Frugality’s Perception Problem

In the comments of my recent review of You’re So Money, partgypsy left a very interesting comment:

My sister lusts after those kind of items, and spends all her disposable (and some non-disposable) income on clothes. She seeing eventually owning a home, or retirement as being out of her reach, but she can still buy some designer item which to her = success. There is almost this feeling of scarcity, well, I better buy this, because I might not have the money for it later, and besides this makes me happy and I might never be able to retire besides I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. The items are tied to happiness, fun, glamour, while life as seen in your money or your life is seen as a gulag-like abhorrent existence. It is too far to jump from there to here.

This comment, in one swoop, picks up several of the image problems that frugality has. Let’s look at some of them.

The Perception: Frugality is boring and the opposite of fun.
In that comment above, the phrase “while life as seen in Your Money or Your Life is seen as a gulag-like abhorrent existence” really stuck out at me, clearly delivering the sentiment that frugality is simply not fun.

I understand where the idea comes from. If you make a big list of frugal tactics and a big list of things to do where money is no object, the list of things to do where money is no object will appear to be more fun. What’s more fun: a camping trip to a state park or a trip to the Bahamas? What’s more fun: a fuel-efficient Honda or a Lexus? It’s pretty obvious which list will have the fun factor when you look at it just on the surface.

The Reality: If “fun” requires you to spend a lot of money and accumulate debt, is it really fun?
But it’s extremely superficial to just look at the surface. There’s much more to a purchase than just the excitement of getting that neat new item. As I wrote a while back, the total experience of a purchase involves not just the high of going on that trip or getting that nifty new gadget, but it also involves the realization that maybe you’re not getting as much value from that item as you might have thought, as well as that awful feeling in your gut when you get the credit card bill in the mail.

Frugality isn’t about cheap. It’s about maximizing value for the buck. If my wife can buy a $50 handbag and get 70% of the enjoyment and quality out of it than someone who buys a $3,000 handbag, she’ll do it. That leaves her $2,950 to do whatever she wants - save it for something big in the future, perhaps? That $2,950 can make a big difference when buying a car, for example.

The Perception: Frugality is all about living in the future instead of the present.
When you’re being cheap, you’re trying to scrape a few more pennies off the table to hoard in your pocket for the future. Why not live for today and spend big? After all, as the comment above says, “besides I could get hit by a bus tomorrow.” If you spend every day scrimping and saving, it won’t do you much good at all if you die young.

I see this sentiment echoed a lot in my peers. Shiny new cars, a bag full of brand new golf clubs, exquisite home furnishings - they have it “all.” Quite often, I’m jealous of it. I’d like to have that bag full of shiny golf clubs. I’d like to have some nifty gadgets. Undeniably, there’s a fun factor there.

The Reality: Frugality is all about living in the present instead of the future.
But then I look at a slightly bigger picture. Instead of having those golf clubs, I can sleep well at night without debt hanging over my head. Instead of having some of those nifty gadgets, I can afford to travel to visit friends and family without skipping a beat. Instead of having the snappiest clothes, I don’t have to have a lump in my throat every time I hear about retirement.

Frugality isn’t about denying yourself every pleasure. It’s about having good sense. It’s about realizing that buying a $3,000 handbag means that you have $3,000 less to spend on something else that’s important. It’s about realizing that when you buy something on your credit card, you’ll have some sleepless nights knowing a huge debt is breathing down your neck.

To me, frugality is simply peace of mind. I never feel guilty about anything I spend, and I never get a sick feeling in my stomach when a credit card bill comes in the mail. I have the freedom to do most of the things I want to do and have the sense to realize that some things simply don’t have enough “bang for the buck.” It’s also a realization that little choices, those that shave a little bit off the top here and there without any change in quality, are the ones that give you all the freedom you could ever want. Frugality is about the life you want today: do you want an expensive handbag stuffed with monster credit card bills, or a similar but far less expensive bag without any debt bills at all?

The Perception: A “big” expense like a house is out of reach, so why bother reaching for it?
When I first started seriously thinking about a house purchase, I was completely stunned at the numbers I was coming up with. More than a thousand dollars a month in house payments? Are you kidding me? I couldn’t help but think of all of the stuff I would have to give up for that, and I didn’t like it one bit.

Thus, for years I convinced myself that a house was really out of reach for me, and with that settled, I was free to bust out the cash to buy golf clubs and iPods and Magic: the Gathering cards and all sorts of other things. That “big” expense was simply out of reach, so why even bother to try for it when there’s so much fun stuff to be had?

The Reality: A “big” expense like a house is only out of reach if you want it to be out of reach.
What I chose not to see then is that I could have easily been enjoying most of that stuff while also building a financial foundation for myself. I could have just purchased better “bang for the buck” golf clubs and put that extra wad of cash up for a house down payment while still enjoying golf. I could have bought just one iPod and enjoyed it. I could have not demanded a room with a view overlooking Hyde Park for six days while on our honeymoon in London, but still enjoyed a great honeymoon in the United Kingdom with her. Instead of running to the bookstore to buy every book I wanted, I could have stopped by the library and just checked some of them out.

Just a handful of changes like these - ones that wouldn’t affect my life much at all - and I would have had my down payment years earlier. These big things are reachable - telling yourself that they’re not is just an excuse to enjoy little tchotchkes right now instead of a big dream down the road.

The Perception: Saving a dollar here and a dollar there gets you nowhere.
I often get ridiculed when I post lists of specific frugality tips. “I’m not wasting my time just to save $2,” I’ll hear.

$2 on the surface isn’t much money at all. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the real expenses in life, so why should one ever bother to worry about it? Focus on the hundred dollar bills and the one dollar bills will follow, many people believe.

The Reality: Saving a dollar here and a dollar there is the surest way to getting rich.
I don’t believe that at all. If I can save $2 with a minute’s effort, I’ll do it every time. Why? That minute is spent earning a wage of $120 an hour after taxes. If you could repeat that minute over and over again over a year’s worth of work, you’d earn $249,600 after taxes. That, to me, is a minute worth spending.

That one individual tip that saves you $2 won’t do the trick, but a dozen tips like it begin to make a difference. If you start following them by the dozen, doing things like installing more energy efficient lighting and a programmable thermostat, writing a grocery list and using a good coupon strategy and sticking to both, or buying items in bulk to save cash over the long haul, you find yourself saving that $2 again and again and again.

Soon, that $2 becomes $100, then that $100 becomes a paid-off credit card. Even better, all along the way these tactics don’t force you to make a major lifestyle change. Buying toothpaste in bulk doesn’t mean you stop traveling. Installing a programmable thermostat doesn’t mean you have to give up dressing fashionably.

It juts means that you’re letting $2 here and $2 there add up to something much bigger.

Frugality has an image problem, but it’s only an image problem if you look at it from only one angle. If you look at the bigger picture, frugality lets you have your cake and eat it, too.

It’s just a matter of what you choose to see.

The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at


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