“Nothing comes from nothing and nothing ever could.” So warbles Maria in The Sound of Music. Captain Von Trapp agrees with her and they strike a deal on matrimony.
I too believe that nothing comes from nothing. But when I explain to newcomers that a solid program of frugality takes about an hour per week, I usually don’t gain instant converts to the frugal fringe. Instead, I hear back some version of “I can’t go for that, no can do” (as Hall and Oates warble in their number one hit from 1981). To many, fifty hours per year seems oppressive.
I want you to embrace frugality, and not reject it like a well-coiffured singing duo from the 1980s. If you’re concerned about the time commitment and inclined to say “no can do,” you deserve a full response. Like Maria, I’ll explain myself autobiographically.
I first embraced frugality in early 1997. That’s when I began keeping detailed spreadsheets of my monthly expenses and net worth. I spent most of my fifty hours per year updating those spreadsheets. The rest of the time I spent shopping for low prices, clipping coupons, reading product reviews, perusing personal finance books, making phone calls to service providers, and generally doing all the things that anyone frugal does to spend less and save more.
By 2009, when I retired at age 48, my frugality hobby had lasted for 13 years and cost me about 650 hours. That’s time I could have spent on exercise, vacations, and other fun.
What did I get in exchange for my 650 hours of sacrificed leisure time? As in most cases, something came from something. In my case, the something frugality produced was simply this: freedom from work. Hours I formerly spent at the office were now spent however I liked. I had invested some time up front and received even greater time in return.
But how much time did I receive?
According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), my age of full retirement should have been 66 years and 10 months. I’ll take this as the typical date of retirement for a mainstream consumer. The years saved: 18 years, 10 months, or 18.83 years (66.83 yrs at projected retirement – 48 yrs at actual retirement).
I didn’t spend 24 hours per day at work, so it wouldn’t be right to claim that I saved 18.83 full years by retiring early. Nevertheless, my work consumed great swaths of time. Counting the commute, I averaged about 70 hours per week for 50 weeks each year. That works out to 3,500 hours annually. Eventually, the long hours began to seem oppressive. So I warbled my own rendition of “I can’t go for that, no can do,” and quit. No more commutes and no more work for me. The total freedom I gained by retiring early: 65,905 hours (18.83 yrs * 3,500 hrs).
But wait, there’s still more time to count.
I’m not alone on this journey through life. With me is the charming Mrs. Moose, who not only accepted my offer of matrimony, but also embraced my frugality. She retired at 46. According to the SSA, her “full retirement age” should have been 67, so she gained 21 years of freedom. Her job also required big hours, but not quite as many as mine. Counting her commute time, she labored 2,500 hours annually. So Mrs. Moose’s total gain of freedom was 62,500 hours (21 yrs * 2,500 hrs).
To sum up, 650 hours of invested time on frugality has yielded 128,405 hours of freedom for the two of us. That’s an amazing return on investment. For each hour I spent on spreadsheets and careful spending, together we picked up about 200 hours. If you invested $10,000 and received that same rate of return, you’d end up with about $2 million. Those are gains that even Warren Buffett would envy.
In the final analysis, the most valuable asset we possess is the time we get to live. Let’s face it, our hours on the planet are limited. As Dickens observed, we’re all “fellow travelers to the grave.” But we don’t have to spend so much of our existence chained to our jobs. That’s the well-worn path of the mainstream consumer. Instead, we can choose to value incremental hours of freedom more than we value incremental paychecks of dollars. The more time we spend away from traffic jams and workplaces, the more we get to enjoy our lives.
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So is frugality worth an hour per week?
For our household, the answer is definitely “yes.” As Maria croons, “somewhere in my youth (or childhood), I must have done something good.” For me, that youthful good was the hour I spent every week working on personal finances. Consider doing it yourself. In time, it all pays off.