By Dr. Leif Dahleen of Physician on Fire, WCI Network Partner
The last time I went even a week without eating red meat was 40-some years ago when I was an infant with no canine teeth and no ability to discern edible from inedible objects. Back when I didn’t know a Lego from a lamb chop.
I’ve somehow managed to get by with more than 15 years of shacking up with a dietitian without dropping red meat from my diet for more than a day or two. That changed abruptly in February 2020 when I agreed to give up red meat completely for Lent.
For seven weeks, we almost didn’t touch red meat at all, and that’s a big change for this meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. I say “almost” because there were the airport lounge dumplings we semi-accidentally ate that very likely contained pork. Also, I thought it would be funny to eat one of the last two mini pizza rolls that my kids had heated up, not realizing that I was eating pepperoni until it was too late. I think I avoided beef completely, though.
My gaffes are not the point. The point is that after seven weeks of a very-nearly-red-meat-free diet, I thought I would be craving all things that once oinked or mooed. Instead, I got kind of used to not having it.
Instead of going on a three-day meat bender starting Easter Sunday, I simply allowed myself to have some and didn’t go out of my way to avoid it, like I had before. Yes, I ate a five-meat pizza that I had purchased in anticipation of those cravings, but I’ve continued to eat more seafood, chicken, and turkey than I did prior to the self-induced red meat ban.
Taco Tuesday? Ground chicken works just as well (and costs less than beef, too). Our neighbors introduced us to turkey burgers, and they were amazing. I think the two birds could easily swap roles—I’ll have to report back on the turkey tacos and chicken burgers.
I realize that many people forgo meat completely—I can’t see that ever being me—but cutting back some on red meat is a step in a good direction.
Forced Frugality: Applying Lockdown Life Lessons to Reach FI Faster
How does my dietary disturbance have anything to do with you becoming financially independent more quickly?
You see, my seven-week sacrifice was purely voluntary, but shortly thereafter, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all had to make numerous sacrifices and changes in our regular lives—most of them involuntary and out of necessity. And many of them saved us money.
It was wonderful to have some of those things back. I looked forward to bellying up to a bar, going to football games, and family and neighborhood gatherings. I knew our traveling days were not over. On the other hand, some of the things we gave up may be gone for good, or we may realize they’re not as important as we thought they were.
Let’s talk about some of the ways that life under lockdown was different and how some of those changes might persist, saving you money over the long run and shortening your time to become financially independent.
Changes in Dining
I’m guessing you didn’t dine out much during the pandemic. Did you cook more meals at home? Did you or your partner improve your kitchen skills?
The main reason my wife and I like going out to eat is to have meals that we can’t make nearly as well at home. That list of foods is rapidly shrinking. In the last few weeks alone, firecracker chicken and shrimp curry have been added to our list of delicious home-cooked meals.
If dining out was a big part of your pre-pandemic spending, you may have found yourself spending less on it afterward, especially if you’ve got the time and willingness to learn how to prepare meals at home.
I’m not advocating you avoid dining out altogether in a post-pandemic world. The restaurants that are still around will need your business more than ever. But it’s possible you won’t need them as much as you once thought you did—or at least not as often.
Changes in Travel
When the novel coronavirus was first identified and reported, we had just returned from spending two months in Mexico. Shortly thereafter, we embarked on another two-month adventure—this time in Spain.
After getting to know Valencia, Barcelona, and Madrid for 2-4 weeks apiece, we were preparing to head home in early March. The virus had arrived in Spain, and the confirmed cases went from a few dozen a week before we left to a few hundred on the day we flew home.
That 10x increase in seven days told us that a) it was definitely time to go, and that b) it would likely be some time before we could safely travel internationally again.
Our pre-pandemic spending was projected to be about $80,000 a year, and $20,000 of that budget was dedicated to travel. For about a year and a half, that number was much closer to $0, dropping our anticipated spend by nearly 25%. Note that the budget does not include a housing payment (we’re debt free) and it does not include our charitable giving, a figure that easily exceeds the $80,000 that we spend on everything else.
Before our family was fully vaccinated against COVID, we traveled very little and certainly not internationally.
Road-tripping became more appealing than flying. Driving also happens to be the more frugal way to travel as a family. Crowded places like Disney World were presumably more risky than less crowded places like state parks and hiking trails. The latter also cost a whole lot less.
You may find that your modified travel plans include fewer luxuries and high-cost admission fees. You may also find that a different kind of vacation can be just as enjoyable, if not more so.
I can almost guarantee that your travel costs were significantly lower in 2020 than they were in 2019, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those savings become sticky and stay with you well after the pandemic has ended.
Changes in Transportation
Raise your hand if you worked remotely from home for the first time ever in 2020. Raise your other hand if you kind of liked working in your jammies and not having to deal with a stressful commute.
OK, hands down.
Especially in the early stages of the pandemic, there were far fewer cars on the roads. The reduction in pollution allowed for vistas not seen in years. Insurance companies credited their clients for the fact that their automobiles weren’t being driven as much. The less time you spend driving, the less likely you are to feel you need to have a really nice car. You’ll also put less wear and tear on the car or cars that you do have, saving on maintenance, repairs, and gasoline. The lower demand for gasoline early on had the expected effect of lowering the cost of a gallon of gas. All of this meant more money in your pocket.
You may even decide you own and operate one car too many. In my household, when we realized we weren’t going anywhere for a while, we took our newer, more expensive vehicle off insurance (technically on storage mode insurance) for six weeks, saving a good chunk of change. Many days, we didn’t use either vehicle we own, let alone both.
If you are among the millions who worked from home more than before, that change may become permanent or be a more viable option in the future. In my book, not commuting is superior to having to commute, hands down. Unless that is, you’re commuting by e-bike. But that won’t cost you much.
Changes in Hair Care
We were already quite lean in this department. As I shared when talking about our frugal weirdo tendencies, my wife convinced me to cut her hair, and I’ve cut my own for years. We usually cut our kids’ hair, too.
How long did you go without stepping foot in a hair salon or barbershop? What were you able to do to avoid looking like Malcolm Gladwell?
Cutting your own hair, your partner’s hair, or your kids’ hair will obviously save you money, but those aren’t the only cost-cutting options when it comes to hair care. If you color your hair, that can be done at home. Maybe not quite as well but at a small fraction of the price. If you used to have a monthly appointment, maybe you’ve realized you can get by alright going every other month. Now, you’ve saved 50% on your lovely locks.
I used to cut my own hair with clippers every 4-6 weeks, mainly because it became uncomfortable under an OR skull cap if it grew out any longer. Now that I don’t wear those, I’ve just been letting my hair grow out more often. I went six-plus months without a trim during lockdown life.
I have no doubt you’re saving money on hair care now, and you can probably carry some of those savings forward in perpetuity.
Changes in Family Fun
Many of the places you once took your kids on the regular for family closed down for long stretches of time. As such, you had to find ways to entertain your family at home or in wide open spaces outdoors.
An outing to the movie theater with drinks and popcorn could easily run $60 or more. At home, you can take in a movie with snacks for closer to $6.
Instead of laser tag at the local mall or pizza joint, you play games of actual tag in a neighborhood park. The actual game of tag sans lasers doesn’t cost a dime. Yard games, board games, dice games, and card games can all be cheap sources of family fun that don’t require you to leave home at all.
Making Some Changes Permanent
As I said before, there will naturally be a desire to return to some of the comfortable and costlier aspects of our lives that were once part of our normal routine. After Lent, I took delight in devouring the occasional slice of bacon or stick of landjaeger.
On the other hand, necessity is the mother of invention, and I know you’ve invented some new and different ways to get by that might outlast this recent pandemic. (Do you want to tell me about it? You can find me at WCICON23 next March.)
As a new normal life is phased in, try to add back only what you truly value. What was once deemed essential may now feel non-essential, and those transitions can save you a lot of money. How long do you have to go before you’re financially independent? Take a look at my Time to FI calculator to get a rough idea.
While the pandemic brought us some serious short-term pain, it may leave a lasting and positive mark on your budget. Remember that a lower annual spend not only allows you to save and invest more each year, but it also lowers your FI target.
What do you miss the most about your pre-pandemic lifestyle? What parts of lockdown life could become incorporated into your normal routine? Comment below!