The Difference Between Absolute and Relative Frugality
Let’s imagine two families that each spend $46,000 a year. If that family makes $46k/year, they are a cautionary tale. But if that family makes, say $250k/year, they are paraded around as frugal experts.
This is basically how I read the uproar about the Frugalwoods, i.e. the latter couple. There was an article critiquing them because their situation is unrealistic to most people. Then there were critiques of that critique, stating that frugality was for everyone.
These latter articles made it seem like the lower and middle class should aspire to the “extreme frugal” habits of the Frugalwoods. One article even says the Frugalwoods should be applauded because “they’ve exhibited a level of self-restraint and stick-to-itiveness that the rest of us can only dream of.” I mean, I guess the rich can only dream of it. The lower income and middle class live this reality every single day.
Why Do we Celebrate the Rich for Something that the Middle Class Do Every Day?
Consider that 50% of U.S. households earn $50k or less, representing 70% of the population. Captain Obvious says, that’s the vast majority of people in this country. Some of these households are going into debt, sure, but if we assume 50% of this group is living below or at their means, that’s 44 million households (34% of all U.S. households) living on less than what the Frugalwoods spend per year (assuming $50k after taxes is around $40k. Some commenters have stated the Frugalwoods are living on a bit less than $46k but it’s still around this figure).
If frugality were actually about living on less, then these 44 million households should be as equally vaunted as those making more. But living off <$46k when you’re making <$46k is stressful. No one wants to follow advice on how to be struggling, even if the actual budget would be the same. What’s better is living a bucolic Instagrammable lifestyle where one can talk about minimalism and having “more time for the things that matter” on $46k. The only people who can live that life are the rich.
I love love love this comment by Dr. McFrugal:
Being frugal really starts to apply when you make enough money that you could afford luxuries, but you turn them down to save money. That’s frugality. The college kid who is eating Ramen every day because he doesn’t have a choice – that’s not frugality, that’s survival mode.
Frugality is only for the rich because the poor and middle class are just surviving.
I have nothing against the Frugalwoods. It’s not their fault that they’re celebrated for something that millions of other people are forced to do. It’s like a couple that’s celebrated by living on $12/day traveling to another part of the world, even though the general populace lives on $2/day. It’s like an able-bodied person using a wheelchair for a day, and being average at it, and everyone saying, hey people in wheelchairs, look and learn from this guy.
It’s not the couple’s fault that they’re feted. The problem lies in the lack of understanding of what is normal for the majority. There are millions of families with even lower than “extreme frugality” budgets, but it’s the rich people with higher budgets who are getting celebrated. That means it’s not the budget that is celebrated but the income and the percentage. Lower and middle incomes may win on absolute spending but if you define frugality as percentage saved, the rich will always win.
This is not to say that the lower or middle class should give up hope and spend willy-nilly. Saving money is obviously good and should be encouraged even if you don’t get a book deal. What I’m really critiquing is the critiques of the critique. If “extremely frugal” people like the Frugalwoods are spending more in absolute terms than lower and middle income people, then the lower and middle income people are just as frugal. At some point, you hit the threshold for how little money one can spend. If well-educated, book-selling, rich “extreme frugal” people are spending more than you, even with all the advantages that the rich have for saving money (like better rates because they can pay for their house in cash) than maybe the 44 million households making it work on less have hit the absolute limit. Let’s not chastise them regarding “learning frugal habits” just because their savings percentages are low. The savings are low because of lack of income, not lack of frugality.
We also need to question why we inexplicably praise rich people for doing the same thing as the middle class as if that’s a huge hardship for them. We have impossible, standards for the lower and middle class and very low standards for the rich. This is unfair. There are a few takeaways I get from this situation.
1. Let’s stop pretending rich people have all the answers.
- There’s a lot of comfort from the idea that you can just solve problems with money if you want to/have to. You can’t do that if you are lower income.
- There’s comfort in knowing that saving money can produce tangible results soon. If you’re rich, you can live like a pauper and possibly retire in a few years. If you’re poor, living like a pauper means you can retire in 45 years. It’s the difference between sprinting for 500m and sprinting a marathon.
- Being rich makes saving money easier. I got a coupon in the mail for a free meal at a new fast casual place that opened up. That would never happen if I didn’t live in a fancy area where people can be expected to come back for paying meals in the future. Living in a rich area means you’re treated better and have better perks. And don’t tell me “avoiding lifestyle inflation is hard.” No, figuring out if you can afford rent next month is hard. Not buying new things when your old things are getting faded is easy.
- Being rich means you can screw the poor. My friend told me that when he was a kid, his mom paid way too much for a beater because she had bad credit. If I wanted that beater (this never would have happened because I was 10 at the time, but let’s say this happened today), the dealer would have offered it to me for less because I have excellent credit and could pay cash. Not only would I have gotten a better deal on that car, but if I had gotten that car, which was just one option for me, she would have been screwed. That was the only car available for her. Being rich means you have all the options that the poor have and also the options of the middle and upper classes. Being poor means you hope the rich don’t take your options in their quest for frugality.
So yes, being rich makes everything easier. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s more impressive to live on a lower income if you’re lower income. It’s easy being rich.
2. Everyone should first seek to understand.
I’m weirded out by bloggers who talk about “nonfrugal” people as if they are some single entity that is obsessed with conspicuous consumption. Some people are like that, for sure. But others are making all the right choices and are constrained by their circumstances. Others are making most of the right choices. Others are recovering from some of the wrong choices. Some people just make different choices.
And most people suffer from the simple malady of not being rich.
The middle and lower class have tips and tricks that the rich can’t even comprehend and it’s a bit sad that they’re underrepresented in personal finance blogs. Poorerthanyou started a group highlighting articles geared for lower or middle income folks but it shouldn’t just be people with lower incomes that read it. Everyone should read this. Personal finance shouldn’t be about lower income people needing to learn from higher income people – everyone should be learning from everyone else.