The premise of the book “The Millionaire Next Door” is that wealthy people often look like everyone else. They’re driving 10-year-old cars, hitting the neighborhood yard sales and mowing their own lawns, even though they could afford to splurge on whatever they want.
This article is about the frugalists next door. If they’re doing frugality right, they wind up looking like everyone else. Contrary to any stereotypes you may have heard, frugal people aren’t gaunt, gloomy misers with threadbare clothes and an air of permanent sadness.
Nope. They’re well-fed, decently dressed and have as much fun as anyone else. They just get their needs met without overspending.
Their frugal habits are easy to implement, and can have a major impact on your budget.
1. They’re patient
When a frugal person needs something, they don’t just rush out and buy it. Instead, they’ll apply what I call “the frugal filter”:
- Do I absolutely need it, or do I just want it?
- Do I already have something that would work just as well?
- If I really need it, could I borrow or rent it, or maybe even find it for free on a group such as Freecycle or a Buy Nothing Facebook group?
- If I have to pay, what are the top options for getting the best price?
This isn’t nearly as complicated as it sounds. Once you get into the habit, it’s basically second nature to frugal-filter everything.
Incidentally, it’s just fine to get something you want even if you don’t technically need it. Just don’t overpay for it!
2. They’re resourceful
Frugal people just love a challenge. We repair things inside the home and out, sometimes because we know how and sometimes because we watch YouTube videos on the subject. Parts tend to come from the odd bits of hardware and the scrap lumber and metal we’ve saved for just such an occasion.
For example, we had no handy place to store the electric knife we use to slice our homemade rustic bread. So my partner built a little double-sided shelf of scrap wood and affixed it to a wall near the butcher-block work table where we do our food prep.
Speaking of which: Partner yearned for large flour and sugar bins like the ones from his childhood. So he took more scrap lumber and built those bins underneath the butcher-block table. Now any time we bake (and we bake a lot), we just tip the bins outward and measure the ingredients.
There’s a tremendous sense of satisfaction that comes with fixing what’s broken or building what’s needed. And, of course, there’s the money you save. Gloat away!
3. They look for discounts
Once you hit age 55 or so, you’ll start getting offered discounts. Use them!
Not old enough yet? Maybe you qualify for a student discount or a military one. Or perhaps your profession (teacher, social worker, first responder) will get you a reduction in cost.
Or create your own discount when you shop, such as “This floor-model appliance has a few scratches — would you be willing to drop the price?” or “I would buy this sofa right now, for cash, if you could offer me a price break.”
Pro tip: You can join AARP at any age for as little as $12 a year, and reap deals on travel, dining, entertainment, financial services and other good things.
4. They look for the best deals
Getting a one-time discount on that new sofa is great. But frugalists know that serious annual savings can be had on things like cell service and car insurance. They also look for the lowest interest rates and best rewards on their credit cards.
Help with these and other money-leveraging topics can be found in our Solutions Center.
5. They eat really well
Frugal people don’t rely on takeout, convenience foods or meal delivery services, so they have to put some thought into what they’re eating. And nope, it’s not a joyless round of rice-and-bean meals, even though both those things are cheap, delicious and super-simple to make in a slow cooker or Instant Pot. With so many recipes available online, it’s never been easier to eat well for less.
They find easy ways to make household staples for pennies, such as soups, pasta sauces, bread, yogurt, spice blends and baking mixes. Some even tackle trendy foodie stuff like kombucha, oat milk and pea protein powder. (For more information, see “7 Health Foods You Can Make for a Fraction of the Cost.”)
Frugal people garden when possible, then preserve what they grow through canning, freezing and dehydrating. They visit the bakery outlet to buy Dave’s Killer Bread and other sandwich-surrounds for much, much less. Some even find ways to get food for free.
Of course, they always check the “manager’s special” section for close-dated items to use that day or to freeze for a money-saving future. Here’s an example: In 2022, my partner and I lucked into 1½-pound boxes of link sausages for 49 cents. That is not a typo. He likes meat at breakfast, and now we have enough frozen to last for a year.
And this brings me to the next thing about frugal people …
6. They have freezers
That’s where we put all that link sausage plus other manager’s special meats and vegetables. It’s also where we put:
- Things we grow: peas, chopped celery, rhubarb, pumpkin, apples and gallons of raspberries
- Things given to us: salmon, halibut, game meats and miscellaneous items from our Buy Nothing Facebook group
- Things we make for pennies: soup stock, applesauce, pie fillings
- Things we get from the bakery outlet: bread, English muffins, tortillas
A freezer allows you to buy in bulk from a warehouse store or even just load up during a good sale. It lets you say “yes please!” when a friend offers you some of the flounder they caught. If you’re really organized, it means you can spend one Saturday a month making and freezing entrees, and then skip takeout costs when you’re tired.
Incidentally, modern freezers are very energy-efficient. A freezer with an Energy Star certification costs as little as $30 a year to run. So while you’ll notice a slight increase on your electric bill, you’ll also spend a lot less on food. Just ask a frugal person.
7. They buy generic
Sometimes generic food doesn’t work out. Once I purchased the most generic mayonnaise I could find. And I still wake up screaming from nightmares about the awfulness of that product.
But lots of other generic foods, as well as OTC medications, do the job perfectly well. Learn more at “32 Products You Should Always Buy Generic.”
8. They look good for less
Not all thrift stores are created equal, but in many places, you can find name-brand and even designer duds at a considerable discount. Frugal shoppers look for well-designed clothes made from quality elements (e.g., wool versus acrylic sweaters).
The same is true of garage sales, which can yield amazing clothing and outerwear for pennies on the dollar. And some of those Buy Nothing Facebook groups have beautiful items available for free.
Remember: Only amateurs pay retail.
9. They save money at the potluck
At the typical potluck, many dishes are clearly store-bought: a deli tray, a plastic container of potato salad, a bakery cake, a Costco rotisserie chicken. It’s a safe bet these things were brought by people who feel they’re too busy to be frugal.
Frugal people bring things like:
- A loaf of that rustic bread, which is far superior to any you can buy and incredibly easy to make
- A savory cold salad made with chickpeas, lentils or beans (and you can bet they used dried beans, not canned)
- A couple of gallons of iced tea made with generic tea bags, or lemonade made with mix from the dollar store and a thinly sliced lemon added for extra flavor and visual appeal
And they always take food home from the potluck, if the host insists. Bonus frugal points for getting what’s left of that Costco chicken, which makes a great soup.
10. They keep it clean for pennies
Judging from commercials and print ads, you can’t possibly have a sanitary home without expensive laundry soap, all-purpose spray cleaners, dishwasher detergent, paper towels, foaming bathroom cleanser, fabric refreshers, specialized toilet cleaners or litter-box deodorizers.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Frugal people know that basic ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, borax, washing soda and Dawn dish detergent can be used (or combined) to clean just about anything in the home. Learn how with “20 Household Items You Can Easily Make (and Not Buy).”
Not only are these things cheap to buy, but they also cut way down on your trash bill because you’re refilling containers instead of throwing them away.
Bonus: You get to feel smug about slightly reducing your impact on the environment. (Just don’t do it out loud.)