What Does “Frugal Mean To You?

by Mike Holman

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One of the new economic and social buzzwords is “frugal” – there are frugal blogs, frugal people, frugal lifestyles.  Everyone is frugal these days ranging from people who have always been frugal their whole lives to people who have no idea what frugal means but just want to be part of the crowd.

One of the things that I wonder about is what is the definition of frugal?  I don’t consider myself to be frugal – I like the term “financially responsible”.  The problem with a term like “frugal” is that it is fairly general and can be interpreted in so many different ways.

Here are a few possibilities that I suspect some people use and my thoughts:

I spend less than I used to (ie I’ve cut back)

I don’t see how this qualifies anyone as frugal – someone who was very spendthrift and has reduced their spending could very well still be a spendthrift.  On the other hand someone who is extremely frugal (like my Mother-in-law) could increase their spending and still be very frugal.

I spend as little as possible

I would think this sounds like a good criteria for frugality – although not the only one.  The problem of course is the application – for some “spend as little as possible” is taken literally and there is nothing in their lives that doesn’t get evaluated for value.  That person might do thing like try to live without a car or with only one car (for a family).  For others – “spend as little as possible” is applied to the lifestyle that they choose without regard to cost.    That family might chose to have 2 cars for convenience – the reduced spending might apply to the options included with the car or even the type of car – but the 2 car variable is not up for grabs.

I expend effort and time to be frugal

This one sounds pretty good – it’s always hard to ignore a good effort.  One of the problems with this approach is that ‘frugal effort’ can be applied to fairly small budget items and savings on larger items might not be maximized which is not very frugal in my opinion.

Here are some examples of ‘frugal effort’ that I’ve come up with just to clarify what I’m talking about:

  • Preparing your own meals.  Most people do this, but the test is how often do you eat out?
  • Creating basic goods from scratch.   Making your own laundry detergent is only frugal if you have a lot more time than money.
  • Comparison shopping/coupons.   This one may be obvious but it takes time.  This has to applied intelligently – saving 25 cents on soup is irrelevant compared to the money you can save on a car.

I save a lot

Frugal or not – a high savings rate is rarely a bad thing.  Like some of the other examples – this one is relative – someone who makes $10 per hour and can save is almost undoubtedly frugal.  Of course if that person is a student living with their parents, then maybe not so frugal.  If that person make $250k per year after tax and saves $50k per year – are they still frugal?  I’m thinking not since they spent $200k in one year!

What is your definition of frugal?

Enough of my thoughts – do you have any “definitions” or criteria for frugality that people should meet before they can wear the frugal badge of honour?

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 the weakonomist

I had this debate a few months ago with myself. My definitions worked out differently. Frugal people are the ones that make their own soap and and calculate the cost of each bowl of cereal. In essence the time they put into to saving money doesn’t justify their savings – they do it for fun as much as profit. Thrifty people apply common sense to saving money and cut back when appropriate. Cheap people are hypocrites, they clip coupons while buying iPhones or pretend they are saving money by ordering a salad when going out to eat when simply not going out is the best thing to do.

I’m somewhere between cheap and thrifty.

2 Nurseb911

For me being frugal is maintaining a balance between my discipline for spending and saving. Being “cheap” can often mean that I might compromise on something important where “frugal” means that I might wait for a better opportunity or look for a smarter way to save money.

3 Four Pillars

Weakonomist – Interesting definitions – I suspect there are a lot of “frugalsters” who might disagree with you.

911 – I agree that “balance” is a key word. I think I’ve been too conservative (or cheap) in the last couple of years but we’ve been trying to improve our financial situation and there is only one way to do that (spend less).

4 Baker @ ManVsDebt

For me, being frugal just means that we are pushing ourselves to be resourceful in how we spend and consume less. We aren’t extreme commune hippies (yet). But the last year or so I have felt that we’ve adopted a lot of things that work for us.

That being said, I think it is a fluid definition. If we get stuck doing the same old things then we cease to be frugal anymore. You have to be constantly tapping into your resourcefulness. At least for us!

5 Shank

A thought about your $250k who saves $50k is not frugal. I would suspect when broken out, they might be more frugal than you give them credit for.

$50k saved = 25% of salary
Taxs = 46% or so, plus EI & CPP (~lets round the 46% up to 50%).
That leaves 25% of his salary to spend on rent/mortgage, food, etc… which if you only spend 25% of your salary i think you’re doing fairly well with your finances and would , in my opinion, have the potential to be considered frugal…

6 Four Pillars

Shank – the $250k is after tax. My point was that someone spending $200k per year is not frugal. This isn’t to say they aren’t financial responsible but I don’t think they are frugal.

7 Shank

missed the after tax….i agree with you know and i stand by my thoughts though if the $250k was before tax. Coffee time.

8 Mr. Cheap

I’ll refer back to an old post and my definition of frugal:

“Overall I think being frugal is one of the greatest virtues. It involves soul-searching and an understanding of yourself and your environment in an effort to ensure that your resources are distributed in line with your values.”

Now that frugal is cool, I’m willing to be arm candy for some frugalistas…

9 Dana

Frugality for me is often synonymous with being an anti-consumer. It
means being grateful and pleased with what I have rather than working nine to five each day just to get all the things I dont have. It means
canceling catalogs that come in the mail, not only to save trees, but to
avoid being put in a position of being sold-to. It means I do not own a
television because I do not want to be exposed to a barrage of
advertisements that are created to work on a subliminal level. It means
turning down my radio when commercials come on. It means leaving my little truck in front of the house each day and using public transit. Frugality means when I do use my truck on weekends, its to shop for purchases that have been carefully planned based around sale prices and coupons. Frugality means re-purposing: shoe boxes to hold small snacks to grab on the way out the door, file boxes to pack away summer t-shirts, old binders to store school papers. Its never buying anything for storage purposes because, except for seasonal sports equipment and grills, why would I own something just to store it? Frugality is utilizing all I have to its fullest before I even consider making a purchase. I live within my means and do so happily.

10 MoneyEnergy

Good points, Mike. I agree, I prefer “financially responsible” as a goal rather than frugal. But even by the average definition of frugal, as both living below one’s means AND taking extra cost-saving measures like eating at home and making one’s own pasta sauces, etc. I don’t think I’m really frugal. I am a student, though – so de facto I have to be frugal in certain areas in relation to most people, though.

11 Jerry

I agree that financial responsibility and frugality are not necessarily synonymous. For me, I rather prefer to be both responsible AND frugal whenever possible. I think it is possible to be frugal (miserly?) to the point that leads you to be no longer financially responsible. For example, I know a family of five in New England who opts out of the (reasonably priced) health insurance package at the husband’s work because they are being “frugal.” Heaven forbid, if some medical catastrophe should happen to any member of that family, they are screwed… in the name of frugality.
Jerry

12 Melanie Reformed Spender

What do you have against home made laundry detergent? Shredding up soap in a food processor and then combining it with washing soda and Borax takes only a few minutes and makes enough detergent for months. I think it’s great!

13 Squawkfox

I like making my own laundry detergent too. :|
Anyfrugallaundryflakes, frugal to me is finding ways to spend less when the easier path is to spend more. Frugality can take patience, effort, and time – but it’s a lifestyle not a fad for me. Now back to hanging my laundry. :|

14 Colourful Money

To me, frugal means getting the most out of life for bargain prices. Searching for these deals is certainly worth the reward as you’ll know have a resource to look back to for deals.

There are so many great deals to be had, you just have to watch out for them. Never, is it, in any way compromising one’s quality of life. I will say that it is focusing more though on needs than wants, with little to no focus on consumerism. Consumerism is desirable only in moderation and as a reward.

15 Charlie

We prefer the tag “financially responsible. We value every item we own and think long and hard before purchasing any medium to big item.
Our savings are high but it’s certainly not the main focus in our lives.
We just don’t see the point in working really hard to spend it on stuff, that often ends up living in a closet along with other purchases.
It’s a case of being disciplined and getting rid of the “I want” mentality that seems to have stricken so many people in the world today.
We go out often, enjoy entertaining friends and family and value this more than anything else.

16 Cheapnik

Being financially conscious of every single purchase no matter how big or small. Analyzing how to get the best deal always including lots of calculations. Willing to buy used and shop frequently at garage sales. Making due with the current as it still works..although may not always be the hippest. Wearing things out. Looking around to see what I already own will work instead of buying new. Cooking from scratch. Using coupons. Sometimes being frugal also means paying a tiny bit more for an item that is made better and last longer.

17 Jud

Frugal means thrifty, not wasteful. Financially responsible!
Buying what you need but buying value not cheap or luxurious.
Maintain what you have until it is junk. Being frugal is being a good steward of resources including your time.

18 Mrs Pillars

Jud’s definition works for me. I wish I were more frugal by this definition.

19 George

Frugal is just a classy name that means CHEAP !!!! STINGY !!!!

20 Kevin Press

Frugal is stooping to pick up pennies well after your 70th birthday. Frugal is washing your hair with Ivory soap. Frugal is stepping off the boat onto Canadian soil for the first time in your life wearing your wedding dress, because it’s the only nice piece of clothing you’ve ever allowed yourself.

In short, frugal is how my grandparents lived. Fully informed by a childhood mired in poverty and a young adulthood trashed by the Great D. I don’t think frugalty has truly existed since.

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