Is life more difficult for those of us who are frugal?

Published November 14, 2016   Posted in How to Think

Here’s an interesting question: If you live a frugal life, is your life harder than the life of someone who spends a great deal more money than you? Or, is it easier?

And: If you’re frugal because you have to be, rather than because you choose to be, does that change the scenario?

To this humble blogger, life becomes measurably easier when living frugally.

What does it mean to live “frugally”? Does it mean sacrificing the nicer things in life? Sometimes, but not always. Frugal people know value better than perhaps anyone. Value is a measure of worth within the context of your family. Once we understand the true meaning of value and how it impacts our life, our decision-making process becomes that much more effective.

For example, a frugal person may not opt for the cheapest t-shirt in the store. If another brand offers a better quality product, but at a higher price, the more expensive option might be the better buy because it will last longer. Remember, frugal does not equal cheap.

Frugal living beats many of the alternatives

Compare frugal living to those who live paycheck-to-paycheck. Naturally, worry over finances is the source of profound stress for many Americans. Losing a job means the dependable source of income is no longer guaranteed, jeopardizing the livelihood of the family. Living frugally, on the other hand, often implies a savings account. It means we are spending less than we are making, generally by a wide margin. It means we have money left over month-to-month.

Now, compare frugal living to a high-income earner who treats him or herself to the nicer things in life. It’s great to make lots of money, but high spending habits put us in a position of weakness. Spending large amounts of money creates a scenario where we NEED a high-income just to keep up with our lifestyle. Often, it means we can’t take a sabbatical without significantly curtailing our outward flow of cash. Or take a less stressful but lower-paying job. Our options are limited.

Finally, match frugal living up with a person with inherited wealth. It’s great to fall ass-backwards into money, but what happens to that money when it’s not earned? When money is not earned, it’s also not appreciated. It is not an accomplishment. In other words, it’s not valued. When we don’t understand how value influences our decisions, we quickly squander our would-be advantages and replace them with self-inflicted weaknesses and incredible debt.

What happens when we are frugal?

Again, frugal people are not cheap. While they do very often spend less money than the average consumer, they do so because they assess value differently. They are typically much more resourceful, and they conserve and squeeze the most out of everything that they buy.

They are economical. Believing in maximum output with minimal input, frugal people tend to be less wasteful and aware of the influence that the things they buy have on their life.

Frugality is about living smarter.

Smarter with money – buy based on value, not based purely on cost. The previous example about the t-shirt illustrates a scenario where price may not necessarily equate to value. Most often, we get what we pay for. It is our job to assess how much value we truly need out of the things that we buy. It’s a balancing act, and it can take some practice to get right.

Smarter with time – use Pareto’s 80/20 principle to maximize your time spent doing…well, everything. Very often, we are most productive during a few relatively short periods of the day. Take advantage of these times by doing the things that make the biggest difference in your life. That’s right – don’t clean the bathtub during your productive hours. Work on your start-up business. Write an article for your blog. Apply for that job. Do that assignment that should have been done weeks ago. Whatever means the most to you and your future, do it!

Smarter with skills – fix your own car, when possible. Replace that faucet instead of hiring a plumber. Become your very own “Mr. Fix-It” and stop paying for someone else’s labor whenever you can. You will make mistakes along the way, but that’s how we humans learn. We don’t learn a thing by doing everything right the first time.

When we are frugal…

…we can take a sabbatical without a second thought about finances. We have enough saved to withstand a sudden loss of our job. An emergency would likely not bankrupt us.

If we begin to hate our job, we can move on to something else, even if that means earning less. In fact, we can simply quit on the spot if things get bad enough. Virtually anything is possible when we don’t live paycheck-to-paycheck.

My dad used to tell me: “You can have anything you want, but not everything“. He was right.

And frugal people know this first hand.

We track our net worth using Personal Capital


50 responses to “Is life more difficult for those of us who are frugal?”

  1. I never considered myself frugal, Steve. But, the way you describe it here resonates with me 100%!

    I suppose it’s all relative to our own situations. Like you said, being frugal doesn’t mean being cheap. I definitely understand where I can create the highest economic utility with a purchase, and thus choose to forgo spending in other areas which do not provide the same amount of utility. I’d say that’s being smarter with my money.

    I also value my time much higher than most. And as far as skills, I definitely have had my fair share of blunders (which I tried to learn from). I guess I’m more frugal than I thought! Happy Monday!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Michael. Yeah, some of us might be more frugal than we realized because those decisions just come so naturally to us, now. We don’t even think about them. That is definitely a good habit to have!

  2. Totally agree about living smarter as frugal and it being easier and your point that “frugal does not equal cheap” is incredibly important. I love my secretary at work and we’ve been friends for years. Every month or two she is changing around something at home and we end up picking some things up from her from the store because she can’t fit things in her car. She thinks she is frugal – but the buying never ends. She lives in a house bigger than ours (and I have two kids – she hasn’t had one at home in 30+ years…). She is always thinking about paying bills and what she bought – it makes me tired thinking just thinking about it! I just bought some nice dress boots for work. My last pair cost $100 and lasted 10 years. I expect these to do the same – great quality and super comfortable. Frugal – not cheap is our motto too!

    • Steve says:

      Beautiful, Vicki! I’d say $100 for boots that last 10 years is an outstanding buy. Most of my shoes definitely don’t last that long! 🙂

    • Trilby says:

      Love the point about the boots. This is the mindshift I’m working on — to buy better quality, even if it costs more, so that it will last longer. Sometimes it feels like nothing is made to last in our consumer-centred world. But I guess that’s where my favourite part of frugal living comes in — DIY!

  3. I agree Steve, living frugal is not the same as cheap. I don’t necessarily by the least expensive item or don’t buy expensive things. I just don’t waste money on things I don’t really want or need. Happiness comes in because then I don’t have to worry about money. One less thing to stress and worry about, which is worth every penny.

    • Steve says:

      Hey FTF! Yeah, not wasting money on crap that doesn’t actually make you happy is huge. If everyone would at least do THAT, they’d already be years and years ahead of their assumed retirement schedule. I’d probably be retired *NOW*. And well said – not worrying about money is definitely worth every penny. 🙂

  4. Right on, Steve. Frugal living provides a great life of flexibility with less worries about money. While I’m not financial independent yet, I know that if I reach the point of burn out with my well paying job I can quit and be just fine. This is a much better feeling than being trapped in my job and only working for the paycheck!

  5. I think people who are frugal because they choose to be have greater peace of mind. When you live below your means, have little debt and a high savings rate, you have much more control over your life than the person who spends every last penny. Having control of our own situation is what really leads to happiness. So in terms of happiness, I do think those who live below their means have an easier life.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, Go F Yourself. “Having control of our own situation is what really leads to happiness.” I couldn’t have said it better myself! And yep, life definitely becomes easier when you control your financial life rather than the other way around.

  6. Steve, no doubt that living on less than you earn is the lowest stress path through life. It’s sad how few people realize it, especially in our materialistically obsessed culture. Thanks for reminding us all!

  7. Along the lines of “smarter with money, time, skills” I love the efficiency of living frugally. I think people imagine that frugality requires spending endless hours hanging laundry to dry and making chicken stock from scratch. In my mind, cutting out the extra shopping trips, storing and maintaining possessions, and eliminating wasteful spending actually saves lots of time, energy, and worry.

    • Steve says:

      True that, Kalie. I’m sure they also assume that “frugal” means “cheap”, too – or buying crappy products instead of nicer alternatives. But, those of us who actually are frugal recognize the fallacy of that assumption. It just doesn’t work that way. 🙂

  8. I think being frugal definitely makes life easier. Since we got married 10+ years ago, I don’t think there has been a single day we’ve worried about money. And this includes the time our first child was born while my wife was still in college.

    Even now, I’ve only worked sporadically the last 3 months and nothing has changed. I’m just now beginning to look at freelance gigs, not that we need money, but for the challenge of trying something new.

    It seems that the effort to spend money (driving from store to store, browsing online, etc.), let alone the work required to maintain that habit, would be exhausting. No thanks, I have better things to do.

    • Steve says:

      That’s pretty bad ass, DTG! Never having to worry about money is a huge, huge advantage. The decisions that you made enabled that to happen, too – making frugal living that much more satisfying.

  9. Mr. PIE says:

    Completely agree Steve on all of this. Mindful intentional spending has been our mantra for some time now and having come from the spendy world, I am amazed at how liberating and actually “easy” it is.

    We ares till stymied by enough time to get work projects done (still rely on contractors for many things) with two of us working and two kids to care for, but in FIRE we know that will change. Like you, we are also not scared about messing things up on the first try. Three trips to Lowes, Home Depot for tools and supplies may become only one and then we will know that we are making some progress!!

  10. Nice post Steve. I think that people often use the terms frugal and cheap interchangeably, but they are not the same. Cheap is just cheap and it’s not a compliment. It often leads to being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

    Frugal is about being smart and deliberate with your spending. Frugal people can be very generous and may spend a lot of money on things they value – like RVs!

  11. “My dad used to tell me: “You can have anything you want, but not everything“. He was right.” – that’s great – I love it!

    Warren Buffett says something similar about his kids. He said he wants to leave them “enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing”. 🙂

  12. I guess you could say frugal living does require more effort to be frugal sometimes…. but that really doesn’t make life more “difficult”.

    Quite the opposite in fact. Frugality makes life easier in many ways…we don’t have to life with the stress of life on the financial edge.

  13. Steve, you’re right on the money here, in my opinion. Focusing on value – of time, energy, and quality is the key. Honestly, I can’t imagine living any other way. To me, there’s such a satisfaction in creating, growing and DIYing things myself (and focusing my energy where it counts!).

    • Steve says:

      Amen to that, Amanda. To me there’s no other way to live either. I don’t even miss 99% of the stuff that we used to spend money on, either. What a waste.

  14. I totally agree with you here Steve. This is the problem that a lot of high income earners fall into. You’d think that having that huge paycheck makes things easier, but if you spend a ton, it actually makes things harder. If you’re making hundreds of thousands a year and spending hundreds of thousands, it means you’ve limited your options. You can only take jobs or do work that makes you that same amount of money. Someone living frugally has a world of options, on the other hand.

    It’s part of the reason I was able to take a 50k paycut and quit a job I really hated. If I was spending all of my income, my only option would have been to stick it out or find another similar job that I also probably would have hated.

    • Steve says:

      Yup! The more stuff we have, the more complicated life tends to be. No question about it. More to maintain. More to replace when it breaks. More to pay for. And like you said, those habits begin to pigeon hole us into jobs that we must maintain just for the benefit of paying for all that crap!

  15. My life has become so much easier since we transitioned to a frugal lifestyle. I don’t have to worry about what we’re eating (there’s a planned menu), I don’t have to worry about saving for retirement (it’s being done), I don’t have to worry about having enough money in the bank (it’s there).

    Sure, it required some work to learn how to be frugal, but wow, it’s made life so much easier as far as what I no longer have to worry about.

    I don’t think we miss out on “nice” things at all. In fact, we’re frugal because we refuse to buy crap. Sure, that means we only buy things once every now and then, but we save money and sanity because the products last two to three times as long as cheaper products.

    It’s fine if people want to live a spendy lifestyle, but in all honesty, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    • Steve says:

      I find that living frugally snowballs, too. It does take some effort to learn, but once you do and begin living like that, everything else gets easier from a money perspective because we begin thinking about things in a very different way. Things that we thought we needed…maybe we don’t. Things that we believed to be status symbols no longer seem to matter.

      I wouldn’t have it any other way either.

  16. Roadrunner says:

    The way I separate frugality from being cheap is the following: If you save money while you’re still able to make your loved ones happy, you’re frugal in the good sense. You need to find a good balance as ultimately the aim of this lifestyle is not about having as much money as possible, but living as happy life as possible. Financial independence is a great way to achieve this, but you need to pay attention on the way: don’t turn into a cheapskate!

    • Steve says:

      Indeed! Don’t turn into a cheapskate because that definitely isn’t what frugality is all about. It’s about living a BETTER life, not a worse one. 🙂

  17. Finding value and maximizing the happiness we get per dollar is what it’s all about. We are happy spending very little – not having to go to work helps – and still get to live a pretty luxurious life. You make a good point about not being limited by how much cash we have available. If being frugal was not optional, it probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable.

    • Steve says:

      I tend to agree that it probably wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable. When we feel “required” to live a certain way, it’s only natural to resist! 🙂

  18. Mr. SSC says:

    I think frugality is freeing as long as it’s not forced frugality. Having experienced that, as well as my current being “frugal” for frugal sake, forced frugality sucks…

    I like our balance of comfortable, but not lavish. Being cheap gets expensive because like others commented, the cheap stuff doesn’t last because it’s not quality. That was one of the better lessons I learned early on.

    I’d say frugality is pretty easy, but only after you get out of whatever financial mindset you’re currently in and embrace it voluntarily. Then, just like any habit it’s pretty easy.

    • Steve says:

      I definitely agree with you, Mr. SSC, that frugality is actually pretty easy once we escape the mindset that we were once in. That job is easier for some of us than for others, but I personally believe that *ANY* of us can escape it…if we allow ourselves to think beyond our current lifestyle.

  19. TJ says:

    I agree with all of this.

    The only exception is in regards to inheritances. If I ever have the fortune of inheriting money someday, I’d be damn sure to appreciate it and make sure I’m a good steward of it and pass it on to the next generation or philanthropic organizations.

    Inheritances make me feel awkward though…if you have enough to know there will be some leftover to help your kids, help them while you’re all still alive…

    • Steve says:

      Excellent point, TJ! If I ever become the beneficiary of something like that, I definitely plan on using it the best way we know how. After living frugally and saving our asses off, I’m sure appreciating that money won’t be too awfully difficult.

  20. John says:

    I have found life is easier the simpler that you can structure it – and still feel content with your situation. As we accumulated more “stuff” it seems that we spend more time repairing/maintaining/etc. that same “stuff” that we had to have! Do we own or stuff? Or does it own us?

    Of course, HAVING to live more frugally than you’d chose to can be a drag. It seems to be human nature to think about what we DON’T have…..and then when we do, please re-read the first paragraph. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.

    Great post.


    • Steve says:

      Very true, John! The grass always looks greener, but it rarely is. It’s just a different kind of grass, often sporting the very same color. I’ve seen that time and time again in corporate America as I know you have as well.

  21. Mrs. BITA says:

    Being frugal has another very nice side effect. It keeps you off the hedonic treadmill. When we were young we ate out hardly ever (think once or twice a year) and I remember being oh-so-very-excited every time we did. I want my daughter to have the same sort of excitement and appreciation for the smaller, regular things in life. I want this for us too – we can afford to have fancy beer and a nice bottle of wine every week. Should we? No. I want us to really appreciate those things when we do have them.

    • Steve says:

      Excellent point, BITA! Things like going out to eat should be a treat, not the norm. We’ve gotten to that point as well here in our family because we limit our monthly restaurant budget to around $50. That ain’t much, so we make it count!

  22. Miss Mazuma says:

    Nice to see your perspective. I am frugal by nature but more so now that I am pursuing FI. I haven’t found it difficult so much as eye opening where some of my money was going. It has definitely helped me to become less wasteful. But you’re right, there is a huge difference between doing it out of necessity and doing it our of choice. I consider it a privilege that I have the option to spend less than what I earn and am grateful everyday. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Miss Mazuma! I definitely agree that it was eye-opening to see where my money was going, too. I think I always kinda knew, but I just didn’t want to admit to myself that I was blowing so much of it. So very, very much! Hehe. 🙂

  23. Mrs. Grumby says:

    Love the comment about frugality and smarter living. Stepping off of the consumer hamster wheel and making the decision to live frugally offers so many opportunities to bring awareness and intention to all aspects of life. Since my husband and I started reining in our expenses in the name of early retirement, we not only spend less but we eat more healthfully, get more exercise, and we’re much happier.

    • Steve says:

      That’s a good point, Mrs. Grumby. Eating more health is very often a byproduct of spending less money. It’s true that healthy foods CAN cost more than their processed alternatives, cooking more at time, vise eating out, is definitely a money-saver for MOST of us. 🙂

  24. I couldn’t agree more. I just blogged about something similar – it’s hard to enjoy anything you are forced to do. If you HAVE to go to work to pay for your spending habits you feel trapped. Living a more frugal lifestyle gives you a LOT of freedom. You can work if you want to, but you don’t need to. You can walk away from a job that sucks.

    And more important, frugality results in the realization that buying stuff almost never leads to lasting happiness. Having a Tesla would probably be a lot of fun for the first few weeks or month, but after that it would be just another car. But having that $100,000 in the bank would be a permanent buffer against financial catastrophe. That’s something that increases your happiness every single day.

  25. Michael says:

    I think it is harder when fighting the “keeping up with the Joneses” mindset and peer pressure of societal “norms”. I have family members who should be comfortably retired at 45, but with every massive increase in earnings, they massively increase their spend. This leads to stress in their lives and golden handcuffs. When we are out together, I make frugal choices that sometimes embarrass my wife, but she is coming around slowly but surely.

    • Steve says:

      It’s way too easy to increase spending when income goes up. I fell into that trap, too. The further down you go, the longer it takes to climb out of. It’s possible but tougher!

Leave a Reply