Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The frugal millionaire

To me, part of being chic is being good with money. In my opinion it is not chic to be irresponsible or unreliable with finances. Carrie on Sex and the City joked that she would be the old woman literally living in her shoe, because she had spent all her money on Manolos rather than investing in a pension plan. I don’t find that cute at all, in fact it makes me cringe.

I’ve always enjoyed motivating myself by reading personal finance books. If you make something fun to do, you’re more likely to do it. Forcing yourself to save money in a bank account rather than go shopping sounds dire, but turning it around and thinking ‘I’d rather save for something special than waste my money on that magazine/top like 20 others I own/book to cram onto my overflowing bookshelf’ makes me happy not to shop.

I read The Millionaire Next Door book years ago and loved the fact that most actual millionaires don’t get around in Dolce and Gabbana clothing with Rolexes on their wrist. They are normal looking people who are financially secure. They are basically frugal sorts who are married to frugal spouses (it’s very important that you are on the same page. If one is a spender and one is a saver, it won’t be easy).

They say ‘sure, enjoy a big home and expensive car, but after you’ve earned the money and not before’. And many millionaires they have interviewed don’t even do that (the after part). By and large it tends to be the wannabees who wear True Religion jeans (très expensive in NZ) and drive a Land Rover or Audi 4wd, and actual wealthy people who are more unobtrusive.

I love nice clothing and looking stylish, and so does my husband. We enjoy daydreaming about luxury items and travelling around the world staying at five-star hotels. But we are just as happy with our everyday lives, and build our stylish style on a budget, shopping when places have sales and wearing our clothing more often than others might.

I still think I have too many clothes. But whereas in another, previous life, where I had regular cleanouts of good clothing that was sent to the op shop, only for me to replace it again (that’s why I lived off my credit card), now I simply don’t shop for a long while, using and enjoying the clothing I have. It only is decluttered if I decide I have bought wrong, or downgraded to home-wear if it’s no longer good enough for going out.

I wear a Cartier watch that I paid a small fortune for brand-new ten years ago. Clearly I lost my mind then and thought that one needed a good watch to look the part. I do enjoy wearing it, and I like that fact that it is understated and not flashy, but if I was offered a cheque for the same amount I paid for it tomorrow, I would sell it in a flash. I just don’t need stuff like that to make me ‘feel’ wealthy. I would rather ‘be’ wealthy.

I have discussed with my husband whether I should look into selling my Cartier, as supposedly some brands hold their value. Usually it isn’t worth selling designer goods second-hand as you get a pittance back for them. He said even if I got the amount I paid for it, that much probably wouldn’t make that big a deal to our long-term plans, and I may as well wear it and enjoy it.

So I do. And it’s not to say we’re so rich that that amount of money doesn’t matter to us, but if I had my time over, I may not have bought the watch. Not only do you have to fork over the money, you also have to look after it, maintain it (there is only one Cartier repair person in the whole of New Zealand and it needs to be sent to him to even have the battery changed, you can imagine he’s not cheap), insure it (the watch is itemised on our insurance) and worry about it.

One of the authors of the Millionaire Next Door has written a new title, and I have been listening to the audio book in the car. It is called ‘Stop Acting Rich’ which is an updated version and pretty much advises us to stop ‘acting rich’ to ‘be rich’. Don’t spend your hard-earned cash on status items to look rich - save and invest that money for your future. Only when you are rich should you buy these items.

He tells us that many people in our neighbourhood that look wealthy are likely barely scraping by. ‘Neighbourhood’ is actually his main piece of advice – don’t live in a fancy one if you can’t afford it. Stretching yourself financially to afford a big house in an upmarket neighbourhood could mean compromising your financial future. It’s one of the fastest ways to go broke.

Not only will we get the biggest mortgage we can to afford the house, but then we consciously or subconsciously want to keep up with the Joneses, or the next-door neighbours with new cars, toys, trips overseas, private schools etc. A movie I saw recently - ‘The Joneses’ with David Duchovny and Demi Moore - was a really illuminating look into this.  It's actually one of my favourite movies, I've watched it a number of times now.  Even though you know their life is fake, it's really, really appealing.  I'm being sucked in and I know it's fake!

To ‘Stop Acting Rich’ (and start being rich), the author advises to buy in a moderate neighbourhood where you might be wealthier than the neighbours, but live at their level. Live below your means. You will be less likely to conspicuously consume if your neighbours aren’t. This is especially interesting for us as we have just starting looking to buy a house. I initially thought I wanted to buy a small townhouse or an apartment in an upmarket and expensive area, just because it would be nice to live in a nice area.

I am now changing my mind and thinking we want a normal house in a normal but still nice area, and we have been visiting properties within our price budget. And our house budget is one that we have decided we want to spend on a house/mortgage, not the maximum that our bank will let us have.

As tempting as it is to buy a bigger home fully renovated, or a bigger home requiring lots of work, we are committed to a low-stress European style (whatever that means nowadays, but I take it to mean the ideal Euro person who values experiences over things), we are looking at lower priced homes.

The millionaire next door authors reckon you shouldn’t have a mortgage more than twice your annual household income. When I work it out for us it is slightly less than the small house we are budgeting for. Scary, but that’s what it takes to be financially responsible.

It is quite exciting visiting houses for sale and imagining that we could own it, pay it off, decorate it in faded vintage French style amidst tones of off-white, cream, soft-beige, black and rose-brown. I can even see a bistro table and two chairs on the patio out the front.

Happy living within your means everyone!


  1. I love your vision of your future home! Thanks for bringing the new book to my attention; I'll get it from the library.

  2. Hi Fiona! This is a great post and quite thought-provoking especially when living in a country where you are constantly judged by your appearance, where consumerism is close to being a religion and where people are happy to buy fake goods just to look "rich". That's what the UK feels like...

    I like your way of thinking and believe that ultimately you will be far happier and more chic than any of the people who spend all their money on status symbols.

    Have a lovely week, Love from London xo

  3. Hi Fiona, thanks for letting us know about the new book. I really liked The Millionaire Next Door, so will want to read Stop Acting Rich. Best of luck on your quest for a new-to-you home! Bess

  4. Lovely post Fiona and the book you mention had an impact on me too. Like you, if I had my time again I wouldn't have been as frivolous as I know I have been. But I think that's a wisdom that comes with age. We wouldn't have been saying the same at 25 I am sure ;-)
    I've made a note of the second book you mention; sounds right up my street.

  5. Living below your means is really the best advice you can give. I'm like you with clothes, I recently decided that I would not shop for a while (I also declutterd...), and I still have way too much.

  6. But Fiona, if you have the right shoes, Mr Big will marry you and you don't have to worry your pretty head about money... /sarcasm, by the way.

    What a terrible role model for young women. True chic is completely paid for, and paid for MYSELF, thank you very much!

    big hug,

  7. Fiona, Thanks for the post, I read The Millionaire Next Door a long time ago and didn't know there was a new book. I am looking forward to reading it. I love your blog!

  8. Nicely done, Fiona--I love this post. Not only is it smart and financially sound to do as these books suggest, but it is just as important to surround oneself with friends/people that share the same values. I have had "friends" who flaunt their wealth (truly rich) and "friends" who pretend they are wealthy. I don't care for the long-term company of either set. I too read "The Millionaire Next Door" long ago and I look forward to checking out this new title.

    I hope you find "Fiona's House of Dreams". xxBliss

  9. Wonderful post, Fiona! We do exactly what you are doing, live below our means - it makes life much easier. We spend our money on experiences instead of things! xxoo :)

  10. The Joneses passed us by years ago and they actually still comment on the fact we have not upgraded our home several times over. We are pretty much thought of as the bizarre couple who never progressed. But progression is subjective and we just value different things. Your post is great and really illustrates the different directions one can go. I'm so glad someone else called out Carrie on SATC! How on earth can one woman on a limited income afford all those designer clothes and shoes?

  11. Fiona,

    This is a wonderful and wise post with many good points that we can adopt. I think the couple next door to us are millionaires, they live very humbly and are money savvy...and the husband has taken a very early retirement.
    Credit cards make it too easy to overspend and debt is never a happy place to be.

    It is exciting to think that you are house hunting!
    Your visions of French decor sounds perfect...

  12. Great post, Fiona. I will look out that book.

  13. I love it that someone can talk about 'chic' and 'frugal' on the same page. I won't likely ever really manage the first, but the last is my middle name. How exciting to be looking at buying a house! If you are interested in a European lifestyle, may I suggest you consider how 'walkable' an area is? Is it close to the amenities you would want and of course a safe neighbourhood after dark? I wouldn't walk anywhere at 3 am, but I'd hate to be afraid to sit in my own front garden.

    I've not read either of the books you've mentioned, but cut my teeth on the Tightwad Gazette and Your Money or Your Life; I'm now feeding that thought with the blog, The Simple Dollar.

    I really enjoy your blog (it takes the place of magazines!). Look forward to hearing more about your house hunt!

  14. Juhli, merci. I can picture the decor in head, even if the outside of the home is a little fuzzy at the moment.

    Mademoiselle Poirot, it really is an epedemic and people are being sucked in. Heck, I even start being sucked in if I spend enough time in glossy shops. It's so enticing!

    Bess, thank you.

    Vanessa, is that what they mean about age bringing wisdom? That I didn't know it all like I thought when I was younger? So true, I would have thought I was terribly boring now, when I was 25.

    Blue, sometimes it's easier said than done, but once you get in the habit it's wonderful, isn't it?

    Vivienne, I love being financially independent, which I still consider myself to be, even now married. And I can't stop loving SATC either, in spite of its shortcomings. New York is my second dream place after Paris. Why else would I like Woody Allen movies so much?

    Julianne, merci!

    Bliss, I have friends and family of all persuasions (if that's the right word), but am happy that no matter how diverse we all are, I can know what I want and live it. It sounds like you do too. I love the sound of Fiona's House of Dreams!

    Cathi,thank you, and well done!

    Stephanie, if my life had worked out differently I would love to have have done the same thing as you. But having a first husband and moving around (three different cities), well, it all takes time and money...

    Hostess/Leslie, your neighbours sound interesting people. It's the 'boring' option to have your wealth in investments, no-one can see and admire it, but I bet they're happy with their decisions.

    Pret a Porter P, my guilty pleasure is actually watching the RH of Beverly Hills which is showing here at the moment. I love the glitzy style and tackiness, even though I don't wish to dress like that. It's so sad about Russell committing suicide though. The pressure he must have been under. It's true too about the upkeep of something, I thought about that before I started highlighting my hair again. I may look into just what I would get for my Cartier watch.

    Anon, thanks!

    Shelley, your suggestion is a good one. I was just talking about that with my husband tonight - a house we are considering, we like that it is within walking distance from an old English style pub, a supermarket and a small shopping area. The area is safe and family-feeling. Just like you said. I think you would enjoy the Millionaire Next Door and Stop Acting Rich books, just skip through all the graphs and read the ideas only.

  15. Great post, I love your philosophy. All of the millionaires I know live very quiet, unflashy lives,wannabes and nouveau types, really turn me off with all of their blingy labels and jewels.

  16. As a millionaire, I can tell you that you're on the right track! Life is better when you live simply.

  17. This post reminds me of my Peace Corps days in China, when we all lived on $100USD/month and were lucky to have it. The 'locals' often had much less. Because we all had an equal amount of $$$ and not a lot of it, we improvised for fun, hardly shopped, dreamed a lot and ate cheap, good food as often as we could. Interestingly, I was as happy (and unhappy) then as I am now, married and living a much 'higher' life back in the US. I often miss the simplicity I knew then: no credit or bank cards, no car, nowhere to wear a fancy wardrobe, no mortgage. I miss the people, Chinese and ex-pat, and I miss, more than anything, the adventure! Thanks for the reminder. MamaP

  18. Thank you for the great post, Fiona. Your watch style selection was so elegant and timeless. Don't regret this purchase as you get a lot of use out of it. Happy house hunting!

  19. My father was the perfect example of the millionaire next door. He lived a modest, frugal life buying the best he could afford of items that he needed for a comfortable life. By 'the best' I mean items that were made to last. He was totally immune to designer labels and the lure of marketing. His style came from his modesty. He never bought on impulse - every purchase (beit furniture, clothing, cars) was preceded by months of research so that an informed choice was made every time. Even his antiques bought at auction were carefully considered beforehand.

    I like to think I've taken some of his habits on into my life and when I see how my friends live, I do think I spend quite wisely. In London it's easy to find yourself constantly dipping into your pocket for coffees, sandwiches, bottles of water, transport here and there, just to get through a day. With careful planning each morning I find I can save vast sums by taking lunch to work, etc.

    However, I too made a mistake with my choice of Omega watch - I should have listened to my father who advised against a battery operated watch, but rather thought an automatic winder would be a better purchase in the long term. (Incidentally he wore a Swatch when he travelled and no watch at all at home - millionaires don't need one!) But I didn't listen to him as I was determind to have a 'decent' watch by my 40th birthday. So now I'm saddled with the same problems as you - regular battery changing, etc. and the price gets higher every time. I've come to the conclusion that these battery operated 'luxury' watches are made precisely for young wannabes. They are not the best and not the models bought by real millionaires. Anyone with class would know that an understated classic automatic Patek Phillipe is much more prestigious than a gunky Rolex... Still, I've learned my lesson and I guess I can live with an inferior Omega for a while!

    Perhaps one of my father's one-liners summed up his attitude to conspicuous consumption. He always used to say to me 'the higher your status, the slimmer your briefcase'.

    I like you blog very much.

  20. I enjoy your blog as we have a similar philosophy - live simply and well, with style.
    I agree with Shelley's idea to live where you can walk to most places.
    As a fellow Jafa with property in the CBD I hope you don't mind my suggestion.
    Draw a 5km circle from the centre of town on the map. Look for a small 2 storey commercial building in an inner city suburb with two retail tenancies - one for your shoeshop and one to lease out. You could live upstairs, tres chic. The older Victorian buildings usually have land at the back for a courtyard garden? parking? You would be close to the waterfront and parks, able to walk for supplies and to the movies, cafes etc. Best of all you would be paying your shop rent to yourselves , not someone else and have the rent from the other tenancy to help pay your mortgage.
    Such properties do exist and they are not necessarily more expensive than a house in the suburbs.
    Hope this helps.

  21. Bourbon&Pearls, thank you. Your blog is so stylish I know you would never be blingy.

    Anonymous Millionaire, thank you for your comment. I think your second sentence is my new life mantra.

    Mama P, thanks for sharing your memories. They sound wonderful.

    Russian Chic, if I don't sell it I will wear it every day for the rest of my life and enjoy every 'minute' of it!

    Fenicia, wow, thank you for your Dad's story. He's a real inspiration and has clearly made the frugal lifestyle look enjoyable as you are following in his footsteps.

    Along with Anonymous Millionaire's 'Life is better when you live simply' I adore the description of your Father - 'His style came from his modesty'. Not to mention his own quote as well, it reminds me of 'Big hat, no cattle'.

    I too make my lunch most days, take water with me if I think I will need it (and would rather go without than buy a bottle when somewhere!) and have a coffee as a treat rather than an everyday event.

    Anonymous Jafa, thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and suggestions. Your ideas definitely have us thinking. Please feel free to email me if you want to say hi. I didn't think many people in NZ were reading!

  22. Thanks for your great blog. Just one thing - I thought the golden rule when buying property was to buy the smallest house in the "best district" location location etc.

    Pat Johannesburg

  23. I apparently was not following you and didn't have you on my "thrifty" sidebar. What WAS I thinking?!?

    It took your "breakfast" comment to get me back here! And I'm so glad I did.

    This particular subject is one we've practiced in our 40 years of married life. Besides the financial ramifications, I believe it has lessened potential stress in our marriage to be on the same page about our housing choices.

  24. Fiona, great post! As someone who lived among the very affluent, I saw firsthand people living well above where they should have. I know many people who seem to have it all and yet cannot miss one single paycheck. I don't consider that as living a rich life. My husband and I were looked down upon because we didn't live like our neighbors but we also didn't end up with the monstrous debt they carry.

    Thanks for tip on the new book (I already read "The Millionaire Next Door"). And good luck on your house hunting - a very exiting time for you!

  25. I think this post is lovely. But please don't sell your watch. You have always seemed to love it and wear it well, so it's not a waste of money.

    My thing has been that we save money for a rainy day, but we don't hoard it. I'm acutely aware that there is a need to set aside money for retirement, and at the same time use our money wisely for experiences and items we love. I tend to be very indecisive about purchasing anything that is a splurge, but once I've decided on something... I wear it/carry it til it needs repairs and then have that taken care of to make it last.

    Carrie from SATC always struck me as unrealistic. You can't go through life living like that. It wasn't just her shopping, but the bars and brunches that left me wondering where exactly she was getting her money!

  26. Wonderful post Fiona. Thank you. I admit I learned some big lessons in my 20s, particularly after I married my husband. He taught me about finance, how to budget and save and turned our money situation around. He loves looking up finance info, watches youtube videos, etc. I joke that he has ruined me because we live on a cash budget, save up for purchases, hardly use our debit cards or credit cards unless we have the funds to pay off something right away (i.e. online shopping, furniture, etc). Every purchase is thought through accordingly. People chide us for only having one car. So? We commute together to work everyday and it works out perfectly for us. We just make it work. We make our own coffee in the mornings, try to bring lunches to work as often as we can, try to buy things of good quality that will last.

    I deal with refinances, purchases, etc through my line of work, and it amazes me how much people will spend to buy a house in the ritzy areas of town....and how many times I have had the same clients refinance their homes over and over to pay off the credit cards, loans, etc they racked up since the last time. It's awful and they never learn!

  27. p.s. As someone mentioned above, thanks for calling out Carrie & SATC! So unrealistic. It always bothered me that Charlotte gave Carrie the engagement ring to help pay for Carrie's apartment, and there were the big promises to pay the money back....and it was never spoken of again.

  28. Further to my earlier comment regarding my father's philosophies for life, you may be interested to hear his advice on house buying which I have followed. When I was about the buy my first house at the age of 26 he advised that you buy somewhere that you like that is habitable but needs some work doing to it - in that way you will be buying for less than the market value. Then you spend however long it takes repairing and improving the property to increase the value (which will also increase with time). Then if you decide to start a family and you need more space, you sell your property and try to find somewhere bigger but the same price as your selling price of your smaller (by now smarter)house, ie. find a larger house that needs work on it. In that way your mortgage stays the same but the size (and eventual value) of your property increases. Then when your family have grown and flown, you sell your family house, pay off any remaining mortgage and buy a smaller retirement house with your cash profit.

    This was the method he used and made a huge fortune in doing so. I'm still at the family house stage, but have almost finished the repair work and am really enjoying the results.

    Mortgage does not have to be a dirty word as long as your repayments are not crippling. The secret is to find a reliable independent financial advisor who will seek out an appropriate mortgage for you. I never deal directly with lenders as all they want is to sell their products - you need someone you can trust. I would also advise a life insurance policy with profits, which acts as a saving scheme. Mine is about to mature after 25 years and I will be receiving a lump sum next year which will immediately go towards paying off a large part of the mortgage.

  29. Pat, that is true. Location, location, location. Probably this saying made me think we wanted to live in one of the fanciest areas, but I think good normal areas would apply also. We have seen lovely houses but then found out the street they are in. We want the opposite to that - an OK house in a good street. One house we saw online seemed very reasonably priced in a good street. When I rung the agent to view she kindly felt she should tell us before we came that the section next door had two massive power pylons on it! Even if the house was $10,000 I wouldn't have bought it!

    A former work colleague, who worked in our Sydney office and was also a property investor gave me these rules to consider using. This was several years ago but I don't think they would date:
    - buy a freestanding house, not an apartment or townhouse
    - the section should be at least 500m2
    - surrounded by houses - next door, back and over the road (no parks or reserves as neighbours) - he said people feel safer when surrounded so it is easier to sell
    - not a state house or state house area
    - buy around expensive areas such as the next suburb over

    Rebecca, I enjoy reading your thrifty good living blogs so I know you are a frugal gal. Money stress is one of the top divorce causes I'm sure.

    Cherie, thanks! Living like that would bother me so much. It just doesn't sound 'fun' at all.

    Kate, you're so sweet. I agree, saving is not hoarding. I definitely splash out on items or experiences I deem worthy of it. Life is a balance of both.

    LR, your husband is a wise man, and so are you for going along with him. We have one car also. Your job sounds fascinating, it would be good in a nosy way to see what people spend their money on. I remember once at the bank the teller brought up someone elses Visa statement in front of me (they had the same name). My eyes were large at the long list of fancy fashion stores. I was so glad it wasn't mine. I don't remember the SATC engagement ring storyline - that's crazy!

    Fenicia, thank you so much for your valuable advice. It's fabulous! I will definitely be putting it to use.

    I've so enjoyed everyone's contribution(s) to this post. Merci!


Merci for your comment. Wishing you a chic day!

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