The Source of Frugal Misery

Kevin writes in:

Your examples of how to live frugally make it sound like your life [is terrible]. Why are you sacrificing all happiness to save a buck? If I had your life, I’d be miserable. Live a little, dude.

Most of the frugal advice I give usually revolves around some clever substitutions or the replacement of a few habits. A few examples: I stopped going to the coffee shop every day. I started making my own laundry detergent instead of buying it. I started using the library and using PaperBackSwap instead of hitting the bookstore all the time. I started using Last.fm and Pandora instead of buying piles of CDs. I sold off most of my DVD collection and started renting DVDs. I started shopping for clothes at thrift stores. I subscribed to magazines I bought on the newsstands and killed subscriptions to magazines I didn’t read very often. I started trading used video games.

For many people, at least one change on that list will seem really painful. “I can’t imagine giving up my daily latte – it’s the spice of my life.” “My DVD collection is awesome – I love it!” “Nothing excites me more than a new book that’s mine!” “I love freshly-cleaned clothes with that Tide smell!”

And they conclude that frugality is misery.

Here’s the thing, though. The examples I gave above are the things that I did, not necessarily the things that will work for you.

I took a very serious look at my life and asked myself what I really valued.

I enjoyed watching a movie once a week, but the DVDs on my shelf didn’t really mean anything to me, so I just sold off my DVDs and moved to occasional rentals. Maybe you do enjoy your DVD collection – a big row of DVDs brings some real personal value to your life because you’re a movie buff who loves rewatching some of the great films you own. But perhaps it’s the experience of watching a new movie that you enjoy and you rarely rewatch those movies that you’ve bought. So… why not just sell them off, stop buying them, and use Netflix?

I went to the coffee shop every day, but I realized that it was more of a habit than a true source of enjoyment, so I stopped. Maybe your morning latte really is a key source of happiness for your day – it wakes you up, provides that perfect little rush, and makes you genuinely smile with that first taste, every time. For me, though, I realized that my enjoyment came from memories of sitting around coffee shops with my friends, not from that cup of coffee in front of me, so I stopped going every day.

Aside from a few clothes kept for special occasions, I really look at clothes as being functional. I’m happy in an old pair of jeans and a scruffy t-shirt – or whatever else happens to fit well and is clean. So why should I shop at an expensive clothes shop? I am tall, which means it can be hard to find clothes that fit well, but I can often find good stuff for just a buck or two at a thrift store.

Tide is not a personal value in my life. You might find value in the enzymes in commercial laundry detergent. For me, though, if something gets my clothes clean to the eye and to the nose, I’ll use it. Nothing’s cheaper than homemade laundry detergent and it’s not hard to make – I can make it while talking on the phone or playing with my kids. So why not?

I love to read and I love to book browse, but a bookshelf stuffed with books I’ve already read does nothing for me. Perhaps a library of well-loved books adds aesthetic appeal to your life (it does for my wife), but it doesn’t do much at all for me. So I started going to the library and I found that their book selection was way better than I thought. I also started using PaperBackSwap, trading away the books I had hoarded and getting fresh ones to read for about $2.50 a pop.

To me, frugality is all about figuring out what you really value. I don’t value a bookshelf full of books I’ve already read. I don’t value the latest clothes. I don’t value a shelf full of DVDs I’ve already seen. I don’t value store-bought laundry detergent.

I value other things. I value quality food, especially produced from local sources. I’ll happily pay more for eggs from local farmers and milk from the creamery down the road and beef bought directly from a rancher and vegetables at the farmers market. I’m also willing to invest in good kitchen equipment to prepare it. I value my family and experiences that we share. I won’t even think twice about buying tickets to the state fair for all of us or investing in the best child care I can find for my children or planning ahead for life-changing experiences for them (like spending a summer or two living abroad when they’re older). I value my work. I want tools that make writing simple and efficient for me and I’m happy to invest in those tools. I value helping out others that help me. If I find a service that I use, I’ll happily shell out to be a premium user, even if it’s just to support that service, and I don’t hesitate to tip for good service at restaurants or at other places.

But if I run across things that fall outside my values, I’m cheap. I don’t hesitate to buy generics. I’ll find every way possible to trim my energy bill. I’ll look for simple behavior changes that cut my usage of everything from toilet paper to shower water. I carefully plot and comparison shop for most of the items I buy. I could care less about luxury automobiles – what vehicle can I get the most miles out of for the dollar with some degree of reliability?

In my eyes, frugal misery comes about when people try to apply cost-cutting tactics in areas that have a high personal value for them. They love their morning coffee, hear talk about the “latte factor,” and hide. They are movie buffs and they watch two DVDs a night – mostly from their own collections – so the thought of trimming that collection down to “save money” sounds nightmarish. They really value going out on the town with their friends, so cutting back on their “going out” seems like the worst thing they can imagine.

We all value a certain handful of things quite a bit, and don’t value other areas nearly as much. Frugality means figuring out those things that you value and then cutting back hard in the areas you don’t value.

Because if you don’t value it in your life, why are you spending anything more than the minimum possible on it?

My response to Kevin is simple. How exactly are you enjoying life by spending money on things you don’t value?