One of the biggest arguments against being “frugal” is that it restricts you from “living life.” Whenever I hear that argument, I usually think that the person involved isn’t actually being frugal at all.
In fact, I would go so far as to argue that making frugal choices actually does the opposite – it enables you to live life more fully than before.
I think I can explain this idea simply in terms of a grocery store trip.
Let’s say you go into the grocery store and have $100 to spend to buy a week’s worth of groceries for you and your partner (we won’t talk about kids here – we’ll keep it nice and simple).
When you walk down the bread aisle, some of the breads cost $1 a loaf and others cost as much as $5 a loaf.
When you examine the cuts of meat, some of the meats cost $2 per pound and others cost $8 per pound.
When you look at the milk options, some of the milk costs $2.50 per gallon and others cost $7 per gallon.
You could use virtually any product in this example – cheese instead of milk, trash bags instead of meat, beans instead of bread. Almost everything you see in a grocery store has a range of prices like that.
When you’re making your choices, it’s often tempting to just get the “good” version of everything. You might grab the $5 bread and the $8 meat and the $7 milk.
At the end of the trip, though, you’ll find yourself with much more than $100 worth of stuff in your cart. This is the situation that people find themselves in when they get into credit card debt.
So, how do you go about getting back under that $100 limit? Do you simply put back some of the items and do without? That’s a pretty miserable response. It doesn’t feel particularly good to swap some of the items for cheaper versions, either. Those approaches are why frugality feels like you’re not “living life” – you have this sense of giving up things that you care about.
A truly frugal person takes a completely different approach to shopping.
When a frugal person looks at the breads, that person decides whether or not expensive bread is actually important to them. Does it really matter much at all if I get the expensive bread or the cheap one? Does $5 bread signify a major life improvement over the $1 bread?
Even more important than that, the frugal person asks themselves whether they’d rather take that $4 and use it to get better milk, coffee, or something else they care more about.
When I go to the grocery store, I’m extremely picky about the eggs that I buy. I prefer the free range eggs because they taste much better to me and are less likely to have lots of sulfur in the yolk. I’m willing to pay more for those eggs.
At the same time, I’m not particularly picky about the bread that I buy, as long as it’s whole wheat. Getting the great expensive bread doesn’t add to the quality of my life in any significant way. So, I buy the cheap bread and the money I save helps to buy the expensive eggs while still keeping me under budget.
I choose to spend as little as I possibly can on the stuff I don’t really care about so that I can spend more on the stuff that I do care about.
That principle expands into the rest of my life. For example, I personally don’t care about driving a nice, shiny car. I just want something that gets me from place to place, so I choose not to spend much on my automobiles. I haven’t had a car payment in several years.
I don’t care what kind of laundry soap I use as long as the clothes get clean, so I buy extremely cheap soap or make my own. I don’t care what kind of ketchup I buy, as I rarely use it. I don’t really value having gum or soft drinks from the gas station because I usually have a water bottle in the car already. As long as I can do the things I want to do, I prefer to spend as little on home energy use as possible. I could go on and on like this.
These are all things I personally don’t care much about. In fact, my actual list is quite a bit longer, including lots of typical pantry and household items, as well as entertainment bills and eating out. Your list of unimportant things might look much different than mine.
The money I “save” by not spending it on things I don’t care about lets me buy things I do care about without worry. Because I have this long list of unimportant things that I make sure to spend as little on as possible, I have plenty of money left over for the other things in life that I really do care about.
That’s all frugality is. Whenever you see a long list of frugality tips, it’s just a list of ideas on how to cut back on the things you don’t care about. Since the writer doesn’t necessarily know what you find important and what you don’t, you’re expected to choose from the items on the list so you’re cutting back on the unimportant things.
It becomes miserable when you decide you need to use every frugality tip and end up cutting back on the things that are important to you.
Another big part of frugality is deeply understanding what’s actually important to you. I use a few simple tests to figure this out. One, will I care about this purchase a week from now? If I won’t, then it’s probably not important and I should go cheap (or not buy it at all). Two, does this product actually do something I couldn’t already do? Usually, the answer is no, which means it’s not worth buying. Three, will this make my future life better in some fashion? This points me toward the value of repaying debt and saving for the future, as both of those moves reduces stress and increases options down the road.
It’s actually worth spending some time thinking about how you spend money in that way. Is this really important to me? Is $10 per month spent on Netflix providing more for my life than a $10 extra payment on my mortgage each month? Will $7 spent at the coffee shop add more to my life than $7 put toward replacing a broken blender? Thoughts like that go through my head all the time when I’m driving or doing other things.
Frugality simply means moving your spending from things that are less important to you to things that are more important to you wherever possible. It means spending less when possible on the things you must have, choosing the cheapest possible option (or going without) on the things you don’t care much about, and thus leaving yourself with plenty of money for the things you do care about.
Making a frugal decision should never, ever increase your misery. That goes against the whole idea. If you’re feeling miserable about how you’re spending your money, then the real culprit is insufficient income. Frugality just means you’re figuring out how to take what you have and make optimal choices with it.
It really is a great tool for living the best life you can with the resources you have.