14 Feb The Pleasures of Frugality
In 2008 I sadly bid farewell to the original Chapter 6 in Your Money or Your Life as so many of the hints and tips seemed from a bygone era, before computers, before the Web, before smart phones, even before Joe and I settled in Seattle after many years living on the road or in rural communities. Imagine living long enough to seem as antiquated as the Pony Express and the world before air travel
When I rewrote this chapter for the 2008 update, a lot of very cool ideas were sifted out so I’m serializing the original chapter with annotations and stories as needed.
Chapter 6 begins….
It is both sad and telling that there is no word in the English language for living at the peak of the Fulfillment Curve, always having plenty but never being burdened with excess. The word would need to evoke the careful stewarding of tangible resources (time, money, material possessions) coupled with the joyful expansion of spiritual resources (creativity, intelligence, love). Unfortunately, you can’t say, “I’m enoughing,” or “I’m choosing a life of enoughness,” to explain that mixture of affluence and thrift that comes from following the steps of this program. The word “frugality” used to serve that function, but in the latter half of the twentieth century frugality has gotten a bad reputation.
How did frugality lose favor among Americans? It is, after all, a perennial ideal and a cornerstone of the American character. Both Socrates and Plato praised the “golden mean.” Both the Old Testament (“Give me neither poverty nor wealth, but only enough”) and the teachings of Jesus (“Ye cannot serve both God and money”) extol the value of material simplicity in enriching the life of the spirit. In American history well-known individuals (Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost) as well as groups (Amish, Quakers, Hutterites, Mennonites) have carried forward the virtue of thrift-both out of respect for the earth and out of a thirst for a touch of heaven. And the challenges of building our nation required frugality of most of our citizens. Indeed, the wealth we enjoy today is the result of centuries of frugality. As we said earlier, the “more is better” consumer culture is a Johnny-come-lately on the American scene. Our bedrock is frugality, and it’s high time we made friends with the word-and the practice.
Let’s explore this word “frugality” to see if we can’t redeem it as the key to fulfillment in the nineties.
THE PLEASURES OF FRUGALITY
We looked up “frugal” in a 1986 (the most current edition in our household in 1990) Merriam-Webster dictionary and found “characterized by or reflecting economy in the expenditure of resources.” That sounds about right-a serviceable, practical and fairly colorless word. None of the elegance or grace of the “enoughness” that FIers experience. But when we dig deeper, the dictionary tells us that “frugal” shares a Latin root with frug (meaning virtue), frux (meaning fruit or value) and frui (meaning to enjoy or have the use of). Now we’re talking. Frugality is enjoying the virtue of getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of.
That’s very interesting. In fact, it’s more than interesting. It’s transforming. Frugality means we are to enjoy what we have. If you have ten dresses but still feel you have nothing to wear, you are probably a spendthrift. But if you have ten dresses and have enjoyed wearing all of them for years, you are frugal. Waste lies not in the number of possessions but in the failure to enjoy them. Your success at being frugal is measured not by your penny-pinching but by your degree of enjoyment of the material world.
Enjoyment of the material world? Isn’t that hedonism? While both have to do with enjoying what you have, frugality and hedonism are opposite responses to the material world. Hedonism revels in the pleasures of the senses and implies excessive consumption of the material world and a continual search for more. Frugal people, however, get value from everything-a dandelion or a bouquet of roses, a single strawberry or a gourmet meal. A hedonist might consume the juice of five oranges as a prelude to a pancake breakfast. A frugal person, on the other hand, might relish eating a single orange, enjoying the color and texture of the whole fruit, the smell and the light spray that comes s you begin to peel it, the translucence of each section, the flood of flavor that pours out as a section bursts over the tongue . . . and the thrift of saving the peels for baking.
To be frugal means to have a high joy-to-stuff ratio. If you get one unit of joy for each material possession, that’s frugal. But if you need ten possessions to even begin registering on the joy meter, you’re missing the point of being alive.
There’s a word in Spanish that encompasses all this: aprovechar. It means to use something wisely-be it old zippers from worn-out clothing or a sunny day at the beach. It’s getting full value from life, enjoying all the good that each moment and each thing has to offer. You can “aprovechar” a simple meal, a flat of overripe strawberries or a cruise in the Bahamas. There’s nothing miserly about aprovechar; it’s a succulent word, full of sunlight and flavor. If only “frugal” were so sweet.
The “more is better and it’s never enough” mentality in North America fails the frugality test not solely because of the excess, but because of the lack of enjoyment of what we already have. Indeed, North Americans have been called materialists, but that’s a misnomer. All too often it’s not material things we enjoy as much as what these things symbolize: conquest, status, success, achievement, a sense of worth and even favor in the eyes of the Creator. Once we’ve acquired the dream house, the status car or the perfect mate, we rarely stop to enjoy them thoroughly. Instead, we’re off and running after the next coveted acquisition.
Another lesson we can derive from the dictionary definition of “frugal” is the recognition that we don’t need to possess a thing to enjoy it-we merely need to use it. If we are enjoying an item, whether or not we own it, we’re being frugal. For many of life’s pleasures it may be far better to “use” something than to “possess” it (and pay in time and energy for the upkeep). So often we have been like feudal lords, gathering as many possessions as possible from far and wide and bringing them inside the walls of our castle. If we want something (or wanted it in the past, or imagine we might want it in the future), we think we must bring it inside the boundaries of the world called “mine.” What we fail to recognize is that what is outside the walls of “mine” doesn’t belong to the enemy; it belongs to “the rest of us.” And if what lies outside our walls is not “them” but “us,” we can afford to loosen our grip a bit on our possessions. We can gingerly open the doors of our fortress and allow goods (material and spiritual) to flow into and out of our boundaries.
Frugality, then, is also learning to share, to see the world as “ours” rather than as “theirs” and “mine.” And, while not explicit in the word, being frugal and being happy with having enough mean that more will be available for others. Learning to equitably share the resources of the earth is at the top of the global agenda, and some creative frugality in North America could go a long way toward promoting that balance.
Frugality is balance. Frugality is the Greek notion of the golden mean. Frugality is being efficient in harvesting happiness from the world you live in. Frugality is right-use (which sounds, appropriately, like “righteous”)-the wise stewarding of money, time, energy, space and possessions. Goldilocks expressed it well when she declared the porridge “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.” Frugality is something like that-not too much, not too little, but just right. Nothing is wasted. Or left unused. It’s a clean machine. Sleek. Perfect. Simple yet elegant. It’s that magic word-enough. The peak of the Fulfillment Curve. The jumping-off point for a life of being fulfilled, learning and contributing to the welfare of the planet.
“Frugal, man.” That’s the cool, groovy way to say “far out” in the nineties. Surfers will talk about frugal waves. Teenage girls will talk about frugal dudes. Designers will talk about frugal fashions. Mark our words! (well that didn’t happen but we can still hope).
Keep this in mind as we explore ways to save money. We aren’t talking about being cheap, making do or being a skinflint or a tightwad. We’re talking about creative frugality, a way of life in which you get the maximum fulfillment for each unit of life energy spent.
In fact, now that you know that money is your life energy, it seems foolish to consider wasting it on stuff you don’t enjoy and never use. Recalling the arithmetic we did in Chapter 2, you’ll remember that if you are 40 years old, actuarial tables indicate that you have just 329,601 hours of life energy in your bank. That may seem like a lot now, but those hours will feel very precious at the end of your life. Spend them well now and you won’t have regrets later.
In the end, this creative frugality is an expression of self-esteem. It honors the life energy you invest in your material possessions. Saving those minutes and hours of life energy through careful consuming is the ultimate in self-respect.