Why Living Frugally on Principle Is Not for Me


Living frugally is a tactic, not a principle.

Living frugally is a tactic, not a principle.

I was not always frugal. Far from it. But I have been living frugally for so long now that it has become automatic. Frugality is now hardwired into my approach to life. But I’ve decided to rethink and question why and whether I should continue to live frugally. I no longer need to – at least, not to the extent that I do. So I have asked myself whether I should change my approach to spending; and, if so, how.

To me, frugality has been – or at least started as – a financial strategy. A means to an end: financial independence. And I have achieved that end. By applying frugality without sacrifice to my spending, over time I lowered by basic living expenses by just over a third (from $26,000 to $15,000 a year) and, as a result, became financially independent and retired many years sooner than I had planned.

But my financial fortunes have taken a decided turn for the better since then. My basic living expenses are now covered by just 28% of my passive income. And yet I continue living frugally as ever because I am perfectly satisfied with the baseline lifestyle that that spending level provides.

But should frugality extend to my discretionary spending? Being frugal with my basic living expenses means I have more discretionary income left over. In fact, over 70% of my income is left over after those basic expenses are covered. That gives me – or should give me – more options for what I can do or get for fun and extra personal satisfaction. That outcome – increasing my fun and satisfaction options – is a worthwhile result and justifies to me continuing a frugal approach to meeting my basic living needs. But that doesn’t mean that being frugal about my discretionary spending is also justified. Or does it? After all, frugal discretionary spending results in stretching my discretionary income so that I can get and do even more for fun and personal satisfaction.

Frugality without sacrifice can work for discretionary spending too. For example, when I travel I try to stay at Best Western motels if at all possible. I am perfectly happy with Best Western and don’t feel deprived at all by staying at them. I don’t find myself walking into a Best Western room and wishing I were staying at a Marriott or a Hilton. Staying at Best Westerns is for me frugality without sacrifice that leaves me with more discretionary funds to spend. So that kind of discretionary spending frugality is all well and good. But there’s a limit to how good it actually is.

After all, there does not seem to me that there is much point to discretionary spending frugality if it just results in an ever-growing pile of directionless discretionary money that never ends up being spent at all.

I could stay at a Super 8 motel instead of a Best Western. That would be an even more frugal motel choice. But. Invariably, on those occasions when there are no Best Westerns on my travel route and I end up at a Super 8, I always wish I were at a Best Western. Every time I walk into a Super 8 motel room for the first time, I wish I were walking into a Best Western room. The Super 8 room costs me $10 to $12 less a night, but that does not change my subconscious background dissatisfaction. I can live with the Super 8 room, but I am not happy with the Super 8 room. And that feeling is for me the difference between frugality without sacrifice and frugality as sacrifice.

But, if living frugally is a principle to be lived by under all circumstances, I should not be dissatisfied with that Super 8 room. Instead, I should be happy just to be practicing frugality. Heck, I should be making myself even happier by making Super 8 my first motel choice – or even by switching to Knights Inn as my preferred travel lodging. But it does not work that way, at least not in my case. For me, frugality is not its own reward. After all, just exactly what am I going to do with the $10 a night I would save by staying at the Super 8 if I already don’t spend the discretionary funds I do have?

No, for me frugality cannot be the top personal finance principle. Or even a financial goal. For me, living frugally is a financial strategy that facilitates the attainment of desired financial goals. And not something to be practiced for its own sake.

It is those specific desired financial goals and their pursuit that justifies frugality. In my case, my top personal finance goal was to reach financial independence and, now that I am there, to remain financially independent. Beyond that point, further frugality to me is (and should be) a game I play because I get a kick out of it – provided I can play it without sacrifice. Which is why, as long as I have plenty of money in my discretionary fund, Best Western will continue to be my motel of choice. And hang the money I might save by staying at a Super 8.

Frugality without sacrifice? Sure. A thrifty approach to spending? You bet. Smart price shopping? Always. But denying myself what I want or honestly prefer when those choices will not threaten – or even affect — my financial independence? No, thank you.

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image courtesy of Naypong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. I think there is a fine line between frugality and denial. Constant denial, accepting it as a way of life would leave me pinched and angry. To my mind, there is no true satisfaction to be gained by frugality for the sake of frugality.

    Of course, denial may have to be part of your lifestyle – temporarily – while you dig yourself out or do your very best to reach an important financial goal.
    Life is short – it is meant to be lived to the fullest extent – that means accepting and enjoying your good fortune once you are financially independent.

    One aspect you haven’t touched on is the joy of sharing your good fortune with others. It seems that once denial has become a way of life you also tend to reject help to others.

    Perhaps there is even a feeling of guilt in there somewhere that leads to ridiculous choices, such as not allowing yourself a new garment even though it is obvious your clothes would be rejected by the ragman himself. I’ve seen people blog about that on some of the extreme frugality blogs. I cannot begin to relate to that mindset.

    Perhaps for some people it is the extreme denial itself that they gain their pleasure from? Perhaps they have lost their perspective and the only choice they are comfortable with is denial?

    It comes down to what FI really means – you now have choices and sometimes you “splurge”, but if it doesn’t effect your bottomline one way or the other why feel guilty? It is after all what you worked for – a comfortable life within your means. More power to ya!:)

  2. I’ve been pushing the frugal throttle at 80-90 percent for the past 5 years. It has really helped a lot as I get ready to retire in a little under 5 months now. I’ve been thinking that I’m going to have to relearn how to spend a little money on fun, because I have more than enough to retire comfortably. I’m going to start by taking some trips, exploring the world!

  3. OMG, that is a great analogy! We found our “frugality” comfort space and that’s what we’re working towards. We have our choices of what we prefer and when they fit in with our FIRE goals, why should we cut them out?

    I know others may scoff at some of them as frivolous, but they can take them out of their budget, because we’re perfectly happy leaving them in ours.

    Fortunately, I’m not living for others approval on my FIRE wants, needs, and must haves, so then it all works out.

  4. Agreed! I’m a Holiday Inn girl myself and the worst hotel stays I’ve ever had have been in Hilton hotels.

    For me being frugal is not about self sacrifice, it’s about self determination. Partly from a financial perspective but also a personal one; being frugal disconnects me from the marketing machine of modern commerce. Besides, I’ve been frugal so long, I don’t think I could be any other way!

  5. I also became a little more spendy after going FIRE. The increase is mostly on food as I have lunch “out” with my father multiple times per week. It doesn’t threaten my ER so I’m down with it.

  6. Some of the happiest years of life with my wife were back when we rented a one bedroom place near the ocean that had only woodstove heating. 20 something years later, lifestyle inflation has crept in to the point that we’re willing to work a few more years to, hopefully, have enough invested to maintain our current lifestyle. We’ll see if that works. However, I take comfort knowing we would also be just as happy with one step above college living.

  7. Interesting post, frugality is more like a lifestyle for me, being brought up in a frugal household. Having said like, there are times you should splurge a little to keep everything in balance.

  8. I hear ya. I have loosened the reins a little bit over the years. I choose to be extremely frugal in some areas, but not all that frugal in others. It’s all about what you value, and what you’re willing to splurge on. I try to keep it balanced so that I’m saving a ton but also living a little too.

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