5 Lessons Learned from a Frugality Challenge

We’ve now spent less money in the last two months than ANY other two month period for the Distilled Dollar household. (Waits for round of applause)

5 Lessons Learned from a Frugality Challenge - Applause

Yes, thank you! Thank you! But, we still have ANOTHER 30 days to go!! 🙁 🙂 The lessons learned from a Frugality Challenge keep piling on so today’s post we’ll share with you our most recent discoveries!

To put things in perspective, we’re on track to hit a 60% savings rate this quarter!!! Our previous high was in the mid 40’s so we’re growing leaps and bounds ahead of our past selves.

Frugality, at its core, is about efficiently allocating our scarce resources.

We used to think Frugality was about SAVINGS…

5 Lessons Learned from a Frugality Challenge - Yoda

…but we learned a critical lesson.

We learned frugality is about SPENDING wisely.

While we’re beyond thrilled to be saving what amounts to essentially an EXTRA paycheck each month (CRAZY!!) we’re more excited about the extra bits of time we’re putting to good use.

Understanding the difference between efficiency and effectiveness is one of those things we will all continue to become better and better at. That’s part of growing up and becoming older and wiser.

So, here’s a list of the 5 Lessons Learned from a Frugality Challenge…….so far!

Willpower Management


This is easily the biggest takeaway throughout the challenge. While we’d love to be perfectly frugal 100% of the time, the truth is we fluctuate, sometimes by a lot. That little voice creeps in telling you, “buy carry out sushi…it will be delicious.” It can be difficult to say no every time. My willpower needs to kick in to remind myself I spend 8 hours every Sunday cooking for a good reason.

To be successful, we’ve had to identify areas where our willpower is likely to break down and then make sure our actions align with periods outside of those times.

For me, that means I need to buy groceries EARLY on Sunday. I know for a fact if noon rolls around and I’m not out the door, the chances of me getting my ass off the couch are close to zero.

Another big one for me is I need to hit the gym AS SOON as I get home. If I spend just a few minutes reading a book or checking Twitter, then I’m likely to lay around on the couch all day.

By now you can see a trend — the couch is always calling to me.

5 Lessons Learned from a Frugality Challenge - Seinfeld

Dreading the Thought more than the Action


This is a real odd one, I’m facing, and it reminds me of my perfectly attuned habit of productive procrastination.

Back in my CPA studying days, I would spend hours cleaning my room and sorting dishes in the kitchen BEFORE sitting down to study. Of course, chores need to be done, but chores take a back seat to higher priority tasks… like studying to pass the CPA!

These days, I experience productive procrastination when it comes to Sunday cooking. It takes up a lot of time. A LOT of time. I probably was spending a few HOURS over the week dreading Sunday’s cooking activities.

5 Lessons Learned from a Frugality Challenge - Game of Thrones

I knew this habit was unhealthy so I decided to reframe things as much as possible. When the thought of cooking popped up, I immediately reminded myself of the dollars saved. Each week is about $300 in SAVINGS compared to where our food budget was before. As your standard millennial couple, we developed our fair share of spending habits associated with food.

My typical solution in these cases is to do the task immediately. Given the need to wait until Sunday, I’ve found this new solution to reframe the situation helps me turn a negative thought pattern into a positive reinforcement. Give it a try if there’s something you’re dreading.

Before long, the new thought pattern becomes habit.

Beating Ourselves Up Less


Now that we’re stringing together our best 60 days of spend EVER (yea, we’re still celebrating over here), we find less reason to beat ourselves up when we do slip up.

We had a nice dinner out while on a trip to San Antonio and it definitely didn’t fall under the frugal umbrella. It probably wasn’t even near the country of Frugalia, but we decided to have that mini celebration on the road.

A similar instance happened when my family went out for a fancy-ish brunch instead of a home cooked meal the weekend of Thanksgiving. Everyone was a bit tired from having hosted 50 people (my parent’s record for a Thanksgiving party) – and the leftovers were all gone. Instead of having my parents pay, my brothers and I decided to split the bill at a nice place.

For anyone following my story on Twitter, I mentioned we hit 44/45 days or 58/60 days in this challenge, so now you know where the missing days come from!

Enjoying Our Frugality More


Now that the monetary reward for being frugal is even higher, we’re more excited about saving our cash. We can see, in real time, that money grows into a war chest of sorts.

All those feelings of security and freedom are more tangible because our pace of growth is higher now than ever, despite what the stock market is or isn’t doing. 

Since we’re more frugal, we tend to be spending more time together.

My Sunday Cooking ritual often means I see tremendous help from my fiancée (she’s a MUCH better cook than I am). An old habit of ours might have been to lay around and watch movies or even go to the theatre. While both of these activities involve spending time together, it is much easier to talk while cooking than while at the movies!

Enemy of the Great is the Good


Since we’re having such massive success on the short term, we have become a bit lazy on the small details.

Previously, I mentioned a nasty ice cream habit that’s crept into my life, in particular around my belly. Now that the Chicago winter is coming (obligatory winter is coming joke), I’ve apparently decided to step up my game by dropping my triathlon training schedule in favor of preparing for hibernation.

The cell phone plans is another one of those, “push it to next weekend,” tasks that well, keeps getting pushed back.

We’ve settled for a good result at the expense of a great one.

We’re still thrilled with our results, but I know there’s more ground to be gained. So, going back to Willpower Management mentioned above, it is about making smart decisions ahead of time.

Regarding the cell phone plans, I’ve blocked off a day before the end of the year to shop around  and read the articles people have recommended. I’ve committed that time to research a new cell phone plan so I now have to stick to it. If I stop posting before the end of the year – then you know the internet accountability police have stopped by with a warrant for my arrest.



Set goals and publicly tell people about them – even if it is strangers on the internet. That’s what we’ve done and we’ve had tremendous results this year.

Accountability matters.

As we near the end of the year, we’re starting to dream up big goals for 2017. But first, we’ll close out 2016 strong.

What are you planning to do before the end of the year? Anything stuck on your to-do list the past few weeks or months?


13 comments… add one
  • [email protected] Dec 7, 2016, 6:02 am

    It sounds like you are in a great “place” Matt! It’s funny though – I am writing a post about ditching goals. (Maybe it’s because I’m “old” – The Gen X vs. Millennial thing?) It has clearly worked for you though! We may have to write battling posts about that someday 😉

  • Miss Mazuma Dec 7, 2016, 6:57 am

    Congrats!! That’s a great increase!! I have always been frugal but when I started tracking my expenses I saw where my real downfalls were. With a bit of tweaking I was able to save far more…especially on food and energy consumption. My goal this year was to lower the costs of each category from the following year. Most months I was able to and found those small wins to drive me forward.

    It’s amazing what packing your lunch will do! And don’t worry, take it from someone who has been doing it a LOOOONG time, as it becomes more habit you will get quicker at it. 🙂

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 7, 2016, 6:22 pm

      Thanks!!! I completely agree that tracking spend is so important. It is nuts to see some categories be three times, four times, or more, compared to what we thought it would be.

      Yep! I’m noticing my cooking Sundays are becoming less and less time. Maybe half my time now is wrapped up in buying groceries and cleaning.

  • Penny @ She Picks Up Pennies Dec 7, 2016, 7:10 am

    ::round of applause:: Congrats! That’s HUGE savings. We don’t save that much, but we do hover consistently around 50%. Frugality is fun. I see it as a challenge and try to make it as much of a game as possible. I figure if I free up my money for savings and giving, that’s a good math puzzle to work through each month 😉 I’m seriously so excited for you. Can’t wait to hear more.

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 7, 2016, 6:24 pm

      YES!! Frugality IS fun! I love to think of it that way. Plus, I find so much actual joy and happiness in spending my time well. Typically, that means making something (such as a blog post) or spending time with family/friends.

      Thanks for being excited!! 🙂

  • Millennial Money Dec 7, 2016, 8:20 am

    This is super impressive Matt and good lessons.
    I agree that the best finance optimizing strategy is “getting off the couch on and to the grocery early on a Sunday morning!” 🙂 I find that it’s all about aligning consistent behaviors until they just become a part of who you are and you no longer have to fight as hard. Meaning you will actually need less willpower over time once you’ve built the habit. Best of luck the next 30 days – esp. The holidays.

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 7, 2016, 6:34 pm

      Yep! – I had that big “get off the couch,” epiphany a while back when I started to think of the consumer vs creator paradigm. I slip back into consumer mode quite a bit, but I’ve upped my ability to focus on creating and producing content.

      As you mentioned, over time, the habits become natural and we can focus on creating even more habits to layer on top of the newly formed good habits.

  • Mrs. Picky Pincher Dec 7, 2016, 8:35 am

    Congrats on that savings rate! Are there particular steps (other than cooking more at home) that you’re taking to decrease spending? We just started paying off our student loans so we’re trying to be as lean as possible (a joke during the holidays, but we’re making it happen!).

    As far as the last few weeks of the month, I’m trying to also plan our food expenses more. I’ve stockpiled library cookbooks and lots of interesting recipes, so hopefully we can start getting our food costs back down to $80/week.

  • Matt Spillar Dec 7, 2016, 6:23 pm

    Congrats on such a huge increase in your savings rate! These are some great takeaways from your first 2 months of doing the challenge. I especially like how you’ve been re-framing your mindset to see the negative things you have to do in the light of how much money it’s saving you. So much in life is about the attitude we have, by staying optimistic and focusing on the positive it helps things not seem so bad.

    I wanted to ask though, how is it that you’re spending 8 hours every Sunday on cooking? Could you provide a few more details on our meal prep process? I read your post a few weeks ago talking about how you purchase the groceries, then cook all the food and then portion it out for the week. That includes both lunches and dinners right? What type of food do you make?

    It seems to me like you could get that down to about 3-4 hours. My grocery shopping takes about an hour. Then my wife does her meal prep for her lunches for the week, which usually involves baking a large batch of chicken in the oven for about 45 minutes, and then taking a few minutes to heat up some sides (veggies, quinoa, rice, etc.). To change things up you can use a different protein, different seasonings and marinades, or shred the chicken for salads/tacos/sandwiches. We also make a lot of pasta which is simple and doesn’t take long. Or utilize a slow cooker and have it do the work for you so that you can do other things instead.

    Anyways, I love how your frugality challenge has been playing such a key role in further optimizing how you spend your money. I’d challenge you further to try to cut that 8 hours in half, and then it wouldn’t seem so bad 🙂

    • Distilled Dollar Dec 7, 2016, 6:45 pm

      I accept your challenge!!

      Haha, I have been cutting it down to maybe 6-7 hours now, but I’m not as quick as others. Part of the reason is I’m usually listening to an audiobook so I’m somewhat distracting. Another bottleneck is we have a small kitchen with a few pots/pans, so I can only cook/prep so much at a time.

      In the end, it ends up being ~35 meals, sometimes more, sometimes less.

      My time is pretty much broken out like this:

      1st hour: Walk to the grocery store and finish most of my shopping
      2nd hour: Walk back home and freak out with my fiancee over all the crazy new stuff I bought
      3rd hour: Regret everything I’m doing, but start the process anyway
      Next few hours I’ll pretty much cook a lot of rice/beans/veggies and prepare them in 2-3 different styles. I might include farro or potatoes to create more variety. I also do the same with preparing 2-3 styles of chicken. We cook fish or beef the night of the dinner. I typically break for lunch for ~45 minutes and break for dinner near the end for ~45 minutes
      8th hour: Cleaning up the entire kitchen, putting dishes away, taking out the trash, etc.

      As I mentioned above, I’ve gotten the process closer to 6-7 hours and without counting our lunch/dinner time in there, it would probably take me closer to 4-5 hours.

      • Matt Spillar Dec 7, 2016, 6:50 pm

        Thanks for the detailed response, that makes things more clear, I was picturing you spending an hour or two shopping and then 6 hours slaving over the stove and was thinking “that can’t be right!” haha. But yeah seeing it broken down like that it makes a lot of sense how it would take that long. Definitely been a HUGE money saver, so it’s time well spent, and I bet you’ll get more efficient as time goes on.

  • Jay Dec 9, 2016, 6:52 am

    Thanks for sharing your lessons. I think what you’ve been able to do is amazing. A 60% savings rate is fantastically impressive, well-done!

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