Updated on 10.15.07

Your Money or Your Life: The American Dream – On A Shoestring

Trent Hamm

YMOYLThis is the fifteenth part of The Simple Dollar Book Club reading of Your Money or Your Life. Want to know more?

This chapter is about frugality – there’s really no way around it. In their words:

Frugality is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.

I really, really like that definition. It expresses, succinctly and clearly, the difference between frugal and cheap. Frugality, in the broader sense, doesn’t have that much to do with money. A frugal person doesn’t object in the least to spending significant money on an item provided that item serves a clear purpose in their life and provides serious value.

I also like the quote that “to be frugal means to have a high joy-to-stuff ratio.” That pretty much sums it up – if you’re an avid cook, it’s much more frugal to spend $150 on one kitchen knife that will really do its work than ten knives that will work so-so. Even more, if you don’t spend much time in the kitchen, one cheap general-purpose knife will likely do the trick instead of a set of them that will just gather dust.

The focus here is on creative frugality, though – not just blindly following a checklist of things to do to be “cheap.” It all comes back to that calculation of one’s true hourly wage – how can you extract the most enjoyment possible out of each hour of life energy spent working?

Much of the rest of the chapter focuses on a ton of suggestions along those lines, but the first one, entitled “One Sure Way To Save Money,” is a real knockout.

Stop trying to impress other people.

That’s it. Who really cares what the neighbors think about your car? Is their opinion of the car you drive going to alter your life in a negative fashion?

I used to be rather attached to the opinions others held of me, but I realized that quite often I came across as more genuine when I just really didn’t care what they thought. For example, I don’t talk to people unless I want to, for example, and thus when I do talk, it comes off as truly genuine.

I often get frustrated when I see people prepping themselves to go out in public for an hour or more and it’s justified by saying that it’s because they want to impress others. That, to me, is a terrible justification for such effort. If it makes you feel great, then it’s a worthwhile expenditure of your time and life – if it’s just for others, you’re letting the idle opinions of idle people devour you life. I bathe myself and use hygiene products because they make me feel good about myself and also improve the lives of those people most valuable to me – and thus I view the time as valuable. Otherwise, who cares?

The idea is that you should spend the money you make above the line of base subsistence actually enriching yourself and the lives of others around you in a way that means something – and conspicuous consumption really doesn’t mean much of anything at all.

Tomorrow, we’ll continue chapter six, “The American Dream – On A Shoestring,” focusing on the section “Ten Sure Ways To Save Money.” This section appears on pages 171 through 181 in my paperback version of the book.

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  1. rhbee says:

    I have spent the last few days going over my own system for keeping track. It is one that I have spent at least twenty years perfecting. It was slow going trying to compare my system with the charting method from the book. But necessary. I value my method and I didn’t want to change it just because. I really wanted to find out how similar it is and was to the one developed by Dominguez and Robin. I list; they chart. I reassess the lists; they plot. Same result, I know where I am and what my money is doing.

    Which brings us to chapter six:

    First, the definition: “Frugality is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.” I like it. But the authors seem to take the definition as an edict meaning “we are to enjoy what we have.” It seems to me that the person saying it like that means that this is a rule to be followed religiously.

    It may be that here in lies the contradiction that has been confusing my feelings about this book. The authors are taking a rational approach to understanding how to balance a person’s life. But behind this plan there seems to be an intent to bring in some doctrine, almost a hint of 12 steps.

  2. Nadine says:

    My perception wasn’t at all like rhbee’s. People who are mindful of what they have and what to get maximum value from things they may acquire are not following an edict. They are just trying to make wise use of resources. I still make mistakes with some of my purchases. That becomes apparent to me when I clean out my closet. However, I make far fewer mistakes as time goes on. I am an avid cook just as Trent is, and I have sworn never to buy another cheap knife! To me, that is being frugal.

  3. ejp in sd says:

    One of the last comments in this post was a good one, and really hit home: “Stop trying to impress other people.” It sounds so simple, but it’s hard sometimes, and definitely something I can relate to. I’m driving a ’92 Acura that’s still running strong @ 180,000 miles, but has a ‘sunkissed’ paint job (southern California sun is brutal on paint jobs!). After a recent promotion, I’m making $70K+ a year, and fighting pressure from people who say things like “Congratulations! Are you getting a new car?”. Don’t get me wrong – I’d love a new car, and can afford it – but my perspective on this (which admittedly, took years to gain) is that it makes more sense right now to keep my reliable little car with $0 payments, instead of trading up to fit a certain image. But sometimes it’s difficult, when it feels like everyone and his brother are leasing (!!) a new BMW. :)

  4. Avlor says:

    I also have a different take than rhbee on the “Frugality is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.” I think the author is simply trying turn the current generalized perspective of frugality on its head. And I love it! Even trying to be what I thought was frugal, I wasn’t always enjoying and using what I had in the best way I could. (Case in point my freezer. But I’m working on this and enjoying it.) This whole book seems to be about attitude shift.

    (I just got my copy from the library a few days ago and am catching up in my reading. I’m glad we aren’t doing big reading sections!)

  5. infix says:

    ejp: My 87 Acura has almost as many miles as yours. I’ve had it for 20 years now. It’s still a great car and I have no intention of going in hock to get a new car (buying or leasing). The great thing about old cars is that you only need liability insurance. It’s also a good idea to have AAA though I haven’t had to use it for quite some time.

    Maybe what you could do is get a new paint job for your car – you could probably get it done for $500 – a lot cheaper than buying new or leasing.

    At any rate, I suspect your car still has a few years of good service left in it. Don’t let anyone make you think you need to get a new one. When people make those comments, just try to think of all the money you’re saving and how much less of your life is being spent on cars.

  6. Peter says:

    One of the toughest problems with enjoying the value of what you have is passing that attitude to your children. Trying to tone down the grandparents, aunts, and uncles, who think they are being “nice” or within their “rights” to spoil your children is a tough one. We finally got my MIL to realize she was overdoing it when my wife told my then 5 year old daughter to take better care of a new Christmas toy or she’d break it, and she boldy replied, in front of my MIL, “Who cares, Grandma will just buy me a new one.” After that my MIL finally began listening to us and clearing purchases for the kids with us first.

    Still, lets face it, the grass always appears greener when it’s someone elses lawn. You are fighting the advertising juggernaut that repeatedly tells you that you have to have the latest and greatest, that you have to envy what your neighbor has acquired, and that even as you are just getting used to what you have, you need the next generation to be truely functional. Look at cell phones. Throw out your old cell phone, it doesn’t have a camera. Now throw that one out because it doesn’t have internet capability. Now ditch it because it doesn’t duel as an MP3 player. What it doesn’t play movies? Get rid of that sucker and buy the latest model.

    It is hard to resist the siren call and value what you have because of the throw away attitude of the society. But as I’m always telling my kids (and hence reminding myself) no matter what they say or what they claim, they all only want one thing, your money. The corellary to that, given the above discussion on older cars (drove my Lebaron for 15 years and my Voyager Minivan is going on 13), is lots of people are very generous and more than happy in helping you find ways to spend your money.

  7. Stephan F- says:

    Cheap can be dangerous too.

    We were helping my nephews family can several bushels of apple they picked themselves. But all they had for knives were some extra cheap ginsu types from their wedding. Good enough for light day to day stuff maybe but not for a major canning operation like this. After half a bushel of apples I thought my hand was going to fall off. Trying to get a straight cut was impossible the blade was so weak it wobbled as you cut.

    The next day I brought our good knife a 12″ Wusthof that allowed us to slice our way through the apples like a food processor. It was great, His wife even said, “wow, that works way better.”

    A good sharp knife by itself saved us about an hour, which is worth quite a bit. Also the safety factor was ay higher, we all had to rotate through cutting the apples because our hands were getting tired and the risk of injury was pretty high because of the cheap knife.

  8. rhbee says:

    I guess what I am reacting to is the fervor with which some people adopt an idea. Vegan dog-loving freaks that can’t understand why everybody doesn’t adopt a dog and eat organic and green. I have run into enough of these card carrying believers and their save the world belief systems to last me several life times. The thing is that though systems like this one, and mine, work great for individuals and small groups they haven’t apparently worked for the world at large. For every step I take, 200 people drive there, for every reusable bag I buy, 100 still choose plastic, for every compost heap, recycled can and bottle, for every use I drain from every joyful drop of living, someone, no everyone, else seems to be saying “Yipee! More for us. More, More, More!”

    The reason I really like this book is because 17 years later people like Trent and the rest of us are still working with its ideas. And because of the internet more and more people around the world are likely to encounter these ideas, too. But the reason I don’t like this book is that it is 17 years later and the complaint is the same while the world we live in is far worse. This book reminds me of just how deep the denial runs in our culture.

  9. yvie says:


    I think it takes generations to change attitudes. And eventually people will have to. When the depression came around, people scrimped and saved because they had no choice. I can only think that our present economy is unsustainable and therefore people will be forced into the three R’s. We at least will be old hats at it.

  10. Rachel says:

    I have looked for this book for some time with no success, but I would really love to read it. But in my frugal walk I have learned that total frugality is not so good for me. I enjoy going to the movies once in a while, even though I groan at what it cost for the experience, the ticket and the coke and popcorn. But I am brought back to some of the happiest moments in my childhood, which was going to the movies with my dad, who looked forward to it as much as I did. I also love to cook, so not eating out is not a problem for me. It also takes me back to my childhood, which was good, wholesome at home dinners prepared by my mother, grandmother and aunts. Even in the Tightwad Gazette, Amy Dacyzn says that the way she lives and raises her children is the same as the way she was raised.

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