Freelance frugality, revisited

Back in 2009, I wrote a post about living the frugal life as a freelancer. Nearly three years later, I’m still quite frugal but with some new observations, so I thought this topic was worth revisiting.

As I predicted in that post, my family is now completely debt-free. We own our house without a mortgage and have no credit card debt, car loans, student loans or any other types of loans. Barring unexpected disasters, we’re committed to remaining debt free forever. And as my husband likes to note, both of us have only had “regular jobs.” We achieved this level of financial security without any massive salaries, work bonuses, inheritances, etc. Basically we just lived beneath our means for so long that we paid everything off.

On the substantive front, we still don’t have a clothes dryer (I think that was the item in the previous post that people asked me about most often!), we still have only one car, a 15 year old Subaru station wagon that we bought used, we still use our bikes for most of our in-town transportation, we still don’t own a single item of furniture that was purchased new, and I still couldn’t tell you the last time I bought an article of clothing in a real retail store. So, not much new to report on that front.

Like most frugal families, our frugal habits are defined more by what we don’t do than by what we do. But if I had to identify some frugal “dos,” I’d pick my Crock-Pot slow cooker and my prepaid cell phone. The Crock-Pot helps avoid the temptation to eat out on days when we don’t get home until right at dinner time, usually due to my daughter’s sports practice schedule. I load it up in the morning, often using a recipe from Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker, then dinner is ready when we walk in the door (and check out the newly released Fresh from the Vegan Slow-Cooker too!). My TracFone also saves me a ton of money. We still have a land line so I don’t use my cell phone much, and I pay about $150 a year for service and minutes.

Now that we don’t have a mortgage, our largest monthly expense is food. As I mentioned in the previous post, we’re vegetarians but we eat almost exclusively organic food and we like good stuff like nice cheese and chocolate. So our monthly food expense for three people has been about $800-$1,000 a month for the past few years. That includes almost everything we eat, because my husband and I take lunch to work and my daughter takes lunch to school. Also, we have family or friends over for dinner at least once a week and sometimes as often as three times, so our food bill includes that food as well. However, one of my goals for this year is to cut our food bill without sacrificing taste and quality.

As I get older and make more money, my take on the purpose of frugality is changing. When my freelance business and my daughter were both in their infancy, the frugal lifestyle was an imperative, not a choice. Now, frugality is more about saving money on some things (car, cell phone, clothes) in order to have money to spend on other things (travel, sports gear, time off). For example I recently joined a co-working office, which costs me $350 a month. Is this a necessary expense? Absolutely not, since I have an office in our house. But because I save money on other things, can I afford this? Totally. So, if you’re frugal or frugal-curious, how can you save money on:

-Food? Well, you can use your slow cooker, as described above. Also, you can avoid eating out as much as possible. In addition, my number one money-saving tip for food is to go grocery shopping less often. First, you can save money by buying in bulk. If you have the storage space, load up whenever anything non-perishable is on sale. Second, you give yourself fewer opportunities to make unplanned or impulse purchases, or an item to eat in the car on the way home. If you really want to take it to the black belt level, you could be like these people, who only grocery shop 12 times a year.

-Cell phones? If you’re a real cell phone minimalist, you can go with TracFone and pay by the minute. Even if your cell phone is your primary phone, you should be able to dramatically cut your bill by using Net10, Straight Talk or similar no-contract services that offer unlimited talk, text and data for under $50 per month.

-Furniture, clothing and household items? Buy second hand. Here in Boulder we’re lucky to have a huge range of high-quality second hand stores, so I shop them almost exclusively for clothing and household things. You can also cruise Freecycle, Craigslist and similar sites. I have my limits, and there are some things (mattresses, bathing suits, shoes unless they’re basically unworn) that I will not buy second hand, but just about everything else is fair game.

-Transportation? It depends on where you live, but if you can do it, replacing your around-town driving with biking or walking serves two purposes. You save money on gas and car maintenance, and you get some exercise. Again, we’re fortunate to live in a city that is consistently rated among America’s most bike-friendly, but we also made a choice to spend more money on a house in order to live in a bikeable/walkable area because we refuse to have more than one car.

-Computers? If you’re looking for a laptop, consider purchasing one from a reseller of used corporate laptops. For example, last year I purchased a reconditioned Lenovo ThinkPad from a Microsoft authorized reseller for under $300, and I’ve been very happy with it ever since. I used TigerDirect on eBay, but there are lots of other refurbished options out there.

If I had to sum up the frugal mindset, I would say it this way: make deliberate choices. I think that a lot of people spend a lot of money on stuff that doesn’t really matter to them, just because everyone else is doing it and it seems like the thing to do. So for example, a big priority for our family is to take three weeks to a month off together every summer. Especially as my daughter gets older and we all have more of our own thing going on, we really try to carve out this time to have some fun adventures together. But in order to do this, we have to really think about our spending during the rest of the year, since something like our bike trip across Switzerland and Italy involves significant spending and a significant amount of unpaid time off for me and my husband. But for us, the point of frugality is that through deliberately choosing our spending priorities, we have enough money for the things that really matter to us.

Other thoughts on freelance frugality?

21 Responses to “Freelance frugality, revisited”
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