Why “Frugal” is My Least Favorite F-word

why frugality is my least favorite f-word

What Frugality Isn’t

Don’t you hate it when you share something with a friend and instead of mindlessly complimenting it, and you, by extension, they offer completely valid criticism?

Me too. Please keep mindlessly complimenting this blog. Thank you very much. =D

So anyway, I was a little gaga over The Minimalists’ documentary, which I told my friend about. He texts back: “Lol I’m watching it. It’s funny.”

Um, it’s not funny. It’s deeply moving and profound, I say. So he says:

All these guys are doing is chasing happiness from a different angle.

I was initially taken aback because this wasn’t a clear compliment regarding either me or the film. But after my initial shock and irrational anger subsided, I realized that he wasn’t wrong (ugh! friends who aren’t wrong!). Though The Minimalists’ minimalism was a rejection of consumer culture, there isn’t as much difference between minimalism and consumerism as I had initially thought. Whereas consumerists may compete over who has the most or the nicest stuff, minimalists can compete over who has the least stuff.

And both of these competitions are, let’s face it, kinda stupid.

Why We Can’t Define Ourselves by Our Frugality

Defining yourself by how much stuff you own is weird (“Hello, my name is Lisa and I own 500 things”); equally weird is defining yourself by your lack of stuff (“Hello, my name is Lisa and I don’t own 500 things”). One person has a lightly packed backpack and the other has three overstuffed suitcases, but the kinds of things they pack are similar. If both people enjoy their respective luggage and both get to the same destination, then who’s to say one way is better than the other?

I think a similar line of thought applies to people who define themselves as “frugal.”

Dictionary.com defines being “frugal” as “not wasteful.” But “wasteful” is a subjective term. I see articles by bloggers bragging about their uber-frugal lifestyles and dismissing unnamed others for their perceived extravagance. Spending on designer clothing, going out for drinks with coworkers, having a nice house – these are seen as anti-frugal. Meanwhile, “frugal” people apparently shop at used clothing stores, avoid get-togethers that cost money and flaunt the modesty of their homes – so they can retire and travel the world. If that’s the only way to be frugal, then I’m not interested – because I love get-togethers.

The purported difference between minimalists and consumerists is that minimalists think having nice stuff is wasteful, but spending money on experiences is not. But you’re not  saving money choosing one route over the other – you’re just making different choices with the money you have. And I am uncertain why one set of choices is less “wasteful” than the other. If I save money on travel in order to have a nice house that I get to enjoy with my family and friends everyday, why is that not considered frugality?

Why Everyone is Frugal

There was an article awhile back on Iwillteachyoutoberich that reasoned that spending a lot doesn’t necessarily mean one is wasteful if the amount spent is conscious and aligned with one’s values. One shouldn’t assume that spending on what others may perceive as frivolous is unwise if it’s meaningful to the person who spends it. And MixedUpMoney once proclaimed: we are all frugal.

I believe everyone is frugal (sorry I stole your idea MixedUpMoney!). I’ve never met a person who tries to be wasteful – who tries to pay more and get less, who finds loopholes to pay MORE in taxes, who trashes perfectly good stuff because they like the feel of plastic clogging the Earth’s landfills. Everyone tries to use their dollar to get the maximum good. After all, there are 83 million hits for “how to save money” on Google because everyone is looking for ways to save money and there are approximately 83 million different ways to be frugal.

Everyone is frugal. They just might not be frugal in your eyes, according to your values and judgments. Everyone is trying to obtain the right amount of “stuff” so that they can achieve their goals – but their number of items will be higher or lower than yours. It makes us all look stupid (and sad) if we are trying to out-frugal each other.

Why Frugality Is Not the Answer

The idea of “frugal” v. “unfrugal,” minimalists v. stuff-ists, makes it seem like we have fundamentally different values than people who define themselves differently.  Some may negotiate a deal on a luxury car, some may buy a cheaper model, some may lease  and some may go car-free. You may have your biases about which one of these is the “frugal” option, but in the end, isn’t the type of car you drive less important than where you’re going?

Minimalism and frugality aren’t the destinations – they’re just different cars we drive as we figure out where we’re going.

In the new year, in a very divided country, we don’t need more reasons to be divisive. Of course, tips for saving money are always good and can be helpful. But there is no reason to put down some people’s choices or elevate others’. Personal finance is above all else, “personal.”

Why We Shouldn’t Judge Each Others’ Spending Decisions

We are all striving for the same things – happiness, security, love, meaning.  Our decisions are different, our values are different, our stuff is different, but overall, we are very similar, more similar than we care to remember most of the time. To quote one of my favorite poems by Maya Angelou:

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike than we are unalike.

Faith, freedom, finances, even failure, and other F-words are useful from time to time. But I’m done with “frugal.” “Frugal” is used as a term to judge one set of personal finance choices as better or worse than others. I’d rather err on everyone having the freedom (best F-word) to finesse their finances to fit their own life. And we can all just fire (another good F-word) each other up along the way.

Wishing you all the happiness, security and love, stuff or no stuff, in the flipping fantastic new year.

 

Gif source: giphy

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Three Reasons Your Budget Sucks

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Let’s face it – following a budget sucks. Setting the monthly food budget, for instance, may be easy but following the budget requires a never-ending slew of decisions and judgments.  Caviar or foie gras? (maybe these aren’t your actual choices, but it makes it more fun to think about). What’s a good price for caviar? If I get the caviar, can I still go out to dinner at Le Bernadin next week? And so it goes.

Budgets are cruel dictators, mean CEOs. They don’t care about us, the little guys, the minions that are carrying out their wishes. But even though we may all complain about how arbitrary and unhelpful our bosses are (I know I do), we may not all question our budgets. Even the best laid plans need to be evaluated and revised as conditions change. Budgets are no different and this is the perfect time to determine whether your budget is ailing from one of the following three woes that make it a sucky boss.

1. Your budget sucks because it’s based on someone else’s life. 

I looked at my food spending for 2017 and I was aghast and how large a number I saw. Then I thought, well what should the correct number be? So I looked at what I spent last year. I went to Google and compared my spending by city and then according to USDA guidelines.

And what I determined: who cares what they think?

I always wonder how people come up with their budgets. Every time I look at sample budgets, people are spending $400 on rent (whoa that’s low) and $300 on entertainment (whoa that’s high) and I throw up my hands and think, who are these people and where do they live? There’s no way I can use that person’s budget as a guide because their life is nothing like mine.

How to Get Your Budget to Align to Your Life

I’m not saying it doesn’t matter at all how your spending compares to others, because it can be useful in benchmarking in areas you don’t get enjoyment from spending more  (like insurance, cable or utilities), but for areas where it’s discretionary, if I’m happy with my food budget, and I’m meeting my spending goals, then who cares what other people do or think? No one sees this budget but me. No one is affected by this budget but me.

It’s really great (amazing even) when you set goals for yourself and then achieve them. But it doesn’t make any sense to meet other people’s goals. You have to set your own goals.

2. Your budget sucks if you’re not growing. 

I hear that the 50-20-30 budget is very popular (that is 50% needs, 20% savings and 30% wants) but I don’t really understand why. Why are those the right numbers? And are those numbers supposed to stay the same as you age?

Let’s say you’re an exceptionally wise young person and you follow the 50-20-30 budget religiously while making $30,000 after tax. So $15,000 needs, $6,000 savings, $9,000 fun. Let’s say that over time you double your income to $60,000 after tax. So $30,000 needs, $12,000 savings, and $18,000 fun. Wait, why do your needs double just because you make twice as much? And wow $18,000 is a lot to spend on wants. That’s $1500/month.

If you get skilled at following your budget, it’ll only get easier when you make more money. But that’s the trap of lifestyle inflation. Having the same budget year after year is like lifting the same weights over and over. As you get stronger, it gets easier to lift the weights. Good, right? But you didn’t start lifting weights because you wanted an easy activity; you started lifting waits to get stronger. Lifting the same weights doesn’t help you get stronger. In fact, at some point, you’re probably just risking injury.

How to Grow Your Budget Along with You

If you’re saving the same amount or percentage of money as your income increases, yes, you’ll be following a budget, but you’re basically treading water. Can you imagine watching someone tread water for the next 30 years? At some point, you’d just have to ask them, with all that energy being exerted, wouldn’t you rather go somewhere?

Part of the reason you follow a budget is because you want to save money, ideally enough money to have options in the future. The more money you save, the better your future could be and the faster you can get there. I think part of the reason is also to condition yourself to a certain lifestyle. You’ve learned all these skills to save money so why not keep them fresh?

Finally, things get more expensive as you get older so you often really do need to save more over time. To do that, you need to keep shifting your budget goalposts. Over time, you should be getting lower numbers on many budget metrics (like fast fashion and novelty electronics) so that if you have to increase costs on rent, insurance, and family needs or downshift your career, you have options.

3. Your budget sucks because you’re just looking at the numbers. 

I know what you’re going to say. Of course I evaluate my budget by looking at the numbers. A budget is basically just a spreadsheet of numbers.

I mean, kinda.

But let’s say I look at my budget and I see the following metrics:

Coffee Shops: Up 50%
Restaurants: Up 30%
Vacation: Up 100%

Clearly, my budget is going haywire, right? I need to tamp all these down in order to save money.

But if I think back on the year, I know I went to coffee shops more often because it became a ritual with my coworker, which makes my workday much more enjoyable. Restaurant spending increased partly because I made a habit of going to fancy dinners with a friend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.  His treatment has made him lose his sense of taste – making me cherish the memories more.  And I took 3 weeks of vacation this year – and I don’t regret any of it.

How to Look at Your Budget Beyond the Numbers

Your budget is literally, just a sheet with numbers and letters, an estimate of your income and expenditures for the year. But metaphorically, your budget is a description of your life and your values. It’s a record of the choices you made. And the choices you make create the person you become.

This is what’s so exciting about evaluating my budget (to a personal finance nerd like me). I can look at my budget and see what I value. I can look at my budget and see what direction I’m heading in.

Yes your budget may be going up in certain areas and that might not be a concern so long as you know why it did that and if it’s a conscious decision. If your budget for gambling or drugs is increasing, well you may want to look into that.

I think it’s important to measure your budget holistically, not just by the numbers. For me, I like to see if I like the way I’m living and if I’m getting better both at budgeting and at becoming a better person every year – more compassionate, more curious, more alive. I think I am. And my budget reflects that.

What did I miss? What are other ways to evaluate if one’s budget sucks?

 

 

Gif credit: Justpo.st

You Are What You Give: A List of Charities Worth Supporting

In case you need some inspiration about which charities to which you should direct your year-end donations, these are the ones I support:

Groceryships 

I read about this charity from goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s magazine. They are simultaneously tackling obesity and hunger by offering “grocery scholarships,” cooking classes and support groups so that families can learn about nutrition and cooking and be able to support themselves – and each other – through cooking. I’m such a cooking at home enthusiast, this really spoke to my heart. I visited their graduation ceremony and it was really moving.

DC Books to Prisons

A DC-based charity that speaks to my compassion for the imprisoned and my love of reading. They receive letters from all over the country requesting books to read. This is the most bare bones charity I’ve ever seen. The books, the storage, and the packing materials are all donated and volunteers read the requests and pick the books. I’ve been to one of their volunteer events and they’re even stingy about how much tape they use! All your money goes to postage. Give people a second chance and the chance to better their circumstances. PLUS I love their newsletter. The thank you notes really get me teary eyed.

Modest Needs

I’ve been supporting this charity for years. It helps people who are a financial emergency away from poverty by directing funds to help pay for the potentially devastating emergency – which can run the gamut from cancer to leaving an abusive home situation to delayed paychecks. PLUS, you get to pick the person you want to support and you often get a lovely thank you letter.

Polaris Project

Human trafficking is that one cause (besides prison reform) that just makes me spend all my money to fight it. The founders came to my college when they were just starting out and I was really impressed.

Sixth and I

Ok so my charities are a little DC-centric. I love this place. It’s a synagogue that puts on the most amazing book talks and events. I’ve seen Esther Perel, Atul Gawande, Joshua Radin, Tim Ferriss and Amy Tan just in the past 6 months. It makes me a little sad I’m not Jewish.

Evermore

This is a charity that I volunteer with that is trying to change how society interacts and supports families who’ve lost a child. It’s a pretty random choice for me, having never had a child, but the founder is pretty inspirational.

Other ideas: your library (the link is to my local library, where I’m a lifetime member), your church (my church, which does so much to help the community), your local homelessness help organization, your local PBS station (because they are the ones that run the Great British Bakeoff!), NPR.

I think giving is so important, not only to make the world a better place, but also to show appreciation for all that the world has given us and to get us out of our own bubble and to build empathy. I have a relationship to most of the charities I support and it keeps me grounded.

What are your favorite charities?

Why Having a Purpose is More Important than Having a Budget

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you read biographies of successful people, the beginning is often very tragic (and sometimes the middle and the end, as well).* I remember reading about Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien’s early years as a cook at a fancy French-Japanese restaurant where the head chefs bullied him mercilessly, even throwing pots at his head.  He made so little money that he ate scraps.

And you think, of course he kept going because he became a wild success later. But he didn’t know that was going to happen and how hard it must have been to go through the abuse and the poverty. For years. Always doubting if he was on the right path. All because he had a passion and a dream. He endured because he had this glimmer of hope that this was a stepping stone to working as a chef. It’s much less likely that you could endure that environment for such a long time if you didn’t care about the career.

In Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s a lot worse than kitchen hazing. And the happy ending was mere survival.

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As a quick summary, Frankl recounts his years being tortured at a concentration camp and he finds that what sustained the survivors, what sustained him, was having an ultimate purpose. For him, he lost his life’s work, the manuscript that comprised his life’s research, upon entering the camp. He needed to stay alive in order to recreate his research. Throughout the book, he echoes the quote by Nietzsche:

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

Frankl sees the modern problem** as:

people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning.

I see this lack of meaning always underlying today’s blogs and articles about saving money. I can see why it’s hard to think “stop buying coffee and avocado toast, save for retirement!” Because retirement is when people die. Also it’s a long time away. Why would you delay your happiness for death (or 40 years, whichever is sooner).

You should live now. And I don’t mean live recklessly on drugs and rock and roll (or whatever the kids are doing). But if you really loved something or had a dream to do something with your life, it would be a lot easier to say, I’d rather put the latte money towards that dream. I’d rather find ways to cut corners so I have money to help me on my dream.

I think most of the time we have no idea what to save money for. That’s why we just fritter it away towards things we think are meaningful but have no overarching purpose. We work to have enough money to chase the lifestyle we want. We don’t work to chase a dream. But if we did, I think a lot of the wastes of money would just dry up.

It’s a lot easier to give up the lattes if you have a reason to give them up. 

For the super short term, it could just be a little thing that you want. For the short term this might mean a great vacation. For a longer term, it might be getting rid of debt, quitting your job and writing your book or starting a business. It could be donating to charity or starting a family or seeing your family more often.  It could be whatever your amazing ridiculous dream is, and it’s very likely that money will help you achieve it.

What about you? What’s your meaning in life? (ooh big question).

*They’ve done studies where successful people with tough childhoods drew strength from their hardships. It’s not just that it makes for a better story but it could be a secret to their success.

**Don’t worry – he puts in a caveat that some don’t even have the means. Also note that Frankl died 20 years ago but his assessment of modern problems are still relevant today.

***A good book re passion and finding your purpose.