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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