What Does Being Frugal Really Mean?

“Don’t think money does everything, or you are going to end up doing everything for money.” – Voltaire

It’s not too uncommon for a frugal person to hear the criticism that they are “cheap.” At the same time, it’s also not too uncommon for a wealthy person to hear the criticism that they are somehow corrupt or that they would do anything for a buck.

Both of these criticisms – whether accurate or not – come from the same central idea, that people who conserve and accumulate money are putting money ahead of other human values.

They’re making a value judgment, in other words. You’re presenting an appearance of placing money above values that they consider more important – whether that’s true or not.

I’m one of the last people to ever suggest that anyone should put a ton of weight into what other people think of them. It’s not worth it.

However, the idea of being “cheap” or “greedy” is something worth reflecting on. Do you do things that your friends and loved ones would consider “cheap”? How about “greedy”?

It’s worth thinking about those types of questions because they can show you instances where the accumulation of wealth is perhaps taking priority over areas of your life where they shouldn’t be.

For me, this all came to a head when I started asking myself why I was being frugal. At first, the answer was easy: I was in a messy debt situation and I needed to get control of things before I put my family at risk.

After a few years, we found ourselves debt free and, since we were still spending less than we earned, we began to accumulate, first in savings and later in investments. At that point, the question turned a little bit. Why were we still being frugal?

Are we chasing money? Are we trying to build up our bank account without considering the other things we might hold dear?

It took some real soul-searching for Sarah and I to answer these questions and we came to a few conclusions along the way.

The biggest one was that we weren’t chasing money. The exact balance of our accounts, in the big scheme of things, matters very little to us. What mattered is what it represents.

It represents peace of mind. It means we don’t have to worry about the immediate future for our families.

It represents goals. We’re not averse to spending money. We simply have plans for the future that won’t be cheap. Buying a new home in the country, taking our children on international trips, and planning for the earliest possible “retirement” adds up to a lot of cash.

What about being frugal? Being frugal means not wasting things. While I wouldn’t describe us as “green,” we also don’t like the idea of wasting things if we don’t have to. Why not buy things that last so we don’t have to replace them? Why not buy things in bulk so we don’t have to keep making trips to the store?

Being frugal also means being self-reliant. I want to be able to do as many things for myself as I can. That means learning toilet repair and attempting to fix things on my own before calling a plumber. That means knowing how to change the oil and do other basic maintenance on a car. That means knowing how to fix my son’s bike. I value knowing how to do things.

Being frugal also means saving our cash for things we truly want, not just short-term impulses. I’d rather skip the treat at the checkout or at the coffee shop a bunch of times if I know it means that I’ll be able to afford something I really want down the road. At the same time, when I do splurge, I’ve thought about it for a while and I’m pretty certain I’m buying the thing I really want.

These values are different than the ones I once held. I once valued splurging and enjoying the moment above all else… but I eventually started feeling pretty empty after doing that too much. I never really worried about wasting things, either. Those values changed over the last decade or so.

In the end, I don’t feel as though I’m chasing money. I’m simply living in accordance to the values I hold dear. Those values, when put into practice, result in our family spending less than we earn.

Does this appear cheap or “money-grubbing” to others? Maybe. For me, though, as long as I’m sure of my values, I don’t worry too much about what other people think. I know why I make the choices that I make.