Image credit: Micheile on Unsplash

The Thrill of Frugality

I have a very love/hate relationship with money. On one hand, I very much enjoy the opportunities and privileges money affords — being able to buy goods and services, and in earning more money (plus being financially savvy) being able to treat myself to little luxuries and experiences. On the other hand, I hate how money dominates almost every facet of our society, and the importance that we place on money. For the past few weeks, I’ve been struggling a lot with the idea of money and how much I’m willing to orient my life around the pursuit of making more, when I already enjoy a pretty decent quality of life. It’s that insidious quality of money which lets it seep into your life: passion projects become more about the money than the journey, discovery, and enjoyment; you start to feel guilty if you’re not monetizing every second of your day.

And so what better to talk about than a lifestyle which not only rejects a lot of the popular attitude around money, but actively seeks to contravene it? I am, of course, talking about frugality (as the title of this might may have suggested).

Let’s begin by clearing up what I believe to be a very common misconception, which is the definition of ‘frugality’ versus that of being ‘cheap’. In my mind, being frugal is the intelligent allocation and prioritization of money, choosing not to spend it on things that aren’t important or essential to your day-to-day survival and well-being. Being cheap, on the other hand, is the outright refusal to spend money on pretty much anything, and each swipe of a credit card, each time you enter your PIN is a physically and emotionally painful experience, one that you only do begrudgingly.

The essence of frugality means that you need to recognize and decide what things in life are important to you — the ‘must haves’, and prioritize them accordingly. Someone who is frugal will spend more on quality items, such as boots, or a good mattress, that will last and benefit them for a long time, and not spend money (or as much) on things that don’t provide any material benefit (e.g. a Gucci sweater versus a Banana Republic sweater, or a Mercedes versus a Toyota). The end goal is delayed gratification — you focus on the essentials, the important now in order to improve the quality of life down the road.

I have friends who have a lot of money, and spend it as such. I have friends who don’t make a lot, but spend as much as the wealthier friends in a classic case of ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’. I have friends who make a lot of money and spend next to none of it. I have friends that are middle of the road, friends that earn lower incomes but who are careful with their spending, and as a result I have pretty much the entire spectrum in front of me. It’s provided a very interesting experience to see how all these people interact with each other, and the contrast between the high spenders and the frugal ones.

As I have progressed in my career, and earned more money, I have, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, found myself growing more and more frugal. Yes, the current state of the economy with inflation and housing gone wild has reinforced those trends, but this is something that’s happened over the past 5 or 6 years. I remember fresh out of university leasing a brand new Mustang for 3 years. I paid $551 a month for 3 years, and I absolutely loved that car. But for a 22 year old just starting out in the workforce? Horrible idea! The car cost about 75% of my annual salary at the time, and I shudder at the thought of making a similar purchase today. Once the Mustang’s lease was up, I returned it to Ford and bought my parents’ 2009 Honda Accord from them for the princely sum of $3500, and do you know what?

I actually enjoyed that car more.

The Mustang was a fantastic car: it was sporty, looked cool as hell, and I felt like the coolest guy around driving it. But the Honda had this subtle but strong appeal, in a utilitarian way. It was simple, without frills (it was a base model without any additional options, just A/C and power windows), and it did absolutely everything the Mustang did. The fact that it was simple, cheap to run, and cheap to maintain surprised me in how much I genuinely loved it for those aspects. The fact that I wasn’t nearly as worried about someone dinging the door certainly helped!

There are other examples of my movement towards a more frugal lifestyle too. I used to be really into brand name clothes, and while I never went as far as to buy designer-level items, I would try to buy the ‘cool’ brands, and I would buy new clothes fairly frequently. Now? Over the past two years, the only clothes I’ve bought have been some plain basic t-shirts from Simons (their fit is the best around) and some solid hoodies from H&M. I’ve grown to pay attention less at the brand and more to the quality of the material and construction (spoiler: a lot of more expensive brands have brutal quality) and the fit/feel. One thing I noticed when I tried on or wore more expensive brands was that I never really felt like I belonged; I just felt like myself but in those clothes.

And I can say this without a doubt: frugality takes discipline. A LOT of discipline, especially when you have people in your life who have a propensity to spend a lot more, to buy more things, nicer things, and having that constantly present. The often-reposted quote about how “comparison is the thief of joy” rings true. It is easy to feel that you are being judged by choosing to not spend a lot of money on things that aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Social media only exacerbates this, with endless feeds of carefully curated photos and videos that make it seem as if everyone is living large, living their best lives, with designer clothes, luxury cars, and large, perfectly decorated homes.

It’s a constant battle, one between your rational mind, and the emotional impulses originating in the ads you receive, the social media feeds you see, and the people in your life who spend more than they perhaps should. It’s not always easy, but with practice it becomes much more second nature, and you will begin to see the benefits in your self-confidence, individuality, and of course, your bank account.

Frugality is also fun, in it’s own way. It’s a thrill in knowing that you’re making a smart decision, one which will benefit you further down the road when you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your decisions that much more. It’s the excitement of discovering new options, new choices, perhaps ones that you hadn’t considered in a long time, or ones you never thought to look at because you were focused on other items. It’s a feeling of control — of taking charge of your lifestyle and financial habits, and once you start, it can be very hard to imagine going back to the way things were.



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