In early March, Mark was out of town on a ski trip with his family, and I decided to escape the cold and house sit for a friend in Reno for a week. That week was illuminating.
Did you know that there are apps you can use to order all kinds of delicious food that people will BRING TO YOU and that let you pay on the app so YOU DON’T HAVE TO PAY THE DELIVERY PERSON?!
Yes, of course you know this, because you live in a normal place in the world.
I knew this theoretically, but there are zero people or places who will deliver food to our house in Tahoe that I can eat (there’s maybe one pizza place, but it’s not celiac-friendly), so I’ve never given it any real thought. Until, that is, I happened to see an ad for GrubHub, and thought, Huh, I know that won’t work in Tahoe, but I wonder if it would work down here?
The answer is: Why yes, yes it does. And they offer so many tempting discount offers just about every day that I found myself ordering through them multiple times that week. Despite being less than a quarter mile from a perfectly well stocked supermarket. And despite their ridiculous delivery fees (mostly the “discount” just makes delivery free or nearly free).
Other things I did that week that I can’t do at home:
- Dine in or order takeout at other restaurants
- Pay to visit the art museum
- See the symphony (comped, a small budgetary mercy)
- Get takeout coffee at Starbucks multiple times (funded by Christmas gift cards)
- See Captain Marvel in the theater… three times
- Get a massage at a spa (locals discount… but still)
It was an expensive week. And while I know that a good deal of that spending was thanks to the novelty factor of being in a place where I could do all these things I can’t do at home (as well as a post-book release de-stress fest), I also know this to be true:
Despite saving a large amount of money and successfully achieving early retirement, I’m still not an especially frugal or disciplined person.
It’s true: I’m still a spender. I never stopped knowing that about myself, but that week put it into stark relief. We’ve known for a long time that our saving success was entirely built around taking the willpower and decision-making out of the process, via an extensive set of “pay ourselves first” systems, what we call “hiding money from ourselves.” And it’s a strategy we still use in early retirement, keeping only the money we’re allowed to spend in the short term in our checking account and making sure we don’t overspend that.
And it works! Even if you’re a natural spender, it’s possible to create structures to help yourself act frugal and disciplined, even if you don’t feel frugal and disciplined. We did, and you see what happens when I’m left to my own devices in an unstructured environment. (But I still stuck to my money mission statement and didn’t set foot in Target! ;-) Chapter 3 of Work Optional is all about creating a money mission statement to guide your spending — and not spending — and is a great resource if you want to go deeper on this stuff.)
So let’s talk about what that looks like: how you can structure your life to avoid overspending.
I know that if I lived in a city that offered the full range of spending options that I wouldn’t spend money every week like I did that one week, but I’d certainly spend more than we do now. The fact that I don’t usually spend like that (and Mark doesn’t either) is what let us retire early six years after getting serious about the goal instead of double that or even longer. And that not spending was thanks entirely to living a life structured around not overspending.
Structure Your Life to Boost Your Saving and Avoid Overspending
Here are some ways you can structure your life similarly:
If you can… Live somewhere that forces frugality
Obviously not everyone can do something similar to what we did when we left LA and moved to Lake Tahoe, but if it’s an option for you, it can be a powerful force for saving. In addition to the fact that no one will bring us food, there’s also nowhere we can even eat after 9 at night, and forget about attempting to dine out on the weekend or anytime near a holiday period thanks to the region’s many visitors. There’s also a culture here of potlucks, game nights and meeting for hikes, unlike our old life in LA, when seeing friends meant spending $100 on dinner (more if we had to valet park). Living in a ski region also saves us a ton of money because we are no longer traveling to ski, and we can spend $650 a year for a ski pass rather than $100+ for every day we ski if we were buying regular lift tickets. In our day-to-day life, we happily live pretty cheaply and getting an $8 rotisserie chicken at the grocery store feels like a splurge. The combination of factors that make us spend less here, despite it being an expensive place to live (#mountaintax), are probably unique to small ski towns, but the point still remains: it’s easier to spend more money in some places than in others, and if you can live somewhere that makes it harder to spend, you’ll be able to save faster and live on less.
Make frugal friends
We’ve spent a decent portion of our adult lives around friends who, like us at the time, were caught up in lifestyle inflation. And since we moved to Tahoe, we’ve been around the opposite: people who don’t spend money thoughtlessly. And I can absolutely say that having frugal friends makes it a whole lot easier to hang onto our money than does having only spendy friends. We may not be naturally frugal ourselves, but when we hang out with frugal people, we act frugal. Because we’re not going to be the jerks to suggest an expensive restaurant to friends who we know would prefer a potluck dinner. The more you surround yourself with frugal friends, the better for your account balances.
Keep apps off your phone
When we visit friends in LA and New York, I’m always amazed to see the range of apps they have that are useless here: GrubHub, Seamless, UberEats and I’m sure plenty of others. And when I had that GrubHub app on my phone for one week in March, I know that I gave in to spending I’d normally scoff at. It was just so easy to part with those dollars. While I’m far from a digital minimalist, I’ve made an effort the last several years to keep any apps that let you spend money off of my phone, and it’s made a positive difference. And that’s my rule now: no apps are allowed on the phone that are primarily about spending, with that one-week exception. I even deleted Lyft and only download it if I’m truly in a bind, and then I delete it again after that. It’s that much harder to convince yourself to use public transit while traveling, for example, if a few taps on your phone will magically bring a car to your door. Why put yourself through that? Give yourself the gift instead of less temptation.
Delete your credit cards from sites you frequent
If you find it a little too easy to spend money online — that’s by design, of course — then put some structural barriers into place to make it harder to keep doing that. For the sites you buy from, delete your credit card information from them (and don’t let your browser or password manager save them either), and bonus points if you also don’t let the sites save your billing and/or shipping address. That makes buying something online a bit more annoying, because you have to type all that stuff in every time, and that annoyance factor can be a helpful deterrent.
Unsubscribe from tempting emails
You know sales are a sham, right? On any given day, you can find coupon codes for virtually any site online, and there are rarely times when things truly get a lot cheaper than normal. So don’t let marketing emails advertising “sales” manipulate you. Go on an unsubscribing spree and get rid of all of them. If you’re tracking prices for a big planned purchase to get the very best deal, that’s one thing, but companies cook up fake sales and email us about them because that approach works and people buy more as a result. Remove the temptation from your life. Every sale or deal you never heard about is that much more money you didn’t spend.
Learn to recognize and avoid your spending triggers
Maybe ordering food and online shopping aren’t your issues, but you have another spending trigger. Do you know what it is? Chapter 3 of Work Optional has an exercise to identify your spending triggers, and once you know what they are, you can structure your life to avoid them. It’s why I no longer set foot in a certain Minnesota-based big box retailer with a bullseye logo, because I always overspent when I used to go in there. And so I structured my life to avoid it: that store is no longer a part of my rotation when running errands. Whatever your triggers are, consider how you can avoid them and do what you can to build that avoidance into the actual structure of your life.
What are some tricks you’ve learned to avoid spending money without it feeling like a willpower-based decision? Please share with all of us in the comments!
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Categories: we've learned