What I’m reading
Some stores are scrapping self-checkouts.
Only 10% of US workers have the “optimal” characteristics to to save well for retirement.
“We frequently overestimate just how much happiness money can buy.” The pay raise people say they need to be happy.
Ranking streaming services by cost increase.
What I am thinking
I find many things come down to the fact that words can have different definitions. For example, I have discussed how people who dislike the term FIRE often choose to focus on the early retirement piece and not the financial independence piece. Same goes with people who say there is no such thing as “dividend investing.” Well, the term has been defined by the people who use it, so of course there is.
From what I can see, no word has been more maligned in the personal finance community than the word frugal. Let’s check out some history:
“economical in use,” 1590s, from French frugal, from Latin frugalis, from undeclined adjective frugi “useful, proper, worthy, honest; temperate, economical,” originally dative of frux (plural fruges) “fruit, produce,” figuratively “value, result, success,” from PIE root *bhrug- “to enjoy,” with derivatives referring to agricultural products. Sense evolved in Latin from “useful” to “profitable” to “economical.” Related: Frugally.
PHEW. There is a LOT going on in there! What’s interesting is that on that page there is no mention of the word frugal being aligned with the word cheap but yet, it’s what frugality has come to mean to a lot of people. I think we’ve done the word frugal dirty and I am done with it!
Clearly, I consider myself a frugal person but I don’t consider myself cheap. To me, spending judiciously is what I think of when I think of the word frugal. I also think the word applies to more than just money: I want to get the maximum enjoyment out of things I spend time and energy on as well. I don’t watch a lot of movies or tv shows because I get very little value out of them. It isn’t a judgment on whether or not movies/tv are a good use of time, it’s about how I want to spend my time. I have a friend who loves movies and gets a ton of value from hitting up a theatre a few times a month. She loves it. She also loathes cooking, so she spends as few hours as possible in the kitchen. I love to cook, so I spend a lot more time cooking from scratch. We are both using our time on the things we love. That’s being frugal with our time and energy.
The same goes for your financial picture: spend money consciously on the things you love and you will get great value out of spending that money. Conversely, reaching for that credit card mindlessly every time your brain decides to have a dopamine hit for funsies and you end up broke with no money to spend on things that truly bring you joy.
Of course, people will say that frugal people focus too much on small things and ignore the larger things eating into their budgets. In some cases, that is for sure a fair assessment. For example, the easiest way for me to set up a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) was to set it up via a brick and mortar bank that had limited investment options (mostly high-fee mutual funds). It fills me with dread to know that I am paying management fees out the wazoo because of this limitation. But, the Canadian government matches my contribution 100% and those amounts grow tax free. So even with the high MER, I am still ahead. Unfortunately, many online banks don’t even offer the RDSP because there aren’t enough clients for them to deal with the hassle. Next year will be the last year that I will be eligible for the matching grant and while I hope online banks (*cough* I am talking to you Wealthsimple!) get into the game, if that doesn’t happen I will intensely research options to switch banks so I can whittle away at those crazy fees. The big things DO matter a lot – especially compounded. Large purchases such as cars, using a financial planner who takes a % of your investment, buying a home, the career you choose etc. can mean big gains and losses over a lifetime. It makes complete sense to focus on these things first.
I would argue though that making frugal choices in your everyday life also builds up your frugal muscle. Frugality becomes a habit and it contributes to your overall financial health. I am not saying that you should drive 20km to save .20cents on OJ – by definition that isn’t frugal at all! But if you shop at the grocery store near your house it takes a few short minutes to take a look at the sale items and think about buying those things and incorporating them into meals this week. It’s way better to plan ahead than end up buying a bunch of food you bought when you went to the grocery store with good intentions (or worse! Hungry!) and it ends up rotting in your fridge.
Also, most of us start our lives not making a whole lot of money. What we do have we have to use wisely if we want to balance getting our bills paid with being able to, say, have a social life. When you have less, you need to plan your money as carefully as possible. Because all the big things in your life are probably already as low as they can go you need to start cutting ruthlessly in other areas. The same goes for people who have lower incomes: telling them to not sweat about the small stuff is terrible advice when the small stuff is contributing to their inability to manage their finances and is increasing their debt. These people need to learn the skills of blackbelt scrimping until they can breathe again.
I spent years being ultra-frugal and making cutthroat decisions in how to spend. Those years allowed me to start a small business – and then to subsequently give up that business to stay at home with my kids. We rarely ate out, we mostly did the free activities available around the city and we had a YMCA membership that gave us access to fun sports classes for the kids. Most of those things were also walking or biking distance from our house. We had a really good life because we were able to access a lot of low-cost, fun stuff.
That frugality also came in handy when I decided to go back to work. Being able to live off one salary allowed me to wait and take contracts for work that I enjoyed and that were at a higher salary. I didn’t have to take the first job that came along because I knew that while the money was nice we didn’t need it to survive. I doubled my salary and went from a low-level admin position to heading up a team in a high-level position in under 5 years. I was free from the constraints of having to scramble for work to keep our family afloat. That kind of freedom to pursue the type of work you want to do is worth a lot more than eating out and shopping a lot.
Our house is paid off and our incomes is more than enough to spend well beyond what we need. But with my diagnosis it has been abundantly clear how precious time is. So while we could be buying up everything our little heart’s desire, we are choosing instead to invest Mr. Tucker’s salary to buy him an early retirement. Thankfully, my disability income is more than enough to support our family – if we spend judiciously. Buying his time back is the most frugal thing we can do right now.
In the end, frugality is a skill that never leaves you. You can also administer it as much or as less as you want to depending on your circumstances. If you have little money, you will have to tighten your belt. If you have a lot of money, you can loosen the belt if you’d like. But it’s exactly like riding a bike: you never forget how to use it.