Some Thoughts on a Cultural Shift Towards Frugality

Jenna writes in:

Do you think frugality is more socially acceptable now than it was a few years ago? Many of my friends are spending less money than they used to and we swap tips on how to save money all the time. This is a new thing for us.

I’ve been asked questions along the same lines by reporters many, many times over the last year. “People are now acting frugal. Why is this? Do you think it will last?” The reaction seems to be that frugality is this once-despised behavior that is now socially acceptable at this moment in time.

First of all, I do believe that more people are open to frugality and cutting spending than there were a few years ago. The economic crisis of 2008, along with the stock market staggering like a drunken sailor over the last two years, has shocked a lot of people. Young people aren’t finding jobs easily, and older people are seeing their retirement funs shockingly depleted. Such economic shock waves lead people directly towards trying new behaviors, if only in the short term.

Beyond that, though, Jenna’s comment still reveals that there is some cultural negativity towards the “pop” idea of frugality. For her – and for many others – frugality is something new and a bit taboo to dabble in.

My belief is that for many people (not all, of course), this newfound frugality is a fad, much like going green was two or three years ago. For some people, a greater awareness of their money and where it goes will stick with them – for many others, though, it’s just a fad and will drift away whenever a new media-pushed cultural movement comes along.

Another factor that runs through Jenna’s comment is the sense that frugal means cheap. As I’ve said in so many words before, frugal isn’t cheap.

Frugality refers to finding the best value for your dollar in the overall context of your life. A frugal person might take everything into account in their life and decide that buying a bulk box of higher-cost trash bags is the best value for their family because of the time saved by not having ripped bags and the money saved by buying in bulk and the ability to fill the bag to the absolute limit without tearing, minimizing the financial cost per bag.

Cheapness means finding the absolute minimum cost for any situation. A cheap person will always buy the garbage bags that have the lowest cost per bag, ignoring the fact that the cheapest bags have a lower per-bag capacity and tend to tear more often than better bags.

The difference between frugality and cheapness is thought. A frugal person steps back and evaluates the situation for criteria beyond that of simple dollars and sense and then seeks the best value for all things considered. It’s often confused with cheapness because in many situations, the cheap person and the frugal person come to the same conclusion as to how to handle a situation – and it’s different than the one that’s considered the “normal, mainstream” choice.

For example, both the frugal person and the cheap person might have a vegetable garden. They might both make their homemade laundry detergent, and they might both drive used cars. However, the cheap person tends to avoid leaving a tip at a restaurant they won’t visit again, while the frugal person steps back and looks at the situation through the eyes of the people they’re dining with as well as the eyes of the staff at the restaurant and then leaves a reasonable tip.

What will happen in a year or two when it’s no longer cool to be frugal? I predict that many people will retain a good handful of the frugal tactics they learned in 2008 and 2009. However, the money they save through more sensible living in some areas will simply be poured into extravagance in other areas. The money saved by that programmable thermostat installed in 2008 will help buy an HDTV, for example.

Is that a “win” for frugality? I think it is, even if it’s not the home run life changer that it could be.