How Living Abroad Made Me More Frugal

Frugal Living

(Or Becoming the Cheap Bastard My Friends Love to Tease)

One of the recurring themes throughout all of my publications (and most other “how to live a life abroad” posts, articles and books by other travel bloggers) is how to live cheaply. I’ve talked about it in regards to transportation, in regards to open markets, in regards to negotiating for accommodations, using discount days at the supermarkets, discount days at restaurants, and two for one days at the movie theaters.

I’ve picked up a lot of these habits over the years, which have led me to leading a frugal, down-to-earth existence where I don’t purchase things unless they are absolutely necessary, and even then, only doing so if I can get the best deal…even if I can afford to buy it at full price. Consequently, this has also led to me becoming known as the “cheap bastard” to some of my friends, and the “white Mexican” to others, and “mexicano” to my wife and Mexican family/friends.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from over six years of full-time immersion travel in developing countries around the world, it is that people outside of the Western world are extremely frugal, extremely practical, and they are inherently sustainable in the simple fact that they don’t have a lot of extra money to go around…so they make what they do buy last as long as possible. And they won’t spend money unless they absolutely have to.

What is with the obsession for needing to have new things? If you remember Rich Man, Poor Man – The Illusion of Wealth, we look at the comparison between the average family living in the United States, and the average family living in Mexico…and the fact that while the Western family has zero net worth or income and actually has negative, the average Mexican has a positive net worth and income due to frugality.

Why buy a new cell phone every six months when the one you have will last 3 -4 (or potentially 5 – 6) years? Why buy a new laptop every 12 months when the one you have can work for the same amount of time (4 – 6 years)? Why buy new jeans if the ones you have still function? Why buy new shirts if the ones you have are still wearable? New shoes, backpacks, sunglasses, sandals, towels, etc. Why buy new when used works just fine?

Living frugally doesn’t mean living in poverty. It simply means living simply. Spending wisely. Choosing where and how to spend your money so that you maximize its value. And I’m the first to admit that the longer I’m out of the home country, the more frugal (cheap!) I become.

To give you an example, Cristina and I won’t go to see a movie until it is 2 x 1 night at the movie theater. Why spend ten dollars when we can wait a couple of days and only spend five? (we do break the rule for special occasions, like birthdays and anniversaries) We won’t go to one of our favorite restaurants in Cancun, La Troje, until it’s Tuesday night…because that’s 30% off night. We won’t eat sushi unless it’s Wednesday or Thursday, and on those nights we’ll pick one of our two favorite places because they both offer rolls 2 x 1 on those nights.

We won’t go to the grocery store until Tuesdays/Wednesdays to shop for produce, because those are the days vegetables and fruits are heavily discounted. Potatoes, for example, will drop from 28 pesos per kilo down to 6 pesos a kilo. Tomatoes from 18 to 8. Mushrooms from 45 down to 20 per kilo. So on and so forth. And we won’t buy beans or rice or lentils at the regular market when we can buy them in bulk at Sam’s or Costco and buy enough to last us for six months for the same price as two week’s worth at the regular market.

We don’t take taxis unless it’s pouring down rain because the bus is half the price, and most days we’ll walk because we enjoy staying fit, even if that means sweating and taking 15 minutes to get there and 15 minutes to get back. We tend not to order beers or drinks out at a restaurant unless they are offering a discount night. And if we want tacos one night, we’ll wait a night or two and go when Taco Rigos has 2 x 1 on tacos de pastor or surtido, cachete or lengua for Cristina.

And we only eat out one or two times every month or so. The vast majority of the time we cook at home. Not simply because it’s healthier, but because we don’t see the point in spending 25 to 30 dollars for a meal out when that same 25 to 30 dollars can feed the two of us for a week.

Yum!

giant shrooms

yum!

Cris cooking

Don't mess with me!

Enchiladas

fruits of labor

homemade burritos

Dinner With Earl

Outside dinner

Cochinita Pibil

Homemade salsa

Dinner with Friends

Dinner With Friends

I won’t pay face value for anything, and if you think that I’m cheap, you haven’t seen Cristina in action. She’s 100% Mexican, born and bred, and she asks for discounts on anything and everything and negotiates down more than I do. When we couldn’t find a French press for coffee anywhere other than in Starbucks, she asked for two cups of free coffee with our purchase, for example. Buying clothing? She’ll shop at half a dozen stores to make sure she’s getting the best price. Tomatoes not on sale? We’ll go without for a couple of days until they are.

Apartments are always negotiated for. Bargains are always sought. We rarely use hotels or hostels when traveling unless they are willing to trade us free hospitality for publicity via the blog and the social media channels, and starting in 2013 we’ve started pre-selecting the restaurants we want to frequent and sending out our press kit and publicity package in advance and finding the ones who are willing to trade us free meals in exchange for photos + a YouTube video and a short blog article + entry into our guidebooks.

No freebies or comped meals? We tend not to go, at least not on our own, and not very frequently (other than for the random torta or taco that costs a couple of dollars, which isn’t really eating out). If friends invite us out we go, but I usually get teased because when someone asks me for a “good recommendation on food tonight”, my first response is always “well, this place has X discount tonight on Y food”, because that’s just my second nature after having been living abroad for so many years. Good to me = cheap and tasty, not merely tasty.

It started in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe in 2008, and since then it’s just evolved. Eastern Europeans and those living in the Mediterranean are just as frugal as those who live in Latin America, but I honestly believe that the most frugal people I’ve ever met are the Mexicans. If they can repair it, they will, and the backwoods engineering I’ve seen while living here over the past few years is second to none.

Consequently, I’ve learned how to do the same. We throw almost nothing away. Our cupboards are filled with yogurt containers that double as tuperware, or picnic gear. We also use them as planters for herbs, spices and aloe vera/other plants. For the most part, I’ve only bought two new sets of clothing since January of 2008; two shirts and two pairs of shorts. And some new sandals + some cheapo changlas/flip-flops. Everything else is what I left with in 2008.

Our Cupboards

Our Fridge

aloe vera in container

A life of excess is one of the easiest ways to take for granted the things you have. I’ve learned to appreciate, through travel, what it means to come from a country where you have to fight tooth and nail to earn what you have…and when you finally pay for it, you take care of it.

I’ve learned that just because you have money doesn’t mean you need to spend it, and that luxuries (things like air conditioning and in-house Internet or a refrigerator) that I took for granted growing up in the United States aren’t actually necessities…and that money, hard-earned and tethered to the fruits of my labor, doesn’t need to be spent frivolously.

There’s nothing wrong with a nice dinner out and picking up a couple of beers, for example…but when the cost of that dinner + beers could feed you for a week or more…is it really worth going out? Then again, on the flip side, what’s the point of working hard and making good money if you can’t spend it and enjoy life a little bit?

For my money’s worth, I prefer being frugal. I’ve definitely adjusted my spending habits (before moving abroad I worked in construction and ate out seven days a week, for example), and I’ll gladly take the ribbing my friends and family give me. Because at the end of the day, I’m laughing my way to the bank and an early retirement :)

But what’s your opinion? Are we being frugal, or are we just cheap tightwads?

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.

33 Comments

  • Yep @Parul: Some people can’t get rid of comforts and are more than willing to spend :) That’s their prerogative for sure!

  • Parul says:

    Same here but I do believe the way you see expenses changes depending on the currency you earn in and the one you are spending on. I have seen MANY people go crazy looking at a beer pint for 100 Rs in a bar which is barely 2$ we look out for TGIF which sells the same at 89Rs and even then we know it should not be more than 60 Rs from a wine shop. Just because beer, clothes and other necessities are cheaper than US in India it doesn’t mean they are cheap.
    Another thing which affects bills and even travel bills is brand loyalty, just did an article on it today and the idea came from a reader saying ‘ I just can’t let go of some comforts’. I have added a link remove it if it violates some comment policy :)
    http://www.longingtravel.com/2014/10/travelers-brand-loyalty.html

  • Ayep, absolutely, Vanessa!

  • Vanessa says:

    After reading this post, a gave it a thought, then I realized you’re right about how traveling could make you frugal. Nice post! You really have to see the world to learn about living life in a humble and practical way.

  • […] One of the beautiful things about living abroad and pursuing full-time travel is the lowered cost of living, which leads to frugality.  […]

  • Every bit counts, Jennifer =P

  • Jennifer says:

    Ha! Love the last line of this post! We’ve definitely become more conscience of how we spend money since we started traveling so frequently. Now decisions about bigger ticket items are definitely weighed against where we could go for the cost of the item.

    Good for you guys to be so frugal! I haven’t quite given up as much yet as you guys have. We’re working on being better at it though.

  • […] One of the beautiful things about living abroad and pursuing full-time travel is the lowered cost of living, which leads to frugality.  […]

  • @Dave hehehe indeed we don’t do the cinema that frequently, but when we do we make sure we do it on discount nights :) Most things we’ll watch simply by downloading + plugging our laptop into our flat-screen at the house. Home cinema FTW! But there are a few things per year we enjoy getting out to see.

  • Dave Briggs says:

    Being frugal doesn’t make you a cheap bastard…. Its all about living to your means and not to other peoples expectations. Still, I think the cinema is a waste even if it is discounted. Surely that’s what Pirate bay was invented for!!

  • That’s a pretty good spend for where you live, Dana. Yeah…learning how to re-use was a long lesson for me to learn. It’s second nature now, but it wasn’t always so.

  • I’m right there with you guys – maybe not to the same degree. But I’m definitely all about discounts. Jave hates grocery shopping with me because I go to about 3 different stores – one for produce, another store for actual groceries, and the good ‘ole Dollar Tree for stuff like toothpaste, papertowels/napkins, and tupperware. As a result, we can easily live on $180-$200/month for food which isn’t too bad here in Los Angeles. Plus, Jave is a frugal Jamaican who also grew up with the mentality that everything gets fixed – and if we can help it, nothing gets tossed. Whenever I’m about to toss something that I think can’t be fixed, he shakes his head and says, “Americans.”

  • I really enjoyed this post. It was very informative. Being frugal is not being cheap! You’re just being smart with your money. Good for you! The food in the pictures looks amazing, too!

  • @Kenin: if it’s only 2 bucks, agree with you, because time = money. But for clothing it’s usually a hell of a lot more than just 2 bucks :) A pair of shoes on sale somewhere for $50 bucks less = worth the time because that $50 is two week’s worth of groceries.

  • Solid stuff Tim! Lauren and are are crazy frugal and can agree that we do a lot of the same things. I will admit that Lauren is a little more frugal than I am for certain things. There are some times though where you can actually spend more time trying to save money than the savings are actually worth. While I completely agree that you should wait for sale days to buy groceries ( we do it all the time, we find out when they clearance all the old produce and then only shop on that day for example) I don’t think it’s worth it to hit 8 stores to buy a cheaper shirt, when you spent 2 hours trying to save a couple of bucks.

  • I have to agree with all of that! Everytime I have a little extra cash, I prefer to save it for future travels instead of eating out or having a little luxury at home :)

  • Landy: I used to cook 80% of the time, but now that the work load has increased, she cooks about 50% of the time. As much as I love cooking…she’s better than I am when it comes to Mexican recipes. Part of the cultural upbringing.

  • @ Ryan: big problem with local spending is that it’s all kickbacks. They don’t WANT to build well here in Cancun because it’s government aid which = budget money sent in from the federal level that the locals can then skim off and “use” to “repair” things locally….but only good enough to last a couple of years so they can ask for more money in another 2-3 years for “new improvements” that they can then skim from again.

    That is generally not reflected in local building done by locals building with their own money and building their own homes. Everything I’ve seen done by local hands for their own benefit is built to last, because it’s normal people building with their own hands. Even if takes them three weeks to add on a porch with hand tools that I woulc do in 2 days with power tools =P

    But city funds? Yeah…skimmed off and built to only last a couple of years so they can ask for more.

  • Landy says:

    To cook with fresh vegetables and meats, is an every day luxury cooking at home, with our selected ingredients and a wonderful cook like Christy you’ll so spoiled, thats why dont miss eating out! Thanks for the tips, are .appreciated

  • Spot on, Phil.

    I’ve had family members tease me for wearing some of the same shirts I left the U.S. with in 2007, but hey…they don’t have holes and while they might be a little faded, they still work. Why would I possibly want to throw them away, simply because they have some wear on them?

    Consumerism is the worst disease to strike at the heart of man.

  • Phil says:

    Eating out is a budget killer unless you have no options or time. On the road I will find food stands/carts and bring it back to the room. At home we almost always cook our on food…it is better, cheaper and I know what is in it and I can cook it the way I want it! Most people are not conscious enough about what they spend, why they spend and that is why they will work until they collapse. Being frugal gives me the financial freedom to own my time and do what I want to do

    I will admit to being a cheap bastard and find myself being even more frugal in “cheap destinations” after watching the locals go about their business. In the USA, billions are spent on marketing to keep you buying shit you don’t need and keep you consuming until you collapse. Don’t buy into the game. Develop strategies to beat them at their own game and come out on top on those things that you really need! If it is not on sale then I probably don’t need it is my mantra!

    Clothes…..fashion, whatever….waste of money. All that is really needed are some simple colors, stuff that is comfortable, well made and you are done playing this game!

    The millionaire next door that looks like Joe Average drives a used car and lives a frugal but comfortable existence. The showboat next door with the latest everything is awash in consumer debt and lives a fraudulent existence trying to convince you he is someone with all his shit. He is convinced he is someone but you know better and laugh your ass off that he is not smart enough to know what you know!

  • Freya says:

    Some really great tips here. I’m not to interested in new clothes or a new laptop etc. but I definitely still eat out way to much (and often afterwards regret it). When it comes to spending money on hotels versus hostels or couchsurfing I will usually go for the hotels and do not mind spending money on that as I want to be comfortable when I’m on holiday. Nevertheless I definitely could do a lot more to work my way towards an early retirement.

  • Hahaha. What are you talking about, we never give you shit! :)

    There is plenty to be said for getting deals and discounts. Where you and we disagree is when it comes to ‘time = money.’ Some shit just ain’t worth it, and we’re not going to walk another half-mile to save a peso or two, e.g. And hell, if I want tacos today, I’m getting tacos today. The savings isn’t *that* great, so I don’t see the point in waiting three days to save a couple bucks.

    One of your other readers mentioned buying high-quality items that will last longer, and we couldn’t agree more. We only have one carry-on each. There’s no having 20 hoodies or 15 T-shirts. We own less, and we want it to be exactly what we want and last for a long time. I cringe when I think of the fact that I dropped over two bills on a new hoody before we got to Mexico. But I also know that it fits all the criteria I need, and it’s the *only* hoody I need.

    Overall though, to each their own. We’re definitely not big spenders, but we worked our asses off to be able to do what we want, so we do it. I don’t like spending $5 for a jar of peanut butter, but damn if I’m gonna give it up just ’cause it’s a little more expensive. =P

    It’s funny though, because we have learned to live with less, and enjoy life more. But the more you get used to spending less (out of choice or necessity), the more everything seems expensive when you go somewhere else. E.g. groceries are practically free in Germany. Going to the U.S. after that was sort of like shell shock.

    Ang and I were talking a bit about the Mexican side of things when we were walking around today. It’s bad enough that all of the civic investment goes into the Hotel Zone, but when they do actually do some work in the city, it’s complete shit quality. Lay down an inch or two of cement and you have a new sidewalk/street/whatever. A couple years later, you have to do it again (or not, if you’re the government in Cancun). There is no ‘city planning to last’ here. It’s no wonder all the streets and sidewalks are completely fucked. No framing, no re-bar, or whatever else you construction people use haha. How many streets can we walk down in La Ciudad that have 18 layers of concrete “fixes”? And the ones that aren’t were just left to look like a war zone since most of the shit never gets fixed anyway.

    We love Mexico, but really…fix your shit right, or don’t fix it at all. Investment into quality work pays off in droves over the long run, and that does not happen here. At all. Slap job, fix, rot, rot rot. Fix, rot rot rot. Repeat.

    Good post, Tim! I’ll be sure to keep giving you shit…elbow to palm. :)

  • Excellent, Frank :) As far as the “knowing who has discounts on what days”, that’s what I do for my “live like a local” guidebooks; we live in the destinations I write about, and boots-on-the-ground over long periods of time gives you access to local information, built up over time, and rarely talked about on the Internet.

  • Frank says:

    Good article, makes complete sense – although not yet an expat I do the same, especially when it comes to clothes; a few high quality items will last for years. Who needs 20 shirts? I save so much money just on clothes. Could take a lesson though on your food budgeting; how do you know what restaurant or market has specials on given days? That’s a lot of planning.
    Good job el cheapo! :)
    Frank (bbqboy)

  • That’s awesome, Valen :)

  • That’s what I’m talking about, Dan :) You’ll find a lot of that going on here in Mexico. They’ll repair and reuse rather than purchase new, and that’s not always necessarily a bad thing.

  • Oh, man, I love this! My cupboards are filled with the exact same yogurt containers!! Same brand and everything. In the US, I spent money so carelessly. Now, I think of every dollar I spend. I feel like I’m always thinking of money since I’m always having to do a conversion in my head. I now cook more than ever and bought a juicer since the produce is almost free here. I also made my own turkey broth after Christmas instead of just throwing the carcass away like I would have done in the past. I am about to go to Europe and getting lots of rooms comped, but never thought of asking for free meals at restaurants. Brilliant!!

  • We have definitely become more aware of our spending since living abroad! Since traveling we’ve realized how much more often we find ourselves hunting for the best deal or making or resources last longer. Especially here in Mexico! My wife literally walked out of her flip flop (the mid strap broke) and a local helped us to thread a string through it to fix it instead of buying a new pair :-p

  • Susan Korah says:

    You are living in a healthy, happy way and sensible way and I really admire your lifestyle. Spending more and more on things we don’t need is not only harmful to ourselves,but permanently damage the planet earth by causing so much waste.
    Susan Korah, Ottawa, Canada soon going on a trip to La Paz, Bolivia and Bogota, Colombia

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