Frugal living can get a bad rap. When I describe myself as frugal people may think of me as Scrooge McDuck, greedily pinching pennies and hoarding cash; cheap for the sake of being cheap. But I’m not just cheap. Well not most of the time.
Frugality is not about being cheap. It’s about being economical and simple. Conserving your limited resources and living simply, not extravagantly. It’s a very lagom way of living (as the Swedes say), not too much, not too little . Frugal living is intentional spending to align with your financial goals and happily living with less.
Cheap, on the other hand, often means that you are looking to spend as little as possible, often not caring about the quality and long term goals of your purchase. Sometimes there is some room for frugality and cheap to overlap, both are looking for a good deal and to save some money, but their intention is different.
Let’s take a look at the six main tenants of frugal living to give a bit more depth to understanding just what frugality is. They are:
- Spending with Purpose and Intention
- Balancing needs vs. wants
- Planning for the future
- Being content with less
- Don’t be wasteful
- Reduce, reuse, recycle
- Spending with Purpose and Intention
As I said before, frugality isn’t about being a pinch penny and not spending money. It’s about spending with purpose. It means that purchases are intentional, not impulsive, and are in line with your financial goals. Frugal living means asking yourself if the purchase is really something you need rather than a want, if its a good quality item you will use again and again, and if it is in line with your financial goals. That may mean that you avoid buying soda at the grocery store because it’s a want that ends up padding your grocery bill and you would rather use that money to pay off debt. It may also mean that you buy a more expensive, better quality pair of shoes that will last you longer than the cheaper, less well made pair. It may also mean that you splurge on a week long vacation in the tropics because it IS your financial goal. Whatever that spending looks like for you, its intentional.
2. Balancing Needs vs. Wants
This overlaps with intentionality, but its a bit more tailored. So much of our culture’s spending habits are built on wants: want the new thing, buy it, tire of it, want the next new thing, buy it, and so on. Frugality throws that spending cycle out the window and asks instead of every purchase, “is this a need or a want?” There’s nothing inherently wrong about buying something that is purely a want, but being aware of the difference is the first step to frugal living and balancing those needs and wants. We all have needs for food, clothing, shelter, medical care and they are all necessary for living. Your needs list may be a bit more extensive and 21st century to include internet service, a cell phone, a car, and other items that round out modern life. Frugal living is not about martyrdom and living off of beans, rice, and water while living in a box. Not at all. But what frugal living IS about is living your best life while economically using your resources. And economically using your resources means you know the difference between a need and a want and also whether that purchase will use your resources wisely and help you meet your financial goals.
It’s okay to buy something that’s purely a want, but being aware of that choice is key, as is making sure that the thing you are buying won’t put you in a bind in the long run. It sounds like I’m being dramatic but it’s true. So often the small wants can add up and snowball into crushing debt or can be the small budget destroyers that impede your ability to save much for retirement or vacation. Balancing needs and wants is such an important tenant of frugality because that balance keeps the wheels from falling off and keeps you financially on track.
3. Planning For The Future
Speaking of financially on track, what are you planning for your future, fiscally speaking? Frugal living keeps an eye on the long term, whether that is making sure you are socking enough away for college or retirement savings, buying your kid’s clothing out of season in a larger size to plan for when they grow into it, or just bringing your lunch to work. Whether long term or short term, future planning is a tenant of frugality because its a way to be economical about your resources. Anticipating your needs can allow you to take advantage of a good deal and stock up on your favorite toothpaste when it goes on sale, can help you plan your meals so you don’t grab take out because you are starving and have no time to cook or go home, and can help better inform your purchases as you think through whether you are actually likely to wear that new purse that doesn’t really match many clothes you own and is pretty impractical for your actual lifestyle needs (ie. I’m a mom of two small kids who doesn’t go out much so I have infrequent use for a tiny sequined purse). Thinking long-term is a core tenant of frugal living and also budgeting. You have to be able to anticipate your needs to be able to budget for them and plan how you will use money to make sure that you still have the money you need weeks after you get paid when a bill comes due.
4. Being Content With Less
Contentment is important for frugality because if you are content with what you have, you curb the desire to spend and accumulate stuff. If you are happy to enjoy the simpler things in life, you will likely be happy with a simple, smaller wardrobe, house, gifts, and vacation. I grew up with this principle in a very frugal household, so its never been a goal of mine to spend a whole paycheck on a Louis Vuitton purse (in fact I was given one once and sold it because I would rather have the money to pay down debt). Luxury goods and name brands that are expensive merely for the sake of exclusivity or status hold little appeal to me. If I splurge, its on a $80 shopping spree on ThredUP (gotta spend $79 to get free shipping amirite?). But contentment is not just about shying away from luxury labels; its about knowing I will be just as happy with a well made non-name brand purse as an expensive one. Both are valued by me for their beauty and utility, and I take no please from over spending on an item or experience just for the sake of spending. In fact, it makes me sick to my stomach to needlessly overspend. Contentment is about being happy with what you have and knowing that you don’t need more things to be happy. It does not mean that I have to be a martyr to go without things that truly make my life better and happier or that I always buy the cheapest thing available. Look to the other frugal living tenants listed above for why I may spend a bit more to get a better quality product (spend once and enjoy longer). It’s about knowing what is a need and what is a want, knowing what I can truly do without, and making thoughtful spending decisions. Knowing that I can have fun without spending a lot of money. It’s about being conscientious of how I spend and not trying to keep up with the Joneses (or anyone else I may compare myself to or feel that I should be like). My happiness is internal, not external or based on what someone else may think of me.
5. Don’t be Wasteful
“Waste not, want not.” Those words ring in my ears often. I hate the idea of wasting anything: electricity, water, food, gas, just about anything. Not only is it like throwing money away but it also wastes precious natural resources and animal lives (I’m not a vegetarian, just an over thinker). (Side note: Time is the thing I am most open to wasting because there is an inherent bliss in doing nothing for nothing’s sake but mostly I try to curb time wasting and improve my productivity and intentionality). That aversion to waste is built into me by my parents and grandparents. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and learned to reuse everything until it was wholly used up. Why buy tupperware when you have perfectly good yogurt containers. To this day I feel pangs of guilt when I put large yogurt containers in the recycling bin because I don’t need yet another empty plastic container in my already full tupperware cabinet. Guilt aside, looking to avoid waste is a core tenant of frugal living because it seeks to be useful and intentional with our purchases and use of those purchases, buying in bulk where it is cost saving, and reducing waste to the landfill by reusing and recycling wherever possible. This draws upon the other previously listed tenants of thinking long term both by buying what you know you will need and use in bulk for a cheaper price and not wasting that product and your savings along with it. Wasting money is the opposite of intentional spending and common examples of it are paying late fees for bills you knew you had to pay but procrastinated to pay, not trying to negotiate a lower bill on a service you have, paying for speeding or parking tickets because you just weren’t paying attention, paying a higher price for a ticket or flight because you delayed your purchase even though you know you were going to go etc.
6. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Seeking to reduce waste is not just a goal of frugal living for its money saving aspects, but also for its environmental aspects. When you are trying to protect and conserve your precious money resources, you can also easily extrapolate that into trying to protect and conserve environmental resources as well. This is where frugal living and environmentalism happily overlap and co-exist. If you live a eco-friendly life you will often live a more frugal life, and vice verse. Buying a more economical car or riding a bike, living in a modest home, wearing your clothes longer before recycling them for scrap or donating them, not wasting food, focusing on long term purchases you will keep for a long time rather than cheaply made or disposable items you will soon relegate to the trash heap, all of these frugal living actions are also environmentally friendly. Being aware of the long term impact of your fiscal choices means thinking through not just the money side but also the environmental side: Will you use this over and over for a long time or will it fall apart quickly? Will you get your money’s worth out of this? What is the environmental impact of this item based on what it is made out of or how it will be disposed of? Is there another item that I can use that I already have or that is less impactful on the environment?
Together, these six tenants of frugal living encompass the overall hallmarks of frugality and invite a person to be intentional with their purchases, think long term, be content, evaluate their needs and wants, and not be wasteful, and to consider the environmental impact of a purchase. Taken holistically, they build the framework for a frugal, simple life.