends:
Jamie: The Coupon Fiend
Jamie is one of my oldest friends. I met him as a sophomore in high school. I recall that when we were growing up, the top shelf of Jamie’s closet was filled with bottles of ketchup, mustard, and barbecue sauce. As you can tell, he loves condiments, and he loads pretty much everything he eats with them.
The crazy thing is that Jamie could stock up on condiments for free by playing the coupon game. That’s right — he combined multiple coupons with weekly sales and got them for nothing.
Ying: The Freebie Diva
Ying and I met each other during the first year of college, when we lived on the same dorm floor. From the get-go, Ying’s masterly money-saving ways were apparent. She managed to score freebies such as magazine subscriptions, undies, and home appliances (blenders and a George Foreman Grill) by scouring the internet and snagging online deals. Ying was careful not to give out too much personal info, though. She often used a fake name and an associated email account.
Denise: The Unrelenting Frugalista
My dear friend Denise was a college roommate of mine. She was the gal who would grab a couple of extra packets of condiments at the on-campus coffee shop. Denise has out-frugaled me many times. Case in point: When we moved in together, she gave me a hard time for wanting to buy a proper floor mat for our shared bathroom.
“Can’t we just use a bath towel or something?” Denise asked. (I won that one, BTW, but not without a fight.)
She also confided in me that she was Scrooge-like and hated exchanging gifts during the winter holidays. At the time I didn’t agree, but I am totally on team #NoGifts these days (although I still exchange presents with family — working on it).
Greg: Cost-Neutral Approach
Greg is someone I’ve admired since I first met him several years ago. We became fast friends and bonded over how we viewed saving money as a way to be free and have options. Greg is all about the cost-neutral approach, which means raking in deals and referral codes so that you don’t pay anything out of pocket.
For starters, he owns and lives in a three-unit building in Chicago and rents out the other units. The rent he gets pays for the mortgage. Greg also keeps a list of referral codes handy.
Every year, he scores a few hundred bucks in free meals, Wi-Fi, and Uber rides.
Plus, he takes advantage of member loyalty rewards to get a free night’s stay in hotels and Amtrak sleeper cars.
Dave: The Frugal Gourmand
Dave likes to think about how many meals he can get out of just a few dollars' worth of ingredients. I stayed with Dave and Greg, his partner, in Chicago last summer, and we spent a lot of our free time biking to ethnic grocery stores. We’d score a bunch of produce and sundry items — veggies, grains, and spices — for less than 10 bucks, then see how many meals we could concoct. We came up with several dishes, including cold spinach and avocado soup and couscous with chopped veggies and a side of sardines. Plus, there were plenty of leftovers for the following day.
Alexis and Doug: Giving While Paying Off Debt
Alexis and Doug are a married couple who committed to living simply while paying off student loans. They were so boss at this that they managed to liquidate $100,000 of debt in about two years. To accomplish such a feat, they lived on a bare-bones budget. While scrimping so they could toss whatever money they could toward their debt, Alexis and Doug also made a point to give back. At times, they were donating up to 10 percent of their income to charities and their church.
Devin: Upcycle King
Devin is a pro at reusing stuff that most people wouldn’t give a second thought to tossing. He has reused plastic cake containers, pill bottles, and old shoeboxes not just for storage, but also as art objects to adorn his apartment. For instance, he’ll take a pill bottle, paint it, then fill it with some expired yet colorful pills and place it on a mantle in his living room.
Paul: Respect Your Money
Paul is an ardent saver and doesn’t let anything go to waste. He told me that you should respect your money and not take it for granted. Money is hard to come by, and it will most likely become increasingly challenging to make. To save his beans, Paul cooks in large batches and preps meals in advance, sometimes up to a month ahead of time. For instance, he’ll cook a ton of lasagna and breakfast burritos, divvy them up, and wrap them in plastic wrap before freezing.
Jen: Wait Three Days Before Buying Something
Jen was able to pay off her debt while teaching abroad. She travelled for three months throughout Asia for less than $5,000.
Jen is a master of delayed gratification. She doesn’t buy many things, and if she's thinking about getting something, she’ll wait three days before purchasing it. If it’s an in-store purchase, she’ll actually visit the store three times before deciding. She says that a majority of the time, the instant appeal of buying something wears off and she realizes she doesn’t need it.
Andrew: Give Your Time Freely, But Your Money Loosely
Andrew is focused on freedom. For the past few years, he’s managed to live on $800 a month in Los Angeles. He has two major expenses: rent and his cell phone bill. He knows how to score free food and clothes and spends money on personal items only on occasion. He once laid out $40 for some fancy tees and my jaw literally dropped.
“I save to be free; I spend to be free,” Andrew explains. “I use my money to buy freedom. They say time is money, and this is true. However, there’s a difference in how I spend it. Time is spent freely, and I’m open to being spontaneous — planned spontaneity. Money, on the other hand, is best spent planned and well in advance.”
My frugal friends continue to give me strength in my life. I’m eternally grateful for these pals. In my humble opinion, we all could use a cheapster friend or two.
Featured image by Jonan Everett.