A Life Without Debt: It’s Not a Poor Life

I’ve noticed that some respondents to my previous articles seem to think that I’m living a life of deprivation because I choose to save money aggressively and live debt free. I want to set the record straight: A debt free life is not a poor life; it’s not a life of deprivation and suffering. It’s a rich life full of things and experiences that are important to me, personally, which may not be the same as what is important to you.

When we were young and first out of college there was some deprivation simply because we had no money. We were making entry level salaries and we had nothing saved up. In those early years we scrimped and saved so we could get ahead. We didn’t buy anything that wasn’t necessary to live. We watched every penny and learned how to cut all the excess from our budget so that we could save enough for an emergency fund, a home, and cars that didn’t have rust spots. Thanks to aggressive saving and living “poor,” that period of our lives lasted only about three years. We could have taken on debt and lived a fabulous existence, traveled, and had all kinds of toys, but neither of us wanted that. We were willing to trade a couple of years of relative hardship for a much better life down the road.

Now that we’re in our late thirties, things are markedly different. We make a good income for our area, which is also a blessedly low cost of living area. We are not living “poor,” contrary to what some may think. Many of our money saving strategies and habits started when we were young and had no other choice (besides racking up credit cards). We continue those strategies today, not so much because of the money we’re saving, but because we’ve found that these strategies also support some of the deeper values that we hold. The money saved is a bonus at this point.

Do we use coupons and shop for sales? Absolutely. Why do we do that if we have the money to pay full price? Because we learned long ago that there is simply no need to waste money, even if you can. Those pennies and dollars can all be used for other things and there’s no sense in paying full price if you don’t have to, no matter how much money you make. I’d rather put my grocery savings toward a vacation. I’ve always tried to adhere to the old adage, “Waste not, want not.”

Do we conserve energy and water to lower our bills? Absolutely. Why do we do this if we have the money to pay for much more utility usage? Because we believe that the world has finite resources and that it is good to conserve. If a cheaper bill is the result, then great. Those are more dollars that can be used for other things, but we act now out of a sense that we should do our part to conserve.

Do we use things until they die and refuse to upgrade things just because there’s a newer model out there? Absolutely. Why? Because neither of us can stand waste and throwing out a perfectly good TV just because there’s one with a better picture out there smacks of waste to us. Same with clothes. It seems wasteful to get and dispose of a closet full of clothes every season when the ones we have are in classic taste and still in good repair. The landfills are full of perfectly good items that people just had to upgrade and that’s not something we want to contribute to. We don’t like to waste, therefore we use and reuse things until they die. That it saves money in the process is a bonus.

Do we refuse to pay for expensive add ons, subscriptions, and things we don’t need? Of course. Why? Because if we don’t need it and aren’t going to use it, there’s no point in having it and paying for it. It may make us look cool to others to have a cool cell phone with an unlimited plan, but since we don’t need that kind of phone or plan, it’s wasted money. And more “stuff” of any kind just clutters up the house.

Do we shop thrift store and other second hand outlets for some of our “stuff?” Sure. Why? It goes back to the waste argument. When we buy used we are helping to keep items out of the waste stream. Much of the merchandise is in great condition at a rock bottom price. We’re able to get things like DVD’s, CD’s, books, clothes, and other things in “like new” condition for very little money. Do we buy everything there? No. We only buy when we know it’s a great deal and in great condition. The things we do buy save us money, but the bigger reason for us at this point is to help keep things out of the landfill.

Do we miss out on experiences and fun because we choose to save money rather than blowing it on lots of things? Absolutely not. For those who think our debt free life is somehow devoid of entertainment or fun, let me show you what fun we have with our savings in a typical year.

We take four week-long vacations per year: We cruise, go overseas, visit domestic destinations, or head to a national park. We don’t stay in the Motel 6, either. We don’t go overboard with luxury, but these trips are quite comfortable. (For example, I refuse to fly anything less than business class these days because it’s much more comfortable to me, even if it’s cheaper to fly coach. It’s one area that I no longer scrimp on.) We’ve visited almost every country on our “dream list” – only Australia and the Asian swing remain.

We take at least ten weekend getaways each year: We go to the beach, the mountains, theme parks, and any other destination within an easy drive. We go simply to get away and recharge.

We frequently enjoy entertainment: We go to many concerts, theater productions, and sporting events.

We do eat out, but we choose to save it for special occasions and head to restaurants where it’s worth it: We don’t go to many fast food or chain restaurants because I can make that sort of thing at home and it generally tastes better. But there are some fine restaurants out there that we do patronize. We also save a lot of our eating out for our vacations where we get to try things we can’t find at home.

We don’t have cable, but we do buy a lot of DVD’s of movies and TV series that we love: We could probably launch our own cable network from this house. But we do shop for sales because we can get more for our money when things are on sale. We get more value from watching the things we like rather than paying for hundreds of channels and only watching two or three.

We rescue animals: This is fun for us and not something we could do if we were living “poor.” Animals are expensive to care for, but we love the work and the joy these critters bring us.

We participate in a full slate of hobbies: Photography, woodworking, art, reading, camping, scuba diving, games, various sports, and needle crafts are just some of the hobbies that go on in this house. We spend money on good equipment and supplies that make our hobbies more enjoyable.

For those who worry that we save too much, let me tell you this: The question in our house now has become, “What else are we going to do with the money?” There are only so many trips we can take in a year because of vacation time limitations. There is only so much stuff the house will hold (and that I’m willing to clean). There are only so many concerts to see, shows to take in, and sporting events to go to in any given year. There are only so many hobby supplies I need at any one time. I love my current home so I’m not willing to go out and buy another just because I can. Same with our cars. There are only so many charities that I can/am willing to give to. Neither of us cares much for things like classic cars, luxury brands, spa treatments, or other extravagances, so there’s no spending money there, either. We could spend on those things, but they aren’t fun for us.

There comes a point when you have no debt and you are comfortable in every other way that saving the extra money becomes the only choice. So when I say I’m pounding money into savings, not all of it is because I’m some kind of saving machine that is saving money to the exclusion of all other joy in my life. It’s because at this point with no debt payments, there simply isn’t anything else to do with the money. It is nice to know that the money is there if we get very ill or we have some other catastrophe. And all of the extra we’re socking away means that we’ll be able retire in about five to seven years, if we want to. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t, but the decision won’t be about money as much as it will be about whether we really want to stop working.

I hope I’ve clarified the point that a debt free life isn’t about deprivation and suffering. It is about making choices that are in line with our values. That those choices happen to save us money, so be it. Between having no debt payments sucking up our income and our money saving strategies, there is more income than we can spend at this point (at least without going against our values or cluttering up our house with piles of stuff we don’t really need). That is why we save so much. We don’t deny ourselves much of anything that we really desire, but we are very clear on exactly what it is that we do desire. We don’t spend simply because we can. Even though we have money to blow, we still believe in not wasting, not taking more than we need, and not buying things that hold no real value for us. That’s not a life of deprivation, that’s a life lived with common sense.

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11 Responses to A Life Without Debt: It’s Not a Poor Life

  1. Jackie says:

    My parents are very similar. They are frugal, a habit of a lifetime, but now also spend their money on things that make them happy. They have no debt, so besides utilities, taxes and donations to charity, their money is theirs to do with what they will. They have relatively simple tastes so most of their money is still saved. They don’t deprive themselves of anything and still have the satisfaction of knowing that they should be financially secure in retirement.

  2. Sadie, I like the way you think, saving money is the smartest thing, not wasting money just because you can afford to. No need to defend your wise lifestyle!

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  3. John says:

    My bride and I enjoyed a similar life style and was able to save and eliminate debt. This all changed when we had our daughters. Children have a knack for using resources. From daycare and added medical expenses to prom dresses and band trips and sports fees.
    Somehow I think things would be vastly different if it was more than you and your spouse. Perhaps not.

  4. Nagel says:

    Certain hobbies are a good factor of a frugal lifestyle. Depending on how much one spends on supplies, the payoff is the time spent at home enjoying the process of creating arts and crafts, rather than distracting oneself from sheer boredom by walking around the mall. This way of passing time is especially effective and comforting in winter. Reading and watching movies (Netflix) is also a cheap way to go.

  5. I’ll tell ya straight, the best thing about being debt free & $$$ in the credit union AND bank is you can sleep like a rock @ night.

  6. Minny says:

    People who live the high life on credit, who live today lavishly or future earnings – do they really believe the lead a ‘rich’ life?

    If they do it is an illusion. If they do, it will catch up with them and these days it is sooner rather than later.

    Amy of Tightwad Gazette puts forward the idea that not spending lavishly in those areas where it isn’t important to you means that you have the money to spend in those areas that are important to you.

    Following this advice means I have retired in a lovely house in a lovely city which would have been way out of my reach had I not saved hard.

  7. Gail says:

    I read your post with great joy as I have seen how so many have blasted you for your ‘poor’ life and ‘obsesive’ need to save in other posts. I could tell from your posts that what they said wasn’t the case with you. You folks seem to have a dream life and you have earned it. Congratulations and I trust you will have many happy years together doing what you enjoy.

  8. Jenn says:

    I think you’ve got the balance exactly right. I find myself taking a good deal of lighthearted teasing about my frugal ways some days. Second hand clothes and cars, discounted groceries, no cable, eating out only on very special occasions etc. We’re all well fed, well clothed and watch more than enough TV. Oddly, the same people then express envy or amazement when we take off with the kids for a month long holiday in Europe. Funny how they haven’t put the two together! If we aren’t taking any big trips or replacing vehicles that year we sock the 40% of our income we don’t “need” into retirement savings. We plan to retire 10yrs from this month at 56/59. We could retire 5yrs earlier if we’d stop taking big trips, but we’ve decided that travelling now while we’re healthy and the kids are still at home is worth the delay. Finding the right balance is different for everyone, but I feel anyone who’s managed to find their ideal mix of save vs. splurge is in a very happy place.

  9. Monkey Mama says:

    Another great post.

    I just had to add (in response to John) that I have children, and I always identify with Sadie’s posts. Don’t get me wrong, having children is expensive and will set you back financially, no matter how modest and frugally you live. BUT, having chidlren is not mutually exclusive of being debt free and being able to live a “rich” life.

  10. Susan says:

    Love your post Sadie, but I have to say that like John (#3,) children do change those “Plans” to which like-minded savers aspire. My grown children, ages 31 and 25 mean the world to me, but I have overspent when I should have curbed my desire to give them so much, particularly considering my income. I look back though and am grateful that I did incur the debt because some of those experiences were absolutely great and would not have been affordable had I not put it on a credit card. I’m just getting ready to pay off my last credit card in Feb. 2010 and I wish that I had more money saved, but I don’t really regret most of the expenses. People make jokes about my tightwad living now, but I’m trying to play catch-up so that my kids won’t have to bail me out from living on the street as a homeless woman. Knock on wood, I’m doing okay. I totally applaud your lifestyle, it’s makes a lot of sense to incorporate those principles. Congratulations!

  11. April B says:

    For sure, debt free living is the way to go! I wish my parents taught me when I was younger. I wish I came to my senses sooner. Here I am today, just beginning to dig myself out of debt at the age of almost 37. I can only hope that I can teach our three children to live a debt free life.

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