we've learned

How We Went from Ballers to Savers, and Lived to Tell the Tale

we’re here with our first thursday post in a long time because yesterday’s post was a bit of a bummer subject, and we never like those to be the leading story for long. :-) so enjoy post #3 for the week!

we’re talking today about our personal relationship with money, something we could write many, many posts about. (and probably will — how much time ya got?) this one is about a journey of sorts, and about the light at the end of the tunnel. so if you ever get discouraged reading finance blogs, because you can’t relate, read on…

one of the things that’s different about us, compared to lots of bloggers in the pf community, is that we are not frugal by nature. not even a little bit. we have never been big shoppers (trips to whole foods notwithstanding), but if we had unlimited resources forever, we’d have zero hesitation to spend loads and loads of money on travel and dining at fun new restaurants, and on doing things for others. we used to love picking up the tab for a group at a bar or restaurant, or we’d buy friends and family plane tickets for christmas gifts, so that they could come visit us. having to dial that back has been one of the hardest adjustments to make as we’ve gotten into the frugal mindset. (thank goodness we both pile up loads of airline miles from work travel, and can still “buy” people flights with those. if only we could retire on airline miles, we’d be retired already!) we also like to give a lot to charity, and used to be good for a check for basically any worthy cause you might want to hit us up for. you’re running a marathon to raise money to find a cure for athlete’s foot? sure!

related: the best bad money decision we ever made

of course, this is no longer our modus operandi. at some point, we realized that all of that spending, even if it wasn’t on stuff, was still locking us into needing our jobs, and needing them for a long, long time. and since we value time more than anything, and were in a position to make early retirement a reality (sufficient earnings, no debt besides mortgage), we knew we’d regret not changing our ways. now we’re well on our way to early retirement, so end of story, right? sort of.

it’s easy to shorthand it and say “we realized we were doing x, but should be doing y, so we stopped doing x and started doing y.” and that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. because the truth is, a lot of the change was hard. is hard. will continue to be hard for a long time. lifestyle inflation is a very real thing, and maybe you’ve experienced it in your own life. heck, anyone no longer sleeping on a mattress on the floor of a crappy apartment shared with multiple roommates has experienced some degree of lifestyle inflation. we could not care less about our lack of designer clothes or accessories, since we can’t see ourselves ever getting into that in the first place, like our east coast friends clearly have. but going from being relatively unconcerned about spending to caring a lot about every dollar has required changes in what we do, changes in how we think, and even changes in our relationship.

we’ve come to really understand where people get the idea that money buys happiness. of course we all know that it doesn’t, as borne out by numerous studies, but we for sure know that money buys convenience. money makes things easy. it’s nice to be able to pay people to help you do some project or make a problem go away. it’s lovely to be able to stay at whatever hotel is closest to where you want to be, or to try the trendy new restaurant without thinking to look at the prices or worrying about how many drinks you order. asking for the fancy halibut at whole foods without even thinking that the parcel you get back will cost $40. having plenty of money to spend eliminates the need to think much at all, or to plan. (we also think having money makes you helpless in many ways, but there’s no denying that it makes plenty of things easier.)

so going from ballers to savers has not just been about buying less. it has in many ways been a fundamental shift in how we think. we’ve always been into diying, but still hired some jobs out, and now try hard to do as much as humanly possible ourselves, which takes more time, effort and planning. things we once would have bought when we felt like it, we now plan for for several months or even longer. or things that one of us would have bought, we now discuss together at length. those changes aren’t that big a deal, although on some level, we each feel less autonomous with money than we used to. maybe that’s not a bad thing, since we’re married, and believe in fully combined finances. but feeling like you, a grown ass man, have to run some purchase by your wife, when you wouldn’t have in the past — i have to believe that feels at least a little emasculating. (fortunately mr. onl is a champ, though, and never complains.) but even with very clear goals in place, and a reason for working hard to save right in front of you every single day, there is still something strange about going from an unconcerned attitude about saving to a mindset of committed frugality.

to put it bluntly, it’s super weird to have to tell yourself that you can’t afford something, when you know for a fact that you can.

we aren’t really into trying to trick or lie to ourselves (except when it comes to paying ourselves first, of course), so we’ve tried to look at the other side of it. rather than focusing on the money side of it (what you might call “the supply”), we focus on the want side (“the demand”). now we’re constantly asking ourselves, “is that really something we need? if we don’t need it, how badly do we want it? will it make our lives better, or just become something we have to to repair or deal with down the road?” and, truly, since we’re rarely tempted by stuff (not counting sports equipment, or yummy delicacies at whole foods), most of these questions are about travel and meals out. now we ask ourselves, “will spending this money on this trip give us a memorable experience? can we get the same experience without paying so much, by staying at a cheaper hotel or ordering less food at a meal?” travel is the absolute most important thing to us, so an unwritten rule of our savings plan is that we’re never cutting out travel, even while we’re in hardcore savings mode. but we often look now to do it as cheaply as possible, which often means passing on things we would have done without blinking an eye in the past. i won’t try to sugar coat it: there is something that feels a little sad about the shift. it’s a loss, and we wouldn’t try to hide that fact.

if all we did was change our ways without changing our mindsets, it wouldn’t all be worth it. oh, poor us. we spend so much less money than we make! will someone please take pity on us?! (#firstworldproblems) that’s not how we ever want to be. like with so many things in life, attitude is everything, and it’s definitely what has helped us make this shift and stick with our (no longer so) new frugal lifestyle. instead of feeling deprived of experiences, emasculated and inconvenienced, we choose to feel grateful and stoked. we choose to focus on the positive side of the reforms we’ve made, and think about what frugality will do for us, all the freedom it will buy for us. tracking our net worth and goals helps enormously with that. it makes every dollar we don’t spend worth something, and shows a tangible gain in our numbers. and, it may sound dumb, but we try to recognize and celebrate when we make good decisions that are different from what we might have done in the past. pass on a purchase? high five. stick with just an appetizer when dining out? high five. find a way to camp instead of stay in a hotel on an upcoming trip? high five. no, literally. we high five over it. and we have a five-second celebration about staying on track with our early retirement goals. we’re all about the positive reinforcement.

if i may channel maggie from northern expenditure for a moment, and go all social-science-research on you, being around the right peer group has also helped us a ton. it’s well-established that the social influence is hugely powerful, and it’s why you’re more likely to be thin if your friends are thin, or to be a nonsmoker if your friends don’t smoke. were we still entrenched in the very money-focused city where we lived before, it would be a lot harder to live frugal lives without feeling deprived. not even in a keeping up with the joneses way, but more about the fomo (fear of missing out). by moving to a small mountain town, we’re surrounded by free activities and people who care far less about money. you don’t move to the mountains to focus on your career, after all, unless perhaps you’re an aspiring professional skier, and then you probably don’t care about the money anyway.

we suspect it will always be a little tough to be frugal, but we’re okay with that. being challenged is good for our ongoing personal growth, and it gives us something to strive for — to keep getting better at optimizing our spending and saving. we love the warren buffett quote that he wanted to give his kids “enough money to do something, but not enough to do nothing.” if we had endless resources, there’s a good chance we would do nothing, or would become hopeless gluttons, which is basically the same thing. if nothing else, we think we’d lose our sharpness pretty quickly. having to hustle, having to be self-reliant, and maybe even feeling a little money stress sometimes, are all good for us long-term, and will ensure we don’t get old too fast. that’s a very good thing in our book.

has anybody else struggled to make this transition? what was hardest for you? any strategies you’ve found to help you get past the fomo? share in the comments!

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76 replies »

  1. Change is always tough. We found the first few months of our financial make over difficult, but we survived. We kept ourselves motivated by thinking of the end goal, the “why” what our lives would be like having a surplus of cash each month and stress of debt gone.

    • It’s so great what you guys are doing, and all of your efforts will pay off long-term! We found it much easier to stay focused when we were getting out of debt. Then, once we had that surplus, that was when it was hard not to want to “live a little,” (meaning: spend a lot). We’ve finally found our happy medium, but it’s taken some effort to get here! :-)

  2. The switch from traditional spending over to frugality was much, much easier than I thought, honestly. I have found that, at least for me, the propensity to spend copious amounts of money on crap is actually all in the head. Once you get your mind right (which, of course, is the toughest part of this equation), the rest seems to fall into place quite nicely. It’s almost automatic.

    We think about it this way: my wife and I have some pretty aggressive early retirement goals. I want out next year when I’m 35. My wife will be out by her 32nd birthday – which will be the time where she actually qualifies for Social Security (she can’t retire December of 2016 like me because she wouldn’t have the credits necessary to get her own money back that was forcibly taken from her throughout her working career).

    With each choice that we make when it comes to our money, we implicitly ask ourselves is this expense is worth possibly making it tougher to retire on our extremely short working schedule. 99.9% of the time, it’s not. We are completely focused on our next life (Ha!) that nothing can possibly get in the way short of something catastrophic happening, which is always a possibility.

    Regarding the ability to “afford” something, I like to think of it a slightly different way. My dad always said that people can usually afford anything, but not everything. I can afford almost everything that I want. I admit that to myself, too. I can afford a new BMW 750 by paying cash for it. You can too.

    However, making such a purchase would, of course, be super stupid. So, it’s not necessarily that I “can’t afford” something. Rather, that would be a stupid purchase, and I don’t like willingly making stupid decisions, especially with such a precious resource like money. There are smart buying decisions and also not so smart buying decisions. I can afford [almost] anything that I’d ever want, but the question of whether or not those purchases would be smart is the question I ask myself.

    …to the point where my wife and I once caught ourselves before making a $50 purchase for an inexpensive small entertainment center for underneath our television. I mentioned “This feels like an impulse buy”. Courtney agreed. We didn’t buy it. It would have been a stupid purchase.

    So for us, the baller to saver change was all in our heads. Master your mind and the rest seems to fall right into place.

    • I never thought about the SS credit requirements, since we’ve both already met them. You should blog about that, so the folks looking at an extremely early retirement can take that into consideration! The big thing we’re planning around is Obamacare, which we plan to post about soon.

      I like how you put it — smart decisions vs. stupid ones. Maybe we should use the “stupid standard” moving forward to gauge spending decisions. :-) We do sometimes talk about the “regret standard” (that is: will we later regret spending on this?), but I like the bluntness of stupid better.

      And you’re so right — this is 100% a mental shift. We’re there, but just like a lot of things, it takes focus and continual recommitment to the goal to stay there!

      • Great! I look forward to reading it. We will sometimes, just for fun, try to crunch what we’re likely to get from SS once we reach 65 or 67 or whatever age it might be up to at that point, using current calculators. While our earnings are good now, the fact that they calculate it from your top 35 earning years means we’ll have a lot of $0 years! So we’re not expecting to get any SS, but if we do get some, it will be small!

  3. Hubs and I have had a tough time getting on the same frugal page. I’ve always been a saver and him a spender. Now that we’ve been out of debt for a few months, his brain shifts to “We have so much money! Let’s spend some more of it!” where I want to maintain how we live and save more. I, like you guys, have found success in focusing on the want/ need side. I also compare the dollar value of bigger purchases to what else is out there in the market. E.g. Hubs suggested we go to a Nitro Circus live event. Full price tickets are $80 each, but he found a Groupon for $40 each. He got sucked into the “bargain” of $80 for us to go to something new and didn’t think whether this was something we wanted to do. We certainly don’t need to go. Hopefully I’ve convinced him that our $100 after all the service charges is better spent elsewhere.

    I’m trying to be careful with any lifestyle creep. With the amount of extra cash we have available each month, and great credit scores, there isn’t an external limit to stop us from spending. If we applied, we could qualify to go broke in any number of ways!

    • Give it time to get on the same page. It certainly took us a while! We’ve been living together for 10 years at this point, and have for sure been through an evolution. I started out as the bigger spender, though the Mr. was more of the picking up the tab type. And now I’m the rigid saver, and he votes for more moderation. At least now we’re on the same page instead of goals, which gives us a good framework to talk about everything.

      We used to go to tons of events — not Nitro Circus, exactly, mostly concerts and festivals — but have had to dial that back. Now we set a standard of: We go if we love the musician, not just because we’ve heard of them, and if we think we’d regret missing the show. That may not be the right standard for you, but it’s helpful to set the bar somewhere. (And this standard allowed us to justify flying to Chicago to see the Rolling Stones a few years ago — that was a $2000 day! So it’s not an exclusively frugal standard.) But big picture, I think if you do a few $100 activities but otherwise avoid lifestyle creep, I don’t think that’s so bad.

    • So hear you Kate. I think in some ways it’s a good balance though, because he is also a giver and I appreciate that. I have been in the negative and hard times etc. so I tend to “hoard” the dollars like an old ratty security blanket. I’m not cheap or stingy, but am skeptical of spending. The other part is having to slow my brain down at times. I get the figures going in my head 3 months ahead (okay, years) and need to just remember to do what I can in the here and now – enjoy today.

      • Striking that balance is tough for all of us, I think. Truly, having read a lot of blogs and gotten a lot of comments over time, I think everyone struggles with this question of holding onto money or spending it for enjoyment now. So know that you’re not alone in this! :-)

  4. Ohhh yes the transition has been difficult, and I believe it still will continue to be. My mind & thoughts continue to wander back to the college days where, although most students were broke – there were still those that had their bank accounts replenished consistently & were not afraid to show it. Also, finding the right peer group…it’s tough to just ditch all your friends overnight because their spending habits/savings goals/frugality mindset isn’t aligned with yours. I think that’s where the growth continues to come in! Even if people have different wants/needs/values, how can we continue to practice ours & still support those? The biggest FOMO we are experiencing is this travel thing. It seems like we know so many people who happen to travel to a new country every month (because they found a great deal online, need to get someplace no one has gone before, etc.)! We plan in advanced for trips in the U.S. to ensure that we can pay in complete cash, and do not plan on leaving the country until 2017 (if we can pull it off properly). My fiance & I support each other with this because our goals right now of eventually purchasing a home, starting a family, building up an emergency fund, and retirement savings aren’t quite in the same line with people we know – and that’s totally okay. :)

    • Haha — we were definitely not THOSE kids in college. We were the broke ones. Then we had our years of debt repayment. So by the time we started spending freely, it was almost certainly in part a backlash to the years of austerity. :-) Travel FOMO is legit! But you guys are going to have a lot more free time in a few years than all of your peers blowing their money on travel now. :-)

  5. I really screwed myself back in the college days by being the guy that would always grab the check at restaurants and what not. Once I left college, I learned how much debt I was really in and that was a big wake up call.

    Since then, I’ve always been very frugal with money. That’s not to say that we don’t still have fun (plenty of travel and vacationing), but I’ve always felt like we don’t have enough money even though we’re in much better shape than most people we know. I still make sure we’re always getting the best deal on everything and probably overthink every purchasing decision we make!

    — Jim

    • Good for you for letting your college debt be your wake-up call! It took us a little while longer than that to figure things out, although we weren’t going into debt to support our spending back during this period of our lives. (We dealt with the debt first, which is maybe why we later felt so free to spend afterward.)

  6. We’re still in the midst of this transition. Luckily, I suppose, we’ve never made enough money to even be able to be “ballers,” so we’ve never had to reform our ways so drastically. But it is definitely a mindset shift. You’re right that saying “I can’t afford that” when you know you can is an interesting problem to have. (Enter research on “Future Self.”) Thanks for the shout out and for explaining FOMO… some of us aren’t cool. :)

    • I think “baller” is a mindset more than a dollar amount. And, in the classic style of most spenders, we didn’t actually think of ourselves that way when we were spending most of what we earned — we looked at those spending more than us and thought they were the ones with money! But you’re 100% right that it’s a mindset shift either way.

      Haha — we are definitely not cool. We just learned FOMO from the cool kids. :-)

      • That’s probably true… at least I agree with what you spent money on. If I were a “baller,” that is exactly how I would spend my money. I don’t get the constant acquisition need. Travel. Food. Giving. That’s where it’s at. And that’s still where I plan to spend my money (just with less edible gold!). :)

  7. This is exactly where we are. “Tricking” ourselves into believing we can’t afford it? Sort of. We can afford it now but will that money be better off ten years down the road. We actually high-five each other on winning decisions. Does this mean we totally agree on every decision? No, but changing the whole attitude makes this work.

    Thanks again for your fun and mysterious blog.

    • “fun and mysterious blog” — my favorite comment of the day. :-) And I love that you do the high fives, too! Hooray for positive reinforcement and teamwork!

  8. I think I have the opposite problem! I find my life to be incredibly wasteful and spendy, something I need to reign in. But everyone else thinks I’m broke and offer to lend me money (true story!). A lot of it has to do with me being a student for all of my 20’s and into my early 30’s – then moving abroad with essentially nothing. Now I own a mountain of used furniture and a really nice bike! But this is not really impressive to anyone other than me, it seems. :)

    • So funny — I’m sure your used furniture and bike are very impressive! :-) It’s fascinating how different all of our mindsets can be, and how that colors how we view everything. What you call your wasteful and spendy life would, I’m sure, seem very frugal to most people!

  9. I would certainly become a “hopeless glutton” with unlimited funds, too :) . I worship at the altar of food, which is why I must religiously work out (also good for my mental health, sweating away all that stress!). Anyway, this post really resonated with me–thank you for it! I like that you are honest that scaling back is hard and not always fun, especially when you know you have the money to buy whatever it is you’re wanting (coming from someone who is actively trying to be more frugal, which is about as unnatural to me as growing a beard). I read quite a few personal finance blogs, and sometimes I wonder how people can be so darn cheerful about always being frugal. It strikes me as unrealistic, even if that’s just the personae that they are presenting to the world.

    Thank you again. Wonderful post.

  10. I lived a long time with relative deprivation/required frugrality (paycheck-to-paycheck as a graduate TA/researcher) – not to say I was really struggling (always had plenty to eat and enjoyed occasional indulgences), but I had to save up, plan, and think long and hard about any sort of purchase over $100. Once I got a “real job,” I’ll admit that I was a bit of a spending glutton for the first 2-3 years. Then, it got really old and just felt straight up wasteful. I started having these thoughts before I really discovered PF/frugality blogs, but these nebulous ideas were brought to the forefront after reading other people’s thoughts on prioritizing your spending on things that are important to you and not feeling the need to keep up with the joneses (even if those joneses aren’t in your immediate peer group). Do I regret making stupid purchases over the last 5 years since I entered the working world? Maybe a little bit. But I’m glad I figured out pretty early to focus on what’s important versus looking for opportunities to spend my extra cash flow.

    • Hi Sarah. Thanks for reading and commenting! Your story sounds familiar. :-) We didn’t include the lead up to our big spending years, but they were a lot like yours — austerity and scrimping, and then debt payoff, followed by a feeling that now we could spend more and live it up. But we’re super glad to have seen the light and reformed our ways, and in the scheme of things, the five years that you spent living it up aren’t going to set you back much. What matters is that you’re on the right path now!

  11. YES, I struggled a lot with this at first, especially around friends. it felt embarrassing going out to eat with a group and not ordering anything, or having a couple drinks less than your friends on a night out. like you said, surrounding yourself with those kind of people creates fomo. the biggest help for me was finding a partner who doesn’t care about eating out and partying. it’s so much easier to feel like you are making sound financial and lifestyle decisions when there’s two of you in agreement. I take this for granted a lot! frugality was much harder for me when I was alone.

    • Having a partner who is on the same page is SO HUGE. I’m so glad you guys have that. We didn’t start out on exactly the same page, but feel super thankful that we are now. I don’t think we could be doing what we’re doing otherwise!

  12. This is so interesting to me as I’ve always been frugal and a saver. And so has my partner. I’ve had to learn how to enjoy my money and I think I have a pretty reasonable balance. A big part of why I calculate my savings rate is to show myself that yes, I spend a large chunk of money, but I also am saving 70-80% of my income, so it is okay in that context to be “spendy”. My in laws like to tell stories about how my partner saved money as a kid, which amuses me because I see how much spendier he is than me, even though he also saves 70ish% of his income.

    • People like you guys make us jealous, because being frugal will probably always be a bit of work for us. It’s a tiny bit like an addiction (though far less serious) — there’s always that fear that we might go off the deep end again at some point. But yeah, you guys seem to be rocking it pretty effortlessly, which makes us green with envy. :-) We’re doing a good job of saving, but it doesn’t come easily. Have a great weekend, Leigh!

      • I am really thankful I found a partner who is also naturally a saver! Even though he is a bit spendier than me, he is still happy with the two bedroom condo instead of the four bedroom house. And that matters far more than the little things!

  13. OMG – we’ve had that whole conversation SO many times before we switched our mindset. Mrs. SSC: “We can’t afford that!” Me: “But we can afford it!” Mrs. SSC: “But I don’t want to afford it!”
    And that’s what it boils down to. Wanting to afford it. We also dipped the toe into the lifestyle inflation pool of loveliness, and fortunately didn’t just cannonball into the deep end. It was WAY easier to reign in mindless, and even mindful “crap” spending. I can’t count how many times I would remind her, yes we can afford that, and then the conversation just devolves into do we want to afford that. The only thing I’m a tad bummed about, is that I couldn’t get her to pull the trigger on this awesome Fall painting by Michaelopolous who does those drunken New Orleans house scenes. This was a sweet, impressionistic, Fall streamscape with loads of colors we liked and everything, but alas….
    While we’re more frugal and such nowadays, it is still easy for me to slip into consumer mode at times. Fortunately that’s what the ol’ allowance is for, so if I get the urge for something, then I can get it or save until I can get it, but even then I find it can still be harder to NOT spend money. Always something to work on I guess. :)

    • Glad you can relate. :-) You’re totally right that it’s the do we WANT to afford it question that’s key. And yeah, having an allowance or some other way to splurge a little once in a while is an important safety valve. :-)

  14. We share your enthusiasm for food and travel, so these have been difficult items to be frugal with. We spent so much $ food that my frugal self is ashamed. We try to focus on what we gain as a result of our frugal ways rather than what we lose, which has helped significantly!

    • That’s a great way to look at it. And rather than feel shame over your ways in the past, can you choose to focus on the good memories you gained from them? As well as a sense that living both ways gave you proof you needed that frugality is right for you? We’re especially happy about the latter side, so that we never wonder if the grass is greener on the baller side. Been there, done that. :-)

  15. I am definitely not a natural saver. In my early twenties, out of college and starting on my “grown-up” life, I absolutely went for lifestyle inflation. Partly because I felt I deserved it (I could smack myself for thinking that way) and partly because I hated missing out on things and wanted to do what my peers did. Though I was never a saver by nature, debt always felt uncomfortable. Even when it’s being managed, you feel like you have a yoke around your neck. Even now, I often get the urge to spend (usually wanting to go out and have food and drinks with friends; not so much into buying “stuff” nowadays). To keep myself from overspending, I literally keep the majority of my money out of my own hands (in an online savings account). Great job going from ballers to savers; it’s not easy.

  16. “to put it bluntly, it’s super weird to have to tell yourself that you can’t afford something, when you know for a fact that you can.” – Definitely super weird! This was one of the things I struggled with the most when I started being mindful of my spending. It felt like it didn’t make sense – how I’m not spending on things I’ve always (thought I) wanted to have, when I finally have extra money. But I guess my desire to achieve my financial goals was so much bigger than my temporary wants and that got me through the transition phase. :)

    • The force is strong with you! ;-) It’s so great that your own desire to reach your goals is all the motivation you need.

      Hope your busy time isn’t *too* busy, and you’re getting some time to enjoy yourself as well!

  17. I think there’s a balance. I don’t necessarily buy into the overly frugal, eat bread and ramen for every meal, etc., lifestyle that some of the frugals preach, but I also think you need to recognize when your habits are affecting your future. That’s why I like blogs like “AffordAnything” that focuses more on income growth opportunities over saving. Good write up!


    • Couldn’t agree with you more. We are not about to give up everything pleasurable to reach our early retirement dreams, but when we realized that most of what we were spending money on wasn’t actually making us happier, it became the obvious choice to change our ways. Thanks for commenting!

  18. I was born frugal and an anti-shopper, so no makeover ever needed. I can sure appreciate though the challenge for those with natural or learned inclinations that are inconsistent with saving enough and meeting long-term goals.

  19. I grew up in a low income household with 4 brothers and sisters. Honestly, I’ve never had this problem. It’s amazing to me, still, when I read about other people who have had to transition. I have wanted to be FI since at least age 18. Yes, 18, not 28, not 38. Of course, I didn’t really make it happen in a big way until recently, but we’ve been maxing out retirement accounts and investing all along the way.