I have been experimenting with the idea of writing about minimalism and frugal living. It’s always a little scary to write about money, but I think my experiences can be useful for younger people starting out now, dealing with a weird world of rising costs and uncertain economic futures.
I started off my post-college adult entry into the Real World with the 2008 housing market collapse, which triggered a global recession and a financial crisis in the US that caused massive layoffs, foreclosures on homes, and a dramatic crash in the value of homes that is still echoing through to today. Today’s economy is going through a similar period of chaos and uncertainty. This time around, it’s rising costs due to a shortage of everything from housing to fuel. We are likely going some heart-wrenching moments over the next few years.
The benefit of coming of age during economically tough times is that it gives us firm training on how be thrifty, clever, and efficient that will pay dividends over time. As another blogger I admire once put it: it teaches you how to be a bad-ass!
So here it is then. To start it off, here are three things I did to save money and be efficient early in life that made a dramatic difference in my life.
1. I didn’t own a car for years, and when I bought one, I got a frugal car.
For the first part of my adult life, I lived in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago thankfully is a city that has an extensive and useful public transportation system. With a monthly transit pass, I was able to commute to work, friends, and hobbies without the cost of car payments, insurance, or gas.
Many friends I know bought new cars immediately when they graduated and got their first job. I avoided this at all costs. I had a family car that I borrowed when I first moved to the city, but I returned it after a month and relied solely on public transit and a used Schwinn bicycle that I bought for $80.
During my years in Chicago, I relied almost entirely on public transit and my bike. On rare occasions I took a cab, usually if I was coming home late at night. I never really used ride sharing apps like Uber or Lyft. Riding the bus was fine for me, and it gave me lots of time to read a book while listening to music. For shorter trips around the neighborhood, I relied on the bike or walking.
Finally, in 2015, I broke my streak and bought a car. Even though I was living on a software engineer’s salary, it never really occurred to me that I could own a car. That was until I rode in a friend’s frugal car a few weeks before I coincidentally got an unexpected bonus at work. I searched a couple used lots at local dealerships, and found almost exactly what my friend had: a 2008 Toyota Yaris. The price tag was around $6000. The salesman at the dealership tried to talk me into a newer RAV-4 but quickly realized he was wasting his time. I paid cash and drove away in my little hatchback.
What a luxury! I cannot tell you how exciting it was to have the ability to zip around Chicago at will. It was especially nice during the winter months! Now I could drive to the gym when it got too cold (I normally biked or walked, even when it was 20º F / -7º C degrees.)
Even though it is one of the cheapest car models available, and impressed approximately no one, I LOVED this car. It was so easy to park in the city. It was so easy to manage. Its efficiency was unparalleled. It was super light, which meant you were not paying to tow around any more weight than necessary. And the hatch could fit almost anything. Despite being a small car compared to most models in the US, when I moved to Texas, I was able to fit EVERYTHING I needed for several months in this car… including my bicycle!
I probably would have driven this car for 10+ years, but unfortunately it was totaled in an accident in August 2019. RIP. After the Yaris died, I bought a used Corolla iM hatchback, which was the closest thing to a Yaris I could find. I paid cash, about 1/3 of which came from the insurance payout.
To this date, I have never bought a new car, and I have never had a car loan.
- Although cars are often taken for granted as a must-have, depending on where you live you might be able to avoid owning one. If you can get by with a bus or train pass, it’s a major expense that can be avoided.
- Use bikes or walking wherever possible for short trips. Not only do you save money, but you are also training yourself to live with fewer conveniences.
- It used to be possible to buy a quality used car and pay cash. With the used car market the way it is now, the rules may be different. Check out lesser-known brands, and buy the smallest practical car you can find.
2. I learned to cook.
Young people like to eat out. And while it is nice to try different cuisines and restaurants as a social experience, the costs of food really add up when you make eating out your everyday practice.
It took me years before I learned to cook. I started with very simple meals, like omelettes and spaghetti with canned sauce and sandwiches. I quickly grew tired of these lazy meals.
So I started noting the ingredients of things that I liked to order from restaurants. For example, this cafe in my old neighborhood in Chicago sold a yogurt bowl with fruit, honey, and granola. I started making these at home ten years ago, and I still do this for almost every meal. The same cafe made a dish called a strata, and I still make this recipe some weekends as a breakfast treat.
It’s no surprise that cooking is by far cheaper than restaurant food. Consider that the restaurant has to pay for rent for the building, not to mention paying the staff that take your order, cook the food, and bring it out to you. On top of that they must charge a margin on the cost of the food itself. The markup for restaurant food is probably at least 50%.
Cooking at home can be really fun, too! Learning new recipes requires some research and creativity if you decide to tweak the recipe. I personally find it soothing. Once you have a handful of recipes that you know, it becomes easier to pick up new ones. For example, I recently made a chocolate cake for the first time. It was easy for me because I had enough experience baking to “figure it out.”
Cooking is a perfect example of a general rule I follow in my life: DIY as much as possible.
Every skill you learn adds value to your life. You can use those skills to create value for yourself and others. Saving money is just a nice side effect.
- Learn how to cook and you’ll unlock a fun hobby AND a productive skill.
3. I got free or cheap stuff.
When I found out that my company in Chicago was moving to another office space, and that we were going to be throwing out a perfectly good Ikea couch, I immediately asked if I could keep it. The office manager seemed nonplussed but allowed it. I called a family member and convinced them to pick up the couch and drive it to my apartment.
You’d be surprised how often FREE stuff is available. There are happy accidents, like the story above, not to mention all the free stuff available on Facebook Marketplace, Buy Nothing, and a dozen other platforms.
Getting stuff for free is a great way to cut some major expenses out of your life. The most common items I’ve gotten for free are furniture and clothing.
I’ve also scored some amazing thrift store finds. When I first moved to Texas, I bought a small frying pan that I still use to cook about half of my daily meals. And I paid $1 for it.
- Take advantage of free and cheap stuff to avoid breaking the bank for required purchases.