I have a diverse set of friends. Earlier in my career as a consultant software engineer, I mostly hung out with fellow “professionals”. My friends were doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, bankers or consultants too. These friends visited the latest restaurants, travelled on British Airways, took first class trains, and stayed at the Marriott or Hilton. I joined in and adopted this lifestyle even though I had no business living that way. We went to paid exhibitions at galleries and museums, cooked Ottolenghi recipes with exotic and expensive ingredients, bought designer clothes, worked out at expensive gyms and didn’t think much about spending £12.50 on a cocktail on a night out.
When I think back to those years, even though on the surface we were having a great time, we were a fundamentally unhappy bunch.
A few years after I started working, I joined a women’s football team and met people from varying walks of life. Some of my new friends were au pairs, waitresses, gardeners, working for not-for-profit charities, nurses, teachers etc. I was fascinated that people who weren’t earning as much money were still capable of living pretty decent lives – this wasn’t a concept that I was in any way familiar with. This doesn’t in mean that I come from a wealthy family or had a lot of money, it just means that I’d always viewed that state as temporary. I only needed to graduate from uni and into the big leagues to start living my perfect (‘spendy’) life.
While hanging out with this more diverse circle of friends, I’ve observed various things including a key one. The happiest people in our group weren’t the ones earning or spending the most money.
Ellie* is a gardening student. In the time I’ve known her, she’s had minimum wage or above minimum wage jobs. She’s lived in cheap accommodation or at home with her mum in Southampton. She cycles most of the time, usually makes her own packed lunches or grabs stuff from the grocery store while the rest of us tuck into £15 roasts after football, and does a lot of free or cheap activities like climbing, or running. She also holidays as cheaply as she can. She’s organised camping trips, a cycling holiday to Belgium, and once backpacked round the world for a year with her then girlfriend. She books £1-5 Megabus tickets and super cheap advance train fares and group hostels. She’s also far and away one of the happiest and most popular girls in the group.
Giulia* had just moved over to the UK when I met her. She’d quit her marketing job and became a waitress in London while she looked for a good job. She owned a house that she was renting out back home and shared a room for £350 a month for the first couple of years that I knew her. She ate a lot of her meals at the restaurant where she worked and would invite her friends to join her there even on her days off because it kept her expenses low. Even after she finally got a proper job and earned £27 000, then £38 000 a year, she squirreled away at least £1 000 a month and launched a ‘sidepreneur’ business last year using her savings.
Angie* worked with me at an Airline and was earning a wee bit more money than I was. Unlike me though, she makes her own breakfasts and lunches and only eats out occasionally, saved half of her salary into her pension, shops around for deals before she buys anything, refuses to spend money on unnecessary things like the latest phones or gadgets and lives minimally. She owns a flat in an expensive area but rents that out while she lives much more cheaply in a rented place. She spends money on experiences though because they are important to her. She’s travelled extensively – almost all the continents – including livng in the US for 5 years. She indulges in craft beers at micro-breweries and independent pubs, buys expensive but durable clothes and shoes so she can enjoy them for years and treats her better half to awesome and meaningful gifts. She’s currently on a jaunt in South America while she tries to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life.
I didn’t learn much from any of those friends over the years that I’ve known them. I always thought they were just better at money and that’s why they could do things that I couldn’t manage. This isn’t strictly true. They might have been born with it. Or they might have acquired it. I don’t know for sure since I haven’t actually discussed money with any of them. One thing’s clear, they have some habits that are common across them all:
- They know how and when to save – sometimes aggressively and sometimes at a more pedestrian pace. It takes perseverance and dedication to save enough money to travel the world or put down a deposit for a house.
- They keep necessities cheap – trimming the fat on their housing & utilities, packed lunches and shopping around for goods and services are de rigueur.
- They value experiences over things – every one of them is well-travelled, nurtures relationships and spends their time as meaningfully as they can when not at work.
- They also don’t mind going against the norm. Keeping up with the Jones’ is not for them.
I deeply admire these friends of mine and wish I had picked up these habits ages ago. I don’t think it’s too late. I’m slowly transitioning to a simpler life. Slowly being the operative word.
- I’m moving to a smaller apartment to strip £150 from my housing costs from the end of June.
- I’ve been cycling – and plan to continue – 90% of the time to trim £70 off my monthly transport costs.
- I work or socialise at home or indoors more often than I go out. I’m also earning 20-40% more monthly to grow the gap between my income and expenses.
I go to old man pubs and spend £20-30 on a social event (compared to the £70-100) that was more normal in the past, attend free exhibitions at galleries and museums, go early for a night out to avoid paying an entry fee, cheap(er) ingredients most of the time, and buy a lot of my clothes and accessories from charity shops or better quality high street stores (instead of Primark or Designer shops).
My spending on food is my only remaining major problem. I can’t seem to control the amount of money I spend on takeaways. When I master this, I reckon I’ll finally be able to say that I’m on the fast track to being (habitually) frugal. I might not be where I want to be and I might not be happy every minute of every day but I’m a lot happier than I used to be.