What Does Frugality Mean?

Merriam-Webster defines frugality as “careful management of material resources and especially money.” Yet, there’s much more than that packed into such a simple word.

For some, frugality means hope and opportunity. That’s the feeling I get from the word. For others, frugality means missing out. Frugality can mean less work for some people and more work for others. How can such a simple word have so many different meanings to so many different people? It’s because everyone brings different life experiences to the table.

In this article

    Frugality is efficiency with money

    Let’s start with the basic definition of frugality: “careful management of material resources and especially money.” Whenever we make a careful choice about how we spend our money, we’re being frugal. Any time we decide that maybe spending $100 on something mildly tempting isn’t a wise choice, we’re being frugal. Whenever we shop around for a better price, we’re being frugal.

    In that sense, almost all of us are somewhat frugal in our everyday lives. People are always making choices about when it’s OK to spend money and when it’s not OK.

    What makes frugality different than normal everyday life? Frugality is a conscious effort to be more efficient with your money beyond what one might do by default. You’re practicing everyday life when you choose not to buy a cool new $300 gadget that you don’t really need — we all do this pretty frequently. You’re practicing frugality when you spend some time figuring out what the most cost-efficient package of toilet paper is so that you can make the right choice now and in the future. When you take any extra step you would not have normally taken before to be a little more efficient with your money, you’re being frugal.

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    Frugality is efficiency with other resources, too

    When you’re being efficient with your money, you might notice that many of the same principles apply to the other resources in your life, too. For example, you can be frugal with your food by being careful not to prepare too much for a meal and saving leftovers and extras for future use. You might prepare meals in advance because it’s not just money efficient but time efficient, as you can use a lazy Sunday afternoon to make busy weeknight evenings far more efficient.

    This is particularly important when you consider that we often exchange money for other resources, like time. We’ll order takeout mostly because it’s more efficient during a busy evening, not because we love the food. For example, spending $40 on takeout when you could prepare the same meal for $20 at home isn’t frugal in a money sense, but it might be if it saves you time and energy that you can efficiently apply elsewhere.

    Frugal strategies should be considered in terms of time and energy and other resources, too. A frugal strategy that saves you $1 but requires 20 minutes of energetic effort probably isn’t a good frugal strategy because that $1 is actually costing you 20 minutes of time and energy that could have been applied elsewhere, likely with a much better return on that investment.

    Isn’t this just minimalism, then? They overlap a great deal, but frugality doesn’t always mean “less,” it just means more “efficient.” Frugality doesn’t mean exchanging your time or energy or other resources inefficiently just to save a buck. It means being efficient with those resources, too.

    Frugality is NOT misery or cheapness

    Another important factor to consider when it comes to frugality is that it’s very easy to take frugality too far.

    As noted above, in the process of being efficient with your money, you’re always exchanging something for that efficiency. For example, if you buy bulk toilet paper, you’re getting more toilet paper for your dollar, but you have to have the space to store that toilet paper. If having your closet jam-packed with unused toilet paper makes you feel miserable, then the small amount of money you’re saving isn’t worth it.

    Frugality should not make you feel worse. It should not damage your sense of contentment in your life. It should not damage your relationships. That’s being cheap, not frugal.

    While you do have to give something up to gain value elsewhere, you should be looking for the things that are clear wins, and it’s not a clear win if you’re unhappy or if you’re damaging relationships.

    Frugality is seeing extra benefits

    Frugal living often exposes extra benefits that you might not have noticed otherwise.

    An example of this is frugal hedonism. When you add the constraint of keeping cost low to your choices, it doesn’t mean that you’re choosing misery. Rather, it means that you’re widening the range of things you might have considered outside of your original comfort zone, and in doing that, you discover new perks and pleasures.

    Frugality can mean less stress, as you have fewer possessions to worry about. Frugality can mean better relationships, as you lean into doing low-cost and free social events and doing more swapping and task-sharing with friends. Frugality can mean discovery of new hobbies, as you try new things you never thought about before and discover a new interest.

    Frugality is a financial tool anyone can use

    A final important aspect of frugality is accessibility. It’s a financial tool that everyone can use.

    There are many financial tools that aren’t available to everyone. Not everyone can invest. Not everyone can have a credit card. Not everyone can even have a savings account.

    However, everyone needs to eat. Everyone needs shelter. Everyone needs clothing. Everyone needs social relationships. All of those things give us opportunities to practice frugality and be more efficient with our resources.

    This is often why frugality is overlooked when people talk about finances. Frugal tips feel so common and ordinary and part of everyday life that we don’t think of frugal techniques as tools for building our financial future, but that’s exactly what they are.

    If you apply frugality to your life and manage to spend $100 less per month without feeling misery, suddenly you’re putting $100 less per month on that credit card. You’re suddenly able to put $100 more per month toward paying off debts. You’re able to put $100 more per month into your retirement savings. Over time, that builds into changing your life, as you’re able to buy a car without a loan or you finally have a house down payment or you finally got out of debt and don’t have that bill hanging over your head any more.

    It starts with frugality, and that’s a tool we can all use.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.