Living Below Our Means

Common-sense strategies that can help teachers achieve financial security through frugality.

By Bruce Anderson


hand putting coin into piggy bank

We knew the job was dangerous when we took it. Dangerous, that is, to our financial security. As we all know teachers don’t get paid enough, considering the level of education and professionalism we possess. Most of us have accepted our relatively low level of compensation as a cost of doing what we love to do. This is still the real world, however, and financial security has to be one of our goals. How can we safeguard ourselves financially in an era of stagnant wages, rising prices, and threats to public retirement funds? We're not going to be rich (unless we already are), so we have to protect ourselves against financial disaster. We have to take care of ourselves, provide for the future, educate our kids, and make sure our retirement is secure. That's a tall order, considering what teachers get paid. There's no surefire way to solve this conundrum, but there is one thing we can do that is 100% certain to make it easier. That thing is to live below our means, to spend less than we earn.

The Culture of Frugality

The strategy of having more by spending less probably seems way too obvious—too simple. But it’s harder than it seems. We’re surrounded by a society (and an economy) that’s based on instant gratification. The media is attempting at every turn to convince us to spend money on things and sensations, and to measure ourselves according to our possessions. To live frugally, below one’s means, can seem heretical, revolutionary, or even impossible to the mainstream culture, and also to us.

Luckily, there’s a counterculture that’s been evolving and spreading for decades, a movement toward “voluntary simplicity” that’s allowed millions of Americans to obtain both financial security and life satisfaction at the same time. These “Simplicitarians,” or as some of them like to be called, “Cheapskates,” have found a proven approach to living differently. Here are some of their shared beliefs and practices.

Secrets of Simple Living

  • Keeping up with the Joneses--not. Their self-worth isn’t connected to their apparent material wealth.
  • Time is worth more than money. They’ve found that limiting spending is almost always rewarded by less pressure to spend all their time working.
  • Spending money to buy value. They shop, not for pleasure, but to find the best quality for the price. When shopping for things like furniture or automobiles, they’re thinking about acquiring assets that will keep their value (antique furniture, for example) rather than buying disposable commodities.
  • Seeing the difference between wants and needs. They see the obvious difference between necessities and frivolities. They also see that very often the things we buy are meant to make us feel something: better-looking, more secure, more respected, of higher status. They see that things aren’t very successful at producing those feelings. Consequently, they choose more satisfying alternatives.
  • Doing well by doing (and feeling) good. Many of them have found that living below their means has given them the freedom to do what they love, and still make a living. Teacher Danny Kofke, author of How to Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) on a Teacher’s Salary, says, “I get to do what I love because I’m frugal. I feel that I was put here on Earth to teach. My wife and I may not earn a large income, but we’re very wealthy because we get to do what we want to in life.”
  • Living debt free. Debt is regarded as a life-threatening condition. Living frugally has usually allowed these advocates of simple living to pay off any debt they have and remain debt-free. Most have home mortgages, but assuming debt to pay for an automobile, or even a college education, is regarded with deep suspicion. And credit card debt—well, let’s not go there!
  • Frugal to the bone. Most people in this alternative lifestyle eventually incorporate frugality into their being, making wise decisions out of habit. They rarely feel financially pressured, and they hardly ever feel as if they are “doing without.” They save and invest, and they provide for the future. All without sacrificing their quality of life.

Living below our means seems an obvious and straightforward approach to financial security, but it’s challenging because our society and culture are so permeated with spendthrift habits and beliefs. To go in a different direction can seem hard at first, but it’s definitely worth the struggle. It takes time, study, and some soul-searching. However, for all of us, it’s possible to find the path to a simpler life and its resulting financial security.

Introduce the Next Generation to Frugality

If you are so inclined, you can expose your students to concepts like the cost of living, budgeting, and making sound financial choices by incorporating one or more of these resources into your curriculum. Or, take the time to set up one of the following classroom simulations that are designed to get kids interested in life after graduation:

Additional Resources:

How to Survive (and Perhaps Thrive) On a Teacher’s Salary by Danny Kofke (Tate Publishing, 2007).

A concise and readable introduction to below-our-means living by a classroom teacher who practices what he preaches.

Your Money or Your Life: Nine Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez, and Monique Tilford (Penguin Books, 2008).

This is the book that started the “voluntary simplicity” movement. Lots of thought-provoking ideas and practical steps on the way to financial independence.

The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means by Jeff Yeager (Three Rivers Press, 2010).

This book by Jeff Yeager is a very practical guide to living below our means. It contains lots of good stories that illustrate the “how to” principles of simple living.