Rethinking Frugal – When is it Too Extreme?

Rethinking Frugal – When is it Too Extreme?

Frugal - Cut MoneyI’m not a big fan of being frugal, in general terms. Sure, it’s a necessary part of budgeting and cutting back on expenses when you are in debt up to your eyeballs (like me), but I don’t like being frugal on it’s own.

It’s not really the frugal part that bothers me, it’s more what the word has come to mean recently. To me, being frugal has come to mean getting very extreme in the ways that you cut your expenses. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many frugal advocates try and one up each other…

Frugal 1: You should cut back on your entertainment costs…look at cutting cable, eat out less.

Frugal 2: We cut our cable cord, stopped eating out, and started doing crazy extreme couponing. We are awesome!

Frugal 3: We threw out our TVs, forced our kids to read books only, grow 60% of our food in our garden, and we burned down our favorite local restaurant so everyone can be frugal like us. We are awesomer!

Frugal 4: We sold our worldly possessions to escape from this oppressive financial circus and moved into a local commune in the remote wilderness. We live in a hut and make our own food and clothes. We are awesomest!

Okay, we get it. You are the most frugal couple out there. You win!

The biggest problem I see with these frugal crazies is that they only focus on the expense side of the budget. They advocate things like extreme couponing, growing a garden, and doing a staycation…all of which require lots of time and energy. They never seem to focus on investing or increasing their income, which is another way to improve your financial situation.

I just think that “being frugal” has been done to death. I don’t want to start a garden and grow vegetables. I don’t have time for couponing. I don’t want to live in a commune. I don’t even know what a commune is, but I bet there is someone running around in a grass skirt calling everyone “dude” in a real mellow, stoner voice. The general frugal principles are great, but the manic nature of keeping up with the Frugal Joneses is ridiculous.

Frugal - Cut Money 2I mean, look at the picture I found when I searched for “frugal” on the Google. Who cuts up money like that?? A $100 bill no less?? Ridiculous!

You can cut your expenses all day long, but what do you do with the extra cash flow? That is the more important question. If you save on expenses but never invest that extra money, you have lost a great opportunity.

I’m not picking on all the wonderful financial bloggers and experts out there who advocate being frugal. I’m just picking on the extreme folks who recommend uncommon principles, almost as a way to point out how perfect they are. It’s like the people on Facebook who seem to lead these amazing lives. Gag!

Our Kind of Frugal

Obviously I’m going overboard here in order to get a laugh. At least I hope it was obvious. I go for the cheap laugh every time. It’s the classic sarcastic approach to things. Anyway…

Maybe I’m using the wrong term here with the word “frugal” and should instead use the word “cheap.” There is a good look at frugal versus cheap over at the financial blog Frugal Familia.

And there is a good reminder that it’s not how much you make but how much you keep, from the blog Route to Retire.

For me, being frugal is still about cutting back on expenses that are excessive and not in the “necessary to live” category. Here are a few steps we have taken recently to cut back on our expenses:

Cut the cord – We cancelled our cable TV and went with a cheaper route. We bought digital antennas for about $35 each (two TVs) to get us about 20 local TV channels. We already subscribed to Amazon Prime for the free shipping and started using their video streaming service, giving us kids shows and adult shows. Then we recently added Sling TV for $20 per month, which gives us 20 cable channels, including ESPN (woohoo…got my sports).
No more cards – We stopped my wife from using credit cards. It wasn’t the temptation, but the easy access to credit that did us in. My wife thinks and acts frugally, but she can’t resist a sign that says “sale” or “clearance.” It’s her kryptonite. The big change was going to a debit card only for my wife. Now I transfer a set amount of money per week to her debit card account, which is her spending money for the week for gas, groceries, etc. I still use one credit card for gas or small grocery store trips and pay it off each month.
Limited vacations – We cut down our vacations to more local getaways or trips with limited out-of-pocket expenses. I receive hotel points for work travel and we use the points for free hotel nights for the family. We spent three nights at the beach this summer…all for free. We barely fit in the hotel room, but that’s the tradeoff. Another savings is using the local amusement park where we pay for one admission and then get free admission for the rest of the season. My wife even gets free parking.

We are certainly being frugal with those cuts. No commune living there.

Actually, the largest cut I can make to expenses is to pay down debt, particularly credit cards. I look at debt pay down as more of an investment, though, and not really being frugal and cutting back on things. Frugal is about doing without something and my credit card debt is about living with too many things for too long.

We continue to find ways to cut expenses, but they will be smaller cuts going forward. First we hit the big ticket expenses and then we move down the line to the next biggest expenses. Sort of like a lean six sigma approach to personal finances.

I’m actually looking forward to the kids going back to school because my power usage will go down considerably. We won’t use as much air conditioning and lights will be off most of the day. It will only bring seasonal savings, but I’ll take it. See, more frugalness in action.

What is the most extreme frugalness you have done to cut your expenses? Do you live on a commune…what’s it like? Leave a comment and let me know.

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  • Mrs. Groovy

    Funny stuff. Have you seen any of the frugal conversations in the forums at MrMoneyMustache? People talk about using rock salt for deodorant and wearing 3 sweaters in the winter rather than raising the heat to a comfortable level. Cutting the cord was one of our most extreme frugal moves. But if hasn’t really impacted us financially. It’s had more impact on our mental well being.

    • Glad the funny came across. I haven’t seen those forums in particular, but it sounds like the frugal crazies I’ve come across. I bet they make their own soap, too. Hell, I might be one of them…I had no heat in my house growing up. We had wood burning stoves, which meant lots of splitting wood, carrying wood, and collecting newspapers to keep warm in the winter. It was like Little House on the Prairie or something.

      Cutting the cord was big for us, too, but I felt like I was keeping up with technology with that move and escaping the big evil cable company more than I was losing out. I hate monopolies and cable companies seem to have little competition…only one provider in our area.

  • Frugal Familia

    Brian, thanks so much for the mention! I’m still working on the wife to cut the cord, but at this point maybe I shall wait until after football season 🙂 For us, happiness is all about finding that right balance and everything in moderation!

    • I think football season is the biggest argument against cutting the cord. Tough to do when you are so invested. I cut it last year during football season and it turned out okay. I’m a college football junkie and got to watch the weekly CBS SEC game and other games on ABC with our digital antennas. Then this year we got Sling TV and I’ll be able to watch games on ESPN.

      Once my wife heard that I was willing to cut cable during football season, she knew I was serious. But you are absolutely right, happiness comes from balance and moderation…and I would add compromise.

    • I think football season is the biggest argument against cutting the cord. Tough to do when you are so invested. I cut it last year during football season and it turned out okay. I’m a college football junkie and got to watch the weekly CBS SEC game and other games on ABC with our digital antennas. Then this year we got Sling TV and I’ll be able to watch games on ESPN.

      Once my wife heard that I was willing to cut cable during football season, she knew I was serious. But you are absolutely right, happiness comes from balance and moderation…and I would add compromise.

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  • No commune here. I tried to “cut the cord” and failed. I do like to save money and consider myself relatively frugal compared to my peers. the biggest money savers for us come from travel hacking, thrift stores, and restaurant coupons / discount certificates. A number of local restaurants sell gift certificates for 40% off via the radio station. I gladly take advantage of that.


    • Cutting the cord is challenging, especially when you have that “fear of missing out” thing going on, like I do. I felt like I was missing so much, but it eventually faded. Like all the hype around Game of Thrones. Sounds like a cool show but I don’t have HBO so I’m not in on that hype. I just let it go. Maybe someday I’ll watch the reruns on Netflix or something.

      Thanks for checking in. Glad to hear that you found your frugal sweet spot with travel and restaurants. You found what works for you.

    • Yeah, Doc. Cuz you didn’t accept my challenge! Smiles.

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  • Few conversations are less pleasant than the “who’s more frugal” pissing match. The thing that irks me about people claiming “extreme frugality” isn’t that they’re living in communes, but that they’re often living what would’ve been considered a lavish lifestyle just a few generations ago. We all need some perspective on how our “cutting back” is what was simply normal for our grandparents.

    • Great point! We have a poor study and no appreciation of basic history. We would be better served by being humble and appreciating the great things we have.

  • Thanks for the mention, Brian! There are definitely different levels of frugality – I know I’m not ready to be a minimalist anytime soon. Ironically though, I can’t wait until I quit the 9-5 so I CAN start a garden. That’s really more because I’ll have the time and want one though and not because I want to cut expenses (although that’ll be a good side benefit!).

    I really like your process of hitting the expenses that can have the biggest impact and working your way down… smart move!

    — Jim

    • Glad to mention you, Jim. I agree that frugal is relative. It all depends on your own situation.

      I like the garden idea and I’m like you…I would need the free time in order to commit to it.

  • Sarah @tortoisehappy

    I like to be “frugal” in some respects so that I can be extravagant in others. I’m happy with freeview TV so I can have more holiday spending money. It doesn’t really feel like being frugal though, because we’re not big TV watchers. I’d describe us as not wasteful rather than frugal. Although maybe I am wasteful, splashing out on chemical cleaners, rather than using a lemon, distilled vinegar and an old tooth brush to clean my house from top to bottom. My favourite tip for saving money on cleaning supplies is simply to clean less often 😉

    • Ha, cleaning less is certainly one way to save on supplies.

      I think you hit it on the head…being frugal is about saving money in one or more areas so you can spend or invest it in other areas, the areas that mean the most to you. That’s what it boils down to.

  • I tend to agree–there’s a lot more blogosphere advice on how to be ‘frugal-er’ than there is on how to boost wealth and income. Maybe that’s because the people who know most about and are most successful at the latter are too engaged doing what they do to take time out to blog. 🙂

    • Kurt, I intend to fix this gap in my eBook titled ‘Four Secrets’ I am working on. Stay tuned!

    • Thanks for checking in, Kurt. I think the one upsmanship (I think that’s a word) on who can be more frugal among the bloggers might have something to do with getting noticed. Think about the news that gets put out…it’s always the worst kind of news. Or politicians…they only get big air time if they are spewing some extreme view. Bloggers are playing the same game, trying to get air time in a crowded world, so being the most frugal (or crazy) might get you there.

  • Congrats on getting picked up by Rockstar today! The key to building wealth is to maximize the gap between income and expenses. If folks put as much effort into “increasing income” (unlimited potential) as they did in “reducing expenses” (while you’re living in your communal hut, there’s not much more you can cut), they could widen the gap even further. Focus on widening the gap, not just reducing expenses! Great post, congrats again!

    • Thanks, Fritz! I agree completely…the focus should be on widening that gap, as you said. To add on to that point, I would say also that folks need to invest whatever increase they gain. So if I save more or I earn more, I need to invest that money. That’s where real gains are made. Took me a long time to realize that.

  • Brian, interesting post. Frugality, like other things in life, is relative and highly subjective. I believe in sensible frugality, which I explain in a post on the same title in my website. Also, frugality takes on an entirely new meaning in the life of a 1%er, which I cover in another post. This is no universally acceptable definition of frugality, just like there is no common definition of ‘rich’.

    • Good point, frugal is mostly subjective. I think the key is to find ways to cut back where you can, increase income where you can, and then invest those savings. I just can’t stand the frugal extremists who keep trying to one up each other.

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  • Frugality looks different for everyone. It’s hard to define the line between frugal, spendy, and miserly. What works for me isn’t going to work for someone else. I just think it becomes problematic when you insist that everyone should adapt to your particular brand of frugality. It’s also bad when people are promoting cheap living instead of frugal living (coupon sites really grind my gears!)

    • I like that phrase “really grinds my gears,” made me laugh. Reminds me of the cartoon, Family Guy. You hit it on the head, frugality looks different for everyone.

  • Donald Capouch

    Hey, Brian. I totally agree. This is the exact approach I am trying to take myself. Cutting down on costs while maximizing income and investments! Unfortunately right now, all of the extra income is going towards reducing debt, but every time we make those payments, our net worth goes up, and we grow closer to increasing our investments. I’m sorry to see credit cards aren’t for you guys. Over the past year we have accumulated over $500 worth of cash back on our credit cards. To each their own though! If you know it won’t work, then you’re going down the right path. Can’t wait to see what you do going forward!

    • Thanks for the comment, Donald! Making those debt payments is great, and I look at them as investments. They increase your cash flow and your financial health, just like an investment. As you increase that cash flow and reduce your debt load, that income goes up. You will get back to putting that extra income towards other investments in no time.

      I’m not opposed to using credit cards. We just had to break our bad habits with cards first. My wife had more of an addiction than I did. I love the extras you get from cards, like cash back or travel points. We will use cards again once we get our current situation on track.

  • No worries about promoting. Thanks for sharing the link.

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  • Jack

    This article is great. The word frugal means so many different things in different situations too. Most “real life” people I know think I’m frugal because I have no cable, no car, bring my own lunch, etc etc but in the online personal finance world, I’m pretty much the worst because sometimes I buy coffees and I just got a new phone.

    • I completely agree, frugal can mean so many different things. It’s all relative to your current situation. I might think you are very frugal for having no cable, but you may feel like you spend too much in other areas to be considered frugal. All depends on what your situation is. Thanks for the comment.

  • MuchMoreWithLess

    See, I would describe myself as frugal, because I like to stretch a limited income a long way. But part of our reason for living on less is exactly so we can save and invest for the long term, knowing we’ll be able to retire rather than working until we drop. Ideal world, our money will work for us, rather than us working for money.

    • It sounds like you are frugal for the right reasons. Not to one up others, but to use the savings for investing towards retirement, a sooner than later retirement. That’s the best approach and reason for being frugal, in my opinion. And I like that saying, turning things around and making the money work for you. Thanks for the comment.

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About Brian Stephens

Brian is on a journey from massive debt to real estate mogul. Join him as he stumbles and fails on his way towards long term success. Debt isn't pretty and turning it around won't be either. His primary goal here is to tell the story and network with like minded people who want financial independence through real estate investing.

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