Wednesday, June 10

How far do you have to go to be frugal?

Custom Tailored by Chase Reeves

On Sunday, I asked how you know you need to trim the budget. Now, I'd like to go yet another step further and tackle the time-old PF question: How far do you have to go to be frugal?

I am confident that this question has no answer -- at least, not one that will fit everyone. Or even close to everyone.

My mom is a pillar of frugality. She goes from store to store with a detailed list and a full coupon holder. She grabs extra coupons from the recycle bin in our hallway -- especially the Albertson's double coupon forms. She also ruthlessly pursues rebates, not just filling them out, but also marking due dates on the calendar, so she can be sure all get sent to her.

Perhaps most impressively, she stocks up in a way that would make most survivalists proud. She has a chest freezer, for when she loads up on great meat and/or bread sales. Tim and I haven't had to buy toilet paper in at least a year. She's always got at least 5 packages on hand at any time. Need a new toothbrush? Out of toothpaste? Go down to Mom's. (She does donate most of these, and deodorant, to various shelters in the area.) I have about 8 bottles of Scrubbing Bubbles and untold boxes of Electrasol.

In short, Tim's and my life would be painfully more expensive without Mom's habits.

By comparison, I could only be called moderately frugal. (And some might even consider that charitable.)

  • We eat out or get delivery more than she does. Mainly, this is when our health isn't good. But not exclusively.
  • We get new clothes when our old ones wear out, rather than shop at thrift stores. (It's hard for me to find things that fit, as I'm rather zaftig. And I doubt Tim's skin could handle trying on used clothes: He's allergic to powder detergent.)
  • My energy keeps me from going to each and every store, though I do my best to only get what's on sale at each place. Still, even if I were healthy, I would probably get the occasional item priced 10 cents more.
  • We have DishTV and even upgraded. While we're easily getting our money's worth, some would argue that, if we really wanted to save money, we'd turn off the TV and read more books. I, of course, would argue that it's not like we can simply go on nature hikes with my energy and Tim's skin/seasonal allergies. But I'm sure there are other ways to find entertainment.
  • We buy popcorn at the movies. I'm trying to un-Pavlov ourselves on this one, especially since most of the popcorn is usually eaten by the first 10 minutes of the film. But, since we don't pay for tickets or soda (yet another shout-out to all-mighty, wonderful Coke Rewards), it is an indulgence that I don't always feel bad about.
  • I don't do rebates -- the fatigue/depression (take your pick) keeps me from being organized enough.
  • I don't make my own cleaners. It's arguably cheaper and better for the environment. It's also something I'm just not up to right now.
  • I like to buy hair salon shampoos/conditioners. I'm sure some of the drug store brands are just as good. But for my curly(ish) hair, I do notice a difference. Though lately, I've been alternating between drug store and hair salon products. And only washing my hair every other day.

Nonetheless, I consider myself frugal. I do extensive comparison shopping and research before any electronics buy. I clip coupons. I sit down with the circulars each week and make lists of different items at different stores. I stock up when there's a sale. I enjoy plenty of frugal activities, such as reading. Other than replacing a 5-year-old pair of pants, the only clothes I bought in over a year were absolutely necessary.

So how can my mother and I both be considered frugal? What is the threshold for living frugally? Is there one?

I think this comes down to the usual basic questions of personal finance: When money is tight or debt is large, how close to the bone do you have to cut? What should you be willing to forgo? When is it time for even the beloved luxureeds should be sent away? (To a farm, where there's lots of land, and they can chase rabbits.)

Is there one, definable moment when the budget should be cut? When paring things down goes from a good idea to a clear mandate?

And if such a point exists, how do you know when you have to cut all necessities? Is it only with a major financial blow, such as job loss or some catastrophe? Is it merely when debt reduction is crawling along at an unsatisfactory pace? For that matter, what is a reasonable pace to pay down debt?

Our debt reduction is going frustratingly slowly, since we can only throw $300-400 each month. It's been awhile since we had a more "normal" income, so honestly I'm not sure what average earners should pay -- if such a term is ever applicable.

I certainly don't advocate cutting all luxuries out. This increases the chance of frugal burnout and financial binges. Obviously, in cases of job loss or other major financial catastrophe, you cut whatever you have to in order to survive. But I'm a big fan of living while you pay down debt, not just surviving.

What do you think? How desperate would you have to be before you'd give up everything not absolutely essential to survival?

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Blogger Mrs. Modern Tightwad said...

I had to laugh at the picture because I use staples to hem my pants on occasion. I think there are always ways to continue to cut our costs to live more frugally. I will always think, wow, I could've done that instead and save X amount of dollars. Just the other day I decided to buy a frozen meal at Safeway when I knew it was a dollar cheaper at Target. But I didn't want to drive over there when I was tired.

I think the time when cutting expenses goes from being a suggestion to a mandate occurs when the absence of said choices will cause serious harm to a person's well-being (i.e. inability to care for basic needs of food, shelther). It happens when the choice for your dollars is food or cable, food should win. Unfortunately, I know I've made the mistake of putting both on credit card and saving the cash for an emergency.

June 10, 2009 at 12:30 AM

Blogger Meg said...

I definitely don't think there's a list of things you have to do or not do to be "frugal". I think it is definitely relative and more a direction or general "waste not" mindset (as opposed to the "what should I buy next?" mindset of consumerism).

And the way I see it, avoiding waste isn't just about spending less money or producing less garbage -- though those are usually consequences. It's about spending your resources (time & energy included) carefully and thoughtfully according to your values and priorities, while minimizing resources spent on stuff that... well... you just couldn't give a damn about.

One thing that is important to consider is that people have different priorities -- not just from each other, but also from month to month and even hour to hour. And that will influence what you do differently. If you're low on time or energy one day, then it absolutely DOES make sense to spend a little more for convenience. If you're lower on money, though, then working hard to save a few extra pennies may be more important.

And of course, people are just different. Two people making/spending/saving the same amount of money yearly might accuse each other of being spendthrifts while considering themselves frugal. Why? Because though they might save most of their income, one buys Starbucks daily and the other spent extra to buy a sports car. And neither understands the pleasure the other gets from such purchases. But both would tell you that they make sacrifices so that they can splurge on what makes them happy.

June 10, 2009 at 10:57 AM


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