In defense of living cheaply

The point of making frugal choices is to avoid the stress of money troubles later on.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP/File
A bird used by a Chinese man, unseen, to perform, holds a yuan collected from a tourist as it prepares to drop it into a piggy bank, in Houhai district, in Beijing, China in this file photo. Hamm argues that frugal living isn't boring, and it cuts down on life's money-related stresses.

I get emails and comments and tweets from people all the time who seem almost disturbed by the idea that I incorporate frugality into my life. The implication behind those comments is that my life must be incredibly austere and boring in order to pull off all of these things.

Here’s the truth: the things about my life that I write about on The Simple Dollar are snippets of reality.

When I write about making homemade laundry detergent, for example, I’m talking about something that takes fifteen minutes out of a day every two months.

When I talk about making our own meals at home, I’m talking about fifteen minutes of meal planning once a week, plus perhaps half an hour or so of meal prep five nights a week and some extra time the other nights of the week when we’re making something special.

When I talk about leftovers, I’m talking about maybe a minute invested in packaging up the remnants of a meal.

Frugality is an element of my life. It is not my life.

Whenever I wake up in the morning, I know that I have the freedom to do whatever I want to do. If I want to go to an electronics store and buy the newest iPad revision, I know I can certainly go do that. If I want to wake up one morning and replace one of our cars, I know I can certainly do that. I can go out to eat whenever I please, I can buy a computer game whenever I please, and so on.

Sometimes, I do these things. Sarah and I go out to eat sometimes, and on occasion we even take the children. I buy a new board game or a new book once in a while. We go on a pretty nice annual summer vacation, and Sarah and I each have an annual trip that we take individually for fun (she usually visits her sisters, I usually go with some friends to a convention).

Most of the time, though, I choose not to do these things. The reason is simple: I’m very aware that all of these things have a real cost.

When I hand over money for fun things, I’m losing the opportunity to enjoy other things.

On the simplest level, overspending means getting into debt trouble, and debt trouble means stress and worry and a painful attachment to one’s job. If I simply spend without thinking about it, I will eventually be stressed about bills that I can barely pay and paranoid about the vaguest hint of losing even a drop of income. When you reach that stage, work ceases to be fun – it becomes a ball and chain.

That’s the life I once lived, and it’s a life I never want to return to.

What we’re left with, then, is making choices about how to spend money and spend time. I have to ask myself whether going to the movies twice a month is a better entertainment expense than a weekend getaway with my wife. If I have both, I’ll regret it, as mentioned above, so I have to choose one or the other.

The other option, of course, is frugality. Are there ways I spend money in my life that really don’t matter to me? Laundry detergent is one. I want clean clothes, but I really don’t care too much about what I use to get them clean, provided it’s reasonably environmentally friendly and does the job.

If making my own laundry detergent – something I don’t really care about – saves me $30 a year, then I’m suddenly able to go to the movies once with my wife and not worry about the financial consequences of it.

That type of thinking enters into a lot of the little decisions we make, but the key thing is that they’re little choices sprinkled throughout the day like blueberries in a muffin. I don’t spend all day pondering the cheapest way of doing things. Most of the time, I’d do the same thing whether it would involve spending money or not.

I would play soccer in the backyard with my children regardless of whether I was a big spender or a tightwad. I would make my family a good home-cooked meal regardless of whether I was a big spender or a tightwad.

Frugality only enters my mind when it comes to actually buying or consuming things, and even then, I often don’t think about it because the decision has already been made beforehand (like food in the pantry, which has already been purchased).

The vast majority of the decisions in my day and time I spend has very little to do with maximizing my dollar. It has to do with living a great life.

For me, a great life means – in part – not stressing out about my debt situation or whether I’m going to have enough money to cover the bills. If that means not having everything I might want, well, I consider that a pretty worthwhile trade. I still get to have the vast majority of what I desire without all the stress of debt or day-to-day financial worry.

If making my own laundry detergent (15 minutes every two months) or air-sealing my home (several hours, once) or making a meal plan (fifteen minutes, once a week or so) leads to that kind of relief, you better believe I’ll be doing it. The other 95% of my life is left untouched and left with a lot more happiness.

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