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Making short-term sacrifices in order to achieve long-term goals

Jennifer recently left the following comment on my blog:

I have
been following for about 10 months now and have managed to make a huge
dent in our "old" grocery budget. However, I am also an experimental
cook who loves to try new things, especially fish and ethnic dishes. We
eat fish at least three meals a week (including lunches i.e. tuna) and
fresh fish is rarely on "good" sale, and never free. We also love
Indian, Thai, and Chinese, all of which I cook from scratch. I've always
admired your honesty, as well as the fact that you repeatedly (and
sincerely) say "what we do doesn't work for everyone" – so I am also
wondering, do you "miss" variety in your menus?

Do I miss variety? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there are many things I often see at the store which I'd love to buy but which I know would totally bust our grocery budget. No, because I truly believe that making temporary short-term sacrifices (like, for us, eating simple meals made with inexpensive ingredients–see some of our normal menus here) is worth it to achieve long-term goals.

Before my husband and I got married, we sat down and did a lot of calculating to see how little we could survive on. Our goal was to make it through Jesse's six remaining months of undergrad and the following three years of law year without going into debt.

We had the money saved up and set aside to pay for school, but we didn't have much more beyond that. We figured that if he worked part-time and I worked part-time, we could manage to make close to $1000 per month. So that was the dollar amount we had to work with in making our budget. Considering that our rent ate up over half of that amount, we had around $125/week leftover to work with.

It seemed rather daunting to be able to pay for our utilities, transportation, food, and living expenses with that amount but we were determined to make it work. We knew we would have much more freedom if we weren't making payments on law school loans for years to come. And we knew if Jesse were to begin his legal career without the bondage of debt, it would give us much more of a foundation for achieving our long-term goals of owning a home debt-free, owning real estate debt-free, and being able to share abundantly with those in need.

Yes, we had some pretty big long-term goals from the get-go, and the only way to achieve those was by making short-term sacrifices. It would mean going without, saying "no", and exercising lots of self-discipline. In short, it would mean experiencing some temporary discomforts in order to reap lifelong rewards.

The temporary discomforts during the law school years weren't always easy, believe me. Both of us had moments when we just wanted to throw in the towel and throw our arms up in defeat. There were many times when we wished we could spend money on this or that or enjoy some of the little luxuries in life it seemed everyone else was. But we plodded on and on and on–wearing the same clothes over and over, driving an old car, brown-bagging it, clipping coupons, forgoing dinners out, living in a cramped little basement apartment, and so on–constantly reminding ourselves that it would someday be worth it.

And it has been every bit worth it. The little luxuries in life that we gave up–like eating out, making fancy meals, buying new clothes or things, driving a nicer car–pale in comparison to the freedom we now have living a life without payments.

Many people expected that as soon as my husband got out of law school and our income quadrupled, we'd stop being so frugal and start "really living". Shouldn't we reward ourselves for those sacrifices by loosening up on our tightwad ways? It was easy to justify, for sure, but we'd lived on such a beans-and-rice budget for so long that neither of us felt comfortable with all of a sudden becoming more extravagant. Plus, we have more audacious long-term goals–like paying cash for a house–and we know the only way we'll be able to achieve those in a timely fashion is by making more short-term sacrifices.

We have given ourselves quite a bit more budget breathing room than we had during law school and we have mutually decided to allow ourselves to "splurge" every now and then (like our dinner at The Cheesecake Factory last Friday night!), but we still adhere to a strict written budget and we do our best to constantly be looking for ways to keep our expenses and expenditures to a minimum. This enables us to live on much less than we make so we put a large part of what we earn towards saving to pay cash for a house. In addition, it allows us to have much more to share with others.

None of this would be possible if we were buried in debt. Not only would we have all the stress of trying to make ends meet while paying all our payments, we'd not have the freedom to give generously or the ability to make good traction in our savings goals.

So yes, there are days when I wish I could go to the store and just buy whatever I want without worrying about staying within our grocery budget. And yes, there are times when I wish I could make more elaborate meals with more expensive ingredients instead of planning our menus based upon the sales and what coupons I have. But then I quickly realize that sticking with a small grocery budget and eating simple meals is one of the reasons we're living a life without payments and one of the reasons we're able to save more and give more. When thinking of it in that light, it is so worth it!

And honestly? I really enjoy the challenge of working with a small grocery budget. In fact, while our menus might seem dull to some, we really rarely notice the fact that we spend so little at the grocery store. Through years of practice, I've learned a number of tricks (like the Buy Ahead Principle) which, coupled with a large dose of creativity and ingenuity, allow us to enjoy a rather varied and healthful fare without breaking the bank to do so.

Note: I wanted to make it clear that I am not advocating everyone need to have a grocery budget like ours or that you need to forgo eating fancy dinners. These are choices we have made based upon our family's goals and what works best for us right now. Your family's goals and needs are different than ours so please do not feel the need to do similar to us. I just share what we've done and are doing in hopes it might be an inspiration to you to find ways you can live on less in order to save more and give more.

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  • Marie says:

    Fun comments! Dave Ramsey saved us too. Let me rephrase: God blessed us with Dave Ramsey. I can’t even tell you how awesome it feels to have no credit card debt or car debt. Now to get those pesky student loans paid off!

    We spend $80 a week on groceries. I wish I could say we could cut it down, but my husband just loves his granola bars and yogurts (which I’ve determined to be the budget eaters). Thankfully with coupons I can get these for much less. Plus in the grand scheme of things it’s much cheaper than a vending machine run every day at work.

  • Celia says:

    This is just what I needed to read today. We got spanked with 1300 dollars in medical bills this month. My husband and I had to bust into the emergency fund to pay them. I told him I was cutting our grocery budget by at least 40 dollars a week till we put the money back. Which makes me sad because I love grocery shopping and generally try to feed us 75% organic. Anyway, thanks for the re-inspiration. Refusing to go into debt for our medical bills is important to us, even if it is low on the fun scale.

  • Becky says:

    We have a grocery budget as well, and while at first I found it restrictive, (I love to cook new things as well), I have learned that I can cook some new/exciting meals every month if I plan them out and we cut back on some of our other meals. I make a menu every about 2 weeks and make sure I mix our low-budget meals with our more expensive meals. It’s worked great for us!

  • jen says:

    Julie – I have never heard of a beer rebate! I have never seen it posted on a blog and I check several daily. Wow! I will look for those in the grocery store. I did a quick online search and found more info. It is true that you don’t have to buy beer at all for many of them. Why have I never heard of these?

  • Teresa says:

    Thanks so much for this post. I think it is great to show people that things that you think are impossible really aren’t. Have you ever read think and grow rich by Napoleon Hill. It talks a lot about this kind of thing. My husband and I were able to both get through school with no debt. Everyone else told us it was impossible since my husband could only work a few hours a week because of a learning disability that made it so his school work took him 3-4 times as long as the average person. After we had our first child I quit my job and we only had his income and several years to go. The outcome was incredible. We had money that literally just came in the mail. My husband was able to get multiple grants and scholarships that got us through. We made it and I am so glad we made those sacrifices.

  • Charlene says:

    Enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing!

  • I appreciated the question and answer. My husband and I were just talking about our food budget, which led to a discussion about budgeting and our goals in general. My husband and I are both of a frugal nature. We both came into our marriage with no debt at all. We bought a house and once we have the fixing up done we plan on paying down on the mortgage as fast as possible. It does require sacrifices on our behalf but we believe it is worth it. I’m glad there are some other “frugal zealots” out there. We aren’t the only ones who don’t pull out a credit card and swipe when the funds aren’t there to purchase what ever is our hearts desire.

    Thanks Crystal for another great post!

  • Lisa says:

    I have a question on you buying your house for cash. With the prices of houses so low right now would you consider buying a house now with the cash you have saved and mortgage the rest to get a good price (& interest rate) on a house and then pay off the mortgage quickly?


    Are you going to keep saving until your get to 100% and possibly pay more initially for your home as house prices rise?

    What do you think would be better?

    Money Saving Mom here: Unless something drastically changes in the next few months, we’re waiting. The housing market hasn’t hit bottom yet here, so the prices will likely not be rising anytime soon.

    But that aside, we really like the freedom of not having to make payments and the self-discipline we’re learning as we wait to save up to pay cash.

  • Melissa D. says:


    Just a quick question. How do you know how much to save for a house?

  • Ashley says:

    Elizabeth said exactly what I felt in response to Jenifer’s question. I think if a variety of foods and ethnic cooking bring joy to your life- do it! Or, if eating rice and beans in order to pay cash for your house makes you happy, do that. I think that it is important to find balance in life. We try to avoid extremes. My husband and I couldn’t care less about food and therefore have a tiny food budget. We do love golf and spend a ton of money on weekly green’s fees and equipment. This hobby is an opportunity for recreational companionship and a way for my husband to sharpen his saw. So it is totally worth it for us. My point is that if we redirect funds from areas of little interest into catagories of great importance to our families, we can live within our means. Like Crystal said, each family’s goals are different. I love sharing money-saving tips (I especially love receiving tips), but I think it is so important to give each other (and Americans!) the benefit of the doubt that everyone is trying to make the best choices they can to meet their families’ goals. What a fun discussion. Thanks everyone!

  • Heather says:

    Hi Crystal! Both my husband and I are in graduate school, so I can relate to your story. I’m wondering, did you wait until after your husband finished law school to have children?

  • Stephanie says:

    Great post! We are learning the lesson of living sacrificially, and while it takes some adjusting, seeing our expenses going lower and lower is inspiring us!

    I have found that I can purchase fish through our local co op much cheaper. It comes frozen, but usually it is all organic and/or wild. Also ethnic foods, spices and seasonings can be purchased through a co op. Ethnic food stores are also generally much cheaper from what I hear. It just may take some creativity for you to cook the way you enjoy AND stay within budget, but you can do it!

  • Mary In Ohio says:

    My kids love fish so we found a cool family way to get it. We got our fishing licences and we go as a family fishing. We all love it and it gives us food anf family time together. May not be for everyone but it fits us perfectly esp now that dh is unemployed and we are subsisting on unemployment and savings while he looks for a new job. Unfortunately we are in an area of the countty that is suffering horribly in the economy but we will get through it. We have prayed for direction on if we should move but it seems we are meant to be where we are right now. Have a great day!

    Mary in Ohio

  • Diana says:

    This article made me feel guilty when I went out and bought some picture frames to decorate my apt a little more. It was definitely money that I didn’t need to spend, and didn’t help us achieve our long-term goals.

    I think that’s awesome of you not to go into school debt. My husband is attending school purely on loans and we are living on everything else, which is tough enough to manage. But, it definitely is daunting to think how high up our necks we are going to be in debt when he graduates. I just want to throw up now, thinking about it.

    But, if he wasn’t in school we’d be living off the wages we have for the rest of our lives, and darn Seattle living expenses are so dang high. So, hopefully when he graduates, things will look a little brighter.

  • Pam DeArmon says:

    I have a son adopted from India, so preparing foods from his homeland is vital in our house. There are many online ethnic markets that sell spices, etc. for very reasonable costs. Many have coupon programs as well. Just keep searching, it’s possible to make great ethnic food on a budget too!

  • I also like the challenge of planning meals around store sales and using our bought-ahead pantry stock for menu planning. I actually find that I have a lot of fun when my husband go on frugal challenges, and it doesn’t seem that we’re being deprived, but rather making a conscious choice.

    I have always admired the steadfastness you and your husband have to working together in your frugal lifestyle. My husband and I are lucky to do the same, and I think it makes our marriage even stronger and us closer in the process!

    Danelle Ice / Homemaker Barbi

  • Ami says:

    Oh, how you INSPIRE me!! 🙂 Reading your testimony is like vitamins for my will power!

  • I want to start off by saying that I love your blog, seriously. It has saved me so much money, and gave me the opportunity to take that saved money and throw it into our debt snowball. See, we were not as fortunate as you and never learned that debt was drowning us until it was too late. When we started out TMMO we had over 100K in debt, and in 18 months we have cut that number by more then half. While my husband was making a very good salary were were blowing it as fast as he was making it! I now check your blog everyday to try and catch a good deal, or savings. Because even though my husband makes almost 6 figures, we still have no money… we are broke! Well, not for long… thanks to you and your blog, we are hoping to fly through this this trying time and come out wiser, and with the ability to live like no one else…

  • Sunshinesavings says:

    What an inspiration. thank you!

  • Julia says:

    Please elaborate…what are beer rebates?

    And thanks for the great question and the wonderful answer!

  • Jen says:

    The poster’s comment definitely sounds like something I’ve wondered myself!

    To my husband and I, food is extremely important and enjoyable. We love cooking together, exploring new restaurants, reading food magazines, enjoying special wines. We actually were pretty good about saving and financial planning, but I knew we could be doing more. About a year ago, I started trying to cut our grocery budget. At first, I thought enjoying food was incompatible with being frugal. Don’t get me wrong, we love complicated recipes from fancy food magazines that take all day to prepare, but we also love good simple meals like casseroles, sloppy joes, etc. I do enjoy many of the meals I see described on the frugal blogs, but when I tried to stick only to those extreme-frugal recipes I found I truly missed things like fish, specialty ethnic ingredients, choosing an interesting recipe from a food magazine, etc. We also found we had a REALLY hard time sticking to the no dining out rule (we live in a large city FULL of exciting dining options). When we felt deprived, we would often have months where we “slipped”, and ended up going way over budget. We were saving money overall but still feeling really defeated.

    Recently, I’m coming to the realization that eating well is something I just don’t wish to give up. But, we need to have balance. 5 years ago, I would decide on a whim to try out a new exotic recipe and would rush out to buy 10 difference specialty ingredients. We thought nothing of stopping by the fancy cheese store to get $30 worth of cheeses and wine for dinner on a regular weeknight. Now, we still do all those things on RARE occasions. We still try new exotic recipes that require specialty ingredients every once in a while, but most of our daily meals are made up of simpler dishes with more frugal ingredients. We try to plan our meals around weekly sales or what is in season (read: cheaper!) at the farmer’s market, and we do a lot of our shopping at ethnic markets which often have cheaper produce or specialty ingredients. We still go out to eat, but we don’t do it as often and we try to order smarter (sharing portions, takeout instead of dine it, visiting on days with special offers, etc.).

    We also realized we needed to look at our budget as a whole, not just focus on the food part. If we want to reach certain savings goals and still spend more on food, we need to cut elsewhere. For the most part, we don’t do things like go out to movies, buy lots of clothes, etc. We choose to live more frugally in other areas of our lives because that allows us to enjoy our food as we want. It’s tough to try and remember that frugality isn’t an all or nothing thing, that maybe the lowest possible number doesn’t need to be our goal. Just because I can’t seem to comfortably get our grocery shopping down to $30 a week doesn’t mean cutting it at all wasn’t a huge improvement!

    Could we be living more frugally, especially with our grocery budget? Absolutely! I am still working hard to figure out how to organize my shopping, keep track of sales, use coupons effectively, make frugal substitutions in recipes, etc. Admittedly I’m still not very good at those things! (I am always in AWE of all the frugal bloggers and how they make the most of every penny!) It does feel good to know that if one of us lost our job or something, we could certainly cut back on our grocery budget to a survival level. And I expect this all may change soon, as we’re expecting our first child at the end of the year. I have no doubt a baby will drastically change our priorities and shift our budget yet again!

    There are still days where I feel like a failure for spending too much, but I still think the frugal thing is worth pursuing if I do it with my own specific family needs in mind.

  • Amy Perrott says:

    Love this post! It encourages me to do better with our financial goals and budget. I’m gonna link to you today!

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