In defense of frugality

Frugality isn't very sexy. I'll admit that.

For most people, the concept of thrift probably conjures images of coupon clipping, stock photos of piggy banks, and Benjamin Franklin — none of which are terribly glamorous.

Frugality, is, however, in line with the concept of getting rich slowly. We've learned that building wealth has much to do with living below your means. You have to increase your income, yes. But in the process of looking for ways to earn more — whether it's negotiating, switching careers, picking up side gigs — frugality is your friend.

Can you build wealth by just being frugal? Nope. I had that realization when I first started writing for Get Rich Slowly. I knew lots about being frugal; but, after a while, I learned that there's much, much more to personal finance.

But I also didn't completely throw frugality out the window, either. And I feel like a lot of people do, because they know it takes more than frugality to build wealth. To me, this is silly. If you're paid well for your time and/or you can afford not to be frugal, kudos to you! But for those of us still working on getting rich slowly, I think thriftiness has a place in our plan.

Yes, we should all find ways to increase our income, and we should work hard at that goal. But there's only so much control we have over salary increases and higher-paying jobs. Frugality, on the other hand, is more accessible.

Overall, I guess my point is: Earning more and being frugal aren't mutually exclusive.

I know not everyone feels the same way I do about thrift, but I think it gets a way worse rap than it deserves. Here are a few arguments against frugality I've recently come across, and why I don't think they're very strong.

Focusing on Frugality Neglects the Bigger Picture

I've read this perspective at least a few times: Focusing on frugality takes your energy away from your greater financial goals. I guess the reasoning is this: If you're obsessed with finding ways to save money, you're using time that could be spent looking for ways to earn more.

But just because you're frugal doesn't mean you don't see the bigger picture. When I was in the process of paying off my student loan debt, I did my best to widen the gap between my spending and my income. I got a raise. I got bonuses. I didn't have enough time (or energy) to take on a part-time job, but I earned a meager side income by completing surveys.

I drafted a financial plan, and each time I earned more, I tweaked it.

Still, I wanted to boost my goal to get out of debt. I wanted to do something, in the meantime, to widen that gap even more. So frugality became my friend. I found cheap ways to eat; I looked for ways to save money on gas. I started cooking my meals for the week. I used less energy and lowered my electric bill.

Of course, I found that, by cutting ten bucks here and there out of my budget, I could save upwards of a hundred dollars each month. I used that money to pay off my debts even quicker.

So frugality certainly didn't take my eyes off the prize. If anything, it helped me reach my goal faster. While earning more pulls on the income side of the gap, frugality pulls on the spending side. Why not pull both sides, and widen that gap as much as you can?

Frugality is Too Time Consuming

I blame Extreme Cheapskates for this one. “Joan picked up $300 worth of groceries to add to her stockpile. She spent a grand total of sixteen cents.”

And then, you find out:

  • Joan spends 40 hours a week couponing.
  • Joan's “stockpile” is a lifetime supply of mayonnaise.

Okay, so maybe that's an extreme example of an extreme show. But that's more or less the gist of it, right?

Extreme Cheapskates is about as accurate a depiction of frugality as Real Housewives is of housewives. I coupon, and it takes me maybe fifteen minutes a week. It's really not that time consuming to be frugal.

Yes, your time has value. If your “frugal” habit ends up costing you more in terms of your time, obviously, it's not worth it. Frugality isn't just about saving a few bucks. It's about maximizing the value of something, including time.

If you need extra cash, you have 20 hours a week to spare, and someone offers you a part-time job, you definitely shouldn't turn it down because it cuts into your coupon-clipping time.

Similarly, if you work your butt off for 60 hours a week, and your free time is precious and scarce, you probably don't want to spend it clipping coupons either.

Overall, I think the key is balancing your resources with your needs.

Not everyone has the time for some of the money-saving strategies you read about. But if you do have the time, and you're already maximizing the “earn more” part of the equation, and the strategy isn't that consuming, I don't think it hurts to look for ways to save (as long as it's not saving on a stockpile of mayonnaise).

Frugal People Are Penny Wise, But Pound Foolish

Recently, I had a conversation with a frugal friend. He said the spending habits of a mutual pal baffled him.

“He's always penny-pinching. But then he goes out and blows hundreds of dollars on a vacation like it's nothing.”

At first, I saw his point. It does seem senseless to squeeze a few bucks out of Expense A, but then just throw that money away with Expense B.

But the thing is, our friend didn't consider Expense B a waste — he loves traveling. That's just him. Some people like to spend money on restaurants; some people spend money on books; and for some people, it's travel.

He doesn't save money for the sake of saving money. He saves money so he has more of it to spend it on what he wants. A post from Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar recently stood out to me:

“Whenever you see a long list of frugality tips, it's just a list of ideas on how to cut back on the things you don't care about… It means spending less when possible on the things you must have, choosing the cheapest possible option (or going without) on the things you don't care much about, and thus leaving yourself with plenty of money for the things you do care about.”

That's my goal too. I'm not just working toward financial independence because it's the responsible thing to do. I want to get the most value out of my money, and that means using it to buy things that matter to me. Travel, maybe. Or a house. Concerts, experiences, anything. (Not mayonnaise, though.)

I just know I want to spend money on things I care about.

But hey, I'm still learning, and I won't pretend to have all the answers. So what do you guys think about the concept of frugality? Do you agree with me, or do you still think these arguments hold up against the true nature of being frugal?

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Elizabeth
Elizabeth
6 years ago

Yeah, these myths are pet peeves for me too! I think some people assume frugal = cheap, and the two are very different things. I hate this idea that you can’t live “the good life” without spending a lot of money. Done right, I think a frugal lifestyle can also be a more sustainable lifestyle. Avoiding disposable products, eating less meat, using less product, saving energy, and buying used saves money and they’re good for the environment. Some people think I’m weird for cutting open containers to use up the product that gets stuck inside. It only takes a minute,… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

Agreed. I think frugality naturally lends itself to eco-friendliness. In fact, it leads to lots of great things. Since becoming frugal, I’m now more aware of what I use and what I toss out. And that’s given me a greater appreciation for what I have.

Keep cuttin’ open those containers!

Sean F.
Sean F.
6 years ago

Great lawyer-ing there! Frugality isn’t the issue. Over-spending is but often times the less culpable Frugality (yes with a capital F) gets the rap. It is a lot easier to say something is “stupid, too hard, or a penny-pinching waste of time” than to admit the real problem is a lack of follow-through / discipline for most people. My favorite part of the article that sums it up nicely: “Extreme Cheapskates is about as accurate a depiction of frugality as Real Housewives is of housewives. I coupon, and it takes me maybe fifteen minutes a week. It’s really not that… Read more »

Robb
Robb
6 years ago

I love that last quote! I am as frugal as anyone I know. I don’t eat out, I don’t have cable tv, I’ve got the discounted phone plan. But none of that is at all difficult, because they aren’t my priority, they aren’t really the things I care about. What I do care about is travel, and over the last three years by not spending money on things I don’t really care about, I’ve saved enough to quit my job and go travel the world for a year. And guess what, I’ll be frugal when I travel too. Staying in… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Robb

Deliberate is a good word. You’re in control of the value your money buys you. I like that.

Erica W.
Erica W.
6 years ago
Reply to  Robb

I love that last quote, too, and the idea of being deliberate. My favorite entertainment is going to the theater. I’d happily spend $50 on a theater ticket and eat beans for a week to be able to afford it. I have a finite amount of money each week and I prefer to allocate it in a deliberate way; frugal on what doesn’t matter to me, and spending more sometimes on things I care about.

Marsha
Marsha
6 years ago

Frugality and earning more go hand in hand. Frugality lets you keep more of your earnings. For me, it’s a matter of keeping them in balance. I was a SAHM before my sons were in school. Since I was home anyway, I was extremely frugal during that period of time. Later, when I went back to paid work, I didn’t have the time for many of the frugal activities. So I’ve only maintained those that have the biggest payoff for the least effort. When I retire (or no longer work for pay), I’ll become more frugal again. But right now… Read more »

Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
6 years ago

I think there’s a big and often overlooked difference between frugality and being cheap. Frugal people prioritize their spending, finding ways to save on certain things in order to finance bigger goals, like retirement, or in the case of the above example (and myself) travel.

Viren
Viren
6 years ago

One of my friend told me the same thing.

She told me to see the bigger picture. She wanted me to stop being frugal and expand means to earn. The advice was with good intention. However, she missed the point that unless we save and live below our earning capacity, we can never be rich.

Johanna
Johanna
6 years ago

The ability to manage what you have – to build a lifestyle that’s satisfying and sustainable on the income you’re earning right now – is a skill that everyone needs. You can chase income increase after income increase, but if each income increase gets spent as soon as (or before) it comes in, you’re not much better off than before. Frugality can be a useful tool toward that end, but it doesn’t have to be. It depends where you are and where you want to be. I’m fortunate to have my money in balance, Elizabeth-Warren-style – with less than 50%… Read more »

Alix
Alix
6 years ago

To me, “frugal” is just another word for “sensible”.

Robb
Robb
6 years ago
Reply to  Alix

You said it all in just nine words.

Brian@ Debt Discipline
Br[email protected] Debt Discipline
6 years ago
Reply to  Alix

Nicely said!

getagrip
getagrip
6 years ago

Marketing, society, cultural bias, and social status all push us to spend money. We are lauded if we “save” money by spending less on a “sale” or by getting a good “deal”. But in the end society has an expectation we should spend money to enjoy anything from our clothes to our homes with the implied social assumption that bigger and more expensive translates into better. IMHO at it’s heart frugality is about resisting the need to spend money (for whatever reason) and this generally goes against the grain, which creates friction. How much friction depends on the people you… Read more »

Neil@neverendinglist
6 years ago

Frugality is often embraced wholeheartedly at the outset of our debt-free/savings journeys, but it is road paved with pitfalls and distractions! As with most things in life it is important to find a balance. The important concept for me whether saving or spending, is always getting value for money. Sadly too much time and money gets wasted on earning and burning money on the stuff that doesn’t matter, leaving us with little time or money to pursue the stuff that really does. Small changes really can make a big difference, however it takes patience, determination and focus to reap the… Read more »

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
6 years ago

Last Christmas involved a lot of rewards card gift cards and handmade gifts (I like to sew). When I asked my husband if we were being cheap, he told me we were being “efficient.” The quote from The Simple Dollar came to mind as I read this article, we don’t spend on things that aren’t important to us so we have the money for the things that are. That about sums it up. (BTW – the kids are happier with gift cards than things, anyway. )

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Tina in NJ

My uncle used to always give us rewards card gift cards, and I loved it. And handmade gifts are the best!

Becky @ RunFunDone
Becky @ RunFunDone
6 years ago

The way to build wealth is to spend less than you earn. For that reason, frugality plays a huge role in the wealth-building game. I think that a lot of people think that frugality means missing out and sacrifice, but I don’t experience that to be true. Frugality means making smart choices so that I truly value what I spend my money on – I really don’t feel like I’m missing out! I can spend money on the things that I really want, AND I get better deals on the things that I really want than my friends do, because… Read more »

Holly@ClubThrifty
6 years ago

This is such a great post, Kristin!!

My mother always taught me that “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

So when I save $10 here or $20 here, I literally feel like I “earned it.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with focusing on earning more and frugality. Adopting both of those mindsets is better than just one in my eyes.

Aldo R @ MDN
Aldo R @ MDN
6 years ago

I’ve been getting a bad rap about my spender friends about my new frugal lifestyle. “Don’t be so cheap” they say. But they are missing the point, I’m being frugal on some things so I can save for other things. I like saving and spending my money on experiences – vacations and such – and I just don’t like spending my money on $15 drinks… I know how much a whole bottle of alcohol costs and how many drinks I can make with it.

LMoot
LMoot
6 years ago

Frugality has saved my butt more than once, and has created opportunities for me. I’ll be honest, I don’t go out of my way to be frugal. I have probably used 10 coupons in my entire life and I will likely never take advantage of Groupons and Living Socials because working at a high-volume attraction has wisened me to the fact that the quality of the visit is usually lower due to overcrowding because of everyone taking advantage of same deals, or it’s on crappy days where we are expecting a low volume but know there will be those out… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

Frugality isn’t very sexy. I’ll admit that.

Really? I haven’t always had this perspective, but these days I see frugality as a sign of intelligence.

And intelligence is mmm-mmm-mmm-sexy.

Money Saving
Money Saving
6 years ago

Frugality is all about efficiency. Money, time, etc. all play in.

Extreme cheapskates that spend 40 hours a week to save $300 are not frugal!

The penny smart, pound foolish are also NOT frugal in the truest sense of the world because they are mis-allocating their resources from a long-term perspective.

If interested, here’s a more in-depth analysis of my take on it: http://www.moneyahoy.com/the-difference-between-being-frugal-and-cheap/

LMoot
LMoot
6 years ago
Reply to  Money Saving

“Frugality is all about efficiency. Money, time, etc. all play in.”

I agree with the above statement. I use frugality as a tool to simplify my life. It provides more to me than just the obvious monetary benefits.

Komrad
Komrad
6 years ago

Not only do I agree with you, but thousands and web sites, podcasts, and people have the same opinion on frugality. I think Clark Howard covers it pretty well ‘Spend less, save more, and don’t get ripped off’ He doesn’t cover ‘make more’ , which is also important. Dave Ramsey addresses it when callers don’t make enough money for even basic living expenses . He phrases it as ‘you don’t have an expense problem, you have an income problem’ . And then evourages the caller to seek additional or higher paying jobs. Even though your idea is very common and… Read more »

AMW
AMW
6 years ago

Excellent Kristin! I especially like the comparison to the Housewives franchise!

I also like to think of my frugal “activities” as a tax shelter! If I needed another $100/month to pay my bills, I would have to go out and make about $120! Definitely more efficient to save it then to have to put in more hours to make it!

And I agree…smart frugality is very sexy!

Juli
Juli
6 years ago

Very good article. I have no desire to earn more. Earning more would require me to move into a supervisory role, or one with significantly more reponsibility, and at this point in my life I love that I come in, work hard at my job, and then leave at the stated leaving time. I am not on call, or answering emails, or even thinking about work when I am at home. So instead, I focus on ways that I can save money. There are so many easy things to do that I just don’t understand why more people don’t do… Read more »

Vanessa
Vanessa
6 years ago

When frugality is a choice, it’s empowering and sometimes even fun. When it’s not, it can be a drag.

Crystal
Crystal
6 years ago

Like your other friend, we are frugal on what doesn’t matter to us so we can spend on travel, friends, and fun without hurting our savings goals.

Shannon
Shannon
6 years ago

I am a practitioner of Law of Attraction. I believe that we create our own reality. Abundance is our birthright — Jesus told us “You can do all these things and more.” He demonstrated that when we believe something, and feel it as true, it comes to us. Being frugal is fine, coupon-clipping is fine — whatever makes you BELIEVE that abundance is coming to you, is what then shows up for you. All these behaviors are just the “permission slips” — when we do these things we then feel we have worked for the abundance to come to us,… Read more »

BD
BD
6 years ago
Reply to  Shannon

Just be careful…you’re venturing into “Blab It and Grab It” territory. Preaching a prosperity gospel is really misleading.

Shannon
Shannon
6 years ago
Reply to  BD

eeeewww . . . not fond of the word “gospel” as it sounds like organized religion. Also never heard nor understand “blab it and grab it.”

I’m just saying it’s all about gratitude, feeling abundant, as opposed to worrying and feelings of scarcity and lack, or not deserving of wealth and abundance. It’s about dreams with which we are inspired, following our passions (different from fantasies), and living expecting much good to show up in our lives.

BD
BD
6 years ago
Reply to  Shannon

@Shannon: “Blab it and Grab it” is a slang term for how some preachers preach on the Law of Attraction. Basically, they believe that “God wants us all to all be rich and have monetary abundance” and all you have to do is “believe you will be rich” and you will attract riches. The sort of crap where you tell yourself things like “I deserve to be wealthy. I deserve a BMW. God wants me to be wealthy”, and then thank God/the Universe for your wealth before you get it, in faith that it will really come true. Blech. Maybe… Read more »

Shannon
Shannon
6 years ago
Reply to  BD

Hi, BD, Thanks for your respectful reply and explanation. I don’t enjoy “preachiness” either and apologize if I came across that way. I like the “everything in moderation” and I enjoy reading the posts here of how people find this balance. Particularly when they save on one side to have some luxuries on the other. I still stand by what has come to be known as the “Law of Attraction” or “Art of Allowing” – known in many other ways as purely positive thinking, of which there are countless teachers. One way I view “frugality” is just not being wasteful.… Read more »

Marcella
Marcella
6 years ago
Reply to  Shannon

This comment sounds like suspiciously like that horrible tripe “The Secret”. Please leave Jesus and mumbo-jumbo about ridiciulous non-things like ‘laws of attraction’ out of the discussion, if you don’t mind. This is a fact based discussion here. Yes, when you’re focussed on being efficient with your time and money and maximising the value of each, you’ll be more likely to identify opportunities to do so. But don’t peddle the notion that the universe somehow secretly creates new opportunities. This belittles the hardships and circumstances that some people find themselves in, which are not of their own making. Are you… Read more »

M
M
6 years ago

@Lmoot: I’m listening to a Freakonomics podcast titled, “The upside of quitting.” Thinking of you and wishing you the best, last day at work.

LMoot
LMoot
6 years ago
Reply to  M

Thank you M 🙂 I love freakanomics, but don’t think I’ve heard that show yet. I printed out the transcript and started reading it; very interesting so far. I’m not quite ready to be an escort in TX, but it sure worked out for that chick!

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
6 years ago

My mantra has been, “I save where I can so I can spend where I want.” Like others on this thread, I cut corners here and there so I can do the things I want/need to do without worrying. When people say “don’t be so cheap,” are they really your friends? Because friends aren’t supposed to insult you. “Cheap” means doing things that adversely affect quality of life (yours or someone else’s). “Frugal” means making every dollar work for you — and making it work HARD. As for frugality and sexiness…My life partner and I find it extremely attractive. Although… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

Hot! Thanks for the comment, Donna. You are still my frugal hero 🙂

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
6 years ago
Reply to  Kristin Wong

You can’t see me, but I’m blushing.

Chenell
Chenell
6 years ago

I agree with you on the point that people almost look down on those of us who consider ourselves “frugal”. But a lot of those people who look down on us frugal people are broke themselves, so what is that saying? 🙂 I completely respect you for wanting to spend your money on more important things than mayonnaise. I’m with you!

Dee @ Color Me Frugal
Dee @ Color Me Frugal
6 years ago

My hubby and I are like your friend- we’d totally scrimp all over the place in order to be able to take an awesome vacation. I think frugality is about being able to spend your money on things that are the most important to you, rather than the things that aren’t important to you at all.

No Nonsense Landlord
No Nonsense Landlord
6 years ago

Extreme frugality is a bit too much. I am OK saving money to retire early, but when you retire if you have to be even more frugal, it isn’t worth it.

I want to be able to live better than I do when I was working, not less. After all, although I could make it on $7K a year, it would not be fun.

Especially after you get older.

Monty @ The Financial Freedom Blog
Monty @ The Financial Freedom Blog
6 years ago

There’s nothing wrong with being frugal. I’m always telling my audience that the key to financial freedom is to first save and then turn your savings into investment capital. To do that, you have to spend less than you earn. Some may call it being frugal. I call it making wise choices with money. Even if it’s a small amount of money, it should be handled wisely. After all, if a person won’t manage small amounts of money wisely they certainly won’t manage large sums of money any differently.

Edward
Edward
6 years ago

Exactamundo, Kristen! Great article as always! At this moment I’m sitting in a nice hotel room in beautiful, medieval Tallinn Estonia. Coworkers say I’m “lucky” to be able to vacation like this. No. I don’t spend my money on $5 coffees, I walk to work, I prepare all my own meals at home, I watch my electricity usage, no data plan on my phone, I’ve cancelled my cable, and don’t fill a cart with junk and candy every week at WalMart. One of the often overlooked benefits of frugality is its eco-friendliness. Less gasoline usage in our lives, more recycling,… Read more »

Robb @ Ten Degrees Warmer
Robb @ Ten Degrees Warmer
6 years ago
Reply to  Edward

Exactly! You’ve got it figured out the same way I do. Enjoy Tallinn. I had some elk stew there that ranks as one of the most memorably delicious meals I’ve ever had while traveling.

bybee
bybee
6 years ago

I like frugality. It’s like a game, a challenge.

Jacq
Jacq
6 years ago

“Frugality, on the other hand, is more accessible.” Yes, this is true. However, for someone that wants to push themselves in a personal development kind of way, there’s not a lot of room to do that after a certain point with frugality vs. earning more. You only have so many expense saving opportunities to go after once you have your biggies covered like transportation, housing and food. For most people, learning to be financially sensible teaches you how to defer gratification, balance immediate with longer term desires, think creatively, develop new skills etc. etc. Focusing on earning more can teach… Read more »

TheGooch
TheGooch
6 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

Same here. Spend less, make more, and don’t get ripped off!

Sam
Sam
6 years ago

I’m frugal so I can stay at a 5 star hotel. That’s the whole point, I spend less in my day to day life, so I can save more in my travel/vacation fund so I can enjoy what I want to enjoy.

Carla
Carla
6 years ago

In the past, the word “frugal” always conjured up thoughts of lack, depression, hunger and misery. Though I may not be frugal in the dumpster diver since of the word, I make it a point to not buy some things so that I can have money for others. I really cut back on buying coffee while out so that I can have a better experience when I have coffee at home (relevant to me since I work from home). I buy good quality, locally roasted, organic coffee beans and good quality heavy cream so that I can have a luxurious… Read more »

A Frugal Family's Journey
A Frugal Family's Journey
6 years ago

I think increasing ones income definitely helps to speed up the progress towards Financial Independence, but without frugality, the increased income would be mute.

For us, frugality is a way of life. We definitely don’t take things to the extreme. We still enjoy life and all the finer things it has to offer. We just think of ways to do it cheaper, that’s all. 🙂

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