What Does It Mean To Be Frugal?

Over at DailyWorth, Marilyn Zelinsky-Syarto is blogging about her “Unnecessary Spending Guilt.” For her 50th birthday, she decided to get her kitchen remodeled. Which is great, except that as a regular blogger on frugal issues, she feels like a fraud for spending money on something that does not technically have to happen. Her kitchen still works. She asks “does being careful with cash mean that I can’t spend it from time to time?”

As I’ve been finishing up the manuscript of All The Money In The World, I’ve been struggling with this issue myself. There are many things I have an incredibly hard time spending money on. I walk my 4-year-old to preschool most mornings, and every morning, I pass a corner deli which sells bunches of flowers from its stoop line (a wonderful phrase I now know means the shelves outside on the sidewalk that many New York stores sport). Every morning I think “oh, those are pretty, I’d love to have a bunch on my desk.” Do I buy them? Never. Why not? I suppose it’s because spending money on flowers seems wasteful.

So here’s the twist on all this. I’m about to move to a house that turns out to have a gorgeously landscaped yard. I don’t know who designed it, but this landscaper had a great sense of the eastern Pennsylvania rainfall and seasons, because with no upkeep whatsoever, a series of flowers has bloomed in that yard from March until June. One sequence of flowers comes up, then when it dies, another takes its place. We made our offer on the house the first week of March, before anything was sprouting. We had no idea that this all came as a package deal. Sitting in that yard the few times we have been there this spring has made me quite happy, seeing all those flowers that I know I will see sprouting again and again over the next few years.

This I know: my frugal self would never have paid for a landscape architect to design such a yard. Again, that little voice that tells me spending money on flowers is wasteful would have turned into a roar. Of course, I bought the house. So I did pay for it. A house has utility. Flowers do not. But why do I feel that way, that spending on something that is purely for pleasure is a problem?

I’ve been reading Your Money Or Your Life, given that it touches on similar issues to All The Money In The World. It’s not really my kind of book, but I do like that the authors try to reclaim the word “frugal.”

“Frugality,” they write, “is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of… Waste lies not in the number of possessions but in the failure to enjoy them. Your success at being frugal is measured not by your penny-punching but by your degree of enjoyment of the material world.”

This is something I am trying to get my head around: if you have a few extra pennies, there is no point pinching them on small things that will give you pleasure. Keep your big expenses well within your means and you can enjoy life a little. Scrimping is not a virtue in and of itself. Generosity with others is a virtue. And sometimes it is with yourself too.

(photo courtesy flickr user Peter John Hill)

10 thoughts on “What Does It Mean To Be Frugal?

  1. I read Your Money or Your Life long ago and really need to read it again. I’ll have to do that once we unpack. :/
    I have to agree, it’s really hard for me to buy flowers (or have my husband buy me flowers) for the simple reason that they die quickly and even though they’re lovely, it’s borderline wasteful. I like the reclaimed definition of frugal; it’s much more realistic than “save for a rainy day until you can’t stand it anymore.”

    1. @Jen – like I said, it’s not really my kind of book. Over the top self-helpy, short on actual facts (and the ones that are there are often based on opinion polls that I think are meaningless), anecdotes of people with only their first names which means they are likely composite (aka made up). But a few good ideas — like keeping basic expenses low and then trying to earn more money. Trying to get to the point where you don’t have to work (though I’m not so sure what’s wrong about working for pay even if you don’t have to work — the authors seem to operate from the assumption that most work sucks).

      1. What I did like is the expense tracking. Kind of like your time tracking it builds awareness and also helps me to remember, yes, I did get joy out of that. But I agree on the factyness. Of it and the lack of detail. (Is my employers contribution to health insurance part of my real wage?)

  2. I am learning to treat myself, but it’s taken time. I still tell my husband not to buy flowers for our anniversary, as it’s near Valentine’s Day and he grossly overpays. He will surprise me at another time of the year, but I would never spend the money on them myself.

    The garden is similar. When money was more available (before kids and my SAH status) I was big on annuals. Over the years, I’ve changed to perennials and bulbs, like in your garden. Recently my SIL and I have traded perennials, as they tend to get larger every year and take up too much space. I only use annuals to fill in with color in certain areas now. This also comes as I am more ‘frugal’ with my time. I don’t want to spend so much time in the garden if I can enjoy it’s beauty with less work and more time doing other things.

    Your garden will be a source of joy for years to come, don’t let it become part of the hedonic treadmill of home ownership!

  3. Another great thing about having and caring for flowers in your yard is you can clip them from the yard for free (or for the price of home ownership, which if you include the property taxes is way more than picking up those flowers on the street but includes decent public schools) — I have regular flowers in the yard and clip them for my desk.
    This money issue is great and I’d love to read that book — and yours. I don’t agree that you can always get more money if that were true we’d all be millionaires but I do think the idea that you can use your money to reflect your values etc. and that if you are too cheap it can hold you back. I’d rather spend the night at the pool with my kids than shop so I order all my kids’ stuff and groceries online but there is a cost to that, which I think I can definitely earn back no problem… but it is scary sometimes to spend the money even if it does reflect your values.

  4. Hello Laura,

    I think a life well lived should include plenty of things that bring us joy, particularly if they can be had for under $15 (the price of an average deli store flower bouquet, for example). For a while, I thought it was wasteful to go to Starbucks and buy cappuccinos or iced coffees — I could make my drinks at home, after all.

    But then I realized that a store-bought coffee is more than just a drink to me, it is a little indulgence and a small chance to relax and unwind during the day. I have more energy when I feel rested and treated, and I get more done. So . . . my little coffee splurges are an investment in myself.

    I recommend you buy plenty of deli flowers while you still live in Manhattan. As Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project advises), indulge in a modest splurge from time to time!


    1. Good point, Nihara. As Laura moves, those corner store bouquets won’t be as easy to come by. I just invested in a modest splurge (new wall sconce) and every time I look at it I smile. When I rest a candle on it this fall, it will make me smile all over again.

  5. There is an old saying: “If you have two loves of bread, sell one and buy flowers.” Good advice, I think.

  6. Thanks for the thoughts on this…definitely food for thought. Not sure I entirely agree with “Waste lies not in the number of possessions but in the failure to enjoy them.” as I do think sometimes it is the number of possessions that is the problem. Having said that, you could only really truly enjoy all your possessions if you didn’t actually have an overwhelming amount in the first place. 🙂 I also had a problem spending money on flowers – that is, until I fully realised how much happier in my space I am when they are around. It doesn’t mean that I go overboard but 15 euro for a small bunch that lasts a couple of weeks = endless moments of pleasure over that time also.

    BTW – your new garden sounds like it is awesome – what a bonus!

  7. Part of the point of living frugally is to have the money to actually enjoy life – not be burdened with debt or the anxiety that comes from living above your means. It doesn’t mean saving every single cent and never allowing yourself to have anything frivolous. You just have to be judicious about what “frivolity” you allow yourself!

    If you save money in lots of big and small ways, the hope is that you’ve created room in your budget for something lovely that you enjoy – whether its flowers occasionally, or a hobby, or a trip every year. If your frugal ways don’t help you to enjoy life more (whatever that looks like for you), what’s the point?

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