The Frugal Spectrum

When people think of the word “frugal” or define in their head what a “frugal person” is, they usually think of someone that is at least as careful with their money as they are, and usually someone a little bit more careful.

For example, when I think of a person who is more “frugal” than I am, the image that usually pops into my head is of someone who buys most of their stuff from the dollar store. While some items there are perfectly good, some aren’t all that much of a discount and many other items simply don’t work all that well. I had most of a package of dollar store light bulbs blow out on me in less than an hour once. Sure, I paid less for those bulbs, but they were practically worthless.

I also think of someone who washes and reuses freezer Ziploc bags. That’s just not something that I do, even though you can save 30 to 50 cents for a few minutes of effort. For me, it’s not worth it because many freezer Ziplocs will spring a leak if you clean them, meaning that much of the time spent washing the bags is wasted. Instead, I just reuse freezer containers that are meant to be used many, many times and can be tossed in the dishwasher.

On the other hand, a person might think of someone a lot more careful with money than themselves as being “cheap.” That person is taking on life hardships that seem unreasonable in order to save a dime or two.

For example, one of my relatives chose to live in a tent for a while in order to save money. He pitched it wherever someone would allow him to pitch a tent, sometimes in his father’s back yard. Another example of this is Daniel Norris, a major league baseball player who lives in his 1970s-era camper. He has millions in the bank but lives out of his camper.

A person that I think of as “frugal” is someone who does things that aren’t too different from myself, but maybe uses some tactics that I don’t use that I can easily adopt. A “frugal” person isn’t living a life that’s radically different than my own and I can learn specific tactics from that person.

A person that I think of as “cheap” is often living a life that’s quite a bit different than my own by their own choice in an effort to spend less and conserve as much money as possible. It’s hard for me to learn specific tactics from that person because the basic structures of their life are so different than mine. I might admire some of the choices they’ve made, but to change that much would require some major life changes that would have more “cons” than “pros,” at least form my perspective.

You can make almost the same comparisons while looking at spending more.

There are people out there who spend a little more than I do. I might call them “spendthrifts.” They tend to buy more small things than I do and have more expensive versions of the things that I have, but their life is, in most ways, pretty similar to my own. I might borrow tactics from those people and end up buying some of their expensive things.

On the other hand, there are people who spend so much that their lives are fundamentally different than my own. I call them “rich.” These are the people who have housekeepers and drive BMWs. They’re often detached from the day-to-day thoughts and concerns that I might have.

Similarly, I might admire some of the things that “spendthrifts” do and I might even adopt some of their tactics. On the other hand, I might playfully daydream about the lives of the “rich,” but it’s so far different than my own life that there’s really not anything I can actually adopt from their lifestyle.

I view all of this together as a “frugal spectrum” of sorts. From where I’m at, people who are more careful with their money than me are “frugal” and people who are far more careful are “cheap,” whereas people who spend a little more than me are “spendthrifts” and people who spend a lot more than me are “rich.” (Those are just terms I use in my head as shorthand for each group.) The borders between each group aren’t exact, either.

What I’ve found is that, over the last 10 years, I’ve definitely moved toward the frugal end of the spectrum. My spending choices right now are what I would think of as “frugal” and almost bordering on “cheap” from the perspective of where I was ten years ago. On the other hand, right now I view my spending habits of ten years ago as definitely in the “spendthrift” category and pretty far away from where I’m at right now.

So, what good is this? What’s the “practical” aspect of this little thought experiment?

First of all, we’re constantly borrowing tactics from the people and things we see and incorporating them into our lives. We’re often borrowing these tactics and ideas from people who seem similar to us – people I would call either “frugal folks” or “spendthrifts.” In other words, some of those tactics are a less expensive way of doing things, while others involve spending a little more for one reason or another.

If we find ourselves borrowing more tactics from the people who are on the “big spending” side of the spectrum from us, then we’re going to slowly slide ourselves that direction along the spectrum. We’re going to start spending more and more in our daily lives, which is going to add up to bigger bills, higher expenses, an increased chance of credit card debt, and so on.

Even more interesting, it’s going to bring us closer to seeing even more spending as completely normal. Buying a BMW, for example, will begin to seem like a more reasonable use of money regardless of one’s income.

At the same time, if we find ourselves borrowing more tactics from the people who are on the “frugal” side of the spectrum from us, we’re going to slowly move in that direction. We’re going to start spending less and less in our daily lives, which is going to lead to lower bills, lower expenses, a decreased chance of credit card debt, and so on.

Just as with moving in a spendthrift direction, it’s also going to bring us closer to seeing an ever-wider range of frugal tactics as completely normal. Ten years ago, I would have thought someone a complete fool for even considering washing out a freezer Ziploc bag. Now? I don’t do it myself, but it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to me.

So what can you do? If you want your dollars to stretch further and further, spend less time thinking about, looking at, and using “spendthrift” tactics and spend more tim thinking about, looking at, and using “frugal” tactics.

You can start by spending less time on websites and reading magazines and watching television shows that show you an endless array of products to buy and places to travel to. Those things simply plant “spendthrift” ideas in your head, inching you along the spectrum toward spending more, toward higher expenses, toward credit card debt.

Instead, spend more time looking at media sources that show you strategies for spending less money and maximizing what you have. Read books, especially thoughtful ones. Focus on websites that have a frugal bent to them rather than ones that encourage infinite spending (like this one). Spend less time watching television.

Similarly, manage your social network to do the same thing. If you read Facebook regularly, hide the posts from people who post things about how much they’ve spent and all of the possessions they have, and set Facebook to accentuate the posts from people who regularly offer up non-spending thoughts and occasional frugal ideas.

You can even go so far as to encourage friendships with people who are frugal by spending more time with them while simultaneously trimming down your time spent with people who engage in endless rounds of “retail therapy.”

In the end, it’s almost never bad for anyone to move themselves a little bit toward the “frugal” end of this “frugality spectrum.” Doing so has a host of financial benefits that pop up almost automatically in your life as you begin to see tactics you now see as “frugal” as being completely normal parts of your life. Your energy bill will go down, your grocery bill will go down, your entertainment budget will go down, and yet you’ll have just as many options and just as many pleasures in life as you do right now.

The choice, as always, is up to you.

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