I read an interesting post by Sarah over at Smile and Conquer about why she doesn’t consider herself frugal.
As she puts it, “In my mind, there’s a certain level of deprivation that goes with being frugal. That’s the part that doesn’t speak to me. I would rather frame my spending decisions in terms of balance or trade-offs instead of looking for ways to cut back.”
The defining factor
Once again we come down to how frugality is misdefined. Frugality isn’t about living without. Sure, it can be; but it’s not the entire point of the endeavor.
To me, frugality is about living intentionally with your money. Yes, that would include saving where you can, but it doesn’t preclude spending on things that matter.
You might find that you can get all or most of your TV shows from Hulu,Netflix and/or Amazon Prime. In which case, you can cut the cord and save a ton of money. Or you might have shows that are only on cable channels or perhaps you love your sports packages too much to ever stray from cable/satellite service. In which case, cutting the cord just isn’t a good option for your version of frugality.
You might shop grocery sales, combine them with coupons and create a huge stockpile whenever your favorite foods go on sale. Or maybe coupons give you a headache, you’re on a specialty diet or you don’t have room in your apartment to stash 20 boxes of your favorite cereal. Or perhaps you simply see food as one of your main indulgences and don’t want to limit yourself. In which case, your type of frugality will skip the traditional food cost-cutting hacks.
You might compare cell service providers and discover that you can get the same service (often using the same cell towers) for a lot less. If so, it makes sense to switch and save money. On the other hand, you may decide that you don’t want to worry about keeping your data usage down. Or perhaps you just use too much data to make alternative companies a good deal. Well, then your frugality won’t include switching to a different cell provider.
The point is that everyone’s priorities are slightly different, so frugality is a spectrum. This means that you can be frugal without paring down in every single area of your life.
And frugality certainly doesn’t require you to be completely deprived. If it did, no frugal blogger would have an iPhone. Heck, many of them could probably do without their cell phones entirely. But some bloggers have decided that the phone itself and having the service gives them enough enjoyment to be valuable. So they find room in the budget.
(Not) going to the extreme
And how did they find room in the budget? Balances and trade-offs, exactly what Sarah admitted to using:
“I rank my expenses on a hierarchy of wants. I’m willing to cut out eight at the bottom (having a bigger house) to spend more on wants at the top (travelling).”
That sounds pretty frugal to me, which she seems to anticipate because she concludes the paragraph with:
“Maybe some people would classify that as frugal, but I think you need to be more extreme.”
No, Sarah, you don’t. We know this because there’s a whole type of frugality called “extreme frugality” which means that the regular version doesn’t need to include rabidly paring down costs in every area.
Frugality doesn’t need to, as she put it, cut out as many non-essential costs as possible.
Frugal folks do prioritize our needs over our wants. But if we’re lucky enough to have money left over after needs are covered, then we start looking at our wants and deciding what best creates happiness in our lives. If something doesn’t bring us enough joy for the money spent, we cut it out in favor of saving the money for what does — the same way she’d forgo a bigger house for the joy of traveling.
Living for the now
Another of Sarah’s points is that she doesn’t want to put her life on hold until she reaches some abstract net worth goal. But once again, that’s not what frugality is about.
Frugality may be a step on the road to a healthy net worth, but the practice itself isn’t about where you save your money. It’s about being aware of where your money is going and maximizing the bang you get for your buck. If that’s not living in the now, I don’t know what is.
And as already discussed, frugality is less about cutting down to the bone and more about spending intentionally. Yes, she spent what most of us would consider an obscene amount of money on playoff tickets for herself and her boyfriend. But she could do that because she had the money put away — and that money was only there because she’d prioritized saving over spending, even if it was just in a fun money account.
FI/RE vs. FI
Another bit of evidence Sarah offers against her being frugal: She doesn’t want to retire early. But since when is that a requirement for frugality? If it were, FI/RE blogs wouldn’t be differentiated from regular frugality blogs.
Not to mention that she does want to be financially independent, and the first half of FI/RE is the most integral. You can’t retire early (voluntarily) without being financially independent to some extent. So saying that you’re not interested in FI/RE but are interested in FI is a weak argument against being classified as frugal.
But what if even FI weren’t on her to-do ist? How does that have anything to do with whether you’re frugal?
Given our bumpy financial road — huge medical bills, a late start on steady work and no access to a 401(k), let alone company matching plans — I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to retire. And I certainly don’t advocate for FI/RE. But I still consider us frugal.
Why does this bother me?
The real question, I suppose, is why this sort of declaration frustrates me so much.
I suppose part of it is finding out that to this day frugality is still so misunderstood. The fact that a personal finance blogger is doing the misunderstanding is just salt in the wound.
But it’s also because of the fact that she’s describing a lot of how Tim and I live, and I bristle at the idea that we’re not frugal. We’re not always classically frugal, but we’ve certainly got gloriously imperfect frugality down to a T.
Sure, we haven’t gotten rid of every non-essential expense. But we did cut the cord (which has saved us thousands) and get rid of a pricey home phone. We also pay less than $25 a month for our cell phone, have an affordable car that we plan to drive until it dies, avoid non-mortgage debt, and generally try to nix lifestyle inflation (with admittedly varying degrees of success).
Of course, I’m still always looking for ways to make our expenses smaller. But you also reach a point when you’re not willing to cut any more, so these days we’re down more to trade-offs than things we can remove from the budget. Which is exactly what Sarah does. So if she’s not frugal, then neither are we. And I simply can’t agree with that.
Do you think Sarah is frugal? What do you consider the defining factor of frugality?