Why Frugality Isn't Just for the Rich

CC BY 2.0. Peter Blanchard

Knowing how to be frugal is a useful tool, no matter how much or how little money you have.

There has been an online debate simmering for the past few weeks about the role of frugality in society today. The trigger was an article in the Guardian by Elizabeth Willard Thames, a.k.a. Mrs. Frugalwoods, who runs the eponymous blog and has recently published a book about her young family's experience leaving the urban rat race in Boston and moving to a homestead in Vermont. Not surprisingly, her story has been met with mixed emotions.

Writing for the Outline, Miles Howard attacks Willard Thames' approach, saying it "slots neatly into the classist myth that millions of adults in this country [the US] still believe." This myth states that, despite the 2008 financial crash and reduced professional opportunities for Millennials, young people's greatest problem is themselves. Howard writes:

"Nearly a decade after the crash, the mainstream media still seems hell-bent on portraying people born between 1982 and 2004 as a bunch of decadent and 'fun-employed' narcissists who piss their parents’ money away on matcha green tea lattes, spend too much time Instagramming their pets, and are thus responsible for the economic rut they’re stuck in.
This myth — which scrubs millions of underprivileged Millennials from the picture — is crucial to understanding why the media is swooning over the Frugalwoods right now. What’s remarkable about them is how they’ve managed to offer the public a kind of Millennial redemption story: a tale of two Millennials taking the time and responsibility to learn about money, rein in their spending impulses, and achieve financial security. But how realistic is that narrative?"

Howard believes that the Frugalwoods must have had money to begin with, and he argues that it's unfair to expect anyone to dream of financial independence when they're fighting just to stay afloat.

I read Howard's criticism with discomfort, and had two immediate responses to it. First, I don't know where he lives or what his social circle is like, but Millennials struggling to get by is not my experience. I see rampant spending and a hunger to portray a certain lifestyle on Instagram at all costs, as well as reluctance to live within one's means and a tendency to rely on credit. Household consumer debt in Canada is at an all-time high. The attitude seems to be, 'Money is cheap and you only live once, so why not?' This is a real problem.

Second, I disagree with Howard's assumption that one must be rich in order to afford frugality. Frugality is an incredibly useful tool, regardless of one's financial status. Here's how Trent Hamm, head writer at The Simple Dollar, responded to Howard's claim:

"A lot of the best strategies I’ve used to help myself stay afloat and get ahead in life worked (in some form) whether I was dirt poor or doing well. The big difference was in the results – sometimes it was needed to keep us afloat; other times it was useful to help us get ahead."

In other words, regardless of where you're at financially, frugal strategies always have a place. If you're doing well, frugality might help you prepare for retirement. If you're making ends meet just fine, frugality could help you pay off a chunk of debt. If you're struggling to stay afloat, frugality is a light at the end of the tunnel. As Hamm says, "The strategy is always the same, but the benefit is being used differently."

Frugality, however, is not the solution to every problem. It won't make you a millionaire or solve all your financial woes, but neither is it going to hurt you. Hamm writes:

"Personal finance really is a toolbox, of which frugality is a useful and well-worn option that I often grab, but it’s far from the only tool. Psychology. Social networks and friendships. Self-learning. Self-control. Discipline. Hard work. Self confidence. They’re all in the tool box, and all together, that tool box can solve a lot of problems."

The Frugalwoods may have zeroed in on a single tool, but if you read more of their blog posts, you'll realize that they employ all of those tools listed above. They deserve respect and admiration for what they've done, not criticism, since they've exhibited a level of self-restraint and stick-to-itiveness that the rest of us can only dream of. And goodness knows we need all the inspiration we can get to curb household spending.