There are times when I think I’m being frugal, but when I look back, I realise I was not. In fact, I was far from it. I’ve failed many times in the past at being frugal. And it’s still a work in progress today. So what does it mean to be frugal? If this is one of your New Year’s Resolutions, and you’re not doing these things, then you may be doing it all wrong.


What Frugality is NOT

Being frugal does not equate to penny-pinching, deprivation, or being a cheapskate. It is not a specific dollar amount which your purchases cannot exceed, or a minimum amount that you must save. In terms of price, it does not mean that every item you buy must be a “good deal”.


What Frugality Is

As defined by the Reddit community, “frugality is the mental approach we each take when considering our resource allocations. It includes time, money, convenience, and many other factors.” And most importantly, it is deeply personal and based on your own values and goals. 


Guidelines for a Frugal Mindset

Despite each of us having different values and goals, a frugal approach and mindset share some common themes.

1. Know the tradeoffs.

There are many people I’ve met who drive or travel great distances, wait in a long queue, just to get a specific food or item. When I ask them why they do it, they often tell me that the food or item had a promotion, a giveway, a new launch, or sometimes they’ll just say “because it’s the best, and also very cheap”.

One freegan in the Freegan in Singapore community recently shared a photo of his car’s back seat filled with discarded vegetables. Others share their finds from 4+ hours of dumpster diving in the middle of the night.

I’m not saying that people who do this are not frugal. They may indeed be frugal, but it all depends on whether they recognise the tradeoffs they are making. Ask yourself, “In addition to money, how much time and energy (or related costs, like fuel) did you spend? Could you have done something else with that time and energy that was more meaningful, and in line with your values?”

2. Determine what “enough” really means.

Our culture and evolutionary biology perpetuates the idea that “more is always better” – more money, more time, more health, more clients/customers, more attractiveness, more friends/relationships, more stuff, more experiences, more happiness, more space, etc. People, across all demographics, are always in constant pursuit of more. And many of these things are worth pursuing. But they have to be balanced by their tradeoffs.

Both the act of pursuing and acquiring more of something has consequences. The relentless pursuit of more can lead to all sorts of problems – stress-related illnesses, marital and family problems, hoarding and compulsive behaviours, etc.

“More” perhaps should be balanced by “enough”. What does it mean to have enough, to do enough, and to be enough? That is not to say we all should be satisfied with everything in our life and therefore refrain from even desiring or trying. That would be the opposite extreme. We need to be somewhere in the middle, neither avaricious and insatiable, nor apathetic and completely selfless.

Being in the middle means we have enough desire and drive to motivate us to pursue things, but we also derive enough enjoyment and satisfaction from the things we already have. It’s a tough balancing act. As singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow puts it,

It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

3. Care less about what other people think.

The reasons behind some of our pursuit for more is because we care a bit too much about what other people think. This again is another example of where we need to be in the middle. Not caring at all about what others think is leaning toward being a sociopath. But caring too much isn’t good either.

Many marketing messages can be distilled down to one line, “Just imagine what others will think of you when you [do this action/acquire this thing/buy this item].” Yes, while it’s important to care about belonging to a group and to society, making decisions to buy or spend your resources on (time, energy, etc.) solely to get others to think of you more highly is indeed extreme and unsustainable. 

If a certain action is more or less required by society (example: to be clothed), think of ways of maximising value. Are there alternatives or less expensive substitutes? 

Many, many years ago, my husband wanted to buy me a 1 carat engagement ring, until we realised just how expensive it was for a couple just out of uni. But there were plenty of nearly identical looking substitutes for a fraction of the price ($5 instead of $5000). And nobody (except those reading this) would be the wiser. 

But caring less about what others think is not easy. And caring too much is something I’m guilty of at times. For example, I’ve gotten a few messages from trolls that struck my core. These are people I’ve never met, and likely will never meet. But they still got to me. So this is something that I imagine I will spend much of my life working on. 

A person once told me,

You shouldn’t spend too much effort trying to impress others. Why? Because they’re too busy trying to impress you to even notice.”

4. Embrace some pain, failure, and discomfort.

Our culture and evolutionary biology also perpetuates the drive to seek more pleasure, and less pain, failure, and discomfort. This sounds like a good thing, but strangely enough, much of our modern day problems – from diseases, divorces, estrangement, financial ruin, to even death – arise from the deliberate avoidance of negative experiences.

The fact is that nothing truly worthwhile comes without some amount of pain, failure, or discomfort. When we hear kids say that one day, they want to be a star athlete, a talented rockstar, a renowned scholar, or a famous celebrity and have so much prestige that people will cheer for them, we might feel the need to subdue their dreams by asking them “are you willing to put in the arduous, mundane, and grueling hours day after day of training, practicing, and perfecting your craft?”

But as adults, our “less ambitious” desires are similarly framed. We want to be in peak health, but continuously choosing proper lifestyle habits is painful, time-consuming, and uncomfortable. Some of us want to have a relationship, but shy away from rejection. We want to be a peak performer in our lives and our careers, but fear criticism, feedback, and failure. Feeling and looking like a novice is something we try to avoid.

Yet these are the rules of life. Growth is painful and uncomfortable. Muscle development comes from tearing down existing muscle. To learn something means you first need to be comfortable with not knowing it.

Worthwhile things are meant to be challenging. If we pursued things purely for indulgence, comfort, and convenience, what would our world look like?

Of course, we don’t want too much pain and failure. That can be disheartening and demoralising. As one of my favourite fitness trainers would say,

be at that place where you’re comfortably uncomfortable.”

5. Be grateful by developing a wider perspective.

We live like gods. Just think about it for a minute. For most of our time on this planet, humans lived on the edge of survival. A crop failure could mean starvation. And even in good times, we toiled and worked from sunrise to sunset to earn our daily bread. And that bread came from wheat grown, harvested, and milled by hand. Just a few centuries ago, our ancestors spent the majority of their income securing food, and by food I mean mostly gruel. Today, we wouldn’t even consider gruel fit for prisoners.

Too far back in history? Ok, fine. How about going back in time to your grandparents era armed with your iPhone, a water filter, some antibiotics, and a microwave oven, and you’ll have confused farmers and merchants worship you.

Still too far back? Then just travel to any one of the nations we’re surrounded by. What’s life like for a rural Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Indonesian today? Nearly half the world’s population still lives on less than $2 (USD) a day. Many of them also lack electricity, shelter, and clean food, water, and air. And some are subjected to violence and forced labour. Many of them would die (and do die) for what we have.

Take a moment to really look at your world. How things all around us just tend to work. It’s like magic. When you turn on the faucet, when you open the refrigerator, set the thermostat, turn on your computer, and get into the lift. We have so much more today than any generation that has come before us. So why wouldn’t we be grateful for it?

One reason is that we hear sensational stories about the wealthy, the exceptional, the profligate, and celebrities. We also are constantly exposed to Facebook posts showing you the highly-filtered highlight reel of other people’s lives. And this is the stick by which we use to measure our “blooper-filled” life.

Another reason is that we think we deserve more. We think, “Hey, I’ve worked hard, why do I have it so tough?” We put more value on our efforts, our work, and our time, rather than on those who, say, produce our food or make our smartphones. And we also diminish other people’s suffering but enhance our own.

Many people say that the transition from adulthood from childhood comes from an understanding that the world is bigger than you.

Author Mark Manson said,

Ever watch a kid cry his eyes out because his hat is the wrong shade of blue? Exactly. [Don’t be] that kid.”

In Summary:

Being frugal goes far beyond just considering the price tag. It is a masterful balancing of all your available resources so they remain in line with your personal values and goals. Making frugality one of your New Year’s resolutions could have the greatest impact on your life in the coming year, but achieving this is a journey. You can stay on track by acknowledging tradeoffs, determining what “enough” means, caring less about what others think, embracing short term pain for longer term gain, adopting a wider perspective and being grateful for what you already have.

May you have a frugal New Year!

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