The art of frugal living

Christine just sent me a National Public Radio story about the frugal artists of New York City. Columbia University recently released a study of 213 visual artists over the age of 61. Their average income? $30,000 a year. According to the NPR story:

Most of them said they were satisfied with their lives. However, many reported that they also have had to make daily economic compromises. They don't eat out, buy clothes at flea markets and rarely travel.

Many of these artists manage to make it in New York through frugal living. All they seem to need is some food, a roof overhead and the time and opportunity to practice their art.

This is a nice story, with some lovely bits in the interviews with individual artists. More than that, it was just the shot in the arm I needed.

Kris and I enjoy our lives. We have a lot, and we're grateful. But our focus in the past year has been on frugality, on refining the art of buying only that which we will use or bring us pleasure.

Sometimes, though, I lose my focus. It's been a struggle for me lately to remember that frugality is a good thing, that thrift is a responsible choice. I haven't turned into a spendthrift or anything — I've just been paying too much attention to those who ask, “What is the point of amassing a fortune while living below your means? Why make sacrifices now for an uncertain future?”

When I hear stories like the one about the frugal artists in New York City, I'm reminded that frugality is a virtue, that it can allow people to pursue their dreams. I've always wanted to be a writer. Now I am. I never thought I'd be writing about personal finance (I thought I'd write science fiction novels), but to be honest: writing is writing. I love what I do. And one of the reasons I'm able to do it is because I've learned to live below my means.

There's real value in boosting your income — I don't deny that. But frugality is an important part of personal finance, too. And for each of us it's different. I might be able to cut back on clothing and transportation, but I'll probably always spend a lot on food. On the other hand, food may be a perfect place for you to cut costs, but maybe you're not willing to compromise on your wardrobe.

Frugality and thrift allow us to emphasize those things that are most important in our lives. When we restrict our spending on the unimportant, we're able to indulge ourselves on the things that matter most.

And what about sacrificing now when the future is so uncertain? I think this is a fallacy on a couple of levels. First of all, spending is not happiness. If it is, there's something wrong. Second, most of us are likely to live a long time. Which would you rather do?

  • Prepare for a long life by saving and investing, but then die tomorrow.
  • Spend money you don't have now, and then be unable to afford what you need when you're older.

I'd prefer the former. Kris and I make sacrifices, but we're not miserable. In fact, frugal folks are some of the happiest people I know. They spend money on the things that are important, and they save for the future.

That is the art of frugal living.

More about...Frugality, Psychology

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Rebecca
Rebecca
12 years ago

My mother used to say that happiness is about wanting what you have, not having what you want. Now that I’m making more active decisions about expenses, I feel like I finally understand. I’m pursuing inexpensive-yet-fulfilling options on how to spend my time (cooking, time with friends and family, free concerts in the park) over spending on consumer items. I’m saving for big-ticket travel and a wedding plans, thereby investing in conscious decisions about future joy. So yes, in many ways I’m happier spending less than I ever was spending more. Thanks JD for another chance to step back and… Read more »

Focus on Your Money Maker
Focus on Your Money Maker
12 years ago

@Rebecca,

That’s how I feel. You don’t have to spend money to have a fulfilling life. Whats the difference in owning a book or checking it out from the library? Whats the difference between seeing a new release movie or waiting for it to go to the dollar show?

I think often times we spend just because we have the money. So try taking away the money and you’ll still find ways to do most of the same things you do anyway. You’ll just find the cheap way of doing them.

Tei
Tei
12 years ago

I too, would prefer to have a lot of money saved up and die tomorrow. That in itself relieves so much other types of stress that would prevent me from enjoying life now. I also wonder if I’m being too frugal sometimes, and shouldn’t I relax a bit and enjoy life (by spending more). It’s about finding balance. I heard a story when I was younger, about a woman who received silk sheets as a wedding present. She kept it in her closet, saving it for a special day. It was finally used as lining for her coffin. Balance, my… Read more »

The Tim
The Tim
12 years ago

Dude J.D., you need to get busy on that Science-Fiction writing thing. I would so sign up to proof-read :^)

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

Completely! I have one friend who is DEEPLY in debt. She is a compulsive debtor… she buys very impractical things like taxidermied animals, elaborate clothing, trips around the world, etc… on the salary of 2 retail jobs. She is going to grad school next year in a field she has no interest in applying to real life. She has said many times that she does this mainly because she believes that she will die soon. I don’t blame her — her family is pretty dysfunctional and religious — but it’s sad to see how that conviction in her own unhappiness… Read more »

MoneyBlogga
MoneyBlogga
12 years ago

If someone had said to me not so long ago “you’re spending your future on The Little Mermaid” back when my youngest was obsessed with TLM I may have taken a step back and realized I was wasting yet more money on yet more stuff we didn’t need. I guess I had to take the long way home to figure that out. There’s a lot to be said in favor of frugality and I’m glad that being frugal is becoming trendy, if that’s the right word. Everyone has to make their own mistakes but I believe now that personal finance… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Michelle wrote: She is a compulsive debtor… she buys very impractical things like taxidermied animals

BEST. COMMENT. EVER.

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
12 years ago

There’s an old couple who lives in a beat up trailer parked next to a park near where I live. They seem pretty happy to me. It kinda makes me wonder just how frugal I could be and still be happy.

I also read there was a woman in the 1800s who was so frugal that she wore the same black dress and ate the same cheap meal day in and day out for decades before she died. After she passed away, it was discovered that she was worth billions by today’s standards. Now, that’s taking things too far!

GHARKNESS
GHARKNESS
12 years ago

I would like someone to explain to me when the future is NOT “so uncertain.” One NEVER knows what is going to happen tomorrow, but that’s certainly no reason to spend irresponsibly today!

Faculties
Faculties
12 years ago

The person @8 refers to is Hetty Green, died in 1916. She’s the kind of person who gives frugality a bad name.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hetty_Green

otherdeb (Deb Wunder)
otherdeb (Deb Wunder)
12 years ago

“I never thought I’d be writing about personal finance (I thought I’d write science fiction novels)”

That’s so funny! My first five published stories were sf/fantasy short stories, and then I realized that that was not where my writing heart was, so I pretty much dropped writing until I started my blog up. Now I know that my writing heart is that of an essayist, and that is where I’m happy.

Charlotte
Charlotte
12 years ago
Christine
Christine
12 years ago

As an artist myself, it’s so inspiring to hear how these fellow artists in NY are living. Money doesn’t buy happiness – how very, very true. They haven’t retired and why should they? They love what they do and it brings them all the happiness in the world. So the rent goes up a little more next year – they adjust accordingly so that they can still have a studio to call “home” (or second home). Like you said, J.D., this article is definitely a shot in the arm to get cracking on your dreams!

nbdean
nbdean
12 years ago

Gharkness, You are right that we never know what is going to happen tomorrow, however, some people can be more certain of their future than others, although usually in a bad way. The guy with the inoperable brain tumor is more certain of his imminent death than you or I, probably. If he has no dependents, he can probably crack that nest egg and do some traveling, if he wants (if his medical bills don’t gobble the egg up first). Given the history of male heart disease in my family, I’ll consider myself very lucky if I live to typical… Read more »

Sara
Sara
12 years ago

You really nailed it with the idea that frugality lets you devote more time and energy to the things we love most. From an optimist’s perspective, frugality and simplicity are about getting more out of life, not less, because you end up with more of what you love. All you have to give up is the stuff that’s kind of “eh” to you. And I’d totally rather kick the bucket with gobs of unspent money than spend it all. What’s the worst that could happen? I’m not a burden to my family after my death? That the leftover money would… Read more »

secret asian man
secret asian man
12 years ago

These artists are no more frugal than a teenager who forgoes everything else and spends every nickel he has on a car.

Kerri
Kerri
12 years ago

I definitely agree that frugal people are some of the happiest. My husband and I have been living on one salary while we earn two for our four years of marriage. Originally it was to pay off his school loans, when that was done it was to pay off the cars, and now that there’s nothing left to pay off (besides the house) it’s all icing on the cake. It’s amazingly liberating to set up your life so that you have way more than enough to live comfortably on. Right now I’m sick of my job but I’m good at… Read more »

April D
April D
12 years ago

I couldn’t agree more that being frugal doesn’t mean being miserable. In fact, I find that I’m much happier now that we’re getting control of our money. I’m feeling good about our finances, and I’m spending my time and money toward the things that matter. I don’t care if I never drive a new car. I’d rather spend my money traveling. I no longer need 15 pairs of designer jeans or $20 shower gel. I’d rather save it for the gorgeous (but modest) home we’re going to build. I don’t care if I have an iPhone or a plasma TV.… Read more »

Diatryma
Diatryma
12 years ago

Frugality is necessary to the novelist’s life. You get a check for a small but significant amount of money– average first advance is $5k, last I heard– and then nothing for months. Living on that kind of cycle does weird things to spending habits.

Alex Shalman
Alex Shalman
12 years ago

This is great J.D. I am once again inspired to save more and leave the unnecessary where it belongs, in the store.

WhereDoesAllMyMoneyGo.com
WhereDoesAllMyMoneyGo.com
12 years ago

I have had the pleasure to visit Africa for a safari and in between being on the plains to see the animals, we spent a fair bit of time in the cities and villages. The children yearn for pencils and some of them cry on the weekends because they cannot go to school. And when you see the under privileged corners of the world, it gives you a new perspective on spending once you return to the ‘west’. I just think to myself that some people would want for nothing more than a roof over their head, and I’m wondering… Read more »

Alison Wiley
Alison Wiley
12 years ago

De acuerdo! — as our Spanish-speaking friends would say. (I agree!) My blog Diamond-Cut Life http://www.diamondcutlife.org/ is based on the principle that we can actually have more joy as we reduce our consumption. Also, the reality of global warming compels less consumption of us.
Alison Wiley
Portland, Oregon

Beth@paydaytree
12 years ago

I so agree J.D. Lately, I’ve had the crafting bug and instead of running over to Hobby Lobby to stock up on tons of things that I might not ever end up using, I just look around the house. I find it a creative challenge to re-purpose things I don’t use anymore into things that I will use.

On a side note: I started cleaning out my closet last night and I thought of you. I’m starting the process of getting rid of all the stuff in my life!

Arwen
Arwen
12 years ago

Columbia’s report is quite extraordinary. I was lucky enough to attend an event at Sotheby’s held for the artists who participated in the study (I work for a nfp arts service org. in NYC). I spoke to many of them and was amazed by the vibrant physical, mental and creative energy they possessed. Frugality and positivity aligned with a clarity of core values has helped these artists survive and thrive in an incredibly challenging environment – one that chews up & spits out people a third of their age all the time. To make it as a young artist in… Read more »

Martin
Martin
12 years ago

Interesting article, though I’ll agree with secret asian man that in a way artists are similar in their style to a teenager who buys a car and spends everything on that. However, that is the point of being frugal for me. It isn’t about being cheap. It is about focus and freedom. Typically, frugality often means focusing on getting out of debt since most people are forced to it because of unfocused spending having put them so far into a hole they need a radical change to get out. Hence most blogs deal with those areas and that is the… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
12 years ago

I understand the point and focus. One point not mentioned is that many of us have other people’s dreams in mind when we make decisions about income and expenses. It’s a challenge to balance what I want, what DH wants, and what the kids want (everything NOW) and need (education, etc). $30k in NYC to fulfill DH’s or my dream would require a lot of sacrifices we wouldn’t be willing to make right now. However, we are realigning our spending with our values. For example, DH and I are repurposing the money we used to pay for cable to pay… Read more »

betsy - Money Changes Things
betsy - Money Changes Things
12 years ago

Interesting to profile artists who are frugal. I guess being creative extends to all areas of one’s life. Also artists have permission to be offbeat – so they’re not going to be too concerned about keeping up with conventional status symbols. And most importantly, they have a vehicle for self-expression and fulfillment which many people never develop; that by itself brings happiness, being engaged and challenged. This seems to be true in retirement, as well – a great book on this subject, Get a Life: You Don’t Need A Million to Retire Well [which I saw recommended HERE, JD!] makes… Read more »

Liz
Liz
12 years ago

“Jeffri says 44 percent of these artists live in rent-controlled housing. The rest mainly own their own homes or apartments, which allows them to live on such small incomes.”

This is an important point. I had a young artist friend in NYC living in a very small studio apartment about 7 years ago paying $1500 a month while elderly neighbors were paying $65 a month for similar units.

Whether or not you support rent control, it does help these older artists make ends meet.

Jill
Jill
12 years ago

Michelle wrote: She is a compulsive debtor… she buys very impractical things like taxidermied animals

BEST. COMMENT. EVER.

JD, you almost made me spit out my morning tea with laughter.

-Jill, Frugal Mama

Beth
Beth
12 years ago

I wish I knew about frugality a decade ago – when I started buying those damn Beanie Babies. Now I have a huge Rubbermaid box of them, sitting in my sisters attic. I could have taken all that money and invested it. Damn you Beanie Babies!

partgypsy
partgypsy
12 years ago

When I was living in Chicago right after college, almost everyone I knew were visual artists, poets, writers, musicians. Alot of stuff was done on the barter system, such as renovating loft space for cheap rent, exchange art, labor for other stuff, of course getting in free for friend’s performances. Since you maybe worked at a coffee shop you could thrift all your clothes (or make it), reclaim stuff to decorate your apartment, live creatively. Life was full but it didn’t take much cash at all. Before I left things started changing; the yuppies moved in, artists were kicked out… Read more »

Paul
Paul
12 years ago

Great Post! In my journey to being frugal I did a lot of research online (before I found this website ofcourse) and found a bunch of books, manuals – some worked some didn’t. But the one that stood out was a book called The Complete Tightwad Gazette…below is a link to the book on Amazon where you can get it for a low as $7 used ($15 new).

http://tinyurl.com/58hnad

-Paul

Matt Kushin
Matt Kushin
12 years ago

I’ve been reading your blog a while now and I just wanted to finally get around and saying thanks for doing what you’re doing. I’m a grad student and have been financially minded for some time. Grad school is an odd place to be thinking of finances but after reading your blog for some time you’ve motivated me to do some financial blogging aimed at grad students on my blog. So, thanks! Feel free to check it out or pass it around to anyone seeking financial discussion aimed at grad students! Here is the first post, fresh off the press!… Read more »

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me
12 years ago

Great post – we have been discussing this very thing around my house, as my husband (who has a degree in sculpture) attends a seminar and wonders whether we’ve traded “the good life” for our artistic ambitions — and can we trade back? We shall see, but this is wonderful food for thought.

SusanO
SusanO
12 years ago

“I think that things like investing at a young age for retirement makes the statement that in 30, 40, 50 years you will still be young, vibrant, and taking joy from the world.” Michelle, you really hit the nail on the head. Making statements like these often help create self-fulfilling prophecies. Love it! I may post it at my desk. “Frugality and positivity aligned with a clarity of core values” Sigh . . . Arwen, I have the first two, but it’s the last that eludes me. I’m still struggling at 45 to find that *one* thing I want to… Read more »

Greg C.
Greg C.
12 years ago

Keep in mind many of these “starving artists” live in price-controlled housing or otherwise have their “frugal” lifestyles subsidized by others.

Art is great and it is great to make a choice to do something for the love of it and make it your life. There are millions of people who have to take more responsibility for making a living and aren’t members of a privileged occupational class, though.

Kevin Chester Kuo
Kevin Chester Kuo
12 years ago

I don’t know if I would say many live in price-controlled housing… having grown up in NYC and living there now after graduation, I’ve seen a lot of young people over the years with all sorts of dreams living on a very meager wage trying to make ends meet. One of my friends left for NYC and got a job at NBC Studios with an hourly wage that was so low that she just ate bread for most of her meals. Of course her parents had to help her out, in order to get by. The lucky few who are… Read more »

m
m
12 years ago

Beautifully and perfectly said. And, I seem to recall trying to get the exact same idea across in the comment section of a post I contributed to this very blog (though I did so far less clearly and eloquently than you did here). Frugality isn’t about going without; it’s about choice and forgoing what is less important in order to make room for what really matters to you most. It feels good to not waste, not add to your own and the world’s problems through needless consumption and to focus on the parts of life you most care about. Frugality… Read more »

mythago
mythago
12 years ago

Greg C., some of those artists are Trustafarians and some aren’t. As for subsidized housing, you can be a spendthrift and live in subsidized housing, too.

And I’d totally rather kick the bucket with gobs of unspent money than spend it all. What’s the worst that could happen?

I suspect the people who say “why die rich?” are thinking of those like Hetty Green, who live unhappy, pinched lives, rather than being happy while living frugally.

Andrew
Andrew
12 years ago

Hi there, I am a first time poster here. I have a question that I bet I get flamed for, but I will ask it anyway: are there any websites that deal with frugality by including illegal money-saving techniques? For instance, i always get a kick out of frugality articles that mention ‘cheap’ ways to obtain DVDs etc. Ummm… are you guys on crack? Just download the entire thing, for free, via bittorrent!!! No matter what responses my post generates, i know i am not alone in using such techniques to save money. In fact, MOST young people use bittorrent.… Read more »

Lily
Lily
12 years ago

I found a great prescription discount card at http://www.rxdrugcard.com. Let me give you an example of the savings. I’ve seen ads on TV for Caduet. It has two ingredients. One is Amlodipine and the other is Atorvastatin. With my RxDrugCard I can get 30 tablets of Amlodipine for $9 and 30 tablets of Simvastatin for $9. I’ll bet they are charging more than $18 for this new drug! I think that RxDrugCard.com is the best drug card available for prescription discounts. The monthly family membership fee is only $4.95! You can’t beat that!

Byrne Smith
Byrne Smith
12 years ago

What a great blog! So many people don’t understand how simple it can be to save by being frugal (not cheap necessarily).It’s really a lifestyle. My blog Orbisplanis is for retirees who are interested in starting or re-starting their artwork and, for example, talks about using materials that are inexpensive but give great results, plus tips. etc. Please visit if you’re interested.
http://orbisplanis.blogspot.com/

Loree Lauenroth
Loree Lauenroth
11 years ago

Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking you feeds also, Thanks.

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