Updated on 09.13.10

The Road Not Taken

Trent Hamm

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
to where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear;
though as for that, the passing there
had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no feet had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken

Every single day of our lives, we make choices that open some doors and close other ones.

We spend $40 on an evening out. It opens a social door, but it closes a door to a game of golf this weekend.

We focus on debt freedom. It opens a door to better monthly cash flow, but it closes the door to a lot of short term opportunities.

We have children. It opens the door to parenthood, but it closes the door on a lot of paths in life.

Many of the biggest choices we make in our lives close a lot of them. The choice to get married (or not). The choice to have children (or not). The choice to chase a certain career path. The choice to leave college. Yes, sometimes those choices open a lot of other doors for us, but often, our regret is mired in the doors that we’ve closed.

I believe in frugality because I believe it’s a door opener. The less you spend, the more free you are to choose the career path you want or to choose the lifestyle you want. It frees you from the constraints of indebtedness and teaches you life skills that you can apply no matter what you’re doing.

I’m frugal because I want fewer bills. I’m frugal because I want the ability to change my career path without having to worry as much about paying for everything. I’m frugal because I don’t want to be chained to a desk all day.

It might be that others find my goals and aspirations boring. My goal is to eventually move to the country and be as self-sufficient as possible so I can spend my later years doing volunteer work. I’d like to spend my later years helping severely disadvantaged children, a la charities like Jump for Joel, in whatever form that may take, whether it’s actually in Africa or other places helping the children or helping with fundraising here. Along that path, I want to be present for my children when they need me, and that doesn’t involve a job that ties me to my cell phone or requires me to constantly travel.

My ability to get there is paved with frugality. Every dime less that I spend is a dime closer to that goal. It’s closer to a paid-off mortgage. It’s closer to buying that country house, where I can raise chickens and goats and have a giant vegetable garden and a cellar to winterize what we save. It’s closer to being able to spend a lot of my time helping out such charitable groups.

I think everyone has a dream or two deep down inside of them that they’d love to take on. I’m sure your dream is an awesome one, one that makes you excited whenever you think about it, and it’s something that makes other life options seem really boring. That’s what you should be shooting for, regardless of what exactly that goal is. It’s a big giant life-affirming goal, and you should be chasing it with all your might.

Almost every dream is served by being frugal.

Why not just earn more? That’s certainly a big part of the equation as well. However, “earning more” is not something you can just turn on and off like a light switch. Earning more is often inherently tied to the individual talents and skill sets of the person involved, and paths to great earning success are as different as the snowflakes on a winter night.

Frugality, on the other hand, is universal. We all eat. We all need a roof over our heads. We all need clothes. There are ways to spend less in each of those areas, things that almost everyone can do. Plus, regardless of what happens to my income, I know that spending less will always help me out.

The goal is not to be cheap. The goal is to take where we’re at now and put us on a path that leads us to where we want to be, wherever that is.

Whatever you dream of, you inch closer to that every time you make the frugal choice.

That choice is up to you. Are you going to take the road less travelled?

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  1. Wesley says:

    I enjoy this analysis of the poem and agree with it completely. http://www.suite101.com/content/robert-frost-s-tricky-poem-a8712

    Here is an excerpt although I would encourage anybody to read the full article.

    “Those who interpret this poem as suggesting non-conformity take the word “difference” to be a positive difference. But there is nothing in the poem that suggests that this difference signals a positive outcome. The speaker could not offer such information, because he has not lived the “difference” yet.”

  2. Leah says:

    Maybe it’s the poetry nerd in me, but I’d like to point out that the “road less taken” isn’t actually less taken. reread this:

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    and having perhaps the better claim
    because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    though as for that, the passing there
    had worn them really about the same,

    The underlying message in this is that both roads are valid and what is required is that you must choose. In terms of finances, what this tells me is that inactivity itself is a choice. You can choose to be active or passive with your finances, and each of those routes leads to yet more possibilities. The key is to make an intentional choice and realize that your choices DO matter — sometimes you can’t go back again. (Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back.)

    Make your choices, live with it, and move on with life. if you come to lament your choice, make a different choice in the future. It’s far too easy for people to get stuck in a rut of high spending because of their past habits, but you are always able to make a different choice going forward.

  3. BirdDog says:

    Great post Trent!

  4. Laura in Seattle says:

    Right on. I brought a bag lunch from home today (second day in a row this week) because I’m trying to save my money to do more things I really enjoy, like going to conventions and taking trips. Adding this action to my morning routine has curtailed my “kick-around-before-work” time, but the money it keeps in my pocket is one more step toward something I want more than a lunch from the burger joint two blocks from my office.

  5. annkent says:

    This is the secret but it is so hard! Frugality is not the end in itself. The key is to link it to your dream because if frugality is not furthering your dream, then you are just living for money which really isn’t that different from living paycheck to paycheck or living with debt. Your sole focus is money. This is an important reminder. Thank you.

  6. Jaime says:

    I’m not as altruistic as you are. I don’t save for the sake of volunteering for charity. Nothing against volunteering but that’s not the reason I save.

    The reason I save is so I can be free from the man, when I save I don’t think I’m missing out I just think “hey I’m buying a little piece of freedom each time I save.”

    Having enough money even though we won’t end up like Warren Buffett will give us freedom. I know you tend to have your critics with people who say you focus too much on frugality but I think someone needs to focus on frugality.

    Different PF blogs give people different things. I’m all for earning more, everyone likes to earn more whenever they can. The problem with earning more is that it can take time for people to get there. I’ll use myself as an example, I work for a healthcare company as a CSR for $8.50/hour. I’m single, no kids, live with a roommate, I have no debt.

    Even without any debt, I’m currently trying to go to college so I can get my accounting degree. It takes time to earn more, it takes time to acquire skills. I don’t want to rush through my accounting degree just to graduate early, I want to take my time to really know accounting because I want to be good at what I do.

    Earning more is not as easy as people make it sound, people say “Oh go get a second job” I work 32 hours at my job already, and I’m trying to go to college at the same time. Its really tough, trying to study, and to go to work at the same time. btw, I’m not some 18 year old.

    When my paycheck comes, I can just look at it and see where I can save, frugality is something that you can do in the present, and while I am trying to educate myself in the present as well so I can have more earning power in the future, earning more money can take time.

    I suppose I could always get a second job, but then college would have to go and then I wouldn’t have any time to get an education and would be stuck working minimum wage forever.

  7. Jack Thomas says:

    I like your comment “The goal is not to be cheap.” Because sometimes you get what you pay for. I decided to save $20 and buy a cheap Iron. The “cheap” iron cost me $200 suit jacket when it malfunctioned and ruined the jacket!

    I threw out the cheap iron and invested an additional $20 over the cost of the cheap iron with no “malfunctions” since.

  8. Alexandra says:

    I wish life really were full of choices. I feel like it’s more of a rollercoaster ride though. You don’t get to pick much apart from whichever rollercoaster to ride. Having or not having children is rarely a choice. Between oops babies, infertility and pregnancy loss, biology is the one making choices, really. You can try to fight it, but good luck with that. The lucky ones who get and stay pregnant when, and only when, they want to, seem few and far between. Even in adoption you are at the mercy of social workers, and/or birthmothers. Only those who really don’t want kids and don’t mind aborting get any choice at all.

  9. Mark says:

    One of my favorite posts Trent. Life certainly is about choices, not all right or wrong- but just different with outcomes. It is the thought that goes into the decision that is important and so few of us put quality thought into the process. As Leah mentions above- not making a choice is in fact a choice and far too many people do that as well and that is can be equally crippling to our goals.

  10. shweta santosh says:

    i really wonderful post……….thank you

  11. shweta santosh says:

    i really wonderful post……….thank you

  12. Mukul Poonia says:

    I liked the counter to the idea, why not earn more.I agree being frugal is not being cheap.I also strongly belive in living a simple life.

  13. Becca says:

    Frugality is not “limiting,” it is “liberating.”

  14. Rachel says:

    Lovely post. I think that sometimes, when a choice will close a lot of doors, it seems daunting, though if we actually stop to think about it, we would never have taken a lot of those options anyway.

  15. Kevin says:

    Good post. Dave Ramsey preaches the same thing, only he words it as “Live like no one else, so later, you can live like no one else.”

  16. DrLT says:

    The hard part for me is balancing those long-term goals and aspirations with living in the short-term. I recently came to the realization that what I’ve done is to focus all my efforts on my long-term professional goals (getting a PhD and becoming a professor) to the point that I’ve been mentally living in the future all the time and denying myself recreation and short-term enjoyments and focus on the present–which has taken a huge toll on my parenting and relationships. We’ve raised our kids, basically, on the fly and it hasn’t worked out well. At the same time, financially, I’ve been spending for the short term and not planning for the long term. So now we have a mountain of student loan debt that is, ironically, going to stand between us and the long-term goals because even though I finally have the PhD, if I can’t get a professor job soon (and in this economy, it’s a long shot), I’ll have to take something else just to pay the bills.!! Somewhere in there is a balance–working for the long-term while living in the present. I don’t know where it is, but just being aware of the issue is a big step towards finding it.

  17. Joe M says:

    Good post Trent. I’m not always a hard core frugalist but I think you’ve made a very valid point here. For me, eliminating debt and having savings is about having choices and not living in fear of what may come (job loss, emergency,etc.) I also feel my work and the sacrifices I have chosen are laying the foundation for a better future for my children in that I plan to be able to pay for their education, allowing them to start their adult life with job skills and without debt.

  18. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    Beautiful post Trent. I’m getting to the point where kids might be coming soon and I now see your viewpoint quite clearly.

  19. Great post!
    When I decided to tackle my debt I went out and got a better paying job and than worked at climbing up that ladder. In the end it got me more stress and less time doing other things I enjoyed. I did pay off a huge chunk of my debt though.
    What has truly enriched my life is cutting back so I don’t work as much.

  20. Des says:

    @Leah – From a fellow nerd: reread the last line:

    “I took the one less traveled by,
    and that has made all the difference”

    The first path was the worn one, the second was the path that “was grassy and wanted wear”, which is the one he ultimately chose.

  21. As great as this poem is, I hate it for how many high school yearbooks in which it has appeared. Yeah, that 17 year-old has really made the deep choice.

    Okay, cynicism and judgment aside, good post. Yet another reminder of what is important and what is possible by living frugally and being honest with ourselves. We are defined by our choices, but certain lifestyles and values can give us more options.

  22. Raghu Bilhana says:

    Oh boy, you have been writing superb articles of late.

  23. Jessica says:

    @Becca – I concur! Great post again Trent! I am going out less because of my personal goals.

  24. Tracy says:

    Very thought provoking post! I was really struck by this line:

    “The goal is to take where we’re at now and put us on a path that leads us to where we want to be, wherever that is.”

    That’s something I’ve been working on lately in my own life, but hadn’t looked at it from the frugality angle. I will be now!

  25. Shana says:

    Another J4J shout-out! Trent, you are so good to us! Thank you! And this post was great, btw. One of my favorites.

  26. Noga says:

    I plan to share this post with my kids ages 9, 10 and 12. We have been talking alot about choices and this is a great frame for further discussions. Thanks.

  27. Leah says:

    @Des, my key indicator is “but as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same.” This isn’t choosing the difficult or less used path over the common one — it’s just about making the choice.

    @ Alexandra, your comment sounds like it carries a lot of pain. I’m sorry you feel that way, but life still is a serious of choices. For example, I choose to take my birth control at the same time, every day, regularly. I choose to use a back-up method. There are ways to make choices about kids, or about purchasing, or about anything else in life. Yes, of course life does throw in curveballs. Despite the best planning, sometimes things happen. The important thing is to once again look for the choices you have in each situation and evaluate those choices.

  28. Roberta says:

    Regarding Alexandra’s post, #8. Life is mostly choices, in my experience. Some are small and have drastic effects, some are small and have effects by accrual over time, and some are huge and turn on one choice, such as to take a job or not, to move or not, to go to this school or that school and so on. It is very dangerous to go through life feeling as if one is on a rollercoaster, rather than on a path whose directions we choose. We can choose to conceive children or not conceive them. Seeing life as a series of choices, conscious choices, made most often freely, is empowering. For those of us who have at one time or other chosen badly, and I include myself in this, accepting that the bad thing that happened resulted from my wrong choices feels painful at first. Afterwards, however, looking forward, the pain subsides when I realize that it can be avoided in the future by making better choices. So, there is hope in this realization.

    The poem DOES provide conflicting views about how travelled is the path. Yes, after the speaker’s walk, the path is worn about the same as the one he did not take, and yet, in the final stanza he says, “I took the one less traveled by.” It’s true that the poem does not indicate, as other posts have noted, whether this difference is positive or negative. M. Scott Peck, author of “The Road less Traveled,” took it to be a positive difference, but the poem is silent on this point.

  29. Landon says:

    Great post, Trent. Once I started writing about frugality I’ve struggled to communicate to friends the difference between frugal and cheap. One friend in particular is obsessed with trying to prove that what I am advocating is a less enjoyable life…

  30. This really resonates with me… I think the key is to think about what that REALLY big dream is, and put together the building blocks to get there. I find that a lot of people have a dream, maybe not 100% refined, but they don’t have the discipline or know the path to get there. Someone might want to start a business but have no idea what it really takes to do that. Someone might want to backpack all 7 continents (real tough on the 7th!) but never save enough to get started.

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