The Importance of Being Frugal

I normally do the Aldi shopping with my eldest. We’ve got it off to a fine art. He keeps me on track and away from the dangerous middle aisles. Running gear, power tools or a pizza oven anyone? Not that those things aren’t a bargain. They definitely are. But it’s only a bargain if you need it. So I get kept in check. We manage to stay within our budget, get a reasonable mix of food and a few treats thrown in for good measure.

Last week I ended up shopping with my youngest instead. That was a whole different experience. He was challenging me all the way round the shop. He was trying to take things out of the trolley as I was putting them in. Not that I didn’t appreciate his encouragement, but I really didn’t. I was trying to explain that it’s more cost effective to have a few nice things in the house to avoid ending up spending more on takeaways and chocolate runs to the convenient but expensive local shop.

I cook all our meals from scratch, there’s always plenty of fruit and veg in the trolley and a reasonable amount of meat too. I have a budget of £250 for the month for me and two teenage boys. This includes all the food for the month, cleaning supplies and toiletries. To be honest we usually only spend around £200 for the month and I quite often end up moving the surplus from the food budget to another budget that’s run over. I was explaining to him that this was a pretty frugal budget for what is essentially three adults. He disagreed. Vehemently.

I was thinking “Just you wait till you have to live in the real world mate and see how you get on”. Then I thought, is there maybe something I could learn from him and his fresh eyes on our budget? So when we got home he went through the receipt and crossed out what he thought we could do without. He was brutal. Now no doubt he was right. We could have survived on what he’d left on the receipt. Saying that though I’m not sure how sustainable his budget was. For me food is one of the great pleasures in life, and I don’t want to be going hungry just to hit a magic number in an excel spreadsheet. I’m pretty sure though that there is definitely some fat to be trimmed from our budgeting. And probably from my middle too, but that’s a whole other story!

Then he took it a step further. He worked out that he could bring the weekly food bill down to about £25. Now again, I’m not convinced of how practical this is on long term basis, but I was willing to indulge him. Plus I wanted to see where he was going with this. So he’s just cut at least £100 off our monthly food budget. His next question to me was if we put that towards the mortgage how many years does that reduce it by? That’s my boy! You know when you have those moments in life when you are just so incredibly proud of your kids and realise that although they may mock you for your FIRE aspirations, they are actually paying attention after all. So my 14 year old wants to know how much more quickly we can pay off the mortgage if he cuts the food budget for us. The answer to that question is about a year and a half. Maybe he’s on to something here. So I’m not quite sure I’m prepared for the sacrifice involved in cutting down the food budget so drastically, but I think there might well be some savings to be made and passed on to the mortgage payment. Food for thought, if you’ll excuse the pun.

So I think the moral of that particular story is that small changes we make can end up having quite a considerable impact on how quickly we can reach FIRE. I tend to think that I’m pretty frugal anyway, but maybe I’m not as good as I think I am. I was brought up to be careful with money and not waste it. My parents come from good working class stock in the north east of England. They got married in their early twenties and started a family. They rented their first flat in Newcastle, but by the time I came along they had bought their first house, having money for a deposit from compensation my dad got from an accident he had when he was a child.

Mum and dad both left school without any qualifications, which said more about the schooling on offer rather than their level of intelligence. Dad went to night class and ended up qualifying as an accountant. They took a chance when dad got offered a job in London and we moved down to the commuter belt. That’s where I grew up. I remember dad always working when I was growing up. He drove 40 miles in to London every day for his main job and every weekend he was busy working away at home on some sort of home working gig. Who knew side hustles were a thing even back then! At one point he was even working nights as a lecturer too. I honestly don’t know how he did it.

We eventually moved back home to Newcastle after 11 years living down south. My folks have done well for themselves with lots of hard work and a willingness to move around to follow the work. It was never really the done thing to talk about money when I was growing up, and I certainly had no idea about what sort of income was coming in. What I did know though was that you didn’t waste money. That’s set me up nicely with some good frugal habits that continue to this day.  

I’d like to think that I’ve continued down that path with my kids. They certainly know the value of money and how hard it is to earn it. If anything I sometimes worry that they think too much about saving money. I’m happy that they aren’t materialistic in the slightest, but I don’t want them to think that there’s never any value to be gained in spending money. Sometimes it is worthwhile to splash some cash on something that’s going to add value or joy to your life.

For me I think I’ve more or less got the basics covered in terms of not wasting money. I’m sure that there’s more that I could do, but because I’ve never really earned that much, I’ve always needed to be good at managing my money. I’ve always cooked from scratch, made up my lunch to take into work and tried to get the best deal on things that I do need to spend money on.

I occasionally find myself mentally totting up how much some of my colleagues must spend on coffee from Starbucks at work. This despite the fact that we get free hot drinks from the vending machines. I have a rule that I don’t buy anything at work. I always think that’s a slippery slope if I start buying chocolate from the machines. I’m at work to earn money, so the idea of spending money when I’m there seems totally ridiculous. It’s bad enough that I put petrol in my car to drive to work, despite the fact that I only live 3 miles away. What on earth would Mr Money Moustache say about that? Well, I know exactly what he’d say, but luckily I get to make my own rules about my spending. The alarm already goes off at 6am, so there’s no way on earth that I’m getting up earlier so I’ve got time to bike or run to work. That’s a step too far for me. Maybe one day, but not just yet.

I started taking advantage of a cashback site a year or so ago. I kept hearing about this idea of earning cashback on spending that you were doing anyway, but as it sounded too good to be true I assumed there must be some sort of a catch. What an idiot! All that cashback I’ve missed out on over the years. Once I discovered FIRE blogs I kept hearing more about these cashback sites and realised I’d most definitely been missing a trick. Of course now that I’m taking advantage of this I’m cutting my spending right back, so my opportunities to get cashback are a little limited. But there are always things that you need to spend money on, so when this is the case I might as well get some cash back for it. It’s a no brainer.

A case in point recently was when I was planning our summer holiday for this year. I’d asked the kids where they wanted to go, pretty much gave them free rein to tell me their dream destination and I would consider it. After much debating they came to the conclusion that their ideal holiday was a road trip around England. Ok. Not exactly quite what I had in mind, but the more I thought about it the better it sounded. So we’ve plotted a route and looked out budget hotels on the outskirts of the places we’re visiting to avoid the exorbitant car park charges. I was just starting to think about booking the hotels when an email pinged into my inbox with details of a 24 hour offer for 10% cashback on our chosen hotel chain. Kerching, thank you for playing. Don’t mind if I do. So the hotels are all booked now, cashback is winging its way to my bank account ready to put towards spending money for when we’re away. It’s not a huge amount, but as they say, every little helps. And speaking of that particular supermarket chain, we’ll be making use of the clubcard vouchers on holiday that they very kindly give me just for using my Tesco credit card every month for my day to day expenses. Paid off in full every month. Obviously.

This will be a bit of a different holiday for us this year. The last couple of years we’ve gone to Germany to visit a friend of mine. It’s always lovely to go over there and see her. It’s a bonus that she also lives in a beautiful place with a lake perfect for swimming in just across from her house. Flights are always cheap to get there, so it’s a fantastic holiday that costs next to nothing. Before that we always used to go camping, which again is a brilliant way to get an amazing holiday for next to nothing. Living in Scotland we never have to go too far to get to beautiful campsites. Although we always used to head way up north to stay next to drop dead gorgeous beaches. I really need to dust off the camping gear and head out again. I’m hoping that when I eventually reach FIRE I’ll be able to take advantage of lots of trips away. Camping trips and plenty of jaunts over to Germany are definitely something to aim for when I have a bit more time on my hands.

I think the moral of my recent experiences has been not to get complacent and think that I have all my frugal ducks in a row. I think I’m ok on the basics. I would never just automatically renew insurance etc without shopping around, I’m happy to threaten to move providers to get a better deal, I’m finally taking advantage of cashback sites, I’ve got budgets in place for absolutely everything and I don’t waste money on day to day spending. But just because I’m good compared to the people I see around me doesn’t mean I can’t improve. Five minutes online reading FIRE blogs will prove that to me. I’m a novice when it comes to saving money.  But I think that’s ok. I’m happy to learn, and also to recognise the things that I am prepared to compromise on and what’s a non- negotiable for me. That’s the wonderful thing about life. You get to design what you want yours to look like, both before and after FIRE.

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2 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Frugal

  1. Nicely written and relatable blog posts, just been reading them while I half-assedly WFH on Saturday. I’m a bit further down the road to FIRE than you (read: older – I am not entirely sure if it is still called FIRE if I do it at 54 as I hope to do!). Your thoughts about tradeoffs include some I’ve had myself. The bit about kids moving away resonates … as it happens I am in London and mine have both gone to uni far away …. in Scotland! “It’s not to get away from home, Dad”. Sure, kids. Doesn’t seem to stop them coming home though.I guess adventure starts somewhere that’s not home. The holidays, mine always seem to want to go camping also. If you make it down south, Anglesey, Pembrokeshire and the Gower Pensinsula in particular are all great….if the weather holds. Good luck, as the journey unfolds…..

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    1. Thanks for commenting. It’s definitely FIRE if you do it at 54. My idea about what young is keeps changing the older I get! I’d be delighted to FIRE at 54. I can’t really complain about my kids wanting to move away, as I moved from England to Scotland many moons ago and would never move back. Those holiday suggestions sound good, As you say it’s always weather dependent in the UK. Enjoy the weekend. Glorious sunshine here in Scotland today, but I’ve probably just jinxed that and it’ll start snowing now. The joys of the Scottish weather!

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