Recently, I spent $45 on a night out with friends. And you know what? I consider my frugal cred intact. Not because three of my four purchased drinks that night were bar specials ($4 each, baby!) but because even when you’re frugal not everything you do has to be frugal.
Ac-custom-ed to debate
This came to mind when I saw a recent Twitter discussion about custom furniture. A blogger was declaring a custom piece of furniture to be frugal because, among other things, they saved at least a couple of hundred on materials by waiting for a sale.
To be clear: I’m sure they did save a bunch. In fact, I bet — short of making it themselves — they got the best price possible.
But the fact is that custom furniture, especially this particular type of furniture, is simply not frugal.
And that’s okay!
Because if you plan and save for it, a luxury is a perfectly acceptable way to spend. After all, it’s your money. And moreover, one purchase does not define whether you’re frugal.
A case study
My mom soaks beans, reuses baggies, takes advantage of Kroger senior day, uses rewards programs like Swagbucks, keeps clothes until they wear out (then uses them as cleaning rags), buys discounted gift cards, keeps the house at 55-60 in the winter and so on and so forth.
She also takes my cousin’s kids out for the occasional fast food meal, goes out with a friend to lunch once a week, gets her hair colored and of course buys plane tickets to Phoenix to come see me at least twice a year (when she runs out of buddy passes).
These two versions of her spending can coexist because frugality isn’t always about saving for saving’s sake. As Mom likes to say, she saves where she can so she can spend where she wants. She doesn’t turn herself inside out trying to frame something as frugal. (Though she makes a good case for strategic pizza.)
No, Mom accepts and even embraces the fact that not all areas of her life are as cheap as they could be. Because she doesn’t want to live that way, and she’s worked hard enough (and is lucky enough) that she doesn’t have to.
All or nothing?
So why do so many frugal bloggers feel the need to justify everything as frugal? It’s as though they believe the smallest trespass — even when it’s not a trespass so much as a carefully thought-out choice — will ruin their reputation as thrifty. As though there were no space in between perfect frugality and spendthrift-ness.
But frugality isn’t binary. It isn’t just black or white, frugal or unfrugal. There are all sorts of gray areas — or at least there’d better be because I pride myself on practicing a gloriously imperfect form of frugality.
I don’t cook, but I do spend just $5-6 a day on food six days a week (most weeks). I don’t use Mint Mobile (yet), but I’m still spending $25 or less a month on cell service through Ting. I do get my hair colored but at a beauty school. I could go on, but you get the idea.
There are also things I’m flat-out not frugal on. I get my lip waxed for a ridiculous $12 a session (once a month, but still…). I eat out once a week at trivia. I go out for drinks about twice a month, to the tune of $40 to $60 at a time.
But I don’t think those things negate the fact that I cut the cord, use coupons, bulk buy during sales, shop through cash back sites like Mr. Rebates, get most of my clothes from thrift stores, use rewards credit cards, pay less than $5 for my landline (yay Ooma!), use an old iPhone 4S that I got for free, etc.
There’s more to it
If frugality were all-or-nothing… Well, no one could keep up, let alone me. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the energy/inclination to make my own laundry soap and separate two-ply toilet paper into two, one-ply rolls.
But I suppose it’s not just about failing to live up to frugal perfection. Everyone agrees that that’s impossible.
No, the real issue here is that some people are unable to admit that they’re making unfrugal choices. (“Unfrugal” here, I should point out, is different than “spendthrift.” The latter implies a lack of concern with money. The former is about making conscious, informed purchases that happen to cost more than might be strictly necessary.)
Are they in denial because they’re afraid of losing face in the personal finance blogosphere? I think that’s part of it. But while you can’t escape the occasional troll, the PF blogging community is awfully supportive. To prove that, you only have to look to Rose Colored Water’s piece on why she bought a high-end treadmill. She didn’t try to call it frugal. She simply explained its benefits and how carefully she had thought out the purchase. Made sense to me — and plenty of other readers.
Irreconcilable differences (with yourself)
So I think this is less external; I think it’s more about internalized guilt. It’s difficult for some people to admit that, as much as they pride themselves on being frugal, they’re doing something that doesn’t fit the moniker.
And that’s dangerous. Not just because it’s important to be honest with yourself, but also because, if you’re not careful, frugality can become a central defining characteristic for yourself.
Now theoretically that’s not a bad thing, perhaps it’s even desirable to keep you on your toes. But in reality, it leads to situations like this, where people can’t reconcile their self-definition with their desired action. And financial cognitive dissonance is a bitch.
Planned for, paid for
It’s these times when these people need to look to Mom’s mantra. Frugality should be about mindful spending. Which means that you can be frugal overall while still buying the occasional luxury item — or just an item you don’t necessarily need. If you make room for it in the budget, then what’s the big deal?
Some frugal women spend extra money on nice makeup, some otherwise-thrifty folks find designer clothes make them happy and, yes, others might find joy in a piece of furniture built exactly to their specifications. As long as there’s a plan in place to pay for the luxuries (that doesn’t include a high-interest credit card payment plan), buying those things doesn’t negate the buyers’ overall frugality.
So just admit when you’re not being frugal. It’s freeing. Trust me.
What’s the last luxury you allowed yourself? Did it make you feel less than frugal?