Frugality: Are You Still in the Closet?

By Kentin Waits on 6 June 2012 15 comments

There’s an odd contradiction about money in the U.S. While we love a great deal, we don’t want to cross the invisible line that suggests we need a great deal or can’t afford to pay full price. And, while it’s totally acceptable to show off what we buy, few of us share the tenacity and dedication it can take to live within our means and be value conscious. That’s why sites like Wise Bread are so popular; they give folks a chance to meet other like-minded people and talk openly about what can often seem like a subversive topic — frugality. (See also: A Beginner's Guide to Frugal Living)

So, when it comes to frugality, are you in the closet or out? Was coming out a gradual process, or did you kick the proverbial door wide open on day one?

My own journey made it fairly easily to live an openly frugal life. First, my parents instilled in me the value of simplicity and debt-free living early on. Living with a certain level of financial mindfulness and modesty was a fact of life, and I took the lesson and the benefits to heart.

Once I landed my first real job after college, I worked closely with a group of underpaid social workers (is there any other kind?). Our tight-knit office made it easy to talk about the challenges and strategies of living in Chicago on a wage that, at that time, was barely $19,000 a year. We were all relatively young, and it seemed like everyone brought sack lunches, shopped for bargains, drove modest cars, and decorated their apartments through dumpster diving and thrift shopping.

Later, I said goodbye to social work, transitioned into the corporate world, and began work with a benefits consulting firm. Part of our intensive training involved learning about retirement plans and understanding how the power of compounding interest combined with benefits of saving early could redefine our golden years. Everyone took the message to heart — not only for our clients, but for our personal security too. It gave my frugal ideas a clearer focus and a more urgent cause. Though the atmosphere was bit buttoned-up and certainly more affluent, we all talked openly about saving, retirement planning, setting financial goals, and sticking to budgets.

Now, being open — even enthusiastic — about frugal living is second nature to me. I love to share my own successes and pitfalls and think it helps make the journey real for other people who are at different points along their own roads. Still, I can’t help but feel bad for all the closeted frugalistas out there. I see (and eavesdrop on) them everywhere. They’re the young corporate guys, tucking away old flip-phones so their co-workers won’t see their telephonic shame. They’re the office workers who feel compelled to overspend on a wedding or baby shower gift to keep up with the absurd standards someone else has set. They’re the ones who fall silent while everyone else talks about how little room they have left on their credit cards.

So, for all you closeted guys and gals out there — come on out. Talk about how and why you save. Lend some sanity to the conversation and give your peers a chance to agree, emulate, and come out too. The power of ridiculous levels of spending and consumption lies in everyone’s silent agreement and acceptance. Maybe it’s time to be proud of that 12-year-old car and that trusty old flip-phone. Maybe it’s time to stop apologizing for the home-brewed coffee and the TV that’s decidedly not flat. All these things help make you wonderfully frugal — and isn’t that worth celebrating?

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15 discussions

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Guest's picture

Totally agree Kentin. I recently wrote a post about why it takes guts to save money, which addresses the same kinds of themes - so many people want to live frugally but find themselves bowing to peer pressure to own a bigger car etc. It takes guts to kick against this.

Guest's picture

Being frugal has allowed me to transition from an HSSJ* to a creative artistic job which I love. If I was on the hamster wheel of debt, with an oversized house and a fancy car (loan), that would not be possible. A number of people where I *used to* work were amazed I could make the jump. But it spoke volumes for being frugal.

* Horrible Soul Sucking Job

Kentin Waits's picture

Stewart: had to laugh at your HSSJ abbreviation. Having had many of those jobs myself, I know exactly what you mean!

Guest's picture

I'm not super open about my frugality, but not closed off about it either. My husband and I live in a city where affluence and conspicuous living is the norm. I'm not a dire cheapskate but I know that people notice things like my "dumb" phone, non-fancy apartment, homemade lunches, and (until recently) clunker car. I don't make a big deal about these things, but people ask and it has been a great conversation starter. We are 100% debt free, own two nice cars, and are well on our way to having 20%+ down on a starter home in a fairly expensive area. I hope that when people learn more about our lifestyle they can make the connection that frugal living can = financial success and are encouraged to try it themselves.

Guest's picture

I think its almost stupid for people to still hide their frugality these days. Almost everyone is having some sort of financial trouble, so f you don't voice how you're taking steps to save, or worse- bragging about not having to or the things you are spending on- you can definitely seem snobby. The town I grew up in was all about keeping up with the Jones', and I'm so surprised that people are still seeing status symbols and frivolity with their money as an essential

Guest's picture

Do you think, that certain immigrant/ethnic groups, promote a thrifty/financial responsiblity to their offspring, more so than the general American populace?

Guest's picture

Coming out of the cheapass/frugal closet was one of the best things I have ever done for my social life. Now my friends don't ask if I want to join them for xyz expensive stuff -- they ask if I want to come over for dinner! They know spending $12 on admission to something is not something I take lightly. Life is better being out, even if I'm known as a cheapskate.

Guest's picture

If we want to improve the financial health in this country, we all have to start saving more and wasting a lot less. Learning to not spend on things we don't really need is a good start. Adults have to start setting a good example. We do our best at home, I try to teach my kids not to take things for granted. I hope that I am doing a good job. I feel positive this will all catch on sooner or later.

Guest's picture

Wise words and I love the way you position this point. It is almost like we're embarrassed to not spend our money, when it is one of the best things we can all do for ourselves.

When we decided in 2008 to go after our dream of traveling around the world it required a massive shift in spending priorities. As part of the process we shared our dream with everyone and that we would be cutting back on dinners out, happy hours, and weekend trips. In addition, we shared our "phrase to save", which was the motto we used to stay on track. This let all our friends and family be part of our savings process and see why we were living a frugal life.

Now that we've been traveling for 20 months they can all see the value that our decision to cut back had on our dream. Today it's great to see so many of our friends coming out of the frugal closet themselves.

Guest's picture

I am "out of the closet." I live my life the way that I want to and don't seek outside approval from anyone. Lots of people- my family included- make fun of me for being frugal. What they dont know is that I am quietly setting myself up. I am 32 and will be completely debt free (house paid off) in less than five years. I also invested in two rental properties with some of our savings and am having renters pay them off for us. I am also saving 20% in my 401K and have done all of this while also having two small children. Right now I am planning our next vacation and am deciding between Turks & Caicos and Aruba. All of these things are only possible because of our frugal lifestyle. He who laughs last will laugh the longest.

Guest's picture

I'm fairly subdued about my frugality at work. Sometimes, especially if someone is a flagrant, regretful spender, or trying to dig out of crushing debt, bragging about your frugality can easily come off as self-righteous, and just turn them off. If it comes up, in the right circumstances, I talk about my frugal ways, but otherwise lead by quiet example to show if you're careful with your money, you can have anything you want, just not everything you want. I'm very frugal in most areas of my life, which makes room for a few splurges on things I love, like good food and high-end candles. I've noticed my frugality tends to confuse people--because I do splurge in a few areas--but the bottom line is always living within my means.

Guest's picture

Cindy, I love your statement to "...lead by quiet example...". What an inspirational way to live and more powerful than a condemnation of others. We are all going through life, finding our way one day at a time and one person's choices are just that. But leading through example of what is possible is a great lesson for us all.

Thank you for sharing.

Kentin Waits's picture

Cindy -- I agree; your approach is perfect. Leading quietly by example communicates everything and the people who are supposed to notice, definitely do. :)

Guest's picture

I completely agree with the "quiet example" statement. Bragging about your frugality can be just as obnoxious as bragging about some super expensive new toy you just bought.

Guest's picture

I think it’s so important to change the cultural perception of frugality. Living frugally is often associated with being cheap but they’re not the same. If more people come out and are upfront about their frugality, I think being frugal will be an “in” thing.