Let’s get one thing straight: if you spend less money on dumb shit, you’ll have more freedom to do the stuff you want to do. This means fewer hours spent doing Day Job work and more time for your creative work because you’re not working harder to pay for that coffee table or those three steak dinners you ate last week.
(Oh, and if you haven’t already, check out my entry on budgeting for creative people, since keeping tabs on your money is the first step to controlling your spending and living more on your own terms. Which, as we all know, is awesome.)
Just to be clear, I’m not saying you should shun all extraneous purchases and live like a pauper, since everybody needs a steak dinner (or its equivalent) for the occasional happiness boost. I love traveling, buying books, and playing new board games WAY too much to nix my entertainment budget. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to play this super-cool new board game Isle of Skye where you earn points by buying and placing Gaelic-themed landscape tiles, and my weekends would be much less fun than they are currently.
Anyway, here’s a few tips I use to live frugally to help stop myself from wasting money….
Do Your Own Cooking!
Do you love eating out? Stop it! How about those frozen and boxed meals that are easy to prepare? Better, but still not good. Grocery stores mark up prices on convenience foods like boxed mac and cheese, microwave burritos, and those frozen bags of vegetable stir fry—it’s way cheaper to buy the meat, vegetables, pasta, and spices yourself, then do a little kitchen legwork to get the job done.
My advice: find some recipes you feel comfortable with to start, get good at preparing them, then expand your cooking repertoire as you get bored. Check out one of the approximately ONE BILLION recipe sites online, or hit up your friends for ideas and find out how they work their kitchen magic.
Remember also that while buying certain foods feels more convenient, you’re definitely paying extra for it. Save money by chopping your own vegetables instead of the pre-cut kind (one study found an almost 400% markup on chopped onions vs. whole onions). Or, if you’re really bold, you can be like my old roommate who used to buy whole chickens and cut them up himself (here’s a video explaining how).
Another good trick is to make your own seasoning mixes instead of buying the prepackaged kind—here’s a really good taco seasoning mix using spices you probably have already that’s better than buying those boxed taco kits.
Limit Unnecessary Entertainment
I love books and board games (see above), plus going out with friends and traveling to cool places (last year I visited New York, Japan, Rocky Mountain National Park, and drove halfway across the country, to name a few). I’m dead serious when I say that entertainment’s an important part of any budget, since fun, enriching experiences make our lives worthwhile, and not having those experiences tends to make us feel depressed and bitter.
But look back at the word Unnecessary—the trick lies in knowing when you’re doing too much of the thing you really like to do so that it stops being fun and starts being, well, kinda boring and repetitive.
How much money is it worthwhile to spend on your model airplane collection? How many board games can you own before you run out of time to play them all? How many beers will tip the night from “This is exactly the fun night out I needed!” to “Oh man I’m feeling kinda tired and why is everyone at this bar suddenly so annoying”?
Gauging how much entertainment you actually need to feel fulfilled takes practice, but gets easier with time. The best advice: if you don’t have enough time to enjoy the things you already have, you probably shouldn’t be spending money to buy more.
Buy Only What You Need
…which brings me to my next point. We all buy shit we don’t need, and like Tyler Durden says in Fight Club, the things you own end up owning you.
Break yourself out of the cycle by thinking carefully before you buy things, especially expensive things. Do you really need that new desk, or is your old one still getting the job done? What if you did your work at the kitchen table instead? (At my old apartment I actually used my kitchen table as a desk and it worked really well.) How about that new jacket, alarm clock, electric mixer, washcloth and towel set, or leather reclining chair? All these things cost money, and if you don’t get good use out of them, they won’t be worth the hours you worked to pay for them. (Plus, it’s more stuff to pile up and take care of!)
This goes double for replacing things you already have—do you really need that new tablet, cell phone, printer, or [insert electronic gadget you already have but is getting kind of old here], or can you make it last another year or two? Dealing with the blue screen of death isn’t fun, but only you can decide whether replacing your gadgets now is worth the money.
Limit Unnecessary Driving
I used to live in a small city where anything I needed was either a short walk or a short drive away; now I live in a small town where I’m two miles from a grocery store and not much else. If I want to see a movie, buy an oil filter, buy new shoes, or get my watch fixed, it’s a 44 mile roundtrip to the nearest bigger town. Yikes!
All that gas and time driving adds up fast (I talked about this when I wrote about the costs of commuting), so I consolidate my trips by running multiple errands at once, usually once every two week or two. Even better is if you can strategically plan side trips around things you were going to do anyway, like dropping by the store after work or when you’re on your way to meet a friend.
When I worked my old office job, I also used to stay late on days when I knew I was meeting someone in the city afterward. That way I could get some extra Day Job work done in the evening, throw on a change of clothes, and get where I needed to without wasting the extra gas to drive home. The time and money saved add up, so give it a try!
Avoid Big, Regular Financial Obligations
This is one’s HUGE—so huge I seriously considered looking silly by stretching out the word HUGE with an unnecessary number of U’s.
Not including student loans and health insurance (that’s an issue for another day), for most of us, our rent/mortgage plus our car payments form a big part of our monthly budgets, so why not start by cutting back on these things? Consider a smaller apartment or house, or one in a cheaper neighborhood or town. Just like when you’re considering a new toaster, think about whether you really need that porch, walk-in closet, or extra bedroom. Also, does the place you’re living/want to live involve long drives to work or other places you need to get to? Every extra $100 a month means more hours spent at your Day Job to pay your bills, leaving less money for other things you want to do.
The same’s true for cars—this report uses colorful pie charts to break down the costs of owning a vehicle: depreciation(!), gas, interest, insurance, maintenance, and tax. The costs vary widely depending on what you get (note especially that new cars lose value much more quickly…), so think it over carefully when buying a car (especially a new one!), and whether you could save more money elsewhere on a better deal.
Learn New Skills, Save Money Later
Let’s face it: the Jeremiah Johnson days of building log cabins and trapping your own food are over: most people spend time developing one specialized skill so they can get a job that’ll earn them money doing that one thing all the time (economic theorists call this the division of labor if you want to get all fancy). We spend most of our time working that job to get the money we then use to buy food we didn’t grow on their own farms, houses we didn’t build ourselves, and gas for cars we drive instead of paddling down mountain rivers in homemade canoes.
Specialization and money allow us to do AMAZING things that aren’t possible without an economy. The thing is, though, in earlier eras when the economy wasn’t as complicated, people did a lot more of these things themselves because they needed to, and you couldn’t pay someone else to do them because the option didn’t exist yet.
Consider dishwashing: we all use dirty dishes when we eat, so you can either take the time and energy to wash them yourself, or pay money for a dishwashing machine that does it for you. Having the dishwasher saves that time and effort, but washing the dishes yourself saves money. There’s a tradeoff there, and you can choose which option works better for you.
My two biggest things I do myself are cooking and fixing my car. Like I said above, I’m a big fan of cooking because it stops you from having to rely on eating out and buying boxed meals. I also just feel better when I do it, not in that way where you throw a bunch of pics on Instagram to impress your friends, but in that, “Man, I made this cool dish that’s really good and I rock” kind of way.
I’ve also saved a bunch of money over the years by doing car repairs myself, most of which I learned from watching Youtube, scrolling through message boards, and reading through a ten-dollar Haynes repair manual. The process was frustrating at times and involved a lot of tool borrowing, but it taught me to be more confident working with my hands and gave me the satisfaction of having done the job myself, which felt pretty good.
Any way you look at it there’s a lot of overlap between being a creative person and learning life skills you can use to help yourself. Solving problems on your own terms fosters your sense of independence instead of letting life get in the way, and teaches you resilience in your creative endeavors. The more you rely on your Day Job income to get things in your life done, the more you’ll rely on your Day Job itself.
And—just to bring this full circle—living frugally can help make that independence happen.