Jewels Beneath the Clouds

“Buy less, travel more.” ~ Queenie Chan

Being frugal is a rewarding lifestyle.

It can make you feel in control of your life. Harnessing the power to vanquish temptations when visiting an Apple Store or passing by a Starbucks is gratifying once you’ve realized how these savage cravings are often the reason why your piggy bank remains empty.

There’s something attractive about not being manipulated by the dark side of you that craves material possessions. Once the mind is in tune with the philosophy of thrift, the feeling of contentment easily outclasses the temporary pleasure gained from shelling out your savings for a new camera lens or a sexier car.

As we’ve learned from children’s books and cartoons, no amount of money will quench this greed. Ever.

I won’t, however, go as far as to say that spending is always an act of evil. I do think that some things (that money can buy) hold within them a higher value than others. This, of course, depends on the buyer. I personally consider a book like The Bhagavad Gita to be more valuable to me than, say, an iPad, because I can gain longer-lasting pleasure from it; an iPad bought today will be old and surpassed by a better product in two years, while the Gita will most likely keep providing inspiration for years to come.

A wise consumer separates the wheat from the chaff and looks for evergreen products. Products that don’t expire over time.

It doesn’t necessary have to be a physical item. An evergreen “product” I consider extremely, if not most, valuable is traveling.

Over the last years, I’ve come to think that traveling is probably the most rewarding experience that can be purchased. And I don’t mean vacations on the beach that help you decompress after weeks of monotonous labor. I mean traveling as in immersing yourself in a foreign culture and environment, making friends with new people, learning new languages, tasting exotic food, understanding unconventional ways of thinking, acquiring new skills, and overall having an awesome time.

If you’ve wanted to travel before but haven’t been able to do so because of insufficient funds, it’s probably because you haven’t set up a funding plan.

People often resort to believing that since they don’t have money right now, they’re not gonna have it in the future either. This belief is particularly prominent among students. Fortunately, these assumptions don’t have to manifest if we approach the problem from a different angle.

How to Begin Saving

Now, let’s make a confession.

You and I are human. Id est, we are susceptible to following sudden impulses. What happens when we’re thirsty and walk past a vending machine adorned with imagery of our favorite soft drink brands?

It requires supernatural powers to save, without any plan, a decent amount of money in a short timespan (e.g. 6–12 months). An amount that would allow you to afford the means to travel to your destination, and stay there.

Making a commitment to save money from now on might, and probably will, add some coins in the box, but will it suffice to fund your travels?

What you need is a precise saving plan.

Create a Saving Plan

First you have to find out how much you’ll need for:

  • flight tickets
  • accommodation
  • food
  • transportation

Add up all the costs until you’re left with one number. This will be your goal.

Next, find out your current income and come up with a monthly budget for absolute necessities (rent, food, bills, gas/transit). This budget must include EVERYTHING you need in order to manage through the month without making any debt. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating expenses. Make it as accurate as possible.

Then subtract your new budget from your monthly income. The result should be a positive figure.

In order to determine how much money you should put aside every month, you should keep the numbers realistic. Don’t go overboard with it. If you’re an ordinary person like me, take your human habits into account. It’s extremely challenging to live solely on your basic budget (the one you’ve just calculated). You might be able to survive the first month without spending a dime on potato chips, coke, and movie tickets, but—believe me—a year will be a different matter altogether. Keep this in mind.

Ask yourself: what’s the absolute maximum that you can save on a monthly basis? Take that number and reduce it by 30%. This will be your monthly objective.

The 30% will serve as a safety buffer, letting you maintain a steady flow every month even if something goes wrong. But if things go according to plan, feel free to deposit the leftovers at the end of the month.

To determine how long it will take to reach your goal, divide the travel budget by your monthly deposit, and you’ll get the exact number of months.

Open a Savings Account

The reason why you should get a savings account is not because of a higher interest but because it has a withdrawal limit.

Once you deposit money into your savings account, it will be easier to keep the money there, because exceeding the withdrawal limit will cause the bank to charge you for every subsequent withdrawal.

It’s also wise to automate the deposits. What I like to do is, once I’ve come up with a sum of money that I want to transfer over to my savings account every month, set up my accounts so that the checking account automatically deposits the sum on a monthly basis until I’ve amassed the desired amount. The best time to make the deposits is on your payday, for obvious reasons.

If you’re unable to get a savings account, what you can do is get yourself a pricy piggy bank. The initial investment will hopefully turn out lucrative as you’ll be less inclined to smash a box that cost you 30 bucks.

2 Simple Tricks to Stick to Your Plan

Keeping certain promises can be tough. This is why all of us should take certain measures in order to make success inevitable. The following techniques are what I’ve learned from Eben Pagan.

  1. Have someone hold you accountable. Sign an agreement with a close friend of yours, stating that unless you are able to save X dollars by deadline Y, you will give her $100 (or an amount that you’d be unwilling to give away easily) as self-punishment. Also, you should report your savings to your friend every month. Scan a (partial) copy of your bank statement and email it to her.
  2. Talk about your plan on Facebook. Make a public announcement about your mission. Let other people know what you’re up to. Make big promises. Then give them monthly updates on your progress. Failure to fulfill your promise will act as a motivating force to avoid public embarrassment.

Becoming Frugal

Now that your budgets and bank accounts have been sorted out, it’s time to look at your daily spending habits.

Record everything you buy.

The main reason for keeping an accurate record of all your spendings is that it allows you to analyze your habits. When you write down every milk shake and DVD you buy, you can easily see where you need improvement.

For instance, if you find yourself buying a bottle of water or cup of coffee every day, you might want to get portable containers for holding beverages of your own—tap water (if available), and coffee. And rather than go to the movies every Friday, you could invite your friends over to watch a DVD on weekends. Switch to cheaper alternatives when elimination is not an option.

The fun thing about these personal financial records is that when you see the numbers on paper, they encourage you to do better next time. Using metrics is CRITICAL.

The best way to keep a record of your spendings is to use a spreadsheet application like Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc so that you can track your progress effectively, and draw flashy progress charts that you can later admire.

Don’t trust your memory. Force yourself to write down everything. But if you accidentally throw away a receipt, make an exaggerated guess on how much you spent. This can feel troublesome at first, but you’ll get used to it quickly. I did this when I was a poor student living in Japan, and completely eliminated my money problems.

I hope this guide has been helpful. Please include your personal finance tips in the comments section below. Thank you.

You might also want to take a look at these 15 tips on living more frugally, and try PennyClerk—a personal finance app I built to micromanage my expenses.