The term frugal is often mischaracterized as cheap or selfish. It brings to mind images of stingy, old, rich men like Ebenezer Scrooge who refuse to part with their money, but being frugal doesn’t mean being tight-fisted or greedy. By definition, a person who engages in frugal living carefully manages their material resources, particularly their money.
Frugal people aren’t tight-wads. They don’t have to struggle to part with their hard-earned dollars. They simply choose to spend less money in some areas of their life in order to spend more on others.
Frugal living is a means to use your money for things that matter to you. It’s about giving yourself more of what you love by trimming the expenses you don’t care about.
Frugality is Not Deprivation
Notice I said, “use your money,” not squirrel it away in the bank for the rest of your life. Frugality is not about hoarding massive amounts of money and never spending it.
Contrary to popular belief, frugality is not about deprivation. A frugal life will not force you to sock away every penny you earn. It’s not about doing without all of the things you love, either.
A frugal life doesn’t have to include patching every pair of torn jeans, making dishrags out of old towels, and buying everything used from thrift stores. Those things are all well and good, but you can buy new, expensive, quality items or experiences and still be frugal.
Believe it or not, you can drive around in a fancy car and still be frugal. When you cut back on unnecessary expenses, you make room in your life for the things that matter to you.
For some people, that means giving up on daily trips to Target, spending money on expensive clothes, and eliminating dining out. For others, it means forgoing a large house and pricey vehicles.
In exchange for trimming those expenses, a frugal person might spend their money on travel, personal trainers, or quality clothing.
Living Frugally Without Feeling Deprived
When you act frugally, you prioritize your expenses. You decide what matters and what doesn’t. If something isn’t adding value to your life, you can stop buying it.
Because you don’t care about these things, you won’t feel deprived when you cut them out of your life. If you don’t watch television, it’s easy to cut the cord. If you don’t go into an office, it’s easy to stop paying for expensive office attire.
Frugal living encourages you to trim your budget, but discarding those line items doesn’t make you a miser. It’s just the opposite. When you cut expenses you can spend more money on the things you care about. By living frugally, you learn to prioritize your needs and wants.
When you focus on living a frugal lifestyle, you save on the things that don’t matter so you can splurge on the things that do.
Living a Frugal Life
Am I frugal if I buy an expensive, well-made couch, or do I have to buy a used version from Craigslist to consider myself a frugal success? Either option can be considered frugal.
The real question is, what do you value. If you spend a lot of time lounging on your couch, reading to your children, and snuggling in front of warm fires, you may choose to purchase a quality couch. If it’s a piece of furniture that fills the space and does little else, you may choose a less expensive, used one.
You may also spend a ridiculous amount of time on your couch and still prefer the cheaper option because that couch isn’t as important as eating in high-quality restaurants or traveling with your partner.
What matters to you may not matter to me. Frugality is a broad term, but our individual choices will vary.
Frugality is about making each monetary decision with your eyes wide open. When you spend money, you consider the happiness factor. When you act frugally, you cut out the activities and objects that don’t bring joy to your life.
Before pulling out your wallet, ask yourself if a new experience or object will bring you joy. If it doesn’t, and it’s not a necessity, then you don’t need to buy it. That means you can keep drinking coffee if you love it. You can also cut out coffee and new clothes if you love something else more.
There is no right way or wrong way to live frugally. The goal is to stop paying for stuff you don’t care about so you can buy quality products and experiences you desire.
What Do You Value?
What matters most to you? In my youth, I never really considered that question. I didn’t ask myself what I cared about. I simply bought things and stowed them in my dresser drawers and closets.
Frugal living encourages you to ask that question. It helps you define your values so you can make smarter spending choices that add value and happiness to your life.
To live frugally, it helps to weigh the big and small purchases. The old advice to stop drinking lattes is undoubtedly helpful in decreasing costs, but what if you love drinking coffee?
Should you give up something you love to do just to save a few bucks. No, instead, you can trim other budgetary items that you don’t love as much.
How to Live Frugally
So how can we embrace frugal living? To begin, it helps to review your spending patterns. Where do you spend your money? Can you reduce your expenses step-by-step?
The three largest spending categories are housing, food, and transportation, so to live frugally, it’s best to try and cut back on these expenses first. For example, are you willing to live with roommates, car share, or ride your bike to work?
These will help you trim costs, but remember that frugality is not about deprivation, so the cheapest solution isn’t always the best. You can buy a more affordable house far out in the country but spend hours driving back and forth to work. That decision will save money, but it might make you downright miserable. That’s why it’s always important to consider the happiness factor.
Frugal Living Tips
When trimming expenses, don’t haphazardly strip everything fun from your life. Instead of taking everything away at once, try removing one item at a time. If you miss it, bring it back into your budget.
Frugality is about removing the waste from your life. If you don’t go to the gym, don’t pay for it. If you don’t watch T.V., then cut the cord. Trimming these should be easy.
Then ask yourself some more important questions. Can you cook at home one night of the week? Can you try running in your neighborhood rather than going to the gym? What can you do to shrink your grocery bill?
Can you negotiate recurring bills? Have you tried calling your Internet provider to ask for a discount or switching providers if they won’t negotiate? Can you make other calls to reduce auto and home insurance bills?
Figure out how much money you need to live your best life. Most of us think we need a lot, but trimming expenses can demonstrate how little you actually require.
Think about these decisions the same way you would think about planning a wedding. You decide what matters and what doesn’t. If you need to cut costs, you can invite fewer people, eat cheaper meals, or choose a less expensive venue. You can also skip out on favors and flowers.
Look at each expense from many different angles. What do you want to keep, and what are you willing to cut?
Choosing to Splurge on Quality Items
Frugal living doesn’t involve buying everything second hand or choosing the cheapest option. It’s often quite the opposite of that.
When I first got married, my husband wanted to buy an expensive grill and an iron-wrought outdoor dining set. I made $32,000 a year at the time, and the two expenses totaled $2,000.
Those items were unbelievably expensive. I tried to convince my husband to buy cheaper alternatives, but he wouldn’t budge. Twenty years later, we are still using those two products, and they are still in fantastic condition. In the meantime, friends of ours have replaced their cheaper dining sets and grills three times in the same 20 years.
When considering the frugal option, ask yourself how often you will use an item. I cannot believe how many times we’ve grilled over the past two decades. Spending more on a quality product can be a frugal decision if you get the full value out of it.
Spending money on a grill and outdoor patio set we never use would have been a giant waste of money. Buying a set that fell apart wouldn’t have been a wise financial decision either.
When we live a frugal lifestyle, we stop paying attention to the non-essential items in our life and start focusing on the people, activities, and things that truly matter. Frugality allows us to plan for more significant goals. It’s learning to live intentionally.
When we look away from the small things that previously distracted us, we can begin to pursue larger goals. As we minimize the excess and the unnecessary, we can maximize our time and aim towards more meaningful pursuits.
The Connection Between Minimalism and Frugal Living
I used to sing the praises of frugal living because I could buy so much for so little. I would spend an hour clipping coupons, reviewing store circulars, and driving from store-to-store.
Then I would return home, brandish my receipt, and declare victory. “I spent $2.00 on five bottles of shampoo, three bottles of conditioner, and three tubes of toothpaste,” I would exclaim.
At the time, I was over the moon with excitement. Why wouldn’t I want to buy five bottles of shampoo for the price of one? What a deal!
I was saving so much money, or so I thought. What was the point of that endeavor? It would take us years to use up the contents in those bottles. Why would I waste an hour buying products that would sit in my cabinet for years?
We can’t have a conversation about frugality without talking about waste. When we think about frugality, we often think about money, but we need to expand our definition to include wasting time and energy too.
Frugal Living: Making Fewer Purchases
Frugality is not just about finding ways to buy products for less; it’s also about buying less in the first place. Frugal living doesn’t always involve searching for the cheapest ways to buy products. Sometimes a better approach is to avoid purchases in the first place.
When you live frugally, you begin to savor your possessions. You look through rooms full of stuff and decide you don’t need to own more things you won’t use.
Do I need an extra shirt, pair of pants, or fancy haircut? Sometimes I will say yes, and sometimes I will say no. But overall, I try to stop myself from buying stuff.
Living frugally, is not a pain point for me. Over time I’ve come to want less, which is so much more important than buying more for less. Buying something from the clearance bin at Target isn’t frugal if I don’t need it.
Rather than gaining more material possessions look around at the wealth you already have in your life.
In my youth I wasted my energy on the wrong pursuits. When I was a young graduate I needed to watch my dollars closely. As I grew older my income made up for the money I previously lacked. In my head, I didn’t make that connection.
I thought I needed to keep looking at life through that narrow lens. Over two decades later I see life differently. Minimalism is a greater goal than frugality.
Sure I still need to buy things, but avoiding purchases will save me a whole lot more than buying them at discount or with coupons.
Helping My Children Embrace Frugal Living
When my kids were small, they had shelves full of toys, but over time I noticed that they played with the same toys over and over. After a while, I started asking them to donate their possessions.
I want them to live in an open and airy space rather than feeling cramped in a room full of stuff that never gets used.
When birthdays and Christmas roll around, my boys often want new toys, but they also recognize how much they already own. I don’t throw out their toys when they aren’t around. They have become a pivotal part of the donating process. They pick and choose what should go, so they won’t miss things after they are gone.
I want them to feel joyful when they look at their possessions and recognize that having more won’t necessarily make them any happier. The fewer things they own, the less they have to pick up and take care of.
We ask our children to embrace frugality and minimalism. We want them to understand the importance of deciding what’s important to them. Then we teach them how to search the Internet for deals or use coupons to buy the things they still desire.
When Frugal Living Becomes an Obsession
The quest for frugality can become an overwhelming obsession. If you aren’t careful, you can become consumed with saving every penny. At that point, frugality can make you cheap and stingy.
If you feel like your life’s quality is lacking, if you feel like you are missing out on every fun thing your friends and family do, you may be taking frugality to the extreme.
Frugality is often associated with valuing money over time. If we focus too narrowly on this idea, we can waste away our hours in pursuit of being thrifty or cheap. Some things are worth paying for, while others are not.
I was obsessed with saving in my youth. I contemplated every financial decision. When I was young and broke, my options were limited, and I clung tightly to the money I earned.
When I was in my early twenties, a good friend and I traveled to Spain. It was my first time out of the U.S., and I was happy to explore new cultures, but Spain wasn’t the city I wanted to see.
I wanted to go to Italy. The airfare to Spain was half the price, and lodging at the time was cheaper too. Looking back, I wish I would have delayed our travels. I don’t travel often, and I wish I would have spent money in a place I wanted to go.
Earn More or Spend Less
A conversation about frugality would not be complete without talking about the decision to earn more or spend less. Many financial enthusiasts place themselves in one of two camps. One side favors earning more. The other suggests using frugality to spend less. To get the most bang for your buck, you need to do both.
Earning more money won’t solve all of your problems. You can double your salary and still waste it on stuff you don’t care about. When you make more, you often spend more too.
Working takes time, and we often make up for that time crunch by spending money. We pick up dinner because we are too tired to cook, we forgo the gym because we are too tired to work out. There are two sides to the spend/save coin that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Earning more is also one of those things that easier said than done. It takes a whole lot more energy to raise your salary than it does to cut your spending. As you get older, family obligations can make it more difficult to change jobs, switch careers, or carve out time to secure another degree.
The Value of Time and Money
In comparison, it’s much easier to cut back on expenses by spending less. An added benefit, when we cut back on things we don’t need, we have more time to focus on the things that truly matter.
If we work more hours, we may not scrutinize our wants and needs. We may continue to earn more without realizing that we already have enough.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t focus on increasing our salaries or building profitable side hustles. In the end, those activities may provide a better return on our time.
In order to figure that out, it helps to measure the amount of time you spend on frugal activities like clipping coupons, driving to multiple stores, and making your own cleaning products.
Do you sit in front of your computer screen heavily weighing the decision to buy something? Should you save three dollars by purchasing on eBay, wait a few weeks to see if it goes on sale, or place a price watch at CamelCamelCamel? How much do you gain from those activities?
While aspiring for a frugal life many people begin to value money over time. That can result in wasting a ridiculous amount of time to save a tiny amount of money.
Would it make more sense to spend that time earning more money rather than trying to spend less of it? Can you teach yourself new skills that will help you in your career? Can you spend that time searching for a higher paying job?
Teach yourself how to make decisions that have greater impacts. For example, learning to negotiate a raise will pay off more than a lifetime of clipping coupons.
Dedicating time to side-hustles may result in long term passive income. Designing printables on Etsy may lead to greater payouts than all of your scrimping combined.
Figure out how to find the right balance. We don’t live in a world of this or that. It’s not either/or. We can strive for both.
The Privilege of Choosing Frugality
We don’t all have the luxury of choosing whether or not to be frugal. When I first graduated from college, frugality wasn’t a choice. I didn’t choose to live in a group house because I was trying to house-hack my way to financial freedom. I lived there because I couldn’t afford any other option.
Years ago, I wasn’t in a position to choose. I recognize that many are in this same spot in life.
Choosing to live a frugal life is a privilege. Many people in the world don’t live a frugal life by choice. They live that way to survive.
I lived that way as a twenty-two-year-old straight out of college. I was educated but still not earning enough to live the lifestyle I wanted. Now that my husband and I are older, it’s easy to see where we have been wasteful.
Make no mistake about it. You cannot frugal your way to becoming a millionaire, or at least you can’t do it easily. You can cook every meal at home, decrease your grocery costs, and dramatically cut back on all extraneous expenses and still not have enough to retire on time, let alone retire early.
That doesn’t mean frugality isn’t worthwhile. Living a frugal lifestyle may not help you reach all of your goals, but it will bring you slightly closer to many of them.