Frugality and the Myth of Self-Denial

A few Christmases ago, I splurged and bought myself a new scarf. Granted, it was expensive by my standards (around $18.00 for a scarf that was little more than a long strip of gray jersey material). Not my wisest purchase, but splurges are seldom wise.

A few days after I bought it, I wore the scarf to a holiday dinner. A relative who knows of my writing on the topics of personal finance, simple-living, and frugality asked about my new scarf and chuckled when I told her where I bought it. She said, “See, I knew you couldn’t be as frugal as you claim. It’s ridiculous to buy such a simple thing that you could have easily made yourself!” She was right. I could have made the scarf for much less, and I knew it. But her comment illustrated a larger truth; people mistakenly think that we frugal folks operate in a perpetual state of self-denial, that we always make the most sensible purchases, and that we are never, ever extravagant.

This misconception does two disservices to frugal folks and aspiring savers alike. First, it implies that the only way to live simply and be debt-free is to deny yourself everything (conveniently, this serves as a perfect rationale for people to skip the whole thing and just stick with their current behavior). Second, it oversimplifies the experience and true goal of frugality, which is to consciously limit our expenditures on most things so we can, from time-to-time, indulge on a few things or achieve one or two major goals.

Simply put, frugality isn’t about self-denial — at least not entirely. It’s about logically and purposely directing where our resources go to accomplish specific ends. When frugal folks indulge in a weekly $4 coffee, it’s a momentary motivator and rare reward that keeps us focused — keeps us driving that 14-year old car (happily paying for liability insurance only, thank you very much), keeps us shopping at thrift stores (scoring jeans for $3.59), lets us continue to skip cable TV (saving about $80 per month), etc.

Instead of being at odds with my frugality, that $18 scarf reinforced it. It did exactly what I meant for it to do; it made me feel indulgent and uncharacteristically footloose. Peppering my frugal life with little luxuries, as long as those luxuries don’t derail me from my journey, is absolutely OK. In fact, I recommend it.

People approach frugality in myriad ways, and everyone’s story and style is unique. Frugality isn’t a one-size-fits-all lifestyle; it’s customizable. What works for me may not work (and indeed, may not be able to work) for everyone. But on some level, we’re all trying to be more conscious of where our money goes, better understand the connection between labor and time and between time and money, and to reach our goals through a combination of mindful spending and disciplined saving. If the rare $18 scarf or random $4.00 cup of coffee keeps you going…well, more power to you. 

Have you encountered misconceptions about frugal living? What's the one thing you wish people better understood about your lifestyle? What little luxuries help keep your saving on-track?


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Guest's picture

"Frugal" is such a misunderstood word. Sadly many people cannot comprehend that, for example, buying an expensive pair of Swiss made scissors is more frugal than purchasing a cheap pair from China. (Or should I say buying many cheap ones from China).

Guest's picture

I think that, too often, people try to make frugality a "one size fits all" kind of thing. I recently told a friend that my husband and I would love to stay in a nice (expensive) resort in town for a night sometime, maybe when we have kids and a farther trip is harder to pull off. She thought that disproved my frugality, and that I was incredibly foolish for thinking of spending that kind of money when I won't go out to dinner more than once a month.

People don't seem to realize that true, healthy frugality looks different for everyone. We each have things that we care about more than other things, and everyone has different splurges that are rewarding to them. It is not even remotely difficult for my husband and me to skip the alcohol most of the time, but we love experiences and love to travel. This is no less frugal than our other friends who eat the same 7 meals every week but pay ridiculous amounts of health insurance for their dog. As long as it is in the context of being intentional and reaching our long-term goals, I think we should each be free to decide what is most important to us, whether it looks crazy to everyone else or not.

Guest's picture

With all due respect to your relative, there is such a vast difference between making an argument based on proportional logic as it pertains to reality and playing "gotcha" while making incorrect assumptions about reality.

The former is 2 + 2 = 4 and the latter is 2 = 2 = purple jellyfish. Many folks in the US these days are only capable of the latter while you are clearly capable of the former.

No surprise to find reasonable frugality running concurrent with logical thinking. One must be able to operate with 2+ 2 = 4 to get there.

Guest's picture

Funny story, when on a trip in China with our MBA class, one girl purchased a scarf for $270 US!!!!!!

I nearly had a stroke! I'm so frugally minded that something like this was literally inconceivable to me.

Getting back on topic, frugal is in the mind of the beholder. Each person has a different value on their resources (time, money, knowledge, etc.). What is frugal to one can be incredibly cheap to another.

Guest's picture

Derek, you are so right about the many levels and individual approaches to frugality. My husband and I are careful spenders who splurge on things we love. Three weeks ago we bought a baby grand piano for $1,130 (this includes a free tuning). A thousand dollars sounds like a lot of money to some people (and it certainly is to me). The price of a new baby grand is unthinkable to us. We feel that as long as we remain debt-free except for an extremely rare occasion, we are living frugally. We continue to be amazed at our friends and acquaintances who think nothing of carrying thousands of dollars in debt.

Guest's picture

Most of what I own is second hand. By perusing thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales, I have good quality things that no one knows I bought for about 10% of their original retail value. I wear cashmere sweaters in the winter because I find them at a charity shop for $3 each. My favorite thrift store sells all their clothing and shoes for $2 - mostly designer. There is a lady at our local flea market who sells kitchenware for 10 cents an item. Auctions fill in with some larger purchases. Unless my fortunes change, I'll never be able to afford retail. Thankfully, I don't need to in order to have nice things.

Guest's picture

What you wrote is so, SO true! We needed a lamp Friday, so we bought a beautiful bronze "banker's lamp" for $10 at a local thrift store. When you buy at thrift stores, many times you're also donating to a non-profit organization, so you continue to spread positivity. And we can afford to buy retail but, after years of buying previously owned items, I usually can't bring myself to spend that kind of money. You also can find fantastic buys, particularly for shoes and clothing, from eBay and sellers.