Lucky trade-offs

by Philip Brewer on 31 December 2008 21 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

I view frugal living as essentially hedonistic: I don't deny myself things. Rather, I spend less on the things I don't care about in order to be able to spend more on the things that matter to me. Anybody who does this, though, sooner or later (as soon as friends, relatives, coworkers, or neighbors notice some of that spending on things that matter more) is going to hear, "You're so lucky to be able to afford that!"

In my case, it's been leaving the regular job behind to write full time that's draw the comments about how lucky I am. Our occasional vacations to the islands have drawn comments on our great luck as well.

The first few times people suggested that my being able to write full time was "lucky," I was speechless. I wanted to explain that it's all about trade-offs. I wanted to talk about how, contrary to how people seem to view it, frugal living gives you more choices, because you're not tied to a high-earning job.

I didn't, though, because I learned long ago that most people don't want to hear it. Most people don't understand--and the ones who do often react as if I'm criticizing their lifestyle. (And maybe I am, although that's not my intention.)

Somewhere along the way I came up with a response that I'm comfortable with. I say, "It's not all luck." That way, if I run in to the rare person who does want to hear, all they have to do is ask. And everyone else is able to nod and pretend that I've partially agreed with them.

After all, they are partially right. I have been very lucky.
 

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Linsey Knerl's picture

Thanks for pointing this out, Philip.  I am also one of the "lucky" ones.  I get to stay home with my kids, write full time, and take days off when I want to.

Never mind that the trade-off involves the difficult task of homeschooling, lugging logs around to feed my wood stove, working sometimes very difficult hours (including weekends and holidays), paying all my own benefits (including insurance and 100% of my social security tax), and keeping my outings (including shopping) to a minimum.

I wouldn't have it any other way, but honestly, I doubt that many people would choose this lifestyle if they knew what all it entailed.

I appreciate the very insightful piece!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

When my wife and I struggled to make ends meet on a single salary so that one or the other of us could stay home and raise our children, I remember having discussions with people who lamented that you needed two salaries to survive nowadays. I also found that they didn't appreciate the idea of someone suggesting that they were making a *choice* to live in a way that required two salaries. Good post.

Guest's picture
isb08

I couldn't have said it better myself. We are a one-income family also - have a 26" tube TV in the living room instead of a big screen, a 10 year old van and a 6 year old car instead of two newer vehicles with payments, buy a good portion of our groceries at Aldis, and a 50 year old 1400 sq ft house that we actually don't feel cramped in at all (family of four). But, we have the money to pursue our hobbies, and probably more net cash than many two income families. It's all about choices, and not worrying about what 'image' we are projecting out there to people that don't really care about us anyway.

Guest's picture

I basically lost all my day-job-working friends when I left the legal field and began blogging and writing full time. It just became so awkward to hang out with them. They're still preoccupied with accumulating expensive things and can't understand how I can be happy living any other way -- especially when I used to be the biggest spender of them all! But, you're absolutely right that they don't want to be told (or even reminded by your example) that there is a different way -- maybe a better way -- since they all hate their jobs, bosses, coworkers, etc. It's funny, but I've always responded to anyone's comment about how lucky I am by totally agreeing with them. I feel incredibly lucky that I decided to pursue my dreams despite the immense societal pressure not to risk it. I've never looked back and never been happier! : )

Guest's picture

I am known in my circle for being frugal because I choose not to go to Starbucks every day, have hobbies that cost very little money (blogging, reading, and working out), and only dining out on the weekends. But because of our choices, my husband and I get have two nice vacations a year and treat family members to dinner when they visit. It is all about priorities. I don't understand why my younger sisters choose Coach bags, but they always complain about how lucky I when I come back from a vacation.

Guest's picture
Guest

Over the years when I made different lifestyle choices for our family, I was viewed as odd or eccentric...I got more than a few eyerolls. When things went/go well for our family, I'm told how lucky I am. Bull----! It's all about choices...when they ran against the 'norm,' I was an oddball. Now that my chickens are coming home to roost (in a good way!), I'm just so lucky to have such smart kids, such healthy kids, to be able to stay home with them...blah blah blah...

Guest's picture

I'm one of the lucky ones too. I do work, full-time, but my full-time job here in Egypt (I'm an American expat) is 35 hours a week, so I'm home with my kids by 4:30 most days, earlier if need be. And the vacation time is outrageous--six weeks' annual leave in the summer, plus a generous amount of holiday time (all American, Egyptian, Muslim, and Christian major holidays) during the year. We can easily afford a nanny here too. And being here means we can travel pretty cheaply to some really incredible places.

But it is a huge trade-off. Though I'm glad to be away from US consumerist culture, there are times when my kids have outgrown their clothes and I'd love to be able to dash down to Old Navy. And times when I really miss my favorite cereal. And times when I'd like to be able to wear a knee-length skirt when I walk down the street. We also don't have a car. But, we do have a great life.

Years ago I lived and worked in rural mountains, at an outdoor recreation outfitter's. People would tell me how great my life was, and how jealous they were. It was a great life. I also drove a ten year old Honda, while they sported a brand new SUV.

But--not everyone is lucky enough to be able to afford these choices. I was lucky to get out of college without debt (courtesy of my generous dad), and start my adult life with a great education. Huge advantages.

Happy New Year!

Guest's picture
Guest

People think I'm 'so lucky' to have been able to quit my job and go freelancer plus quadruple my salary in the process ($250k)...

Well it wasn't really all luck. I made the choice to leave, I did the searching, I asked for contacts, I worked hard and the opportunity was there, which was lucky for me... but it wasn't by LUCK that I wanted to quit. It was all conscious.

Fabulously Broke in the City
Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver...

Guest's picture

I once got attitude from a young man going door to door trying to sell magazine subscriptions, I told him very nicely and politely that I didn't have any money to buy a subscription and he peered around my shoulder into my apartment, that me and my husband were sharing with two roommates at the time, and said it doesn't look like you don't have money.

I didn't know how to react and just smiled and closed the door. Because of the incident I have a very bad reaction when people say things like that to me now.

People always give me and my husband an odd look when we say we only have one car and he doesn't even have a license. It is just expected that since we are two adults we should have two cars. So needless to say I agree with you and understand.

Guest's picture

I definitely agree that frugality is about tradeoffs! My husband and I didn't start really saving money until we figured out what was worth our time and money. Then everything else just seemed... well, not worth it. Concentrating on what really matters, we both feel like our lives are fuller now than ever.

I also get the "you're so lucky" thing all the time, especially since I'm a stay at home wife. I do feel lucky in many ways. I am certainly lucky to have a supportive husband and we've had some great opportunities come our way. However, people don't realize why I became a stay at home wife (let's just say that things didn't go as planned), how hard I work to bring in extra income working from home, how hard I work to help my husband with things, and how much we've both sacrificed so that our current living expenses are less than half of our income. (Though again, we feel like our lives are much better for the tradeoffs we've made.) But yet, I get the impression that people think I just sit around eating bon-bons all day in front of the t.v. -- which is far from the truth.

Guest's picture
katrina

I also hear about how lucky I am. It was so lucky that I studied non-stop through college to get into medical school. And darn it, luck struck once again when I got to work over 80 hours a week during medical school and residency. I remind people of all that luck whenever I hear that comment!

Maggie Wells's picture

I get this all the time from people as well. I take vacations when I want to, work from home, with the two kids. But most who comment on our lives forget that we have one car not three that is common where I live. And that we chose to have kids in our mid thirties which afforded us a few more choices we wouldn't have had in our early twenties. It is about choices. We've made some good ones and some not so good ones, but by and large, skimping and being cheap about some things has made it possible for other things: vacations and the kids' tuition to name two important ones.

 

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Olivia

It's not that I'm a mad thing for dusting and all that kind of stuff. And I really enjoyed being a graphic designer, but I'm grateful to be home with the kids. Money is tight and it's a creative challenge to make it stretch. But that's not all there is. How else could I finagle a treehouse from salvaged materials if I worked outside the home? Or carved a tramp art box for my favorite uncle? Or design crazy cheap birthday parties for the boys? That kind of leisure is a luxury well worth the trade off.

Guest's picture
banosd

It took me awhile to simplify my life but my wife works so I can stay home and being with our baby.............and using the computer when the baby sleeps

Guest's picture
Josh

Mr. Brewer,

Your articles are this site are consistently top-notch. I commend you for turning your back on the high-earning job in order to pursue your deeper interests. It has positive externalities as well, since readers such as myself are able to enjoy your thoughtfulness and insight.

Guest's picture
FrugalNYC

Luck and your choices each play a part. Luck gives you the opportunity, its up to you to take that opportunity. Most people tend to miss opportunities on a consistent basis and just complain about how bad they have it.

I've had comments about how lucky I am, by people who way more "consumer goods" than I do. They made their living decisions and I made mine.

This is a great post and I agree with it and many of the commentors.

Guest's picture
claire7676

All of you who have responded have way more than just the "luck" (as you all have redefined it) on your side. You have GUTS. It takes a HECK of a lot of chutzpah and confidence to go out and either quit your day job to be self-employed or to downsize from 2 salaries to one. I say this since there obviously is much less of a steady income (as long as the employer was stable) that you can count on.

I, for one, am quite jealous. I have been on the fence for awhile now about leaving the corporate world to also be self-employed. My obstacles currently are doing more research into what I want to pursue and the guts it takes to really do it.

I salute all of you!

Guest's picture
GEoff

I get a very similar response when people find out how much time I spend reading or going to the movies. "Well I haven't read a book in years, I wish I had that kind of time." I used to try and explain that we both had 24 hours per day and were both spending that time on activities that were priorities to us. If you don't read it's not a lack of time, it's the fact that reading simply isn't very important to you. I've pretty much given up and just smile and nod. Some people will never realize that they have choices.

Guest's picture
okgirl

I, too, get comments about how "lucky" I am. I work 25-30 hours per week at a job I love and am good at. That leaves me time to volunteer at the art museum and actually spend time with my husband. He works 40 hours a week and goes to school part-time (without student loans). We have a beautiful home and money in the bank.

Lucky? (Well, to be born in a country where this is all possible and to have a supportive family.)

But it's NOT luck to have savings and things we need. We drive old cars so that we can afford a retirement account. We bought a house that we can afford even if only one of us works, so neither of us feels chained to a job. We are willing to make sacrifices in some areas (furniture) to be able to splurge in other areas (travel).

And most people don't want to hear about the choices. They want to assume that our families give us money (other way round, actually) or we're 'just lucky' to have what we have. Nope, just choices. Thanks for bringing it up!

Guest's picture
Slinky

The only place where luck really comes into play is your health. It's good to win the gene lottery. After that, it's all choices.

I'm 'lucky' to have a nice salary for my age and area because I went to school for CompSci instead of Music. I'm 'lucky' to not have more student loans then I do because I worked 1-3 jobs all during school and worked my butt off to do well. I'm lucky that I make the choices I make is what I am!

Philip Brewer's picture

I don't want to play down the value of luck too much.

For example, I was lucky to get to go to good schools all my life (partly good choices by my parents, but also good luck), and lucky that my parents contributed generously to the costs of my college education.

I was also very lucky to have an aptitude for writing software right at the one moment in history when such an aptitude was really worth something.  Twenty years earlier and writing software would have been only a small part of some other job.  Twenty years later, and my job would have been outsourced to India or China before I'd been able to make a career out of it.

There's a joke they tell about people with family money who talk too much about the virtues of hard work:  "He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple."

In my life, anyway, there's definitely been plenty of good luck--but I've also gotten the lifestyle I chose for myself by making a series of choices that led me here.  It wasn't just luck.