On Frugal Aesthetics

My cheery kitchen--which has never been this clean again.

My cheery kitchen, which has never been this clean again.

Full disclosure: I’m not trained in aesthetics or art. I haven’t taken an art class since it was required in 8th grade, when I considered it divine intervention that I broke my right arm the same week a portrait was assigned. In fact, I spent my school days finding ways to avoid drawing animals or people, and outsourcing artistic tasks to my highly talented sister for payouts as high as $1.

We hear all the time that money can’t buy happiness. But let’s all face it: a nice new piece of clothing can provide some satisfaction as often as every time you wear it. So it’s fair to admit that some purchases do bring us a measure of happiness.

I could leave my walls blank (I did for a long time, actually). I could have kept the ugly kitchen our home came with. Neil could have not commissioned an artist friend to paint us a lovely piece, customized to match our living room and style. I could just wear burlap sacks, or t-shirts from the ’90s, since I’m better stocked on those.

I’ve already preached that Life is not about your preferences. You don’t always have to get your favorite. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. But everything doesn’t have to be ugly, either!  Mostly, we try not too care too much about everything in our house matching, or being new, or our favorite style. But at some point, the not-caring aesthetic starts to become ascetic, and that’s not where we want to live.

The "before" kitchen.

The Before kitchen pushed us over the “not caring” edge.

My remodeled kitchen (DIY, thanks to Neil & his brothers) makes me happy every day. The green walls and bright paintings remind me of spring all winter. Good art is beautiful. Good design is beautiful. Nice clothes are beautiful. I don’t know enough about art to know exactly why, but these things inherently add pleasure to every day life. Appreciating beauty is part of what makes us human. Even the sometimes stoic Mr. Money Mustache acknowledges the appeal of attractive design.

We don’t need new couches, clothing, cars, homes as often as advertisers suggest, but it’s perfectly appropriate to recognize the pleasure we derive from “unnecessary” aesthetics found in these items. And sometimes, that means we’ll spend money for this.

Ascetics avoid all indulgence and pleasure, while aesthetics place a high value on the pleasure of art and beauty. We’re naturally too pragmatic to view aestheticism as our highest value, but we recognize its place in fostering human happiness. And its capacity to lure us into purchases we didn’t plan for.

Pretending to be poor might sound ascetic, but the rest of the line goes: “to gain great wealth.” We practice some money-saving strategies that sound weird or extreme to some. Camping, raising chickens, and eating lots of peanut butter (I like it!) come to mind. But rest assured: we live in relative luxury, or what we like to think of classic, not extreme frugality.

We’ve harnessed the power of aesthetics in areas we care about, and dismissed it in those we don’t. I don’t care mind wearing layers of wool around the house, but I do retain some sense of personal style when I dress to go out. I don’t see the need for a matching bedroom set, since I don’t notice such details when I’m asleep. But I’m grateful on a daily basis that Neil remodeled the kitchen before we moved in. And refurnished and decorated the living room while I was in India.

Acknowledging our aesthetic bent helps us avoid unhealthy extremes. For example, we wouldn’t go into debt for matching furniture, home repair, or even a car. We can wait for our favorites while prioritizing other financial goals. But we also don’t want to deny ourselves simple pleasures that are within reason. Doing so could turn into a backward materialism if we seek to avoid any form that goes beyond function. Or it could backfire and lead to overspending if we become fed up and feel deprived. Contentment goes a lot further in building motivation than unnecessary restrictions can.

Keep aesthetics in perspective by opening an old photo album. The design fads of yesteryear often appear tacky in retrospect. The silhouettes that seem essential now will be outdated soon enough. Maybe the trendy look or cutting edge technology you’re drooling over today will be old news by the time you save up for the purchase. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Harness your aesthetic sense by noticing which belongings bring you happiness. Cultivate contentment by taking the time to be grateful for those things. Next time you’re drawn to buy something because it’s pretty, consider whether it’ll have the effect you desire. Buying a gorgeous new dress you’ll wear once a year won’t provide the same satisfaction as “investing” in artwork, a garden, or even the perfect pair of every day shoes. But each person’s aesthetic tastes and values are unique. Let you, not advertisers, be the judge of what will bring a little joy into your days.

1 Timothy 6:17 sums up the tension between not living for material things, but enjoying what we do have: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”

Do you tend to be more ascetic or aesthetic? What areas are worth spending on aesthetics for you? 


23 Responses to “On Frugal Aesthetics”

  1. Amy says :

    I’m definitely more aesthetic, but I do have my ascetic moments. Owning a home has helped tame some of my pricier aesthetic urges, since there are always so many house projects, and never enough money for all of them. When we first moved into our house, I thought we should replace the black appliances and ugly countertops ASAP, but I’ve grown used to them and don’t mind them when I think about how much replacing them would cost. I am more likely to spend money on quality, age-appropriate clothing – not many pieces, but a handful. (Although around the house you’ll find me in t-shirts, yoga pants, and fleeces, most days.) We all have our aesthetic priorities, and like you, I believe this is fine, as long as we’re not damaging our finances to pay for them.

    • Kalie says :

      There are definitely things about our home I thought we’d change right away but didn’t prioritize because of time or money. Now we’ve either grown to like them, or grown to ignore them.

  2. Emily says :

    This really hits home for me! (no pun intended!) Since I spend so much time at home, I love keeping it cozy, clean, and relaxed. But it works out because I find that less is more. I “decorate” by removing things rather than acquiring things!
    It’s a very frugal style that’s easy to maintain. Love the photos of your remodel! Neil did a great job!

  3. Abigail says :

    I love the green color!

    I fall somewhere in between aesthetics and ascetic. I like our place to look nice — well, under the dirt/dust — but I’m not generally willing to spend much to get it that way.

    Our coffee table is a lovely cherry color (my favorite wood/wood coloring) but it’s also horribly dinged up. Worse than when we got it at the thrift store, even! Same goes for the side table. Which is good because I’d be really upset if I damaged “real” furniture. (I left a nail polish remover pad on the side table at one point. There’s now a circular glimpse of the non-cherry wood underneath. Then again, we always have a ton of stuff piled on it, so who sees it?

    And I hate that our dinky little TV stand (which looks out of place with a wall-mount TV anyway) is a light colored wood. But it was free, and I don’t care enough to spend hundreds on a replacement. Though I finally will before we get a dog. Even then, it’s only so that we have something with glass enclosures. Don’t want the pup getting at the gaming console/DVDs/wires.

    And yes, I like to look nice when I go out. That said, I can’t bring myself to spend much on clothes. Currently, I spend a lot of time yanking up my jeans because I’m not willing to buy size 10s until I’m sure that I’ll stay at that weight. And lemme tell ya, nothing says classy aesthetic like a gal constantly tugging at her jeans.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m with you on the furniture–it’s not like I have no standards, but I try to keep them low to accommodate what we have found for free/cheap.

      I think women’s modern jean cuts require a lot of tugging and adjusting even if they “fit.” At least they do for me.

      That’s exciting that you’re getting a puppy!

  4. Our Next Life says :

    Another wonderful, thought-provoking post. I love how you guys have consistently deconstructed what it means to be frugal in this day and age (and whether “extreme frugality” is even the right descriptor for what lots of folks claim to be doing). I am trying to get my thoughts together around all of this to write a post on the meaning of modern frugality, and whether it applies to most people who claim it, but not quite there yet. 🙂 We’re with you — we don’t wish to look at bare walls and sit on threadbare furniture. What would the hard work be worth if we didn’t live in a setting we love? Not that that has to mean anything excessive, but there’s nothing wrong with investing a little in making your home beautiful, so long as it doesn’t entail chasing changing trends or doing any of it to impress others.

    P.S. Added you to our blogroll. You’re on of our favorites, so should have done it long ago! 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks so much, ONL! I look forward to your post on the subject. We’ve definitely been tracking right along with lots of what you’ve been writing about.

  5. DC YAM says :

    We’ve put off a TON of things on our home to save for other financial goals. Our kitchen and bathroom are outdated and we need new flooring. We could take out a loan and do it all, but we continue to delay and save and put money towards other financial goals (retirement & debt). We will finally do the bathroom this Summer, but we will put off everything else as long as we can.

    • Kalie says :

      Way to wait on the home improvement projects! I think sticking to your plan is worth it compared to going into debt. It’s almost surreal to me that taking out a loan for these things is the norm, because it’s just not a consideration for us.

  6. ThePersonalEconomist says :

    Loved this idea, it is lovely to have a few nice things.
    I love to cut fresh flowers I have grown in the garden, much more satisfying and cheaper than buying them.

  7. Prudence Debtfree says :

    I feel guilty when I get a rush of aesthetic pleasure out of something that is costing some money. I like your philosophy! It give me some permission – without backsliding into bad old habits.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m always glad to hear if a post alleviates some guilt. It is definitely a struggle to find balance between enjoying good things without indulging bad habits.

  8. Tonya says :

    I think everyone has those different things that bring them happiness and money is a tool to use for whatever that is. Your kitchen is my…I don’t know…hair cut? But it makes me feel good to have a fresh cut (since my hair looks atrocious long). It’s just keeping things in check and making sure you have enough money for it, etc…you know the drill. A home should rise up to meet you (as Oprah says) and it it makes you feel really good, that’s awesome. I think it’s cute BTW as well and would love to make changes to my kitchen. But I rent so….

    • Kalie says :

      So true that money needs to be viewed a tool to use wisely, for those things you really need or want, and can afford. The hair cut is a good analogy. Mine also looks atrocious long, but I’m fortunate to have a good friend who is also a cosmetologist, so I don’t have to pay much for a good cut. And mine grows so slow I don’t have to pay for cuts often. Yeah, I’ve had some bland apartment kitchens. Not much you can do about those.

  9. Harmony says :

    The green looks really nice. A little paint can go a long way in refreshing the look of your home, and it doesn’t have to cost much at all.

    I agree with you that there can be frugal luxury in enjoying the appearance of things. In my recent post about going three years without buying new clothes, I recognize that there are outfits that make me feel good. I wear those outfits, with frequent repetition, instead of worrying about variety in my wardrobe or buying new things.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks, Harmony! I agree that paint is a great, thrifty refresher. We did a lot more than that–tore down walls, new cabinets and countertops–but also saved by getting these at cost through a family member’s business, and by reusing the appliances and sink.

      Clothing is a great example. I’d much rather wear the same few outfits that I really love, than to have lots of options that don’t fit or look great. Three years without buying clothes is a great accomplishment–congrats!

  10. Hannah says :

    Thankfully, Rob is very good at creating functional living spaces, otherwise our house would be ugly and disfunctional. I’m very good at cleaning, but I have no eye for interior design. I’m the person who looks at Pottery Barn and thinks, “Why aren’t there things on the shelves?”

    I really like when I go to other people’s well designed houses, but I will probably never have one myself. This is why I have to be good at other parts of the domestic sphere like cooking and reminding people to come over. So, if our design is frugal it is because it’s never been prioritized. I wish it were otherwise, but alas, even the most inspirational pinterest boards remain stuck on the internet.

    • Kalie says :

      Neil was the driving force behind the remodel. I told him I could live with the ugly kitchen, and he said let’s just remodel it before we move in. In addition to doing the work and getting materials at cost through his brother’s business, he helped a lot with the design and choosing the colors. I am with you–I enjoy nice design when I see it, but I’m not good at creating it myself.

  11. Yasir Khan says :

    You also need a plan which will help you determine how to use the space you have. How often you use the kitchen and what you would like to accomplish with the renovations are factors to consider.

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