Balancing Spending with Saving: Being Frugal but not Miserly

Photo: Ian Muttoo

Check out your thesaurus, and you may discover that “frugal” and “miserly” share many of the same words as their cousins. Let this be our warning: take frugal too far, and we can become miserly before we even know what hit us.

Are you being frugal? Do you watch your expenses, learn new ways to save money, and stave off impulse purchases?

Or are you being miserly? Not going out to your friend’s birthday dinner because you’d have to spend money to be there, or cutting your heat off to live in frigid squalor so you can save some extra money?

The examples above illustrate my own definition of the difference between frugal and miserly, but those are subjective definitions. Like I said above, frugal and miserly share many similar verbal cousins in the thesaurus who don’t recognize such a big difference between the two.

Case Study: Balancing Saving with Spending

I write this article because I recently did some budgeting exercises with my boyfriend, and we are in “savings mode.” We are utilizing a unique opportunity to work abroad in Australia, and are taking some time here as part of our full-time travels to work and save extra money so our future traveling is not predicated on finding as much work along the way. When we travel through less work-friendly and more foreign countries, we know the extra savings will come in handy.

Although our cost of living here in Australia is minimal, there are still expenses we bear to stay here that we might not pay as much for if we were actively traveling, such as: rent, car insurance and maintenance, power, internet and telephone hook-ups, etc.

So we are once again walking the fine line that so many people around the world do every day – stretching a regular paycheck between the chasm that spans spending and saving.

Woah. I forgot just how hard this stuff is.

When there isn’t much room to wiggle after your basic expenses are covered, saving for a specific goal can be consuming. All other aspects of life go on hold while saving for “x.” But what is your quality of life in the meantime? Can you honestly say that during your time of saving, you have balance?

Within my own context, I still see myself as a traveler, despite having taken some time to settle in Australia and work. I enjoy weekend road trips, continued exploration, climbing, hiking, and camping in a country that is foreign to my own. I also realize that I could spend 100% of what I earn here without trying too hard, leaving me with no Aussie savings to pad further travels.

Does this sound familiar? Most of us could easily spend all the money we earn, and have nothing left over for any of our financial and life goals – retirement, making a major purchase, or investing.

So I need to be frugal. Frugal – but not miserly, if I can avoid it. For example, when I eat out with friends (such as I did on Taco Tuesday), I don’t spend a lot of money on the experience, but I’m still there joining in the festivities (in moderation) and benefiting from an enriching social experience. Had I been miserly, I would simply have stayed home.

Where I have trouble in differentiating between being frugal and miserly is in the following examples:

  • I missed out on seeing the Great Barrier Reef in northern Australia – partly because of time constraints, but mostly because of the money. I might get a chance to see it again, but I might not. Getting back there from where I currently live would cost money (and lots of it: I just priced out a three-day trip, which would cost well over $1,000 per person).
  • People back home who have visited Australia as tourists have many recommendations for me, including remote trips and tours to places like Ayres Rock and the Yellow River. Again though – the cost to get there is exorbitant, and a basic road trip could still run thousands of dollars.

It’s like somebody new to the United States living in New York and being told that they “absolutely must” see California, or Hawaii, or Alaska, or even Puerto Rico. It’s not as easy as going for a Sunday drive, especially if you are on a tight budget.

The above activities are important things to do if you visit Australia as a tourist. Then again – as a full-time traveler, I don’t try to specifically avoid the tourist trail; but sometimes the cost to be on it is prohibitive. (Then again, there is a reason why people travel to see tourist sights…they may just be worth seeing.)

If I chose to do all the activities above, I might not be able to afford to travel much beyond Australia (and I haven’t even touched on half the places I want to see in my global travels yet), but I could have a whopper of a time while I’m here.

Translation: I could live really well now by spending everything I earn (couldn’t we all), but it would be at the expense of my future goals.

And what of my upcoming trip to New Zealand, where I’ll be taunted and tempted by all sorts of extreme – and extremely thrilling – sports and activities that are right up my alley – but also upwards of $100 a pop? I could stand to lose a giant chunk of savings by doing these activities along with my boyfriend, but then again, I could stand to lose a giant chunk of life experience by not doing them.

So what do you think? If I keep my head down for the next while and work hard to save money for future travels, am I forgetting about the beauty of where I am right now?

Or if I spend everything I earn in Australia and have to return “home” for lack of funds before I’m happy to, did I lose sight of the ball?

How does a Professional Hobo like me accurately see the world – on a budget – and not compromise too many of my desires in the process due to a hyperactive tendency towards frugality and the desire to save some money?

Then again, what IS travel if it is not getting out and enjoying myself? Possibly buying a round of drinks to pave the way for conversation with locals or fellow travelers? Or enjoying abseiling, climbing, caving, scuba diving, boogie boarding, or bungee jumping?

Linsey wrote this great article to give you a few clues if you’ve gone too far with frugality. So how do you achieve – and maintain – your own balance between spending and saving?

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Guest's picture

We lived abroad in Japan and Korea in the 70's and Europe in the 80's (we were both military) and did everything "touristy" we could afford and still raise two kids and save a small amount. There was nothing sadder than watching our compatriots who, for one reason or another, did not did not take advantage of their sojourn to do more than perhaps get drunk in the local bars.

Pick the places you and your siginificant other most want to see where you are. You may never make it, for one reason or another, to that next big location you are saving for. Accidents, both physical and financial can happen.

I'm not saying not to save for future goals. I'm just saying to enjoy where you are to the fullest extent you can while you are there. You can never really go back. As an extreme example... how many folks wish they had gone to see the Twin Towers but never bothered because they'd always be there.

Guest's picture

I think that they way you're able to travel and save money makes you frugal. I couldn't agree more with the way you are living, not spending every dime you make, so that you can continue your "hobo" way of life.

If everyone analyzed their budget every so often and cut back on a few items, they would lower their stress levels. To me, lowering stress in some ways is benefit enough.

On a side note, my husband and I just yesterday, revised our budget and vowed to cut out some things to save money. That doesn't make us miserly, it makes us smart and frugal.

Good luck with your further adventures!
Little House

Guest's picture

Come to San Francisco and visit this great city! :)

Frugal and being miserly is a fine line indeed. I sometimes use a mathematical ratio to deterimine expenditure i.e. if a one week vacation costs less than two weeks worth of work, then I'll go for it!

Vacation cost: $5,000. Two weeks pay: $10,000 = 1/2 = Ok, lez go on vacation! :)

Guest's picture

Your article highlights some of the major dilemmas anyone who is living on a limited budget must face while traveling/living abroad. I think that there are ways to do both (save and have fun), but they depend on prioritizing your spending.

Here's my advice:
-Eat out as little as possible. Cooking at home while abroad can give you savings that really add up.

-Ask the locals. Tourist areas are spending traps. Talk to locals and find out where the deals are that tourists might not know about. There is likely a cheap bus that goes somewhere you want to travel that you just don't know about.

-Think things through. Before you decide to do anything on your vacation/time abroad, sit down and budget for it, then think about whether you could really live with yourself for the rest of your life knowing that you didn't do it.

I hesitate to say 'Just do it!' or 'Save!' because only you know what is going to matter to you in the end.

Guest's picture

It's difficult to do this especially in your mid 20's when you are making less but want to enjoy the moment and have fun and go on trips but also trying to look out for your future.

Nora Dunn's picture

Thank you very much for the thoughtful comments! I agree that there probably is no hard and fast answer; walking the line between frugality and being miserly is a personal journey, dependent on how deep - and deeply important - certain goals are.

Guest's picture

I went to Uluru in June and couldn't imagine spending a significant amount in Australia but missing out on that experience! If you do it the backpacker way, it can be quite reasonable. Just don't go staying at the Ayers Rock Resort :P

Guest's picture

It may be hard to balance in yoru 20s when you aren't making much, but it certainly is easier to do it while you are still childless. Now that I'm in my 40s, I wish I'd done more travelling in my 20s!

Nora Dunn's picture

@Kate - Thanks for your input on Uluru....I believe that where there's a will, there's a way. Many of my Aussie friends consider it a sacred place, worth visiting. Cheers!

@HollyP - You nailed it: without kids, more traveling options seem possible! Kids offer a whole new direction in life.

Guest's picture

When I was younger I used to travel a lot. Since then I have settled in a couple of places. NY is my permanent home. However, I have friends n acquaintences all over the world including Bali n your beautiful Aussie land. Makes friends at all the places u want to see, all the countries I travel to I always let them know they r welcome to stay at my home in NY whenever they want to visit. So far, only about 8 have made it here. But I have certainly put many tacks on my world map without incurring the costs of hotels, car rentals n meals. It's not miserly, it's frugal n smart because my friends r welcome to do the same.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Alex - Carpe Diem was my high-school motto, and it stuck! Thanks for sharing your fabulous travel really just keeps on giving, doesn't it?! I love to host travelers myself too.

Guest's picture

I just returned from a ten day trip to the South Island in New Zealand. It's the low season there now and tourist numbers are pretty low. So if you're willing to ask at each venue you can get a pretty large saving, much better than any 'internet' deals. My Dad (who never afraid of asking) I'm sure saved us all (group of 4) more than nzd1000 over ten days.
Many of the smaller local operators can also offer you a better deal. With less people, they're also willing to spend more time with you giving you a better experience. ^_^ Not to mention we were helping out a lot of great local guys in their slow season.
Also remember there are some experiences that unfortunately you just have to pay for (and will be worth every dollar). I fully recommend taking a helicopter trip up Fox Glacier with Fox Glacier Heli-flights (I think). Their cheaper flights in Hughes 500 choppers is amazing and unforgettable!

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Jansen - Great tip about traveling in the off-season, and not being afraid to ask for a discount, beyond what you find on the internet. Thanks! That's true Wise Bread thinking! (smiles)

Guest's picture

My husbond and I travelled through Australia, from Adelaide in the midsouth and all the way up to Darwin.

We highly recommend travelling with a company like Adventure Tours ( or one of the many different companies that offer what we did: Mini bus with 12-14 people from all over the World (Aussies also!), tenting/camping, selfcatering together as a group, some nights sleeping in swags under LOADS of stars. We would never dare to drive through the outback on our own (what if the car breaks down? You might be 300 km away from other people...), and flying or going by train is boring and expencive.

I understand your dilemma of balancing budget and experiences. With a organised group tour like this, at least there are no hidden costs, so it's easy to budget beforehand if you are able to go. Don't worry, it's not claustrofobic! :-) I'll be surpriced if you don't like it.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Guest #14 - Thanks for the suggestion! I'll check this tour group out. Generally I don't have the cash on hand to do organized tours, but this one might be more up my alley. I appreciate the lead!

Guest's picture

You are right, there are many ways we can save money. Still, when the budget is small, or should I say halfed as ours was after I lost my job, saving cannot compensate the lost income. Since I'm home these days, I go online and research freebie sites, and that's how I make up for my income.Check out this offer for $1000.

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

@Tara - Good for you for taking the creative approach to saving money (out of necessity) and getting freebies. A little ingenuity can go a long way to save more than a few bucks...

Guest's picture

I have been in extreme save mode for months out of absolute neccessity. It sucked. BUT, I finally got us (12 year old son & me) back on our feet. Great, right? Trouble is, now I am feeling afraid / guilty about spending anything on fun stuff. I'm going down the slippery slope to miserly because I'm afraid the slope to spendthriftiness is equally slippery. Maybe I need therapy but I don't want to spend the money...

Guest's picture

When we traveled we made an experience hit list and planned for all our meals etc on the way. Food is easily the best way to blow monet but it's also half the experience of travelling. So we had pizza in new York, pizza in Chicago, 1 x lobster meal (unattainable at home due to exorbitant pricing), and X amount of money for food carts etc. The rest if the time we had snacks and water in our bag so we would only be tempted to buy food somewhere where we truly wanted it for the experience, not just because we were hungry.

Where I do struggle with miserly-ness is in buying things for myself. I'll often put off buying tools that would really help my quality of life and when I finally cave I'm always like "why did I not do this month's ago??" Example: I used to hammer flat pack furniture together with a platform shoe. Wasn't until I got married I actually had a hammer...
I also found myself not buying clothes that I desperately needed because "$4 is WAY too much for an item of clothing!!" All my clothes are really stretched out from pregnancy, and in the end my husband had to order me clothes on the sly because I didn't want to buy anything incase I found something for $2... or $1... I don't know where my sense of reality has gone haha