The rewards of frugality and thrift (or, why we scrimp and save)

Over the past couple of weeks, more than a few GRS readers have complained about the site’s tone. These folks are afraid that Get Rich Slowly is turning into a column that’s only about frugality and self-denial, one that is neglecting the “rich” part of the blog’s title. These concerns came to the fore in last week’s article about remembering to appreciate what I already have.

In that discussion, ObjectiveGeek wrote:

I want the best possible life for myself and my family. Maybe that means a dream house, or maybe that means the freedom to travel any and everywhere, but maybe that means both. I’d be proud of my dream home if I had earned the means to own it. I don’t think contentment is much of a virtue — it’s more of a guise for mediocrity.

Alex offered a similar sentiment:

I sometimes cringe when I see these kinds of articles. What is so wrong with wanting 5 bedrooms you may never use? What is sooooo bad about wanting a bigger house? If you have diligently saved, and planned, and you can truly afford those nice-ities in life, why not reach for them? Why not buy them?

Here’s the thing: I agree with both ObjectiveGeek and Alex. If Get Rich Slowly has been frugality-minded lately, that’s simply an accident of scheduling. While I believe that frugality is an important part of personal finance, GRS remains dedicated to the Big Picture, to all aspects of getting rich slowly.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting more, and there’s nothing wrong with reaching for nicer things in life if you’ve diligently planned and saved. I certainly don’t mean to imply that it’s bad to choose to buy things that will make you happier. But it’s important to find the proper balance between what you want and what you can afford.

How I Spent My Money in the Past

It used to be that I bought a lot of little Stuff:

  • I spent hundreds of dollars a month on books and magazines.
  • I had a lot of recurring expenses, such as my monthly cable bill and magazine subscriptions.
  • I bought a lot of limited-use tech gadgets, like voice recorders and expensive digital cameras.
  • I bought too many clothes. When Kris and I went through my closet recently, I was saddened to see so many items still with their tags on!

There was plenty more, of course. Basically, I bought what I wanted without thinking. If a friend had a new gazingus pin or thneed, I’d be inclined to buy a new gazingus pin or thneed, too. And when my income went up, my spending always went up. This is how I succumbed to the tyranny of Stuff.

It’s this kind of spending that I encourage you to question. I’m not saying, “Stop! Don’t spend on the things that make you happy.” I’m saying, “Hold on a second. Take some time to think about the money you’re spending — make sure it aligns with your priorities and goals. Don’t just buy a bunch of Stuff.” Buy based on your goals and values, not out of habit.

How I Spend My Money Today

What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at how I’ve spent my money over the past couple of years. Each of the things I list below were purchased consciously, with money I already had, because I knew they’d make me happy.

Here’s a gallery of my recent major purchases:

My Mini Cooper, which I coveted for years before I was able to save enough to buy it with cash. I bought a five-year-old used car, and have been very happy with it. Meanwhile, I’m slowly saving for an eventual replacement Mini.

My nice furniture, for which Kris and I saved until we could combine a coupon (yes, really) with a colossal sale. We got this stuff at 50% off regular pricing. That has to be the best coupon I’ve ever used.

My comic books. I have a monthly budget for purchasing comic books (and comic strips) in collected editions. Before I dug out of debt, my comic spending was part of the problem; now, it’s part of the solution — it’s part of what makes all these smart choices seem worth it.

My bicycle. It was a tough decision whether I could afford (and justify) $900 on a new bike last summer, but I’m glad I did. I’ve been riding this thing constantly since I returned from Alaska, and it’s helping me drop the weight. Also helping me drop weight is…

My gym. I spend a lot of money to be a part of the local Crossfit gym. But I also derive a lot of value. Since joining in April, I’ve lost fifteen pounds. By the end of the summer, I’ll be fitter (and stronger!) than I’ve been in my adult life. To me, that’s money well spent.

My travel. Most of all, I’ve been spending on travel. Kris and I hope to be able to make one big trip every two years. (Maybe every year, if we’re diligent.) This year is an exception. I used part of my book advance to go to Belize in February, and later in 2010 we’ll travel to France and Italy.

Make no mistake: I live a rich life, for which I am tremendously grateful. But this rich life is largely a result of the choices I’ve made. I worked hard to dig out of debt and get where I am today. I’m fortunate to have found work that I love and am good at, and I’m lucky to be a winner in the “lottery of birth”and I make sacrifices on the things that don’t matter to me so that I can indulge in the things that do.

I write about thrift and frugality a lot, but it’s only because I recognize their value in helping me obtain my goals.

Important: I make certain to have a full emergency fund, and to set aside my target amounts for retirement and taxes before I spend on the fun stuff. Again, it’s about managing priorities.

Conscious Spending

“I should write a post for Get Rich Slowly,” my wife told me the other day. “I could tell your readers all about how you’re not frugal.” She meant that unlike what some of you think, I’m not into self-denial. I do buy nice things for myself.

But here’s the difference between my current spending and my former profligate ways: I can afford everything I’m buying, and when I do buy, it’s a conscious decision. I’m not financing my lifestyle on debt, and I’m not buying things just to “keep up with the Joneses” or out of habit. My spending now reflects my priorities, my goals, my values.

Because I’m spending consciously and living within my means, I’m much happier than I was before. I can’t have everything I want — no $2.3 million home for me, for example — but I can have a few of the things that seem most important.

In a follow-up comment to my post last week, objectiveGeek wrote:

Of course having money for money’s sake is nearly pointless, but having money for what it represents (value, effort, innovation, hard work, success) and for what it provides (freedom, time, safety, opportunity — essentially life!) is the noblest of goals.

I think that’s correct. We’re all striving to get rich — quickly or slowly — because of what we believe money can bring to our lives. I just think it’s important to maintain balance, to remember that money and happiness aren’t always connected, and to acknowledge that the best way to achieve your financial goals is to make active, conscious choices about where and when you spend your money.

Maybe it’s time to officially add a fifteenth tenet to the Get Rich Slowly philosophy. Namely, you can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything you want.

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