We often mischaracterize the term frugal as cheap or selfish. We envision images of miserly, old, rich men like Ebenezer Scrooge who refuse to part with their money, but being frugal doesn’t mean being stingy with money, tight-fisted or greedy. People who engage in frugal living can carefully manage their money in pursuit of happiness.
Frugal people aren’t tight-wads who struggle to part with their hard-earned dollars. Instead, they spend less money in some areas of their life to spend more joyfully in others.
Frugal living means using your money for things that matter to you. It’s about giving yourself more of what you love by trimming the expenses that matter less to you.
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 tricks are valuable, but you can buy new, expensive, quality items or experiences and still be frugal.
As crazy as it sounds, 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.
To trim those expenses, a frugal person might spend 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. If it doesn’t make you happy, you should keep it out of your cart.
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 people and things you love. 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 Joyful, 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 works.
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 unnecessary, you don’t need to buy it. That means you can keep drinking coffee if you love it or 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 Makes You Happy?
What matters most to you? I never considered that question in my youth, and I didn’t ask myself what I cared about either. I 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 to make smarter spending choices that add value and happiness to your life.
To live frugally, 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 to save a few bucks? Instead, you can trim other budgetary items you don’t love as much.
How to Live Frugally and Happily
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 you money, but it might make you miserable. That’s why it’s always important to consider the happiness factor.
Frugal Living Tips
When trimming expenses, don’t haphazardly strip fun things from your life. Instead of taking everything away, try removing one item at a time. If you miss it, bring it back into your budget.
Frugality is about removing 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 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 make you a deal? 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 require.
Think about these decisions the same way you would plan 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, which is often quite the opposite.
When I 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, which are still in fantastic condition. In the meantime, our friends have replaced their cheaper dining sets and grills three times in the same 20 years.
When considering the frugal option, ask 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 most 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 dining 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 and joyfully.
We can begin to pursue larger goals when we look away from the small things that previously distracted us. As we minimize the excess and the unnecessary, we can maximize our time and aim toward 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.
A false sense of joy arises when we use coupons and shop for bargains. Be aware that true happiness comes from owning less.
Frugal Living: Making Fewer Purchases Will Make You Happier
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. You walk around the house like Marie Kondo, feeling joy and gratitude for everything you own.
Do I need an extra shirt, pair of pants, or a 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 much more important than buying more for less. Purchasing 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. As 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.
At some point, I could stop looking at life through that narrow lens. Over two decades later, I see life differently and now see minimalism as a greater goal than frugality.
Sure I still need to buy things, but avoiding purchases will save me a lot more than buying them with coupons. It will also provide me with more happiness in the long run.
Helping My Children Embrace Frugal Living & Happiness
When my kids were small, they had shelves full of toys, but over time I noticed that they played with the same toys repeatedly. 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 make them happier. The fewer things they own, the less they have to pick up, organize, or clean.
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, and happiness flies right out the window.
If you feel like your life’s quality is lacking or you are missing out on fun, you are taking frugality to the extreme. You can be happy and frugal at the same time.
Frugality is often associated with valuing money over the hours and days of our lives. If we focus too narrowly on this idea, we can waste our hours pursuing 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 had delayed our travels. I don’t travel often, and I wish I had spent money on a place I desperately wanted to go. In my case, the frugal choice was not the happiest one.
Earn More or Spend Less
A conversation about frugality would not be complete without discussing the decision to earn more or spend less. Many financial enthusiasts place themselves in one of two camps. One side favors making more, while the other suggests using frugality to spend less. The truth is, you need both to get the most bang for your buck.
Earning more money won’t solve all of your problems. You can double your salary and still waste money on stuff you don’t want or need. 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, and we forgo the gym because we are too tired to work out. There are two sides to the spend/save coin we shouldn’t overlook.
Earning more is easier said than done, and it takes much more energy to raise your salary than 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.
We may not scrutinize our wants and needs if we work more hours. We may continue to earn more without realizing that we already have enough.
This is not to say 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.
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 cleaning products.
Do you sit in front of your computer screen, 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, which results 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? 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 more significant 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, and 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 have to live frugally 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 quickly. 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 closer to many of them.