A friend once complained to me about his super high cellphone bill. I told him he could easily switch to a cheaper carrier and cut it in half, and he replied: “Well, I don’t really worry about being frugal. I focus on earning more money instead.” Somehow, we’ve gotten it into our heads that frugality and earning more are mutually exclusive. You can idealize one method over the other or you can optimize them both to your advantage.
It’s Not About Money
Contrary to popular belief, personal finance is not about money. I know, that sort of goes against everything I’ve written on picking the right bank account, saving for retirement, or cutting your bills, but hear me out. Most of us aren’t interested in managing our money because it’s fun and we like budgeting. We learn about personal finance because we’re tired of being controlled by our finances: we don’t travel because of our massive debt. We stay at a job we hate to pay off an expensive mortgage. In a way, personal finance is the opposite of living for money: it’s living the life you want without worrying about money. If money isn’t the point, why are we so passionate about the methods for managing it? Money is a tool, not an ideal. And saving money, negotiating, and side hustling are just methods for using that tool. When we idealize those methods, we risk going too far with them, and then we forget the entire point of managing our money in the first place: not worrying about money.
Establish Your Priorities
It’s easy to get hung up on the methods, tools, and rules of personal finance. This is why the crucial first step to setting a financial goal is asking yourself “why.” Money writer G.E. Miller put it best over at 20SomethingFinance:
I think this is an all too increasingly common practice in our modern culture. We hear that something is beneficial, so we want to go out and mimic it, without much thought as to why. Or, at best, the why is a secondary consideration…The biggest downside to a missing “why”, is it leaves very little internal motivation to see our goal through to completion. We are going to run into challenges, and if we don’t, the goal was probably too easy to begin with. In those challenging times, the “why” is what is going to keep us motivated, help us dig deep down, and push us to reach new heights. It helps us refocus.
It makes sense, and it’s like any habit: you’re more likely to stick to it if you can see a clear and immediate benefit. More importantly, when you establish your “why,” you stop thinking in terms of “should I earn more or save more?” You just do whatever it takes to reach your goal.
Automate Your Frugal Habits
Doing whatever it takes to reach your goals, whatever they may be, includes using both frugality and earning more to your benefit. Earning more typically pays off better, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be frugal, too. And the best frugal habits are the automatic ones that require little time or effort on your part. Unlike earning more, saving money is easy and accessible. It’s not as complicated and hands-on as finding ways to increase your income, but it also doesn’t pay off as much. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing. In the time that my friend spent complaining about his bills, he could’ve signed up for a cheaper cellphone service online and saved hundreds a year. Frugality really isn’t that taxing.
Invest in Yourself
On the flip side, since earning more is a little more complicated, it typically deserves more of a time and effort investment than being frugal. Investing in your earning potential means:
- Learning how to become an awesome negotiator
- Staying ahead of skills to boost your professional value
- Starting a side business to earn extra cash
- Trying to earn money doing work you enjoy
It’s worth pointing out that idea of “earning more” is often discussed in terms of pursuing your passion and doing what you love for a living. In reality, not everyone does work they love for a living, but if you establish your goals, you can at least prioritize the things that matter to you in life, then use “earning more” to fund those priorities. And if your priority is to do what you love for a living, that’s great, too! Aside from a means to an end, there’s another way to think about the concepts of earning more and being frugal, though. They both represent certain philosophies. The core concept in frugality is resourcefulness–using your time, money, and other resources in the best way possible. And at its core, earning more is about valuing and investing in yourself. Both are excellent philosophies on their own. However, they work really well together. Rather than debate our faces off about the value of each, we’d probably do better to utilize and optimize both to our advantage.