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