The Value of Frugality

A recent skim of the book 365 Ways to Live Cheap! made me realize that, without ever trying, I have mastered the art of being a cheapskate. That long list of tips sounded all too familiar.

Like most confirmed cheapskates, I prefer the term frugal for the practice of prudent money management. It carries more connotations of Yankee thrift than of Scroogelike stinginess or unhealthy compulsions. Living “cheaply” suggests either a resistance to spending anything or a focus on low-value bargains that rarely prove durable.

Frugality is less about clearance sales and coupon-clipping and more about values. It invites us to reflect on what kind of world we support with our expenditures.

The word frugal derives from the Latin term for “enjoying the produce of.” It invites us to weigh whether our purchases are truly useful (or even necessary) and whether they justify our hard-earned dollars.

Frugality offers a counterpoint to mindless consumption, tacitly challenging the cultural assumptions that newer/bigger/faster somehow equates to better and happier. For that reason alone, frugality may be one of the most essential tenets of sustainable living.

Fortunately, frugal living doesn’t require adopting 365 practices. It takes only a shift in mindset – seeing money not merely as a currency, but as a resource for shaping a better world. Whatever our income level, more deliberate spending choices can help us conserve funds and direct dollars toward businesses and causes that we believe are worthy.

Here are some key tenets of frugality that can enhance savings and sustainability – psychological, financial and environmental.


Better directing your dollars toward purchases that nourish you and the larger community depends on knowing exactly where your money goes. Tracking expenditures helps to identify not just the dollars expended but the value you derive from what you spend. Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, authors of the classic Your Money or Your Life, advocate translating prospective purchases into “life energy,” assessing expenditures in terms of one’s “real hourly wage,” which factors in all the associated costs of working, from clothing and commuting to recuperation time.


When you earn or receive money, financial advisers often suggest that you “pay yourself first,” putting a chunk into savings. Not only is this wise counsel, it’s positively counter-cultural. A recent survey found that a third of the Americans surveyed have no retirement savings, while another quarter have less than $10,000. (Women fared particularly badly, with two-thirds having less than $10,000 in retirement savings.)


With the average American household saddled with more than $90,000 in debt (racking up thousands in interest fees each year), borrowing more may sound like bad advice. But borrowing stuff – books, DVDs, tools and vehicles (such as Zip cars and rental bikes) can be a strategic way to minimize expenses. My absolute favorite resource here is Maine’s beneficent Interlibrary Loan System, ILL to its friends.

With no more than a library card number and internet connection (or help from a librarian), Mainers can access the collections of 200 libraries within the state. The system offers all the convenience and instant gratification of online shopping at no personal cost. This exchange of materials is “not free by any means” for participating institutions, my local library director assures me, so consider directing some portion of what you save on avoided purchases back to your local library as a charitable gift.


If it doesn’t work to borrow items like seldom-used tools or appliances (think food dehydrator or, in our house, an iron), look for quality used items. This is an especially valuable strategy for kids’ clothing and equipment, saving money, resources and aggravation when items get damaged or go missing.


When looking at tips for lower-budget living, it’s hard to escape the obvious overlap with actions that reduce environmental impact. Skip the drive to the gym, opting for self-propelled exercise close to home, and you can breathe cleaner air while you work out. Downsize your house or car to cut expenses, and your carbon footprint shrinks. When you forfeit disposables and single-serve food items, you help save trees as well as dollars. Telecommute and you score a three-way gain, saving money, petroleum and time.

Our consumer-driven culture often portrays frugality as a miserly approach to life or a puritanical practice of self-deprivation. In fact, it allows us to live more fully and generously, directing hard-earned dollars toward what enhances life. Cutting back on mindless consumption helps free us from the earn-and-spend treadmill, buying more time to savor life.


© Marina Schauffler, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.