Monday, May 22, 2017

Frugality is not the same as greed

If you look at how frugality is portrayed in the media and by acquaintances, it's easy to get the idea that anyone who's frugal is a money-grubbing tightwad, watching every penny with squinty intensity. This can give the impression that anyone who's frugal is not generous, and that they're downright greedy.

In fact, the opposite is often true. Those who are the most frugal are, frequently, the most generous with their extra funds. Since people who are frugal are also the ones who end up with extra funds to donate (examples here and here, although there are many more that I could cite) it can be fairly stated that greed is not the ultimate driver of frugality. My brother is one of the most tightfisted people I know, who can, as an aunt put it, "make every penny squeal". But that's only with himself. With other people he is absurdly generous.
Enjoying this sunset was totally free, and I even
got to share it with lots of friends.

Being frugal allows people to be generous with their money when and as they see fit because those of us who watch our pennies know where our values lie. We spend only on the things which matter to us, and which will lead to a good life. We're buying a house, a very expensive "investment" (we don't view it as an investment, but as our home), because it will help us live the life we want. It's something we were willing to shell out a rather lavish amount of money on and go into debt for, knowing that it will bring our family happiness and stability for many years to come. We've made plenty of trade-offs to be able to afford this, but the things we didn't spend on are things that we don't get joy out of, and which won't make us as happy as our house will. New clothes, haircuts, meals at restaurants, makeup, and fancy coffees are all things that we value less, so we've (mostly) cut them from our lives. It hasn't decreased our happiness at all. On the contrary, by saving for our big goals and making them come true we've vastly increased our happiness. We are able to do the things that matter the most to us.

I'm not going to reiterate the tired advice that buying lattes every day will completely ruin your budget. If you derive true enjoyment from your daily Starbucks cappuccino or by wearing fancy new shoes, by all means keep indulging. But, perhaps look at other areas of your budget which might not bring you as much joy and cut those things out whenever possible. The point of this is to live your best life, not someone else's. If you want to spend lavishly on travel while eating rice and beans at home to afford it, that's awesome.

Frugality is also not about pushing off for tomorrow the things you want to do today. I have daily evidence of the folly of that. My parents wanted to travel. My dad, in particular, had dreams of traveling the world together after they retired. In the treadmill of work and raising four kids, however, they pushed it off. There were short trips to Mexico and various places around the U.S., mostly to visit family, but the big trips that they wanted to do got pushed off. Even after we, their children, were out of the house they pushed it off. After all, they weren't far from retirement.

And then. My mom was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. She didn't get to retire in a blaze of glory but by being laid off, then being too confused to work a retail job she'd taken for the holidays. Immediately their world became smaller. They have taken a few notable trips--to England, to Israel--but for the most part the dreams of travel were crushed. When even a trip to the grocery store is difficult and fraught with confusion, international trips are out of the question.

Seeing this every single day, seeing how much my parents have been forced to give up first because they were sacrificing in the name of family and second by circumstance, has made me think very long and hard about what I want from my own life. The only real conclusion that I've come to is that I don't want to push off my dreams for some unknown future. Some people use that same unknown future as a reason to spend all their money now. I'm using it as a reason to save even as I live for the now. It's been the biggest driver of removing the unnecessary from my life so that I can be as happy as possible for every minute that I have.

I not only have my mother's illness in the back of my head, but I also have my own daughter watching me. When we embarked on the epic task of parenting the one thing we absolutely knew for certain was that we didn't want to be just weekend parents. We wanted to spend real time with our kid through all stages of life. If I die young, my daughter is not going to fondly remember the stuff I've bought frivolously. She's going to remember the time we've spent together, and that is the best gift I can give to both of us. Saving money and living on a much lower budget than we can afford is allowing me to spend this time with my daughter. Working part-time is not an option that every parent has and I'm very lucky that I can do it, but I can also do it because we've worked so hard to put ourselves in this position. I can work part time to create memories with my daughter, or we could buy a second car. I can spend afternoons at the playground watching her build new skills or I could sit in a cubicle to afford trips to the movies and the nail salon each weekend.
I get to spend my afternoons with these two
troublemakers, and it's pretty damn awesome.

Even for people who are not parents, there's a lot of happiness to be found in not relying on a job. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't do more when I had a truly terrible boss. My former fantastic boss had retired and someone new took over. She made my life hell, and that's not an exaggeration. She honestly did all that she could to deliberately make my life miserable. However, I didn't feel like I could quit for various reasons. I did all that I could within the system--talking with management, bringing HR complaints and even a Title IX complaint--but I still felt that I needed that job. Pregnant and the sole breadwinner for the family, I hunkered down and quietly accepted that that was my lot in life. I would have given anything to tell that woman exactly what she could do to herself and where she could go, but I didn't. I didn't think I could. I eventually changed my job situation by getting a new job (that I loved, and was sad to leave when we moved!) but that period in my life still makes me angry for a variety of reasons, the biggest being simply my remembered helplessness.

How many other people are stuck in jobs they hate because they need the paycheck? And how much better would the world be if they weren't limited by money? How many people could change the world for the better if they didn't have to sit in their cubicle every day? Even just being personally happy would be a positive influence because people tend to be nicer when they're happy. Not everyone needs to have their name in the media as a hero to have an impact on the world, sometimes just being happy will do. Letting go of other people's expectations of what your life should be like, and what you should spend your money on, is as good a place to start as any.

I actually get mad when people use this image of frugality as a reason to be greedy, to hoard their pennies. That's missing the entire point. Being frugal is about being you to the best of your ability, without money getting in the way, and to only spend on the things that will make you happier or a better person. That's it! Your budget won't be the same as anyone else's, and it shouldn't be. When you know what will make you happy then it's easy to lower your spending, set and stick to a budget, and think about a time when you could actually have enough money and not need any more, which would mean that you're free to give away the rest as you see fit.

HusbandX and I are still working on our version of The Good Life, and how much money is enough. Our expenses are still evolving and we're still hashing out things we'd like to do. In the meantime, however, we're enjoying ourselves and we're not worrying about money, because we've set things up in such a way that we don't need to. Being able to enjoy our lives without stressing over money has been one of the best gifts we've given each other.

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