“Beyond” Frugality

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A few days ago, someone made the interesting comment that they’re “beyond frugality” in their personal finance journey. When I asked her what she meant by that, she made several comments along the lines of “focusing more on improving income” and “optimal use of time.”

That phrase, “beyond frugality,” stuck in my head for the last few days. It’s a comment that’s often made by people who have managed to get their financial lives under control and have reached a point where they feel like the next big change in their lives is to improve their income.

Often at that point, frugal tactics seem unwieldy. If you have time to invest and your financial life is under control, the thought would go, why not invest it in improving your skill set, starting a business, or something else that will improve your earnings? Many personal finance blogs, such as I Will Teach You to Be Rich, focus on this perspective, often to the point of deriding the idea of frugality.

In a lot of ways, I agree with the idea of moving in that direction once your finances are under control. However, I absolutely don’t agree that it’s “beyond frugality.”

“Hard” and “soft” frugality In my eyes, most of frugality boils down to two categories: “hard” frugality and “soft” frugality.

“Hard” frugality refers to activities that, in a mission to spend money, cause the person involved to invest significant amounts of energy and/or time, particularly when the amount of money saved isn’t monumental. Making homemade laundry detergent would be an example of “hard” frugailty, as would cloth diapering.

“Soft” frugality refers more to choices in the moment, such as the decision at the store to buy a more economical toilet paper bundle at the store, as well as defined one-off projects that consistently save money, like air-sealing your home. This type of frugality is “convenient” frugality – you can always make those decisions in the moment and you can schedule those one-off projects whenever you have time or energy, rather than “having” to make a batch of laundry detergent or “having” to deal with cloth diapers.

When someone derides frugality or claims they’re “beyond” it, it usually means they’ve abandoned or don’t want to utilize “hard” frugality. They stop doing things that save money if they require a major investment of time or effort and sometimes deride such things.

Frugality is a mindset There are a few important things to note, though.

For one, many aspects of “soft” frugality are learned behaviors. I almost view many of the things that I would call “soft” frugality as being one-off projects. At first, they require you to be very mindful of the situation around you, but as you practice them, they become second nature. Once upon a time, I would puzzle over which household product to buy – now I have a very good sense of which ones are the best bargain for my dollar and make my choice fairly quickly.

Once “soft” frugality becomes natural, it’s easy to forget that it’s frugality. Instead, it becomes simply who you are – you’re a frugal person. I think that many people who say that they’re “beyond frugality” find themselves in this group. Many of the tenets of the softer side of frugality are so natural to them that it just seems part of who they are. When they look at what they’re not doing, they see “hard” frugality, they evaluate that choice in terms of their current direction in life and time and energy available, and they realize that many of the “hard” frugal choices don’t match them right now. Thus, they feel “beyond” frugality.

Often, people who have become naturally adept at “soft” frugality find themselves in a stronger financial place than before and they find that their directed efforts bear much more fruit if they’re targeted toward entrepreneurship or improving their career path.

Simply put, once your frugality progresses from the point of having to be mindful to the point where frugal choices seem natural, you’re never “beyond” frugality. It’s simply a part of who you are.

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42 thoughts on ““Beyond” Frugality

  1. This is kind of sad. Not even one mention of quality of life or quality of service. Sure, you can save $.20 by getting cheaper toiletpaper. But if it makes you wash your fingers extra well twice a day, it wasn’t a good move.

    Focusing on frugality – spending less – is a mistake compared to getting the most for your money. There is real value in quality of life, and a frugal mindset tends to ignore that.

    My blog – bulletproofexecutive.com – focuses on how to get the highest quality of life in the shortest amount of time and effort and least amount of money. Lazy is good. Cheap is not.

  2. Frugality can be work and improving income can be free.

    Frugality is untaxed and improving income (over a certain threshold) is taxed, though.

  3. I can see where a PF blogger would find the terms “hard” and “soft” frugality more palatable, I totally get that someone could be “beyond frugality” in their financial journey. When you make $2 million a year, it really just doesn’t matter what toilet paper you buy.

    Sure, you could say they are being “frugal” by buying a new Mercedes rather than a new Jaguar, but that just isn’t what people usually mean by “frugal”. At that point, it does become more important to spend one’s time monitoring investments, building business contacts, any enjoying the fruits of their labor rather than researching the cheapest toilet paper, learning how to darn socks, and canning gleaned fruit. I don’t find it off-putting at all that others might be beyond where I am currently at.

  4. I think this i rationalization by people who may be burnt out and don’t mind spending more money than they need to because they just can’t be bothered.

    Me, I have a good income and very adequate reserves. I run my own business and work on the other side of the equation. Yet I still am very frugal. It is these behaviors that keeps me from wasting money and lets me spend on stuff I want rather than stuff I don’t want. I see no reason to abandon frugal behaviors because I can. I don’t see that I need to move away from these behaviors just because I can do so without any negative effect.

  5. I think I get it. For example, right now I have more time than money, so it’s worth it to me to spend time looking for coupons, selling clothes to resale shops rather than donating them to Goodwill, etc. I suppose this is “hard” frugality. When my work hours increase, and I don’t save a few dollars with coupons but still comparison shop, and I donate clothes for a tax-write off instead of getting cash in my hands by selling them, I suppose it’s “soft” frugality. My increased income will more than offset the money I won’t save on the “hard” frugality measures, but I’m still being frugal. It’s all a balancing act.

  6. This is so close minded. People do exist who have managed their money well all their lives. Someone at the supermarket is buying all that name brand Laundry Detergent you see, and it’s not just poor people who haven’t started getting out of debt by making their own yet. Some people can just afford it, and those people are beyond frugality. Much of the writing on this blog suggests that if people have nice things they must be hiding a secret pile of debt. That’s not always true!

  7. Sorry. Don’t buy it. It is a nice spin to label hard and soft, and to try to reel those beyond frugal as actually frugal and just not knowing it.

    Seems a bit pompous.

    There are people who are beyond frugal. It is when frugality’s impact has an exponential decreasing rate of return.

    When you make $10 per hour, making your own laundry soap and toothpase and limiting the use of fuel and toilet paper and ziplock bags actually has a measurable return.

    When you make $10,000 per week…not so much.

    That is what beyond frugality is. It is a statement that some people are simply beyond it…and off to endeavours that are more measurable and beneficial.

    Everyone is in different stages. Some people are in the emergency stage, some are in the debt payoff stage, some are in the accumulation stage and some are in the frugality stage.

    And some are simply beyond it.

  8. While cutting spending can only so go far, and generating more income is good, frugality it is an important discipline to learn.

    The hard truth is that spending grows to match income unless you have that discipline. If your income goes up 10% and your spending goes up 10% you are not really any better off. But you may have more stuff.

    But if your income increases by 10% and your spending only goes up 3% then you’re doing very well indeed.

  9. Dave, I think suggesting frugal equates being strictly cheap misses the point of this post. An economical toilet paper purchase is just an example – is there really a major advantage to the most expensive product on the grocery store shelf? Often not, so make a “soft” choice that saves a little money. I think you’ll also find many other posts here that discuss keeping spending focused on things that matter, not the assumed “cheap is always better” method of frugality.

  10. I like this idea of “beyond frugality.” That seems to describe my situation. I’m reminded of Rule #3 that I read on Back Nine Finance a few weeks ago – Do the Big Things Right -http://www.backninefinance.com/2011/03/back-nine-finance-rule-3-do-the-big-things-right/

    Once you’ve achieved a certain “gap” between spending and income, the little things become subject to the law of diminishing returns. The big things still matter, and if you can manage your big costs (housing, health, auto, etc.) then the comparatively few dollars you save with “hard frugality” each month become inconsequential.

    We’ve internalized frugal mindsets on most everything, but are consciously “not cheap” in order to enjoy some of the finer things in life.

  11. OK… maybe I missed the bus, but isn’t it everyone’s goal to move beyond frugality? Isn’t that what we all read personal finance blogs for?

    Who wants to scrimp and save their entire life long? Frugality is a means of giving yourself a raise without having to make more money or work any harder. But frugality is a means to an end. Frugality helps us save for the future, spend less than we earn, and pay down debt; all with the intended final consequence of getting to the point where we can enjoy the fruits of our labor.

    I think what your reader was saying was that they have gotten to the point where they are not living lavishly, at a sustainable spending and earning level and that their level of comfort versus level of acceptable frugality has peaked and that the only “raise” they are able to give themselves is through an increase in earnings. That’s great!! It’s just another step forward in their journey.

    I think some of us may need to reevaluate our ideas about the purpose of frugality and saving.

    Isn’t the goal to live well, and free of debt, while providing for ourselves and our families? How does increased earnings not fit into this equation?

    P.S. Frugality has its limits. We could all save a ton of money by living in a tent in a state park, or showering in a local public restroom… but seriously, who wants to live that way?

  12. I have a book called “The Frugal Mind” by Charlotte Gorman. I have reread it many times. If one has a frugal mind then one will be frugal whatever the circumstances. If one is a store owner then one will always run the store in a way to maximize the profit in an ethical way. This would be the case no matter what the career is. I think some people are naturally frugal while others have to work at it. After a while it becomes second nature.

  13. I think it comes down to your core values and whether you are frugal by nature or by necessity. My 2 frugal sisters and I have long since passed the point where we need to be frugal. We all have paid for houses and ample retirement savings. But we will never be “beyond frugality.” That doesn’t mean we won’t spend money to buy items that are important to us. But I would never waste money just because I can.

  14. #8…Sam Walton is a good example of a wealthy man who was never “beyond frugality.” Frugality was a part of who he was.

  15. No matter how high your income, you should never be beyond frugality. There are plenty of once unbelievably wealthy folks who spent every single penny (and then some) of their unbelievable wealth.

    Mike Tyson is the first name that comes to mind. I assume he wasn’t all that interested in bargin toilet paper or darning socks while $300,000,000 slipped through his fingers faster than he made it.

  16. A fool and their money will soon be parted. My take on this post is that frugality is a function of income and our value of time. I don’t think smart people want to pay more than they have to, for anything. Some people prefer luxury, but if they’re smart they will negotiate the best price. Does Rupert Murdoch buy newspapers for a bargain? Yes, and for his net worth I think it’s fair to argue that this makes him frugal.

  17. I think an important factor in frugality which is often overlooked is the price that our lifestyles extract from our planet. Frugal folks tend to be greener; people in the Western Hemisphere – and North America in particular – have become so consumerist and wasteful with our resources; the price to be paid goes far beyond dollars.

    Frugality has to do first and foremost with value. That doesn’t necessarily mean the most inexpensive item is the best choice. It also means that using what you need, and not more – even if you can afford to – has benefits far beyond the savings you enjoy in your wallet.

  18. I guess that I practice “soft frugality”. But I do not believe that I do it to necessarily save money for a goal. I guess I do it because it keeps me leveled in terms of trying to stay within my means. It was how I was raised, and it is who I am. I also think that being frugal reduces the clutter and allows for more time to do what is important, and that is to spend time with family.

  19. I tend to agree that you are never beyond frugality. To me it’s never been about “cheap” but always about cutting money where you aren’t getting value and focusing money on the things that bring you value.

    Throwing money at a cable package to get channels you or no one in your family ever watches is just a waste whether you can afford it or not. Having five cars just because you can isn’t really a benefit either if you never drive or maintain three of them. Now if they were collector cars and you did drive them, heck, have twenty if you really get pleasure out of them and are meeting your other financial goals.

    I’ve seen people who throw money around without real consideration, often are sloppy when it comes to other aspects of their lives and at some point usually end up losing much of what they built via death by a thousand small cuts.

  20. With so many things in the real world, labeling an action (let alone a person) as “frugal” or “not frugal” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    If I go out to eat once a week, is that frugal (because I’m cooking for myself six nights out of seven) or not-frugal (because I could have cooked for myself on the seventh night too)? If I set my thermostat at 67 degrees in the winter, is that frugal (because I’m not setting it at 75) or not-frugal (because I’m not turning it down to 60)?

    I consider myself a frugal person, but I know I could save money by moving to a cheaper apartment, going out to eat less often, keeping my home at a less comfortable temperature, spending less on entertainment, and not buying the expensive laundry detergent. But I don’t need to give those things up, because I can afford them easily. I don’t need to be on the lookout for ways to become *more* frugal.

    Being “beyond frugality” can mean that you’ve worked out a good balance where you’re living a lifestyle that you enjoy, that you can afford, and that leaves you in good shape for the future.

  21. English is not my first language – so I’m not really sure if I can dissect the actual meaning of the word and still capture the “essence” of what you and all other Personal Finance bloggers write about. However, reading this blog entry did make me ask myself – what’s the basic tenet in personal finance? Isn’t it that the first thing we all need to work on is spending less than we earn? If that is the case – then we can either reduce our expenses, increase our income, or both. So – being frugal is not the end to successful management of one’s finances. I think that it is actually in figuring out how to spend less than we earn. Or to earn more than we spend. None of these choices are easy to execute. Both require work.

  22. What the person is describing sounds like what JD Roth calls “third stage” frugality. I think it’s third stage – basically your frugal habits are ingrained, you have emergency fund, retirement, no debt, and have money to spend the way you want.

  23. Seems to me that the difference between Trent & the woman who says she’s “beyond frugality” is a difference in what they think frugality is. I basically agree with July @ #14 – is it a lifestyle or a habit you come by naturally or have developed through effort, or is it a way of living for just long enough to get your finances back in order?

  24. correction to #25 – that’s “Julie” not “July” @ #14 – darn that auto correct!

  25. I have always felt that frugality is a tool that you can use to better your situation. And yes, if you’re first digging yourself out, that’s a good tool to use. It’s pretty easy to – if you’re in financial trouble, it’s a lot easier to stop eating out and turn off the lights than to go find a job making double your salary. However, as you get farther along in your financial journey, many people get to the point where frugality is not the only tool – or maybe not the best tool – to use. So I believe that you can get to beyond frugality. Yes, Warren Buffet lives in his small house, but he’s not doing it because he has to. If you asked him what would help his financial situation more, spending an hour making laundry soap or spending an hour researching other companies that he might want to buy, I’m betting that his answer wouldn’t be making laundry detergent.

    This isn’t to undermine the importance of frugality, or consider it a phase – it is a very useful mindset to maintain for your life. But in seeking to maximize value, you need to realize when being frugal is the best thing you can do for your bottom line, and when it isn’t.

  26. My husband and I discuss this all the time: how far are we willing to go in pursuit of frugality, where’s the line between being frugal and being cheap, where/when do we end up spending more time than it’s worth in pursuit of a few pennies, etc.

    A few years ago we decided we wanted to retire early (on or before ages 55 and 51). We each make +- $80k, and we are a blended family with several children. We did the math and determined that we could get there if – and only if – we could manage to live on only one of our incomes and bank the other. It has taken us us two years to get to the point where we could do that. In May we will pay off the last of our non-home debt, and we will be banking a full $80k a year. Yay!

    In the process of streamlining our lives, we have cut all kids of things from our budget. Examples: we have no cable, no “blow money” and unless one of us has a lunch meeting, we pack our lunches for work each day. Dropping trash service is the big one that made people think we’d gone round the bend. My husband is self-employed, and he drives our household trash to work with him each day and puts it in his office dumpster. Savings on doing this v/s having household trash pickup: $25 a month.

    Even though we pinch most of our pennies until they scream, there are a few things we’ve agreed to “splurge” on because the time or stress savings is worth the money to us. We have someone clean our house for us every other week, we have high-end data plans on our phones so we can each do real work away from the office, and we take regular vacations (about 4 weeks a year) to spend extra time with each other and with our kids. Although these things are expensive, the cost of not doing them was too high for us given the intense nature of our savings goals.

  27. Kathryn – what a great story !!! You really seem like you have your priorities straight. IMO – you are pinching on what i call the “dumb” stuff – stuff that 10 years from now doing w/o would not have impacted your life, like packing a lunch, giving up cable. But you DON’T pinch on having the feng shui and PEACE from a clean house, nor those precious vacation times with family ! Would that more people realize that time is the BIGGEST reward we all have and direct their resources as such !

  28. Kathryn–I hope your husband pays in some manner for the office dumpster he’s using, because if he doesn’t what he’s practicing is not frugality but theft.

  29. Kathryn-

    Good. Excellent! I hope I didn’t sound snarky before–but all too often you can read about people whose idea of frugality is not to pay for Wi-Fi but to glom it off their neighbor, or who never buy paper and pens because they “have access to office supplies” etc. etc. It drives me nuts–

  30. I feel like this is about trying to convince yourself that your own lifestyle is still valid and ‘best’ rather than acknowledging that different people are at different points in their lives and make different choices on how to allocate their resources (time, money)

  31. There are two basic ways to improve your financial position:
    1) spend less
    2) earn more

    Both are important but spend less is more important because even if you earn $10 million a year, you will go bankrupt if you spend $11 million a year. It’s simply economics.

  32. #34 Tracy,

    It sounds to me that the invidual who believes she is “beyond frugality” is implying that she is in fact now “better” than Trent in that she has reached a level that he has yet to reach…

    I think the point Trent is making is the same point I would make…I will never get to the point where I am “beyond frugality” becuase it is a core value of mine.

  33. #36 Julie,

    I don’t understand why you or Trent would feel judged by somebody else’s personal financial decisions or situations.

    Why would somebody saying “for me, it makes more sense to increase my income than to cut my spending” make you feel like they’re trying to one-up you, or that they’re trying to say that they’re better than you are?

    But if that IS the case, than you proved my point … that the post is about trying to justify that his lifestyle is good, in the face of someone who says that they have a different one. Whether or not it’s ‘better’ – that seems just odd to me, because isn’t the whole point to live of financial stability that works for YOU? NOT to try to keep up with the Joneses? It’s just as silly to try to one-up somebody’s financial journey and make your financial decisions based on THEIR circumstances as it is to one-up them on a material basis and make your car decision based on theirs.

  34. # 37. Not sure what you are talking about… Who said I feel judged? (although I could care less if I was judged)

    I said that it seems to me that she was the one that had the attitude of superiority in this situation….not Trent. It has nothing to do with the use of the words “increasing my income instead of cutting my expenses.” I have no problem with that…in fact that our focus as my husband and I are professionals and have the ability to increase our income more than we can further cut expenses.

    It is the specific term of “beyond frugality” that could be perceived to be condescending…depending on the tone and attitude of the speaker. My interpretation is that she could be the one with the attitude, and perhaps it was her attitude/tone that Trent found insulting….not judgemental.

  35. @Julie,

    When you said “It sounds to me that the invidual who believes she is “beyond frugality” is implying that she is in fact now “better” than Trent in that she has reached a level that he has yet to reach”

    Better is a comparative word – the very act of deciding something is better or worse absolutely requires a judgment. The only way Trent could be thinking she was trying to say she was better, as you said in your comment, is he felt she was trying to say he was worse, ie, judging him.

    And than you said you would have the same reaction, thus my conclusion.

    Even your follow-up where you say she probably had an “attitude of superiority” – same thing.

    That doesn’t even change if her tone was rude or insulting, although I don’t see anything in Trent’s remarks to support your theory that she was.

  36. I enjoyed this post and thought it was a very interesting point. People who are starting to make a change are often concerned about not being true to who they are (not just in personal finance), but every change that becomes a habit eventually becomes who we are.

    @ #2 Dave: I don’t think he has to hammer us with the cheap/frugal difference every post…

    @ #12 Pat: I understand if you’re using the absolute rock bottom, and then you want to upgrade a bit because you can. But when what you’re using is entirely satisfactory whether you have a little money or a lot, and doesn’t require disproportionate effort, why throw the money away? Money that, for instance, one could will to a favorite charity or something? So in other words, I don’t think it’s everyone’s goal — and in fact, some people DO want to live what you’ve disdainfully termed “that way” because they value something else more. Just because it isn’t your thing, is it your place to make such a comment? I think there are indeed people who are perfectly happy living this sort of hippie-bohemian lifestyle, or would be if they thought it was socially acceptable.

    @ Tracy and Julie — I have to concur that the person who uses an expression like “beyond frugality” seems to be starting the one-upmanship. But Julie did not say “probably,” as if it was a certainty, she only said “perhaps.” That distinction makes a lot of difference.

  37. Interesting post. I think it’s more semantics than anything else. Unless you have so much money that you could not hope to spend it all in one lifetime, you’re going to have to be frugal in one way or another to avoid using up your finite resources prematurely. So for most people, there’s no “beyond frugality”. Frugality is simply a matter of aligning your money with your priorities. Maybe she should have said that she was “beyond cheap”.

  38. I agree that frugality is a mindset — It’s easy to go overboard and get into a scarcity mentality with frugality so it demands a certain amount of consciousness of self care and things like that. My grandfather, when he died in the 60s, had accumulated over $1 million in cash but my grandmother had to buy him a suit to be buried in. He never spent money on himself. He died pretty young, too. Worked really hard. I wish I had more of his discipline with money. Anyway, I think spending less than one earns is the key, and making wise spending choices. Go for quality on the things and experiences that matter and don’t buy things, or experiences, that don’t matter, very often. I think it’s good to blow some mad money occasionally, but then my finances are not where I want them to be, either. Earning more is the key for me at this point. Thanks for the post and the comments.

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