This is the last entry in an eight part weekly series that provides a detailed look at the book The Wisdom of Frugality by Emrys Westacott. If you’re new to the series, feel free to hop back to the first entry.
Let’s start off by recapping the other seven entries in this series.
What Is Simplicity? starts off by asking what is meant by “simplicity” in terms of how people live their lives and comes up with a number of meanings: economic prudence, living cheaply, being close to nature, being content with simple pleasures, asceticism (i.e., moral or religious reasons), physical or spiritual purity, living by a fixed routine, and aesthetic simplicity (such as a spartan apartment).
Why Simple Living Is Supposed to Improve Us digs into the idea that simplicity is supposed to make our lives better, offering four key reasons: it’s inherently good and fosters other virtues, it encourages happiness and well being, it can be beautiful, and it is in accordance with divine will. Westacott deals with each of those four reasons in depth here.
Why Simple Living Is Thought to Make Us Happier digs into the connection between happiness and simple living and offers nine reasons for that connection: it promotes virtue, it encourages working less, it provides all we need for happiness, it promotes serenity through detachment, it prepares one for hardships, it enhances capacity for pleasure, it fosters self-sufficiency and independence, it keeps one close to nature, and it promotes good health.
Why the Philosophy of Frugality Is a Hard Sell addresses the question indirectly posed in the previous chapter: if frugal living has such benefits, why don’t more people practice it? The big reason is that, although frugal living offers a bunch of benefits, it also has a bunch of drawbacks: it can lead to obsessive focus on savings, avoiding loss can turn into avoiding pleasure, it can make people uncharitable, and it can lead to a stagnant and boring life. At the same time, wealth and affluence have a great deal of appeal in very different dimensions of life.
The Pros and Cons of Extravagance takes the opposite angle and looks at the benefits and drawbacks of an affluent and extravagant life. A lifestyle of unaffordable extravagance is mostly criticized here (for good reason), but the ins and outs of extravagant living within one’s means (you earn a good income but spend well above what’s needed to merely meet your needs) are looked at carefully from both sides, in the end concluding that there’s a healthy balance to strike that’s different for everyone.
The Philosophy of Frugality in a Modern Economy takes on a common question about frugality: if everyone were frugal, wouldn’t that destroy the modern service-based economy? The counterargument given here is that the economy would likely stumble in the short term, but eventually the free market and the government would reorient themselves with solutions. Westacott offers a few potential ideas, including shorter workweeks and a slower pace of technological growth (allowing society to catch up and develop sensible societal practices around things like, say, social media).
The Environmentalist Case for Simple Living takes on the idea that simple living is great for the environment. While the two do have some strong overlap, the reality is that environmentalism and frugality, in the end, have different goals, and both sides are likely to adopt tactics (organic local foods, shopping for discounts, and so on) that the other side doesn’t value or even runs in opposition to the goals of the other side. Environmentalists and simple living types can and should share tactics, but they do diverge in many tactics and overall strategy.
As I read through this book and considered it through the lens of my own life and experiences and learning, I found myself coming to six distinct conclusions.
This is perhaps my biggest personal takeaway from The Wisdom of Frugality. Although my reasons for starting down a more frugal path were oriented heavily around finances, that’s only part of the reason that frugality has stuck firmly in my life.
One aspect of frugality that’s incredibly important to me is that it’s peaceful. I don’t feel stressed for money. I don’t worry that they won’t take my card at the grocery store because it’s maxed out or that I won’t have the cash in my checking account to buy food. I don’t really worry about money much at all at this point. I get a bit of personal pleasure and peacefulness out of finding the best “bang for the buck” for my money. I enjoy that sense of peace.
Another non-financial aspect of frugality that really clicks with me is that I’ve come to really value a more fixed routine in my life. Frugality and a fixed routine in life tend to go hand in hand. Earlier in my life, I didn’t schedule my time nearly as much and I found myself often stressed out and uncertain as to what I should be doing, and that often caused me to just throw money at problems that arose because of that stress and that unstructured life. My adoption of frugality and adoption of a more ordered and fixed routine in my life have gone hand in hand and have made my life much more peaceful.
That doesn’t mean that I avoid spontaneity, but more that an “ordinary day” for me is pretty structured, and that structure enables me to move forward on the things I care most about every single day.
Being Frugal Helps Make Me a Better Person in Other Aspects of Life
The practice of being frugal with my money, in the sense that I’m always looking for value for my dollar, has gradually led me to see out a similar sensibility with other resources I have in my life. My time. My energy. My focus. My physical health. My relationships. My skills.
In each of those areas, I have come to recognize that I need to invest some of myself in order to find the success that I want, but also that there is great value in figuring out how to get the most value out of those things. Sometimes, that can even mean applying more effort or time than I was doing before and simply doing it in a different way, such as in building strong social relationships.
What this has really come down to, more than anything, is figuring out what I actually value in life and what I need to do to achieve and acquire those things efficiently. For example, frugality is about acquiring things I need (or strongly want) with as much financial efficiency as possible. It’s not just frugality, though – many other practices are a part of my life because they’re about achieving or acquiring things I desire. I want more free time, so I tinker around with time management. I want a healthier body, so I experiment with diet and exercise. In each case, I’m working to figure out efficient and effective ways to get what I want out of life.
This even extends into areas that you might not really expect, like building and maintaining friendships. If I genuinely want more friendships, what do I need to do to build them effectively and efficiently? If I genuinely want to keep older friendships strong, what do I need to do to maintain them effectively and efficiently? Figuring out those tactics has made me into a more social person and a better friend to others – or at least closer to the type of person I want to meet in public and the type of person I’d want as a friend.
The first step is identifying a goal. The second step is figuring out how to get there as efficiently as possible. That’s a big part of frugality for me, and that principle has spread to most other areas of my life.
What I’ve found is that by being really frugal in the areas of my life that are less important to me, I can afford to spend more freely in areas that are really important to me.
Having money to occasionally travel with my family and with my wife is very important to me, so I put aside money to make sure it happens. My hobbies are very important to me, so I have a monthly hobby budget.
Things that aren’t important to me include having a new car every few years (we drive ours until a large number of mechanical problems pop up), having a huge home, having a refurbished kitchen with granite countertops, eating out constantly (I can make great food at home), having cable television, using name brand items for our household supplies and basic food staples, and so on. Not having those things really doesn’t bother me at all, so I don’t have those things. I simply don’t spend money on them if at all possible.
This is exactly the type of frugality that Westacott talks about in the chapter on extravagance. As Westacott points out, selective extravagance adds a great deal of joy and pleasure to life. It’s when that selective extravagance grows into extremes and invades areas of life that we don’t care as much about that it becomes a problem.
For me, those boundaries are set up by budgeting and by automatic transfers and bill pay. Most of our monthly financial moves are done almost automatically so that we know we’re heading towards our various goals and we know what money is set aside for the things we care about, like family vacations and hobbies and such.
I Am Not a Frugal “Absolutist”
I do not feel as though I have to be frugal in every single aspect of my life. During the periods in my life where I’ve done so for an extended period of time, I’ve found myself frustrated with the entire concept and usually ended up swinging back too far in the opposite direction, spending money with some recklessness.
Every single person out there is going to have a different set of values and a different set of things that are genuinely important to them. To me, frugality is about figuring out what those things are and then cutting back in other areas of life so that those things you truly care about are well supported.
That’s the “personal” part of personal finance. It’s a little different for everyone. I don’t expect you to care deeply about the same things I care deeply about. I don’t expect you to spend on the things I spend money on, or cut back on every single thing I cut back on.
Rather, you should be seeking out the things that are important to you and then seek out ways to live a simpler life with regards to all of those things you don’t care as much about, so that the things you do care about are well supported.
That means that some of the frugal tactics I write about are going to be fairly meaningless for you, and there are areas of life where you want to cut back where I don’t necessarily have a lot of experience because that cuts into an area that’s deeply meaningful for me and it’s not something that I actively cut into.
No one should be frugal in every aspect of their life. There is no aspect of life where everyone must be frugal. It’s all personal, and it comes down to figuring out what we each individually care about and then using tactics to maximize the support of those areas and minimize the expense of other areas.
A Big Part of My Reason for Writing About Frugality Is To Pierce the Veil of Frugality Being a Hard Sell
One of my main purposes of writing The Simple Dollar is to tear down the idea that frugality is some sort of burden to be worn as some kind of penance for overspending. Many people see frugality as a flavor of misery and thus, as Westacott points out, it can be a very hard sell.
I write because, to me, being frugal is simply a normal part of my life. It doesn’t make my life miserable. It doesn’t make my life weird. It makes my life better, every single day. It alleviates a lot of my financial worries without taking anything away from me that I care about, and it leaves me living a perfectly normal life.
It’s that normal life that I want to write about and share, so that people who read the site will gradually stop associating frugality with misery or with other negative traits and will perhaps start trying things on their own and realize for themselves that frugality is actually the opposite of misery.
Yes, figuring things out is sometimes a bit messy and difficult, and sometimes I do stumble into areas where I cut back too much. That’s part of life’s journey. On the whole, it’s not even close – I’d far rather be frugal as I am and enjoy all that it has brought into my life than be a big spender like I once was and be held down by the huge drawbacks of that lifestyle. I’ll take the “no worries” life that frugality gives me over the stress of financial problems any day of the week.
I Tend to Choose “Frugal” Over “Green,” Though I Highly Value Both
The last chapter in this book, where Westacott considers the overlaps and contradictions between simple living and environmentalism, helped me to really address that same overlap in my own life.
While I highly value “green” living and I especially value strategies that keep costs low in my life while also keeping my environmental footprint low, I’ve found that in the end I’m more likely to make the “frugal” choice than the “green” choice when they come into conflict with each other. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough that it’s a pretty sound general statement for me.
For example, I won’t invest some money and a lot of time into fixing up some old item just to bring it to a point of mediocre use. Instead, I’ll just go find a well-priced replacement for that item. Sure, I’ll probably look for it secondhand, but I think I’m far less interested in repairing broken down things than someone who would call themselves “green.” I tend to think that this kind of “green” appeals more to people with abundant time on their hands.
Another example: I don’t really obsess over buying certain produce just because it’s “organic” and “local.” Sure, given all things being equal, I’ll choose the local item or the organic item, but organic and local items don’t necessarily solve sustainability problems, either. In this regard, I don’t find easy answers like simply buying things that are labeled “organic” or “local” to be a compelling solution because there’s usually more to the story.
In the end, I think I need the “green” choice to be a very clear win, more so than I demand from the “frugal” choice. However, I’m usually glad when things overlap between the two.
Almost every page in The Wisdom of Frugality left me considering some aspect of why I am frugal and, to a smaller extent, why other people might choose to be frugal.
There’s always the obvious answer – “it saves money!” – but there really is more to it than that. The simple justification of saving fifty cents thanks to a frugal choice often isn’t enough to make that choice sustainably. It really has to come from the values you have in your life and relating those values to the decisions that you make. When that happens, the “choice” to save fifty cents by buying a store brand becomes much less of a “choice” and more of just a completely natural way of doing things.
In the end, the real lesson of this book is that frugality works best when you know what’s truly important to you and you’ve figured out how frugality works in accordance with those values. How does frugality support the things you truly care about? Does frugality let down things that you care about? When you start seeing patterns like that, frugality that’s really in line with your core values starts becoming a very wise choice.
If you’re interested in digging into these areas, you’re going to find a lot of value in The Wisdom of Frugality. If you’re just looking for a list of frugal tactics, you won’t find it here, but if you want to understand why people choose a frugal lifestyle on a deeper level beyond saving five dollars on this week’s grocery bill, this is a wonderful and thought provoking read.