Stoicism, the Good Life, and a 90 Day Frugality Challenge

This post is all about the 90 Day Frugality Challenge my fiancee and I are about to undertake. I’ll link the philosophy of Stoicism with frugality and how it is helping us on our path to financial independence. I’ll also bring up obstacles we’ll encounter during the challenge and our plan to overcome them. This post will wrap up with what excites and scares us the most about this challenge. (Maybe we’ll see another guest post from Mrs. Distilled Dollar as the challenge unfolds!)

As Q3 comes to close, I couldn’t be happier. This was, by far, the best three months of my life. I’ve reestablished my old frugal habit of reading 1 book a week, I completed my best triathlon race ever, and of course, the pinnacle moment was becoming engaged to my beautiful fiancee.

Turns out, engagements are much more expensive than I anticipated. We now need to realign our budget and our lifestyle. Our overall goal for 2016 is still to double our savings rate. As such, we’ve entered the final phase of the year: A 90 Day Frugality Challenge.

Our plan is to eliminate 100% of the unnecessary spending from our budget. The purpose is to find out how low we can make our budget while still leading a happy lifestyle.

We’ve worked hard to reduce the bulk of our large fixed expenses (e.g. housing). We’ve removed the need to have entire categories such as car ownership, which costs an average of $8,698 per year. 

With the last 90 days of 2016 in sight, we’re taking the hammer to the final categories in our budget.

We’ve succeeded in reducing our grocery budget by more than 50%, but I know we can do better. We plan to further reduce our intake of more expensive foods (primarily meats), and replace them with less expensive products such as fruits and vegetables.

Similarly, we chopped our restaurant expenses in half, but again, we can do better. I plan to not only cook inexpensive day-to-day meals, but also to occasionally find new ingredients at the store to cook up fancier meals. This means devoting more time to finding exciting recipes, rather than outsourcing that aspect of our lives.

Another cost saving opportunity is my fiancee’s phone bill. Currently, it’s costing us $80/month. I’m not as familiar with the realm of mobile service contracts, but from reading plenty of great personal finance blogs, I know there are plenty of options out there to reduce that bill by at least half.

The biggest obstacle we face in our 90 Day Frugality Challenge will be spending money while out with our friends or at holiday events.

Chicago is an expensive city and a drink will routinely cost you $10+ after tip and sales tax (10.25% here in Chicago).

With our challenge in mind, I’ve set up a few weekly events that will help us to overcome these obstacles and close out 2016 as the best financial year of our lives.

The first is a weekly game night I’ve set up to take place at our condo. We basically get together to drink beers and play board games. It is a ton of fun and the cost is 20% compared to a normal night out.

The second is continuing to have a weekly date night. Lately, we’ve been looking up free museum days and free outdoor concerts in Chicago. This has helped out our budget tremendously, since the cost of a ticket to many events can be upwards of a $100.

The last solution will be the hardest to implement: The power of “No.”

I find it is much easier to say, “No,” to someone when you have a much larger, “Yes,” that you’re working towards. In this case, the goal of doubling our savings rate is not an easy thing to say, “Yes,” to. I know this because I’ve tried and failed this year. Instead, my focus for this 90 day challenge will be to work on making Distilled Dollar as successful as it can be. This translates to working nearly every weekend (between now and 2017) on developing content, and reaching out to readers, friends, and experts in order to improve my writing, my delivery, my content, my website, etc.

I find the more I give to this site, the more I receive so I’m excited to say, “Yes”, to more work on Distilled Dollar.

The added benefit of spending more time on my site is that it’s free and it doesn’t come with a hangover the next day.

It also helps to have a vacation on the books for January of 2017. That will be our time to fully unplug and enjoy some R&R while on the beach in Hawaii. I find it is easier to work hard when you know there is a reward within sight.


Stoicism, pursuing the “Good Life,” and Mustering Courage


To compliment my challenge, my reading this quarter will focus on the philosophy of Stoicism since it goes hand in hand with frugality. We might call it a practical guide for optimizing our lifestyle. For me, that means rereading On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. You might scoff at the length being only 54 pages, but I assure you, it takes a great deal of time to read. It takes an even greater amount of time to implement.

For a quick background on Seneca and Stoicism, jump to 7:06 in this podcast from Tim Ferriss where he describes Seneca as one of the wisest and richest men in Rome. This man advised great leaders of his time, including the emperor. The podcast also mentions two other books I’ve selected to read for this 90 Day Frugality Challenge: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Stoics advocate for people to engage in activities such as, “practice poverty,” so that we might eliminate our fears by experiencing them. This was a time when entertainment was ripe (although, much less available than today). Many people were trying to unveil the luxuries of their modern world and reach back to the core of what led to a good life.

As the historian Will Durant put it, “A nation is born stoic and dies epicurean.”

We model this sentiment within the framework of our lives. We want to self-impose and endure, “hardships,” and “sacrifices.” By doing this early in our lives, we are setting ourselves up to live the “good life” later.

While an internal motivator is to internalize the beliefs of stoicism, we are still made better if we utilize stoicism as a temporary vehicle toward achieving financial independence sooner in our lives. If we do decide to spend more lavishly, it will be because we built our foundation correctly in our 20’s and 30’s.

It is helpful for us to remember, humans are hyper capable of adapting to whatever environment they are placed in. One of the unique attributes we face today, uncommon with our ancestors, is our environment does not impose many dangers on us. We’ve adapted to the comforts of modern society. Negative habits are rarely seen until they’re too embedded to be overlooked. I trust the 90 Day Frugality Challenge will force us to weed out negative habits while we enjoy a more simple and happier lifestyle.

One of these days, I need to write a full post on why frugality is not a sacrifice. I don’t foresee any actual, “sacrifices,” happening during the last few months of the year. Still, sacrifice or not, this challenge will have its share of hardships.

The reason I know these changes will be hardships, is because I feel a sense of fear when I commit to this challenge.

I feel fear is a prerequisite to a great goal. A challenge needs to SCARE us in some way. If we don’t expand outside of our comfort zone and unsettle ourselves a bit, then we leave less opportunity for growth.

As Financial Samurai puts it, “if you don’t feel the pain of saving then you’re not saving enough.”

I look forward to facing some pain in the 90 Day Frugality Challenge! By resisting the pain, we expend more energy than we would if we were to simply overcome it. That might be one of the more intense edicts I have applied to my life. It comes from my triathlon training, so I’m curious if others would agree.

The other reason we know this is a challenge is because it excites us.

When we embark on accomplishing something, it needs to be exciting. If we view our goals as too small to begin with, and we don’t feel they’re worth writing down, then we’re as good as a one-legged-man in an ass kicking contest.

As the Chicago Architect Daniel Burnham sums it up, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

What are your big plans before the end of this year? Have you taken a no-spend or frugality challenge before?


Master Distiller

30 comments… add one
  • Vicki@Make Smarter Decisions Sep 26, 2016, 5:57 am

    Great post Matt and good luck with the challenge! I think the holidays are an incredibly hard time to stay on track – from spending to healthy eating to exercise, etc. It takes a lot of discipline! Holiday gifts are our biggest expense at this time – and we have a small family. We have cut out gifts between adult siblings and extended family (and everyone was relieved!) We have 5 kids between my husband and myself – and that is a huge expense. The price of drinks is crazy – we hang out with friends at our houses most of the time now, and maybe go out once a month. It’s a great way to save – especially if your friends enjoy it too!

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 12:36 pm

      Shoot! Forgot to mention the holiday gift spending. Hah, we did set aside a a budgeted amount for gifts this year, so at least that won’t be a surprise. My immediate family is not quite as big, but it also involves a flight to visit family this upcoming quarter.

  • Ms Rustic Walks Sep 26, 2016, 6:01 am

    We did a frugality challenge in August, and it definitely opened our eyes to how much money we were wasting this summer. Hundreds of dollars on eating out alone! Major props for doing a 90 day challenge! Anyone can do a spending ban for one month, but it takes willpower to go for three months. Excited to see how it turns out!

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 12:38 pm

      Yep! I’m trusting the will power needed will fade as I dive more into Stoicism. I’m wondering how long the resulting lifestyle will last after I’m exposed to more of their ideas.

  • Jay Sep 26, 2016, 7:00 am

    Cool article Matt. Congratulations on making the commitment. And I really enjoy your emphasis on stoicism and the attitudes around money, hardship and sacrifice. In fact, I think I’m going to pick up the Seneca book you recommended and learn more about this for myself. Thanks again and good luck with the final quarter of the year!

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 12:39 pm

      Thanks for the comment Jay! I’m sure I’ll be able to provide a full recap in January.

      Let me know if you enjoy the book!

  • FinanciaLibre Sep 26, 2016, 8:26 am

    Some great stuff here, Matt!

    I like your plans to save aggressively by implementing smart lifestyle changes. And I hope y’all reach your goals.

    However, I’ve never been a fan of the savings philosophy advocated in the Financial Sam. quote about savings and pain. In fact, most readings of Stoic philosophy would suggest that the experience of pain like that is a failed implementation of Stoicism in one’s life. If individual choices are sufficiently aligned with one’s philosophy and strategy, there won’t be pain or discord. There’ll instead be immense satisfaction.

    My view on savings “challenges” is that they can be useful as short-run measures (like Lent) that distorts economic choices for a little bit and may provide some useful short-run savings, etc. Which is what y’all are doing – which I think is great. But a real implementation of Stoicism would be more long-run stable and likely more powerful as a way of realigning consumption and lifestyle with one’s true motivations and values.

    Just some thoughts in response to a really good read.

    Thought-provoking stuff here – many thanks for the good post!

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 12:33 pm

      Excellent points and this gave me some food for thought. Your comment also made me bump my “frugality is not a sacrifice,” article further up the list as I need to lay out a few more things.

      I suppose the “pain” and “suffering” I anticipate is linked closer to a general lifestyle shift as opposed to any particular luxury being missed. With any change there is some level of stress, even with great beneficial changes.

      I suppose using words such as pain and self-imposed hardships is my lazy way of describing how my budget will be simplified. I do receive a lot of joy from the small things in life, but I also get swept up in expensive items from time to time. I find them more often as a distraction over the long term and not as beneficial as they seemed in the short term.

      It is almost funny how the modern era’s financial success is sometimes determined by what we don’t do as opposed to what we do. I hope this realignment will help me focus in on what really counts.

      • FinanciaLibre Sep 26, 2016, 12:58 pm

        Great points, all! I look forward to the upcoming post. Valuable stuff here as always!

  • Matt @ Optimize Your Life Sep 26, 2016, 8:41 am

    Great article! And good luck on the challenge!

    As an ancient history nerd (I was a Classical Humanities major in undergrad) I fully support reading the Stoics. 🙂 If you enjoy and/or find benefit from Seneca’s letters and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, I recommend checking out Discourses and Enchiridion by Epictetus. He was born a slave and eventually was freed and became a philosophy teacher. His writing was very influential to Marcus Aurelius’s understanding of Stoicism.

    I also recommend A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine. It is basically a guide to applying Stoic philosophy to modern life. It takes some liberties and some shortcuts, but it is a quick read and a solid overview.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 12:40 pm

      Awesome! These have been added to my reading list – not sure I’ll tackle them this quarter but maybe sometime in 2017. Thanks!!

  • Financial Slacker Sep 26, 2016, 9:44 am

    Great post, Matt. And congratulations on such a wonderful Q3.

    The 90 day frugality challenge sounds like a good way to get on track for a strong year-end. I’ve been a little less formal in moving toward a more frugal lifestyle. But over the past year, we’ve cut a significant portion of our expenses. To be honest, most of the cutting is stuff we didn’t need but had let build up over time.

    As for our Q4, we are looking at starting a new business. We have something in the works that hopefully I’ll be able to write more about and share at a later date. Until then, it’s work hard on the site and enjoy spending time with the family.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 10:54 pm

      Sounds like our 2016’s are pretty similar! We’ve cut out a lot of fat over the year – so I feel this 90 day challenge will be the toughest part to find gains.

      Best of luck on the new venture. I look forward to hearing more about it!

  • Your First Million Sep 26, 2016, 9:45 am

    Congrats on realigning your budget and taking on the 90 day challenge! Sometimes it is easy to let things slide over time, but successful people are always able to take charge, regain complete control over their spending, and start to see real financial results. To me, being frugal is not the same as being “cheap” either. I still enjoy nice things once in a while, as long as it they are within our budget. My wife and I currently save between 40-50% of our after tax income. This allows us to seriously ramp up our savings so that we can purchase at least one investment property each year. I really enjoyed this article because it has inspired me to go back over my original budget and see if there is anything I can revise to save a little bit more every month. Thank you for this post I greatly enjoyed it 🙂

  • Financial Panther Sep 26, 2016, 10:01 am

    Right on Matt. We’ve been doing game nights instead of going out to the bars for the past year or so and it’s been great! We’re in our late 20s/early 30s now, so the fun of bar hopping is sorta done for us (plus, I’m engaged and my friends are all engaged, in serious relationships, or married, so…what’s the purpose of going to the bars?).

    We’re truly in the golden age of tabletop games now too, so you don’t have to play dumb games. Pick up Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride, of course. Try out a game called Pandemic. We’ve had some fun with that. Our latest obsession has been a game called Splendor, which I highly recommend.

    Good point with that Financial Samurai quote. I agree that you should always feel like you’re sorta in a pinch with your saving. Just got inspired and decided to up my 457(b) contributions after reading this post. The crazy thing, I took a 50k paycut earlier this year, but now my absolute savings amount is HIGHER than what it was when I was working in my big law firm job.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 11:01 pm

      Yes! So many things in here are awesome!

      First off, AWESOME to hear you’ve upped the 457(b) contribution. I’m sure it was going to happen soon, but glad to see it happened now.

      Second, when can we start our board game blog? I’m thinking Distilled Panther? 🙂

      We’ve played Settlers & Pandemic. I heard Ticket to Ride is amazing but I’ve never heard of Splendor. I’ve added it to our list so we’ll have to try it out in the near future. Our game night quickly evolved into bigger games such as Werewolf (huge fan), but we also play smaller games when less people show up. I’m a big fan of Smallworld because its quick. My all time favorite board game is Twilight Struggle (not to be confused with Twilight Imperium which is also epic), but the only downside is the game is two players. Seriously, I could go for days on the topic since you’re right – this is the golden age! Haha, so I definitely appreciate you taking the time to suggest a few games.

  • Jon @ Be Net Worthy Sep 26, 2016, 6:52 pm

    Matt, congrats on an awesome Q3! I loved your reference to the stoics and will be checking out some of those reads. As an engineering undergrad, I am woefully under-read and lacking in the humanities in general.

    I’m looking forward to hearing about your 90 day frugality challenge as it unfolds. It’ll be good to get it out of the way before any kids come along – lol!

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 11:10 pm

      Thanks Jon – it was by far the best 3 months of my life! 🙂

      I hear you on the engineering degree. Accounting classes did not teach us much about the classics.

      Based on the feedback – it sounds like we’ll need to have at least one update a month on how our challenge unfolds.

  • Cindy @ Smart Family Money Sep 26, 2016, 9:11 pm

    Best of luck on your challenge! I’ve never done an official challenge, but I’ll be interested in following yours. I’m also excited to see what you do with Distilled Dollar!

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 26, 2016, 11:07 pm

      Thanks Cindy! We’re excited about the challenge and what the blog will bring in the future. I’m sure we’ll have some feedback in real time – maybe we’ll do a monthly update.

  • ADI Sep 27, 2016, 6:15 am

    The Hays translation of Meditations is my favourite book of all time, and I reread it every year. My favourite passage in the book concerns the notion of improving every day, being slightly better, and moving towards the best possible version of yourself. I suspect your triathlon training will help you improve on other things (like your blog, eating habits) incrementally, as the idea of deliberate training and embracing the pain of improvement is also a very stoic notion.

    I’m looking forward to reading your recap of your 90 day challenge. I know for a fact I can’t restrain myself over the holiday season! Congratulations on your engagement, too.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 29, 2016, 10:49 pm

      Sweet – I’ll have to check out that translation.

      As for the Holiday season – that will be the toughest challenge. I’ll keep you posted and who knows, maybe I will be fortunate enough to be close to what Emerson described as the great man who in the, “midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

      ….Or I’ll drink too much from the egg nog and pass out after my 3rd gingerbread man! 🙂

  • Middle Aged Wealth Builder Sep 27, 2016, 4:21 pm

    Hi Matt, Get your wife’s phone switched over to Cricket Wireless. Cricket is the pre-paid plan company that ATT bought a few years back, so your calls and data will now go across their network. The plans are simple, and you use a credit card to pay every month and I would recommend that you use one that pays you cash back on the purchase. Your wife can even bring her existing phone, if it currently runs on one of the existing GSM providers in the U.S. (ATT, or T-Mobile). If she currently uses Sprint or Verizon there may be other options their with companies like Boost Mobile, or Ting. Republic Wireless is also another one that I think Mr. Money Mustache likes.

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 29, 2016, 10:50 pm

      THANK YOU! Hah, seriously, this was real helpful!

      I’ve seen RW mentioned a lot, so I’ll def be looking through that. When we do make the chance, I’ll be sure to write up a post on the experience along with what we ended up with.

  • Amy Sep 27, 2016, 7:37 pm

    I think upping your frugal game coming off of the summer months is a great way to ensure you wrap up the year feeling satisfied in your hard work.

    For free stuff to do in Chicago, definitely check out your company’s cultural discounts. I get a ton of free entry passes to museums through my company, yet most of my co-workers don’t ever bother to take advantage! Employee perks and benefits are overlooked but there can be quite a lot of opportunities. 🙂

    Best of luck!

    • Distilled Dollar Sep 29, 2016, 10:52 pm

      Great reminder! I haven’t checked out my employer’s perks in a while.

      Thanks Amy!

  • Matt Oct 4, 2016, 6:35 am

    Awesome post! My wife and I have done some challenges that are similar. They are awesome! We were able to accomplish a lot because we were both all in. That is key when you are doing a challenge with a partner! I am excited to hear your results!

    • Distilled Dollar Oct 4, 2016, 2:54 pm

      Great point Matt – the key is being all in. For me, it is much easier to go in at 100% than to try for 95%. Once one exception gets in, it tends to multiply.

      We are also excited to see what we can do.

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