The difference between frugality and minimalism

There's a popular notion in personal-finance circles that frugality and minimalism go hand in hand. If somebody's frugal, they probably also self-identify as being a minimalist. And if somebody's a minimalist, they probably self-identify as being frugal. But while there is a lot of crossover between frugality and minimalism, it's important to understand that they're fundamentally different ideas with different aims. Sometimes they're even at odds with each other.

In fact, I think these two concepts are so non-aligned that I feel the need to define them for those Money Boss readers unfamiliar with the minimalism movement.

  • Frugality, as we're all aware, is what used to be called thrift. It's the quality of being careful with money and goods. It's the opposite of waste.
  • Minimalism, on the other hand, is the pursuit of less. Minimalist strive to own and do less, and they generally want their possessions to reflect simplicity and elegance.

Frugal folks aim to spend less; minimalists aim to have and do less. There's plenty of overlap there, obviously, but there are many times that frugality and minimalism are neither synonymous nor compatible. Let's look at a real-life example.

A Real-Life Example

Last Sunday, I rode my bike to a local bar for a money-blogger meetup. Much to my chagrin, I got a flat about 3.5 miles into the 4.1-mile ride through the rain and the cold. I “limped” the last half mile to the bar — putting most of my weight on the front tire so that I wouldn't lose control of the bicycle. Eventually, the flat was too flat; I had to walk the last few hundred feet.

Fortunately, I live in Portland. Portland might be the most bike-friendly city in the United States, which means there are plenty of bike shops scattered around town. After I finished drinking slushy margaritas with my friends, I walked half a mile to River City Bicycles, where I paid $15 (and waited an hour) for the friendly folks to fix my flat.

This action led to an interesting discussion on Facebook:

Bike Discussion

This is a real-life example of the balance between frugality and minimalism. The frugal move would be to carry gear with me so that I could handle minor bike problems as they arise. The minimalist move is to carry nothing.

Twenty years ago, I did carry spare tubes and a patch kit with me when I rode. But twenty years ago, I was biking 1500+ miles per year over country roads. Now, however, I bike much less often. I've biked a total of 8.7 miles in 2017 — and those were all last Sunday. (As the weather improves, so will my bike miles.)

My cavalier attitude toward paying a bike shop to fix my flat — something that's simple (if sometimes awkward and annoying) to do — prompted Mindy to jest:

Frugal No More?

When I bike, I prioritize simplicity over frugality. I prefer to be unencumbered. The same is true when I travel. I want as little with me as possible. I pack light. If that means I sometimes pay a little extra because I have to buy shampoo or a shirt at my destination, I'm okay with that. It's a trade-off that I, personally, am willing to make. It's a conscious decision.

Balancing Cost and Clutter

Here at home, I find that I often try to strike a balance between cost and clutter.

I'd dearly love to get digital versions of all my books, for example, but I'm not willing to pay the price to do so. In this case, frugality trumps simplicity. (I have moved to digital for new books, though. Probably 75% of my book buying is now for Kindle. That's 100% of fiction and 50% of non-fiction. Sometimes I need to mark up my non-fiction books, and for that I want a physical copy.)

I also weigh frugality and minimalism when buying groceries. In the olden days — back when the world was young — I simply bought as much as I could at Costco. It's very difficult to beat Costco prices. The downside, of course, is that you have to buy two gigantic jars of pickled asparagus when maybe you only want to purchase one small jar. Or you have to buy a package of six sinus sprays when you're only going to use two or three this year. (Those are both actual examples from a recent Costco trip.)

When I lived in a bigger space, I could store Costco-sized packages. Now, that's just not possible. So, I shop more at the local organic grocery instead, where prices are much higher but package sizes are reasonable. In this case, simplicity trumps frugality.

Frugalist vs. Minimalist

I have hoarding tendencies. That's not to say that I am a hoarder, but left to my own devices I'll accumulate a lot of crap. When I first began to explore frugality about a decade ago, I worked hard to cut my costs. But that didn't actually reduce the amount of stuff I brought home. I just found cheaper ways to do it.

  • I bought my clothes at the thrift store. I spent less, but I bought more clothes.
  • I bought books at the annual library sale. For the price of one new book, I could bring home ten used books!
  • I once wrote an article at Get Rich Slowly about how awesome it was to find free stuff by the side of the road. My readers pointed out that I was just filling my life with junk I didn't need. Ouch.

So, I was frugal, yes — or striving to be — but I was in no way a minimalist.

Meanwhile, I have a friend who is a minimalist. He consciously works to own little and to do little. He focuses on essentials.

  • He has maybe five shirts and a couple pairs of pants. He owns one jacket.
  • For a computer, he deliberately chose the current MacBook because it has clean lines and minimal ports.
  • He doesn't buy books, instead preferring to purchase them on his Kindle or borrow them from the library.

This minimalism keeps my friend's life uncluttered, both physically and mentally. It brings him peace. At the same time, however, he's far from frugal. When he buys things, he's willing to pay top dollar to purchase quality. He did obsessive research to find the lightest backpack, for instance, and it wasn't cheap. His clothes aren't cheap either. (Like me, he prefers wool t-shirts that cost $50 — or more.) My friend is a minimalist, but he doesn't consider cost when he makes a purchase.

More Similar than Different

Having said all of this, I want to be clear: Frugality and minimalism can and do work well together. They're more similar than they are different. You can pursue both, and you can pursue both effectively. My point with this piece is simply to remind folks that while the Venn digram overlaps, it's not a perfect fit.

There's a sweet spot where frugality and minimalism cross over. It's here that you find maximum savings and minimum clutter. This might mean buying your wool t-shirts at clearance sales, for instance, or buying a refurbished MacBook instead of a new one. It's choosing to own one pair of high-quality, expensive dress shoes instead of three or four marginal pairs. (The “buy it for life” movement is focused on this sweet spot.)

The key is to figure out where this sweet spot is for the things in your life, and then to aim for it as much as possible. Will going car-less save you both hassle and money? Would moving to a smaller home cut your costs while allowing you to purge a bunch of clutter? For those things that don't fall in this sweet spot, intentionally choose whether frugality or simplicity is more important to you, and don't apologize for the choice you make — as long it's deliberate.

In my case, I'll continue to choose simplicity when it comes to cycling. I'm willing to pay fifteen bucks for somebody else to fix a flat. I'll also opt for simplicity in certain other areas of my life, like travel. Mostly, though, I'm a frugal fellow. I'd rather experience a little hassle in order to save money — especially on the big stuff.

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Physician on FIRE
Physician on FIRE
3 years ago

These thoughts have run through my mind, as well. I find the two concepts are more at odds than you outline, but I do believe one can embrace both.

My tendencies have been very much frugal and maximalist, so the transition that I want to make in the direction of minimalism is not an easy one. I’ve had a draft of a post on the topic for months. Thank you for the reminder to act on that.

Cheers!
-PoF

Mindy Jensen
Mindy Jensen
3 years ago

I, too have hoarding tendencies. I want to be minimal, but “I can do something with that…” I’m trying – it’s a constant struggle. Reading your views on thrift store clothes and free stuff by the side of the road is like looking in a mirror… However, I do carry a patch kit and a tube with me on all rides. They’re small, I have a tiny bag beneath my seat that holds everything, and it’s kind of like an insurance policy. I almost never get a flat… In fact, I rode coast to coast several years ago, and got… Read more »

Rm
Rm
3 years ago
Reply to  Mindy Jensen

Ha ha I’ve invested in a solid rear inner tube, no more flat back tyres. Ever!

dh
dh
3 years ago

Great post, JD. Sometimes minimalism is nothing more than a weird offshoot of yuppyism. Like minimalists love to recommend $300 backpacks from Minaal when a simple Jansport gets the job done just as well.

Jules
Jules
3 years ago
Reply to  dh

But does it, really do exactly the same thing! I tried to talk myself out of buying a really expensive handbag, because I could get one roughly the same shape for about a third the cost. The reality is that the more expensive bag is a better (and long-term, more frugal choice) because it is perfectly proportioned to carry everything I need (and not one thing more). Because it is so perfect, I haven’t bought a handbag in four years where before I was buying a new bag every year. The expensive bag is headed to the spa for a… Read more »

Lars-Christian
Lars-Christian
3 years ago

Interesting, and important distinction between two concepts many seem to conflate. Personally, I think of myself as someone with natural tendencies towards minimalism, and not the frugal kind. So, the opposite of PoF here above 🙂

My most important life goal these days is conscious consumption, however. That means balancing the two, I believe.

Liz@ChiefMomOfficer
3 years ago

I definitely lean more to the frugal side than the minimalism side. I have some interest in minimalism and don’t get “stuff” just for the sake of having more things. But I buy used books (physical books), shop at thrift stores/consignment shops for clothes, etc. Over the years I’ve started culling the amount of things I get, but it’s still no where near minimalist. Maybe when my kids are grown.

Beth
Beth
3 years ago

Great post – love the examples! My first thought when seeing the title was “who cares?” I think we spend too much time worrying about labels, and for what? So we can feel better about ourselves for being “frugal” or “minimalist”? Or feel like we belong to some sort of “us” versus “them” group? I understand that labels can be empowering, but I just don’t think they’re necessary. We should be challenging ourselves to meet our goals and live the kind of life we want. It has little to do with other people. Instead of thinking “is this frugal” or… Read more »

Olga
Olga
3 years ago
Reply to  Beth

This is such a perfect wording considering I am reading “The new Earth”. I wanted to comment on the topic of the post, but this put me in a better place

Stafford
Stafford
3 years ago

Interesting post. I definitely fall in to the frugal category and I have a strong desire to work on the minimalist category. something about getting rid of things just seems so refreshing to me. I have 2 small kids and it amazes me how much useless crap (aka toys) can accumulate very quickly. We try to purge at least once a year, but no matter how much we get rid of, it always seems like there is too much stuff. The funny thing is, kids can often have more fun with an empty cardboard box (aka a boat) and a… Read more »

HeatherLiz
HeatherLiz
3 years ago

I hold the intention to be both minimal and frugal, but it’s difficult to keep both in focus at the same time. It seems like they are often shifting places in the foreground and background.

Shara G.
Shara G.
3 years ago

Considering I am in the stage of parenthood where we need toilet paper rolls, 2L bottles, and other random junk on a regular basis, minimalism isn’t even a concept at this point in time, lol.

Joe
Joe
3 years ago

Interesting. They are a lot different. Minimalist just don’t want a lot of stuff. If I was a minimalist, I’d spend more on better stuff. To me, that’s not frugal at all. It probably save more money in the long run to own less crap, though.

gfaseed
gfaseed
3 years ago

I would say that I’m more minimalist than frugal. But you make an excellent point.

Sjoerd
Sjoerd
3 years ago

The clever thing would have been to drop your bike off at the shop and then go for drinks… 😉

Paul F
Paul F
3 years ago

Hey JD,
Bad idea taking the puppy to work with you!
I find that my cute little german shepherd puppy is the biggest distraction in the world when i stay home to work.
Paul F

Dividend Growth Investor
Dividend Growth Investor
3 years ago

This is your life JD. You do not owe explanations to anyone else. Perhaps the comment that may have inspired this post comes back to the concept of frugal shaming you wrote about previously?

My Sons Father
My Sons Father
3 years ago

Well articulated. I’ve recently discovered minimalism and so far it has worked in harmony with my frugal tendencies. However, I can see the potential conflicts down the road.

I think intentionality and values based living will help solve these potential conflicts as they arise.

VagabondMD
VagabondMD
3 years ago

My way of embracing minimalism is to declutter and buy/keep less stuff, and buy less stuff is inherently frugal. However, I require the stuff (clothes, as an example) to be high quality, necessary, and durable so that I am not compelled to buy it again soon. Often, this means that I will pay more on the front end but spend less in the long run. Since the lifetime cost of pants, for, example, will be lower, it ends up being the frugal choice, too. Books, to me, are a no-brainer. I allow myself one Audible book per month, and the… Read more »

Mystery Money Man
Mystery Money Man
3 years ago

Great post, JD! I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my personal frugality as of late, including writing a number of posts on the topic, and you’ve given me some additional food for thought!

saveinvestbecomefree
saveinvestbecomefree
3 years ago

Nice article! Similarly, frugal and cheap can overlap and yet they are fundamentally different. Interestingly, minimalism and cheap don’t overlap much. As I get older (and have more money), I am focusing more on quality and enjoyment of items, which leads me towards the “buy it for life” type things. But while I don’t worry about cost much, I find my spending has dropped quite a bit because I’m naturally drifting towards fewer items that last a long time. I don’t feel the need to buy much anymore. I have plenty of nice things that I want to keep for… Read more »

Primal Prosperity
Primal Prosperity
3 years ago

I have come to a completely different conclusion… I’m very much a minimalist, but I’m not frugal in the least. I will pay more for quality and I don’t think much about what I buy, because I don’t desire much. I like the freedom of being able to be mobile. I will say that being minimalist definitely saves me money on consumer goods, but I do like to spend money on travel. I think we have two tendencies that we lean toward… some lean toward our hunter genes and others lead toward our farmer genes. The hunters are minimalists at… Read more »

Bruce
Bruce
3 years ago

I remember coming across a concept in MMM’s blog in looking at the 10 year cost of our purchases/activities. As far as I recall it wasn’t his concept but one that he had come across and was passing along. I think that including not only the 10 year cost in money but the 10 year cost in time as well would be a great way to look at whether a purchase/activity deserves simplicity or frugality. In this case having a flat fixed at a repair shop is probably both low in cost and time over a 10 year period for… Read more »

Lyn Alden
Lyn Alden
2 years ago

I’m definitely on the minimalism side of the spectrum here. Like you JD Roth, I grew up in a cluttered home. But that gave me a strong aversion to clutter, so now I’m like allergic to it.

I don’t ride out in the country, so I don’t carry patch kits when I bike either.

RAJBKB
RAJBKB
1 year ago

A couple points: 1. Minimalism and frugality are not mutually exclusive. While a minimalist would usually take the aesthetics of the item into account (and sometimes confuse aesthetics with quality), a frugal minimalist would consider the lifetime costs, resale value, and durability of the item. A macbook air for me meets both of these standards. I’ve had my air for five years and, for my needs, it’s still like having a new computer. Annual cost so far: ~$250. I’d much rather have that then a new shitty laptop every year or two. I’m still super happy with my purchase. Did… Read more »

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