Expert Interview with Holly Johnson on Frugal Living for Mint

When we asked frugal living expert Holly D. Johnson her favorite piece of advice for those who are interested in living on less, she didn't tell us to become obsessive couponers or to scope out dented cans at the grocery store.

Her tip was focused instead on those people who might not understand what you're doing when you set out to be more fiscally responsible.

"Sometimes people see your financial focus as their own failure and get defensive," the blogger behind Club Thrifty and Travel Blue Book says. "Just focus on your own goals and dreams and don't worry about what other people say."

We recently checked in with Holly to learn more about her journey to be debt free by 40 and get her take on the budgeting, saving and living better. Here's what she had to say:

Tell us about Club Thrifty...when and why did you start your site?

Sometime in 2010, my husband and I realized that we weren't saving very much of our income at all. We were also $60,000 in debt including car loans, student loans and credit card debt. We were pretty much oblivious up to that point, but something about becoming pregnant with our second child made us get serious about our finances. It was then that we embarked on a journey to become debt-free and live up to our potential. We were extremely successful at changing our lifestyle and paying off debt and decided to start blogging about it in May 2012. That's when Club Thrifty was born.

Who should be reading it and what will they find on it?

Club Thrifty is basically my online diary where I document our financial progress and talk about the ups and downs of living a frugal lifestyle. I also talk about travel-hacking, freelance writing and blogging.

What's your background in personal finance? How did you become interested in it enough to write about it full time?

I actually don't have a background in personal finance at all, which is why I mostly write about frugality and cheap travel. I'm a credit card rewards and frugality expert, so those are the topics that I focus on. As a full-time freelance writer, I actually write about all kinds of things, not just money.

Can you talk about your tagline "Stop spending. Start living."? Did you have a moment in your own life when you realized excess spending didn't necessarily equal fulfillment?

At a certain point, we realized that we were working a lot (sometimes 50 hours per week) for absolutely nothing. We would blow our paychecks on home improvements and fancy dinners out. We were spinning our wheels.
When began adopting a frugal lifestyle, all of that changed. We stopped spending on things that didn't really matter to us and started using that money to pay off debt and save. In the meantime, we actually discovered what really matters to us - time with our family and each other.

What is your definition of "saving to your full potential"? How do you know what your full potential is?

Your "full potential" is the difference between your fixed expenses and your income. That's how much you could "potentially save." But, you've got to live a little. When we were paying off debt, we saved every single penny that we could. Now that we're debt-free aside from our mortgage, we leave a little wiggle room in our budget for travel and our other hobbies. We're no longer saving to our "full potential," but we're living the life we truly want to live.

It seems for so many families that food - whether eating out or spending at the grocery store - seems to be the biggest culprit for excess spending. Why do you think this is? What have been some of your favorite methods for spending less on eating?

When we started tracking our spending in 2010, we were spending more than $1,000 on food each month...for three people! And at the time, restaurant spending was the biggest culprit. I also never made a meal plan, which led to a lot of food waste.

What we do now is limit restaurant eating to twice per month. That's plenty, and it really feels like a "treat" now. I also do some basic meal planning to ensure that I'm not throwing away a bunch of ingredients.

What other monthly bills or expenses have you found are easy to cut back on? How did you do this?

We completely cut cable TV out of our lives for three years, although we have it at the moment since my internet provider offered it FREE for 12 months. Woooooooooooooooo! (I will cancel it when the free trial is over!)

Grocery and food spending was a big one, and we also changed our phone service to generic providers that offer a big discount. We cancelled our home phone altogether. All of those little things do add up.

What is a zero-sum budget, and why do you think they're effective?

A zero-sum budget is basically a budget that requires you to "spend" all of your income on paper each month. You do this by getting a month "ahead" on your bills and planning out how each dollar will be spent.

For example, it's the end of July now, and I'm getting ready to have a new budget ready on August 1. It will list everything we need to pay in August and I will ensure that I have the exact amount of money we need to cover it in our checking account. As the month progresses and we pay our expenses, we check things off the list. At the end of the month, we should have almost zero in our account. Then we start the process over.

This is helpful for a few reasons. First, it makes us cognizant of what we are truly spending on since we have to put all of our expenses on the budget for it to work. And second, it forces us to see how much we can save. We actually put savings and our retirement accounts on our budget and pay them like they are a regular bill.

Why did you want to be debt-free (including your mortgage!) by the time you were 40? What do you think you'll gain from debt-free living?

When we started paying off our debts, I really enjoyed reaching a zero balance on each and every one. And one thing I've realized is, I hate bills! I hate getting them in the mail. I hate paying them. Some bills are inevitable, but I would rather have as few as possible.

I want to be debt-free so that we can live the life we want to live. Personally, I think that paying on a house for 30 years is nuts. We made a commitment to "own" things, not just pay endless payments on them. That commitment includes our home as well.

How old are your kids? When do you plan to start talking to them about money, and what do you want to tell them?

Our kids are currently 4 and 2 (almost 5 and 3!), and we talk about money all the time. My daughter is a total capitalist. She's already scheming ways to boost her profits at our garage sale in a few weeks. Right now I just teach my kids things that they can understand, like to take care of their belongings and to save in their piggy banks.

Follow Holly on FacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest.