Finding joy in temporary frugality

Photo: Philip Brewer

If you read frugality and simplicity blogs for any length of time, you'll run into a lot of people who take great joy in having simplified their lives. Gradually simplifying your life is one obvious path for finding some of that joy for yourself. Let me suggest an alternative: temporary extreme frugality.

Lots of people become temporarily frugal out of necessity--because of a lost job or an unexpected expense. Others are temporarily frugal to achieve some goal--saving up to make a down payment on a house or car. I'm suggesting temporary frugality where the goals are less material and more experiential.

Think about where your comfort zone is: What fraction of the continuum from third-world poverty to celebrity billionaire can you see yourself happily occuping for the rest of your life? Now, pick a spot distinctly below the bottom end of your comfort zone and live there for a little while.

Think of it like a camping trip. To go hiking in the wilderness, people give up basic comforts like a stove, refrigerator, and running water, but they don't give them up for the rest of their lives. The temporary sacrifice is both a means to an end--they can go deeper and stay longer--and an end in itself--their actions express who they really are.

Some people lurch from being miserly to prodigal and back again. That comes from being confused about how you want to live. This is different. This is about knowing where you want to live and then choosing to experiment outside that range in order to learn something about yourself.

Gradualism can work great--it can be very satisfying--but the satisfaction is incremental. It takes a long time to see if the joy that some people find in extreme frugality is there for you, too. A brief tour in that place can be a short cut.

To make this work, you need to get extreme about something, but it could be a small thing or a big thing: Brown-bag your lunch for a week. Park your car for two weeks and walk, bicycle, or take the bus. Eat no dinners out for a month. Buy no new clothes for a season. Drop cable and don't turn it back on until the next "free installation" offer from the cable company. Move to a cheaper apartment for a year.

Like a camping trip, you come back home to your real life once your visit to frugality is over. And, like a camping trip, you can go again--to the same place or a different one--if you found the experience rewarding.

The money you save through a brief period of extreme frugality probably won't be enough to change your life. The experience, though, very well might, if you find the joy that many people find there.

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Guest's picture

Last month out of a necessity to cut our bills, my husband and I decided not to eat out all month. If you know us, you know that was a BIG goal! I don't particularly like to cook, and it's all too easy just to have him pick something up on the way home.

However, after getting through the month (and meeting our goal), I can tell you our mindset has changed. We have a tight schedule today, my husband and I are going out, and we're getting a babysitter for the kids. I honestly don't have time to make dinner, and we don't want to leave the babysitter a big crockpot meal to clean up, so we're going to pick up a pizza, and it's SO HARD to even think about spending the money on pizza. A month ago we wouldn't have even thought twice about it. How things change.

Guest's picture

That's funny - in that third paragraph from the bottom, the one with examples of extreme frugality - I do all that stuff, year round. I never thought of it as "extreme" though. Just what's necessary to get out of debt and save.

Guest's picture

I actually find periods of extreme frugality to be highly energizing. (Although I should note that this applies when it's *voluntary* frugality, working toward a goal, and isn't as energizing when you have $5 in the bank and your rent is past due.)

Sometimes, I'll take a week and allow myself $25 total in spending money. (This is for gas and groceries, but not utility bills.) I'll drink a lot of water, brew coffee at home, and eat ramen and saltine crackers. I crank out more during one of those weeks than I do in entire months, and it sure makes me appreciate my discretional spending money later on.

Guest's picture

Mine started off about 5 years ago when I realized I was in way over my head in debt. It took me 5 years to pay it off, but last month I just made the last payment on $20,000 dollars worth of credit card bills. It felt amazing!

I cook meals at home at least 25 days out of the month, my husband takes his lunch to work, and we have lived in all sorts of places over the years to save a few hundred each month in rent. Both our cars are paid for, and if we want something major we budget for it and put a little bit aside each month in order to get it.

Now, I am going to buckle down again and save for a down payment on a house. I plan to have 20% down so I can avoid PMI, and I plan to do it in a years time. I get a rush now out of saving money!

I just started cloth diapering my son as well, to save on diapers.

Guest's picture

I shut off my cable for one reason. It was not about being frugal, but being able to live alone with complete silence and enjoying it. I wanted to experience being alone without depending on neither the cable nor the noise that it emanates. I wanted to experience food for the soul, and it is FREE.

The first week was tough; I couldn't live without my fav shows, or the noise that I gotten so used to. But the second week, I began to experience an inner joy, knowing there is no one talking garbage into my unconscious self. I am enjoying the sound of the rain, the wind and the awakening of fall. Now could you get that poetic if all you do when you come home is switch the television and leave it on continuously? I am experiencing new joy. A sense of peace and quietness to think and ponder. Now that should be a good enough reason if not only saving money as a reason to feel happy! That saved me alot of money going to a shrink too (if I ever needed one!).

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks for the kind words.

What's extreme depends, of course, on where you start from. Joy, though, is where ever you find it.

Guest's picture

As mentioned earlier by someone else, we also live pretty close to this year round. In hindsight, it was a great way to get into the habit before our income went up recently.

Guest's picture
Cindy M

Nice picture. I did some winter backpacking years ago and you can have it, thanks anyway, ha-ha, it was rough.

I guess this extreme temporarily frugality thing could be less of a shock to the system, the fact that you know you don't have to be frugal for long and you're kinda just playing at it to see if you can hack it, a survivalist type of thing (?) I like my way better, however. I'm 52 and have voluntarily over the years denied myself stuff on purpose (haven't had cable TV for years, for instance), spend as little as possible on entertainment, doing all my own cooking, cutting my own hair, etc. It becomes part of your lifestyle and an attitude - is there any way I can do this cheaper? (Splurging for me is to lay out 2 bucks for the dollar menu at Micky D's and I've already brought my can of pop with me, no kidding; without the pop in tow, I won't even stop there, I'm that much of a tightwad). You reach a point where you get no pleasure from spending money on yourself unless you're getting some kind of a deal. That's where I am, and I'm thrilled with it.

Guest's picture

What I do once or twice a year is to sit down and institute and immediate 20% reduction in expenses. By going through this exercise, I find wasteful things that are not necessities....some I eliminate for good, others are just identified for future potential targeting. The net real effect of this is a periodic decrease of 10% of expenses, which nicely keeps my expenditures even over time.

Philip, I enjoy your asskicking posts!

Guest's picture

Phil, I really like your attitude and your posts.

After trying to make headway on credit card debt with a budget that balances money for debt and money for fun, and experiencing little success, we were recently challenged to try radical debt reduction. I looked at our income and figured out that by taking a radical approach, we could pay off our debt in two years. We've spent a month implementing changes - cancelling services, selling a car to become a one-car household, and connecting to online resources like Wise Bread to see if we can get more ideas. One of the greatest benefits to taking the radical approach is the positive energy it's provided - we know we're really accomplishing something.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's never been a question that radical frugality works, the question is, "Would you want to live like that?" Tempoary radical frugality lets you find out.

And, thanks--it's always nice to hear that people enjoy my writing, and especially nice to hear that people find it useful.

Guest's picture

add me to the list who enjoys your writing and finds it useful :)

Guest's picture

I grew up in a household in the 80's with no cable TV, no VCR, no microwave, no dishwasher. As a family of five, we had one vehicle which only had AM radio and no air conditioning. It was always a big deal when my parents let us eat out at McDonalds. I'm sure some of our habits were a lifestyle choice, but more likely a financial necessity for my parents. Years later in my first job out of college, which didn't pay well, I pointed out to a colleague that I wasn't used to having a lot, so I didn't miss so much not having it now. A lot of the lifestyle habits of frugality are still deeply engrained, but for me I find it liberating to eat out at a fast food restaurant without guilt. I find joy in having the option of choosing what areas I can be frugal in while still having money set aside for the areas where I want to splurge.

Guest's picture

Because I have always been more or less self-employed, my money comes and goes irregularly - this fluctuation of cash flow has caused me to periodically go on what I call a "money diet." That is, I try to spend as little money as possible! No charging. Nothing. I try to look at ALL expenses and see if they are really necessary. It amazes me that people are habitually spending $5 a DAY for Starbucks, when that is a luxury for me! I bring my own food and drink. I look for free parking places. I try to score stuff for free. I get really creative when on a "money diet" and I have found that they are good for me! Especially when there is so much free stuff on the net. I really go after the freebies on a money diet! Sounds like you guys should try it sometimes....

Guest's picture

I am going this year "Saving on new clothing", this mean i will buy new clothing until 2009. I a doing good until now. And it feels good

Guest's picture

I am shaking my head here. What you are calling frugal is just the way many of us need to live normally. I am in my 40s and have never made more than $30,000 a year. I'm a newspaper editor at a daily newspaper, and we are horribly overworked and underpaid.

Yet even before I remarried a couple of years ago, I still managed to have a nice home and a decent car, and could even take a few trips to Europe. How? By walking instead of driving as much as possible, eating economically at home, having a very limited and old wardrobe, teaching my teenagers not to want a lot of junk, not having cable, etc., etc.

My new husband makes about the same amount of money as I do. But we still decided to limit ourselves to one car. I walk to work and he carpools.

It's just normal life to us.

Guest's picture

I like the camping metaphor. And it makes me wonder if all those camping vacations as a child helped prepare me for radical frugality as an adult, for two reasons:

1. I'm not afraid of mild, temporary discomfort in pursuit of a greater good. I see so many folks actually afraid of losing their creature comforts.

2. I know that temporary abstinence can make little luxuries so much more enjoyable. Nothing is more pleasurable than that first hot shower after a camping trip :-)