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The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life

The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life

by Natalie McNeal

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Natalie McNeal opened her bills in January 2008 to find that she was a staggering five figures—$20,000!—in debt. Young, hip and gainfully (if Dilbert-ly) employed, Natalie loved her lifestyle of regular mani/pedis, daily takeout and nights on the town, but clearly something had to give.

And so The Frugalista Files was born. Through her blog,


Natalie McNeal opened her bills in January 2008 to find that she was a staggering five figures—$20,000!—in debt. Young, hip and gainfully (if Dilbert-ly) employed, Natalie loved her lifestyle of regular mani/pedis, daily takeout and nights on the town, but clearly something had to give.

And so The Frugalista Files was born. Through her blog, Natalie confessed her spending habits to the world—and it turns out she wasn't the only one having trouble balancing the budget! From the drastic "no-buy" month that kicked it all off to the career gamble that threatened to put her deeper in the hole, The Frugalista Files shares Natalie's personal and professional transformation from cubicle rat to take-charge career girl.

It is possible to get ahead without giving up on the fabulous life. This is personal finance in peep-toe pumps—the empowering true story of one woman's personal and professional transformation and your ultimate guide to living the Frugalista lifestyle, too.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
McNeal, a journalist and founder of www.thefrugalista.com, chronicles her journey from debt-slave to empowered financier in this delightful account. A self-described promiscuous spender, McNeal finds herself buried in car and school loans and credit card debt despite a steady salary. After a frank examination of her finances, she embarks on a credit-card free month where she only pays her bills, buys food she will cook at home, and purchases gas for her car. Monitoring the cost of "insignificant" expenses, she discovers that minor, sometimes surprising, changes make a big difference and allow her to maintain her standard of living, for example, choosing to buy supermarket ready-made meals instead of eating out or cooking from scratch. She chronicles her successes (reducing utility and cellphone expenses) as well as her failures (staying within her weekly food budget), showing that making fiscally responsible trade-offs such as working overtime can easily cover the little luxuries she wants to retain. Even if McNeal is still in debt by book's end, she is well on her way to wriggling her way out, and her example shows that gaining control of one's expenses is within almost anyone's grasp. (Feb.)

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This morning I did the walk of shame. Oh, not that kind of walk of shame. The one some women do after leaving some random cat's house in the early morning in yesterday's clothes for all the neighbors to see. No, this walk was a slow, dread-filled stroll in flip-flops, painted toes and pj's to my mailbox. My Visa bill was in my mailbox. My $6,000 Visa bill that showed my shameful, embarrassing, out-of-control spending. I admit it.

My name is Natalie. I am a spending slut.

There's more. This isn't the only debt I have. Another credit card shows a $3,785.24 balance due. (Well, that was my balance at the beginning of the week. In the time it took me to walk from my mailbox to the 1-bedroom apartment that I call home, the bill probably jumped an additional $75, thanks to interest.) As for savings (I use the term loosely…), I have about $1,000 in a savings account that I use to cover bills.

My emotions about this mess range from feeling pretty pissy to being downright scared. I work hard. Real hard. I daresay, I'm a working stiff. Don't I deserve those mani-pedis? Why shouldn't I buy those marked-down Kate Spade shoes? On the other hand, how did I become this crazy, out-of-control walking ATM machine?

I thought that when you're depressed, you crawl into bed and sleep for weeks. But I couldn't sleep a wink last night.

Every year I say I'm going to be better about my spending and my bills. I worry that I'm starting to sound like a broken record. Enough, all ready. I can't keep this act up. When will my credit card debt be gone for good?

The worst part of it is that I don't even know where the money's been spent. What is on these credit cards? And what in the hell do I have to show for it?

I won't. I will not. I cannot keep this act up. This is the year I will get really serious about my money. I can't keep living like this: professional, broke and in debt. I am not living like an extra on Sex and the City. I am living like the workin', frontin' POOR!


Is there something wrong with me? Not only is my spending out of control, but I'm stuck. I've been at the same job for almost 8 years. I live in the same 1-bedroom apartment I first rented when I was 24 years old. The rent, which started at $818 a month, is now $995. My apartment complex went condo, so I'm one of the few renters left. The cheap, ugly linoleum floor is cracked, and my landlord is in no rush to replace it.

How did I end up here? Why do I always feel like I'm slogging through an endless Florida swamp when it comes to my life?

I was sure that by the time I was 32 years old, I'd be married, have a top-notch job at a major newspaper and be nominated (at least once) for a Pulitzer Prize.

Being stretched so thin—financially and emotionally—got me here, melted on my couch. And while sitting on my couch, I noticed the new rug, coffee table, TV stand and fake-assed tree hanging in my living room, all courtesy of a late fall spending spree. Right before the Youngster came to visit, I started sprucing up the home, thinking a hip house would make me look more professional and together. It was about time I had "big girl" furniture, not a footlocker as a television stand.or so I rationalized. I mean, at least, he has an excuse for his bachelor pad—he's still in his 20s.

At age 31, I'm not poised to jump the broom any time soon. I'm dating a man 7 years my junior. Okay, so he lives in New York City. We've been "seeing each other" for the last 3 months. The Youngster works full-time and is finishing up his undergraduate degree. Damn, I'm a cougar. Well, maybe a puma…I don't troll bars in tacky leopard print dresses, looking for young boys. We instant message each other. He's the one who got me into Facebook. For Christmas, I FedExed the Youngster an adorable $100 Sean John jacket. He sent me a Tiffany silver heart bracelet, which arrived on Christmas eve. I wear it every day, and every time I look at it, I smile. It's been a while since I got some hardware from the male species. So sweet.

He came to visit in December, right before the holidays, and took my mother, who was in town, and me to P.F. Chang's for dinner. It's one of her favorite restaurants. Said the maternal about the Youngster: "He's very polite. You can tell he was 'raised.'" My mother is from the South and is a retired schoolteacher. Having "raising" is like saying he is the Second Coming. Yep. She was hooked. He slept on the couch that night and she slept in my bed. Talk about family togetherness! He doesn't complain about me, either. Jeez. You date some guys, and they always find a problem with you: weight, hair, personality. He is a hand holder. Reads my articles in the newspaper, even when I am bored with them. He sent me flowers just because… just because I am breathing. He says, "Let's think long term." He acts smitten. Me gusta.

He's relatively easy to talk to and low maintenance. I also like that he's not a drinker. A lot of guys my age are budding bitter drunks. Older men…hmmm…they can be a project. Everyone my age is realizing that things aren't quite what we had expected them to be. We assumed that by 30, we were going to be something special: be rich, have a Ph.D. or be an extraterrestrial. Quite honestly, dating in my age pool can be a hassle. Despite the long distance, it's kinda nice dating someone younger because the Youngster is still optimistic about life. I, on the other hand, know I have a good life, but I also know that this can't be as good as it gets. This is what's freaking me out—this can't be as good as it gets.

We'll see how it goes with him. I enjoy our time together. When we're together. When he visits, we have a ball and he pays for everything: nice dinners, Miami Heat games. But for the most part, it's a virtual relationship. I am tolerating the distance for now, to see if it's worth it. But I know the only way the Youngster and I can make it work is if we're in the same city. I'm more than willing to ditch my job.

My work life is…hmmm…stagnant. When I mention that I'm a reporter at the Miami Herald—a well-respected paper in the middle of one of the sexiest and newsiest markets, a paper that's won plenty of Pulitzers and is a feeder to the Washington Post and the New York Times—trust me, it sounds impressive. But really, how prestigious is the suburban office in the Everglades, next to a Cracker Barrel and a car dealership?

I took the job in the suburban office, believing I'd be there for just 2 years before being recruited by the Washington Post or moved to the business desk, which is where I really want to work. That was almost 8 years ago. Have I heard from the Post? Well, I did get a once-over by them at a career conference. Um, yeah. That was the end of that. I still cover city commission meetings, daily shootings and news conferences in the burbs. On weekends I cover car crashes on Alligator Alley, the road that connects east and west in South Florida. So much for Miami Vice.

I am bored out of my mind. My salary sucks. What I write about isn't sexy or glamorous. It's a grind. Everyone at work wonders why I haven't left. I kind of wonder why, too, but then I remember the few job offers I've gotten since working there: more local reporter coverage of city commissions. With newspapers going the way of the pony express, finding a new job that I want is a hot mess. It's more of the same type of work. It's hard to transition to being a business reporter when most of your clips are local news.

I reread the above and feel even more depressed. I don't leave my low-paying, dead-end job, because I need the money to pay my rent, car and school loans, and to bring down my credit card bills. And I have a habit called eating. I can't make a dent in paying off my credit cards, because I use them to charge all of my life's necessities— drinks and dinners out, hair salon visits, a magazine rack in an attempt to make my bunny pad look nicer, etc. And ranting about it doesn't seem to do any good, either. The sad part is, I pay my debts on time, and I'm still broke. Paying bills on time means I pay the minimum amount due on my cards for a really long time. What's the point of a good credit score if you live from paycheck to paycheck?

I have to try something new. I can't go through the rest of my life broke and in debt.


I sat myself down and forced myself to do the math. I make $44,000 a year and take home $1,200 every 2 weeks after health care and my 6 percent 401(k) contribution (and yes, I'm vested in my 401(k) and proud of it!). My rent at $995 and my car loan at $313 per month take care of one $1,200 check. My student loan is $50 per month, which doesn't sound like a lot. The thing is, it should have been paid off this year, but when I got my car, I couldn't handle the $129 student loan and the car loan, so I consolidated my payments. I added a few more years' worth of payments on my student loan, adding more interest on the bill. The original debt of $10,600 wasn't even that bad, and I'm still paying on it. That darn student loan has become like a mortgage payment, a longtime payment that is hard to fathom getting rid of. I have to take a break. This is too painful….


How did I wind up here, anyway? I have a career, a college education— this wasn't supposed to happen to me..

I can't help but think that I never would have been in such bad debt if it weren't for my first car loan. As a journalism student in D.C., interning at various newspapers, I needed a car. My mother and I saw a TV commercial offering a lease on a Mazda Protege for less than $200 per month. Sounded like a great deal. A cousin with his own business agreed, saying that buying a car is a bad investment. Leasing is better, he told us.

I had a savings account with money saved from my internship, so I put down $1,500 and my mother paid the car loan. For some reason, though, the car loan was more than $200. And we never questioned it. (I know. I know.) At the time, it cost only about $12 to fill up the car with gas. I was rolling.

Since the car was leased, I could drive it only 15,000 miles a year. Well, after several trips to New York and Philadelphia to party with friends, and driving to and from internships in Dallas and Miami, it would be an understatement to say I went over the allotted mileage. I went way, way, way over the mileage.

And Washington is no place for a new car. Parking garages were too snug and expensive, so I parked the car on the street. Well, that's okay if you know how to parallel park. If you successfully do back in, getting out of a tight parking space can be even more difficult. Dents. Dings. Scrapes. Chips. Dimples. If there was such a thing as car abuse, surely my Mazda would have been taken into automobile protective services. I would have been cuffed, forced to walk the perp walk and made to face the judge and jury.

When the lease was up, the car was a wreck. It was cheaper for me to buy the car than to try to fix it up or pay the overage on the mileage. So, after spending thousands to rent it for 3 years, I paid for it over another 4 years at the monthly rate of $224. And because I was officially grown up and out of college, Mom's gravy train had come to an end.

Driving that eyesore was an embarrassment. It was such a piece of junk that some friends wouldn't ride in the car with me. ("Why don't I pick you up?") I was afraid to send it through the car wash for fear that one of the headlights would fall off. I (stupidly) paid $200 to a guy who promised he could smooth out the dents with a crowbar. Working in the parking lot of a strip mall, the dude made things worse by using gold lame spray paint to pimp my car and "fix" the scrapes on my once champagne-colored ride. I drove that miserable clunker until it couldn't go another mile. Literally. It was in such bad shape that I had to pay to have it towed from my apartment to the junkyard.

Having learned my leasing lesson, it was time to buy my first car. I wanted and could afford a Honda Civic, but my mother and my brother said no. They were tired of me being the girl with the battered starter car. I mean, my first car was named the Protege. They wanted me in a more mature car. Warned my mother: "What if you want to have a family? You won't be able to fit them into a Honda Civic."

I thought about those things, too. But honestly, I just didn't think my family wanted to ride around in an entry-level car with me when they visited. They wanted me upgraded to where I should be at my age. They knew I was in no position to buy a house. The next best thing was a decent/respectable/professional ride.

So, of course, I listened to them, visions of babbling, cooing babies in the backseat. I bought a used Honda Accord for $15,000 and put $2,000 down. My monthly payments came to $313 over a 5-year period. Between the taxes and interest, this car will end up costing about $20,000. Had I bought the Civic, my payments would have been closer to $200 a month.

Here I am, 3 years later, still paying $313 per month on a 4-door sedan. And no gurgling babies.

What did I learn from all this? Never, ever listen to your family—mother, brother, cousin, step aunt's sister's cousin's brother-in-law—when buying a car. My brother and mom don't have my bank account.

Meet the Author

Natalie P. McNeal is an award-winning journalist who launched her blog and brand, Frugalista, in February 2008. Her blog has been featured in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and her work has appeared in the Miami Herald, Ebony and Newsday, among others. Visit her at thefrugalista.com.

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