I feel like this statement is going to be controversial, which it really shouldn’t be, but…
Money is only ever a tool. It quite literally can never be an end itself. Yes, even if your only goal is to have a bunch of money in an account. More on that later.
I’m writing this because more people — especially those loudly espousing online what the “right” money moves are — need to understand this concept.
The Tao of frugality
Unfortunately, some people are strict with their spending out of necessity. They save everywhere they can just to make ends meet. Others save everywhere they can to build a big bank balance.
But many people, including myself, are willing to pay (even the current inflated amounts) to live the life we want. And contrary to what some folks would say, that’s still a form of frugality.
Because the frugality isn’t just about saving money. It’s about using your money strategically, about making conscious decisions about how you spend your money. As my mom likes to say, you save where you can to spend on what matters.
Maybe you don’t feel you get sufficient value out of cable/a plethora of streaming services — but that money put into a vacation would have a huge emotional ROI. Or maybe you want to revel in the nicer (but pricier) yarn for your copious knitting projects. Or on power tools/materials to build things. Or like me, maybe you just really enjoy nights out with friends and cool-but-overpriced specialty drinks.
The value you get from your spending doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. And as contradictory as it seems, you can still be practicing frugality, even as you splurge on some things.
An important redefinition
Unfortunately, a lot of people in the personal finance world seem to have forgotten that. Or maybe they never knew it to begin with. Maybe to them frugality has always been and will always be about hoarding all the pennies they’ve pinched.
The problem with this narrow definition is that it’s causing far too many personal finance-minded folks to vociferously opine online about other people’s spending. In the espousers’ minds, if it’s not saved for (what they see as) prudent money goals, the outlays are stupid and/or myopic. The people making the purchases are mindless consumers.
But here’s the thing: A higher bank balance actually isn’t the point of money.
And I want to be very clear here : I don’t mean that it’s not just the point of money. I mean that saving any amount of funds is literally not the point of money and can ‘t actually be a real goal.
What money really is
I’m gonna say it again: Money exists solely as a tool.
Arguably, the whole concept of money only exists because we have limitations and thus have to be interdependent.
After all, we can’t grow/raise all of our food sources and make the materials for all of our clothes and turn those materials into clothes and build our own shelter and create our own transportation and teach the next generation everything they need to know — you get the idea. We can’t do everything from scratch, so we need other people around to provide us with what we can’t.
And except in some very rare societal settings like communes,* people won’t give you things out of the goodness of their heart. Because they also have things they need someone else to provide.
Thus the concept of barter came about. Items and services had value, so they were traded for other items/services that had similar value. But presumably people eventually got tired of figuring out how to make sure they were trading for exactly equally valuable goods and services; and I imagine it’s quite a drag to try to shave the right amount of gold of that bar you have sitting around or to find a small enough gemstone for exact change. So eventually the idea of purchasing value was transferred to bits of paper and mainly non-precious metals.
*And even in communes, arguably goods and services still have value in the sense that you only get to share in the product of other people’s efforts because you yourself have contributed. So it’s still a type of barter system.
Money is never an end in itself
I included that little abbreviated history because I think it’s the best way to show — starkly — that money can only ever a means to an end. Its sole purpose and value lies in what you can get for it.
So money can help with your goals, but money itself can never be an actual goal.
Some people are probably ready to argue this point. After all, if someone is hell-bent on reaching a certain bank account balance, how could the goal be anything but money?
Well, because their goal is still only tangentially about the money itself. Instead, they’re focused on what that dollar figure represents, what it will give to them. Specifically, it’ll provide them with a sense of security, knowing that all of that money help them afford the myriad and inevitable unexpected expenses life brings.
So… sorry, folks, having the goal of keeping money on hand is still just a method of money as a tool. In this case, one that gives you a sense of financial stability.
In fact, arguably, money is never more a tool than when you’re saving money just to keep in a bank account. Because then you’re usmg it as a tool twice: once as a way to feel less anxious about the financial vagaries of an entropy-inclined world, and again when it comes time to pay for those aforementioned inevitable financial surprises.
Saving is still good
Obviously, none of this is to say that you should only spend money and never save it. Having a buffer against unexpected expenses is still a smart goal.
But a lot of people’s minds are going to revolt against the concept I’m offering up, so I just really need to hammer home that money is (and can only ever be) at tool. Never an end in and of itself.
And once you accept that… Well, here’s where I need judgy PF folks to listen up:
If money is only a tool to build the life we want, and if different people place value on different things, then it’s well nigh impossible to fairly judge how other people spend their money.
Yes, okay, there are people who make objectively egregious mistakes. Some people not only make a mathematically suboptimal choice in using their money, but also fail to get a good emotional ROI from the spending. Or an emotional ROI that turns out to be too fleeting compared the long-term effects of their spending.
So yes, those are bad.
But if we’re talking about people out there plugging along, getting by, with their only sin being that they spend on things you don’t personally value? You need to let it go.
Actually, no, it’s more than that.
You need to let it go without saddling up your high horse and venting frequently/at length about how stupid you’ve decided they’re being.
Because they don’t have to justify their choices to you.
A few years ago, Miranda Marquit wrote an excellent post called “Do you deserve nice things?”
In it, she examines society’s very problematic attitude about who is “allowed” to have something nice.
Why, she asks, do we feel like someone who’s rich (wealth that may indeed be from hard work, but could just as easily be inherited or made by less-than-savory means) “deserves” something nice more than someone working on their feet all day at a minimum wage job?
And if we’re talking about “earning” nice things, why has the person working an 40-hours-a-week office job “earned” some indulgence more than the person working 60 to 80 hours a week (again, probably on their feet)?
Sure, we can all agree that (mathematically speaking) it’s financially imprudent for someone to buy something they don’t strictly need if they struggle to make ends meet.
But that’s not the wording that gets used.
No, we hear about how poor people need to stop acting like they “deserve nice things” and that they haven’t “earned” a non-necessity. And we’re told they shouldn’t have something nice, not because they’re not working hard but instead because their hard work earns less than other people’s.
The toll it takes
In the piece, Miranda also points out that low-income folks are exhausted by the long-term effects of being in constant crisis mode. And even more enervating, they know that their future probably won’t be any better.
So beyond judging people for choices made at a level of decision fatigue most of us can’t begin to fathom, if we judge low-income folks for buying anything that isn’t utterly essential, we’re effectively saying that it’s okay for people to go their whole lives never having had any indulgence.
That’s… quite an attitude to have about your fellow human beings.
And if you truly believe that, you’d best go find some pearls to clutch as I tell you about a tradition some of my relatives had.
According to my mom, these folks barely scraped by on Social Security benefits. But each month, the day their checks arrived, they’d take a taxi into town, eat at a diner, then take a taxi back.
Could they, by traditional personal finance metrics, afford this? Of course not.
But these people lived in a small town, weren’t in the best of health, and didn’t get out much. Consequently, that monthly meal in town was one of the few bright spots they had to look forward to.
So does anyone really feel comfortable saying they were wrong for a once-a-month indulgence? Would that (maybe) $30 actually have made their lives notably different? Could it have made a bigger impact than that brief respite from scrimping each calendar month?
I have a friend who works three 12-hours night shifts in a row at a stressful job. She’s also an introvert, so dealing with not just her coworkers (very few of whom she’s a fan of), but also the public… It drains her. Badly.
In fact, she usually spends one to two of her four days off just resting and decompressing. She’s said on multiple occasions that she’s perilously close to burnout.
And despite getting paid less than the $51,000 median annual income for women in the U.S., and despite even a studio in Phoenix being less-than-cheap, my friend gets DoorDash a couple to few times a week.
A whole lot of folks would tsk tsk at this. And yes, she could save a fair amount of money by cutting out this habit. But that service is, I firmly believe, quite literally a sanity saver.
Even if she had a car to easily get takeout herself — which she doesn’t — I’m not sure she’d have the emotional and/or physical wherewithal to leave the house in her first couple of days off.
So yes, she could save money by deleting the apps. But what’s the use of having savings if it means she spends the majority of her time drained and miserable?
So hopefully these examples help illustrate why… Well…
It’s not your place to judge
No matter how successful you are financially, there are a number of reasons why you don’t get to be the arbiter of whether people are using their money “right.”
First of all, few of us have all of the facts when we issue these verdicts. We know someone’s income, their savings (or lack thereof) and that they bought something unnecessary. Based on that, a lot of people feel comfortable judging the person in question.
Second, even if you do know every detail, you may place value in very different things than the person in question does. So your version of “good” money habits may not lead to a life they want.
And last but very much not least…
A different landscape
This isn’t the Great Recession anymore. No longer is the majority of frugal advice coming from people scrambling to make ends meet and/or dig themselves out of a financial hole.
These days most blogs are written by people who are financially comfortable. In fact, some are so comfortable that saving more money is basically a game to them.
And that does matter.
When saving an extra $300 a month boosts your saving rate by a one-digit percentage, you’re gonna have a hard time imagining the life of someone who earns $300 a week — before tax.
When you have plenty of nonessential expenses, trimming a few you’re not using is a quick way to save. When you get, at best, one or two indulgences at all, being told to nix them means a pretty joyless existence.
Only buying food, drinks and clothes are absolutely essential. No movies at the theater. Only any free TV service you can find. Borrow from the library, but be sure you don’t incur late fees. No going for a drink (or having people over for one) to blow off some steam. No dates unless you find someone okay with free activities only. No holiday gifts for loved ones. Nothing but the absolute basic, unavoidable expenses.
Even if you do maintain that existence without going crazy, a small financial hiccup — missed work, a doctor bill (when you have savings they won’t write off as much of the charge), cut hours, adjusted food stamps once you a certain amount in savings — could wipe out months’ or even a year of progress.
But people who can make a few tweaks and save $100 or more a month can’t understand that that’s what they’re asking people to live like indefinitely.
At least, I hope it’s that they don’t understand. The alternative is too depressing to contemplate.
That being said…
Unfortunately, this post probably won’t change many minds.
There are people who are adamant that their list of the “right” and “wrong” ways to use money is absolute, immutable. That circumstances have no effect on what it is and isn’t okay to spend on. And that anyone choosing to go outside of the “good” list is automatically… Eh, pick whichever of their pet adjectives you’d like: stupid, myopic, sheep, mindless consumers, etc.
And so much of this attitudes is because they still see money as an end in itself. They can’t (or refuse to) fathom that money is a tool — one that different people will use differently (and that that’s okay).
And until they can accept that money is a tool… Well, we’re stuck dealing with a lot of smug posturing online from a whole different kind of tool.
Do you think money is a tool or do you genuinely see it as a goal in itself?