Ingenuity: The Ultimate Frugal Skill

Photo: StevenDepolo

In our modern world, we’re often hand-fed information and ideas. We’re plugged in, tuned in, and logged on in unprecedented ways. It can be both liberating and limiting. As I see kids growing up in this new reality, I worry about their ability to see the interplay between information and ideas, understand the big picture, creatively problem-solve, and negotiate the curve balls that life will inevitably throw their way. (See also: 20 Great Frugal Skills — and How to Get Them)

More specifically, I wonder how the gadgets of our lives — and the overwhelming volume of pre-packaged information that our culture delivers — will affect the next generation’s financial health. In short, I wonder if we’re risking the loss of our ingenuity. After all, ingenuity is what frugality is all about. If our economy continues to be challenged in the way it has been in recent years, will the next crop of young adults have the skills to succeed?

Ingenuity, in all its forms, drives frugality, and it’s the skill that underwrites our ability to live fully with less. In the game of simple living, ingenuity gives us a strategic advantage. Here’s why.

Ingenuity Helps Us Save Money

My grandmother always said, “It’s not how much you make; it’s how much you save.” And while I agree with the spirit of this sentiment, I also realize that making more means being able to save more. But at root, her phrase illustrates ingenuity's proper place in the skill set of frugality. Ingenuity is the force behind creative reuse, bartering, identifying opportunities for friendly negotiation, and stretching ingredients in the kitchen. Ingenuity helps us save — and maximize what we save. It has the power transform scarcity into satiety and make limits….well, not quite so limiting.

Ingenuity Helps Us Make Money

I’ve always believed that there are two separate but equally important ways to successfully manage life on a limited budget. You can either learn to spend less money or figure out how to make more of it. Of course, to get ahead of the game, the most powerful approach is double down and do both at the same time. Again, a little ingenuity can make all the difference. Ingenuity inspired my mom and dad to turn our family garden into an income-producing machine. My brother and I became door-to-door fresh produce salesmen in our small-town neighborhood and earned enough money from our little business to live large at the state fair each year. Ingenuity helps enterprising kids across the country turn overgrown lawns and un-shoveled sidewalks into extra pocket cash (although I fear this particular breed of kid may be an endangered species). Ingenuity has the power to turn a surplus of anything — time, materials, skills, labor, or knowledge into a product or service. It gives shape and form to our ideas and turns opportunities into cash.

Ingenuity Helps Us Spend Money (Wisely)

Less obvious, but no less important, ingenuity helps us to make smart spending decisions too. Frugal folks tend to choose quality over quantity, picking products that are multi-purpose, versatile, and able to be easily repaired. Knowing how to spend your money wisely is just like saving money — the two are shades of the same color. Wise spending means understanding when and how to invest, what products will appreciate in value, and what products should be purchased now to save money later.

Saving money, making money, and spending money are the three essential silos of frugal living. And ingenuity is the universal skill that gives practical use to each. It’s a way of thinking that saw our grandparents and great-grandparents through the Great Depression and helped families adjust to rationing during World War II. If our modern devices will enhance or detract from our innate ingenuity remains to be seen. I hope as our young people become more deeply plugged in to the Information Age, they don’t unplug from their history and the generations of ingenuity that helped secure their wired lives.

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