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Forced Frugality: Applying Lockdown Life Lessons to Reach FI Faster

forced frugality

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 of 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 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, but I can’t see that ever being me, but cutting back some on red meat is a step in a good direction.


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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’s wonderful to have some of those things back.  I look forward to bellying up to a bar soon, going to football games, family and neighborhood gatherings, and I know our traveling days are 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 becoming 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 find 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 two to four 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 7 days told us that a) it was definitely time to go, and that b) it would likely be some time before we’re able to safely travel internationally again.

Our pre-pandemic spending was projected to be about $80,000 a year. $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) nor does it 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.


forced frugality
free family fun in madrid


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 aren’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 four to six weeks, mainly because it became uncomfortable under an O.R. 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.

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.


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What do you miss the most about your pre-pandemic lifestyle? What parts of lockdown life could become incorporated into your normal routine? 


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21 thoughts on “Forced Frugality: Applying Lockdown Life Lessons to Reach FI Faster”

  1. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  2. Good article. Our household has seen an increase in grocery spending, but otherwise, everything else is down. Travel is usually in our top three of spending for the year. It has been zero since our last trip in February. COVID is going force our net worth up, all by itself.

  3. Yay for frugality! It lets you arrive at FI shockingly faster. I will say though, from experience, if you make avoiding red meat a regular thing, (like Even only 90% avoidance) you’ll start to feel sick after you eat a burger :-/

  4. Our (spouse and I) biggest spending year after year: dining out (4-5x per month?) and long distance trips (8-10? per year). Im hoping putting all the money otherwise spent on those into our taxable account will do wonders in 10 years, like those who invested during the ‘aughts. But, drizly delivery has replaced bar tabs, so money spent on alcohol is a wash.

  5. Fascinating how we’ve adapted to the new normal. I’ve cut my own hair three times since the stay at home order started. I think I’m actually getting pretty good at it now. Unsurprisingly, the original surgeons were also barbers!

  6. Re: your heavy meat diet… Just for fun, watch “The Game Changers,” a documentary on Netflix. You’ll cut way down (full disclosure, I’m not a vegetarian, but have red meat about 4 times a year, and chicken maybe once or twice a month). The part with the college athletes and their erections is especially enlightening..!

    • I enjoy documentaries, but so many have an agenda and don’t give a balanced view of the facts. I’m not familiar with The Game Changers, but this review doesn’t make it look too enticing. Not Plandemic bad, but not exactly unbiased and loose with the facts.

      On that last bit, it is true that my wife “turned me on” to salads (pun intended), which was something I never ate before we met. Hmmm…

      • No I wouldn’t hold that doc out as balanced, and frankly I argued it’s point to my father-in-law (a South African meat eater…) who strongly recommending us seeing it, before watching. But def very thought provoking, and builds on most docs’ and science-based viewpoint showing a diet high in plants and low in meat is best. Would have an open mind and watch it for what it’s worth; I’d be very curious to see what you think after seeing it.

      • You should see the documentary before even thinking about putting it in the same universe as plandemic. The studies actually paint a convincing picture that the “agenda” is much less balanced on the pro-animal side of the debate (hint: plants make companies much less money).

        For those interested here is a rebuttal of that poorly written men’s health review:

  7. I’m optimistic too, so I hope that people will take some of the “good” from the COVID lockdown back into “real life.” Our changes have been different than many folks’ because we also lived in a semi-frugal manner before the virus.

    We may actually end up increasing some spending after lockdown & as we return to some semblance of normalcy. We’ve always lived a version of Ramit’s, “spend as little as possible, except on the things you love, where you spend just about as much as you want.”

    We dine out infrequently, but have no problem splurging on our once a quarter meals out, and our annual trip to restaurant mecca NYC. Since I owned a food business for a while, we have a soft spot in our hearts for restaurants. Since the lockdown, seeing the way the hospitality industry has been crushed, we plan on going out much more often, to support the people we know in the business. Same with some other service businesses, like our hairdresser.

    I think a few things will change for the long term, but not nearly as many as a lot of folks do. I’m not old enough to have been alive when some earlier upheavals occurred, like race riots of the late 60’s, but I do know that in the 70’s people thought the US would never “come back,” and I remember the dot-com bust, post 9/11, and the 08/09 financial crisis pretty well. There was a ton of punditry about how the world would never be the same each time. I’m pretty sure we know what really happened each time.

    • One way we’ve been spending more during this lockdown life is on takeout from local restaurants, which is something we pretty much never did before. If we’re going to pay restaurant prices for food, it might as well come with the service you’re paying for, dishes washed, etc…

      But we’d like to see these restaurants in business after this is over, so we continue to support them by ordering meals once a week. We also tip for takeout, which is something I’m not accustomed to doing, but there’s no other way for the people working there to earn tips, so we do it.


      • We want to support our local restaurants as well, but blanch at spending $25 for a fancy entree in a foam box. We have purchased gift cards from our favorites to give them cash now and let us redeem in the future with all the services.

  8. I used to hit Starbucks two to three times a day. Mostly because I like flavored coffee and didn’t think that I could replicate that at home. Turns out you can actually buy flavorings! Never occurred to me to do that when Starbucks is just a few minute drive away. It’s hard to know if I will return when I venture outside more. I suspect not as much, now that I have found an alternative at home.

    • Great example, Astrid.

      I’ve gone a bit further and have brewed my own beer at home and put it on tap. I still visit breweries, but not as often as I used to.


  9. Travel this year will definitely be less expensive than what was planned or what I have done in the past.

    I already had a spring break trip to Cancun refunded because of the pandemic and my daughter’s summer visit to England because of custody issues also has been canceled.

    I predict that people will be cautious when the all clear sign is lit but eventually old habits will come back as people either become complacent with coronavirus or advances in prevention occur.

    There is just too much marketing and consumerism that will tempt people to engage in things they have put off during this time.

    • Our next scheduled international trip is a 30-day cruise to Shanghai, China! We booked it in 2019, and it’s not scheduled to happen until late October, but it’s hard to imagine that happening.

      I think it’s true that there will be pent-up demand and we’ll see many old habits return, but I also believe some behaviors that are new and different (and maybe more frugal) will have staying power.

      Some are calling consumers’ newfound forced frugality an economic threat.


  10. I haven’t had any hits to my lifestyle as I already live pretty frugally. The two days a week I used to go into work were bike commuting, so I had to replace those bike miles but that’s been easy. I also posted about this – as to whether folks will adopt some of the new and very good habits they’ve been engaging in. Walks and outdoor exercise have skyrocketed, and spending is down. The optimist in me hopes it will change some people permanently, but the pessimist in me usually gets the last laugh. America got where it is – high obesity and high debt – for a reason, and I’m not so sure this relatively short experiment will alter those strong tendencies.

    • I just read that sales of snack foods and comfort foods is way up, but Under Armour sales are way down. Those stats do not paint a great picture, at least in terms of the obesity you mentioned.

      I do think there’s some hope for frugality, though. Time will tell.


  11. The biggest “hits” to my lifestyle was closing the gym and no restaurants and coffee shops. Regarding the gym, during this time I found out I can get an even better workout by doing just calisthenics. I’m now considering canceling my gym membership when this is over and just go workout in parks or at the beach.


    • There’s another good one. Changes in fitness.

      I’ve been on a pushups and situps kick, and there are tons of other body weight exercises and workouts you can do with a small free weight setup at home. Kettle bells and fitness bands can be useful, too.

      Running outdoors doesn’t cost a dime, either, and we’ve gotten used to doing that in all sorts of weather.



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