How often have you convinced yourself that spending “just” a little extra won’t matter much in the long run?
C’mon now, be honest.
When we blur our vision of the bigger picture so we can feel more comfortable with our present choices, the river of denial gently carries us toward that unforgiving waterfall up ahead.
I have been in this boat many times myself, and it was one of the biggest financial mistakes that kept me drowning in debt.
Living beyond my means was a habit I had mastered, and I spent most of my adult years suffering the consequences.
Unfortunately, our culture makes it easy for us to spend more than we have. Credit cards, payday loans, and even our home’s equity are opportunities to meet our demand for immediate gratification.
*Financial irresponsibility can feel so good in the moment.*
But, inevitably, careless spending will catch up to bite the hand that paid.
If you continue to buy more than you can afford, you cheat yourself of ever having financial peace. That’s why learning to live within your means is critical to your fiscal health.
When you commit to a lifestyle that doesn’t surpass your income, you can avoid debt, save more money, and achieve financial freedom.
Here are 3 smart tips to help you learn how to live within your means.
#1 Stick to a budget
If you don’t know where your money is going, you’re not in control of your finances.
Following a budget will give you the ability to know the best way to manage your money so you can live within your means.
Create a realistic spending plan that includes your total monthly net income and all current monthly expenses. Then, when you subtract the outgoing from the incoming, you should get a positive number. (Or, you could end up with $0, if you use the zero sum budget method.)
If your balance is negative, then your *means* aren’t enough to support your current lifestyle. That means you’ll need to cut back on spending.
Track where your money is going, so you can find ways to cut expenses and eliminate unnecessary purchases.
Having a budget will keep you focused on the day-to-day movement of your money. If you’re diligent with following one, you’ll be able to stay within the boundaries you’ve set for yourself.
#2 Pay with cash (only)
One way to ensure you’re not living beyond your means is to always pay with cash.
This is not usually the most convenient method of payment, but this strategy will help keep you from spending more than you make.
Don’t fall for the promise of credit card points and benefits. If you can’t pay off the balance in full every month, it’s not worth it.
It’s so easy to trick ourselves into counting on future income to pay for stuff today. This mindset almost always works against you. Besides, you don’t know what future expenses will arise.
Make a commitment to avoid using credit cards at all costs. When you shop online, use your debit card so the funds come out of your bank account.
Try to use cash when you’re shopping in a physical location. The act of handing over paper money will actually cause you to be more thoughtful about buying something.
Build the habit of saving before spending. If there’s a large purchase you want to make, put some money aside every week until you have enough to pay in cash.
And, let your mantra be: if I can’t pay with cash, I can’t afford it.
#3 Build an emergency fund
The first two tips will help you live within your means by taking proactive measures with your spending.
But, what about when there’s an emergency?
According to a recent report by SimplyWise, 42% of Americans would need to sell something or get a loan to come up with an extra $500 in cash.
If you don’t have the funds set aside to pay for an unexpected expense, you are essentially living beyond your means.
This is because of the nature of emergencies – you don’t know when they’ll happen, but you know they will.
So, when (not if) something arises that you didn’t plan for – like a flat tire or a broken dishwasher – you would undoubtedly have to pay with money you don’t have to cover it.
Building an emergency fund can protect you from going into more debt when unplanned expenses pop up, and help you to live within your means.
An ideal goal is saving 3 to 6 months of expenses, but this may take you several months to achieve.
Start with Dave Ramsey’s recommendation to quickly save $1,000 within a month or two. This will cover minor emergencies and give you some breathing room.
Then, find room in your budget to put money in savings every month. Use an automated method so it’s not a choice, and you’ll never miss it.
The benefits of living below your means
Once you build the discipline of only spending what you already have, you’ll start to experience some valuable results.
It’s helpful to know what these benefits are before you’ve mastered the habit, so you have some incentive to stay committed when things get tough.
The good news is, the benefits of living below your means are good for your bank account, your brain, and your body!
Of course, when you learn to spend less than you earn, an inevitable result is no longer building debt and having more money to pay down your balances.
Following a budget helps you stay within the financial boundaries you’ve set for yourself, so you don’t end up overspending and living beyond your means.
By tracking your money, you also become aware of expenses that can be reduced or eliminated – giving you more opportunities to build savings.
Besides having a healthier bank account, you’ll also realize better physical and mental health.
Carrying excessive debt has negative consequences such as anxiety and stress, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression. These burdens on your mental health can also result in physical ailments such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and lack of sleep.
Living below your means allows you to reduce stress in your life, have increased financial confidence, and minimize your risk of consequential health problems.
All of these benefits lead to a greater level of happiness and motivation and higher quality of life.
In the end, understanding the benefits and importance of living below your means can offer a powerful incentive to develop this critical financial practice.
How to live within your means and still be content
If you’ve been struggling with overspending for a while, then you’re probably used to a certain lifestyle that you can’t really afford.
Giving yourself spending boundaries and practicing delayed gratification might seem like you’ve signed up to deprive yourself of all the fun in life.
But, it doesn’t have to be that way!
Once you understand how to live within your means – and still be content – you’ll have mastered the key to financial freedom.
And, if you can get to a place where you consistently live below your means – you’ll discover the secret to creating wealth.
Learning how to be content with what you have is like a muscle you can strengthen over time. At first, you’ll feel weak and tempted to buy impulsively.
But, as you practice these 5 habits, you’ll increase your ability to resist those temptations because you’ve achieved a certain level of contentment in your life.
#1 Be grateful
Gratitude is an attitude. It’s not dependent on circumstances or relationships or money or even emotions.
*You* control how grateful you are for the people and things in your life. And, the more you choose to be grateful, the more grateful you become.
Being appreciative for what you have – no matter how much or how little – leads to a deep level of contentment that can sustain you through any adversity.
In other words, a grateful heart is the doorway to a contented mind.
You can start practicing gratitude by being mindful of how immensely blessed you are with those gifts you may take for granted:
- the air you breathe
- the roof over your head
- the food on your table
- the person you married
- the job you hold
- the car you drive
- the ability you have to speak, to move, and to think
When you consider that any of these gifts can be lost in a moment, that none of them are guaranteed, your priorities start to shift. Your focus is what’s in front of you, instead of what’s beyond you.
A helpful habit is to keep a gratitude journal, where you record your thanks and appreciation and stay connected to the blessings you experience every day.
Start developing a deeper sense of gratitude in your life, and you’ll find you also experience a greater level of peace and contentment in your life.
#2 Serve others
Scientific studies have shown that focusing on the needs of others can help you lead a more fulfilling life.
When you lend a hand to someone less fortunate than you, the receiver of your generosity isn’t the only one who profits. In fact, your own wellbeing may experience the greatest benefits from serving others in need.
Volunteering your time and energy to help someone else provides the opportunity to boost your own happiness and mental health.
This could be the result of feeling a heightened sense of purpose, increasing physical activity, or engaging in meaningful social activities.
Whatever you get out of it, serving others less fortunate can help you maintain a healthy perspective in life. You increase your awareness to the needs in your community, and decrease the focus on yourself.
When you choose to engage with how you can give instead of what you can get, you’ll feel more content with what you have.
If you struggle with emotional spending and living beyond your means, find an organization you can support with your time and energy.
It’s a great opportunity to make a difference in others’ lives – and improve your own.
#3 Acknowledge the difference between wants vs needs
In American culture, what we need and what we want can often be confused with each other.
If you get a stain on your favorite sweater, your first thought might be I need to go get a new sweater.
Or, if your cell phone gets slow and glitchy, you could assume I need to get a better phone.
Sweaters, cell phones, gadgets, shoes, and anything else else not required to provide for your basic needs, isn’t really a necessity.
And, the sooner you accept this fact, the more content you’ll be to live within your means.
What you really need is actually quite minimal compared to what you want. When you acknowledge the difference between the two, it’s easier to make reasonable spending decisions that align with your financial goals.
If you feel like it’s impossible to live within your means and still be content, consider how you perceive necessities compared to nonessentials. Get honest with yourself about what you truly need to maintain a comfortable life and live within your means.
Knowing the difference will help you feel more content with what you can afford, and less likely to go into debt.
#4 Stop comparing
Comparison is the thief of joy.
When you compare yourself to others, it’s easy to feel like you don’t measure up. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, envy and discontentment.
These negative emotions are often the trigger that causes overspending and increased debt.
A helpful strategy is to write down a list of your core values, and then align relevant financial goals with them.
When you feel the tug to keep up with Mrs. Jones next door, pull out this list to remind yourself of what’s truly important to you.
Your path is your path. Don’t get distracted by the road someone else is taking.
Put your blinders on and stay committed to the priorities you’ve chosen for your own life.
When you take your eyes off what other people have and stay focused on your goals, you’ll be content with the financial choices you’re making to achieve them.
#5 Adjust your mindset
Practical applications are more effective when performed with a positive mindset.
In other words, if you want to successfully live within your means, you need to ditch the stinkin’ thinkin’.
Portraying yourself as a victim of frugality will only result in resentfulness and discontentment – both of which will work against you when trying to live within your means.
Instead, trade the scarcity mentality for an abundant mindset by being open to new ways of finding enjoyment and having fun.
For example, rather than paying airfare and staying at a 5-star hotel for vacation, take a road trip and go camping instead.
When you want to enjoy the ambience of dining out at a nice restaurant, choose to go during happy hour and stick to appetizers.
If you love shopping, try second-hand boutiques rather than a large department store. (Better yet, go treasure hunting every weekend at garage sales.)
Just because you’re trying to spend less money doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself.
You can still have a comfortable and fulfilling life by being a little creative and open to other, less costly options.
When you enjoy finding ways to have fun while still saving money, you’ll be content to live within your means.
Why I’ve stopped living beyond my means
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from living beyond my means is that the added expense for a little extra comfort doesn’t make up for the awful discomfort of being in debt.
Spending money I didn’t have for something I didn’t need never outweighed that loser feeling I would get when I was still paying it off 6 months later.
Living within your means takes some discipline, and part of that is just getting good at saying no. Eventually, I realized that joy attained on borrowed money eventually turns into regret if the debt outlives the experience.
And, now that retirement is in the foreseen distance, I’ve become startling aware of how the lack of self-control in my youth can affect my standard of living in old age.
As a result, I’ve gotten very good at denying myself the comforts I used to indulge in. I’ve learned to pause … consider … and walk away.
And you know what? It’s not that bad. I actually live through it every single time.
The cool thing is, the more I make wise decisions with my money, the easier it is to say no.
With each choice that gets me a little closer to my financial goals, I feel greater content with my current circumstances. I know that the sacrifices I make in the present will create the retirement I dream of in the future.
When you’re content, you don’t feel the need to compare. Then, you’re not concerned with how others spend their money, because you’re focused on your own priorities.
So, I encourage you to practice gratitude, serve others, and stay connected to your values. Appreciate the necessities you have and acknowledge your wants are still attainable with the right mindset.
You *can* learn how to live within your means and still be content. And, once you do, financial freedom is just around the corner.