what motivates you more: frugality or decluttering?

I love clutter

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.

photo credit: sindesign

13 comments

  • I think you're describing what I consider to be simplicity. Less stuff – which means spending less, which means you end up being frugal – but not necessarily because you have to or want to be frugal but because you're striving for a life with less stuff.

    I live a debt free (including no mortgage) life out of desire to save for later (yes, even with the markets tanking – I have had fun buying the last couple of months!).

    For me it started as needing to be frugal, which led to less stuff and then the simpler life was really nice so now even when I don't need to be as frugal, I am because I just don't want more stuff!!

  • I think it's a beautiful thing that they go together — frugality and decluttering. This is something we have struggled with. The simple act of keeping our home decluttered is an act of Congress, and we don't even have kids. (This does not bode well for the future!)

  • I have to admit, I like a certain amount of clutter around the house. The totally sparse look is just not me or my style. There does come a point when you have to say enough is enough. I recently put a bunch of books and DVDs on E-Bay and Half.com, partly for the money and partly because they were unused and just taking up space, they may as well go to someone who wants them! I have a hard time parting with books especially, I love to read and will re-read books over and over again. I don't need to keep the entire Janet Evanovich series at home, I can check them out from the library.

    I live in a very small house (under 500 sf) with a bad floor plan and very limited storage space. I constantly juggle the do I really need it/want it/have room for it dilema. I recently donated a bunch of perfectly good bedding to a charity shop because I never used it and I needed the storage space.

    I think some folks have gone to decluttering because they need the money-e-bay and craigs list is chock a block full of items.

  • Ashley @ Wide Open Wallet

    I'm with you on the clutter thing. My husband doesn't really get why I don't usually take things when they are offered for free. “But it's free!” But my first thought is… “where am I going to put it?”

  • I think I might have to disagree with Bubelah on what “frugal” means, but then again, it's always the definitions of things that spawn discussion, no?

    I don't think frugality involves deprivation – that, to me, is more crossing the line into 'cheap'. I think frugality is more along the lines of having what you need (and some of what you want), without letting your stuff claim you. So in a way, it's similar to 'simplicity' and 'decluttering' but for me is slightly different. I guess in the Venn diagram of my life, all three would be very overlapping circles. I think of frugality as a mindset, decluttering as a process, and simplicity as the goal.

  • Yes, my approach to this is “making it manageable.” To me keeping my lifespace simple trumps saving money. It just so happens that the two overlap heavily.

    I recently downgraded my wardrobe after taking stock of what I really needed. Of course this seems to be a lot easier for men than women. My entire seasonal wardrobe (both work and casual) can now be compressed into about two feet of closet space.

    I do have to raise an eyebrow at your comment re: organic foods. Yes, organic versions of many foods (i.e. fruits with thick skins we don't eat) may not be much better than their conventional counterparts, but I don't think you can deny the evidence that suggests that foods like milk are much more healthful in their organic form.

  • I think the two terms are separate. If you aren't buying cause you have too much stuff, that is different than not buying to save. You still would have the want but not the need. The other you have the want but can't afford it. Different scenarios. Like you have mentioned, there are ways to declutter, sell on ebay, donate to charity or friends, or just throw out. So if you really want something, get it. Don't let cluttering be an issue. If it's to save, then save.

  • As your post suggests, de-cluttering (actually, avoiding the clutter to begin with) is a form of frugality because it limits your possessions to those things that really bring you function or pleasure. I often tell my spouse that I don't care so much about the money being spent, but on the fact that stuff is coming into our lives that serve no purpose other than to take up space. As baby boomer, that is high up on my list of irritants.

  • The word “frugality” is being used so much by everyone sometimes in the wrong context (i.e. when people are cheap but claim to be frugal). It's being used incessantly to the point of being annoying. It's like The Word of the millennium. Even though I know the definition of the word “Frugal” it has some “cheap” undertone in it. And I don't like CHEAP.

    Ha-ha, now you can really tell I don't like hearing this word. It just cuts my hearing. Maybe it's non-Eglish native speaker in me.

  • It all seems to be wrapped into one philosophy, really. Frugality and less stuff and saving the environment all happily go hand in hand.

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