The Wisdom of Frugality: What Is Simplicity?

This is the first entry in an eight-part weekly series that provides a detailed look at the book by Emrys Westacott.

When I first read two years ago, shortly after its publication, I was struck more than anything about the depth of the connection between philosophy and frugality. That’s really the book’s central idea: frugality is fundamentally about lifestyle choices and values undergirded by philosophical traditions. Westacott digs deeply into those traditions throughout the book by asking a series of questions that are rather strongly relevant to people struggling with their finances today and digging into what kinds of answers come from different philosophical traditions.

The book starts off by pointing out that there are really two competing visions of what “the good life” actually means. One idea is that of the “thrifty” person who is careful with their money, while the other idea is hedonism and consumerism. We often think of the frugal person as being the right and virtuous one, but if that’s true, why exactly does most of modern society follow a rather consumerist and non-frugal track?

Westacott turns that question around and asks whether or not frugality is a moral value, something we perceive to be somehow an inherently “right” thing to do? Why is simple living associated with wisdom, and why do so many people throughout history associate living well with living simply? Is being extravagant and materialistic a moral failure, and why? Those are the kinds of questions that this book tries to hit on.

I find these discussions valuable because I want to understand the why behind the things that I’m doing, and this book is one of the most direct answers I’ve ever read in terms of addressing the why of frugality.

What Is Simplicity?

The first question that Westacott digs into in the book is simply figuring out what people mean when they say “simplicity” or “frugality” or “simple living.” It’s a concept that’s inherently familiar to many of us, but what does it actually mean?

It turns out that it means something a little different to different people. Westacott finds that there are actually eight elements that come into play in terms of how different people define “simplicity” and “frugality,” and different people hang their hat on different elements of that meaning and different combinations of those elements.

Economic Prudence

This is the type of simplicity that’s often associated with Benjamin Franklin and traditional words of wisdom like “waste not, want not.” Franklin absolutely viewed frugality as a virtue, but he reveals throughout his writings that he primarily centers his idea around the idea of being careful with one’s money. He holds such care with money as a very central virtue in his life, actually practicing it as one of his thirteen virtues.

This is the most obvious and straightforward meaning of simplicity and the one that most people agree on. It tends to center on careful spending practices, avoidance of debt, and avoidance of wasteful spending habits – basically, the core principles of Money360. When most people talk about the simple life, this is part of their definition of it. This is the one definition of simplicity that I think most readers of Money360 follow.

Of course, I find this to be the least interesting meaning, so let’s move on to some of the others.

Living Cheaply

I’ve often tried to carefully spell out the difference between “frugal” and “cheapskate,” usually concluding, as I did here, that a frugal person is trying to seek out the best value for all of life’s resources (money, time, energy, relationships, etc.), whereas a cheap person is primarily concerned with the best value for his or her money above all other aspects.

A cheap person definitely lives in a simple fashion, but they’re driven primarily by a desire to spend as little money as possible. They hate to waste even a single cent.

To put this in a philosophical context, Westacott describes the life of Diogenes of Sinope, the most well-known practitioner of cynicism in its ancient meaning. Diogenes strove to have no possessions beyond the clothes on his back and no wants. He was viewed as being rather eccentric, but respected for his willingness to actually live out his philosophical view of the world.

Much modern frugal advice actually goes pretty far down this path. It focuses strongly on using things up and wearing them out and has a strong self-sufficiency bent. However, the modern world pretty much ensures that none of us are really self-sufficient. In almost everything we do, we’re paying someone else to provide a service for us. We pay the electric company to provide energy for us. Even when we make things from scratch, we’re usually paying others to do some of the foundational work for us, like milling wheat into flour for our “from scratch” bread.

What this means is that the idea of self-sufficiency today is a matter of degree. Sure, it’s more self sufficient and cheaper to make your own loaf of good bread rather than buying it from a baker, but at home you’re still relying on the energy company for energy for your oven and you’re still relying on a miller to mill your wheat for your flour and you’re still relying on some source for your yeast and your water and so on. Sure, you could grow your own wheat and mill it yourself and you could go down to the stream to gather water in a wooden bucket you carved yourself and so on, but even the most ardent “simple living” person still relies to some extent on the efforts of others. This is a big part of the thinking behind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self Reliance, which I’ve written about in three parts.

The idea of self-sufficiency is highly linked to the ideas of frugality and simplicity, but they’re simply not true for most of us. Besides, modern life actually provides a lot of simplicity for us. What is simpler when you want to a friend who lives in the next town over? Sending that person a text, or putting on your walking shoes, walking several miles, knocking on their door, and hoping they’re home? It is certainly “cheaper” to walk to the next town and knock on that person’s door, but it’s not simpler.

The point here is that “living cheaply,” when taken to extremes, becomes ludicrous. When you value saving a dime so much that you’re willing to throw away many hours of effort to save that dime, you’re probably making a questionable decision. A cheap person might put more emphasis on saving a buck than others, but there’s still a reasonable limit to that cheapness. Thus, being cheap is just a degree or two of difference from more reasonable levels of frugality.

Do you consider yourself to be frugal or cheap? In other words, do you try to get value out of things based on lots of factors like money and time and energy, or are you mostly concerned about the financial bottom line?

Being Close to Nature

This is an aspect of frugality and simple living that I hold near and dear to my heart. I deeply love spending time in natural settings – going on hikes and nature walks. I am a huge believer in the idea of “forest bathing” because I’ve felt how time in a natural setting calms me and leaves me feeling better.

This links to a certain degree with the idea of “back to nature” as discussed in the previous section. People gravitate toward things that are perceived to be more “natural,” to the point that it’s often used as a marketing hook. There are lots of magazines and products and websites marketed to appeal to the inner desire of getting back to and being close to nature.

Many, many different schools of philosophical thought over the centuries have put strong value in the “back to nature” aspect of simple living. There’s often an underlying thread that “what is natural cannot be bad” running through their ideas, and it’s something that’s baked into our culture in a fundamental way.

My favorite example of this idea is Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, of which I’ve written before. In that book, Thoreau discusses his experience in spending two years essentially living as close to nature as he could on the shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He lives in a simple cabin in the woods, provides his own food, and lives as simply as he can in that context. His main discovery was that there is a deep connection between nature and personal happiness, a connection that serves as a major part of his book.

Do you get value out of being closer to nature? What exactly do you do to get closer to nature? Hikes? Camping?

Being Content with Simple Pleasures

This is the meaning of simple living most favored by Epicurus, another fellow whose ideas I’ve written about in the past. As I wrote then, Epicureanism centers around the idea of pleasure as the greatest good. One should seek a life of pleasure, but what exactly constitutes that pleasure is a bit different:

“Epicurus argued that pleasure is found by living modestly, curbing one’s desires, enjoying simple pleasures in the moment without gluttony, and reflecting on and understanding the world. Doing this leads to tranquility and freedom from fear (and, to some extent, less physical pain) and that those factors together are a huge source for personal happiness. Epicurus considered this state to be the highest and best form of happiness and pleasure.”

At the core of this argument is the idea that the best pleasures in life are those that are simply and easily obtained – in other words, you don’t have to spend a lot of your life’s resources (time, money, and energy) to obtain it. Short term pleasures that lead to long term pain are bad – I don’t think Epicurus would be impressed by junk food. He also believed that virtuous behavior made people deeply happy and was thus another thing to strive for.

So, what simple pleasures really stack up here? Food that’s simple and healthy and good. Satisfying work. Good friendships. Time to contemplate ideas and learn new things. Those are among the core pleasures of an Epicurean life.

At the core of all of it? Gratitude. The modern concept of gratitude journaling is all about reminding ourselves of the simple pleasures in life and bring appreciation of them to the forefront, and that concept comes straight from Epicurus.

What simple pleasures do you enjoy in your life? Do you practice gratitude for those simple pleasures? Do you try to make them a key part of your life?

Asceticism

This includes simple living for moral or religious reasons. For a modern American example of this, consider Amish or Mennonite communities or the idea of a monastery.

The core idea here is that denial of comfort or of physical pleasure is a tool to push people to focus on their morality or their faith. Intentionally living a simple life often frees time to think and reflect in a way that isn’t available in the modern world.

People who are driven to any form of deep work often use asceticism as a tool. They’ll retreat to a very closed off and rather spartan setting in order to get complex work done, and those settings often produce great results because they’re free of distractions. I do this to a small extent – I do my best writing when I close myself off from most of the distractions of my life and just bear down on the words.

This is also where the idea that some food and other modern pleasures are “sinful” peeks in. When you see that pop up in marketing or advertising, it’s coming from the idea of asceticism, where simple living is moral and intense pleasure is immoral.

Have you ever used asceticism as a way to keep things simple in your life when you’re trying to really hammer down on an important project?

Physical or Spiritual Purity

This happens when people begin to reject or accept things due to some standard of spiritual or physical purity. For example, some people refuse to eat non-kosher foods, others choose to be vegan and eat no animal products, and so on.

This can spread over into other types of behaviors. The “straight edge” movement, for example, which urges the avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, non-prescription drugs, and in some flavors also includes the avoidance of animal products and sex.

While this tends to fall in the idea of “simple living” simply because these often offer simple rules to live by, the end result of these types of purity practices is that they wind up at least being partially in opposition to other ideas of simplicity. For example, eating a highly restrictive diet that follows a few simple rules can be “simple” in one sense, it’s very likely that such a diet will be more financially costly than other dietary practices.

Have you ever chosen to reject certain things for the purposes of physical or spiritual purity, such as giving up meat during Lent?

Living According to a Fixed Routine

Some people view a simple life as one that heavily follows a fixed routine. If you go through very similar steps and actions each day, your life does become simpler. You can save your mental energy for other things, such as producing great work, because you don’t spend your energy or time on making constant decisions throughout your day.

This is definitely an approach that I like to use in my own life to make my life simpler. I have a lot of responsibilities that I have to balance – being a father to young children, being a good husband, being a child of parents who are growing old, being a writer, being a friend, being an active member of my community, as well as having time for hobbies and other aspects of life – and the best strategy I’ve found for this is to make much of my life as fixed in routine as possible. I wall off blocks of time that I intentionally use for each of those areas, giving important things like my family plenty of time but also ensuring I have time for other things.

This enables me to avoid constantly spending my focus and energy making decisions about what to do throughout the day. Instead, I just follow my calendar without really thinking about it so that I can save my mental energy for being a good father, a good husband, a good writer, and so on, and have energy for enjoying my hobbies and interests, too.

Do you practice a simplicity of routine in your life? Do you have consistent routines for the things that you do? If you do, do you find that they help you have time for certain things or help you maintain focus where it’s more useful?

Aesthetic Simplicity

Think of how fashionable people practice minimalism – the all white apartment with very few possessions, the tiny homes, and so on. This is an example of simple living used for aesthetic purposes – to make a public statement about your values to the world and convey ideas of purity, honesty, essentialism, and so on.

This is a very externally focused look at simple living and frugality, as an approach to mark yourself to the world. It’s usually mixed with other values such as being unpretentious or being more dedicated to doing than to having things.

What do you show to the world by how you choose to live? Is your frugality part of how you display yourself to the world?

Final Thoughts

The thing is, each of us live by a particular and likely unique definition of what simplicity is. Most of us strive for simplicity in some aspect of our lives, but what areas we choose to apply it and what methods we use to achieve it vary greatly.

What’s particularly powerful about Westacott’s treatment of the ideas is that, in almost every case, he points to philosophical traditions related to that particular flavor of simplicity, which thus points to further reading if you’re interested in that particular aspect. A bookshelf filled with works by people such as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius, Epicurus, Franklin, Emerson, and Thoreau will give you quite a lot to think about as you figure out what simple living and frugality really mean to you and how you can best practice those values in the world.

Next time, I’ll delve into the next section of the book and take a look at the question of why simple living is supposed to make us better.

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