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My Issues with Frugality

This post is going to somewhere a bit different than usual.  It’s part rant and part question.    It’s something that has been bugging me for a while and I had to get off my chest.  If you are looking for my usual advice and in-depth analysis posts they will return with my next post.  With that, I am going to explore my issues with Frugality.

Even I Use Frugality

Now do not get me wrong, I get the usage of the F word.  Frugality has a natural extension in savings.  The bigger the savings the quicker you make it to FIRE.  I have even used Frugality in a few posts myself, the most obvious being where I asked are we Frugal.  That post explored the many definitions of Frugality, and many of them were truly positive definitions.

The Positive Definition

So why then am I down on Frugality?  It’s obviously not in the concept where I might define myself.  For those who have been around a while, you know I define my spending habits more along an efficiency scale. I spend money only on what I value.  If I don’t value it, I don’t buy it.

For most people, especially in mid to high-income brackets this is sufficient to get ahead in life.  So many of us just throw money out the window to impress others, because marketing says we should, or even to fill some ever unmet hole in our lives.    Not wasting money is a laudable goal anyone should strive to obtain.  It’s also easy because it doesn’t require any true deprivation.  You are not giving up anything to be efficient with your money.  You are just not being wasteful.

What Do I Envision When I Hear the Word Frugal

Thankfully the vast number of bloggers define Frugality in similar ways to myself.  They mean don’t be wasteful.  But the word itself still bugs me for the images it conjures up in my mind.  Blame it on popular culture but when I hear the word frugal I think deprivation and cold-hearted.

Scrooge?

I imagine it starts long ago with the concept of misers like Ebenezer Scrooge we read about as kids.  The person is so frugal or even stingy with their money they won’t help others.   Frugality conjures up a person in your mind that does not give to charity, help their fellow man, or even take care of their family.  I know most Personal Finance bloggers do not fit this definition.   If you are pursuing FIRE you should always remember what matters in life is the good works you do for others.  Still, I can’t help but picture a miser when I hear the word.

Cheapness and Frugality

I don’t only picture a miser.  I also picture the super cheap person.  Some of this is more recent, for example, the show Extreme Frugality featured people doing weird things like eating after other diners at a restaurant to save money.  Ewww!   Others are ingrained from childhood, like the grand parent’s that horde everything. Throw the broken lamp from 1920 in the trash already. Doing anything to save a buck, especially at the risk of your health, good manners, etcetera is a bad idea.

Honestly, this is the aspect of frugality that bugs me the most about the FIRE community.  I do not see it often mind you, which is good.  But every once in awhile you read about “brown flush it down, yellow let it mellow” to save money on water when flushing a toilet or some other nonsense.    Perhaps such a thing helps the environment, but if it saves you more then twenty cents a day your water is way more expensive then anywhere I have ever lived.  Besides, again.. ewww!

I get it, there are many ways to save a buck in this life.  Perhaps the 20 cents you flushed down the toilet wasn’t a priority for you.  Then again would you bend down to pick up 20 cents out of a dirty gutter as you walked down the street?  My guess is most would not.  So why would you do the equivalent with your toilet?   Add to that why would you advertise it over the internet as a badge of honor.  It just makes the rest of us never want to visit your house.

Frugality and the General Population

I seriously doubt I am the only one that has this emotional reaction to the word frugal when I hear it.  In fact, I may be less likely to have such a reaction than others.  After all, I hang out with many cool people who identify themselves as frugal.  Furthermore by some definitions I self identify as such.  Positive reinforcement does dull the adverse reaction a bit, but that lifetime of perception is not something I will probably ever shake.  I suspect the same is true for the masses that may read any article or topic identifying as of or about frugality.  

Frugality and Poverty

I recently read a post on Chief Mom Officer that also noted some push back that the word Frugality might be a bit elitist.  Something that rich people do that don’t have to suffer through tough financial times. Sort of a see I’m fake suffering type thing.  I can’t say I feel this way about frugality, but I could see someone feeling as such. 

Turning off a large portion of the populace is also probably bad for the goal of financial blogs, to help people of all stripes improve their financial position.   This all leaves me at an impasse.  If not the word frugal how do you define this aspect of the community in a bite-size sound bite?

Branding and Frugality

The reality is, in order to get true attention any movement has to have its key concepts in bite-size sound bites.  No one remembers the multi-paragraph mission statements of a company.  They do remember taglines and single word core values of most brands.  In the same way, it is important that the community has a word that truly speaks to controlled spending.  

I Much Prefer FIRE

 In a way, the personal blogging finance movement already has such a general tagline in FIRE.  Never mind that many people in the community define FIRE differently.  Some only focus on the FI part.  Others the RE.  Some even define Retirement differently.  There is still that one tag line that defines the community in a branding manner.  That tag line inspires a unique if quirky quest for something different.  It doesn’t conjure up images of squeezing pennies from a nickel.  In the same way there needs to be a short description for one of our key tenets, controlled spending.

Defining Frugality in a Different Way

If I had to step back and come up with a tag line for this core value I would probably use something like Value Based Spending or Mindful Spending.  Short, sweet, and get to the core point I am usually trying to make in a post others would label as frugal.  That is I only spend on what I value and I give thought to that value before I spend it.    That being said I am not a marketer at heart.  As of two years ago, I started working in marketing for the first time after years in operations.  Even with this change, I am less a branding or advertiser and more involved with the concept of cool new ways to sell widgets.  So I am probably not the best choice to brand this value anew.  

How do you feel about the word Frugality? Can you think of a better option?

7 Comments

  1. Xrayvsn
    Xrayvsn February 20, 2019

    You are correct that Frugal sometimes, and often incorrectly, gets lumped in with more negative connotative words such as cheapskate, miser, stingy, scrooge, etc.

    I think what’s most important for most FIRE folks is that they don’t feel the need to impress others and do things that bring joy to themselves and loved ones. I like the term “intentional spending.”

    The FIRE movement probably got tagged with extreme minimalism because of one of the early big voices, Mr Money Moustache. That kind of living for me is not one that would bring me much joy, but to some minimalism can elevate them to a higher level.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 20, 2019

      I think I’ll stick with moderation…

  2. Dan
    Dan February 20, 2019

    Merriam Webster defines frugality as “the careful management of material resources and especially money.” That has a positive connotation. The opposite of frugal would be the careless “management of material resources and especially money.”

    What you are railing against is the co-opting of the word to denote something closer to miserly or stingy. I am not familiar with a TV show called ” Extreme Frugality.” The show I have seen is “Extreme Cheapskates.” The title of the show gives an indication of how the show’s producers intend the subjects to be viewed. They are intended to be presented as outliers & freaks and within the FIRE community, frugal has come to mean that. I believe it is FIRE bloggers that have co-opted the word frugal.

    Similar co-opting example – I have long notice that Retire Early is meaningless in the FIRE community. Many FIRE bloggers talk about working full-time or part-time on a blog or side gigs or real estate management. They don’t intend to “retire.” Retire early within the FIRE community means a) quit a job you don’t like, b) downshift to part-time work and/or c) transition to a full-time job you better enjoy than your current one. This is not retirement in the traditional sense of the word. Merriam-Webster defines retire as “conclude one’s working or professional career.” Maybe that definition has not been accurate in the US for some time. By that I mean, maybe people have been “retiring” from their primary occupation and switching to part-time or less remunerative jobs for a generation or longer. I don’t know. After my father retired, he had zero earned earned income over the final 23 years of his life.

    IMO, the FIRE movement w.r.t. the numerous bloggers is near implosion. Too many bloggers espousing FIRE principles seem unqualified to give financial advice. Too many FIRE bloggers are “frugal freaks.”

  3. Joe
    Joe February 22, 2019

    I like mindful spending better too. I was cheap and frugal when I was young and poor. That was fine back then, but I live moderately now. We still rarely order drinks when we go out, though. It just depends on what adds value to your life.
    I disagree with water conservation, though. Why not conserve some water if your state is in a big continuous drought like Southern CA? It would make a big difference if everyone does it.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 23, 2019

      I live in a place where it rains too much so that colors my impression. But still, I think I’d just buy a low flush toilet if it was valuable to me.

  4. Liz@ChiefMomOfficer
    [email protected] February 24, 2019

    I definitely don’t think frugality is just for the rich, but I can see some folks feeling bitter about wealthy folks playing poor “for fun”. When you’re lower income, frugality is life, not a choice. And you don’t get to take a break if you get tired of scraping by. The tools of frugality apply at any income level, but it looks much different when you don’t earn much.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance February 24, 2019

      I definitely agree having sat on both sides of that particular fence at some point in our lives. It’s a whole different story when you have a choice.

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