I’ve received a lot of interesting out-of-the-ordinary questions from GRS readers recently. Two weeks ago, for instance, Rita asked about the moral implications of spending. This week, Crystal wants to know: What if she is materialistic? Is that wrong? If so, how can she change?

Here’s what she has to say:

I’ve read your blog for a while now, and it always inspires me, but I stop just short of embracing the frugal lifestyle. Why? Because I’ve tried it and discovered that I am, in fact, very materialistic.

For instance, I have tons of clothes, shoes, and bags — and I use them all. I have over 30 purses, and I change them out every day. I have a separate work and leisure wardrobe, and I very much enjoy getting dressed in the morning. I also love laying out my clothes for the next day, choosing between outfits, and so on.

I also love eating out. It makes me happy. I love the variety, and because I dread cooking, I’m not very good at it. So food from home isn’t as tasty and wonderful as dining out. Plus, were I to buy all these ingredients they’d go bad before I came back to use them. When I dine out, I love the people watching. I love having food brought to me. I love not cleaning up.

I love being the person who gives the gift that the recipient is looking forward to receiving.

And I’m a bibliophile, to be sure. I love new hardbound historical novels. I believe rows and rows of books are beautiful. I love to just look at them. I’ve thought of selling my books, but I’m too attached.

You get the picture. I love Stuff, and it makes me happy. I’m not in real debt (no student loans, no car payment, only $3,000 total of credit-card debt with a total monthly payment of $110, towards which which I pay $200) but I also don’t save anything. I have a mindset that store-bought is much better than home-made (like laundry detergents and the likes).

Am I a lost cause? How can I re-frame my mind when fashion/celebrity/shopping is my passion?

First of all, I think it’s great that Crystal is completely open about her love for food, fashion, and fun. She’s being honest about how she spends her money, so I don’t think there’s any point in criticizing her for the choices. Instead, let’s focus on two things:

  • How can Crystal fit her love for Stuff into a reasonable budget?
  • How can Crystal learn to love frugality while retaining a passion for the “good things” in life?

You can probably guess my response to the first question. I believe that smart spending is about making choices. Frugality isn’t about pinching pennies on everything; it’s about cutting costs on the things that don’t matter to you so that you can spend on the things that do matter.

In my case, that means spending less on clothes, cutting cable television, and growing some of my own food. These cost-cutting moves allow me to afford season tickets to the local pro soccer team, buy comic books, attend an expensive gym, and travel the world. There’s much more to this, of course, but the main lesson is that I practice conscious spending. I actively choose to spend on some things and not on others.

Crystal can do this too. If fashion, food, and books are important to her, she can spend on those — within reason. There’s no rule that says she can’t. But it’s in her best interest to be smart about this.

Crystal should:

  • Find ways to buy books and clothes for less. Some of the best-dressed people I know buy their clothes at thrift stores our outlet stores. A used book can be just as satisfying as a new book (and sometimes more so).
  • Cut back hard on the things that are unimportant. While nice clothes and restaurant meals are important to Crystal, there are probably other things in her life that aren’t. Maybe she can get by in a small apartment. Or maybe she doesn’t mind riding the bus. She can have some of the things she really wants if she’s willing to make sacrifices on other things that matter less to her.
  • Avoid going into debt to indulge her passions. It’s fine to spend money you can afford to pursue your hobbies. But it’s dangerous when you start spending more than you earn. Crystal has only $3,000 in credit-card debt at the moment. That’s not a lot, but it could grow into a bigger problem if she tries to have it all.

I also think that Crystal should begin to foster some frugal habits even as she allows herself to be materialistic. When she shops, she should be smart about it. She should wait for sales. If she finds something she likes in a department store, she should check eBay to see if she can buy it for less. She should begin using the library to borrow one or two books a month. When she dines out, she should look for ways to cut costs: use coupons, forego drinks, choose cheaper restaurants, and so on.

There are ways to practice frugality even while indulging in a materialistic life. When Kris and I bought furniture for my Man Room (which had remained empty for the first five years we lived in this house), we bought nice stuff. But we waited for a big sale and we used a coupon. In the end, we paid something like half price for some very expensive furniture.

It is possible to be frugal and materialistic at the same time.

Or is it? What do you think? How do you balance having the things you want with saving for the future? Can a person be both frugal and materialistic at the same time? Is Crystal a lost cause? How can she learn to love frugality without giving up the good things in life?

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