August 24, 2020

What Does It Really Mean To Be Frugal?




I have not met many spendthrifts in my life. That word, spendthrift, can be confusing. It sounds like a good thing: Thrifty in your spending. But, no, it actually means the opposite. Wikipedia defines this as "a person who spends money in an extravagant, irresponsible way." I have known a few of these fine folks who spend more on cars or clothing or meals out than I can fathom. Luckily, for my sanity, they are the exception,

So, what does that make most people I know and me? Thrifty (without the spend suffix)? Budget-conscious? Cheap? Tight?

I am not a big fan of describing something as complex as a human with a simple label. See this post for more. But, if I must, in this context, I will go with frugal. Again, turning to my handy dictionary, this word means "sparing or economical with regard to money or food."

Add housing, clothing, transportation, vacations, and investments to that definition; I can live with that. OK, so frugal it is.

In my mind, I expand that precise definition with a few more descriptors:

I value my time. With a resource that is limited and never-to-be-replaced, unable to be purchased or inherited, frugality in its expenditure is critical. Waste my time, and I am wasting a part of my finite life. Misspend it or use it without forethought should not happen.

I know what makes me happy. Admittedly, this is a work in progress. In breaking rule #1 above, I am a spendthrift when I do something, or allow something to happen to me, that does not make me happy or satisfied. 

Of course, there are times in life when I cannot just do what puts a smile on my face or a warm glow in my gut. Paying quarterly taxes comes to mind. Colonoscopies qualify. My frugal self looks to minimize these occurrences to things that must be taken care of. 

I will pay for quality. Most of my Covid days are spent in T-shirts and shorts; shoes are optional. In this case, quality isn't really an issue. Is my body covered to socially-acceptable standards? Then, I am fine. A coffee maker? I don't need something that needs to be programmed like a space launch. Heat the water, force it through ground coffee, and shut off after two hours...perfect.

Quality does become a factor when something that will make me happy (see above) for an extended period of time is purchased. That could be something like a new computer, or smartphone. Certainly, a TV or furniture that will be looked at and used for years.  A new mattress? Yessir. 

Skimping on high use, long term, often more expensive items is not frugal. It is cheap and counterproductive. After all, how much fun is it to go to a mattress store? How often do you want to reprogram a new computer? Point made.


I will spend more in certain areas. Taking the whole family to Disney World for ten days of fun and memories. Renting a house in Flagstaff for a Christmas celebration. A trip overseas to experience things that cannot be replicated at home. 

Are these fugal choices for me? Time spent with family, my wife, and making memories is the best possible use of my time. These activities make me happy. They are quality experiences. So, check, check, and check. They fit all three criteria listed above.

One more personal quirk that fits my definition of frugal: I overtip. Years ago, both my daughters worked as waitresses or hostesses. Very quickly, I learned about the importance of good tipping. These front-line workers are usually badly underpaid. They can survive only if customers leave an appropriately sized tip.

Few things get under my skin more than seeing a group of people leave a table and stiff the server by leaving no tip, or even worse, a token amount, like a dime. That is a slap in the face, a mark of disrespect that has no place in public. 

I will overtip every time because I know how much more that person needs those few dollars than I. If the service is exceptional, or the server makes an extra effort over some part of the experience, my tip will double. The satisfaction of bringing joy to someone else is worth the cost.

Honestly, even if the service leaves much to be desired, a decent tip is still left. That person has issues and problems I don't know about. The kitchen staff may be to blame. The number of tables to be served may be overwhelming. I don't know. But, it is not right to take it out on someone who is just like me: trying to make it through the day. 

Now, with Covid pretty much destroying the livelihood of these folks, I will look for ways to help them. Overtipping on delivery and tipping well even when I pick up a takeout meal is a concrete action I can take to help.


Not frugal...cheap
This tipping example is not meant to win a pat on the back from anyone. Rather, it is an example of how being a frugal person doesn't mean being cheap. 

Too often frugality equates to cheap. Example? When I searched for a picture that would convey frugality in a positive light, this photo popped up. No, squeezing every dollar is not being frugal. In fact, with a focus on quality, it is just the opposite.


Being frugal is a state of mind as much as it is an action. It is a lifestyle choice that is satisfying to me.


This young man does a good job of describing the differences between cheap and frugal. If interested, feel free to click the play button in the middle of the video. 




32 comments:

  1. The way I’ve always basically divided frugal from cheap is that being frugal is not detrimental to others, while being cheap always is in some way.

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    1. That's a simple way to determine the difference.

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  2. It's generally good to be frugal as you describe it Bob but, as you say and especially in retirement, spending on quality for things we'll be living with for years or for experiences with loved ones is money well spent. As the old saying goes "You'll never see a Brinks truck following a hearse to the grave yard".

    I come from a long line of thrifty Presbyterian Scots that tended to live a long time. The family joke is: "They found out you can't take it with you".

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    1. As I said, I still struggle a bit with the "spending money on quality" aspect of successful frugality. I also come from thrifty Scots and Depression kids, so it is a deeply ingrained part of me.

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  3. Nice article! To me cheap borders on being stingy, where frugal assigns value to where you spend your money. I will shop for the least expensive quality product but I will spend money when it comes to making memories. I also feel a need to budget for charities where I receive no direct benefit other than being a good steward of our good fortune.

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    1. CHarity donations is a good part of the discussion to bring up. There is no direct link between money given to a charity and oneself. So, there must be another form of satisfaction that allows a frugal person to give.

      That would be a feeling of helping, of using one's resources in a responsible way. So, frugality can be more inclusive than just what it does for the individual. That would seem to reinforce your "cheap borders on stingy where frugal assigns value to where you spend your money" statement.

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  4. I read a couple of blogs with 'frugal' themes and have struggled to understand why they think they are frugal. To me, it seems more like they chase sales to save pennies. Like you, I value my time and won't go to six places to get a better bargain.

    Cheapskates are hard to be friends with. They are constantly looking for ways to get others to pick up their tabs at restaurants, in my experience, or to get the management to comp their meal for some petty reasons. We quit eating out with a couple because of their cheapness. It was embarrassing.

    I love Laura's statement (up above) on frugal and cheap. I once dated a guy who was so frugal/cheap that when the restaurant raised the cost of coffee ten cents, he reduced that dime from his tip which was already calculated at 5%.

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    1. To me a good example of what your talking about would be people who are extreme couponers. That seems to be as much about beating the system as actually getting things one needs. SOme would call them frugal. I would not.

      The cheapness on tips or trying to get a comped meal when it isn't deserved would drive me nuts, too. My in-laws used to tip 5-10% but be sure to let everyone know the amount of the tax on the meal would be deducted before calculating the tip. And, don't even get me started on people who leave no tip if they go to a buffet. There are people who work behind the food lines and people who clean and prep the tables. A tip for them is just common decency.

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  5. Like Anne in the kitchen comments, "frugal assigns value to where you spend your money." There's also an element of short term gain vs long term benefit for me. I'm willing to forego lunch/dinner out on a regular basis for an exceptional night out or for vacation spending. Part of that value and long term benefit is the peace of mind I enjoy knowing that there's an emergency fund.

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    1. It is about assigning value to something, whether it is a real item or a memory/experience. Like you, we will skip a few smaller pleasures to prepare for something more meaningful and lasting.

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  6. This topic made me smile thinking about my dad. I would say he was frugal, as he didn't hesitate to spend money on travel or good restaurant meals, but in other ways he really pinched pennies. I think it was a lifelong habit from being raised in the Depression. He loved cars and had a new one every couple years when I was young. My mom says driving a new car was non-negotiable in their budget when they were first married. When he got older, he delighted in finding good deals on slightly used cars and telling the story of how he found them, dickered with the seller, etc. Ironically, he really disliked "cheapskate" behavior. We had one uncle who really was a cheapskate and my dad claimed whenever they went out to eat with them, my uncle would find a way to use the restroom when it was time for the check to arrive and my dad would end up paying. It's funny to me, but he wasn't amused. LOL.

    We grew up with a raised consciousness re: money, I think. We all knew we had to support ourselves and we've all done that reasonably well. But it's also given all six of us some pretty interesting money behaviors where money is involved, i.e. we each internalized it in our own way. I worry about money quite a bit, spend on things that are important to me, and I don't like people who try to 'cheap' out. When I was single between my marriages, I dated a guy that asked me to attend a dance with him. As we drove to the dance hall, he turned to me and said he had forgotten to tell me there was a cover charge, so he hoped I had $3 with me. Needless to say, I was floored. He also asked me if I wanted a glass of wine, but pointed out that he suggested water, as the bartender would give it to us free. Haha. He didn't last long, and he's forever memorialized in my dating history as Cheap Pete.

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    1. Paying your own cover charge is pretty bad. One of my daughters dated a fellow only once for the same type reason. He invited her out to dinner, which turned out to be McDonalds. That would not have been a dealbreaker, but he asked her to split the cost. I have no idea what his last name was, but Cheap Pete will work.

      Your story of the two brothers (your dad and his brother) is illustrative of the reality that being frugal or cheap or even a spendthrift does not necessarily run in the family. Each of us come to our own conclusions in this area.

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  7. For some people, frugal is about spending on where it is important to you, and not spending on other areas, and cheapness is often at the expense of others. However the reality is that for an awful lot of people incuding many retirement bloggers I read, frugall is more about the diffrence between making it or not making it and cutting down the number of times on eats out (for example) has no relevance to them. I know lots of folks for whom it is absolutely necesssary to live, many of them in online forums and many, as I said, bloggers and etirement bloggers. For them so called re-allocation is not the same thing. While I am not them I see the difficulty with using the phrase frugality to describe adding extra money to investments accounts, or eating out three times instead of five. I tend to look at frugality as the alloction of resources available, but that's me.

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    1. For awhile I used to read a lot of frugal and simple living blogs. They didn't fit my definition of what frugality should be, nor did I find the competitive nature of their approach to be satisfying.

      That said, your point is well taken. We bring our own meaning to that word. For someone to pinch pennies to have a decent life doesn't make them cheap, it makes them realistic and that could be defined as frugal. As a few folks have mentioned so far, cheapness if more often something that hurts others in some way. Frugality is an individual approach to spend on things that are meaningful to that individual.

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  8. Hi Bob! Being frugal the way you describe it is exactly the "rightsizing way!' I couldn't have said it better myself. :-). And yes, I completely agree. Plus, as I wrote in a blog post a while ago, "Cheap isn't always a bargain!" In fact it is often more expensive AND much more of a headache! ~Kathy

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    1. Planned obsolescence is is fact of life today. Tools or furniture made 100 years ago often remain in use. A clothes washer made in the 70s or 80s was more solidly constructed than something in the last twenty years. Unfortunately, that is a fact of life.

      To your point, taking the time to buy a quality product is usually a time-saver in the long run. I am not a happy shopper so buying something well made reduces the number of times I must shop.

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    2. It is possible to buy high quality appliances that last but they are expensive (our washer, dryer, and dishwasher are all tested to last 20 years - we are at 12 years and counting). People so often get distracted by price rather than value and I think that's what is being talked about here.

      A book I read a few years ago called "Cheap - The High Cost of Discount Culture" discusses this in depth. The forward starts with... "America has been transformed by its relentless fixation on low price. This pervasive yet little examined obsession is arguably the most powerful and devastating market force of our time"

      As I said it's a few years old but worth a read => https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6431585-cheap

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    3. Companies like Walmart have grabbed a large share of our business with that low price model. You are right: that appeal has its hooks in many of us. Amazon has done the same thing online, with all the addons to its Prime service and prices that are usually as low as any brick and mortar location. The hidden costs of underpaid workers and lower quality come with the lowest price, but that doesn't seem to stop people from following its model.

      Good quality appliances are much more expensive than what is found at discount locations. But, our experience has been they break, too, and the repair bills are higher. You are doing well with 12 years under your belt!

      BTW, if someone wants the paperback version of that book it is $19...not exactly Cheap!

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  9. I agree with being a generous tipper. What I would prefer to see is elimination of tipping waitstaff as a primary portion of their income. Include a reasonable surcharge in the meal pricing and pay the staff accordingly. Perhaps 20%. What other service do we get to decide how much we will pay for it or if we will pay at all. Try that on your plumber or barber. If the new prices are outside your budget pick a different restaurant. Those of us that tip well are giving the cheapies a free ride.

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    1. That is an excellent point. While tipping was originally thought of as a way of rewarding outstanding service, that is no longer the case. It is essential to the livelihood of many of our service workers.

      Another option is to pay the wait staff the minimum wage (inching toward $12-15 in many places) and then tips actually serve their planned purpose....money above and beyond what supports that worker.

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  10. Dear Bob, Amen, especially, about the tipping.

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  11. I think “frugal” is a state of mind, and once you get comfortable there, it becomes easy to live that way. In order to save for retirement,we became frugal.Then,those habits were ingrained and we still practice frugality.Like you, we do spend on quality, on memories, and on experiences and items to truly enhance our lives and relationships. With Covid, we now eat almost 100% of our meals at home, that’s breakfast lunch and dinner. I spend more on quality groceries and treats , as we need to enjoy those meals! We saw what trump was doing with China about 18 months ago and decided to improve our home “infr a structure” before costs went up due to tariffs. It was time for a new mattress, a new refrig, and a carpet replacement in our guest room. Those items will last for years. And we LOVE our home, are homebodies in a big way, We feel those investments are frugal since we bought quality, PLUS we get so much PLEASURE out of them!! We’ve learned how to travel on a budget and get maximum bang for the buck, and I buy any clothes I “need” at a local consignment store—I love the thrill of the hunt! Tipping, yes we always tip well, but lately not dining out at all. We seek to obtain the maximum Joy from the dollars we spend, not to penny pinch till it hurts!

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    1. We are in the market for a new mattress, too, but wonder if in-person shopping is permitted. That is not something we would buy without testing it first. The one we have now is about 13 years old and I can feel some dips.

      Yes, tipping has been a lost art for us the last several months. I do tip for carryout and the few times we have had delivered meals, but being served at a table stopped in March.

      Our normal pattern is to prepare new meals for one week, and then have those leftovers the next. Our food budget is actually a bit less than it was before Covid, except for a major pantry stock up when grocery shortages started in late March.

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  12. I am the first to say that I am frugal but not cheap. My first wife would buy my children’s Levi’s at Walmart. They fell apart or wore out before they were outgrown. That doesn’t happen to clothes of fast growing children, a pair of jeans should clothe 3-4 kids before wearing out.

    This was when I learned of the pricing power of large retailers. They told Levi Strauss, we will pay you “x” for a pair of jeans. Levi’s said ok, but what was sold wasn’t a pair of Levi’s, but an inferior knock off made by them.

    I always pay for quality clothing, it lasts!

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    1. I will buy brand name underwear and crew socks at Walmart, but other clothing, no. They last a season, or I pass a T-shirt down to Betty after the first wash and dry cycle because it shrank so much.

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  13. Bob, I think our approach to spending is similar to yours. We go for less expensive when it doesn't matter, aim for high quality at the best price available when we need something to last, and prefer to spend discretionary funds on travel and other activities and experiences that create happiness and lasting memories. Generic brand foods or meds are fine as long as they taste good and are nutritionally or medically equivalent to the more expensive ones. But we readily spent good money on the Honda generators we use when camping due to their reputation for high quality and quiet operation. We know we delayed our retirement by a number of years because we were always passionate about travel, and we always incorporated enjoyable vacations into our annual budgets. Everyone has different personal and financial priorities, and chooses to spend their money in different ways. We have a boat and an RV because we enjoy spending so much time outdoors. Friends of ours never travel or spend time outdoors, but they have a top quality in-home theater set up that's absolutely amazing. To each his own. I do tend to differentiate between regular spending and spending on what we consider "investments." Regular spending to me is related to everyday expenses - we spend money on gas, groceries, insurance, taxes. But we invested in a boat, an RV, bikes, kayaks and travel because they are all items that bring us enjoyment and continue to enrich our lives. People may look at our lifestyle and say that we're in no way frugal, but that's not true. By being frugal in areas of less importance to us (and, perhaps, invisible to others), we were able to divert funds toward our personal (and more visible) priorities.

    “Being frugal doesn’t mean slashing your spending or depriving yourself of things that you enjoy. It means knowing the value of a dollar and making every effort to spend it wisely.” (Frank Sonnenberg)

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    1. Medicines are a good example of being frugal. I can't remember the last time we bought a brand name drug if a generic is available. In our mind tHere is no justification for paying so much more to support their advertising and promotion.

      Our definition of frugal matches yours. We "invest" in experiences and high quality items that we expect to last for a long time. We buy lower quality when the product is disposable and replacement is no big deal. Example? Walmart's brand of furniture polish does just as good a job as Pledge, but at a lower cost.

      On the other side, Walmart's condensed soup are a poor substitute for Campbells or Progresso. Great Value brands have more sodium and fewer vegetables or bits of chicken.

      Something that enriches our lives is worth paying extra for, as long as it fits the budget and doesn't cause us to skrimp or skip something else that is important.

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  14. I am definitely frugal but I won't hesitate to spend money on something that adds value to my life. Case in point - I just spent money to have special cabinets made for my studio so I had more storage and workspace. I didn't hesitate while I know others would never have done it. I'm also lucky that my frugality while I was working has allowed me these niceties now. My mom always told me "buy what you really like and you'll never remember how much it cost". It's sure true.

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    1. That is a good, example, Linda, of money spent to enrich life's experiences. The "unfrugal" version would be to build a storage shed in your backyard to store a bunch of stuff you no longer need or use but can't get rid of.

      Interestingly, Betty and I are are reworking her office to make a painting space for both of us. Her side of the house has much better natural light than my office ever gets. So, we are investing time and some money to make the rearrangement happen.

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  15. I am by nature and upbringing quite frugal in my habits. However, as a writer and person who paints, I am quite frustrated by the “buy only low cost stuff” approach as applied to handmade pieces of art, crafts, and publications. For example, my studio tour art group hosts studio tours a couple of times a years (but cancelled during Covid). The public is invited to tour around through our community and come into our home art studios and galleries to see our work and where we create our work. I typically welcome well over 100 visitors every weekend tour, but 99.9% are not interested in purchasing art. They’re merely looking for a “free” weekend activity and the chance to snoop at someone else’s home. When I attend art events, I always go with the intention to support the artists and artisans. Sometimes my budget only supports the purchase of a small item, but I have also invested in many more expensive pieces. The walls of my home are covered with beautiful paintings, prints, and carvings that I have purchased from many local artists, and my cupboards are full of handmade pottery which we use in place of fine china when we entertain. Similarly, I feel frustrated with the attitude of some members of my book club, who will do anything to avoid purchasing the monthly book we are reading. If they can’t get it from the library, they’ll borrow a copy, or failing that, not read it. These are all well-to-do people. I realize many people are downsizing and don’t want to accumulate more stuff, not even books. However, our local library welcomes donations, and there are many little free libraries where books can be dropped off once the purchaser is finished with them. Fiction book publishers have a very thin margin, to the point that they will only take on an author if they are sure that his/her book will sell well. Refusing to buy books ultimately will reduce the range of works that will be available, and many great manuscripts will never see print.

    Jude

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    1. All your points are excellent. In all honesty, i will admit that Betty and I go to both local art shows in larger venues, as well as the neighborhood art tours, as something to do more than a time to buy something. Your point about support for local artisans is right and I will change my ways in the future. No $5,000 original oils I am afraid, but something smaller and unique.

      I just bought two books today. The library had neither and they came highly recommended, so they will be read and then donated to the library for resale.

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