I was certainly far from frugal during the past several years of my life, but that changed early in 2016: thriftiness became one of my values. In the interest of helping others down this path, here is an assortment of resources I pored over last year and that I wish had been collected in a single place when I got started.
The first thing to realize is that, unless you’re paying some mind to these issues, you may be unwittingly digging yourself into a hole. The following would be useful:
- The concept of Lifestyle Inflation. If you didn’t know it existed and haven’t been actively fighting it you probably suffer from it.
- The New Yorker profile of Pete Adeney, Mr. Money Mustache. I understand he did not like this profile very much (it was too focused on his eccentricities), but for me it was the right thing at the right time. If it clicks for you too, you’ll want to read…
- The hundreds of posts at the Mr. Money Mustache blog. From Zero to Hero is a good one to get started, as it gives links to a bunch of other key posts. Your Debt is an Emergency is also great. You may not like his style, but I adored it: it was the kind of tough love I needed to prod myself into action, to shame myself out of dumb decisions, and to realize that caring about money is not necessarily a self-centered or egotistical pursuit, but can be a tool to reduce consumerism and to find contentment in simple pleasures.
Miscellaneous Tips to Change Habits
Some frugal changes are obvious, some not so much. The blog above goes in detail into a lot of them; here are a few specific things that helped me along the way:
- A simple tool to estimate the true cost of things: cutting a weekly expense of x dollars results in savings of 800x after ten years if that money is invested instead. Similarly, cutting a monthly expense of x dollars results in savings of 200x after ten years. So if you stop eating out for lunch at work (~$50 week) you’ll have $40,000 more in your account after ten years, approximately, and cutting your monthly cellphone bill from $80 to $20 (which, yes, can be done in Canada, see below) will increase the value of your savings account by about $12,000. Changing a few of these recurring costs is the difference between barely breaking even and saving enough for retirement. (Edit: but note Neil’s comment below and my response to it).
- Buying secondhand through VarageSale: I used to eschew Craigslist because of a couple of bad experiences, but VarageSale has a good community and for some types of products (such as baby stuff) it’s fantastic. I haven’t bought pretty much anything new for our baby, yet pretty much everything he has is still as good as new—and will be resold when he no longer needs it.
- The Public Library has amazing resources that I tended to overlook, or simply did not know existed: you can get free audiobook rentals with Hoopla, free digital magazine issues, free desks and wifi if you want to work away from home and the office. And of course free books. This is the case in Victoria and quite likely in your city too.
- In general, to change habits, Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit is a good read, especially the first section on individual habits.
- The cheapest way I’ve found to have cellphone service in Canada that doesn’t involve burners from the 7-Eleven is to get a tablet data plan from your provider and do calls and texts through a VoIP service such as Fongo. Jamie Starke gets into some details on how to do this. Depending on your data usage this setup can be as cheap as about $10 per month. It is, however, admittedly clunky. If you want pretty much seamless but cheap mobile service, Public Mobile has very good prices: a decent plan costs about $40 per month.
If you’re following along and you’ve settled any debts you had, you’ll start to accumulate some surplus. How should you invest it? This was an intimidating topic for me: when I got started I barely knew what stocks and bonds were—and I knew the field is full of people waiting to profit from my ignorance. The following helped me quite a bit:
- The book route: I strongly recommend Bogle’s “Little Book of Common Sense Investing”, followed by Swensen’s “Unconventional Success”. They are clear and honest, and after reading them you’ll have the basics to invest on your own, as well as a healthy dislike for your bank’s financial advisors.
- The blog posts route: There are many blogs with similar kinds of investing advice (that is, espousing the passive investing approach); some of the best ones are JL Collins (specifically his stocks series) and the Canadian Couch Potato.
- This is covered in the above, but you need to understand index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). In general, Investopedia has decent summaries on many investing topics.
- In Canada, it turns out RRSPs and TFSAs (edit: and RESPs) are actually quite important, and it pays a lot to familiarize yourself with them.
- Also in Canada, we are not yet lucky enough to have extremely low-cost index funds. However, we do have extremely low-cost ETFs from Vanguard (and others). The downside is you need to perform your own trades, which is scary the first couple of times. I recommend Questrade as a platform to manage your accounts. It is practically free for passive investing using ETFs, it works well, and you can go through the experience with a free trial with pretend money.
After you started saving enough money and you see financial independence in the path ahead, you should consider what else to do with the extra money. You could save it as well of course, but it definitely could be better used elsewhere: there are millions of people in dire need today, and straightforward mechanisms in place for you to help them with donations. The following resources helped me understand this issue, and where to donate:
- Singer’s “The Life You Can Save” was an eye-opening book. It is humane and intelligent, and it lays out the case for effective altruism clearly. You can also check out some of his talks on the topic, and the website that spun off of his book.
- GiveWell is a great organization that evaluates charities in depth to figure out where your donations are most likely to do best, focusing on alleviating extreme poverty and its consequences. They are extremely transparent, thorough, and analytical. On a smaller scale, Animal Charity Evaluators performs the same work on organizations fighting for animal rights.
- If you want your donations to be tax-deductible in Canada and you want to donate to charities endorsed by GiveWell, then your best alternative is to donate to Charity Science and ask them to pass on your money to the charities of your choice.
I’m still very far from being a frugal saint, and though I know I could be doing a much better job at it, as I look back over the past year I am still impressed at how efficient I’ve become in this sense, comparatively, and at how at peace and free this all makes me feel. I need less than I thought, and not only do I not miss any luxuries, but I’m glad I do not depend on them to be happy anymore. I hope these resources are useful to you too.