In Praise of Frugality

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CC BY 2.0. Jacob Edward

People wonder why they can't save money, and yet they spend money like it's going out of style. Whatever happened to "living within one's means"?

This past weekend I read in the Globe & Mail newspaper that 34 percent of Canadians hope to fund their retirement by winning the lottery. I was shocked. How is it that one-third of a well-educated, hard-working, and relatively privileged population would resort to a game of chance in order to ensure they have food on the table and a warm home at the end of their lives?

As a Gen Y’er, I hear a lot of complaining about how bad we’ve got it compared to our parents’ generation: Our degrees and diplomas count for nothing. A master’s is the new bachelor’s degree. Our loans are enormous and crushing. We can’t find jobs. It’s impossible to afford a house. We’ll never pay off that mortgage. Our parents had it so easy...

I don’t disagree with some of those points, but let’s not be short-sighed here. It has always been that way, for every previous generation. Saving money is hard because it requires self-discipline. Gen Y’ers don’t like to credit the frugality and financial conservatism that dominated their parents’ and grandparents’ mentalities. Frugality isn’t cool or hip. It doesn’t advertise well. It doesn’t gratify instant cravings for new things; but, like it or not, frugality has played a very big role in the financial success of previous generations.

My generation, on the other hand, has a serious entitlement problem. Young people spend money as if they’re already set up for retirement. Think of the starter homes that are bigger than one’s childhood home, with stainless and granite kitchens; the constant barrage of brand new clothes; the mandatory minivans and SUVs as soon as baby comes; the hair, nails, massages, yoga classes, gym memberships, art classes, the week-long Caribbean vacations on an annual basis.

Backyards, garages, and driveways are packed with adult toys of all sorts. Toddlers strut around in designer clothes and sunglasses, sporting brand-name backpacks and lunch bags when not attending extracurricular activities of every imaginable kind. Everyone has an iPhone in their pocket; kids have iPads installed in front of their car seats; there are several flat screen TVs in every house.

Gone is the attitude that it’s important to “make do” and “do without” and “live within one’s means.” Those have been replaced with “you only live once” and “live for the present” and “fear of missing out” and “it’ll work out”, all of which are used as justifications for yet more spending.

It’s time for a serious wakeup call because, otherwise, the long-term effects will be disastrous. To paraphrase the scathing words of Canadian financial blogger Garth Turner, “Hope you like the taste of Purina in retirement!” You can’t logically save for the future if you’re too busy spending now.

If more young people allocated their ‘personal maintenance’ payouts to a savings account, they’d be amazed at how quickly it would grow. Why not start this week, by not going shopping on Black Friday? Go for a walk instead. Avoid the holiday shopping madness by working on homemade gifts. Pare down the kids’ Christmas lists to one or two items. Entertain at home instead of going out. Buy one less bottle of wine.

The tough part is to keep doing this over and over again, but it’s possible. Slowly but surely, if you keep at it, you’ll see that bank account number creep upward, and it’s going to feel really good.