7 Frugal Myths Debunked


We frugal folks often get a bad rap. In the media, one of two things tends to happen. When the economy is bad, the media races to interview diehard frugal gurus to figure out just how they do it and peek behind the mysterious veil of living within your means. When economic times are brighter, frugality is marginalized and those same gurus are looked upon with a mixture of sympathy and disdain. I think both of these extremes are fueled by fundamental myths about what frugality really means. Let's set the record and debunk seven of the most common frugal myths:

1. People are frugal because they have no choice

Many folks are frugal because they have to be (and in this day and age, there are few among us who can afford not to be). For others, frugality is a choice — a method of successful living that's a response to understanding the intimate link between time, labor, money, and things. The frugal realize that every purchase we make represents time that's been (or will be) sold. Consequently, we tend to prioritize expenditures differently. (See also: The Enemies of Frugality)

2. "Frugal," "cheap," and "tightwad" are all synonyms

Some tightwads may be cheap and all tightwads are frugal, but not everyone who's frugal is a tightwad or cheap. Follow? To me, tightwad and cheap are terms of disparagement. They're meant to imply a personality flaw — a tendency to hate to spend money and when spending is unavoidable, to always choose the cheapest option. Frugal folks, on the other hand, are not so rigid. We seek out quality and we cut corners in certain categories so that we can indulge in others debt-free. Maybe a young couple chooses to live off a single salary so that one parent can stay home with a child. Maybe a single man takes his lunch to work every day to pay down his mortgage faster. Frugality is born from understanding priorities — from conscious calculation and from rational strategy.

3. Frugality is all about self-sacrifice and denial

Not true. There have been very few times in my own life when I've felt denied anything truly important because of my frugality. Maybe my wants have been suppressed, but more likely, they've been recalibrated. For me (and I have a hunch, for most frugal folks) the real denial would be the peace-of-mind lost from living beyond my means. I truly get a charge out of saving money and I enjoy the rich experience of (usually) being worry-free.

4. Frugal people pinch every penny and clip coupons all day

On the continuum of frugality, I fall somewhere in the moderate or moderate-to-extreme range. Still, I don't pinch every penny, clip coupons, reuse tin foil, or collect old soda cans along the highway. But that's just me. Everyone approaches frugality differently and employs different tactics and strategies for success. The experience of frugal living is varied and personal — we all have our own way of doing things.

5. Real frugality is impossible in this day and age

This is a tough one. On one hand, it's simple to see how frugality may have been easier two or three generations ago when people tended to live near extended family and lead more rural and self-sufficient lives. On the other hand, in a nation and age of excess, there are always frugal opportunities. Human ingenuity is less about the age in which we live and more about inspiration and motivation.

6. Frugal people aren't concerned about style or fashion

Wrong. Scratch those stereotypes of frugal folks strutting around in acid washed 'mom jeans' and garage sale huaraches. Great style has always been about classic cuts, a good fit, quality materials, and durable construction. All of the above can be found (albeit with a bit of patience) in thrift stores, on discount racks, and at garage sales. Frugal folks may not be trendy (who wants that anyway?), but many of us are spot-on with our style.

7. Frugality is too hard

This may not be a myth. Frugality is hard, especially in the beginning and especially if you're used to a life with few financial limits. But it gets easier. Over time, frugality becomes second-nature and it's the unreasonable spending and excess that become difficult. As the sugary-sweet high of consumerism begins to fade, it'll be replaced by the joy of living debt-free, living more simply, and with less stress.

We can all help fight misconceptions about frugality since we're all examples of stereotypes that don't fit in some way or another. Maybe the larger social trend of moderation is here to stay. If so, let's help shed the thinking that has marginalized thrift and popularized excess. We just may be better for it.

What myths and misconceptions about frugality have you encountered? What are people surprised to learn about your frugal ways?

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Guest's picture

One great suggestion I saw on how to spot the difference between a 'cheap' and a 'frugal' person is to watch how they tip. Frugal people tip well, for pretty much the reason you gave above; they understand the relationship between time and money, and understand that the waitstaff are giving up their time.

Cheap people tip lousy, because they just don't see why they should give up more money than they're required to.

Guest's picture
David M

I agree with all 7 points you make!

Frugality is a choice for me - I know many people that should be frugal but are not! I enjoy being frugal - it is definately a choice I make.

Guest's picture

I'm frugal, but I am more than willing to spend on entertainment and vacation expenses. You only live once, and you're only young once, but material things do almost nothing for me.

Guest's picture

Same here. Buying materialistic things is a waste, some are only trendy for awhile then they get tossed. I'd rather spend my money on a vacation and have an experience. That is something that you will always have with you (hopefully a good vacation).

Guest's picture

This is a great post! I grew up with a mom who spared no expense - even though she had virtually no income. She declared bankruptcy before I was 20 because she had amassed well over $20k in credit card debt. I worry that she'll do the same thing all over again, but I can't control her finances.
Because I grew up with no financial limits, I've had a really hard time setting boundaries for myself. Now that I'm a stay-at-home-mom, my husband and I have to be disciplined about our expenses. People, even my own children, assume that we are broke because we choose not to spend money on every whim, but that is not the case at all.

Kentin Waits's picture

Tara, Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like you 'came out the other side' of growing up in a less-than-frugal household and are wiser for it!

Guest's picture

Nobody should ever think frugal is a bad word - whether people choose to be or not, it's still an honest way to live! Great article.

Guest's picture

This came up just today at work. Everyone knows that I am a couponer and the money I save. I love the game of it in addition to the other benefits. Since my neck was stiff today someone said "why don't you go get a massage". I said "I don't have that kind of money". They're response was, "what do you mean you don't have the money, with all that couponing." So I had to back up and clarify, I don't have money for that particular thing because it's not a priority for me. Later while discussing my upcoming vacation, I mentioned going to the coast and staying at a bed and breakfast. This person sat with his mouth open when he asked how much that was a night. That's my priority.

Guest's picture

Definitely a big difference between being frugal and being cheap.
Great post!

Guest's picture

I love taking lunch to work because one; you save money instead of eating out and two, you know what you put in your food. I definitely agree about debunking the second myth. There's a whole world of difference between being frugal and being cheap. Being Frugal is being practical and smart with your money while being cheap is an annoying personality flaw. Being frugal is having a great sense of priorities. Saving money for important stuff like bills and mortgages is better than splurging on a Vegas weekend.

Guest's picture

Great Post!! I choose to be frugal in some areas to spend in others. We recently went on a 2-week all inclusive 5 star resort vacation to PR for our honeymoon that we saved for 4 years for and paid cash. Because we choose to not buy "stuff" or keep up with our neighbors we both get to work part time (I work mornings, hubby afternoons) and spend lots of time together and with our 3 kids. People assume we are pretty broke so needless to say they were shocked that we were going on vacation.

Tara Struyk's picture

"The mysterious veil of living within your means ... " That's so apt it made me laugh. It's funny how something that's really so simple - living on what you make - is often perceived as an enigma.

Guest's picture

Ahhhh, excuses excuses...we all hear them all the time from lots of people about tons of topics and money is one of the biggest. I am always trying to get my relatives and closest friends to come to the "dark side" of controlling their money, but it is always very difficult. I think the main point many people are missing is that frugality or any other label you want to give it is about balance and harmony. Balance of your finances and more importantly yourself.

Great article and thanks for sharing!

Guest's picture

I see frugality as not buying into the consumer mentality. The consumer mentality being that new is good.

Case in point. Clothing. Buy it new, wear it one day (or even not at all), try to sell it on Craigslist, get less than 1/2 for it.

Good is not exclusive to new. You can buy used that is also good.

Therefore New really only means now or convenient. If you want to pay for now or convenient, then go right ahead.

I'm patient, and I can wait, so I don't have to pay for new. Not buying new, I save lots of money.

Problem is, I can find nearly new for dirt cheap, so the problem is in restraining myself from buying stuff that I don't really need, because it-is-such-a-good-deal.

If I can buy a *brand new* Columbia Hexaholic Down Jacket ($260 retail) for $40, what's to say I should just go buy a new jacket every year even though this $40 jacket will last me a couple of years at least.

People ask me how do I live with so few expenses. It's because I treat it as a hobby, and this hobby became a life skill, and I learned to limit myself. It's when we live within our limits that we learn how to be happy with what we have. And when we break through our limits, we can experience a different type of joy.

My small business had internet and phone bills of $150 a month. I've now reduced it to $37.

My cell phone used to be $60/month. Now it's $7/month. That's with unlimited incoming and 1c/min outgoing.

People ask me how I did this for so cheap. It's because I always ask myself if there is a better way.

Guest's picture

What cellular carrier are you with for $7 per month?

Guest's picture

Nice article, and I agree there is a distinct difference between being frugal and being cheap. However I must disagree with one point. You state that if you were not living frugally you would lose peace-of-mind because you are spending above your means.

I think there is a big separation between "being frugal" and "spending above your means". Many people can live their lives without being frugal, per-se, while at the same time not spending above their means.

Personally, this sounds like a frugal-bias...that anyone NOT being frugal is throwing their money away, thus must be in debt. Which is not true.To me it kind of hurts your argument.