Updated on 07.30.10

Escaping the Mundane

Trent Hamm

Charlie writes in (this is an excerpt, because the full story is quite long):

What I finally realized is that I usually buy stuff because it makes me feel like this is all worth it for a while, that all the work I’m doing isn’t just going to feed Uncle Sam and to keep a roof over my head and cheap food on the table. But then I get the bills and I feel even worse than I did before.

The ups and downs of buying stuff (up) and then seeing the new wear off and facing the bills (down) is a rollercoaster, but at least it’s better than the mundane shuffle through life of just paying the mortgage and going to the grocery store and going to work over and over and over again. A completely frugal life is the most mundane thing I can imagine.

I think you’re going about this from completely the wrong perspective, Charlie.

First of all, frugality is not about giving up the things that bring you joy in life. It’s about figuring out what actually does bring you joy in life and accentuating that, then cutting back sharply on the things that don’t matter as much to you.

For example, if you don’t watch much television, a frugal decision would be to get rid of your cable box and just use the over-the-air signals – or, perhaps, selling your television off entirely.

A key part of that statement – perhaps the key part – is the if you don’t watch much television part. If you do enjoy television and you watch it multiple hours per day, then you shouldn’t cut back on it. You might, however, find that you don’t watch your premium channels much, so you might get a cheaper package – or you might not.

Another example: if you’re not home during the day, why would you bother to heat or cool your house during those hours? Get a programmable thermostat, install it, and set it to turn off your air conditioning or furnace during the hours where you’re not at home. Why? Because for virtually everyone on earth, keeping their home at a perfect temperature when no one is there is not a key value in their lives.

There are some things I don’t hesitate to spend money on. I will buy expensive cheeses and other ingredients for great home-cooked meals. I don’t skip on kitchen implements – I get stuff that will last forever. I don’t mind buying a book that I know I’ll re-read in the future. I’m currently shopping for a piano and I will happily pay the right price for the right piano.

Aside from that, though, I unabashedly cut corners. I make my own laundry detergent because, frankly, buying Tide doesn’t improve my quality of life. We use cloth diapers for our baby. I use vinegar to mop the floor. We have a single television in our house and it’s an old CRT television that has a discolored screen on one side of it. This stuff isn’t really important to me at all – so why would I spend anything more than the minimum on it?

Hand in hand with that is big, long-term goals. My wife and I have some large, long-term goals that are deeply fulfilling to both of us. Foremost among them is our long-talked-about home in the country, with trees around and a small barn in the back. We both want this deeply.

I have a picture that currently serves as my desktop wallpaper on my main computer I use for work. It depicts nothing more than a nice-looking farmhouse-style home surrounded on two sides by trees, with a red barn off to the left. It has a long driveway leading up to it and on the driveway, you can see a child running towards the cameraperson. That’s exactly what I’d like to have. (I’d happily shre the photo, but I think I’d get into copyright trouble if I did.)

I know that every time I choose not to have something that’s important to me, I take one step in that very long journey towards that dream we share. I look at that photo sometimes as I’m checking account balances and I feel very warm inside knowing that all of my little choices are slowly adding up to something we’ve both wanted for a very long time.

That feels good. That feels really good.

The combination of these two factors is that frugality enables me to reach for the big things I want out of life without giving up the little things that genuinely matter. The drawback? I’m not buying products that aren’t important to me.

Some drawback.

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  1. Deb J says:

    I too think that Charlie has not understood our meaning of frugality. I don’t think my life is mundane by any means. I enjoy life in a full way, yet I have few clothes and my posessions are few. There are two things that I do that aren’t frugal: 1. working toward my goals 2. enjoying my hobby of scrapbooking (mostly making greeting cards and mini albums for friends). I am frugal with what I spend money on because I want to meet my goals and they are more important that having all sorts of things. I am lavish (within my budget) with buying things for my hobby. I have found that having an exciting life has not come from having things (that I later get tired of) but in having friends and fun, exciting things to do.

  2. Rachel says:

    “There are some things I don’t hesitate to spend money on. I will buy expensive cheeses and other ingredients for great home-cooked meals.”

    Ugh, I can see the future comments now.


  3. Tara says:

    I understand completely how Charlie feels. I feel that way quite a bit. The things I really loved doing – traveling, going to the mall or bookstore, eating out – I don’t get to do anymore. I get that there are other goals to be achieved. I just miss those things.

  4. Russell says:

    I felt the same way when I started this process, but after reading “Your Money or Your Life”, I came to realize living frugally is not living like a hermit. It is more like what was mentioned above, spending money on what is important to you and using what you have to avoid spending money on the next new shiney thing.

    An example for me is my golf club membership. I played about 10 times there last year, and have played 4 times total this year. I realized that golf is fun, but I don’t have the time to be a good as I would like, so I decided to invest my time and money elsewhere. I cut out the membership and have not missed it at all. That is not important to me any more, so why continue to pay for it.

    I also looked about some work expenses I careless let continue. I found that I am not getting a good return of investment on that, so I dropped several items I was spending on.

    With those two moves, I have freed up some serious cash, and feel great about decisions.

    I have learned that life is about experiencing things with people you care about, not buying the next shiney new thing.

  5. almost there says:

    About buying stuff, I just finished reading the Book titled “STUFF: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things”. I can see how people buying things and collections leads to hoarding. Makes me want to rethik my 18th and 19th century hand colored prints of fish and my 80s era Seiko watch collection. Though I do enjoy wearing the watches, that I buy used, it is more than most would need. My prints I enjoy because they harken back to the age of discovery. I guess it lifts me above the mundane. The book made me realize that I need to get rid of things that we don’t use. The 4 year old honda scooter will be going on ebay this week (less than 100 miles whilst spending that many bucks on insurance per year).

  6. JC says:

    About 10-years ago, I asked myself – what are the things that I enjoy doing that don’t involve shopping? By shopping, I meant, trips to the mall, leafing through mail order catalogues, etc. I asked myself this question because my existence surely could have more complex motivations than consumption/shopping.

    I tried to think of things that could fill small chunks of time at home (1-2 hours) or whole afternoons on the weekends.

    Reading (library books), watching movies, trying new recipes, sipping wine with a neighbor, practicing my tennis serve with a bucket of balls. Those were some of the 1-2 hour ideas.

    I started exploring different neighborhoods (I lived in a big metro area) with a camera and just $5 in my pocket so I could buy a snack mid afternoon.

    I wasn’t trying to be frugal… I was just trying to change my “default” setting which was to go shopping and that wasn’t working on my small income in my first job out of college.

  7. Leah W. says:

    Well…sometimes, frugality IS about giving up the things you enjoy in life. At some point, it almost always is about putting some of the things you enjoy on hold. Last year, my husband was unemployed and I was in law school. We lived for 10 months on only our savings and student loans to cover my tuition. In our case, frugality meant going out to eat only once per month, nixing the annual ski vacation, buying new clothes only if we received gift cards as gifts, etc. It wasn’t fun, but it was necessary.

    Eventually, frugality is about spending more money only on the things you value. At first, though, it’s about covering the basics and putting off everything else. Maybe Charlie’s having trouble getting past the first part.

  8. Miltiadis says:

    I think this is less about frugality and more about lifestyle choices.

    In my opinion, Charlie should ask himself some deep questions here. Buying stuff to escape the “mundane shuffle through life of just paying the mortgage and going to the grocery store and going to work over and over and over again” is just that: a temporary escape from an unfulfilling life.

    Dump consumerism and embrace real life. Set goals for yourself (financial and otherwise), learn a new skill, be part of your community and try to make a difference to those around you.

    Or you could become an entrepreneur, open a business, be successful, make a bunch of cash and buy whatever your heart desires. But at that point I doubt you will care about buying stuff anymore…

  9. Karla says:

    You may already know this, but if not–check out
    “The Piano Book” by Larry Fine. Great advice on purchasing and maintaining a piano (new or used).

    Your posts tend to be useful and entertaining. And free. What a lovely combination–thanks!

  10. Brittany says:

    That’s a great idea, JC. I do that when traveling, but I really should do it in the city I live in.

    Tara–you don’t have to cut it all to save for bigger goals. Travel occasionally, buy a book occasionally, eat out occasionally… just not all the time. Give yourself some “blow money.” Also, explore cheaper ways of doing things you like (groupon, restaurant .com for eating out, hosteling, weekend trips, HelpX, repositioning cruises, etc. for traveling).

  11. I practice conspicuous consumption—which means paying attention to how I spend so that my spending matches my values. For example, I love to travel. I just took a 2.5 week trip to South Africa, and I’m going to Cartagena (a beach) in Colombia for a week in September. I could have spent that money on little things that don’t matter to me (such as cable, eating out, drinking each weekend).

    Instead, I got the pleasure of hanging out in South Africa. In September, I’m going to the beach with two of my closest friends. That makes me happy.

    Let’s not forget that money is just a tool to pay for things that matter. My policy is to spend first what’s most important. I spend the remaining cash however I want. I don’t mind that I don’t have as much cash left because I’d already paid for what I care about.

  12. Cortney says:

    The problem is not having a long perspective I think. In the short term, with a narrow focus, when you’re in pay off debt mode, or save an emergency fund mode, it *can* feel like you will always be saving forever, and never getting to spend.

    But the reality, in the bigger picture, is that doing those things in the short term makes so many things in your life easier, more productive, you have a safety net, etc. It doesn’t sound like Charlie is missing being able to spend money, from his descriptions of the stress he fells when bills come in it seems as though he’s living close to the max of his means. One can pay off debt, save money, and start planning for the future without giving up all luxuries.

  13. Piggybank says:

    Pinching pennies today, is about saving for those long term goals that bring no buyers remorse, or temporary satisfaction. If your penny pinching isn’t about that it’s not worth it.

  14. When guessing what is really important, maybe taking a step out of your own life is the best way. The idea is to have an experience that you will enjoy, but that will last enough for you to miss things.

    When I did my first 10-day route walking, sleeping in rug-sack and spending the entire day walking, thinking and chatting with my mates, I realize the amount of stuff I didn’t really care about, they were in my life to fill my empty time, not because I loved them.

    On the other hand, you will miss the things that are REALLY important for you.

    It hasn’t to be a mountain route, probably a peaceful holiday will work (maybe in a different way) but this extreme frugality really teaches you a lot of things.

  15. Jules says:

    The way I see it, frugality *is* about having it all–just not all at once. But that’s because my income is relatively low and a good portion of it goes towards covering student loan repayments.

  16. deRuiter says:

    A frugal life makes many interesting things possible Charlie. You may need to spend less, earn more, or a combination of both, to retire debt, and then to be able to live comfortably and to do many of the things which appeal to you, unhapmered by massive debt. Dave Ramsey says something like, “Live like no one lese so later you can live like no one else.”
    Trent, if you spell checked your work, you will not have “shre” instead of “share” in your article. Sloppy work.
    Come on folks, still waiting for the “cheese” comments after yesterday’s tuna melt recipe! Don’t disappoint us!

  17. Sandy L says:

    Being selectively frugal ROCKS!

    If you like shopping, you can do it without spending as much money. There are lots of ways to get things that are free or close to free. My 5 year old could care less if a toy came from a tag sale or the store.

  18. Larabelle says:

    I think each person is different. It is almost like trying to lose #400 pounds, some people the best route is to gradually give up the sweets and for some people they have to throw out all the sweets right from the beginning.
    For myself (in debt $78,000) I had to go cold turkey!! I had to give up all the luxuries. I was spending way to much money on junk. I had to focus on the long term goal which is getting out of debt. I am down to the last $1,000 but it has been a long journey. I have slowly added just a couple luxuaries.

  19. Sara says:

    deRuiter (posting #10)I love that quote by Dave Ramsey. It makes me think differently about the initial challenges of paying down debt and saving for the future.

    However, I have to poke a little fun at your posting. If you are going to make a big deal about Trent having a typo then you should make sure your posting doesn’t have any…I think you meant to type “else” in your quote by Dave Ramsey, not “lese.” :-)

  20. Amanda says:

    @10 there was a typo in your post. Lol

  21. Sandy says:

    Perhaps it would help if Charlie would watch the video clip from http://www.storyofstuff.com This really speaks to how Americans became addicted to stuff, and how it wasn’t an accident. Excellent info.

  22. mckalk says:

    I am frugal to some degree (drive used cars, clip coupons). I think having enough money buys peace of mind. I am not sure if that is the same thing as happiness.

  23. Barb says:

    As a woman who went from a three figure income to a small pension at widowhood, I suspect that I live pretty tightly but my life is not Mundane. So many of the things that Tara for example misses I still do for free, or similar things. Obviously if one has chosen the snowball gazelle way to down debt (not one I necessarily agree with) you are doing a temporary thing for a long term solution. But while it obviously depends on where you live and what you have access to, there are so many things you can do. I live on $1000 after I pay my mortage each month. I read voraciously. I still go to Barnes and nibke ince a month to check out the new books, have magazine, and get a fifty percent off cofee. Other than that I read from the library and get movies from the library. I travel, albeit at a different level than when I was married. I belong to a dinner group, a womans social group and a quilting group. I go out with friends, I cook gourmet food. None of these things require large expense. Excitement and activity does not depend on income.

  24. Claudia says:

    Whether you are being frugal to pay off debt or just to not spend so much and save more; it doesn’t have to make life boring.
    If you enjoy going out to eat, then do so, occasionally, so you don’t feel so deprived. Because you no longer do it so often, it will be more of a treat and mean much more than going out did if you went out to eat multiple times a week.

    When I was a child, each Christmas my aunt and uncle from Tacoma sent us a box of Almond Roca candy. At that time, you could not buy it where we lived. We all savored that box and thoroughly relished each peice. Now, that I can buy it whenever I want, it wasn’t so special anymore and I did not enjoy it as much. I’ve stopped buying it as often, not just because it was a little more expensive than average candy; but so I could re-invent it as a “special” treat. I buy only a package or two a year and suddenly, it’s a yummy treat again.
    This can work with a lot of the things one enjoys, should it be clothes shopping or buying new books or music. Why do you think the very rich buy so much? Because, they are trying to recreate that excitement a new purchase once gave them?

  25. You hit the nail on the head.

    I bust my butt at my job and I make as much money as I can in my spare time so I can spend it on the things that bring me joy.

    The challenge is to determine what those things really are…

    Its not as easy as it sounds.

    “Empty” purchases usually do more damage than bring joy

  26. getagrip says:

    News flash, Charlie is right, frugality is mudane. Why? Because it is much more exciting to have to juggle credit cards to see which one you can use that isn’t maxed out. Or how about the thrill of having to come up with creative means of lighting the house when the electricity is shut off. Better yet, diving behind the coffee table and pretending you’re not home when you spot a friend or family member you owe money to walking up to your front door. Oh boy, that’ll get the ol’ adreneline pumping!

    Yup, living within my means and budgeting money so I can spend it guilt free on things that are important to me and mine and knowing that’s what it’s there for is deadly boring. Though it does let me go for one long and a couple short vacations a year with the family. Then we also go out once or twice a month for a nice dinner, sometimes see a movie or the occasional play or ball game. Of course playing golf or tennis now and then often happens spontaneously, but it’s really all boring and horribly mundane. I never have any fun doing any of these things because I’m not shopping for something I know deep down I’m not likely to wear or use or don’t really need.

    So remember, frugality is horribly mundane and boring. Please keep excitement in your life by buying a new car every two years, buying all those new clothes you never wear or wear only once, getting new furniture sets, golf clubs, blenders, coffee makers, electronic gadgets of all kinds, etc. Because you know that we, the frugal and mundane minority, need all those things to keep being purchased new so we can pick them up on craigslist or at thrift shops or garage sales.

  27. Sandy L says:

    Oh..and free entertainment..be an usher!

    One of my theatre buff friends used to user at the various summer theatres as a volunteer. Not only would he get to see the plays for free, but he also got passes for his friends and family.

    Lots of free options that are not boring.

  28. I agree that the frugal lifestyle only seems mundane during the pay down debt and build reserve stages. Once a person is able to get into the cash as you go basis the options open up considerably. My most frugal uncle traveled the world and collected gem stones like diamonds, rubies, and emeralds (quite a hobby). Another frugal uncle built a church for the people in his community. Yes, he paid for the whole thing. Me – I raised my horses.

  29. friendlyfire says:

    Millions of Americans in two generations have lived frugally- without crowing about it and lacing their posts w. smugness and ridicule.

    They made difficult choices on savings and expenditures. Worked hard & saved. Then Wall Street wiped it away for most of them and many are of an older age where it will be difficult for their investments to recover. Add job loss to that,and workplace bias against people over 40, and it becomes even more difficult.

    In the face of those realities, those skilled in living frugally could have a cushion and adapt better to a more modest lifestyle, so it’s a worthwhile philosophy.

    Meanwhile, sometimes we live for the now and sometimes for the later. Balance is the key.
    Trying to one-up someone with “how smart and frugal I am” is not.

  30. friendlyfire says:

    The post I made above it NOT directed at Trent, who offers a balanced approach to living frugal. Even when I do not agree w. certain suggestions, I admire his tolerance and way of presenting his point.

    Nor is it directed to anyone who made simple and worthwhile suggestions. I *may* find those suggestions mundane (for me, Borders and coffee are, well, boring, I am an active outdoors person) but they represent a constructive approach that works for someone.

    my points are:

    you can live frugally and it may not matter in the end due to large scale events beyond your control…

    living frugally s/be a choice and not a contest.

    wishing ill on someone because their choices differ from yours is not kind and tells more about the character of the one making such a comment.

  31. kat says:

    Maybe Charlie needs to have a doctor check him for depression-the excerpt from his letter gives that vibe. The regular work day world is mundane,but your time away from the job is only as mundane as you make it. My “reality” is at the Ren Fair, the library, playing games with friends, going on thrift store crawls each season for new costuming and regular clothes.

  32. Alex says:

    Frugality does not equal cheap or Mundane etc. There’s nothing negative about being frugal. I think the moat frugal people are the ones that buy quality over quantity and have a clear picture of what’s worth purchasing and what isn’t. If something is not adding value to your lfe then it’s not needed. My family used to call me cheap, and thought I was crazy when I announced I would be retiring from the work force by age 31. Well, they most certainly don’t call me
    cheap anymore, they call me “informed” and when talking to their friends call me “highly selective” instead of frugal :)) it does put a smile on my face. I agree on buying quality foods. Your body is your best asset and must be properly nourished. Frugal is a lifestyle choice and about knowing what something is really worth. I could live in a mac mansion but I like my 3 bdrm house just fine and it’s from circa 1850 :) I paid 5k cash n restored it. Now it’s worth so much more and friends who bought sprawling mansions are stuck with mortgages worth more than their houses and work extra jobs ad have so much stress because they can’t lose their status. I dress like a woman, yes, dresses and skirts and the occassional jeans and if you saw me walking down the street you wouldn’t think twice that I’m retired :) I have the peace of mind tht come from nit having any debt, being able to do what I want with my time and spend all day with my family (my daughter n her pooch) :) I’d say, frugal people are the smartest people out there.

  33. Santos says:

    This was an extremely valuable post and your comments were excellent as well. They have given me much food for thought. I make (and have now for close to a decade) a 6 figure income but I have always thought and try to practice frugality but, as some of you have mentioned, one of the difficulties is to zero in on what is important and what brings you joy. This seems to be more elusive than it sounds and sometimes it seems to shift through time. Any ideas on how to address that issue??

  34. Leszek Cyfer says:

    “First of all, frugality is not about giving up the things that bring you joy in life. It’s about figuring out what actually does bring you joy in life and accentuating that, then cutting back sharply on the things that don’t matter as much to you.”

    Gosh, and I thought it’s called minimalism :)
    I suppose that many people define being frugal much differently…

    No matter how it’s called though, this strategy is spot on – to concentrate on things important to you, cut on all the other, unimportant stuff – in other words – unclutter your life.

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