At age 49, Donna Freedman decided to change her life. It was 2006, and she was a recently divorced, single parent with $130 to her name.
Donna had always lived frugally, but found herself at a place in life where every penny counted. She had to come up with a plan to survive and thrive.
“I had to go broke to become a personal finance writer,” says Donna, now a freelance writer and author.
Personal finance stretches beyond retirement plans and stock options to simple, everyday lifestyle changes and money-saving behaviors that result in substantial savings.
For some, it is breaking the daily latte or shopping habit, or cutting monthly grocery costs in half. For others, it is viewing debt as a financial emergency and strategically planning to pay it off.
Donna says taking ownership of her monthly income saved money, and gave her both peace of mind and financial independence.
She started by contacting a former colleague from the Anchorage Daily News, personal finance columnist Liz Weston. At the time, Liz worked for MSN Money.
“I told Liz my divorce was final and the only money I could count on was $1,000 a month for the next year,” says Donna. “I told her, ‘I’m going to be able to live on this, pay off my debt and divorce, and save money.’”
This conversation led to Donna’s first personal finance article, “Surviving (and thriving) on $12k a year.” It was published by MSN Money in January 2007. The article outlined how she would build her savings account on $1,000 a month while working less and getting her education from the University of Washington.
Aside from writing, Donna became a jack of all trades, fixing appliances at the Seattle apartment complex where she lived. She also took on babysitting jobs.
Donna moved to Anchorage, Alaska, in 2012, where she continued her freelance work and expanded her blog, Surviving and Thriving—a collection of stories about intentional living and Donna’s philosophy on being thrifty.
“Spending less means more choices,” Donna says. “Someone who is in debt has no options but to pay it off. Some people stay in jobs they hate so they can pay off debt from stuff they buy to make them feel better, because they hate their jobs. You need to handle your own money. You can still fix what’s wrong.”
People are Seeking Help
Since the 2008 recession, many people have turned to online resources, such as Donna’s blog, for tips and tricks to save money. Personal finance websites, such as The Penny Hoarder, are thriving.
“We focus on keeping more money in our readers’ pockets, not so much stock markets,” says Justin Cupler, assistant editor at The Penny Hoarder.
Since it started in 2010, The Penny Hoarder has attracted more than 6 million active subscribers with posts ranging from money management to food freebies.
“We cater to the masses,” says Justin. “Everyone is looking for ways to make money. We try to catch on to trends where people can find real-life ways to earn money and save money.”
The first principle to personal finance is you get out of it what you put into it, says Justin.
For every person, regardless of age, the first step to managing money is paying off debt. Justin says there are two approaches to effectively tackling what you owe.
“The debt snowball is paying off the lowest-balance credit cards first, then once that card is paid off, rolling that payment into the card with the next-lowest balance,” Justin says. “Debt avalanche is the same concept of rolling payments, but you focus on paying the highest interest cards first.”
Easy Ways to Save
Paying off debt often means cutting back on spending. Karrie Truman from Kennewick, Washington, is an expert on household savings. Her blog, Happy Money Saver, gives readers easy ways to save at home, ranging from making their own laundry detergent to building a dream house on a budget.
“In 2009, I first started blogging because I was finding so many good deals,” says Karrie. “I love to experiment, so I started doing tests of whether making your own laundry detergent really saves money. I made my own (version of) Burt’s Bees for 12 cents a tube. I’ve been frugal a very long time. I think I just love saving money.”
Karrie’s blog has grown so much that she pays 10 people to contribute and help manage her site.
“I have some people do recipe creation,” she says. “Some people help me with photography. I have people that help with writing thrifty articles, and I have somebody that manages all the different social media outlets.”
Karrie’s most popular blog section is about freezer meals. She says preparing meals ahead of time is a great moneysaver.
“You may make multiple trips to the store every week, which leads to impulse shopping,” says Karrie. “When you do freezer meals and make 30 meals all in one day with one batch of groceries, you save all that time you would have been cooking when you get home.”
By living a frugal life, Karrie was able to make her dream of owning a piece of land and farm animals come true.
In February 2016, her dream home on 5 acres was completed, and she started her own homestead.
She blogged about the process.
“It takes a lot of research to save a lot of money when building a house,” says Karrie. “I was constantly researching everything—from the best quality and least expensive options. There’s so much research involved, but it pays off. The amount of work you put in it will pay off.”
A ‘Silly’ Way to Cut Costs
Dedicating each week to saving money also paid off for Lisa Mapuranga when she saw how lucrative couponing could be.
“For me, I kind of always thought coupons were silly,” says Lisa, who lives in Spanaway, Washington. “I actually had a co-worker friend whose mom was couponing. One day she paid like $125 for more than $900 worth of stuff. That’s $800 of savings. That’s like a part-time job.”
Lisa told her co-worker she wanted to learn about couponing, which led her to teach classes in Parkland, Washington.
“I teach people how to coupon at different levels and what would work for their lifestyle,” says Lisa.
She says everyone has a different amount of time they can commit to the task, and household needs factor into how much time is spent couponing.
First, Lisa buys four to five Sunday newspapers. She clips coupons and organizes them in a binder. She also uses apps such as Krazy Coupon Lady, the RiteAid app, and websites such as coupons.com and Proctorandgamble.com.
Couponing allows Lisa to share some of her finds with her church food bank.
While you can save money couponing, Lisa knows every person’s couponing need is different.
“Try things out and see what works for you,” says Lisa. “What works for someone else might not necessarily work for you and your life.”
Teaching Students About Finances
While Donna and Karrie had frugal upbringings that shaped their view of life, others become thrifty through practice.
Teacher Gina Pixler believes these skills should be part of everyone’s education.
“I have my Realtor license and was a mortgage lender before the market went bad,” says Gina. “The most common age demographic—between 23 and 27—cannot afford a home because they destroyed their credit. Credit isn’t something you can just fix. You have about two to three years of changing your lifestyle.”
What naturally came out of conversations with people wanting to buy a home was the question, “Why didn’t anyone teach me this when I was in high school?”
“I asked myself, ‘Why aren’t we empowering students to make smart financial decisions?’” says Gina.
Gina has been a technical education teacher at the junior-senior high school in Chester, California, for 11 years.
“It doesn’t matter how much you make,” she says. “It matters what you do with the money you make. It is not just luck. With the right choices, we can all be financially successful.”
Students in Gina’s classes create and manage a budget, receive hands-on work experience in job fields they are interested in pursuing, learn about the stock market and learn how to dress professionally.
Her students also compete in competitions such as the national H&R Block Budget Challenge and the local Shasta Youth Entrepreneurship Program at Shasta College.
“They use what we’ve taught them about the basics of income, paychecks, taxes, saving, investing and put a budget together and monitor it,” says Gina. “It’s a pretty good eye opener for all of them.”
Gina’s goal is to prepare her students for a career and college, while teaching them strategies to successfully manage their money.
“They can be millionaires by the time they’re 40,” says Gina. “That’s my pitch.”
While there are many influences in society to have the latest and greatest of everything, Donna has learned—through trial and tribulation—that being thrifty leads to a happier life.
“I really do think that you live better when you have control of your finances,” says Donna. “Frugal people sleep better. We’re not lying awake wondering how we’re going to make that minimum payment. Choosing to live with less has meant not filling my life with things that don’t matter to me.”
Donna says she saves where she can so she can spend where she wants, which includes an occasional opera ticket, dinner at a nice restaurant and going to the symphony.
“I’m not a minimalist, but having fewer things means having more space in your life and your house, and not having the debt to go along with it,” she says.