Frugal people who pay off their debt and achieve financial independence don't succeed by accident. They establish habits that allow them to consistently reach their goals over the long haul.
During the past few years as a personal finance blogger and author, I have noticed that the most successful frugal people tend to follow a common set of habits. These same habits remind me of the traits that Stephen Covey detailed in his popular 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. For this article, I kept the original seven habits, but updated them for achieving financial independence today.
What are the seven habits that allow some people to excel at being frugal?
1. Be Proactive
Frugal people are proactive about their money, taking action to monitor and control spending and maximize income. They find ways to spend less and reduce expenses — even if it requires effort and creative thinking. They direct most of the money they save from reduced expenses into savings and investments for long term goals.
Although the first thing that comes to mind with frugality is saving money, many frugal people maximize income through side hustles or by generating passive income in addition to controlling their spending. An extra dollar saved or an extra dollar earned both contribute favorably to the bottom line.
Frugal people know how much money they have coming in and how much is going out, often with great precision. This is accomplished by creating and following a budget and proactively monitoring spending. They focus on what they can control within their budget to achieve financial success.
2. Begin With the End in Mind
Why do frugal people work so hard to control spending and keep track of their money? Are they simply not interested in buying things? On the contrary, most frugal people are striving to reach financial independence so that they can travel or launch a second career or to have plenty of money to buy the things that matter to them. Frugal people are willing to worry about money now so they don't need to worry about it later.
Surprisingly, many frugal people care more about their time than their money. Saving money buys financial independence, which buys time to do whatever you want. Frugal people want freedom to use their time as they wish and not be locked into working at a job until they reach old age.
Frugal people begin with the end in mind. The end they want to achieve is financial independence. With that end in mind, they make a plan to reach the goal and follow it every day. The sacrifices along the way are worth reaching the goal.
3. Put First Things First
What is the first thing you pay every month? Do you pay your mortgage first? Perhaps you pay your utility bill or car payment first. Frugal people pay something else first — themselves.
Paying yourself first means that you invest in your retirement fund or other savings accounts first, then you pay other bills using the money that is left. Most people pay their bills first, and then save or invest if there is any money left.
Frugal people realize that having money to invest is the most important priority, and they take care of that priority first. If there is not enough money left to pay the bills, then frugal people find ways to make their bills smaller so they can fully fund their investment goals.
4. Think Win-Win
Stephen Covey talked about win-win situations in terms of structuring deals where both parties involved get something beneficial. His point was that someone doesn't have to lose in order to make a great deal — in fact, the best deals happen in win-win situations.
Looking at this habit in the context of frugal success, just because you spend less money doesn't mean you have to benefit less or receive less value. In fact, frugal people find ways to spend less money and achieve greater benefit at the same time.
Frugal people find plenty of win-win situations for their money. For example, why do many of them prepare most of their meals at home instead of dining out? Of course, making food at home is cheaper than paying the bill at a restaurant, but eating at home is healthier as well. The benefit of making your own food goes beyond just saving money.
Buying a smaller house is less expensive than a larger house and it costs less for maintenance, insurance, heating/cooling, and lighting. In addition to the lower initial price and reduced ongoing costs, a smaller house also takes less time to clean and maintain, freeing up time for other activities.
Most win-win scenarios involve not just price, but value. Frugal people consider the overall value that a purchase would provide throughout its life, including hidden expenses and potential benefits. Frugal people are willing to spend money to get a good value, and they shop around and use coupons to get the best deal they can on the right item.
5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
Most frugal people don't start out being frugal. They start out as "normal" spenders and rack up credit card bills and student loans like most people. Over time, they come to understand that spending and debt are not the path to contentment. They realize that sometimes less really is more, at least when it comes to debt and spending.
Frugal people reach an understanding of how much stuff they need to be happy, which is often far less stuff than most people think they need to be happy. Frugal people make spending decisions in terms of needs and wants, while most people think primarily in terms of having more and better stuff than their friends and neighbors.
As far as being understood, most frugal people don't seem to care much what "normal" people think of them. Frugal people understand that spending money to keep up with the Joneses, or anyone else, doesn't make much sense and is certainly not the path to long term contentment.
Synergy is the concept that sometimes, one plus one adds up to more than just two. How is this possible?
If you decide that you can live without cable TV, you can save about $100 per month. Not only do you save $100 this month and every month thereafter, but you have significantly reduced the amount of money you need to retire by forgoing a recurring expense during your retirement years. You could retire years earlier due to the synergy of eliminating a recurring expense.
Another example of synergy is reducing clutter. If you minimize the amount of clutter you collect over time, you will require less space to store your stuff. You will be able to live in a smaller, less expensive house. With less clutter, you will be better able to find and use the items that you do have. Savings of time and money will accumulate over the years greatly exceeding the small amount of effort it takes to nip clutter in the bud. This is another example where a seemingly insignificant action can allow you to achieve your goals years earlier due to synergy. (See also: 8 Ways Clutter Keeps You Poor)
7. Sharpen Your Saw
As you are reading this, you are sharpening your saw! If you have ever tried to cut something with a dull saw, you know that it takes a lot of work and a long time to get the job done. Keeping your saw sharp is time well spent.
Sharpening your saw means to continue learning and finding new inspiration to get the most from your money. Frugal people tend to seek out ideas on saving money from blogs, podcasts, books, and by talking with other frugal friends. Reading about the financial success and failures of others can provide inspiration to keep your goals firmly in mind and on track.