I don’t make a lot of money. I never have, and it’s quite possible that I never will. Teaching is not exactly a lucrative career, and I strongly suspect that quality of life is a much greater thing than having a large bank account and having to do the work that often goes along with it. As far as I’m concerned, this is fine by me. Even if I’m not making a lot of money, I’ve developed a reasonable set of skills for living well on a relatively small amount of money (and even saving a bit, too).
Although I think this perception is shifting a little, I feel that sometimes living on a budget and being frugal aren’t seen in a positive light. It’s all too easy to assume that living frugally is an exercise in frustration and deprivation, especially in a culture that is often focused on instant gratification. I’d like to take the opposite perspective, and argue that frugality really is very freeing. Imagine, if you will, not having to worry as much about a job loss, because you have a cushion to tide you over. Being able to take a lower-paying job, if need be, because you’re already able to live on less than you make. Not having to go into debt to cover an unexpected car repair. Being able to save for bigger purchases. Not having to panic when the credit card bill comes due.
Frugality is a form of freedom. Sure, there are constraints. At the very least it’s important to spend within our means, if not somewhat below them. This can mean cutting back, especially if we’re used to more lavish spending. But it also opens a lot of doors. Being able to live on less money means that we may be able to choose to work fewer hours. It makes it possible to spend money on the things that really matter. It lets us function in the world without constantly worrying about money – either making it or spending it. It means we can step away from debt and constantly knowing that we owe something. It makes it easier to be generous with that which we do have, since we have a little extra.
For me, frugality is also about priorities. Not spending on some things makes it possible to spend money where I’ll really enjoy it. I don’t much like drinking, movies in the theater, or the latest electronics. I don’t need a fancy place to live, and I do just fine without a car. By not spending as much in these areas, I can afford to spend more on books, housewares, hobbies, and good food, all things that I really love and that feel worthwhile to me.
This does sometimes take practice and some planning, but there’s a lot of power in taking something on as a choice rather than because we have to. Cutting back because it’s necessary often leads to resentment because things are out of our control and we have no choice in the matter. No matter how good they are for us, things that we have no choice in don’t tend to feel good. Canceling the cable, cutting back on eating out, or not going on vacation can feel terrible when they’re coming from a place of necessity. But cutting back because we want to live within our means can be very empowering because we retain choice and with it control, and we may even have the option to do so gradually rather than all at once. When the bike ride to work, vegetarian dinners, and weekend evenings at home are choices that we opt into, we’re likely to feel much better about them than if we feel forced.
Of course, frugality only goes so far and covers so much. Not having enough money to cover basic expenses is a huge problem, and one that a lot of people seem to be facing these days. Truly, the choice to cut back in order to be more frugal is not the same thing as having to manage day after day on insufficient resources, which bring it a whole host of additional problems and challenges. But, for those who are in a position to cut back, or perhaps to cut back even further than they already have, I would suggest that now is a good time to take the steps. Living frugally isn’t about self-deprivation or denial. It’s about wise use of resources and spending in a way that makes sense and that prioritizes those things that we feel the most important.