Updated on 01.14.09

The Frugal Traveler and the Varying Definitions of Frugal

Trent Hamm

Recently, I’ve begun following the Frugal Traveler blog, hosted by the New York Times and written by Matt Gross. The title of the blog is reasonably accurate – it focuses on how to cut costs while traveling. For me, though, the most interesting aspect of the blog is that it clearly shows the wide diversity in what people think of as frugal.

Take two recent posts. The first is an interview with Leon Logothetis, who hosts the “reality” show “Amazing Adventures of a Nobody” on the Fox Reality Channel. The premise of the show is simple – Leon attempts to travel from point A to point B on just $5 a day (or five euros a day or five pounds a day, depending on his exact location). In effect, Leon’s approach to travel (at least in the context of his show) involves hitchhiking and relying on the good will of others in order to get around – riding (and sometimes crossing) the fine line between frugal and cheap, from my perspective.

The very next post? How to skim off a bit of money on your Vermont resort skiing trip by using the bus. For me, this goes in the opposite direction – a skiing trip at a resort is pretty much the opposite of frugal.

Yet, from reading the comments, it was clear that each article appealed to some people and drove away others. Many people argued that the article about Leon was simply way too cheap, while some others stated that the advice about Vermont ski resorts was simply out of their price range.

So, what’s the take home message here? I came up with three conclusions.

First, frugality means different things to different people. My personal sense of what’s frugal and what is not is likely different than your sense. I consider it worthwhile to make my own laundry detergent, for example, while others consider such an activity a complete waste of time. On the other hand, I know some people who are diligent about using only one sheet of toilet paper, calculating that every wasteful use of the toilet costs them money – I consider that cheap, not frugal.

Just because someone has a different definition of frugality doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong – just different. Our personal idea of what it means to be frugal – or cheap or a spendthrift – comes from a lifetime of experiences – and none of us have identical experiences. In my childhood, for example, I consumed a lot of wild game, simply because it was very frugal for us to catch it and use it ourselves. That’s an experience that many people simply don’t have – and thus they process such things far differently than I do.

Instead of calling someone “cheap” or say that they’re wasting money, look for ways you can apply some of what they’re saying. When I leaf through The Complete Tightwad Gazette, I don’t necessarily jump on board with every idea that I see. Some of the ideas simply warrant a simple “no” from me. Others seem right up my alley, and yet others make me stroke my chin and think for a bit. Not all of Amy’s advice – or anyone’s advice – is going to apply to me, but if at least some of it appears to be applicable to my life, I’m going to be rewarded by reading the whole thing, even if I don’t use all of it (or even most of it).

And with that, I think I’ll go curl up with The Complete Tightwad Gazette again and see if any good ideas come to mind.

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  1. Very true- for some people being “frugal” is going out to dinner at a $30 per person place, vs. a $50 per person restaurant. It’s all relative, I guess, depending on your lifestyle, and of course, how much money you have.

  2. Mary says:

    Frugal in the dictionary is defined as simple, plain and costing little. Frugal carries a positive connotation. Cheap means low in price and worth more than its cost. Cheap carries a negative connotation. We want to be frugal without being cheap. I consider myself frugal and cheap in best sense of both words–an expert bargain hunter. A spendthrift is someone who spends money in an irresponsible way, something we are all trying to avoid! What this and other frugal blogs are really about is helping us think about how we spend our money. Our greatest political power in America is how we choose to spend our money. We need to be wise in our choices both for our selves and our country. Since everyone’s situation is unique, so are the decisions they make regarding how they do or don’t spend their money.

  3. Mister E says:

    It’s all relative.

    A friend of mine runs a landscaping business and one of his major clients recently cut the monthly budget for lawn care, snow removal and related services for his estate to $2,500 citing frugality in the face of the economic downturn.

  4. Diane says:

    Amen to the statement “frugality means different things to different people”! The only thing that determines right or wrong is what works for you.

    Trent, you go to extremes that I wouldn’t take (making laundry detergent) but we’re in a different place in our lives, so if that works for you I think it’s great. I did send a link to your article about making detergent to a friend on another list who was looking for a recipe.

    I always cut my sons’ hair and have never paid for a barber. Now I cut my boyfriend’s hair as well. (Not a hair stylist – I learned by grooming my dogs). We’ve saved $1000s on this over the years.

    For us, going out to dinner @$30- per couple once a week is frugal (compared to what we used to do) because that’s something we really enjoy doing. We would never spend any money on video games for entertainment – but obviously that’s something you enjoy.

    There are many ways to be frugal and save money, depending on your talents and interests. I love reading other people’s ideas and taking what works for me. I think we can all learn from each other and from the exchange of ideas, without all doing the same thing.

  5. tiphaine says:

    well I consider myself frugal, and I’m going on a ski trip to Vermont.
    It’s the young couple retreat in our church. This church is a wealthy 5th avenue church in Manhattan and we really want to go on their trip.Even if it’s fancier than a reasonable young couple outing. We got a special reduction of price and we plan on renting snow shoes, not all the ski apparel. This way we get the romantic hiking just the two of us, and all the evening teachings and sharing.
    I think the difference between cheap and frugal is when you feel good about your choice, or constantly questioning your choice and reminding yourself how much money you’re saving as a motivation.
    I’m all with you for the laundry detergent, it’s fun to make and I love the DIY part of it :)
    I’m also very confortable with non-disposable menstrual pads…
    But I can’t even imagin getting margarine instead of butter :) And I use A LOT more butter than laundry detergent!

  6. todo es bien says:

    This reminds me of an article I read recently about the “small house movement”. The article contended that for some people moving into a 3500 square foot house was participating in the small house movement. I can not buy into that. Maybe they should rename as “smaller house” and “frugaler”, so that they could use the terms in a relative sense rather than an absolute. If you drive a hummer you are not driving an environmentally friendly vehicle because your previous vehicle was a tank.

  7. Johanna says:

    Frugal is saving money by making sacrifices (or eliminating waste). Cheap is saving money by getting others to make sacrifices for you. If you want to use one sheet of toilet paper at a time, that’s fine, and frugal (just make sure you wash your hands before you come anywhere near me). Cheap is demanding that your houseguests do the same.

    That Fox Reality show strikes me as being entertainment only, not a suggestion that anyone actually travel that way in real life. Traveling on $5 a day with cameras following you around is totally different from traveling on $5 a day without them, I’m sure. Like with the lady in Chicago who let him stay in her house – would she have done that for a random stranger? Probably not. The cameras meant that (1) he probably wouldn’t take anything, and (2) she and her house would be on TV.

  8. Frugality might be relative but there has to be some limit on what is considered frugal or the term becomes meaningless.

  9. Lisa says:

    I am frugal about some things so that I can spend money on things I really enjoy…. like travel!

    Frugality is definitely a personal definition. Didn’t Trent post recently about how he does things a bit differently now that his finances are in better order?

    We are frugal all year so that we can afford a spring break trip in Cayman. The #1 reason we chose Cayman is because we can get free lodging (through a friend).

  10. RDS @ Smart Financial Values says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I have been spending a fair amount of time contemplating this topic lately. In my mind, it seems to boil down to a questions of values. We all value items and experiences differently. What is a great deal for someone (a frugal ski trip to VT, for example) might be a horrible waste of money for others. The key, I think, is to spend money very deliberately and consciously. If you have the money, and whatever you are spending it on is worht it to you, then more power to you.

  11. Julie says:

    I heard a quote that applies here, I think. When someone asked a consultant what size a “downsized” house would be, the answer was “30% smaller than whatever you’re living in now.”

    I think it’s the same with frugality. People consider things to be frugal if they’re slightly or moderately less than what they’re doing now.

  12. Cathy says:

    When my boyfriend and I were visiting Victoria, British Columbia, we wanted to visit the Buchart Gardens, a popular tourist destination there. There were tour buses charging between $15-$30 per person to take us there and back. We instead asked some locals about bus routes, and we got the bus number and bus stop that would drop us off at the garden. We paid $3 per person round trip. Maybe we didn’t get some witty tour guide telling jokes, but that wasn’t important to us.

  13. Green Panda says:

    To some in our family, we’re cheap. If my grandmother were alive, she’d think we could do better on saving money. It’s relative.

    She raised 7 kids on one income and made everything stretch. To me, that’s frugal. She was creating value with what little she had. It’s something I’d like to keep working on.

  14. J says:

    The ski buses are really a great way to get up to the slopes. Generally the cost is right around the cost of a regular lift ticket at the mountain. Also, for single people looking to meet other single people, it’s a fantastic way to meet new people other than “the bar scene”. You can also pack a lunch and save some additional money that way. From NYC or Boston, you are saving probably $30-40 on gas alone.

    But yes, frugality is most definitely in the eye of the beholder. If downhill skiing or snowboarding is your “thing”, though, a ski bus can be an option for getting in some runs while saving money.

    Also, keep in mind that ski season lasts a few months, and the holidays are in there, so sometimes you have to get up there while you can and conditions are decent.

  15. Bonnie says:

    I always have a good laugh at fashion articles in women’s magazines, where a “bargain” outfit is often $300 or more. Sure, it’s significantly less than the $1500 inspiration, but as someone who haunts thrift shops and yard sales, I can’t relate to thinking of that level of spending as “saving” money.

  16. Definitely true that frugal is relative for the individual. I found it easier to be much more frugal as a single mother with young children. AND it was easier to be frugal when I had more time! Things I would have made by hand years ago, to save money, are bought now, because I simply don’t have the time.

  17. DrFunZ says:

    Hmm… hitchhiking in Europe – hitchhiking in the USA. Not frugal. Not cheap. Dangerous. Reckless.

    To me, frugality means two things: using our resources to the best possible advantage and efficiency; and minimizing unnecessary expenditures for a greater purpose: giving alms, making the dollar stretch because we have a growing family, saving for the future, paying our bills fully and on time.

    There is no inherent “virtue” in being “frugal” for frugality’s sake. The virtue comes in when our frugality leads us to be more generous, more responsible for ourselves and others, more environmentally considerate, etc. Being frugal does not mean living like a person in poverty, for there is no inherent virtue in being poor either. (Jesus’ words, “Bless are the poor…” does not imply a higher moral status.)

    Indeed, I would like to have enough money to “cut back” on my landscaping (HA!!I would like to have a landscape to cut back on, to be quite honest.) But I am not going to judge the wealthy guy who cuts back on lawn care. For all I know, he wants to keep his tithing to his church constant, or he has set up a scholarship fund for poor kids that he wants to keep funding at the same rate.

    Frugality is a life choice that some of us make, but it is a necessity for others to simply survive. Those of us who make it a choice might consider giving some of what extra we save to help others while we are preparing for our own futures.

  18. DrFunZ says:

    Rick Steeves’ books are excellent resource for traveling safely and inexpensively throughout the world. I took a trip to Italy alone, (single woman) using all his ideas. I saved so much money, met great people and felt safe and secure the whole time. I recommend his books and newsletter highly. http://www.ricksteves.com/

  19. nonno muss says:

    for me being frugal is almost an addiction. Sure, it started out innocent enough, mainly from necessity, but then transformed into a hobby. My other hobbies (online poker and 4:20) already consume quite a bit of money, and with the aid of such tips as making laundry soap, in the last six months, I have paid off 2 small charge cards and just yesterday got paid ahead on all my bills…but most important I feel good when I save even the smallest amount of money, or a dyi “hack” to make something better.

    Great articles, Great soap, I think I’m going to try to sell a case to a local grocery store. Thanks.

  20. Bob says:

    Trent – I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on hunting since you mentioned you used to eat a lot of wild game. I’ve recently started hunting, inspired by Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilema. I found it to be almost impossible to hunt “frugally” for me, however the health benefits and personal ownership of the meals harvested has made the financial aspect moot in my opinion. How do you feel about hunting in a frugal, moral, ethical, social, etc sense?

  21. Jodi says:

    The NYT article about the man who travels on $5 a day isn’t an example of frugality. He mostly gets by for very little because he relies on handouts from other people. And he gloats in the article about how he’ll end one of those trips by staying in a five-star hotel and eating in fancy restaurants. He got skewered in the comments on his article, and he deserves it.

    Obviously, I agree with those comments. I’ve mentally argued with myself about what the difference is between his approach and that of others, like Peace Pilgrm and Buddhist monks, who rely on others’ generosity. And I think I finally figured it out: He’s doing this as a game, really a scam. Like the post just above this one, others do this in order to be generous to others (monks give away their teaching, Peace Pilgrim gave talks for free). He just sponges off others and writes articles about it. Reprehensible.

  22. Battra92 says:

    I kind of wish that the tourists would stay out of Vermont. If they can do it under the guise of frugality, all the better.

    There are less and less real Vermonters. Too many flatlanders and skiers.

    I think on the same side of this coin is Rachel Ray and her $40 a Day show. She goes to some super expensive tourist trap place and then eats some nasty stuff and leaves a $0.05 tip. The show claims to show that good food can be had for cheap when in fact most of what she eats is cheap and unhealthy food (kind of like what she makes on her show but I digress.)

    For a more practical frugal travel idea, I offer that going to grocery stores instead of restaurants can save you a lot of money over the course of a trip.

    I agree with what others above are saying in that we need to not expand the term frugal to mean misers and TV show hosts.

    Frugal is when you control saving money. Cheap is when saving money controls you.

  23. J says:

    Battra92 —

    I really like your definition of frugality.

  24. Battra92 says:

    Thanks but it’s not of my own invention. I just can’t remember where I heard it. I want to save money so I can live better and use my money more wisely not so that I’m picking up food out of the dumpster so I can earn 2.5% interest on the $2.99 that the food was worth when good.

  25. Isela says:

    I have gone to Europe (Germany and Austria) for two weeks and spent around $1500 dollars (including airfare, hotel, food, tours, concerts, transportation, etc), my plane ticket was just $50 dollars round trip.
    I spent New Year´s in New York City, actually spent 5 nights in a cheap place ($50 dollars per night, bought food and keep it on the refrigerator at the room, used the subway ). I went to the main attractions (including the Metro, The Museum of Natural History, etc) , I bought my ticket using miles and paid $10 dollars for round trip. I did splurge on a ticket for Wicked and for and opera night at the Lincoln Center, but it was worth it.
    By the way, I live in Mexico.

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