Frugality is NOT a dirty word

From a few of our recent discussions, I get the sense that some people are uncomfortable with the notion of frugality. These are some actual comments:

  • “Frugality should not be about a total excision of quality of life. Unfortunately, this is how it seems most personal finance writers talk about it.”
  • “I dislike this philosophy of ‘work hard all your life so you can retire and live a modest but comfortable life'. That's an awful way to lead a life”
  • “All this discussion of living modestly is crap.”

I don't mean to pick on individual commenters — these statements are representative of many that I've read lately. While I understand these sentiments, I think it's important to understand that frugality is not a dirty word. In fact, frugality is a valuable skill for building wealth.

Frugality Is NOT a Dirty Word

In The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas Stanley and William Danko collected and analyzed data from surveys of more than 1,000 millionaire households. They concluded:

What are three words that profile the affluent? Frugal frugal frugal. Webster's defines frugal as “behavior characterized by or reflecting economy in the use of resources.” The opposite of frugal is wasteful. We define wasteful as a lifestyle marked by lavish spending and hyper-consumption. Being frugal is the cornerstone of wealth-building. … [Millionaires] become millionaires by budgeting and controlling expenses, and they maintain their affluent status the same way.

Frugality means choosing to make the most of your money, to focus on everyday costs, to recognize that small amounts matter. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's a skill that nearly anyone can practice, and it lays the groundwork for sound financial habits that can be used throughout your life. Frugality keeps you focused on goals.

A New Way to See the World

All the same, it's important not to confuse frugality with depriving yourself. Frugality doesn't mean living like a pauper. If you read an article someplace (even at Get Rich Slowly) that says, “Give up your daily latte and you can save big bucks,” but the concept makes you feel like you'd be cheating yourself, then don't do it. Frugality is about making smart choices to reach your goals; it's not about living a life devoid of pleasure.

But always keep the larger goals in mind. If you've adopted a lifestyle of thrift or frugality, you are not being cheap when you buy generic food at the grocery store. You are not being cheap when you don't purchase an iPhone or a Nintendo Wii. You are not being cheap — you are choosing a different set of values. You are working toward a greater goal. You are not depriving yourself — you have elected to live debt-free, or to follow a spiritual ideal, or to save for a trip around the world.

When you adopt a frugal lifestyle, you change your value system. You may acquire less Stuff, but you could gain more time, more freedom, more peace-of-mind. Making any lifestyle change — acquiring a frugal mentality, beginning an IRA, starting a diet — requires that you remain focused on the Big Picture. If you lose track of why you're making sacrifices, the sacrifices become a burden.

Thrift is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are different degrees. It's important to discover what works best for your budget and your situation. Focus on your financial goals and make conscious choices that make you happy. Don't bankrupt your future for gratification today, but don't live so parsimoniously that you cannot enjoy the present.

Embrace the Get Rich Slowly mantra: Do what works for you.

Frugality in Practice

Over the past eighteen months, I've published an irregular series exploring my own adventures in frugal living. Here are some highlights:

More about...Frugality

Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others

Subscribe to the GRS Insider (FREE) and we’ll give you a copy of the Money Boss Manifesto (also FREE)

Yes! Sign up and get your free gift
Become A Money Boss And Join 15,000 Others
guest
58 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Peter S.
Peter S.
12 years ago

I think there is always a balance one must maintain and it is up to the individual to decide that balance.

I do, however, agree with many of the posts you are referring to JD that speak of keeping, in my mind, a much healthier balance than those who speak about frugality in the PF world (generally). I think it is VERY possible to lead both a non modest living and build wealth; they do not have to be mutually exclusive. Enjoy life now AND later.

dawn
dawn
12 years ago

I think frugality is an easy tool for everyday people like me to live a life of choice. I want my money to serve me(savings and investments), not me serve my money(credit card debt). It’s only a couple of generations ago that frugality was the norm.

Galls
Galls
12 years ago

Frugality actually makes you happier. Anyone who believes that buying stuff can actually give them happiness is very confused and has not had a very Socratic view on life. Buying crap only gives you a perceived pathway to happiness. You do not have deep memories of the mercedes, you have deep memories of, say, your kids in your mercedes picking each other’s noises. The same memory that could be found in any other car. I started my life as an entitled person, money was no concern and buying crap was seen as a way to increase self worth. After realizing… Read more »

Jagg Nogg
Jagg Nogg
12 years ago

I think that people sometimes associate frugality with endless penny pinching in all areas of life. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can make a few simple frugal decisions and reap the benefits for years without having to “work” at all. Example: I bought a Toyota Corolla in 1999. I’m still driving it today. I automatically save $ on car payments (which long ago dropped to $0), gas (39 mpg highway), insurance, repairs, etc. When I compare myself to co-workers with their luxury cars, I’ve literally saved tens of thousands of dollars. But here’s the key – I… Read more »

Michael
Michael
12 years ago

I thought the anti-frugality commentors sounded like spoiled children. It’s sad to see what has become of American culture. We’re a nation of mindless shoppers, and virtues such as frugality are looked down on. I’ve seen how people live in third-world countries. They’re people just like us. The go to work, come home and have dinner, go to sleep, then wake up and do it all again the next day. They have the same concerns about life, love, family, and the future that we do. But they’re not the mindless consumers that I see here in the US. They don’t… Read more »

Ben
Ben
12 years ago

I agree being frugal isn’t about depriving yourself. My wife and I set up a plan that required us to practice frugality in various ways (none of which made us less happy) and channelled some of that saved money into a vacation fund. Then we spent the money taking or son on a vacation in the Yucatan, had an amazing time, the kid learned to swim, and we didn’t use our credit cards to pay for the trip at all. I think people don’t associate Carribean vacations and frugality, but for us we couldn’t have had one without the other.

Jagg Nogg
Jagg Nogg
12 years ago

As a follow up to my post (#4), I should add that once you learn to love living simpler (something that I’m still working hard to do), the wealth you accumulate means less to you. My wife and I have a substantial net worth now, yet our focus has moved more away from material items. These days, wealth represents the freedom to spend time with family and friends and enjoy simple pleasures of life. It represents freedom of the stress of making ends meet. Our goal now is to pay off our last debt – our mortgage. I don’t care… Read more »

telly
telly
12 years ago

I’m surprised when I hear people say that being frugal means being unhappy. Since changing my ways (living more frugally), I’m much happier now than I was driving a new car with debt hanging over my head.

For those people that think living modestly is crap, give it a try. You’ll find modest living much more enjoyable to living it up on credit.

Lana
Lana
12 years ago

I think all the negativity toward frugality reveals a rather glaring lack of independent thought. No one likes to be told what to do, and people who rebel against being frugal can’t seem to see past the advice to what possible benefits it will bring them. And it seems to me that people with greater financial security have greater freedom; with greater freedom comes a relaxed sense of control over one’s life – which is exactly what your cranky commenters seem to lack. They don’t want to give up their comforts because they feel trapped in the lifestyle they’ve created… Read more »

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

It’s all about spending on your passions and limiting elsewhere. No deprivation involved. Just living within your means and skipping out on stuff you don’t really need. It pays off big time in the long run.

AnnieJ
AnnieJ
12 years ago

I don’t think enough can be said about choices. Some of us are forced into our frugal ways by life circumstances, but most frugalites I know are choosing to be so. When it’s buy choice, it doesn’t seem like deprivation at all. I like what you said about there being degrees of frugality. For example, neither of my sisters will use the dishwasher because they feel it’s an extravagant waste of money and water. I disagree, especially with the newer models, but what’s more important is that even if they did use a little bit more water or money, I… Read more »

MonkeyMonk
MonkeyMonk
12 years ago

My philosophy about frugality is that there needs to be a balance between saving money and maintaining a good quality of life. What constitutes a “good” quality of life is up to the individual. That said, I do think a lot of personal finance writers go overboard on the concept of frugality. Case in point . . . I’ve been trying to get my wife on board for the idea of doubling our savings in order to retire early. There was an article recently making the blog rounds on two middle-income couples on track to retire by 45 or 50.… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

Another good discussion. At our house, “frugality” means that we choose to economize in areas of our lives where we don’t mind. Then, we can choose to splurge on things that give us joy or cause us stress. We wouldn’t be able to splurge and still accumulate wealth if we weren’t economizing in other areas. At this point in our lives, with young children, we don’t want to work harder or longer to make more money to live “better” than we do. (I am not at all knocking those who need to or want to work insanely long hard hours… Read more »

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

I strive to be frugal and generous. Frugal with resources, generous with time, gifts, hospitality, etc. It gives me great pleasure to pick up a restaurant tab, make contributions to good causes, etc. It also gives me great satisfaction to conserve resources, which is my definition of frugal. It is codeterminant with ecological responsibility. Most Americans waste a ton of resources – we consume, but don’t derive full benefit. Wasting money and wasting resources amount to the same thing.

guinness416
guinness416
12 years ago

It comes back to that endless blog topic, frugal versus cheap. Until I started reading some of these blogs and books I associated the word and concept of “frugality” with people I’d met who were genuine misers and cheapskates. I certainly have had a better understanding over the last few years, but I was open to it, perhaps these commenters aren’t.

Joe McBride
Joe McBride
12 years ago

Frugality is about choosing to not keep up with a consumerist culture. It means leaving materialism behind and focusing on things that really matter, like personal growth, family and security. It means living in a way that impacts the environment lightly and those around you in a big way.

Jon Morrow
Jon Morrow
12 years ago

To many people, I think “Frugality” is a dirty word. Your definition is technically correct, but I don’t think it’s how people view the word anymore. The meaning has evolved into something else, almost like the word “gay” (I’m NOT implying gay has a negative connotation, so no one get upset). Generally though, I think people are lashing out against the advice that you need to delay gratification. To many, the entire purpose of money is to buy the stuff you want as quickly as possible. The only reason they save is so they can buy big-ticket items that they… Read more »

JACK
JACK
12 years ago

To me, frugality may not be the right word. That word has come to mean for many people an emphasis on saving money for saving money’s sake. Cheapness. Miserly. I don’t necessarily agree with those views, but I understand how the word has come to resonate with that. To me the better principle is one of detachment. Or more so, a greater attachment to my true desires. So the notion is simply to recognize that everything I want isn’t necessarily what I truly desire at the deep level of my need for happiness. It is to have a bit of… Read more »

Laura
Laura
12 years ago

I think being frugal gives you more options with your money. Doing it the ‘regular’ way, I had no money leftover with my paychecks. Now I have some leftover money(interning so still not a large amount) and I have no credit debt and actually have some money in the bank if I need it. Living the ‘regular’ way was depriving me of choice, I couldn’t do things because I couldn’t afford it. If I did it anyways, I put in on the credit card end out resenting the price of going out. I’d take frugal living any day of the… Read more »

margaret
margaret
12 years ago

For me, frugality is about being mindful of how I spend my finite amount of money. I was spending between $10 -15 a day on lunch and snacks when I could be just as happy with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a piece of fruit. Now that money is available to spend on things that really make me happy. The reality is that I don’t have an unlimited amount of money to spend and I have to think about where it goes. Being mindful of how I choose to spend my money, instead of wasting it, means I… Read more »

Ross D.
Ross D.
12 years ago

Sounds like we just need to take a new word and make it mainstream… Time to consult the thesaurus – With the popularity of 300, how about Spartan?

Main Entry: frugal

Synonyms: Spartan, abstemious, canny, careful, chary, conserving, discreet, meticulous, parsimonious, penny-wise, pocket, preserving, provident, prudent, saving, sparing, thrifty, unwasteful, wary
Antonyms: extravagant, spendthrift, wasteful

jtimberman
jtimberman
12 years ago

Excellent post JD! This is a good reminder of why I read this site instead of some of the other PF blogs (wisebread comes to mind >

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

I think that the commentator (and others like him/her) who said “I dislike this philosophy of ‘work hard all your life so you can retire and live a modest but comfortable life’. That’s an awful way to lead a life” has been sucked in by the very powerful cultural forces all around us that make “a modest but comfortable life” seem like failure. We live in a culture that primarily holds up excess as “success.” We don’t have a national/societal narrative that says that conservation is really good, that having “enough” is a valuable achievement… Instead, our narratives posit as… Read more »

Moneymonk
Moneymonk
12 years ago

I think people get confused between the word FRUGAL and the word CHEAP, there are not the same

Kris
Kris
12 years ago

Margaret, I think you nailed it with the PB&J analogy. Frugality means we reduce our expenditures in some areas to save them for others that really matter.

jtimberman
jtimberman
12 years ago

Oops the rest of my comment got cut off…

Mainly I want to say, my [broke] friends who make fun of my frugal living and call me ‘cheap’ are noticing that I still spend money and enjoy life, and after watching me for three years, some are starting to change their habits as well.

Peachy
Peachy
12 years ago

I’m with JaggNogg. I also have a ’99 Corolla that is paid off, and I only have 160,000 miles on it. I hope to have it many more years. I love that it’s low maintenance, and gets great gas mileage. I’m not riding around in the newest car or the fanciest car, but knowing that I don’t have car payments and hefty maintenace fees makes me happy. I can put my money elsewhere until I’m ready to buy a diffrent car. Of course, I’d probably buy another Corolla when the time comes, but that’s my frugal choice.

Dave Farquhar
Dave Farquhar
12 years ago

I did some volunteer work a number of years ago in one of the poorest communities in the United States. I’m talking apartment buildings with concrete walls and floors, shared bathrooms, no hot water, and limited electricity. The people who lived in these apartments didn’t have cars; they relied on public transportation or they walked. Many of them didn’t even have regular jobs. There would be a few places where they’d gather every day, and most days someone would come and hire them. Some days they wouldn’t, so they’d just stand around hoping someone would need help later in the… Read more »

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

BALANCE is the key like you said.. being frugal means cutting unecessary expenses in your life and sacrificing on certain things in order to reach a GREATER goal.. whether that be saving for retirement, first home, emergenices, hobbies, vacations, gadgets, or whatever it is you enjoy yes i have a luxury car.. but i bought it used (saved nearly 20k alone buying it 4 years old).. and it has been paid off for 2 years now.. i’ve always loved cars.. so spending a little extra in order to get a QUALITY car is important to me.. plus i always have… Read more »

kick_push
kick_push
12 years ago

oh and dave.. that sounds like a great experience.. makes you appreciative of what you have.. i admit sometimes i take some of the advantages and blessings i have for granted

i want to go back to the philippines (where my parents grew up).. i haven’t been there since the 5th grade.. sometimes when you see what poverty really is.. you second guess some of the decisions you make.. makes you see the difference between WANTS and NEEDS.. and you realize what priorities are more important in your life.. family, health, etc..

Money Socket
Money Socket
12 years ago

I agree that balance is the key. I just wrote about this the other day. There is no harm in spending money on your passion but save where you can elsewhere. I think most people leaving negative comments are either in denial or they are just upset because they see these articles as an attack on their lifestyle. These articles are viewable many people and since blogs have comment options, they will let you hear it. I think its human nature to think you are right and everyone else is wrong. When you’re driving, everyone driving slower than you are… Read more »

emily
emily
12 years ago

My husband and I are older (early/mid 50s) than most people who frequent the site. We both went to grad school (late start on working; late start on kids), work in a lowpaying field in a lowpaying state(education/LA). Our frugality has been the subject of derision for years. BUT as we are now approaching the “other side” of frugality, things are great. Many of our colleagues are mired in debt. We have paid off our house, saved for our children’s college (we are debt averse). In the past year we have taken trips to CA, MA, FL (all to visit… Read more »

Angie
Angie
12 years ago

Dave Farquhar, thanks for writing that.

I think one of the keys to being happy while living frugally is to be grateful for what you do have.

Humans are wired to be more unhappily aware of what they don’t have than to be content and happy with what they do have. One way to get a more grounded perspective is to spend time with people who are getting by with a lot less. (Remember those happiness studies, that it’s easier to be happy if the people around you are less well off than you than if they’re more well off?)

Kay
Kay
12 years ago

Two thumbs up for Laura at comment #19, who said that frugality gave her options. Exactly. When I lived in a luxury condo in a highly desirable area, paying other people to do my cleaning and laundry, I had a lifestyle some might have envied, but I had no choices. I had to keep working 60+ hours per week at a stressful job to pull in that high salary. I had to take blood pressure medication to handle the effects of the stress. I had to dress and act appropriately for the affluent company I kept. Nowadays, being frugal is… Read more »

nolandda
nolandda
12 years ago

I think most people understand the difference between frugality and cheapness. However, what impact would you say dramatic and memorable stories about extreme frugality have on the small minority who do not?

I think that if I were new to the game and someone advocated becoming homeless or eating food that others have thrown out I might be a bit put off.

Then again I suspect most of the above hecklers are just trolls.

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

I’m going to agree with several others on this string. (1) If you make a couple of big frugal choices (i.e. driving a paid off car) you have a heck of a lot more money to get you to financial peace (plus you still have enough extra $$ to blow on lattes or pedicures or comic books). (2) I’ve taken 2 fabulous (luxury) vacations this year (one with my girlfriends and one with my husband). For both vacations, I stayed at 5 star hotels, eat out at fabulous restaurants, did a tiny bit of shopping, etc. How did I do… Read more »

luke
luke
12 years ago

I get into this with my wife, and find it a very frustrating topic. She is fine living with multiple days of fancy take-out food rotting in the fridge, bouncing checks when we actually have enough money not to, clothes bought and left in their bags for *years*, six complete sets of dishes, vacations when we can’t afford them, new cell phones – and on and on. It’s not just the money, but it’s the sheer weight on our lives of all that unappreciated clutter, and how little room there is left for our *selves*. I rarely bring this topic… Read more »

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

While I disagree with the original posters, I can see where they would get a negative idea about being frugal or living simply. I remember skimming an article about “freegans” that was disgusting to me – saving money by dumpster-diving is just not worth it to me. I have alternatives to doing that and really can (and want to ) avoid it. However, living within my means or not going out to eat every day is a form of living simply or frugally and one that helps me attain longer term goals by getting out of debt sooner. Once out… Read more »

JenK
JenK
12 years ago

If you’ve only been frugal when forced to, then yes, it’s about deprivation and pain and icky.

If you have enough money or attitude that frugality is a choice, then yes, it can be empowering to know that money saved by packing lunches can finance a fun vacation – or vice versa 🙂 And not buying things can mean not having to store them. Although since turning 40, I find library books aren’t “At least I don’t have to find shelf space for them” – it’s “Thank God I don’t have to *dust* *them*….”

Aleks
Aleks
12 years ago

“At our house, “frugality” means that we choose to economize in areas of our lives where we don’t mind. Then, we can choose to splurge on things that give us joy or cause us stress.” That’s exactly what it means to me too. I haven’t gotten rid of my car and TV or started doing my own oil changes, but I have done a lot of things to save money that don’t affect my lifestyle. To me, frugality means not wasting money. I switched to VOIP phone service because it cut my phone bill in half. I buy clothes on… Read more »

Victor
Victor
12 years ago

Frugality = MoneyWise Just because I choose to not purchase the latest gadgets or the $5 coffee everyday, does not make me ‘frugal’; It makes me intelligent about my money and my wants. We can do away with the word ‘frugal’ if it bothers people so much. Just use moneywise. Example: I am moneywise because I do not spend money on things I do not want or need. I am saving my money so i can enjoy life without debt. I do this by being moneywise. If someone can’t handle hearing the word, just use a different one. Doesn’t mean… Read more »

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
12 years ago

It’s funny how what one person sees as a splurge can be seen as frugal by someone else. When I finished college, I saved up and bought a used 10-year-old Corolla. I bought it outright (it was about C$7k at the time). It was in great shape. I was really proud to own a car outright, since few people in my hometown owned without debt. And few in my old neighbourhood had Corollas, even used ones. One day my car was broken into. I said that it appeared that it had been vandalized and rooted through. My co-worker (who was… Read more »

SR
SR
12 years ago

Frugality is generally a good thing. Being “frugal” in everything is not frugality, it is being cheap. And yes, cheap is bad. Also, the opposite of frugality is not over-consumption — which is what many posters seem to think. I prefer to live on my own. I also prefer to leave the country when I take holidays. So, I make trade-offs, and I live with roommates. That is how I see frugality: making a tradeoff in one area, in order to get more in another. A few of the comments I’ve read talked about [sic] “frugality being the norm x… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I think that when lots of frugal options are suggested people maybe feel bombarded but not many people are going to want to do them all. You pick and choose and do what works for you (stealing a GRS mantra). If it makes you miserable then its not worth it, but you won’t know that until you try.

Peachy
Peachy
12 years ago

“So what if I almost bought a cashmere sweater today. So what if I occasionally stay in very nice hotels when I travel. I earn the money, I budget for the expense. I pay my bills, save money, and pay my IRA monthly. Exactly what is the problem?”-SR Very good points. I may buy one really nice sweater or dress that will last me years, yet my coworkers don’t understand how I don’t shop on a normal basis. Meanwhile, they are in debt up to their eyeballs and buying cheap clothes and shoes every other week so they can look… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
12 years ago

May I suggest a word to replace frugal? Mindful.

We should be mindful of the amount of joy a purchase gives us. This allows us to carefully consider what we spend on, and reserve spending for only those items/services which bring us the most joy.

Emily, I’m glad to know I’m not the only 40+ reader!

Dave Farquhar
Dave Farquhar
12 years ago

Luke, I have to respond to you (#39). My wife and I had the same problem, before we were married. We probably fought more about money than about anything else. What turned her around was when she heard John Commuta (“Transforming Debt into Wealth”) say that debt is renting–as long as you’re paying interest, you don’t own something, you’re still renting it. The sooner you pay off your debt, the sooner you’re not renting, so it makes sense to save money any way that you can. The other thing that helped was when I said to imagine what life will… Read more »

60 in 3 - Fitness and Health
60 in 3 - Fitness and Health
12 years ago

JD, just to clarify something since one of those comments you mentioned is mine. I am NOT against frugality. I practice it on a day to day basis. However, I think people have gone to an extreme with the frugal lifestyle. They have made frugality a goal rather than a tool. I believe that being frugal is important because it is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Being frugal helps me enjoy my life more because I have money to spend on the things that really matter. Too many people focus just on frugality… Read more »

MossySF
MossySF
12 years ago

60in3, who are you to say somebody else has gone to extremes in frugal lifestyles? That’s THEIR life — they have the right to live however they want. If you don’t think ABC or XYZ fits with what you want, hey nobody is forcing you to do anything. This is just generic advice posted on blogs for general population consumption — the headlines don’t say “Advice for 60in3 – dumpster dive for food!” Let’s get some perspective here please. You are one of 10 billion people on this planet. Perhaps one of 10 gigazillion sentient entities in this universe. In… Read more »

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me
12 years ago

I don’t even think cheap is bad! Tongue in cheek, of course. I am happy to seek out and pay the lowest price — stores still make a profit, but they make less profit off me. More of my income goes to secondhand stores and individuals than most people’s. Meanwhile, I am able to spend more money investing in my health savings account, my emergency fund, paying my ever-increasing health insurance bill (to go up 28% in December), and planning for judicious expenditures like travel. And I’m often told that I can stretch a dollar farther than many people I… Read more »

shares