I’m sure that a lot of you are already familiar with Laura! She’s an author and podcaster, and her writing has appeared in places like the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
I always feel quite honored that Laura likes reading my blog, since she is an actual published author (she’s written multiple books!), and I was delighted when she wanted to participate in the Meet a Reader series.
Like CeCe the psychologist, Laura comes from a high-earning household, but she’s still got frugality in her bones. 😉
1. Tell us a little about yourself
Hi Frugal Girl readers! I’m Laura.
I live outside Philadelphia with my husband and five kids. I write and speak about time management, mostly. I host the every-weekday-morning Before Breakfast podcast and co-host the Best of Both Worlds podcast with my friend Sarah Hart-Unger.
I also like to run and play the piano, and I sing in my church choir.
I blog a few times a week at LauraVanderkam.com about my adventures managing life.
2. How long have you been reading The Frugal Girl?
While I write about time management now, I made a brief foray into personal finance about a decade ago when I wrote a book called All the Money in the World.
I began reading The Frugal Girl in an effort to understand the personal finance space. She was definitely one of the most cheerful and normal voices I found, which is why she is one of the few voices I kept reading.
I’ve loved waking up to her blog posts almost every weekday for the past ten years.
3. How did you get interested in saving money?
Like a lot of FG readers, I seem to have a frugal gene. According to extended family lore, when I was little, someone asked me what “expensive” means. I said, “It costs a lot of money.” They asked me what “cheap” means. I said, “We can buy it!”
I know my parents had to be careful with money for many years, as did their parents before them, though they were all just thrifty too. I never knew that normal Whitman’s Sampler boxes contained chocolate because we kept my crayons in an old one.
I didn’t know that people colored on plain white sheets of paper; I always colored on scrap paper from my dad’s work. To this day I write my grocery lists on old envelopes — that’s what my mom did because you can re-use paper that would have landed in the trash and you can keep your coupons in the envelope! (Not that there are many paper coupons anymore, but that’s a different story.)
My frugality came in handy during my first year after college when I had a year-long internship in Washington DC. I didn’t earn much in my base paycheck, but I was fine living with three roommates (life was always a party!) and taking the bus because I didn’t own a car. I shopped sales at the grocery store and brought my lunch to work. I got books from the library and took advantage of the city’s free museums.
Between my frugality and my freelancing on the side, I was able to build up enough money to finance my move to New York the next year without a job lined up.
All that said, I’d like to note the last sentence there — my freelancing on the side was really the critical part.
While frugality is great, I came to realize that you can only cut so much. The fastest way to wealth is to keep your base expenses relatively low, and then earn a lot and invest the difference.
I was fortunate to marry a man who also feels this way and so that has been our household financial philosophy. We drive our cars for a long time. We spend less on housing than we can theoretically afford. We also have jobs we really love and we keep working to grow our earnings.
4. What’s the “why” behind your money-saving efforts?
To me, having money in the bank is freedom. I don’t have to keep a gig I don’t like or associate with people I don’t want to associate with.
Money in the bank also represents security. I have always felt this way. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t have a financial cushion. I worked during summers in high school and year-round in college so I had some savings when I began my adult life.
It was very important to me to never absolutely need the next paycheck. I know there is privilege in that, but it’s also my natural pessimism. I often think about what can go wrong, and it strikes me that a lot could go wrong in a paycheck-to-paycheck scenario. I aim to live below my means, and then save and invest the difference.
Since my husband and I have both been working, living below our means, and then investing the difference for many years now, we live a comfortable life, which I am incredibly grateful for.
I like not needing to fret over little things, like paying the fee when one of my kids lost the charging cord for their school-issued laptop. I mean yes, it annoys me, because I find spending money almost physically painful, but at least it doesn’t need to be a big deal!
5. What’s your best frugal win?
On a dollar basis, it was probably moving from New York City to suburban Pennsylvania in 2011. There are a great many things to love about New York City, but it is not a low-cost place to raise a family.
We chose a really good school district, so we’ve been able to send our kids to the local public schools. There are lots of benefits to that — not just avoiding tuition, but not having to fill out applications, plus we can use the school buses! With five kids, all that adds up.
6. What’s a dumb money mistake you’ve made?
Because I am naturally frugal, my tendency is to undervalue my time (probably a lot to unpack there about why I wound up writing about time management.…). I recently needed a signed camp form from the pediatrician’s office and they charged $20 for a quick turnaround and $10 for a 5-7 business day turnaround.
I immediately thought, well, I can wait, and I’ll just try to run back here right after we get back from vacation and before his camp and…then I realized that was a lot of logistics for $10.
I am also guilty of chronically underinvesting in my business.
As one example of many: My current laptop no longer supports updates for some of the software I use frequently, and when I mentioned that to my husband, he was like, “uh, doesn’t this mean that’s the end of the line? Aren’t you going to go buy a new one?” I think he meant that day. That was several months ago now and I only just finally bought a laptop this week!
7. What’s one thing you splurge on?
We spend a lot on childcare, but I don’t consider that a “splurge.” It is an investment in our earning capacity and marital happiness.
What I would call a splurge: we’ve started taking really nice trips as a family.
To be sure, we often use my husband’s frequent flyer miles and hotel points, so I guess we’re still being frugal in that way! But I want my kids to see a lot of the world. I took our oldest three kids to Paris over spring break this year. We recently got back from a trip to St. John in the US Virgin Islands.
While traveling, I tend to feel a little more relaxed about spending, or at least I’m a little more aware of the value of time. When we went to Paris Disneyland, for instance, they had a system where you could buy a pass to skip the line for some rides.
We’re talking nine euros (about equivalent to $9 right now) to skip an hour-long wait, so 36 euros for the four of us.
Is not standing in line in the rain for an hour of my vacation worth 36 euros? Yes, yes it is. My kids were thrilled that I was willing to pay to skip the line because it was so out of character for me. I’m hoping I can get them to keep thinking that spending 36 euros is a reason to celebrate.
8. What frugal tips have you tried and abandoned?
I used to really try to shop sales, but then I realized I was often buying things just because they were on sale. Something might be 80 percent off, but if you don’t need it (or really want it), you’re not saving money. I found I was accumulating lots of cheap clothes in my closet.
Now I try to ask if I would pay full price for something. If I would, great! Then a discount is saving me money. If not, it isn’t.
I also no longer meal plan. We have theme nights (breakfast for dinner on Wednesdays, make-your-own-pizza on Fridays), we’ve experimented with various meal kits or pre-made meals from Costco, and then we usually do some grilled protein on the weekend plus fruits and veggies. Plus a lot of leftovers.
It’s fine. Nobody has starved.
9. What is something you wish more people knew?
Keeping your base expenses low is really the big win when it comes to frugality.
I know that a lot of frugal literature tends to cover small savings, like you get with buying generic cereal, or by line-drying clothes, and those are all fine, but you’re not going to become wealthy by line-drying your clothes.
If you spend 20 percent of your household income on housing and transportation vs. 40 percent, you will be able to save and invest a lot more — even if you buy name-brand cereal every week.
Obviously, you want to live somewhere safe and drive something reliable, so it may not be possible to get this percentage very low, but any frugal victories in these categories will pay off again and again for years.
I’m also on a personal mission to help women realize that they might be able to make a lot of money. I am always surprised when frugality literature doesn’t question the decision to be a one-income family.
Yes, we can be good home economists, managing expenses, and I know that traditional jobs can be challenging with little kids, but there are lots of ways to work.
Figure out what you do well, build up your skills, market yourself to people who will pay top dollar, build up a good reputation, and you can have a great and flexible life.
I’d note that it’s also important to have earning capacity if you need it someday! No one knows what life will bring.
(Kristen popping in here: Ahahahahaha, yes. I am a serious case in point.)
10. Which is your favorite type of post at the Frugal Girl and why?
I was obsessed with the first Boxcar Children book growing up. I loved how they outfitted their boxcar with finds that they’d foraged and repurposed.
So now that Kristen is outfitting her new home with items from the abandoned house and her neighborhood Buy Nothing group, I’m as excited as I was when I read about those children’s adventures. She’s even foraging for berries too! It really can’t get any more perfect.
Laura, I loved the Boxcar Children too, especially that very first book when they did all the boxcar outfitting. So maybe I am living out my own childhood dreams in a way. 😉
And I like your point about helping women think about making money. Frugality has helped me keep more of the money I earn, but frugality alone would not have been sufficient to keep me afloat, or to give me my current independence. A combo of making money + keeping a lot of that money is what helps you make real progress!
Readers, the floor is yours.
P.S. Laura has a new book coming out in October, titled Tranquility by Tuesday. You can read more about it here.