Strategic Luxury: The Difference Between Frugality And Miserliness
Our lives here at Frugalwoods HQ are luxuriously frugal. For us, frugality isn’t about deprivation or hardship, it’s about spending money only on what truly matters. The point of our frugality isn’t merely to save as much money as possible, the point is to create lives we love living. There’s no martyrdom or pain in our lifestyle of extreme frugality and we never feel as though we’re missing out on the riches of life.
The Luxuriously Frugal Life
Mr. Frugalwoods and I aren’t ascetics or stoics, we’re optimizers. Anytime we spy an opportunity to maximize our savings, we grab it. It’s certainly possible to exist with zero creature comforts, but that’s frankly not the life for me. I’m out to create the most authentically experienced, delightful, passion-pursuing, humanity-improving existence I can; thus, I’m content with the trade-offs we make in order to retain our luxuries.
So how do two people (that’d be us) who only spent $13,000 (plus our mortgage) in all of 2014 manage to live a luxurious life? We only spend in service of our life goals and on what we genuinely value. We don’t let anyone else dictate how we should structure our spending, we don’t fall victim to our culture’s clarion call to buy buy buy, and we don’t care what anyone else thinks of us (my decision to cease buying clothes and stop wearing makeup are elements of this). We’re serenely at ease in our frugal skin and when we do spend money, it’s because we want to, not because we feel we have to.
Once Mr. FW and I taught ourselves to strip away all of the external reasons why we were spending money–to impress others, to keep up with our friends’ spending, to follow someone else’s advice, to adhere to cultural norms–we concluded there’s very little we need to buy in order to live our version of the good life.
Finding Your Sweet Spot
In addition to the fact that our lifestyle enables our overarching goal of reaching financial independence and “retiring” to a homestead in the woods of Vermont at age 33, it also makes our present existence much more joyful. Frugality has given us the gifts of peace, decreased stress, more time, and a greater appreciation for what truly matters in life.
The underlying key is that we’ve identified the sweet spot whereby our lives are 1) filled with everything we need, and 2) our spending is optimized. This is the crucial alignment at which I believe luxurious extreme frugality is realized.
There’s no satisfaction in stripping away every convenience, but there’s also no satisfaction in over-satiating ourselves with the endless consumer frenzy our culture prescribes for all of our ills. I think it’s all about striking your own personal balance.
And we’re not the only people who live this way. Our compatriots at 1500 Days to Freedom, Root of Good, Go Curry Cracker, and Mr. Money Mustache have also discovered their own harmonious equilibrium between spending and saving. These folks live what I (and they) would describe as luxuriously frugal lives: they do as they please, they’re all married with children, and none of them feel they’re deprived in any sense of the word. Rather, they’re some of the happiest people I’ve ever come across.
The Frugalwoods’ Luxuries
So what are our luxuries? I’m so glad you asked–we have a lot of them! As you’ll see below, with each luxury we indulge in, we strategically optimize in order to spend as little as possible.
The Luxury: Frugal Hound. Without a doubt, our gorgeous greyhound is a luxury good. We love her deeply and she brings hilarity and cheer into our lives. We can’t imagine living without her and so, we’re happy to spend the roughly $900 per year she entails (get it? entails).
- The Optimization: we carefully chose a breed of dog that’s darn frugal. Greyhounds, being rescues, are inexpensive to adopt and don’t require specialized doggie care. Their grooming is easy to DIY, they don’t need doggie daycare or a dog walker, they don’t necessitate obedience or behavior training, and they’re easygoing enough to leave with friends when we travel. They’re a laid-back, lazy breed that likes hanging around the house with their family and going on walks. Greyhounds don’t bark or drool, they’re not aggressive, and they’ll blissfully snooze the day away while you’re at work.
The Luxury: Coffee! We don’t technically need coffee to survive and thus we consider it decadent, but, uh, we’re never giving it up. What’s the point of a morning sans coffee ;)?!?
- The Optimization: our beans are purchased from Costco for a modest price. We then grind them ourselves at home and brew our own coffee. We don’t buy high-end beans, nor do we go out for fancy caffeinated delicacies. In this way, we have our coffee and drink it too.
The Luxury: Travel. Mr. Frugalwoods and I have traveled the world. Not quite all of the world (yet), but we’ve trotted around the globe. We value having our horizons broadened–literally and figuratively–and eliminating travel was never a consideration in our frugal endeavors.
- The Optimization: we travel at unusual times when flights are least expensive (for example, flying from the US to a foreign destination the week of Thanksgiving), we use Starwood Preferred Guest hotel points for free hotel rooms, and we eat and sightsee on the cheap while we’re abroad.
The Luxury: Beer (and wine when Mrs. FW isn’t pregnant). We do quaff a nice drink on occasion and, while it’s popular in the frugal-sphere to go alcohol-free, that’s not something we wish to do.
- The Optimization: our economization of this consumable is two-fold: 1) we don’t drink very often–usually 2 drinks per week; 2) we buy it thriftily. Now, this doesn’t mean we consume cut-rate liquor, after all there’s nothing worse than inferior beer! Our Costco liquor store sells a 15-pack of Founder’s All Day IPA (a delightful brew) for a mere $16. And on the wine side of the equation, I’ve unearthed a fabulous source for discount fermented grapes: boxed wine. When I’m not with child, I’m particular to the Big House brand.
The Luxury: Seltzer! Evidently we’re really into beverages around here :). Yes of course it would be cheaper to just drink plain tap water, but we loves us some bubbly! Drinking seltzer (without flavors or sugars) anytime we want, in any quantity we crave, is downright lavish.
- The Optimization: look no farther than our Great Sodastream Hack Of 2014 and then, to bring it to frugal boss level, our Great Homemade Seltzer Discovery Of 2015. Oh yes, it’s as thrilling as it sounds.
The Luxury: Organic produce. I have no interest in sacrificing our health in favor of saving a few bucks, which is why we gladly pay the premium for produce every week.
- The Optimization: we’ve devised a menu that entails us spending only $300-$350/month on food for the two of us. Our secret? Most of what we eat is either fresh produce or purchased in bulk from Costco. We also shop at the thriftiest discount grocery store in the region: Market Basket. They sell the same produce as Whole Foods at drastically reduced prices. The added bonus? They treat their employees extremely well and are a local business.
Everyone’s Luxuries Are Different
Something I want to emphasize is that everyone’s conception and experience of luxury is different. What we prioritize is probably not what you prioritize–and that’s completely fine. In the same way that Mr. FW and I don’t keep up with the Joneses, we also don’t keep up with those who are more frugal than we are.
However, I do find it incredibly useful to gain insight from folks who spend less than we do because it provides us with novel ways of addressing our own frugal campaign. What I’ve realized is that it’s not a question of comparing ourselves to others in a negative way, but rather, of learning from the wisdom of others.
The core difference here exists between critical comparison and constructive comparison. It’s easy to look at someone who is more frugal and think we’re terrible for spending money on, say, our coffee. But, it’s much more enlightening to observe their spending and reflect that they have an interesting approach we could try out. Comparison is a powerful and useful tool, as long as it’s wielded productively and with an eye towards education, not frustration.
I don’t endorse the concept that everyone can, or should, follow the same path to frugality. We’re all on our own unique journey and I firmly believe there’s no “one right way” or secret to the good life. We each have to uncover our own best selves.
The trick is to identify the personal luxuries you’re willing to spend money on, and then find methods for optimizing them. In the same way that Mr. FW and I continually quest for new tactics to augment our savings, challenge yourself to do the same. There’s nothing wrong with spending money–the danger only comes in when we’re spending into debt, an inability to save, or to a level at which we can’t sustain/pursue our life goals. Determine what you love, spend money on it, don’t stress about it, and eliminate all the unnecessary chaff.
Try It Out For One Month
Since I bring so much awareness to the luxuries we do have, I enjoy them mindfully. I don’t carelessly slurp my coffee–I savor it. We don’t yawn through our travels–we immerse ourselves and relish every minute. In this way, we’re able to pinpoint whether or not a luxury is truly important to us.
If we find ourselves not deriving a high level of pleasure from a luxury, then there’s no reason to keep spending on it. By bringing this mindfulness to our indulgences, we’ve eliminated things we used to spend money on that weren’t actually yielding a high degree of happiness.
Here’s a very simple framework for distinguishing true luxuries: eliminate the luxury in question for a month and see if you miss it. The exercise of eliminating purchases is incredibly illuminating. As regular readers know, I’m a huge proponent of the month-long trial period for either starting a new habit or stopping an old one. After all, it’s only a month and you can always revert back the following month. And remember: No one else can tell you what to cut from your budget–you have to figure it out through your own trial and error.
We Don’t Spend Much Time Thinking About Money
I think there’s a misconception that Mr. FW and I obsessively monitor our bank accounts and toil away crunching numbers, but in reality, we actually spend very little time discussing our money.
Our spending is locked into complete frugal autopilot, which means we don’t need to budget or carry around a calculator with us. We’ve arrived at a place where we know what we need to buy and we don’t buy anything else.
Our lives are focused on pursuing activities that fulfill us, not on hawk-like money monitoring. Our money is just sitting in the stock market, growing steadily, doing its money thing. There’s nothing to gain by exerting energy thinking about it all the time.
I mention this because it’s a fundamental component of frugal opulence–we have the freedom to not worry about our money because we’ve saved so much that there’s never a concern about a check bouncing or an automatic payment not being covered. This is a very privileged position, which we fully recognize.
It’s also a position that frugality built. Never worrying about money is a gift we’ve given ourselves through our frugality and it’s one of the most liberating and luxurious aspects of our lives.
Arriving At A Place Of Joyful Frugality
The difference between joyful frugality and dreary miserliness is being honest with yourself about what really matters to you and what doesn’t. The key is to locate your personal sweet spot between spending and saving, to relax into a pattern of frugal autopilot, and to never stop being curious about ways that you can optimize spending and improve your enjoyment of life.