A stack of currency chained together and padlocked. Used for any money inference where money is tight or protected.

The Truth About Joy and Living Well, Below Your Means

Even the mention of words like frugality, thrift, and living below your means send some people over the edge because, for them, those words conjure up thoughts of poverty and deprivation. They assume that cutting costs is tantamount to diving into dumpsters to find their next meal. No wonder so many people prefer a life of debilitating debt to one of frugality. Let me set the record straight. Please.

A stack of currency chained together and padlocked. Used for any money inference where money is tight or protected.


There is nothing undignified about spending less than you earn. That’s called living below your means, and it’s a fabulous way to live. It means there is a gap between what you earn and what you spend. You have money set aside in a safe place that you are growing regularly.

That’s what happens when you don’t spend all that you have. You become less fearful, more confident. Stress dissipates. Your perspective changes.

When you spend less than you earn, you are not dependent on credit to get by. You’re not always white-knuckling it until next payday. It is a very good thing.

So, you may be wondering, how can you move from overspending to living below your means without giving up your quality of life? It starts with prioritizing everything according to how important it is to your life. Then only spend on things at the top of the list. You ruthlessly cut out spending on the things that don’t matter.

On a scale of 1 to 10 …

The way to get started with prioritizing things in your life is to come up with a simple system for every non-essential expenditure.

Here’s a good one: On a scale of one to 10 how much joy does this bring to my life?

Now, apply this to every way that you spend money. Do not hand out “10s” willy-nilly. Reserve that designation for only those things you truly love because they bring incredible joy and fulfillment to your life.

Stop, think, prioritize

As you prioritize, examine everything. Do you eat out often? Go to the movies? Travel?

Do you spend on home-improvement projects, kitchen gadgets, and visits to the gym? Are cable television, electronic devices, online subscriptions a main source of joy?

Are you most fulfilled when you are donating your skills and time to an outreach charity in your community? Is fancy jewelry your thing, or are you more into driving a fancy car?

Perhaps for you, it’s shoes. Or gifts for those you love.

Our lists are not likely to be the same. For example, eating in, driving through, taking out, or picking up food from mediocre chain restaurants is not a priority for me. To me, the food is overpriced and of inferior quality.

Having my own car is not high on my list, either. And I could not care less about English bone china or maintaining a koi pond, but I know people for whom both rate 10 on their lists.

But having a beautifully maintained yard with flower gardens, traveling to beautiful places, and spending time with good friends are all at the top of my list. I will cut mercilessly in other areas to have money for the things that I really love.

Stop spending where it doesn’t matter

Personal finance is not about saying “no” to spending on the things you love. It’s a matter of scrimping like crazy where it doesn’t matter so you are able to spend where it does.

Living below your means is not about adopting a life of poverty. It’s about conscious decisions, not guilt. It’s about thinking and deciding what’s really important to you and then planning and saving … and sticking to it!

The first rule of sound money management is to live below your means—spend less than you earn. This means creating a margin between what you earn and what you spend. The secret to finding financial freedom—freedom from financial worry, fear, and want—is in the gap between the amount you earn and what you spend.

The bigger the gap, the more freedom you will enjoy. It’s the money you don’t spend that gives you the freedom to grow your dreams and prepare for the future.

Widen the gap

There are two ways to increase the space between what you earn and what you spend:

  • spend less
  • earn more

The harder you work at doing either—or both—the more successful you’ll be in finding financial freedom: the freedom to fund your children’s educations, freedom to travel, to invest; freedom to relocate, to retire—freedom to live the life you love.

How to spend less

Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Just spend less. If it were that easy, we Americans wouldn’t be adding billions of new revolving consumer debt per month. As a nation, we have become addicted to spending. It takes a concerted effort to reverse that obsession.

Living below your means requires spending less. That takes work but it remains the best way to change your financial situation quickly. You’ve already earned the money and paid taxes on it, so there’s no waiting.

Get serious

Put your commitment to spending less in writing. Be specific about how much you intend to reduce your spending and how you plan to do this.

“Pre-spend” your income on paper before you ever spend it for real—curiously known as a budget. Set limits and boldly enforce them. Keep track in writing where all the money goes.

Cheat sheet

Write the following on a 3×5 card (or print my Flowchart below), which you can keep with you at all times and to which you will refer before spending more than $20 on anything:

  • Do I need it?
  • Do I have something already that will do just as well?
  • Do I need it right now or can it wait?
  • Have I found the best value?

Stop long enough to run whatever it is you’re about to buy through the filter of these questions. The minute you get a “No,” walk away.


Impose on yourself a specific period of time you must wait before making the purchase; the time you can think clearly. You would never believe how many times I’ve come to the point of purchase and then enforced my personal 24-hour rule. It says I have to go home and sleep on it. More times than not I just don’t go back, either because I changed my mind or, more likely, because I completely forgot. This works well for us impulsive types.

A screenshot of a social media post

Ways to live below your means

While earning more money is more complicated than cutting spending and takes more time and effort to produce results, this is the way to expand your gap more dramatically.

Increase hours

If available, pick up more hours on your current job.

Improve a skill

There are myriad ways a skilled artisan or musician can create an income stream. If that’s you, hone those skills.


We’re not talking the rest of your life—only a season from time to time. It won’t kill you to work nights and weekends at a second job.


Are you a graphic designer, website developer, marketing expert, copy editor or creative writer? Freelance your services to small businesses. Take a look at Elance.com or Fivrr.com where providers can bid on small jobs posted by businesses and others.

Rent out

Perhaps you have a garage you’re not using. Rent it out for vehicle storage. Rent a spare room to a college student.

Get educated

Finish a degree or take specific classes if it qualifies you for a promotion at your present place of employment. Figure out what you need and then do it.


Get the word out in your social and business circles that you’re ready, willing and able to offer your services.

Embrace frugality

Living below your means requires that you maximize every dollar so you stop wasting money and fund your gap. Set your own standards and you won’t have to worry about doing anything that makes you squeamish.

Plug the leaks

Start paying attention to where the money is leaking out of your life. Look at everything, from using excessive amounts of electricity and water to paying too much for insurance.

Cook at home

Take a look at how much you’re spending on food outside the home—diners, coffee shops, restaurants, drive-thrus, and other fast-food joints. Yikes. Are you starting to see why your gap is so thin? Learn to cook at home and you’ll turn that $40 tab to feed a family of four into a tasty $5 meal at home.

Make a game of it

If you currently shop for groceries once a week, see if you can beat the frequency by going every ten days. Then stretch it to twelve—even two weeks. Make it a game to see how long you can make a tank of gas last. Now make it last even longer.

Get help

Resources galore are waiting for you in the books I’ve written—I would be honored for you to read them—but also right here in this blog’s Archive. If you are not signed up to get my daily email, subscribe here (it’s free!). There’s nothing like a daily frugal fix to keep you on track.

mary's books





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6 replies
  1. Christine Petrousky says:

    How do you deal with medical bills? I have many health issues and they all are expensive. I don’t use the emergency room, but if you have enough doctors even with insurance it adds up! Do you have any suggestions?

  2. teresa says:

    I have a question – i am 74 and divorced – have a daughter works hard but still needs financial help. Her dad helps her somewhat and I try to help! my bills are never ending and i can’t get ahead. it’s more my credit cards bc i have had to use them when i don’t have money. what is the best method or card or place where i can get help in getting rid of these card debts! i’m not a frivolous person but it’s a merry go round – help! thank you

  3. Linda D Radosevich says:

    Finding the best deals (or surprise sales!) has become entertainment for me! Your suggestions of ‘do I NEED it or or do I WANT it’ and then waiting overnight before buying are priceless…I’ve been doing that for many years and it works. Thanks, Mary.

  4. Melanie says:

    My husband and I began living by your principals of frugality when we married more than twenty years ago. I am forever grateful to you for helping set us on a good course when we could have easily gone into debt together since we were just launching our careers. The strange thing is, I don’t feel like we have sacrificed to live below our means. We prioritized what was/is important to us (travel and a nice home to entertain top that list as well as jobs that we enjoy and money to be able to donate to help others). Our lives our full and we have put aside money since the beginning in our emergency funds for those unbudgeted emergencies. Doing that alone has eliminated sooo much stress and I wanted to thank you for it. ~Melanie

  5. Cathy down on the farm... says:

    Timely and great tips, Mary. I am extremely frugal and sometimes get made fun of because of it. It kind of stings but I guess I should consider it a compliment. I am going to attempt a January “fast” on spending while also applying it to my eating window. I may have to go out and get a few groceries but if I can eat out of my freezer for the month, while eating less, as in fasting more, I think it can be done. Over the last number of years I have been bound and determined that by the time Christmas is over, I have Christmas paid off. This includes paying as much cash for gifts as I can, as I go. I know this topic is a very difficult one to face this time of the year, especially for those who might have overdone the Christmas cheer. My goal is to live as frugally as possible heading into the New Year ahead. This is what gives me great joy but most of all peace.

  6. Bill Stock says:

    FRUGALITY is a good attribute to have. Your “WAIT ” paragraph has saved me a lot of $$.” Wants versus really needs” is another. I’am forwarding this to my 6 Grandchildren. Thank You


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