Frugality: Normal or Extreme Behavior?

frugal: normal or extreme

When many people today think of frugality they think of a life filled with deprivation and sacrifice. They think of people who are living on the fringe of society; people who make all their own clothes, eschew modern technology, aren’t knowledgeable about popular culture, and mail-order worms for their compost heaps.

While some frugal people fit the above description, most do not. Yes, in any frugal lifestyle there is a certain element of “deprivation” or “sacrifice,” but these are voluntary and are usually engaged in only up to the individual’s tolerance level. Thus, some people are more frugal than others, and some go about it in different ways than others. There’s no right or wrong, no one-sized fits all model of frugality that makes someone “frugal” or not. Some forms of frugality are out of the mainstream; most are not. I think that as long as you are actively, consciously trying to save money and resources then you are acting frugally, even if you do it differently than your neighbor.

That said, I’m wondering why frugality, which can accommodate anyone, is viewed as an extreme lifestyle choice nowadays. In my grandparents’ day, frugality was respected and admired. The ability to do for oneself, to save money and to waste nothing was an aspiration. Nowadays frugality is often regarded as an extreme lifestyle choice, mostly reserved for the “crunchies” and “hippies.” If someone calls you frugal, it probably isn’t a compliment; it’s code for cheapskate.

Somewhere between my grandparents’ time and now we lost our way. We became so enamored with consumerism that we forgot the value of frugality. For a while, frugality was so lost that only the old timers and the “back to the lander’s” remembered what it was like to live with less, to waste less, and to make do with what you have. As time passed, frugality marked you as either an old fuddy-duddy, or a member of the lunatic fringe because these were the only groups that engaged in frugality. Or so it was assumed.

Thankfully, however, there’s a shift in consciousness happening, partly brought about by skyrocketing debt loads and partly by environmental concerns. More people are looking to get back to the old ways of thrift and saving. Frugality is becoming part of our society once again and moving back into mainstream life. While still not seen as the aspiration it once was, more and more people are embracing the basic ideas of living with less, wasting less, and making do with what’s on hand.

I don’t see frugality as an alternative or extreme lifestyle. I see it as acting normally. I think the notion of frugality is really about getting back to what is “normal” in terms of consumption and waste. What we’ve been doing these last fifty years or so — the high spending, debt ridden, wasteful, over-consumptive life — isn’t normal. It’s extreme and we’re finally realizing that. We’re finally realizing that such a lifestyle isn’t normal or sustainable, either for the planet or us as individuals. Thus, more and more people are turning away from the extreme and heading back toward normal, which is where frugality resides.

Yet there are many who still see frugality as the extreme. If you’re frugal you’re likely to be pigeonholed as weird, out of touch, deprived, or even poor. Many people are still living as if the current American lifestyle is the norm and they judge frugal people harshly for daring to live on the other side. For them, frugal people are the extremists. The ones spending $1,500 in gas every month to feed their SUV, or dropping $500 on a new handbag every two months are normal.

In my grandparents time, and in every generation before then, the excessive spenders and those who wasted food and resources were seen as the extremists. They were the ones talked about over the kitchen table as being odd, strange or out of touch with reality. There were very few people who lived high on the hog and they were the object of much discussion and finger pointing. The vast majority of people worked, saved for a rainy day, and used every bit of everything that came their way.

I would argue that frugality is now, and has always been, the norm and something to be aspired to. It’s just that somewhere along the line we bought into the notion that what was once extreme (extravagant spending, waste, showiness) was normal. We believed the advertisers who told us we could have it all, that we could and should own the things that were previously considered over the top, and the credit companies who so generously offered to help us attain them. We fell for it and now we’re paying the price.

While many people continue to live that way, others of us are returning to normal. So please, if you know someone who is frugal, don’t label them as extreme or strange. Consider their lifestyle and ask yourself if what they’re doing is really that strange, or if it might not actually be more sensible than what everyone else is doing. Consider, just for a moment, that that frugal person you know might also be the most normal person you know.

Image courtesy of Tim Somero

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14 Responses to Frugality: Normal or Extreme Behavior?

  1. Great post!

    Sometimes I wonder just how so many people managed to lose the plot. The reality is that the vast majority of people on this planet have no choice but to live a frugal lifestyle. I a world with limitations on resources being frugal should be the normal state of affairs.

  2. Mail-order worms? I’m guess I’m lucky to have plenty in my back yard already — and they automatically gravitate to the compost pile.

    I certainly don’t think that being frugal in general is extreme behavior, but some definitely do take it further than others. There are many more ways I could cut back, but I think my husband and I have settled on what works for us right now.

    As far as impressions go, I think a lot of peoples’ attitudes has been, “I can afford X, so why should I bother doing Y.” However, now a lot of them are realizing that they can’t — and couldn’t — afford X. Been there, done that. But while I’m still paying down debt, my attitude has changed from that to “O.k., what can I really afford?” to “Why spend more than I have to?” I think that last bit is why I will always think frugally, no matter how much I make.

  3. devon says:

    The problem is that frugal people sometimes go to extremes and it give a bad name to everyone. Like the women who take two-ply toilet paper and divide it in half or those people that recycle their dental floss. People here that and that is the image of frugal that sticks in their head.

  4. Great post!

    Personally, I’ve always thought of frugality as knowing the value of money – having an understanding that time is money and it takes time spent working to earn the things you want to buy. It is a totally different mindset than what is marketed today, and like anything else, it can be taken to extremes.

  5. Andrea Trusty says:

    I’m proud of being “frugal”. I was reared that way. My husband and I struggled when we purchased our home 29 yrs ago. We wanted a 5-acre tract so we sacrificed the size of our home (1400 sf) so we could afford the land. Most people nowadays live on postage-stamp sized lots in McMansions, and most of them regret it because they’ve lost privacy. By being “frugal”, we paid our house off several years early. We use one credit card which we pay in full every month. Now we and other “frugal” people are paying for the “I want it right now” crowd — lower home values, lower interest rates on savings, etc.

  6. I completely agree on the excessive focus on consumerism. The difference that I draw between frugality and being cheap is that frugality is about reducing mindless waste, “money bleed” and other places where time and financial resources are lost.
    I feel no shame about discussing my financial habits. I take the change out of my pants and that I find and roll it up. I try to get my absolute money’s worth on what I buy. I try to reduce waste, especially when it comes to food. I feel that I’d carry these habits even when I become financially independent. If only more people thought as I do.

  7. Debbie Roberts says:

    I would agree that many times people who are frugal and not to the extreme are made fun of. I know I am at work by a few of the spenders. I have nice things and I buy things, I just don’t spend foolishly. For example, I carry my lunch to work and most of us do because we don’t have a long time for lunch. Instead of putting out the money for bottled water, I bought a stainless steel thermal glass. I fill it with filtered water and take it in my lunch. I figured the $19.99 it cost me was paid for in less than two weeks than if I had purchased bottled water. I take a thermos of coffee I make at home and you would think I was from the dark ages! Why didn’t I stop at the gas station and buy a cup? Hello! I like making my coffee the way I like it — not too strong or too weak, and putting extra milk in it. And it’s a whole lot cheaper than stopping at the gas station or a coffee shop.

  8. baselle says:

    “somewhere between my grandparents’ time and ours we lost our way.”

    Did we ever! But then again, there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure to be frugal. There was a feeling that our lives depended on it. Here’s a link that I can’t resist posting…

  9. Monika says:

    So sad that lots of people nowdays don’t think of tomorrow, and live only for today. Many financial downfalls will be avoided if they only changed their ways. We proudly mention to people that we’re frugal, and that we like to save our money. But we’re often faced with comments such as: You can’t take it with you when you die, or
    you should get out more often and live life.
    We’re in our mid 40s with a small child, only one of us works, and my house is paid off, it’s probably worth about 500K. We cook from scratch and eat organic at home, and we treat ourselves to nice restaurants about once or
    sometimes twice a week. Couple of
    times a year we fly to some nice
    vacation spots, and also drive on some weekend getaways near by.
    We don’t waste our money. We spend it when we need to, the rest we
    save for college education,
    retirement, and things that are important to us, like travel. We don’t compete with anyone.

  10. Cindy M says:

    If the “average” family in America today, according to the media, is $8000 in credit card debt, who wants to be average or normal anyway? They can have their debt and I’ll continue to be on the fringe, thanks anyway, ha-ha. I do feel for anyone with medical bills, though, that must be a nightmare.

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  13. owlhaven says:

    What people often don’t see is the freedom that frugality gives– the choice!

    And maybe I’m odd, but to me the purchase of a $500 purse is way more extreme than figuring out where you can buy the cheapest cereal.

  14. Urbanfrugal says:

    When people see frugality as extreme, there are those who do over the top things to save money. Just as there are those who spend a lot more on accessories than people spend on their household budgets.

    I do consider myself frugal, but not extreme. I learned from my grandmother (and parents) that quality is also important, not just saving a dollar or two here and there.

    Spending within my means is important and is something that everyone should do. If you make more than others then that means that you have more discretionary spending. That doesn’t mean you have more to waste, just more to act as a steward of properly.

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