By Kristin Harmel
Author of The Sweetness of Forgetting
You’ve likely heard advice about eating like a French woman in order to avoid gaining weight, or tips about dressing like a French woman in order to fit in to any style situation. But there’s another area in which our French counterparts excel too: personal finance. “Simply put, the French do not purchase nor consume anything in excess,” says Slavica Monczka, creator and host of the Seductively French TV series.
Nor do they spend above their means, for the most part, says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. “If you don’t have the money,” he says, “the French would tell you: Don’t spend it.” Simple as it sounds, practical advice like that can be the key to long-term financial stability—a secret that French women have long been privy to. After all, it’s chic to be smart with your money.
Don’t run up debt on your credit card. “The French are champion savers and depend very little on credit card debt,” explains Marjorie Asturias, the managing editor and publisher of MyInnerFrenchGirl.com. “It’s one of the main reasons why their banking system wasn’t hit nearly as hard as ours was in the financial crisis.”
In fact, says Schrage, credit cards aren’t nearly as popular in France as they are in the United States. “In 2011,” he says, “there were a little over 10 million credit cards in circulation [in France], compared to more than 76 million debit cards.” So the next time you’re thinking about a purchase, consider whether you can pay it off immediately—or whether it will cost you much more in the long run because of credit card interest payments.
Be frugal with food. “Cuisine is one area where the French know how to save money without compromising results,” says Dan Main, the founder of ALifeInFood.com, who frequently works in France. For instance, Main explains, the French often cook with cheaper cuts of meat, slow-cooking tougher joints like brisket, and reuse bones to make stocks for soups or to add flavor to other dishes. “They add seasoning to bring out the flavor in food and add cheaper ingredients combined with small qualities of meat to pad out a meal,” he adds. Main also notes that some of the best French dishes, such as the classic French omelette, are made with limited ingredients that are cheaper to stock up on.
Keep your wardrobe classic and simple. “Contrary to popular belief, French women do not stock their well-edited closets with the fashions fresh off the runway,” says Asturias. “They let not only their taste but their budgets dictate what to wear, mixing high fashion, such as an Hermes scarf, with high street, like a simple white tee from H&M.”
Instead of buying new outfits with each season or picking up low-cost trendy items, keep the core of your closet basic and elegant, and choose carefully selected, timeless new pieces to complement what you already have. “The truly fine things matter and are worth saving for,” notes Matt Wallaert, a behavioral psychologist who specializes in choice, judgment, decision-making and personal finance. “French people generally believe in quality over quantity, the reverse of the American attitude. This can lead them to simply spend less, because they are not as interested in getting massive quantities of goods.”
Tailor your clothes to fit instead of buying new outfits. “Parisians, for the most part, wear well-fitting clothes that suit their frame,” explains Sharon Haver, founder of FocusOnStyle.com. “You’ll barely see a mademoiselle who is stuffed a la saucisson into a size too small or drowned in a droopy camp shirt.”
“The French understand the magic of a good tailor and proper fit, and so should you. It’s amazing how you can fake extravagance when something fits just so.” Instead of tossing an expensive shirt that doesn’t fit quite right anymore, take it to your tailor and give it a whole new life. And although it may sound obvious, when you’re at the store, keep this in mind: If it doesn’t fit, don’t buy it, no matter how good the deal is.
Wait to shop until the items you want are on sale, then look for quality. “My Parisian friend told me, ‘I only purchase items, apart from grocery shopping, during the sale period so I am able to save,'” says Sheridan Becker, the European-based lifestyle and travel editor of Bon Voyage, a family travel magazine that caters to expatriate families in Europe. “And she also told me, clothing wise, that when the sale period is on, she buys designer clothing one brand up from her normal budget.” Stick to a sales-shopping-only goal, and you’ll avoid temptation to buy more expensive items at regular price.
Decorate on a budget. “Affordable materials such as oilcloth table coverings, butcher block counters, unmatched chairs, tiles, baker’s racks and fresh flowers are accessible and impart great style,” explains Marion Hendricks, marketing director for Herbeau Creations, a French manufacturer of high-end kitchen and bath products. And instead of tossing out old household items, the French tend to blend the old with the new.
“French homes often contain a mix of materials, styles, colors, and objects,” Hendricks says. “An earthenware jar may be used to store utensils. Found or inherited items… are seen in all but the most contemporary homes.” So instead of going for the newest appliance or style, take a good look at what you already have and buy only what you need.
Shop your own neighborhood. “While Americans may have a tag sale once in a while when they need to get rid of their clutter and make a bit of money, the French have organized the tag sale into an annual event that involves the entire community,” says Jamie Cat Callan, founder of the blog Bonjour, Happiness. “It’s called the vide grenier, which literally means ‘the empty attic.’ It’s a terrific way to clear out your closets and get rid of excess stuff you’ve accumulated, while making money and making friends… It’s all very French. And it’s easily translated into our American culture.”
So the next time you’re looking for something new or need to clear up some space in your own home, consider organizing a neighborhood-wide vide grenier. Voila! New friends, new clothes, clean house.
Value experiences over unnecessary material possessions. “The French are more interested in joy–unique experiences that make life special–over comforts, things that make life easier,” says Wallaert. “And because of that, they tend to save not for concrete purchases, like a new car, as much as the possibility of something great, like that opportunity to join a friend at their beach house if you can come up with the airfare.” At the end of that day, that results in more money in the bank–and more freedom to have fun.
Kristin Harmel is the author of the novel The Sweetness of Forgetting, a tale of family, love, war, and faith, which is based largely in Paris. Harmel has lived in Paris off and on and loves to offer her readers tips and tricks.
Get relationship tips. Find help with your love life. Have a happy marriage. Sign up for our newsletter!