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On Frugality and Money

The Essential Money Survival Skill

By Rick Kahler CFP®

Someone recently asked me to share my number-one financial tip that would make the greatest impact on a person’s financial well-being. For someone who can speak for hours on the topic, that’s a daunting task. I wanted to quote the late Dick Wagner’s advice to “Spend less, save more, and don’t do anything stupid,” but that sentence contains three tips.

I had to pick one and chose “spend less.” The greatest common denominator of financial success is not talent, IQ, career choices, income, inheritance, investment choices, being in the right place at the right time, or luck. It’s frugality.

Someone who has mastered the art of frugality has an essential survival skill. Their ability to save, to squirrel away money in times of prosperity, enables them to roll with almost any financial calamity. They tend to master their money rather than let money master them.

Frugal people find saving somewhat of a game. They get high off of building savings and finding bargains. They clip coupons, shop sales, and buy generic store brands. They buy used everything whenever possible, especially large ticket items like cars, appliances, and furniture. They do as much home maintenance themselves as is prudent. They rent things they won’t use much rather than buy. They don’t smoke, drink in excess, or do recreational drugs. They cook at home a lot. They pay off credit cards monthly, take on debt carefully, and pay down debt ahead of time, if possible. They find affordable ways to do the things they enjoy.

As frugal people accumulate wealth, they don’t give up their thrifty habits. As an example, I have a client who chose to vacation in Ireland this year. Why? It was a bargain. He got $700 roundtrip tickets by snagging a one-day sale on American Airlines.

Even though the external trappings of frugality are easy to spot, becoming frugal is really an inside job. If you aren’t naturally a saver, it’s not easy to just decide to become frugal. Changing to thrifty habits because you know you “should” doesn’t work any better than just deciding to lose 20 or 60 pounds does. Lifestyle shifts like this take something more than cognition.

To develop frugality you need to change your mindset about and your relationship with money. How do you do that? With intention, persistence, humility, patience, and curiosity.

There are many ways to begin changing your money mindset. I recommend starting with discovering the subconscious beliefs you have about money and how it works. I call these money scripts and have written about them in my books and blog.

Next, you may want to uncover the roots of those money scripts. This involves taking a look at how money was viewed in your family growing up and chronicling the positive and negative life events that have happened in your life. We help clients do this with two exercises called the Money Atom and the Money Egg. Slowly you will see themes emerge that completely explain why frugality is not your strong suit. This understanding is the foundation for change.

It is also valuable to find an accountability partner, someone who is frugal themselves, to be a mentor. This is similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous program’s recommendation to find a sponsor. It’s a tried and true model that produces results. Another option is to look for a financial coach or therapist (check at financialtherapyassociation.org) in your area or available to meet with you online.


Becoming frugal doesn’t mean becoming a miser or depriving yourself. It means using your money thoughtfully to support the life you want to live. And it is a mindset you can learn.


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4 Responses

  1. Frugality

    In my case, unfortunately, I have to disagree and say I need to deprive myself in order to reach my goals of saving. I get paid well, but I have debt that I need to pay off. Way more than I should have in order to live comfortably, but I agree with you that a lifestyle change is more than just the realization that we need to do something.

    Persistence and patience will help us reach our goals!
    Great read!



    Frugality is a valuable financial habit. It’s the number-one common denominator among people I know who are wealth builders. This makes sense, since no matter how much you make or what you may invest in, you’ve got to be able to live on less than you make in order to have money to invest.

    In some circumstances, however, frugality can be dangerous.

    Frugality is found in a plethora of money scripts. Some examples are: “Always select the least expensive option.” “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.” “Do it yourself instead of paying someone else.” “Do without now in order to have enough in the future.”

    Like all money scripts, in the right circumstance these frugal beliefs work perfectly. A frugal money script like, “Always select the least inexpensive option,” may work well when comparing S&P 500 index funds, Series 4 Apple Watches, or 87 octane gasoline. It’s not such a good guideline in other circumstances: for example, comparing the cost of an ambulance versus driving yourself to the hospital.

    I learned this particular lesson recently through dealing with some serious health concerns of a member of my family. A healthy, athletic older woman, she suddenly developed dizziness, vomiting, slurred speech, and other symptoms that suggested a stroke. A family member drove her to the emergency room.

    The ER staff were not convinced she was having a stroke because she had no weakness on one side of her body. They finally did MRI and CT scans and found nothing wrong. The hospital radiologist and a neurologist diagnosed “old age” and sent her home.

    Three months later, with her speech and balance only somewhat improved, she consulted a neurologist for a second opinion. Looking at the previous MRI and CT scans, this doctor confirmed the family’s suspicion that she had suffered not one, but several strokes. He told them, “Next time this happens call 911 so they can assess your situation and start you on a drug to clear the clot.”

    Soon after that she had another episode of vomiting, slurred speech, and increased dizziness. Remembering the instructions to call 911, but knowing how expensive an ambulance ride would be, she called a family member to take her to the emergency room. Again, the ER staff ordered MRI and CT scans but found no evidence of a stroke or need for the clot-clearing drug, and sent her home.

    Upon learning this, the neurologist, put his face in his hands. “I told you to call 911 because it’s imperative that you show up at the ER by ambulance. The EMT will call ahead to report a suspected stroke, which procedurally sets a whole series of events in action which ends up with you getting the drug within three hours. If you just walk in, you risk that you will not be taken seriously and the legal invocation of a ‘stroke alert’ won’t happen. You may not get the care you need, just as you didn’t on your second visit. You are lucky you are still alive.”

    Now, had the neurologist initially explained the reasoning behind his instructions to call 911, chances are the patient would have done so. Without that knowledge, she defaulted to her frugal money script that the cheaper option of driving to the ER would serve as well as calling an expensive ambulance.

    Following that money script could have cost my relative her life. She told me, “That was a scary way to discover a money script that I need to modify.”

    In matters of health, a wiser money script is, “Select the most medically appropriate option, not the least expensive one.”

    Rick Kahler CFP


  3. THE Covid-19 ECONOMY:

    Forget the “Paradox of Thrift” – Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics said: “The more rapidly you want to contain the virus, then the more severe the lock-down has to be and the more severe the disruption to economic activity is,” as he told the AP.

    Daco calls it the “Lock Down Paradox.” The steps we need to take to solve the health emergency, such as social distancing, closing shops, and foregoing travel, are the same steps that will plunge us into a recession. Soon, millions of perfectly healthy Americans will be laid off from perfectly healthy businesses!

    Dr. David E. Marcinko MBA


  4. The Frugal STOICS


    Dr. David E. Marcinko MBA


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