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Cutting Corners

Jiab Wasserman  |  July 5, 2019

THE EARLY retirement movement has many naysayers and outright haters. My husband Jim and I can sympathize: We sometimes get strong pushback when we share our strategies for living frugally.

“That seems like a lot of work,” some people respond. “It sounds like you don’t have much fun,” others say. Some even accuse us of lying.

I readily admit it takes effort to be frugal. But then again, it takes work and sacrifice to exercise regularly, stick to a diet and get an education. Ditto for anything else worth achieving.

What about the “no fun” comments? I’d say that’s a misconception. We choose to live frugally, but that hasn’t meant depriving ourselves. Rather, we choose to spend on the things that matter most to us. Here are five ways we cut corners:

1. Entertainment. Early on, we subscribed to Netflix and satellite TV. For satellite, we switched between DirecTV and Dish, depending on the promotion. But over the years, it became more and more expensive after the promo period ended, and we could no longer justify paying $80 to $100 a month to watch a few channels. We definitely didn’t need 200-plus channels, so we cancelled the satellite TV but kept Netflix.

We also used alternatives to the movie theater, like Blockbuster and Redbox, so we could rent newly released DVDs. In addition, we’d stream movies at home, sometimes with vigorous debates and multiple votes over what to watch.

2. Recreation. Many people forget that our tax dollars already pay for entertainment—in the form of public parks and libraries.

We always played tennis at the public courts. Not only was it free, but also we got the sense of community that comes with seeing the neighbors walk their dog, youth teams practicing soccer, or families holding a birthday party or a cookout.

We borrowed books, books on tape and movies from the library. One summer, the boys wanted to watch as many movies from the library as possible. They picked movies they thought interesting, working alphabetically through the library’s collection. By the end of the summer, we only got as far as H.

The boys also participated in summer reading programs at the library when they were younger. The library had a display case where young people could put up an exhibit. The boys were thrilled to set up their collection of action figures for all to see.

3. Shopping. I always bought baby clothes at garage sales and thrift stores. I saw no reason to pay full price for clothes that would fit for just a few weeks. In fact, at thrift stores, the baby clothes were frequently brand new, with the tags still attached.

Meanwhile, Jim often shopped for his vintage neckties, while the boys had fun looking for the funniest and funkiest T-shirts or gifts. One Christmas, we all agreed to exchange thrift store gifts—which turned out to be everything from tacky Hawaiian shirts to a cow-colored chocolate milk glass that came with a whirling blade to keep the drink mixed.

4. Food. We ate at home as much as possible, eating out only occasionally. Eating at home kept the focus on the family, with the food as an enhancer. When I discovered Groupon, the family often joked that where we ate depended on what offers I found.

Dallas—where we lived until our semi-retirement—is a diverse city, with a blend of Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Korean and Thai cultures, and that means great food can be had. We learned that restaurants located inside ethnic grocery stores were often good and typically more authentic, though you paid a price in décor. We also frequented the local Thai temple for its Sunday market, where we could find Thai street food at cheap prices.

We not only ate excellent food at modest prices, but also we exposed the boys to different cultures and customs. We learned to eat Ethiopian food by hand, and discovered the difference between south and north Indian cuisine, while paying far less than the prices at popular Americanized “ethnic” restaurants.

5. Travel. We saved money when travelling abroad by taking advantage of geographical arbitrage. We went where U.S. dollars gave us the most value, places like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala and Malaysia. We even used layovers in cities like Paris, Seoul, Dubai and Amsterdam to get a quick taste of these places, often inspiring us to come back for longer visits.

When we travel today, we still don’t stay in four-star hotels, but opt for Airbnb or cheaper hostels—and, no, these places aren’t bug-infested. Low-cost hotels, pensions and inns give us a taste of local life and extra dollars for exploring.

We find out from locals where they eat and shop. In Vietnam, we went to a non-tourist area and stumbled on a restaurant packed with locals, where our family thoroughly enjoyed spicy frog legs. In Georgetown, Malaysia, we found a restaurant famous among locals that specialized in chicken with rice at $1.50 per plate. It was so good, we went back the next day.

When we traveled, we did so only if we knew we could pay off the cost in full. It meant we used Jim’s extra earnings from teaching summer school and any bonus pay I received. It also meant we came away from these trips with great memories—but not great credit card debt.

Last year, at age 53, Jiab Wasserman left her job as a financial analyst at a large bank. She’s now semi-retired. Her previous articles include Fast ForwardLiving for Less and Courting Success. Jiab and her husband Jim, who also writes for HumbleDollar, currently live in Granada, Spain. They blog about downshifting, personal finance and other aspects of retirement—as well as about their experience relocating to another country—at YourThirdLife.com.

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