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The first piece I ever wrote for MSN Money was called "Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year." Some readers responded with words like "hardship" and "deprivation."

I didn't see it that way. Although temporarily broke, I wasn't deprived. In fact, having relatively little made me that much more grateful for what I did have. In the grand scheme of things, I had quite a lot: food, clean water (hey, water-borne illnesses kill people all over the world), shelter, family, friends, a radio, a library card, a computer and, in midlife, a university scholarship.

You know what else I had? Peace of mind.

I was (and still am) aware of so many people constantly shopping, searching, seeking, coveting. They were always after the Next Big Thing, the newest gadget that would fix their lives and make them truly happy. What they often wound up with were empty wallets and a sense of being let down -- which they then tried to fix with more shopping.

Understand: I like buying things. I just don't do it very often. Not because I'm too cheap to spend, but because I already have everything I need and some of what I want. This sense of enough has been the greatest blessing of a frugal lifestyle.

And when I do need/want something else? The money is there. Saving where I can allows me to spend where I want. (Not that I pay retail if I can help it.)

Looking at money differently

If you're new to this -- and especially if you're experiencing forced frugality vs. voluntary simplicity -- then you might feel a little deprived.

Or a lot. Maybe you were accustomed to buying whatever you pleased the instant you decided you wanted it. Perhaps high-end furnishings, frequent travel, luxury attire, and the finest food and drink were the underpinnings of your life.

In that case, then technically you are deprived: You no longer have the things that you formerly considered necessities. But living richly doesn't have to cost a lot. That's the whole point of the Frugal Nation site: to live the best life you can without going into debt to achieve it.
Look at your situation as a learning experience, not a punishment. And if what you learn is that you want to go back to buying things? The "save where you can so you spend where you want" rule does more than just get you through tight spots. When times are better, you'll get lots more bang from your newly increased bucks.

However, you might surprise yourself by being more canny with your coins. Frugality, whether embraced or forced, helps you look at money differently. Sometimes the "I'm broke! How can I get the best possible deal?" mentality morphs into several different filters:
  • "How much does this really cost?" (Translate "smartphone upgrade" into "one-third of a take-home paycheck." Ouch!)
  • "Could I get by with what I already have, at least for a while?" (Will the new phone make a big enough difference to be worth 13-plus hours of work?)
  • "What's really important to me?" (Am I sure this is where I want to put that much money right now?)
Spending intentionally
Such filters are the default settings for those who are happy being frugal. But they're filters, not blinders, i.e., sometimes the answer is: "Yes, I'm going to spend -- on my terms."

Thus you might limit lunches out to once a week, but decide that it really is time to replace that ancient computer. You're also likely to use a discounted Groupon for that noontime meal and to postpone your laptop purchase until the great holiday deals start showing up.

The fact is, you get fed and you get your computer. You just do it intentionally, not blindly.

For me, that means a stress-free decision. The money is there and I've found the best possible price, whether it's for an ice-cream cone or a cross-country trip to see my dad.

So stop thinking that "frugal" means "can't ever have fun again." On the contrary: It frees you up to enjoy every dollar to the utmost.

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