Frugality and Desperation

Most of the readers of this site are in the fortunate position to be able to think of frugality as a tactic rather than a requirement. It’s a useful strategy for maximizing the difference between the money coming into your life and the money going out of your life so that you can build financial independence and security.

For many people, however, frugality isn’t an option – it’s a requirement. If you’re supporting a family on minimum wage, there’s not much money left over at all after you’re done paying the bills and keeping food on the table. You have to be frugal, no two ways about it.

I’ve experienced both. When I was a child, my parents went through periods where they were pushed to the limit in terms of having enough money to get by. My father was sometimes laid off from his factory job for extended periods – they tended to have lengthy seasonal layoffs – and during those periods, he was a freelance commercial fisherman. When the fish were biting, we were okay. When they didn’t… things could be very tight.

Throughout large chunks of my childhood, frugality wasn’t an optional thing. It wasn’t a tactic to improve financial standing. It was a requirement for keeping a roof over our head and food on the table.

Like most people in modern America, we may have been poor, but we didn’t want to feel poor.

When frugality is an option, threading that needle is easy. You can be very frugal in some areas and loose with your spending in other areas.

When it’s not an option, you tend to splurge whenever there’s an option. You’ll buy lots of low-cost splurges – often food, but sometimes other things – just so you can feel as though you’re not eating soup beans for every meal.

In an even broader way, you can sometimes begin to resent frugality a bit.

Again, when you’re on reasonably solid ground financially and frugality is an option for improving your financial state, frugality can feel very empowering. It can feel like it’s something you’re doing to take control of a situation.

When you’re reliant on frugality just to survive and there’s no other option, frugality doesn’t feel like empowerment. It feels like prison.

Looking back, I believe I left childhood with a lot of good financial messages, but only one bad one. Unfortunately, the bad message was a doozy.

That bad message was the idea that frugality equated to poverty. I believed that people who made frugal choices must be poor people who are, for some reason or another, journeying through a life where they avoided financial success. Frugality was not something to be emulated, then; it was something to be avoided.

What a fool I was.

If you find yourself thinking that making a frugal choice to spend less makes you “poor” or is somehow holding you back, you’re a fool. There’s no two ways about it. You’re actively choosing to throw aside one of the most valuable tools you have in your personal finance journey because you’re worried about what other people think and because you’re stuck on your impressions and stereotypes of other people.

Choosing to make a pot of beans for supper or choosing to eat leftovers for lunch doesn’t make you “poor.” It doesn’t hold you back. It makes you smart. It means you’re realizing that you only have a certain amount of money to spend and you’d better spend it in a way that makes the most sense.

Frugality isn’t a tool of poverty. It’s a tool of success, and it’s one everyone can use. People who have very little money can use it to keep their head above water. People who have plenty of money can use it to start building toward financial independence.

Poverty is a result of a lot of things, but frugality isn’t one of them. Frugality is merely a tool for making your financial situation better regardless of whether you’re making only a pittance or you’re making quite a lot.

Use that tool. Use it hard. I wish I had done so during my twenties instead of foolishly equating frugality with poverty and spending like a fool. In fact, I view that as the greatest mistake of my life.

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