Forced Frugality: Applying Lockdown Life Lessons to Reach FI Faster

Dr. Leif Dahlein of Fire on Fire, WCI Network Partner

The last time I went a week without eating red meat was 40-some years ago when I was a baby with no canine teeth and no ability to distinguish edible from inedible. I don’t know a lego from a lamb chop.

I spent over 15 years with a dietitian never leaving red meat out of my diet for more than a day or two. That suddenly changed in February 2020 when I agreed to give up red meat completely for Lent.

For seven weeks, we almost didn’t touch red meat at all, and that was a big change for this meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. I say “almost” because the airport lounge dumplings we semi-accidentally ate may have contained pork. Also, it’s funny if my kids eat one of the last two mini pizza rolls they heat up, not realizing I’m eating pepperoni until it’s too late. But I think I’m off beef altogether.

Not the point of my gaffes. Thing is, after seven weeks of an almost-red-meat-free diet, I’m craving all things that were once smeared with shit or moody. Instead, I got used to not having it.

Instead of going on a three-day meat bender from Easter Sunday, I allowed myself to have some and didn’t go out of my way to avoid it like I had before. Yes, I ate the five-meat pizza I bought for those cravings, but I continued to eat more seafood, chicken, and turkey than I did before the self-imposed red meat ban.

Taco Tuesday? Ground chicken works just as well (and costs less than beef). Our neighbors introduced us to turkey burgers and they are amazing. I think the two birds could easily switch roles—I’ll have to report back on turkey tacos and chicken burgers.

I realize that many people avoid meat altogether—I can’t see myself ever—but cutting back on some red meat is a step in the right direction.

Forced Savings: Applying Lockdown Life Lessons to Reach FI Faster

What are my eating habits that will help you become financially independent quickly?

You see, my seven-week sacrifice was completely voluntary, but after a while, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all had to make many sacrifices and changes in our normal lives—many of them involuntary and unnecessary. And many of them have saved us money.

It’s wonderful to have some of that back. I would stomach up to a bar, look forward to going to football games and family and neighborhood gatherings. I knew our traveling days were not over. On the other hand, we may realize that some of the things we let go for good or are not as important as we thought.

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Let’s talk about some of the ways life is different in lockdown and how some of those changes can last, saving you money in the long run and shortening your time to becoming financially independent.

Changes in dining

I guess you didn’t eat much during the pandemic. Do you eat more meals at home? Have you or your partner improved your kitchen skills?

The main reason my wife and I like to go out to eat is to have meals we almost never make at home. The list of those foods is shrinking fast. In the last few weeks, Patakula Chicken and Prawn Curry have been added to our list of delicious home cooked meals.

If eating out was a big part of your pre-pandemic spending, you may find yourself spending less on it afterward, especially if you have the time and willingness to learn how to prepare meals at home.

I’m not suggesting that you should completely avoid meals in a post-pandemic world. Restaurants around still need your business more than ever. But you don’t need it as often as you once thought, or at least.

Changes in travel

We had just returned from spending two months in Mexico when the novel coronavirus was first identified and reported. Shortly thereafter, we embarked on another two-month adventure—this time in Spain.

After getting to know Valencia, Barcelona and Madrid for 2-4 weeks each, we are preparing to fly home in early March. The virus reached Spain and confirmed cases went from a few dozen to a few hundred as we headed home.

A 10x increase in seven days tells us that a) it’s definitely time to go, and b) it’s likely to be a while before we can safely travel internationally again.

Our pre-pandemic spending was estimated at $80,000 per year, and $20,000 of that budget was dedicated to travel. For about a year and a half, that number was very close to $0, which reduced our estimated cost by about 25%. Note that the budget does not include a housing payment (we are debt free) and it does not include our charitable giving, which easily exceeds the $80,000 we spend on everything else.

Before our family was fully vaccinated against covid, we traveled very little and certainly not internationally.

Road travel has become more attractive than flying. Driving is a more economical way to travel as a family. Busy places like Disney World are more dangerous than less crowded places like state parks and hiking trails. The latter also costs less.

You may find that your revised travel plans include fewer luxuries and higher-priced admission fees. You may find that a different kind of vacation can be just as enjoyable.

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Forced savings

I can almost guarantee that your travel expenses are much lower in 2020 than they were in 2019, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those savings become sticky and stay with you well after the pandemic is over.

Changes in transportation

Raise your hand if you worked remotely from home for the first time in 2020. Raise your other hand if you don’t have to deal with a stressful commute to work in your jammies.

Well, hands down.

Especially in the early stages of the pandemic, there were very few cars on the roads. The reduction in pollution allowed for vistas not seen in years. Insurance companies give their clients credit for not driving their automobiles as much. The less time you spend driving, the less likely you are to think you need a really nice car. You’ll wear less on the car or cars you own and save on maintenance, repairs and gasoline. Initially, the expected effect of a decrease in demand for gasoline is to lower the price of a gallon of gas. All these mean more money in your pocket.

You may even decide to own a car and drive too much. At my house, when we knew we weren’t going anywhere for a while, we took out insurance (technically on storage mode insurance) for six weeks on our new, expensive vehicle, saving up good change. For many days, we did not use our own vehicle, neither.

If you’re among the millions who have worked from home more than ever before, that change could be permanent or a more viable option in the future. In my book, not commuting is the best way to travel. Except that, you’re riding an e-bike. But it won’t cost you much.

Changes in hair care

We are already stretched thin in this department. As I shared when talking about our frugal tendencies, my wife convinced me to cut her hair and I’ve cut my own for years. We usually cut our children’s hair too.

How long have you gone without setting foot in a hair salon or barbershop? What could you do to avoid looking like Malcolm Gladwell?

Cutting your own hair, your partner’s hair, or your child’s hair can save you money, but these aren’t the only cost-cutting options when it comes to hair care. If you dye your hair, you can do it at home. Maybe not as good but for a fraction of the price. If you have a monthly appointment, you may realize that you can get by going right each month. Now, you have saved 50% on your lovely locks.

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I used to cut my own hair with clippers every 4-6 weeks, mainly because it was uncomfortable if it grew too long under the OR skull cap. Now that I’m not wearing them, I’m growing my hair out more often. I spent six months without a trim during the lockdown life.

I have no doubt that you are saving money on hair care now, and you can carry some of those savings forward forever.

Changes in family entertainment

Many of the places you once took your kids regularly for family fun have long since closed. As such, you need to find ways to entertain your family at home or outdoors in wide open spaces.

A trip to the movie theater with drinks and popcorn can easily run $60 or more. At home, you can get a movie with snacks for about $6.

Instead of laser tag at the local mall or pizza joint, you play actual games of tag at the neighborhood park. An actual game of Tag Sans Lasers doesn’t cost a dime. Yard games, board games, dice games, and card games can all be inexpensive sources of family fun that don’t require you to leave the house.

Making some changes permanent

As I mentioned earlier, it is natural to want to return to some of the comfortable and expensive aspects of our lives that were once part of our normal routine. After Lent, I enjoy eating the occasional piece of bacon or a stick of Landjaeger.

On the other hand, necessity is the mother of invention, and I know you’ve found some new and different ways to overcome this recent pandemic. (You want to tell me about it? You can find me next March at WCICON23.)

As the new normal life begins step by step, try to add only the things you really value. What was once considered necessary may now seem unnecessary, and those transitions can save you a lot of money. How long do you have to go before you are financially independent? Check out my Time to FI calculator to get a rough idea.

While the pandemic may cause us some serious short-term pain, it can leave a lasting and positive impression on your budget. A lower annual expense not only allows you to save and invest more each year but also lowers your FI target.

What do you miss most about your pre-pandemic lifestyle? What parts of lockdown life will be incorporated into your normal routine? Comment below!

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