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Early Retirement: What We Can Learn From ‘Super Savers’

Published January 4, 2022

6 minute read

By Dave Roos

Key Takeaways

At this point in our “Retire at 55” learning path, you’ve already sat down and calculated how much money you will need to save to be able to retire comfortably at 55. And you’ve already learned some helpful budgeting tips for sticking to your monthly savings goal and staying on track. In this article, we talk with Scott Rieckens, a “super saver” who’s made both small and large lifestyle changes in order to achieve financial independence.

Beware Of Lifestyle Creep

We live in a consumer culture that bombards us with messages that the path to happiness is through acquiring more things. No matter if we earn modest wages or a fat paycheck, we’re tempted to spend it all on newer, bigger, better stuff. It’s called “lifestyle creep.”

“In our case, we found ourselves leasing two new vehicles, living in a high-cost-of-living area and going out to eat when we felt stressed or tired,” says Rieckens, author of the book Playing With Fire, which documents his family’s journey toward financial independence. “Those things added up to the point where we were living paycheck to paycheck.”

Lifestyle creep is one of the hardest impulses to combat when you are trying to stick to a budget and succumbing to it will either slow or destroy your savings rate. But Rieckens and his wife have devised a way to diffuse the urge to splurge.

“It sounds simple, but I recommend that everyone sit down with their partner and write up a list of the top 10 things that make them happy,” says Rieckens. “If you’re looking for ways to save, allow yourself to spend more on the things that make you happy and cut back hard on the things that don’t. That’s a great way to reframe your lifestyle and prevent lifestyle creep.”

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Impulse Buying: Ask Yourself If You Really Need It

The trap of impulse buying used to be limited to the grocery store or the mall. You tried to stick to your shopping list but couldn’t resist the urge to treat yourself to something special. Now, with online retailers offering next-day (or even same-day) delivery of nearly everything under the sun, impulse buying is just a click away.

Rieckens doesn’t believe that guilt and shame are the best ways to stick to a budget, so he and his wife have tried to come up with positive, proactive methods for avoiding impulse purchases, especially online. Which is how they came up with the “Amazon rule.”

“Anytime you think you need something from Amazon, stop before you click the ‘buy now’ button,” says Rieckens. “Instead, leave it in the cart for three days and come back and see if you still need it. That has saved us countless purchases.”

You can do the same thing when tempted by an impulse buy in the store. A super saver named Alex Tran says that she asks herself a short list of questions before buying something that’s not on her list: “Do I need this? Is there something I already have at home that does the same thing? Could I borrow this from a neighbor? Could I go get this at Goodwill?”

Sometimes a little reflection and some old-fashioned frugality is all it takes.

Small Changes That Add Up To Big Monthly Savings

The “big three” spending categories of most budgets are food, housing, and transportation. Of those three, food spending is the one that can be significantly lowered by small lifestyle changes.

“Saving money on food doesn’t have to be so drastic that you’re cutting every coupon and never going out to eat,” says Rieckens. “Changing small habits can make a huge impact.”

Something that Riecken’s family does is make a month’s-worth of breakfast burritos in one afternoon and freeze them. They save money by buying the ingredients in bulk, the burritos are easy to grab and go, and, according to Rieckens, they’re “super-super delicious.”

“We were able to wean ourselves off the daily coffee/sandwich expense and get our breakfast costs down to 50 cents or a dollar a meal,” says Rieckens. “Things like that can really make a huge difference in your food bill.”

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Apps That Can Help

Planning ahead is also key to spending less at the grocery store and preventing food waste. There are some excellent apps that make it easy for families to create and share weekly meal plans and grocery lists. Here are some free ones to try:

And if you’re looking for cooking inspiration, start with items that are on sale at your local grocery stores. That gives you a leg up on the savings game. Check out the latest grocery flyers right on your smartphone with free apps like these:

Besides the food budget, keep an eye on your subscriptions, too. We’ve all signed up for a free trial of a streaming service to watch a hot new show or movie, and then forgotten to cancel. Pretty soon, your monthly streaming bills are rivaling what you used to pay for cable.

Rieckens suggests throwing a quarterly “budget party” — order a pizza, run through the budget and drop any unwanted or rarely used subscriptions. “Then you really have something to celebrate,” he says.

Consider Making Bigger Lifestyle Changes

When Riecken and his wife began their journey to financial independence, they had some hard decisions to make. Were they prepared to move away from a place that they loved in order to spend less, save more and spend more quality time with their young daughter?

Their experience, which was far from easy, was chronicled in the documentary Playing with FIRE, inspired by Riecken’s book. Their first big move was to sell their nice house in a big city and move somewhere less expensive. But that didn’t necessarily mean buying the cheapest housing they could find.

After doing a quick analysis, Riecken realized that they could save money in the long run by buying a more expensive house with a better location that allowed them to be a one-car family.

“Vehicles are so much more damaging to our financial health than we think,” says Rieckens, since they are a quickly depreciating asset with lots of maintenance and operating costs. A house, on the other hand, is typically an appreciating asset. To the Rieckens, it made sense to spend a little more on the mortgage and ditch one of their cars.

“By eliminating that one vehicle and buying a used car with cash that we had saved up, we were able to eliminate those monthly payments and significantly reduce our transportation costs,” says Rieckens.

Here are some other big lifestyle changes that can generate huge savings over the long term:

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What’s Next?

With all of this talk about budgets, it’s easy to overlook another way to beef up your savings: earn more money! In the next article in our “Retire at 55” learning path, we will explore creative ways to increase your monthly income, including asking for raises, negotiating spot bonuses, and adding side hustles.

Contributor

Dave is a freelance journalist who has contributed hundreds of articles to HowStuffWorks since 2007, with a specialty in personal finance, economics and business. Raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he attended Duke University where he earned the B.A. in comparative religious studies that has served him so well.

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