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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