Success in the Margins Isn’t Marginal Success

A few months ago, I wrote a post called “Two Paths to Financial Success.” In it, I outlined how there are two distinct ways to succeed financially.

One, which I called “success in the margins,” refers to things like frugality, cutting costs, saving diligently, and so forth. The other, which I called “success in the mainstream,” referred to things like entrepreneurship and career building.

Success in the margins, I pointed out, is a sure way to success, but there is something of a cap to that success. You’re limited in how much you can save by your income and your fundamental living expenses. On the other hand, success in the mainstream doesn’t have a cap, but it is far from a guarantee. Entrepreneurship and career pursuit are risky enterprises that often don’t turn out.

Anyway, a reader recently took me to task for referring to frugality and saving as “success in the margins.” In his words, “There is nothing marginal whatsoever about the money you can save by living sensibly and putting some money into investments. It’s practical, anyone can do it, and the positive results can be repeated over and over again. That’s far from marginal.”

I agree completely with his statement. The reason I named it such was not because it is a marginal method, but because it is inherently capped by your income and lifestyle. Frugality, by its very nature, is about shaving away a little bit from the edges and saving what you’ve trimmed. That money comes about from the margins of your life.

For example, one of the first moves I made when I started my financial recovery is to reboot my work commute. Before the change, I would drive by a coffee shop on my way to work and many days I would be tempted to stop in there, have a cup of coffee, and often follow it with a bagel. On my way home, I would drive by an electronics store and a bookstore, and I would visit both of them a few times a week. Naturally, each week, I found myself spending a lot of unnecessary money.

When I changed my commute, I no longer went by the coffee shop, the electronics store, or the bookstore. I decided that it was just fine if I happened to go to them, but with my new route, I had to make the willful choice to go there. The big sign wasn’t hanging out there along my route tempting me.

So, every once in a while, I’d decide to splurge and go to one of the places, but most of the time, I barely even thought about them on my way home from work.

Those coffee shop and bookstore visits were in the margins of my life. They were things that I did, but they weren’t deeply important to me or to who I was. They just filled up some of my time and attention. I barely noticed when I cut them away.

That, to me, is “success in the margins.”

Frugality does not work if it’s removing something you value more than the money you’re saving. If you’re making yourself miserable to save a few dollars, it’s not worth it.

Quite often, when people think about frugality, they don’t think about the margins. Instead, they think about the things they value deeply. They don’t want to lose that valuable thing, so they just toss aside the idea of cutting back.

Frugality works well in the margins. It works when you’re trying a different kind of dishwashing soap. It works when you cut out a routine shopping trip that’s become boring. It works when you give up on and get rid of the pieces of a hobby that you’re no longer passionate about. It works when you make a bunch of meals ahead of time, buying the ingredients in bulk, so you can store the made-ahead meals in the freezer and always have something convenient to make for supper.

So often, these kinds of changes are really easy to make. You pretty much forget about the change once you’ve started doing it, and the only impact it has is the savings that appear in your checking account.

Success in the margins does not mean marginal success. It means finding success in the areas of your life that don’t deeply matter to you.

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