'The Art of Frugal Hedonism' Proves That Pleasure Can Be Free (Book Review)

Learn how to enjoy life more fully without spending money.

The Art of Frugal Hedonism book cover

K Martinko

The moment I saw the title of Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb's book, I knew I wanted to read it. It's called "The Art of Frugal Hedonism: A Guide to Spending Less While Enjoying Everything More" – and who doesn't want to be a frugal hedonist? I felt like my life goals had been summed up in a single succinct phrase.

The book is based on the premise that frugality should not feel like deprivation. In fact, when you decouple pleasure from spending money, you tap into an endless world of fun and entertainment that vastly improves your quality of life, while allowing your savings to grow.

The authors' reasoning is simple. There are so many ways to feel good in this world, but they've been overshadowed by the assumption that we have to spend money to attain that sensation. It's not true. From the introduction:

"The truly savvy hedonist avoids blunting her capacity for pleasure against a barrage of constant stimulation. He knows that the rewards of the journey frequently trump instant gratification. She shuns that level of convenience and indulgence that insidiously erodes her mental and physical vigor. He makes non-monetized sources of pleasure his first port of call, so that he's not trapped into swapping his life around earning. Far from being acts of martyrdom, such frugality-compatible behaviors can in fact be your best ticket to enjoying everything more on both the deeply fulfilling *and* sensually satisfying levels."

Thus begins a list of 51 habits of people who know how to enjoy life and live it to the fullest, while spending a fraction of what the average household does in the developed world. The list ranges from practical to philosophical to psychological. Some of the habits are glaringly obvious ("Carry a bag" and "Make your own food"), but others hit me like mind-blowing revelations.

Take, for example, the weird assumption we make that exchanging money for an experience somehow makes it more valuable, despite the fact that free activities (lying on a blanket in the park, sipping tea with a friend around a kitchen table, watching a sunset) can be just as fulfilling. 

watching the sunset
Watching the sun set over Lake Huron – one of the writer's most memorable summer evenings.

K Martinko

Another habit I appreciated was, "Stop reading those magazines," referring to lifestyle publications that present a highly curated version of a life that isn't real (except maybe for a very small sliver of society). The language is carefully crafted to make readers feel a sense of connection with the people in the magazines, except that, as the authors write, "They are not you. In fact, They are mostly likely not even Them":

"[They are] just writers attempting to satisfy an expected tone, spitting out blurbs about an Ethiopian fusion restaurant with award-winning décor, or a great new line of handbags in the shape of marine mammals. Meanwhile, they muddle on with their imperfect lives, eat pasta, and go to the shops carrying an old tote with a frayed strap, just like we all do."

The authors emphasize the importance of finding "third places" in which to socialize for free, such as parks, beaches, forests, and town squares (harder to find outside of Europe) – not necessarily a fancy coffee shop with overpriced drinks, as tends to be the default when the "third place" concept arises.

One delightful habit reminded me of something I'd forgotten – that time flies and conversation flourishes when hands are kept busy. "Put a pile of peas on the table to be shelled and empty-handed company will reach for them as eagerly as if they were a bowl of salted peanuts." A flood of memories hit me – of all the times my grandmother would set a basket of peaches in front of me and tell me to start slicing, of string beans needing to be tipped, of potatoes needing to be peeled, of bread dough needing to be shaped into rolls for dinner. So many conversations took place around that kitchen table while we worked. The authors write,

"Perhaps it is the simple fact that for a fair chunk of human history, much of our conversational time must have been associated with long evenings of whittling, sewing, and weaving – all the small manual tasks of DIY human culture that can be brought inside once the day has dwindled and done by fire or lamplight in a companionable fashion." 

The authors urge people to "acclimatize to the seasons," or rather, anticipate the changes with enthusiasm. It's bad for the environment and our wallets when we fail to embrace the differences between summer and winter. Weather should be "one of the great flavor enhancers of life," and when we heat or cool our homes to the same temperature all year round, we miss out on those delectable flavors, such as

"snuggling into woolly jumpers and going a bit fetal on the couch with duvets and hot chocolate for entire evenings; of throwing the doors and windows open on the first proper spring day to let the smell of warming earth and jasmine rush in; of briny sweat licked from your upper lip as you demolish a slab of watermelon on a summer's afternoon."

As someone who flatly refuses to use air conditioning, I can relate wholeheartedly to this point. There are so few weeks of sticky, sweaty, suffocating heat in our short Canadian summers that I want to feel it intensely while it lasts, even if it means I don't sleep as well. 

I loved this book for its radical and daring attempt to redefine pleasure in a way that challenges so many cultural norms. It does so with an abundance of anecdotes, clever puns and metaphors, scientific facts, and a great deal of humor. I laughed aloud on a number of occasions, and that always makes for a good read.

For anyone wanting to know how to live more with less, this is a fabulous place to start. The back contains lists of references and resources for people wanting to learn more about different lifestyles, handling money, working without doing too much of it, alternative housing, frugal travel, and the sharing economy. 

Order "The Art of Frugal Hedonism" here.