Christine just sent me a National Public Radio story about the frugal artists of New York City. Columbia University recently released a study of 213 visual artists over the age of 61. Their average income? $30,000 a year. According to the NPR story:

Most of them said they were satisfied with their lives. However, many reported that they also have had to make daily economic compromises. They don’t eat out, buy clothes at flea markets and rarely travel.

Many of these artists manage to make it in New York through frugal living. All they seem to need is some food, a roof overhead and the time and opportunity to practice their art.

This is a nice story, with some lovely bits in the interviews with individual artists. More than that, it was just the shot in the arm I needed.

Kris and I enjoy our lives. We have a lot, and we’re grateful. But our focus in the past year has been on frugality, on refining the art of buying only that which we will use or bring us pleasure.

Sometimes, though, I lose my focus. It’s been a struggle for me lately to remember that frugality is a good thing, that thrift is a responsible choice. I haven’t turned into a spendthrift or anything — I’ve just been paying too much attention to those who ask, “What is the point of amassing a fortune while living below your means? Why make sacrifices now for an uncertain future?”

When I hear stories like the one about the frugal artists in New York City, I’m reminded that frugality is a virtue, that it can allow people to pursue their dreams. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Now I am. I never thought I’d be writing about personal finance (I thought I’d write science fiction novels), but to be honest: writing is writing. I love what I do. And one of the reasons I’m able to do it is because I’ve learned to live below my means.

There’s real value in boosting your income — I don’t deny that. But frugality is an important part of personal finance, too. And for each of us it’s different. I might be able to cut back on clothing and transportation, but I’ll probably always spend a lot on food. On the other hand, food may be a perfect place for you to cut costs, but maybe you’re not willing to compromise on your wardrobe.

Frugality and thrift allow us to emphasize those things that are most important in our lives. When we restrict our spending on the unimportant, we’re able to indulge ourselves on the things that matter most.

And what about sacrificing now when the future is so uncertain? I think this is a fallacy on a couple of levels. First of all, spending is not happiness. If it is, there’s something wrong. Second, most of us are likely to live a long time. Which would you rather do?

  • Prepare for a long life by saving and investing, but then die tomorrow.
  • Spend money you don’t have now, and then be unable to afford what you need when you’re older.

I’d prefer the former. Kris and I make sacrifices, but we’re not miserable. In fact, frugal folks are some of the happiest people I know. They spend money on the things that are important, and they save for the future.

That is the art of frugal living.

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