Is Frugality Really for the Rich?

"I Wash My Clothes in the Bathtub; That Doesn't Mean I Can Quit My Job"

The Frugalwoods are a Vermont couple who both worked decent paying jobs for years, saved their money, retired early and started a family on a homestead.

Ever since the Frugalwoods put out a book, there's been a lot of media attention.

An article recently came out putting the Frugalwoods down for being out of touch. The comments sections are always a minefield, but it sums up the sentiment. Most of the comments say something to the effect of:

"I wash my clothes in the bathtub in cold water and I can't afford a homestead in Vermont."

"I redid my kitchen on my own, too, and I can't quit my job- that's not being frugal, that's normal life for most people."

"They must have had help from Mommy and Daddy, and piles of income from their book and blog. There's no other way they could retire early."

Yet nobody seems to answer, let alone ask, the most important question: What is frugality, anyways?

I am happy to provide an answer because it's something we need to talk about.

Frugality is avoiding spending your money in ways that aren't important to you, so you have more to spend on what IS important to you.

A frugal person thinks about their spending, and directs every dollar to the best place possible.
An un-frugal person spends on things that aren't important, then doesn't have enough left for things that are.

More simply put, being frugal means reducing the waste in your life.

How much you have or don't have isn't part of the equation. You can waste $3 or you can waste $300,000. (Anyone remember Toni Braxton's headline-grabbing backruptcy?)

Where you get your money from doesn't matter much either. It's just as dangerous to waste daddy's money as it is to waste your own.

The only thing that makes you frugal- or not frugal - is how much your spending aligns with your goals.

Frugality is Different for Everyone

Not everyone has the same income. Not everyone has the same goals.

There is no one-size-fits all set of instructions to frugality, I'm afraid. What may be frugal for your neighbor could be un-frugal for you.

Here's an example:

Joe and Bob both eat a $15 dollar lunch every work day.

Joe wants to buy a house one day. Houses are expensive, but by saving the $50/week or so by brownbagging his lunch, he could come up with a down payment in a couple years. But buying $15-20 lunches is fun and immediate gratification, so Joe continues to do so. Joe whines about how he will never afford a down payment on a house.

As for Bob, there's nothing he wants more in the past, present or future than to eat a $15 dollar lunch every work day. He does not care about houses and all his other needs are met. He is not interested in accumulating a pile of money. When he looks back on his spending, that couple thousand dollars each year that he spends on his work lunches will cause him zero regret. Bob continues to buy $15 lunches. All is well in his happy world.

One of these people can become more frugal by cutting out work lunches. They could have the same income and the same other expenses. The only difference is their goals.

Bloggers and authors can give you ideas on how to be frugal, but never take them as the authority. Nobody's goals will be the same as your, even if your situations happen to be similar. More than likely, they will also have a different income and expense picture than you do. One man's wasteful spending is another man's earned and cherished luxury.

The difference lies in what you are giving up to get what you're buying. If you're giving up something you want (or need) more, you're not being frugal.

But that's the point- having waste to cut out in the first place is a luxury, right?

Well, yes.

You can act in the most frugal way possible and never be able to afford a dream house in the country.

You can do everything right and still not have enough to meet your basic needs.

When you are low income, being frugal turns from an optimization exercise into a necessity.

Being frugal isn't just for the rich.

It becomes more important the poorer you are.

When you are truly poor, wasteful spending doesn't just put your goals a little farther back in the calendar.

It puts your life in danger.

Waste money on literally anything and suddenly you can't afford the rent, and you're out on the street. Your personal savings goal is no longer "down payment on a house" or "maintain my lifestyle in retirement".

Your personal goal is "survival".

Rich people have a lot more wiggle room when it comes to frugality. Buying the $5000 pants instead of the $10,000 pants so they can save for another boat could be a legit frugal choice to them. And good for them for making conscious choices about what they want to do with their money.

It's hard not to roll your eyes, I know.

Just imagine a starving child rolling his eyes when you resolve not to overbuy groceries to reduce what you end up throwing away. As Mr, Money Mustache says, "your current middle class life is an exploding volcano of waste."

Can you think of anything you bought this week that you didn't absolutely need? If so, I'm not here to guilt you for buying it, but it means that there is some luxury in your life.

We can all be better for ourselves. I admire people like the Frugalwoods who know what they want from life (homestead, babies, and time with those babies) and cut out all the things that won't get them there (restaurant meals and hiring other people to do your kitchen).

Frugality looks different for everyone, so don't give someone flack about remodeling their own kitchen. Stop thinking about the waste in other people's lives and start thinking about how you can cut the waste in your own.

If your life contains no waste, and every penny you have is directed towards its most important use, congratulations! You're already frugal.

But if you're like most Americans and your spending doesn't always match with your long term goals and values, the frugal blogging world may be a good place to go idea shopping. We're all on a money journey as part of our bigger life journeys, and there's always room to learn.

If you're new to this and want to start budgeting, check out the best budgeting apps or get started with the personal finance basics!

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