I zipped open our tent to the brisk Sierra morning air, careful not to wake our neighbors in the tent just inches away, friends of friends who were along for the trip. I sat down to read until others awoke, and slowly they did. As one after another camping haired person or couple emerged and began to gather for breakfast, signals of deeply ingrained frugality appeared. A mason jar of coffee brewed at home. A stack of washable cloth napkins in place of disposable paper towels. A bulk container of rice in place of expensive and heavily packaged camping food. Though everyone seemed to have everything they needed to camp comfortably, no one’s gear was brand new or unnecessarily expensive. And as the day unfolded, and the next day after that, it became clear that none of these people cared one whit about how much anyone earned, only about time together and time in the outdoors.
We were invited on this trip by friends we’d made not long before, right after we moved to Tahoe. It was generous of them to invite us — this couple they barely knew — along on a group camping trip to Yosemite National Park, but I’ll always be glad they did. We’d just moved from LA, which we’d loved, but where expectations around spending money were just different. Most of our friends were interested, as we were, in trying new restaurants, and so meeting up usually meant a meal, often a deeply unfrugal meal. We moved to Tahoe with visions of making it the place we’d early retire to, though at the time that felt much farther off than the six years it ended up being, and hoped that we’d be less tempted to spend money away from new restaurants opening constantly and friends who’d rather go out than stay home. And we just happened to fall right into an existing frugal friend group right off the bat. It was incredible luck.
In the years since then, we’ve had more inexpensive camping trips, endless free days at the beach (Tahoe has beaches!), dozens of hikes and bike rides and climbing outings, and as many ski days with friends as we could fit in, all costing no money beyond gas to the trailhead or the season pass we’d already paid for.
We were lucky to find frugal friends easily when we moved to Tahoe, but the benefits of having a money-conscious (and eco-minded) friend group go beyond simply doing cheaper activities.
Let’s talk about why it can be so helpful to your savings progress and to the long-term sustainability of your early retirement to build a frugal community in real life.
We love this online community like crazy. I say a kneejerk yes to invitations to join FI meetups before I even think through whether traveling actually makes sense. But there are limits to what an online community can do for any of us. It can provide lots of inspiration and support, sure, but it won’t dictate how much a day with friends will cost us or give us primo access to secondhand goods.
Fortunately, it’s easier now than ever to build your own frugal community. Let’s talk first about the benefits, and second about how you can build or strengthen your own social group of financially like-minded people.
The Benefits of Building a Real-Life Frugal Community
I remember not long ago, when I was talking about our use it up challenge on Twitter, a friend said something along the lines of, “Oh man, I don’t want to buy anything, but I really need a shovel for this landscaping project I’m doing.” My response, “Could you borrow one?”
You’d think by his response that I’d just revealed the secret to cold fusion (not really), but it struck me that what would have been a natural impulse only a generation ago is now so far from many of our thought processes. It’s one of many reasons why we all have so many things we use only once in a while.
We’ve been trained to buy things we could borrow, to buy new when we could take hand-me-downs and to go along with the cost of an activity just because someone else planned it. But all of those habits can quickly be unlearned with a social circle that shares your money values.
Here are some of the ways a frugal social circle can help you reach your goals:
Lower Cost Social Time and Activities — Like our Yosemite camping trip, or like the countless game nights we’ve hosted at our house in the years since, it’s so possible to spend time with friends for free or for very little cost, if you have friends who are into that. It could also mean, for parents with young kids, for example, stopping the birthday party madness with no-gift parties, or introducing to your family the concept of a no-spend Christmas. When you surround yourself with people who value time together over money, it’s amazing how many things you can find to do without spending much.
Access to Things You Can Borrow — Like that shovel story, there are so many things we can likely borrow from others, as well as things we own that we could lend out to get more usefulness out of them, but it’s impossible to borrow those things if we don’t have people we can borrow from. For things like lawn tools, it might be natural to ask a neighbor, but for everything else, it’s great to have a group of friends you can ask if you only need something one time or once in a while rather than having to buy it.
Access to Secondhand Goods — Whether you’re a parent seeking clothes for an ever-growing child or a child-free person who occasionally wants to freshen up your wardrobe, having a social circle in which you can trade goods can save massive money. Some of my women friends regular do unwanted clothing swaps, and many of our parent friends trade kids’ clothes back and forth among each other as one kid grows out of things and another kid grows into them. But of course the possibilities are endless here and aren’t limited to clothes.
More Specific Moral Support — While the other benefits have been more directly about spending, a huge benefit of having a real-life community who supports your money values is the ability to draw moral support from them that’s specific to your situation. Online communities can provide wonderful general support, but only someone who knows you in real life can really know some of the things you might be wrestling with. Like how hard it is to pass up some incredible local event in favor of saving. Or how much you’d like to earn side hustle income, but how hard you’re already working in your 9-5 job. People who know you and can see you in your real context can provide support that online friends can’t.
More Confidence In Your Plan — This one is hard to quantify, but hugely powerful. If you know that you’ll always be able to find what you need from within your community, and you believe that no one is pushing you to spend money you’d rather not spend, you walk around with so much more confidence in your life vision and financial plan than if you don’t have that certainty. This sounds less grounded than the other benefits, but it’s perhaps the most important. Many people don’t have the benefit of a community that can support them in their financial goals, and they face a steeper climb perhaps along with more self-doubt. If you can build a social circle around you that supports your goals and shares your views on spending, you have an enormous advantage in life.
How to Build a Real-Life Frugal Community
And now the hows. I’m a huge believer that there are frugal people all around us, but oftentimes it’s not cool to reveal yourself as frugal, and thus many of them don’t talk about it. So some of this is simply about trying to find those people who are already lurking in your life, while some of it is about meeting new people.
Join Buy Nothing Groups — Facebook has a buy nothing group in nearly every town, and many neighborhood Facebook groups have a section devoted to trading or selling secondhand goods. Join them! You might find great stuff that way, but you also might find people you’d actually like to hang out with.
Look for Thematically-Appropriate Meetups — Whether it’s through meetup.com or a more local source, there are groups all over the place focused on both sides of the money equation, either wealth building or frugal living. Check them out and see if you meet any kindred spirits there. I may not necessarily have a lot in common with lots of wealth builder types, but there are usually a few “get rich by saving” folks among them.
Look for Cheap Hobby Meetups — Similarly, look for meetups around inexpensive hobbies or travel. Outdoorsy hobbies tend to be magnets for this, though be selective. A kite-boarding or speed flying meetup is going to tend to attract folks willing to spend much more on their hobby, and therefore might not connect you to your people. But a backpacking, hiking or cross-country skiing group will likely have quite a few frugally minded folks present. And in those meetups especially, you very well might find existing social circles that you can drop right into instead of trying to build a group from scratch, like we did with many of our friends when we moved here.
Talk About Your Goals with Existing Friends — Money is such a taboo subject that it seems weird or even sad somehow to talk about not wanting to spend a ton of money. (Maybe we think others will assume we’re down on our luck if we signal a change in habits or if we show habits different from theirs?) But do it anyway! Not in a “You’ll never believe what a great deal I got on new gizmo X!” kind of way (that’s really just spending masquerading as saving), but showing ways you’ve chosen not to spend at all, or signaling other ways you’re cost-conscious. Maybe it’s even going so far as to talk about your big financial independence goals, but it doesn’t have to be. What you’re doing when you talk more about money and goals is you’re giving others permission to reveal their secret frugal side to you, or for those not already in a frugal headspace, you’re giving them permission to learn about it and decide that maybe they too want to join the team. Don’t assume that someone can’t become frugal just because they aren’t already there — we are the prime example of people who made the switch virtually overnight after we saw what was possible, and I suspect many of you are similar.
Send Signals Through Your Actions — Beyond your immediate friend circles, you can still draw out the secretly frugal folks through more subtle actions. If you host a birthday party for a child, consider sharing a SoKind registry full of gifts of experience and wanted secondhand items, or ask for no gifts at all in the name of saving everyone money. And say why you’re making that request, so you give people the opening to tell you that they share your perspective. If you’re chatting it up with someone at the dog park, maybe throw out there some of the ways that you’ve cut out pet expenses that a lot of people believe are mandatory. I would throw out all kinds of this stuff while chatting with people on planes when I was traveling a ton for work, and I actually made a real friend doing it! If nothing else, think of it as doing your part to spread the word about how freeing it is to save money instead of spending it. And maybe you’ll get a social benefit out of it, too.
Make the Invitation! — Of course meeting all these like-minded people does very little for you if you don’t actively pursue a friendship with them. So be bold and invite people you meet for a hike, or to come over for game night, or to join your book club. Remember, we all need more friends and stronger circles to stay healthy and happy in the long run, so you’re doing everyone a favor when you speak up and make the invitation.
Please add to this list! What else can folks do to meet and build friendships with like-minded frugal people? What other benefits have you gotten from surrounding yourself with folks who view money as you do? Or if you have struggled with this in your own life, throw your questions out so the community here can share their advice. Let’s chat in the comments!