Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Is Frugality a Virtue?

(I suspect this is what Nicoleandmaggie would call a "deliberately controversial post")

My answer? No.

Its a choice. A very sensible choice, if you are trying to pay off debt, build up an emergency fund, and save for the future (retirement, kids' college). Its certainly good advice to do those things.  But it does not  make you a better person.

I'm naturally pretty frugal. I like efficiency and despise waste, so by extension, I don't want to spend more than I absolutely need to on things and I don't like buying things we don't need. But I also guiltily unapologetically enjoy some luxuries in life. Every once in a while, I want something pretty and new for myself. I like gifts, and I haven't a real gift from anyone in years. I may ask for one for my birthday. Sometimes I just really want to have a fantastic dinner at a restaurant with drinks (gasp!) or I don't want to cook & clean up & want take-out. Or be pampered on a relaxing vacation. And that does not make me a bad person. The people spending $400/month to feed their family may have some mad skillz (and probably a lot of time to coupon/shop around), but they are not inherently better people than the ones spending $1200. 

I think saving money is awesome and leads to security and freedom, both things I value. But you may not value those things, and that's OK. Or we may value them at different levels. The person whose lifelong dream is to retire in her 30s has different priorities than I do. It makes sense for her to save every single penny and forego every possible luxury for a few years. This is a choice. That is very far from my goal, which actually involves working for a couple more decades and trying to enjoy my family and personal life as much as possible at the same time. Sometimes, this involves spending money on unnecessary things.

I am more than OK with that. My whole goal of tracking my spending and making a budget was to know where our money was going and making sure we were spending to our values and priorities. To be "intentional" about it, if you will. But as I delved into personal finance and got sucked into the extreme frugality world, it had an unintended consequence. I started fretting about every last penny, guilty about any inessential purchase, and involuntarily playing (albeit not so well!) a game in which saving more and more and more (and spending less and less and less) is "winning".  In this game, pretty much every purchase is considered "losing", and it's pretty demoralizing to feel like a loser day after day. Furthermore, all this led to an even worse and even more unintended consequence of passing judgement on the spending habits of others.

Other people spending money in ways that don't align with my habits is not "stupid". Even being completely financially irresponsible, while it may lead to some increased stress in your life, does not make one a bad person. You can be an amazing person, doing lots of good for the world, and have debt. You can be living an incredibly fulfilling life and spreading your joy to everyone you meet, and not have an emergency fund.

I do think there are some "right" and "wrong" things to do in regards to finance, just like there are "right" and "wrong" ways to approach nutrition or health. But just like I wouldn't judge someone who binges on cookies or chips, I don't want to judge someone who spends on seeming frivolities or accumulates consumer debt. If they choose to change their habits (eating or spending!), I can support them & give advice, but its ultimately their choice.

In my life, right now, my ultimate financial goal is to save a certain percentage but spend the rest in ways that enhance our lives. Our children won't be this age forever---there are experiences we want them to have. Relationships need nurturing NOW, I want to have the date nights and the girls' trip and occasional lunches with friends. I want to feel confident in myself, and I will pay for the amazing haircut again, and the gym membership and more expensive healthy food (OMG, our grocery bill on this low-carb diet!) My time & energy are precious resources, and we outsource what we can afford of our most dreaded tasks.

I'm happy to be frugal in certain areas of life and luxurious in others. I don't like buying stuff that will clutter our house & ultimately end up in a landfill so shopping less, trying to fix things, minimizing food waste---all of that has the dual purpose of saving money & being a good steward of resources. We tackle all the low-hanging fruit---refinance mortgage, shop around for better deals on phone plans & insurance, avoid unnecessary "fees" ...there is no need to throw money away.

I'm OK with being "sort of frugal", I don't need to be "the best".

49 comments:

  1. What about people who are frugal in order to live more lightly on the planet (not buying all that plastic junk, driving a car that gets better gas mileage), or people who are frugal in order to give more to important causes. I think, while frugality itself may not be a virtue, it can lead to other virtuous behaviors.

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    1. Yes, I admire those people; those are definitely worthy goals. But like you said, its not the extreme frugality that's the virtue its the reason behind it. In fact, sometimes living more lightly on the planet may cost MORE, if you are trying to eat ethically sources food or buy more locally.
      Its the ones who are frugal to support early retirement/endless travel/or just piles of money that are making what I deem to be an ethically neutral choice (compared to regular folks just living their life). Its a valid lifestyle choice, but no more valid then many others.

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    2. This is absolutely correct. Despite being very naturally frugal and content with an overall approach to life that is to "live with less", I would generally define success as living a lifestyle within your means that reflects your values. And yet, the areas that I would most like to change are areas where I would like to spend MORE. As you mention, I think that food choices can be a very powerful way of supporting positive change. This means that I spend quite a bit of money on food. Still, I would like to spend more. For me, the same is true for nearly all consumer goods. The desire to buy things that are made well, with high quality materials and by someone who has been compensated by his/her labor typically means spending MORE.

      slowmamma

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    3. yup, and while some argue that they still consider that "frugal" (to spend more for better, longer-lasting, more ethically made goods), I'd argue back that most people who label themselves frugal (and blog about it, at least) do not do this, so while these kind of spending habits may theoretically be considered "frugal", that is not how I see "frugal" actually lived, and not how I use the word.

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  2. A topic near and dear to me, as you know! No, it is not a virtue. It is a lifestyle choice- sometimes brought on by necessity (as is the case withh hubby and I), and sometimes brought on by other things- the love of a good bargain, the challenge, and so on. Frugality is the right choice for us in order to achieve our goals, but it is just that- a choice. And it certainly isn't right for everyone.

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    1. Oh yeah, I love a good bargain & a challenge---which is why I consider myself frugal at heart. But trying to live the super-frugal lifestyle wasn't working for our family at this moment. I'll focus my frugal-muscles on the areas over which I have complete control, like my own personal shopping/spending.

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    2. I couldn't agree more! My grocery budget, even though I've cut it in half in the last three months, is more than twice the ultra-frugal types out there, because I love really good food, and I eat a lot of fresh produce. Some things are not worth sacrificing. But I have no problem spending absolutely no money on entertainment most months, because I am happy going to free community events, and getting movies from the library for family movie night, etc. To me, frugality is simply about getting the best deal you can on everything... I simply don't understand people who live without heat when it's -40 degrees out, and shower only every third day to conserve water. That's a bit over the top.

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    3. yes, I definitely think there are areas in which I am frugal and others in which its worth it to me to spend more. I think trying to be the very frugaliest frugaler in the world in every category is only possible for a select few (or out of complete necessity)

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  3. I'd call it a skill! It can be practiced in many different ways, but beyond the threshold of living within one's means I assign it no inherent moral value.

    If only I could convince my in-laws to stop giving us toys I have to return or get rid of, i.e. stuff I hate that makes my life more difficult That would have an inherent moral value AND be frugal!

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    1. Yes! A really useful skill, at that! It comes naturally to some but needs to be learned in others. I also wish my MIL would stop giving us toys I have to get rid of. The waste disgusts me, and she cannot afford it.

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  4. I agree with so much of this! Our finances are a mess, and I struggle with feeling like maybe we are bad people. The one thing I think IS bad is buying things you know you can't pay for, never really intending to pay for it. (I wouldn't say we do that). Aside from that, like you said, it's up to each individual. We were really frugal for a long time. We had to be. And we were so miserable! Some people, though, might've been fine living that life. Like I know some families who only have one car, and sometimes one spouse is stuck at home, and they're okay with that. To me, while I'd like more stability and an emergency fund, the quality of life would not be there. Yes, we continue to work on reducing expenses and paying down debt. But we'll never be ultra-frugal. Thanks for writing this.

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  5. Oooh, I love deliberately controversial posts!

    I think first one has to define frugality. My definition of frugality seems to be a bit different than what you're presenting here-- for me frugality aligns intentions with expenditures (so is equivalent to intentionality if you include a person's budget constraint), and that's a nice thing to do, but you are right, probably not a virtue even though it leads to a lot less complaining and heartache. A second definition is being a good steward of resources, which I do think is a virtue because it has positive spillovers on other people and on the planet. I guess that also requires a definition of "virtue" which I tend to think of as making the world a better place or at least not making it a worse one, but there are probably more standard definitions that don't require that.

    As for going into unsecured debt when you don't have to, we do think there's some negatives to society with that because other people often end up having to pick up the pieces. (I see our piece on this is debatable, not deliberately controversial: https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/its-not-really-your-money-if-youre-in-debt/ ) Sacrifice early on can lead to not having to sacrifice later. Letting people who make less than you bail you out because they're willing to make sacrifices that you aren't is not a nice thing to do. Uncool. We can't always get what we want.

    I'm glad you're getting out of the extreme-frugality mindset-- it didn't seem to be um, "sparking joy" for you. :) Let us all listen to our utility curves and budget constraints from time t to time t+n.

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    1. well yes, living way beyond your means and then expecting others (family/friends/society) to bail you out is definitely wrong. I'm talking more about your average person who is just a bit spendy, not a real free-loader or scammer (thankfully I don't happen to know anyone like that IRL)

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    2. I don't know that people *expect* to be bailed out, at least not consciously. However, they often *are* bailed out. We argue that not even thinking about that as a possibility is still wrong. We are very down on taking on unnecessary unsecured debt. Lots of people who don't consider themselves to be free-loaders or scammers get hit with emergencies and have no emergency fund and do have debt and get bailed out by people who make less but have emergency funds. That's still wrong.

      We argue that people aren't just hurting themselves when they rack up lots of unnecessary credit card debt.

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    3. Fair enough, i do agree with this. again, I don't actually know anyone with large amounts of consumer debt. Usually small amounts taken on when young and stupid about money (or having very low income and never saved for emergencies) that WERE paid off and led to learning something useful about E-funds!
      If you were never taught about the downside of using credit, or if your family always modeled using credit in that way, I think it'd be hard to anticipate the possibility? (I'm trying to be generous and give the benefit of the doubt here!)

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    4. They need to learn that it's a problem and that there's another way! And if they know... well, that's even worse.

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  6. OOH, love this post.

    I actually don't find frugality to be a virtue . . . really at all. I am very attracted to minimalism, not wasting, not keeping unneeded/extra things, lessening environmental impact, not accumulating excess, but frugality? No. I grew up in a frugal household, and it wasn't very much fun. I was never frugal as a child, nor a poor med student, nor now. To the point where I don't really pay attention to price tags when I shop anymore (within reason of course) because I'd rather get one perfect piece at whatever $ than several bargain ones.

    To me, frugal can also stand in the way of generosity, and I value the latter a lot.

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    1. (I guess I do find it a little bit off-putting to see people living ABOVE means, to the point where debt is accumulating with no clear avenue of escape. I could make an analogy that is weight related but . . . I guess I won't go there. Although I suppose I just did :) )

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    2. I think this comment is getting into the frugal vs. cheap dichotomy. A frugal person *will* get the perfect piece whereas the cheap person will get the bargain ones that won't last. Frugal people are often quite generous whereas cheap people aren't. ( https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2013/01/25/ask-the-grumpies-tightwad-vs-frugal/ Why yes, we do have at least one post on every possible personal finance topic/definition. That's probably why we're starting to run out of content for money Monday posts.)

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    3. Ahh, interesting. I think I've known a lot of people who justify their cheapness as 'frugality', hence the line feels blurry to me.

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    4. I agree with Sarah that its a blurry line. Most of the extreme frugal blogs I've seen have a post about cheap vs. frugal and conveniently the line is always drawn just to the left of the author's own habits. I see some "frugal hacks" around that I would fully put in the "cheap" category, but everyone has their own feelings about this.

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    5. And yes, I also grew up in a household that was quite frugal---and also cheap, in some ways. Does anyone really consider themselves "cheap"? I think most would justify that they are being frugal and just trying to save. I've seen some posts in forums that everyone is so congratulatory about that really make me cringe.

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    6. Obviously those people with a different definition of "frugal" vs "cheap" are wrong. Though I don't think it's generally the definition that differs, but the examples they use aren't good examples. I think generally being frugal is an optimization process where you're optimizing long-run utility and minimizing expenses to get the optimal utility (so you can be under your budget constraint), being cheap is minimizing money in the short-term regardless of others' well-being. Being a miser or a tightwad is minimizing money in the short-term but only hurting yourself, not others.

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  7. Love it. The goal should be living within your means according to your values. Money is a tool. A fairly useful one as these things go, but useful in the service of achieving other ends.

    I will say that one of the joys of seeing your income go up is that you can spend money and still hold onto your definition of yourself as a frugal person. Because there are always other people with similar incomes who spend more. It's like having your cake and eating it too!

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    1. I was literally thinking about "having your cake and eating it to" in regards to my thoughts about this---I'd love to be in that position but its not looking likely anytime soon.

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  8. "pretty much every purchase is considered "losing", and it's pretty demoralizing to feel like a loser day after day"

    This is exactly how I feel when I read too many of the uber-frugal blogs. (I pretty much have a panic attack every time I read the Frugalwoods' monthly expense report.) I have to remind myself that I am doing a good job of paying off debt/saving for retirement and I am therefore allowed to spend money on some fun things, guilt-free.

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    1. haha, YES, exactly. i no longer read.

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  9. Stands up. Commences with slow clap.

    I love this post. Love, love, love.

    I don't think I had even put a coherent thought to what bothered me about the tone of some of the frugal living blog, but this totally does it for me. When I can better understand why something bothers me, it's so much easier for me to make it stop. You REALLY helped me out with this one.

    I was just thinking the other day that I've gotten REALLY down on myself about how I spend money, but the thing is, I'm not doing THAT bad of a job. We live in the third most expensive city IN THE WORLD and we're both public employees. We've always paid our mortgage on time, we've rarely carried credit card debt (and never actually paid interest on it), we pay down out student loans in a timely manner, we don't go on vacations, or borrow against our house to make it nicer. We didn't have a wedding, or even get particularly nice wedding bands (and no "rock" on for me when we got engaged). We have one car, we rent part of our house to make our mortgage more affordable. Our only "sins" have been to eating out every once in a while and buying too much shit we don't absolutely need. And yet I feel like we are failures. It wasn't until this post that I finally understood why. So thank you. I think really appreciated this.

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    1. yeah, I know you guys live pretty simply and forego a LOT of luxuries that others may take forgranted. it sucks that you had to feel so guilty about buying a f-ing pretzel at the zoo.

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  10. Ah, interesting. I grew up in a very frugal household but as an adult am not quite as frugal: e.g. We have two incomes, we buy new things not second hand, we eat out sometimes, we pay attention to prices but not obsessively. I do sometimes feel like I might be less virtuous because I spend more on luxuries, although we still have savings and investments and make that a priority. It is a balance and as you say it is important to invest in the present and the future.

    What I do consider a virtue is self-sufficiency, and budgeting and frugality is part of that. It is an important part of being an adult to be able to support yourself and your family, including in difficult times. Of course not everybody can do this perfectly all the time, and sometimes we all need help, but my thought is if you CAN, you should, so I think self sufficiency should be a priority over luxuries and frivolous things, and I do feel that in a lot of cases we are not educating young people about this and it's part of what is leading to debt burdens.

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    1. Hi Torhuil, welcome and thanks for your comment.
      Self-sufficiency is ABSOLUTELY a standard I hold myself to, and think should be the standard for all adults. However, what I"m working on is trying really hard not to judge that stumble along the way because they were (as you mention) never taught how to make that happen. I feel that all of us here are a subset of educated, intelligent, and thoughtful women and it seems common sense to live within your means and not take on debt yet actually many many people in society don't realize this. I think education is absolutely necessary! I wrote this post sort of as a rant against the judgement I often see on frugal-living blogs against those that make different or even terrible choices---ridiculing & shaming people to make yourself feel better is never the right way.

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  11. Interesting post - here from Mel's. I agree being frugal is mostly a choice as opposed to a "virtue." I don't love assigning value judgements to choices, because I think most people can choose to make frugal choices if they need to (not including people not making a living wage, the working poor - those living day to day). Also, living within one's means for non 1% does mean making some or a lot of frugal choices depending on income, housing costs, etc.

    To Torthuil's comment (dead on) if you are self sufficient planning for retirement, college, with an emergency fund etc and have money left over, then who cares if you aren't frugal with every cent! That is being a tightwad, in my book.

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    1. Hi Jjiraffe, thanks for your weighing in. Agree very much with your first paragraph as I replied to Torthuil above. The second paragraph is exactly what I'm getting at here---there is a whole microcosm in the blogworld of people who think spending more than 20-30% of your income is utterly extravagent. Which, fine, if that works for them and helps them meet their goals---go for it. but it does not make those of us who choose to save less and spend more "worse". (though I won't call them tightwads either, to each their own!)

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    2. Clearly I am not reading those blogs :) Do they have crazy savings goals? Like, retire by 40?

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    3. yup. or 32 in one case. I actually appreciate the shift in mindset from reading those blogs for a little while---to realize that a lot of what I considered "necessities" in life are truly luxuries and there are areas we could get if we needed to. It also got me in the habit of tracking spending, budgeting, and saving a bit more every month which helped a lot to decrease this underlying anxiety I had about money when it was all this big black box to me. I feel in control now, and that my spending is a choice. So for that, I will thank those blogs. And make my permanent exit from that region of the blogosphere!

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  12. Here via the RoundUp. Interesting post and comments. Not much to add except that I feel the same way about morning people ... getting up early in the morning is not a virtue (nor a way to live a better life), just a choice (or a necessity, but if not a necessity -- just a choice)!

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    1. YES absolutely. there are lots of analogies here, including weight, diet, and other habits that come naturally for some and not others. I'm 100% a lark---try to get me to do something at 10PM and I'll fail miserably. I'm just lucky that society is set up in favor of my natural circadian rhythm

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  13. I have tried explaining this to my daughter - we live in a fairly affluent area, but we are extremely frugal. Her schoolmates are always sporting the name brands and fancy items, and I tell her "I can't see spending that much money on something that you're only going to wear for a short time." So, she determines that others are wasteful and foolish. Then I have to tell her that, no - they just have different priorities and value things differently than her father and I do. It's the same with lunch - she enjoys eating Lunchables...but I never buy them because they're not particularly healthy. And I have time to make her a slightly better lunch (with fruits and/or vegetables). Then I have to explain that her friends' parents, who give them Lunchables, are not derelict in their nutrition. It's just that sometimes convenience wins, and sometimes kids stubbornly refuse to eat much, so you give them whatever fuel they'll take. It's hard to understand that "our way" is not necessarily better. We choose it because it works better for us and our values. But we have to recognize that it doesn't work the same for everyone.

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    1. great comment, thanks for stopping by! I have the same conversations with my kids about their lunches. I think nutrition is a very apt analogy here. WE choose to pack our kids' (and our) lunches with veggies & fruits and mostly non-processed foods, but others do differently (like my son's friend who has a twinkie in every lunch) either because of time constraints, lack of knowledge about nutrition or simply different values. While their are fairly well-established "right and wrong" choices in nutrition (just as in finance), I can't (or at least shouldn't) judge those making the wrong choices as long as they aren't from a malacious intent (deliberately scamming someone, or not caring what your child eats)

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  14. Here from Mel's roundup too.
    Mhmmmmm, food for thought. Through frugal living and saving for three generations we were able to buy a dream house. But frugal me is a bit horrified at the costs of heating this larger house. I do in fact feel guilty sometimes for turning up the heat a little bit. I refuse to feel guilty for buying second hand toddler clothes and short term things.
    You had me giggle at the restaurant " with drinks (gasp!) "
    I'm a bit sad of course that you are right about it not being a virtue, because I'm quite skilled in the frugal area. But if generosity is a virtue that makes up for it then ;-)

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    1. You can be proud of your skills! Just like you can be proud of being an awesome baker or dancer or writer...yet knowing that it doesn't make you inherently more virtuous than someone without those talents. Its a GREAT talent & will help you way more in life than said baking/dancing/writing unless you make a living out of those.
      Yes, I do believe generosity is a virtue. absolutely.

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  15. I get the feeling from reading the comments that few ppl here are dealing with not having enough money to make ends meet, rather than wanting to be responsible with spending the money they do have. It's like frugality / thriftiness / virtuous leanness is a choice. For many, including us, it's NOT a choice or a fun pass time. It's reality. Not having enough to pay medical bills from horrible employers that change the insurance with little thought to this employees, credit card debt which stretches into the future from paying for necessities, having one income for a family of four that is not low enough for any kind of perks, you know, the dying middle class. We downsized our expenses but rent here is so high it takes half my salary. It's the way most ppl live who aren't in business or finance or sthg. It's depressing as hell. And who has the time or energy to be obsessed with coupons? Food is our biggest bill after rent. It's hard. Sorry, it just feels like the frivolity of the frugal for kicks movement is tasteless when you're broke all the time.

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    1. thanks for your comment. you are absolutely right. What I'm ranting against here is the frugality as choice vs. the frugality as necessity crowd. And by extension the idea of frugality as a fun game you can undertake from a position of privilege. I didn't get into all that in this post, but it does bother me when people go on about how easy it is to save money by doing things like growing your own vegetables or making your own bread or fixing your appliances when obviously doing those things require education, intelligence, health, and a stable life situation that a lot of people are not fortunate to have. Its easy to criticize others for not making the frugal choices you can make (why would they buy fast food when they have no money? etc...) without realizing the privilege that makes it possible for you to spend hours in your apron baking bread in your spacious kitchen using tutorials from the internet.

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    2. The book "Hand to Mouth" is a good description of what it's like to be frugal out of necessity. It addresses a lot of the criticisms that more well off people have about the spending habits of less well off people. Worth a read!

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  16. I lean this way because I saw growing up how frugality can shift over into miserlyness (not sure that's a word). Watching my (financially secure) grandmother not spend $30 for a new pair of shoes after edema caused the old ones to be too small was instructive. We live within our means and save well for the future; within that, I will purchase things that bring me joy.

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    1. awww that is so sad. I am all for occasionally purchasing things solely for joy.

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