Bubelah doesn’t care for the word “frugal.” Her opinion is that it combines the virtues of being resourceful, buying quality items to avoid replacing them, and saving on unnecessary purchases with the vices of a poverty mindset and denying yourself too much in the present for a future that may or may not occur. I don’t have much trouble with the word, but considering I’ve just watched a large amount of the money I’ve saved over the years disappear into thin air during the recent market contortions, being frugal in order to save for the future is much less attractive than it seemed in the past.
I know all the arguments – the market always makes money over the long term, Social Security won’t be there for us and consumerism is sucking our brains out through our wallets. As someone who’s never been in debt other than a mortgage I’ve never needed to be frugal to “get back to zero.” As I child, I lived in a frugal household (woe was me) but since I’ve been an adult the sole purpose of frugality in my life has been to set aside money for the future, with the added benefit of avoiding the purchase of things I don’t need.
Now that we have a four-person family I’ve noticed that I avoid purchasing things more and more out of a desire to declutter. I am as much of a sucker for a cute toy or book for the kids as anyone, but the toy-strewn landscape of our basement and living room are serving as great deterrents these days. I sold dozens of books on eBay and gave hundreds more to my parents, friends and anyone who wanted them, but our bookcases are still stuffed full. I have a lot of clothes that I seldom wear. We have a far larger house than we absolutely NEED but as with any living space our stuff slowly creeps into every corner.
So frugality has yielded as a driving force in our lives to decluttering and some (but probably not enough) concern for the environment and how much trash we create. I’ll be honest: I don’t clip coupons. I probably should. We fail in frugality in many ways – we buy organic foods even when no real evidence exists that they are better. We have two cars when we could probably get by with one. I took the ferry to work instead of the subway because the New York subway is…well, the New York subway. I am comfortable in this market saving about 15%-20% of my earnings and then forgetting about the rest; we reduce spending to the point where we can contribute that level of savings and then forget about saving any more than that.
But now when I look at a big TV or a new book and think about buying it, the desire to avoid more clutter is much more of a decision factor than the desire to be frugal. Clutter keeps us from buying things we don’t need. That works for stuff, of course, but experiences (eating out, traveling, entertainment) are another matter; but even there the “clutter” builds up in your days. It has a temporal presence even if it doesn’t have a physical presence.
Frugality has its place. Most people need to be more frugal. I probably still need to be more frugal. And if you’re in debt, you definitely need to be more frugal: you don’t need a new pair of shoes or a flat screen TV. But for me, frugality is increasingly an afterthought to clutter, environmental concerns and the need to keep searching out wealth instead of finding new ways to squeeze out diminishing rates of return on savings.