On Frugality

Let me start by saying that the word “frugal” is sadly an ugly one. It does not roll off the tongue and it just plain doesn’t sound good. Unfortunately, in addition to its unpoetic pronunciation, the word frugal has gotten a bad rap in American culture. We’re a materialistic society, obsessed with “keeping up with the Joneses” and having all the latest and greatest new toys. The word frugality evokes images of poverty and miserly people living in squalor. This has begun to shift after the Great Recession left so many peoples’ purses that much lighter, but I think that frugality and thrift are still taboo subjects.

Frugality defined

I’d like to go back to what frugality really is, not the meaning our culture has ascribed to it. Merriam-Webster defines frugal as follows:

“Careful about spending money or using things when you do not need to; using money or supplies in a very careful way; simple and plain.”

A few key words pop out to me: careful, need, simple. Frugality is about being careful with what you have. It is about recognizing what you need (and what you don’t need) and meeting those needs efficiently and economically.

“Frugal” does not mean “cheap”

The word frugal is not, as many people might believe, a synonym for “cheap.” Merriam-Webster defines cheap as “at minimum expense.” Even more so than the word frugal, cheap has come to mean not only “at minimum expense,” but often is synonymous with low quality, off-brands, being in poor taste, etc. Neither these cultural associations nor the actual definition of the word cheap is synonymous with the word frugal. The frugal choice is often not the least expensive choice. I will talk about this in future posts, but decisions to invest in things like health and education may be costly in the short term but can save you tons in the long run.

So why are “cheap” and “frugal” so often associated? I honestly don’t know. I think it has to do with our cultural determination of worth and our ideas about value. Americans often value large houses, fancy cars, and other things that are not cheap. We are a culture of conspicuous consumers, and those who practice frugality often eschew this tradition.

A lot of millennials are bucking this trend, choosing to avoid buying cars and homes in favor of participation in the “sharing economy” and spending money on experiences instead of things. I will be interested to see how the cultural associations with worlds like frugal, thrifty and cheap evolve as millennials come to dominate consumer culture.

How to be frugal

Going back to the true definition of frugal, I think that there is a lot of merit in trying to live a more frugal life. For me, a frugal life is one where your spending aligns with your priorities and you derive maximum pleasure from your money because you spend it in a way that matches your values. This requires that you be honest with yourself about what you do and do not value. It also requires that you know yourself well enough to separate what you truly value from what society tells you to value.

Am I frugal?

I’d like to be. But I have to be honest, I’m not totally frugal yet. You might have figured out from the title of this blog that I am not exactly sure of what I am looking for in life. In order to spend frugally in a way that aligns with your values, you first have to know what your values are. I have a general idea of my values, but I am certain that I still spend money in ways that make society happy, not me.

I can tell that I do this because sometimes I get that gut feeling when I look back at a credit card statement or check my accounts on Mint. I see that dinner out or that new nick-knack for the house and I realize that I didn’t need it, don’t want it, and am now stuck paying for it. Part of my goal in writing this blog is to help myself and others become more intentional with spending so that those feelings of regret come less frequently, or ideally not at all.

The moral of the story

The topic of frugality may still be somewhat taboo, but I think the conversation is changing. For me, frugality is about spending intentionally on the things that you personally value. Societal, peer and familial pressure should not guide your spending decisions any more than they guide other decisions in your personal life. Frugality isn’t cheap; frugality is smart.

Do you consider yourself to be frugal? How do you practice frugality?

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