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QA with 'Frugalista' Natalie McNeal

Her job threatened and in serious debt, McNeal talks about her lifestyle change

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Natalie P. McNeal's personal savings style is so unique, she had to invent a new word to describe it.

Frugalista: A person who lives within her means and saves, but still looks good, eats well and lives fabulous.

McNeal was single, 32 years old, and was a reporter with the Miami Herald for eight years. She ate out most of the time and thought nothing of having her hair done or hopping on a plane to go to a concert with friends for the weekend.

Natalie McNeal, author,
'The Frugalista Files'
QA with 'Frugalista' Natalie McNeal

The Frugalista Files

Natalie P. McNeal, a former reporter with the Miami Herald, did what she calls the "walk of shame" to her mailbox in 2008 to confront her credit card balance. She went public with her plight in her Frugalista blog and dug herself out of $21,000 in debt. Today, she's debt free and an author, blogging regularly on her new frugal lifestyle, sharing tips and ideas on how to live within your means.

She was having a blast, at least on the weekends. Unfortunately, she was also $21,021.24 in debt. People around her were being laid off, and she was hanging on to a job she wasn't crazy about because she felt like she had no choice. When it takes every dime you earn to maintain your lifestyle and make debt payments, you're as good as trapped.

On Jan. 8, 2008, McNeal did what she calls the walk of shame to her mailbox and confronted her Visa bill balance -- the end result of too much spending on a limited income.

Many people are in for a shock when they get their January credit card bills. Not many, however, use that shock to completely turn their lives around. We learn that when McNeal does something, she does it big. She went public with her finances by starting her own frugality blog. She pitched her blog (which she initially coined, "Operation Broke Chick") to the business desk at the Miami Herald, and it was accepted. Next, she declared to the world that for her, February 2008, would be "no buy" month.

The original Frugalista was born.

CreditCards.com chatted with McNeal about her transformational experience.

CreditCards.com: I see you started writing on Jan. 8, 2008, but it's several days into your blog before you add up all the numbers and find out exactly where you stand. You even take a break part way through the Jan. 11 blog when it becomes more than you want to handle right then. Was making a budget and a personal balance sheet something you'd never thought of, or had you purposely been avoiding it?

Natalie P. McNeal: I think I had been avoiding acknowledging the total picture of my debt. I was juggling a student loan, car note and a credit card balance on top of my daily living and career expenses. I would make attempts to get a handle on my bills, but don't think I ever accepted the total picture of what it would take to truly make a change in my finances. I kind of assumed that if I continued working, the bills would consistently go down, or that I would get married and that would increase my income, or that I would get a new job and have all this extra money to put on my bills.

I think 2008 was the first time I realized that what I was doing wasn't working and was never going to work in my favor. I had to accept my life and couldn't assume that a life-changing event like marriage or a great new job was going to rescue me.

CreditCards.com: How hard was it facing up to your financial situation at that point in time?

McNeal: It was a major wake-up call. At that time, people were starting to buzz about the softening economy, and I knew I worked in an industry that had been in financial decline for years. It was a "now or never" moment for me. I was concerned about what would happen if I didn't try to make some financial changes.

CreditCards.com: Do you think it was a bit of mid-young-adult crisis that suddenly made you want to take both your finances and your career more firmly in hand or would you have had the same reaction looking at the same numbers 10 years earlier?

McNeal: It was absolutely a mid-young-adult crisis. I had dedicated my entire career to newspapers and to hear people talk about not only declining revenues, but the potential extinction of your industry is alarming. I wanted to use my work experience and talent to get a job with better pay and more responsibility. The thought of having to start over in a new industry with potentially less pay wasn't appealing to me. Ten years earlier, I wouldn't have cared as much about finding the right job. I would have been happy to be a cub reporter anywhere because I would have been just starting out.

CreditCards.com: Did you have any frustration with the standard personal finance advice out there, much of which is directed toward people raising kids and living a completely different lifestyle than you were?

McNeal: I'm not frustrated with the standard advice because I may be a parent one day, so it's good information for me to store away.

Once I got out of debt, I didn't run and buy a new car or move into a bigger apartment. Living without those monthly debt bills and not increasing my major expenses has been a really nice experience.

But I certainly realized that there wasn't information out there about people like me: working professionals with career, college and living expenses who weren't making executive pay. Today's young professionals are faced with building their career in a flat economy, so there just aren't as many jobs. And even if you have a job, you could be faced with furlough or low raises.

The Frugalista plan addresses the total person and what expenses young career-minded people are facing. We travel to see college friends. We love great makeup. We want fabulous careers and may have to travel to conferences to network. How can you do all that and have a healthy savings account?

CreditCards.com: Did you consider bankruptcy? Why or why not?

McNeal: No. I knew there were lifestyle and career changes I needed to make before considering such a major step.

CreditCards.com: Had you heard the "get your credit card debt cut in half" ads on the radio, and did these debt negotiation companies sound like a good idea?

McNeal: I didn't consider it because I knew if I put my mind to it, I could eliminate this debt.

CreditCards.com: If you had used bankruptcy or debt negotiation to get out of debt faster, do you think the results would be as permanent?

McNeal: It was never an option or consideration for me.

CreditCards.com: Did you consider more drastic measures, like moving in with your mom or going without a car?

McNeal: My job required me to have a car, so I never considered getting rid of my car. I live in Miami, and my mother lives in Chicago. If I had gotten a job at, say, the Chicago Tribune, I absolutely would have moved in with my mom and lived off the fat of the land for about a year.

CreditCards.com: I remember you went to a conference even though it was expensive because it would be good for your career. At what point can becoming too frugal sabotage a person's long-term financial prospects?

McNeal: If you're a young professional, I think you have to work really hard to build your profile in the industry. I would say a person who never invests money to build her career isn't frugal but cheap. I live by the adage: "Your network determines your net worth." I go to several conferences a year and write off the expenses on my taxes. It's worth it.

CreditCards.com: You talk about learning to do your own hair, including coloring. How else has your new frugality stretched you a little and encouraged you to try new things?

McNeal: Once I got out of debt, I didn't run out and buy a new car or move into a bigger apartment. Living without those monthly debt bills and not increasing my major expenses has been a really nice experience. It allows you to take more risks. I went to Europe (Amsterdam) for the first time this year for a conference and did it "Frugalista style."

I bought the hotel and flight off Orbitz.com and used a hotel coupon that they had for a discount on the price. When I was in Amsterdam, I took public transportation, went to the grocery store a few times, ate at a few really great restaurants and visited the Van Gogh Museum. I also networked with Web professionals at the conference. And of course, I paid off the entire trip before I could get my credit card statement in the mail. I really love the harmony and balance that I have with my finances now.

CreditCards.com: How's the cooking at home coming?

McNeal: Home cooking is going pretty well. I'm big into buying frozen bags of Tilapia and salmon in bulk.

CreditCards.com: How much do you save in a month by cooking food yourself?

McNeal: I save $200 per month by cooking at home.

CreditCards.com: You really put yourself out there by telling the world how far in debt you were and what you were going to do about it. Social pressure helped get you into debt, but you figured out a way to make social pressure help you get out of debt. I like that. Not all our readers can start a personal finance blog. How can they turn social pressure around so it helps instead of hinders them as they take better control of their financial lives?

McNeal: Well, now it's cool to be money wise. I urge everyone to do a "No-Buy Month." I started being a Frugalista by doing a "No-Buy Month," where I went a month without getting my hair or nails professionally done or dining out. I only spent on the bare essentials that month. I didn't even pay to go to the movies. I found free things to do during that month, so I had a ball. I'm all about having fabulous fun. I saved almost $400 during the "No-Buy Month." Trust me, if anyone does a successful No-Buy Month or week, they'll learn to respect their wallets!

Also, being a Frugalista(o) is a lifestyle that can grow with you. Once you get your finances under control, you find even more fabulous and frugal ways to live your life. Find the great happy hours (tip the waiters) at high-end restaurants like China Grill and meet your friends. You can take a great vacation, but consider using sites such as jetsetter.com to plan them. Your newfound discretionary income can go toward investing because you aren't using it to pay an old credit card bill.

CreditCards.com: In your book, you quit your job at the Miami Herald. What do you do for a living now?

McNeal: I work as a writer and a blogger! I work full time on the Frugalista brand.

CreditCards.com: How long did it take you to pay off all your debt?

McNeal: It took two years and four months to be debt free.

See related: Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle, Frugality: Just a fad? Or will consumers keep saving post-recession?, Frugality's about value, not about being cheap, When being frugal becomes an obsession

Published: September 26, 2011


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