Frugality and the Myth of Self-Denial
A few Christmases ago, I splurged and bought myself a new scarf. Granted, it was expensive by my standards (around $18.00 for a scarf that was little more than a long strip of gray jersey material). Not my wisest purchase, but splurges are seldom wise.
A few days after I bought it, I wore the scarf to a holiday dinner. A relative who knows of my writing on the topics of personal finance, simple-living, and frugality asked about my new scarf and chuckled when I told her where I bought it. She said, “See, I knew you couldn’t be as frugal as you claim. It’s ridiculous to buy such a simple thing that you could have easily made yourself!” She was right. I could have made the scarf for much less, and I knew it. But her comment illustrated a larger truth; people mistakenly think that we frugal folks operate in a perpetual state of self-denial, that we always make the most sensible purchases, and that we are never, ever extravagant.
This misconception does two disservices to frugal folks and aspiring savers alike. First, it implies that the only way to live simply and be debt-free is to deny yourself everything (conveniently, this serves as a perfect rationale for people to skip the whole thing and just stick with their current behavior). Second, it oversimplifies the experience and true goal of frugality, which is to consciously limit our expenditures on most things so we can, from time-to-time, indulge on a few things or achieve one or two major goals.
Simply put, frugality isn’t about self-denial — at least not entirely. It’s about logically and purposely directing where our resources go to accomplish specific ends. When frugal folks indulge in a weekly $4 coffee, it’s a momentary motivator and rare reward that keeps us focused — keeps us driving that 14-year old car (happily paying for liability insurance only, thank you very much), keeps us shopping at thrift stores (scoring jeans for $3.59), lets us continue to skip cable TV (saving about $80 per month), etc.
Instead of being at odds with my frugality, that $18 scarf reinforced it. It did exactly what I meant for it to do; it made me feel indulgent and uncharacteristically footloose. Peppering my frugal life with little luxuries, as long as those luxuries don’t derail me from my journey, is absolutely OK. In fact, I recommend it.
People approach frugality in myriad ways, and everyone’s story and style is unique. Frugality isn’t a one-size-fits-all lifestyle; it’s customizable. What works for me may not work (and indeed, may not be able to work) for everyone. But on some level, we’re all trying to be more conscious of where our money goes, better understand the connection between labor and time and between time and money, and to reach our goals through a combination of mindful spending and disciplined saving. If the rare $18 scarf or random $4.00 cup of coffee keeps you going…well, more power to you.
Have you encountered misconceptions about frugal living? What's the one thing you wish people better understood about your lifestyle? What little luxuries help keep your saving on-track?