What Does It Mean to Be Frugal?

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There is more to frugality than penny-pinching.

The dictionary defines frugality as "the quality of being economical with money or food," but as Trent Hamm explains in The Simple Dollar, there's far more to it than that. It is a word worth examining closely, not only because it is used frequently on this website, but also because it embodies values and principles through which we can improve our overall quality of life.

Most basically, frugality is about getting maximum bang for your buck. It reflects a conscious effort to allocate your resources (a.k.a. money) in ways that offer the most value. For Hamm, a major part of getting value out of an investment is how well something does its job, and the cheapest item does not necessarily offer value if it generates more work.

Hamm uses the example of garbage bags. There was a time when he purchased the cheapest bags, at 5 cents apiece ($5 for 100 bags), but they could only be filled halfway and occasionally split open, creating a huge mess on the kitchen floor. Upon further assessment, he realized there was greater value in the 20-cent bags ($20 for 100).

"My point is this: There are more costs to the things you buy than just the initial dollars and cents. Using things costs time and energy, too. If you’re saving money on something that’s going to end up requiring additional time and energy to use, you need to make sure that the saved money is worth the extra time and energy."

Frugality means allocating resources toward things that matter to you; this can also be called "voting with your wallet." The money you spend reflects values of many different kinds. In the example above, it was time and effort spent cleaning and taking out the trash that mattered more to Hamm than saving 15 cents on each garbage bag. But these values could also be the things that I write about on TreeHugger, such as choosing plastic-free packaging, supporting a local food co-op, buying organic ingredients:

"If I spend two dollars extra to buy a dozen eggs locally from a truly free-range chicken farm, that means I’m putting a certain dollar amount on how much I value local farming and animal care. That doesn’t mean that either choice is wrong, just that I put a certain value on things... Frugality simply means that you’re paying a little more attention to how much you view various values to be worth in comparison to each other."

Hamm has a lot more to say in his original article, but a good final point he makes is that, while some may view his analyses as painstaking and overly detail-oriented, they have a lasting and cumulative effect. Usually they reflect actions that are repeated frequently, the savings of which will add up over time. The upfront thought you put in is an investment that doesn't need to be revisited until the results cease to be satisfactory. For example, going back to eggs, I don't stop to think about paying $4.50 per dozen for free-range eggs because I know it's the right decision for me on ethical and environmental levels -- both things that I've investigated deeply over the years.

I found Hamm's article to be helpful because it digs a bit deeper into the thinking behind a word that's very trendy these days. Frugality is commonly associated with minimalism, extreme thriftiness, no-shopping bans and such, but as Hamm's article reveals, there's more to it than that. When frugality is understood as a quest for value, rather than mere penny-pinching, it can be practiced by people in all places of life, with differing income levels and shopping habits.