Defining Frugality Through Life’s Other Resources

Yesterday, to start off the reader mailbag, I offered up this little riff:

When I was younger, the idea of paying for a service to do an ordinary household task for you seemed silly. Why would I ever pay for someone to wash my laundry or do the dishes? I can do those things myself for free.

As I have gotten older, I have begun to realize that an hour or two of free time without undone things hanging over my head has a lot of value. How much value? How much would I pay to have an hour of additional free time to do something I cared about deeply? $5? $10? $20?

I know that I’d rather have an hour of free time at this point than most things I could buy for $10.

It’s become an interesting question. The reason this has come up is that we had an offer in the mail to do laundry by the square foot in our town. They give you a box of a certain size upon your request and you fill it with laundry with a lid that you have to be able to lock into place, so they assume you’ll jam it full. They wash it and fold it and return it to you and you pay by the cubic foot based on the initial container size. A friend did this and was really happy with the results.

I’ve been doing a lot of “back of the envelope” math to determine if it’s worth it, which involves me estimating how much actual time doing laundry and folding it takes me. The sorting, the washing, the drying, and the folding per load – how much time does it add up to, and how much is that time worth? Then how does that compare to a cost per cubic foot?

This little bit sums up something that’s been weighing on my mind a great deal as of late: a change in my sense of frugality.

I have always defined frugality as striving to allocate one’s resources most effectively, with those resources including time, money, energy, focus, and any other resource we may have available to us. In any given situation, I want to spend the least total amount of my resources – time, money, energy, focus, patience, decision space, and so on – to get the results I desire, so that I can use those resources to achieve other things in life.

It’s a great ideal, but it presents a few problems.

First of all, money and time are far and away the easiest to quantify out of all of those resources. You can glance at a clock or set a timer whenever you want to quantify time; it’s easy to figure out how much time something takes. Almost everything has a price tag, so it’s similarly easy to figure out how much money something costs.

Now, how exactly do you measure how much energy something takes? How much focus? How much patience? How much mental clarity? It’s basically impossible to do that with any real accuracy.

Second, because they’re much easier to quantify than other resources, it’s easy to vastly overemphasize money and time. It’s easy for me to figure out how much time it takes me to do a load of laundry. It’s also relatively easy to figure out how much money it costs me to do a load of laundry. It’s much more difficult to figure out how much energy it takes or how much of my patience or how much of my decision space is gobbled up by doing a load of laundry.

I can easily plan out my day with a schedule so that I use my time resources very effectively. I can easily make a grocery list so that I use my money resources very effectively. I know exactly how much I have and exactly how much I’m aiming to spend. With energy? With focus? With everything else? It’s somewhat possible, but much harder to really quantify without a lot of work.

In general, whichever resource feels more pressing to me in the moment tends to get my focus, and because of the ease of measuring them, time and money tend to get my attention the easiest and the most frequently.

Finally, converting between the various resources is really hard. Even converting between time and money, the two easiest ones to measure, is pretty hard.

How much is an hour of my time spent doing laundry at home worth? I think everyone reading this would happily pay someone a quarter to do an hour’s worth of their laundry for them. What about $10? What about $25? What about whatever your hourly wage at work is?

It’s not an easy question. It’s going to be different for everyone. That’s just the two easiest to quantify resources.

The truth is that all of this adds up to mostly focusing on money and time, and often letting money wins out. When I’m uncertain about how much money to spend for some extra time, I usually just end up passing up on that opportunity and conserving the money.

That’s really what the laundry story is about – I’m really uncertain how much that service is worth to me in terms of the time saved (and the energy saved), so because of that uncertainty, I just say no.

When I do the laundry myself, I’m spending just a little money, but a fair amount of time and at least some energy (our washer and dryer are in the basement, while our bedrooms are mostly on the second floor of our home). If I were to hire out that service, I’d be spending quite a bit more money, a lot less time, and somewhat less energy. I don’t know how to do that exchange in a clear way, so I simply shrug, give up, and usually choose the route that has the lowest financial cost.

The problem with elevating money to the prime position when thinking about frugality is that it quickly lowers the value of all of your other resources to close to zero. There are times where it is extremely obvious that you’re saving a huge amount of time and energy for mere pennies, like using a washing machine to wash clothes or a dishwasher to wash dishes, but most of the time, when it’s not as starkly clear, we default to maximizing money and, to a lesser extent, time.

What would change if I focused everything on maximizing relationships and I focused my money, time, energy, and other resources on activities that provided the most “value” in terms of relationship building? What would my life look like if I were extremely frugal about everything in order to build up my roster of relationships?

What would change if I focused everything on maximizing my free time and I focused my money, energy, focus, and other resources on activities that provided the move “value” in terms of maximizing my free time? What would my life look like if I were extremely frugal about everything in order to build up my free time?

I can ask those questions about every single significant resource I have. Obviously, I’ve spent many years thinking about it in terms of money and, to a lesser extent, time, but what about things like energy? Relationships? Knowledge? Health? Virtues?

I can be “frugal” about each of those things. I can make choices to minimize my necessary use of those things so that I have a surplus of them for the things I want in life. I can aim for efficiency for each of those things.

The problem, of course, is that maximum efficiency at one of them generally means inefficiency at other ones. That’s where the whole laundry issue comes into play. If I’m frugal with regards to time, then it’s obviously better to hire someone to do it. If I’m frugal with regards to money, then it’s obviously better to do it myself.

All of this thinking has led me to a new focus for my frugality. I’m trying to seek out the absolute “home runs” in terms of bang for the buck for each of those resources in my life. I am looking for ways to do things that are extremely efficient uses of one resource to conserve a bunch of another resource.

In other words, for every resource in my life, I want to know what the most efficient ways are to vastly increase my available reserves of that resource without spending a lot of another resource.

What’s the most efficient way to vastly increase my available reserves of money without spending a ton of time or energy or another resource in my life? That’s the traditional question of frugality. But I have other questions.

What’s the most efficient way to vastly increase my available reserves of time without spending a ton of money or energy or another resource in my life?

What’s the most efficient way to vastly increase my available reserves of energy without spending a ton of money or time or another resource in my life?

What’s the most efficient way to vastly increase my available reserves of health without spending a ton of money or energy or time or another resource in my life?

What’s the most efficient way to vastly increase my number and quality of relationships without spending a ton of money or energy or time or another resource in my life?

What’s the most efficient way to vastly increase my understanding of the world without spending a ton of money or energy or time or another resource in my life?

What’s the most efficient way to vastly improve my personal character without spending a ton of money or energy or time or another resource in my life?

In each of these, I’m asking the basic question of money-focused frugality except that I’m focusing on another intrinsic resource. Those are all areas I’m really exploring lately.

The thing is, this journey is still rooted in maximizing that bottom dollar. One of the big resources I want to minimally use in each of these areas is money. You could even rearrange those questions a bit to make them somewhat more money focused.

How can I find a lot more free time without spending a lot of money?
How can I feel a lot more energetic without spending a lot of money?
How can I feel a lot more healthier without spending a lot of money?
How can I significantly enhance my ability to focus without spending a lot of money?
How can I significantly improve my relationships without spending a lot of money?
How can I significantly improve my understanding of the world without spending a lot of money?
How can I significantly improve my personal character without spending a lot of money?

Each of those things are resources I want to have more of in my life, but I don’t want to simply sacrifice other resources to get there. Instead, I want to find the really efficient exchange rates between those resources. It’s tough because it’s hard to really quantify some of those resources, but it’s usually fairly obvious when something offers a huge surplus of one resource for just a little bit of another.

So, let’s talk tactics. What have I found when looking for those really efficient exchanges? What are the “home runs” when it comes to being frugal about resources other than money? Here are some of the ones I’ve found.

The most efficient strategies I’ve found for maximizing free time without spending much money is time blocking and frequent reviews. I tend to block off my time use most days by keeping a daily calendar where almost every minute is accounted for, but many of those time blocks are set aside to engage in leisure activities that I really want to have time for. Doing things this way ensures that I always do have time for those things. I also do a daily review of things done and things left undone, with bigger reviews each week and month and quarter. Going back over things to see what works and what doesn’t and what loose ends I still have makes everything else way more efficient.

The most efficient strategies I’ve found for maximizing energy without spending much money is to exercise and to eat lots of raw fruits and vegetables as part of your diet. Do something each day that gets you panting and sweating and maybe a little sore the next day. You don’t need to be an extreme athlete. What you’ll find is that if you do it consistently, you wind up just feeling better and having more energy. Similarly, eating a diet that has a lot of fruits and vegetables in it – raw ones, not ones that are part of some other dish – makes a huge difference, at least for me.

The most efficient strategies I’ve found for feeling healthier without spending much money is to go outside and move around frequently throughout the day and to exercise portion control with meals. I try to go outside for multiple walks each day even if the weather is awful. Having a dog gives me an excuse to do that, but I’d do it anyway. I also find that whenever I overeat, I feel awful and I end up in the long run gaining weight, so if I focus on eating just enough so that I don’t feel hungry, I feel better throughout the day and my weight stays in a good place, too.

The most efficient strategies I’ve found for improving my ability to focus without spending much money is to meditate daily and to eliminate easy distractions from my life. A daily meditation routine, repeated over many days, drastically improves my ability to focus. I also find that eliminating distractions as much as I can – leaving my smartphone elsewhere, using “do not disturb mode” as much as possible, listening to “focus” music – also helps a ton in terms of being able to focus and sometimes achieve a flow state.

The most efficient strategies I’ve found for building and improving relationships without spending much money is to keep in touch with people very regularly and to actually speak up at social events by asking questions and being humble. I actually schedule touching base with people with whom I want to preserve a relationship, so that I don’t let it slip my mind out of complacency. This is incredibly powerful at keeping relationships alive. For building new relationships, simply going to social events and starting conversations by asking questions is incredibly efficient at building new relationships, and as the conversation grows, being humble is about the best thing you can do.

The most efficient strategies I’ve found for improving my understanding of the world without spending much money is to read challenging books in small bites on a very frequent basis and to have meaningful conversations with people, particularly those different from myself. I read a lot of very challenging books, but I read them in very short bites throughout the day and think about them as I go through the tasks of the day. I’ll read for five minutes here and then five minutes there and let the thoughts percolate in my head. I also try to have meaningful and thoughtful conversations with people where I’m trying to learn something or see something from their perspective, and few things clarify the world better than that.

The most efficient strategies I’ve found for improving my character without spending much money is to focus on specific virtues rather than trying to be better all at once and to constantly check in and remind myself of the virtue or two I’m working on. I think of one or two things I really want to improve in myself right now and focus on those things for a while. I do that by checking in constantly throughout the day on those things to remind myself to keep being humble or to be positively honest or to be a better listener. Doing that for extended periods (weeks? months?) is incredibly efficient at making oneself a better person.

To me, those strategies are as important in terms of frugality as anything I might do that strictly saves money. Why? If I’m able to inexpensively have an abundance of those resources by doing things that are obvious home runs for me, then I have plenty of those resources to spend on things that are financially efficient.

I have the time to take on money saving projects like caulking a window.

I have the energy to spend Sunday afternoon making meals in advance or making homemade gifts rather than staring at a football game.

I have the health to be able to go play soccer at the park with my family which keeps me from having to buy tickets for them to expensive activities.

I have the focus to take on challenging work projects and succeed at them which improves my income and my time efficiency at getting them done.

I have the relationships in place so that I can rely on friends when I need them and have really low cost social activities like game nights and dinner parties at home all the time.

I have the understanding of the world that helps me efficiently process new situations rather than having to pay for help in getting through challenges.

I have the character to not have to spend money to have a good presence in the community; in other words, I don’t have to spend to have a positive impression on other people.

It all cycles around. If I actually do the things that are the “big wins” in terms of every major resource in my life – in other words, if I practice frugality and take care of the low hanging fruit for resources besides just money – I end up doing well in every dimension of my life, and that ends up helping my finances, too.

Don’t just focus on being frugal with your money. Instead, look for the big wins in every aspect of your life, because securing those big wins will often end up helping your finances just as much while making your life as a whole that much better.

Good luck!

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