How Indians Can Teach You to Be Frugal

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7 lessons in frugality from the other end of the world

The ‘frugal’ lifestyle, along with its first cousin ‘minimalism’, have been around long enough that we have tried and tested (whether successfully or not) most of their ‘hacks’. But being frugal is an art, not a science, and as such, has unlimited potential.

Indians, whether living in India or having emigrated elsewhere, are known for their high rates of savings — 70% of Indians living in the US remit an average of 16% of their income to their families. So, if you’re ready to add some creativity into your lifestyle, and also save up some extra dollars, I have a list of tips straight from the lives of Indians:

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1. The humble ‘dabba’ (tiffin) is our friend.

Indians are so fond of their home-cooked meals, that they have an entire industry whose only business is delivering homemade meals, and which is now taught as a case study at Harvard Business School. Even when the meal is not cooked at our own house, we prefer eating a meal cooked at someone’s house, rather than at a restaurant.

This would be unthinkable in the US, but in India, homemade meal subscription plans are all the rage among office-goers, where the food is prepared at a central location and then dispatched. These meals, costing less than $2 a meal in an expensive city like Mumbai, are still cheaper by a magnitude of 4–5x as compared to a restaurant meal or takeout. Eating a packed meal in the office is the default, and takeout is reserved for either celebrations or disasters (translation: the lunch could not be prepared for whatever reason).

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2. Clothes are air-dried.

Most Indians do not use a dryer and have been air-drying their clothes for generations together. This frugality tip has multiple savings associated with it — not only are you saving the upfront cost of a dryer along with the recurring expenses on electricity and dryer sheets but also your clothes will last much longer and retain their shape and color. Air-drying requires nothing except the humble clothes-line and five minutes of your time!

3. We repurpose household items.

Indians are adept at repurposing items into, well, other items. For example, worn-out clothes will often be repurposed into nightwear, and later into cleaning rags. Sarees passed down generations are often turned into dresses for occasions and bedsheets into curtains.

There are entire lifecycles that items have to live through, not all of them intended by their makers, before finally being declared as waste. This proclivity to always look for utility in broken and worn-out things means that Indians have an extremely low per capita waste generation (a score of 0.3 compared to 2.6 for the US). The lower the waste, the lesser you will have to spend on buying new things!

4. We repair clothing.

A local tailor can usually be found on almost every road in India, who is given clothes not just for tailoring, but also for repairs. Whether it is a rip in the fabric, a broken button, or a faulty zipper, nothing short of utter destruction will render clothing unfit for use.

Most Indian households also have sewing machines (even handheld ones, which cost a few dollars, and are basically tiny staplers for your clothes), and know the basics of sewing. Clothes last much longer when we do not throw them out at the first instance of them giving way.

5. We are master negotiators.

It may have something to do with the informal nature of a substantial part of our economy, but Indians are famous for negotiating prices down, from the smallest grocery purchases to bigger ones like cars and houses. Negotiation is not a bad word — let the son of immigrants and master of negotiation, Ramit Sethi, teach you. In addition, a crucial component of a successful negotiation is research — and there isn’t a single Indian who will not compare prices for an item with at least three vendors before purchasing it. It may not be worth it for the smaller items, but this ingrained habit pays off for the big-ticket ones.

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6. We rarely access credit.

The national household debt in India is a mere 11% of the GDP, as compared to 75% in the US. It isn’t because we do not need it, but the accessing of credit for every want (as opposed to needs) has not been normalized in India yet, and Indians are by nature debt-averse. We would rather scrimp and save and pay in cash, than take on debt.

In case you do have a credit card – learn how to use it responsibly!

7. We are extremely price-conscious and not brand-conscious/brand-loyal.

Ask any retailer out there, or even the digital unicorns like Netflix and Uber, who have otherwise cracked countless markets worldwide — the Indian consumer can only be wooed by providing value-for-money. The most-coveted brands in the world inspire tepid loyalty here if we sense that our money is going towards the ‘brand’ and not the item itself. And that is a good thing (not for the sellers!); a bias towards functionality and utility will always be kinder to your wallet.

8. We live with our parents.

This is the biggest money-saver for 20-something Indians, at a time when it is crucial for them to start saving and investing. I’m not saying that all of us should live with our parents, but never write that option off. Even if it means living in the basement, or paying your parents some part of the rent or utilities, if it is a workable option, it can do wonders for your financial foundation.

Let the true minimalist in you rejoice at these brand-new avenues for growth, and let the environment, as well as your savings account, thank you for it!

Join my 10-day Personal Finance Crash Course absolutely free here.

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  • Budget without tracking every penny
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