I have always lived within my means, and saving money and the associated habits have always been a big part of my life, but a few years ago, in my mid-twenties, I managed something I never thought possible: I saved 25% of my paycheck every month for a year.
Yes, that required me to live very frugally, but that wasn’t an unhappy life by any means. There was still joy, and money set aside for fun and non-essential purchases.
And no, I wasn’t making six figures a year, far from it.
Full disclaimer: I didn’t graduate with student debt, but I’m confident these money-saving habits can be applied towards paying off debt just as well as to building your savings.
Here’s what I did:
I paid myself first
Paying myself first meant I set aside money for savings as soon as I got my paycheck. There were no excuses, no “but’s,” no last-minute purchases, just a set amount immediately transferred to my savings account.
Paying myself first didn’t feel like a sacrifice; it felt like rewarding myself for a job well done. The more I saw my savings account balance grow, the more determined I felt to see it double, then triple.
Paying yourself first requires you to budget money for all your other expenses and live within your means. It doesn’t allow for any fake lifestyle built on credit card debt. It means to live realistically, and trust me, once you put it in action, you learn to love it.
I meal prepped
I would eat out occasionally, but 90% of my meals were made at home. I would pack my lunch and take it to the office, and prep a ton of food to keep in the freezer, ready to go. I also got good at shopping for groceries efficiently.
One of the easiest things to make were burritos. In one Sunday afternoon, I could make about 18 burritos, which I kept frozen. Burritos were cheap to make, and it was a comfort to have homemade food ready to eat whenever I came home exhausted at the end of the day, all I had to do was pop it into the microwave for a few minutes.
I didn’t survive exclusively on burritos, but whatever I decided to cook, I always cooked extra so that I could freeze some of it. That meant I had homemade food always available without having to prepare specifically for every meal. It saved me both time and money.
I shared expenses
I lived with my partner at the time, but you don’t need a romantic partner to share expenses with and save. Living with a roommate has the same effect for financial purposes.
Beyond sharing expenses, living with someone else helps you get entertained and have fun on a much smaller budget.
A lot of the entertainment for someone who’s single and living alone is going out to restaurants or bars — a lot of it requires that you spend money.
When you have a roommate, you can buy some beers, chips, and dip at the supermarket and make a night of it playing games or watching sports. That’s a lot less expensive than going out. Hopefully, you get along well enough with your roommate to do that. Fingers crossed.
I took advantage of free entertainment
I would only ever go to a sports event, to the movie theater or a concert when I scored free tickets, or when I found some sale on a discount website like Groupon.
I would go to the beach or go hiking whenever possible. Spending time outdoors was not only good for my health, but it was also free.
Occasionally, I would “splurge” on a full-price ticket to something I really wanted to see, like a concert by my favorite band, or a Broadway musical that happened to be in town.
Living frugally doesn’t mean giving up on having fun; it means you find ways to have fun that don’t cost a lot of money. It also means you don’t go to every concert or see every movie in the theater, but you carefully select what you do want to see. Being selective also makes these moments even more special, which to me, is a bonus.
I said no to fast fashion
I avoided Forever 21 and H&M like the plague. Nothing against those brands in particular, but their business model of fast fashion, with a new collection on display every two weeks or so, makes you feel as if you need to update your wardrobe far more often than you actually do.
Trust me; you’re not missing out on any trends by avoiding fast fashion for a few months.
I did buy clothes during my year of extreme saving, but I purchased items I really needed. The trick is not to avoid buying clothes (or anything else) at all costs but to be mindful of your choices so that you’re not wasting money on something you don’t need.
Saving money doesn’t have to mean you stop living
I saved about 25% of my income for a year. In that year, I had fun with my partner and friends, and I bought frappuccinos at coffee shops, new clothes, and tickets to concerts.
In that year, I lived a full life.
But I lived mindfully deciding what to spend my money on, and I was diligent about paying myself first.
After that year, I changed into full-time freelancing, and my savings played an important part in making that happen.
With strong saving habits in place, I can now manage the ups and downs of the freelancer life and put some money aside towards investing. I’m even paying for a new bachelor’s degree out of pocket (and I’m not a millionaire by any stretch).
Saving money is not a mystery, but it requires some discipline and effort to develop the habits. I promise you this – it gets easier as you go.