Ask the Expert: The Frugal Family’s Guide to Abundance

Tweak your mindset and invest in yourself

By Cate Stillman

Warren Buffett’s No. 1 piece of investment advice is to invest in yourself. In fact, Buffett once told Good Morning America, “Investing in yourself is the best thing you can do—anything that improves your own talents.”

So you’re reading this because you: 1) Want to save more money, or 2) Want to spend less. I don’t focus on either. My financial advice is simple (and mimics Buffett’s)—if you want financial abundance, invest in yourself in ways specific to earning more. I do this every year, and every year my income grows by about 35 percent. I don’t focus on being frugal; I focus on exchanging more value in the marketplace.

Yet many of my friends in the Tetons are masters of frugality. Let me tell you about Susie and Jacob. Susie grows most of the food for the family. She even dries her own greens for powder supplements and spices for soup mixes. She buys what food she doesn’t grow in bulk: twenty-five-pound bags of rice, beans, and oats directly from the wholesaler, along with cases of butter, cream cheese, and peanut butter. Her husband, Jacob, stocks the deep freezer with elk once a year.

The couple designed and built their own small, energy-efficient house with careful planning and included an apartment above the garage to offset the mortgage. They now rent the apartment on Airbnb to cover most of the mortgage. They buy clothes at the thrift store and strategically shop online discount sales for athletic gear.

Instead of going to the gym, Susie and Jacob use free weights (purchased at the thrift store) and online workout channels like XHIT Daily, Fitness Blender and BodyRock.

They have no landline and use cellphones without data plans.
Each month, they automatically allocate 15 percent of their earnings for retirement funds and investment planning. Seven percent is withdrawn via Fidelity’s auto-deduct tool and split into both a conservative Roth IRA and a more aggressive mutual fund. And the other 8 percent is used to fund Jacob’s small online business, which is now earning a strong return after twelve months.

The couple divert an additional 8 percent of their income after taxes into their family life-learner fund. This is money they set aside for investing in new skills that will help them make or save money, according to what they want to learn at the time. For example, years ago they took a yoga-lifestyle course. During the course they discovered they had habits that would sabotage their health later in life. They cut back on drinking beer after work and drinking coffee in the morning. They noticed this made it easier to save money, as coffee and beer over time cost a lot more than water or tea.

As a result of the course, Susie and Jacob began starting their days with meditation and exercise, which has proven to lower their medical bills. In the past they had suffered from an array of allergies, sinus issues, depression, colds, flus, and sick days—all of which evaporated with their new habits.

More recently, they used their life-learner fund to take an online course from David Neagle called The Mindset for Maximum Prosperity. They invested six hundred dollars in the course, which they took together, applied the teachings, and have opened another income stream in Jacob’s business as a result.

Susie plans their weekly menus and streamlines everyday food preparation into a few efficient tasks. As a result, they eat great food daily at home instead of grabbing expensive on-the-go convenience food. They frequently have friends over for meals and enjoy a vibrant social life.

Susie and Jacob don’t plan on sending their kids to college. Instead, they are teaching their two teenage sons how to be resourceful and useful in the new economy, which includes developing relationships and skills around the boys’ interests and using free online education. Both sons are apprenticing with local craftspeople and saving money for the learning adventures they will have after graduating from high school. Each family member self-identifies as a life learner.

Now, once upon a time, Susie and Jacob had a mountain of debt. They lived in a bigger house, they drove new cars, and they had data plans. They frequently invested their retirement savings into convenience foods and their free time into the newest series on Netflix. And each of them was carrying an extra fifteen pounds. They were struggling financially, emotionally, relationally, and physically. A friend died in a ski accident, and they had a wake-up call. They decided to grab the steering wheel of their destiny instead of just going with the flow.

The first action the pair took was to open an account on to track their money. They took a course with Dave Ramsey on getting out of debt. Next, they put their inefficient house on the market and found a smaller, cheaper lot.

The reason I tell you about this family is that in the telling, certain triggers or ideas may have arisen. What were they? Where is your resistance to spending less or investing more in yourself? Was it the beer or the coffee?
Was it the better body care, including the meditation? Or was it the cutting back on cellphone services?

Now I’m a realist, and I get it that this alternative lifestyle is not for everyone. But think about what came up for you. Maybe you realized you’d rather earn more than spend less. Or maybe you gained some appropriate ideas that could help you advance yourself. My strategy is to earn more by being proactive about my offerings and then to spend less on that which has a poor return on investment for me financially, physically, mentally, or relationally.

Take to heart Buffett’s advice and “invest in yourself.” Then use my resources above to make it happen. Just like my hypothetical characters (who are based on my family and friends), you, too, can design the life and financial situation you desire. The tools and resources have never been so easy and inexpensive to access. Take advantage and design the life of your dreams.