It’s December. Here come the articles encouraging us to relax, simplify, and just enjoy the holidays. We all need these reminders to slow down, remember what we’re celebrating, and take joy in the people we love. At the same time, this advice can come off as yet another stressor, leaving us wondering, What’s wrong with me? Why am I not relaxing and enjoying this enough? Why do I feel sad or overwhelmed?
Sip a cocktail, laugh, and don’t worry about observing any of the trappings and traditions of Christmas, one article advised.
My reality as I read it? Chugging coffee, crying tears of exhaustion, and spending every precious free moment prepping for the holidays.
The truth is, holidays involve family, family involves love, and love involves sacrifice. If any food is eaten at your gathering, someone had to prepare it. If any gifts are exchanged, someone had to shop and wrap. If the setting is festive, someone had to clean and decorate.
It’s not that we should center our holidays around living up to others’ expectations or striving for a magazine-spread Christmas. I believe that holiday shopping, cooking, baking, and decorating can all be done in a spirit of joy. But for many people–those with kids, extended family, or those opening their home to people without a home base—it’s just not as simple as sipping a hot toddy and shrugging off tradition.
That doesn’t mean Christmas has to be complicated. In the past few years, we’ve found new ways to simplify. We’ve shaved our Christmas day stops down from four to one or two. We attend fewer Christmas parties. We host a small low-key fireside gathering rather than an epic get together. Our decorations are beloved but minimal. Some years we hang Christmas lights on the house. Other years we don’t. Our shopping list (and pile to put away) has shrunken as we’ve asked our families to do gift exchanges. I’ve whittled my baking list down to two or three favorites. I wear the same few outfits to every party and family function, year after year.
Last year we even took a weekend in the busy season to get away as a family and just hang out, hike, and play together.
Every year, I’m excited for the festivities leading up to Christmas. But every year, at some point I find myself exhausted, stressed, and feeling too busy. The “slow down and simply” philosophy would have me think I’m doing something wrong if the year’s biggest holiday, the most wonderful time of the year leaves me feeling anything but wonderful.
But then the feeling passes as I take time to reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice as the reason we celebrate. I’m sure it didn’t feel great for him to leave perfect fellowship with His father and become a human baby, subject to all the suffering of this earth.
And then I know it’s not wrong to feel stressed and overwhelmed sometimes in the midst of a joyous but hectic season. It’s okay for sacrifice to feel hard; that’s what makes it sacrifice. After a sacrifice, you know the difficulty was worth it. If it’s not, it’s time to cut that activity or obligation.
So don’t stress about feeling stressed this year. Cut what you need to cut. Talk to someone if you’re truly down. But don’t shy away from the sacrifice that comes with making Christmas a beautiful time for others.
How do you handle holiday stress? What ways have you found to simplify?
I went on a mini-vacation the other day. First, I read the Bible in peace and quiet. Then I did Pilates without anyone trying to jump on or crawl under me. Next I took a long, uninterrupted shower. Then I wrote a blog post about our new minivan. Finally, I read a little bit of a book. It was crazy.
This ideal morning cost me approximately $10 and it’s up there as the best $10 I’ve ever spent. Not only was my morning serene, my afternoon was also pleasant because my kid came back from preschool excited and happy.
I love paying for preschool! After volunteering as a preschool teacher last year and bringing my preschooler along with me, I appreciate sending her off alone SOOO much.
For both my kids I waited until the year before kindergarten to send them to preschool. This means about five long years at home full-time with these people before sending them off for a short, precious 7.5 hours a week. I love being able to stay home with my kids and count myself very blessed and privileged to do so. But it is not for the faint of heart.
While some states offer free public preschool, it’s only free here if your child qualifies for certain developmental delays or disabilities. One more reason I’m grateful to be paying for preschool. Thankfully, preschool is highly affordable in our area, around $100-125/month for three days a week at many schools.
I know some people are into “homeschool” preschool, which I think means you teach your kids numbers, letters, shapes, and colors, and get together with other preschool-aged kids. Which is pretty much life with a little person whether you have a special name for it or not. I get not wanting to pay someone to do things you can do yourself, but there’s a lot more to preschool than numbers, letters, or even socialization. For one, they learn how to be part of a classroom.
I know a deal when I see one, and preschool is a hot deal. You can’t get a babysitter for that price, let alone a babysitter who will teach your kid, owns tons of fun toys, stages a massive play date every day, tires them out, and gives them a snack.
I know the novelty will wear and we’ll have mornings she doesn’t want to get out of bed for school. And my luck with the baby napping at the same time will be hit or miss. We’ve already had days where she comes home complaining that the toy kitchen wasn’t “open” for play (the horror!) or they didn’t go outside to the playground.
And of course, I don’t just lounge around doing whatever I feel like every time she goes to preschool. But I’m also enjoying those moments of free time very much!
If you can afford it, I highly recommend sending your kid to preschool for at least one year. It’s amazing.
What do you think about paying for preschool?
I’ve written about how having kids improved our finances–and it did. We’ve always been frugal,but since the birth of our first child we really got our financial act together: we paid off student loans, wrote a will, got smarter life insurance policies, and got more aggressive about investing. We also have less time for costly habits like recreational shopping or eating at restaurants.
More recently, I’ve mentioned how our spending on things like groceries, clothes, gifts, sports and activities, and babysitters has increased as they’ve grown older. Not to mention saving for college!
I find it absolutely comical that bloggers conceive their first child and start writing about how babies don’t really cost that much. First of all, these people must have stellar health insurance. Because we are blessed to have good insurance and it still cost us a pretty penny–around $3000 just for our most recent bundle of joy.
I think what these well-meaning writers mean to say is: you don’t have to spend as much as you think to get started having a kid. Buy secondhand. Get hand-me-downs. Don’t go overboard with the gadgets. Of course.
But babies get bigger, hopefully. They start eating as much as you. They wear through shoes like they’re tissues. They might stop getting hand-me-downs. They want to play sports. They start wanting Legos.
All that’s to be expected. What I didn’t quite expect is how my overall attitude toward money has shifted. I used to think of money as something to be optimized for most efficient use. Now I think of it more as a tool to be used in different ways, depending on the circumstances. I suppose this is the result both of our increasing financial flexibility, and our increasing family size.
For example, the price I’m willing to pay for convenience has sky-rocketed. Perhaps it’s because we just welcomed a third little human into our family, but I have been more willing to shell out for things that will make my life easier. Things like a non-stick pan. And more silverware. And store-bought yogurt. And whatever shorts at Target will fit my postpartum waistline. Because I don’t have time to hand-wash extra dishes, make everything from scratch, and mine the thrift store for presentable pants.
While I don’t believe in conveniencing myself to death, I do find that sometimes, it’s wonderful to have just the right tool for the job. In the garage, in the kitchen, or in your wardrobe. For example, we’ve tried to grind cardamom pods (for chai) in every way imaginable, but when we finally gave in and bought the spice grinder, it works like a charm. I’m starting to learn my lesson and just buy the things we really want rather than waiting a year. And while it feels a bit spendy, I don’t regret buying things that make our lives way easier and preserve precious time.
On the continuum from frugal to frivolous, our spending is still on the thrifty side. But we’ve slid a bit on the spectrum, and I’m glad. It’s nice feel free to use the tool of money as needed in the moment, and not carry the weight of how much the cost of that spice grinder, or hospital bill, could have compounded over the next thirty years into every decision.
At the end of the day, I’m just trying to make it to the end of the day! While my attitude will surely change as I emerge from having an infant, I don’t think we’ll ever find ourselves as far down the frugality spectrum again. Optimal efficiency and frugality have gone by the wayside as other values take a higher place: making time for our kids and keeping our household running sufficiently, all while continuing to serve outside our family as well.
Where do you fall on the frugal-to-spendy spectrum, and how has that changed over time?
In light of Mother’s Day, I’ve been reflecting on the financial legacy my mother and grandmother have left me. I learned more about frugality and generosity than investing or growing wealth. I’ve never expected to inherit a dime and that’s fine with me, because I’ve inherited something much more valuable.
My mother and grandmother passed on their values of generosity and volunteering. Of putting people before money. Of hard work and the value of pouring that hard work into your kids for a season.
Let me first brag about my grandma. She fostered 17 children in addition to having three of her own. After a season at home, she worked as a special education teacher for children with emotional and behavioral difficulties. She volunteered as a Sunday school teacher and vacation Bible school teacher at her church. She won numerous winning awards for being an outstanding educator and volunteer.
After retirement, she volunteered extensively as a guardian ad litem, a child’s voice in court. Her experiences as a foster parent and affinity for detective novels served her well as she got to the bottom of what would be best for the child and represented their interests regarding custody. She regularly spent time with these children, took them out to lunch, and stayed in touch with their schools and guardians.
She helped neighbors, friends, and family in need. She befriended a young woman with a terminal illness. She helped out a struggling neighbor. My grandparents were extremely hospitable, always hosting parties and barbecues, providing lots of food, and even took in people who needed a place to stay.
My grandparents were very generous to us grandkids, but also to those whom they didn’t know. Whether it was the Angel Tree at Christmas, the food pantry donations, or contributing to a mission trip, they put their faith into action by providing for people in need. I’m sure I don’t know the half of what they did because they never put on a show about it.
They clearly passed these values onto my mother, who is generous almost to a fault. Somewhere in the midst of having five kids, she found time to volunteer at our church in the music and children’s ministries. We almost always had neighbor kids over at our already bustling house or backyard.
While “staying home” to raise us, she side hustled like crazy to supplement my dad’s income as a teacher. She provided before and after school childcare and sometimes babysat all day. She taught private music lessons several evenings a week. She sold hand-made oboe reeds, first to her students and then to a widening circle in her network. I also remember her taking on various side gigs sewing, cleaning, baking, and playing oboe in performances. Where did she find the energy?! She now owns and runs a small music store and plays side gigs.
I also learned the art of thrift from my mom. She somehow managed to hang laundry, shop sales, clip coupons, and cook 99% of our meals at home.
At age twelve I started earning a regular allowance. She taught me to give away some of this hard-earned money, and because of her generous spirit I never viewed this as a stupid rule, but a wise suggestion.
I couldn’t be more grateful that these values were modeled to me and I hope to pass the same onto my kids. We’d also like to teach them more financial literacy, while carrying on this legacy of sharing time, money, and skills.
What type of financial heritage did you receive? And what do you hope to pass onto your kids?
Last summer I looked forward with great anticipation to sending my first kid off to school. After six whole years home with him (late August birthday), we were both ready. He did attend one year of preschool to help him get ready for all-day kindergarten. And my husband and I had decided that one year seemed sufficient, meaning my daughter would have another year before she went to preschool.
Then I stumbled across a post looking for volunteers at an organization several of my friends volunteer at. The group serves a low-income community in a nearby city, where much of the population consists of immigrants and refugees. They were looking for assistants for their preschool classes. I was not looking for more volunteering opportunities at the time, since we already had some established evening volunteer ministry in our church, and I was home with the little ones and getting childcare so I could volunteer during the day seemed inefficient.
But when I saw this post seeking preschool helpers, the thought popped into my head, “maybe I could take Jane.” She was, after all, preschool age. And I would love her to experience more diversity than we typically do in our suburb. Neil agreed it was worth at least finding out, so I asked and they not only said yes, they were quite enthusiastic about the idea of having an English-speaking peer. After some prayer and talking it over a little with friends, I signed up.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pretty excited for Jane to “go to preschool with the world,” and equally stoked to have the opportunity to serve refugees in some small way. It turned out to be more challenging than I expected, in part because of deciding to get pregnant, but I also learned a lot. I’d like to share what I learned with you because volunteering does more than help others, it can transform us as well.
I did not miss my calling as a preschool teacher. There are things I enjoy about preschoolers. They can be so darn cute, after all. But give me an angsty teenager any day. I found the first week of preschool extremely boring. Things got more interesting as we started working one-on-one with kids on specific skills during their free play time AND they got more comfortable and ornery. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate with 3-year-olds with limited English. And it’s adorable how excited they get about painting.
I am really, really selfish. There were times, especially as I went through unpleasant pregnancy symptoms, that I dreaded going to preschool. There were some rowdy kids in the class and communicating with parents about this was difficult as the parents’ English was typically more limited than the kids’. I often felt like my short two-hour stint there wore me out for the rest of the day. And I’m not used to getting worn out so easily.
I tried to pray on the way to school, reminding myself of the privilege it was for both Jane and me to spend time with these kids, and asking for the energy, patience, and compassion to do my job there. Overall the kids were very sweet and cute and it was fun to see some kids blossom throughout the year. One very quiet little boy started laughing and chattering just in the last couple weeks. I had no idea he knew that much English!
I am really, really blessed. While all the kids in our class were born in the U.S., many of their parents were born into poverty and political oppression. Some may have spent their entire lives in refugee camps or as displaced persons in other countries, until coming to the U.S. And of course, it’s incredibly difficult coming here with next to nothing and not knowing the language or how things work. I’m working at such an advantage.
But the thing that really struck me when I got crabby about wrangling twelve little wild things, was how privileged I was just to have the opportunity to volunteer. What a blessing to be able to stay home with my kids, and to have happened across a way to serve alongside my daughter. If I had to work during the day this opportunity would be out of the question. I also thought about how many daycare employees work long, hard, underpaid hours.
Loving people where they’re at. I was a little surprised by the teacher’s approach to discipline at first; it wasn’t as strict as I’d expected. Then again, many of these kids may have no concept for what we were asking them to do: clean up, stand in line, sit still, or stay in time out. After all, some of them don’t even have toys to clean up at home. And they’re three. As time went on, I realized the teacher was providing structure and boundaries while loving the kids where they were at. And that is something I could really stand to do much better with pretty much everyone in my life. After all, that’s what God has done with me. And I have many friends who love and accept me despite my plentiful faults.
With the preschool kids, it was fun to focus on their strengths even when they would get out of hand at times. The boy who couldn’t sit still at circle time was gifted both athletically and artistically. The aggressive, emotionally immature one was also one of the most articulate (and the youngest). I could go on. This same perspective and exercise would serve me well in all my relationships, as I can be hyper critical and focus on problems rather than progress.
I’m not sure I’ll ever sign up to teach preschool again, but I’m glad I did. I learned a lot and hopefully helped some little ones prepare for school one day while following Jesus’ call to serve the “least of these.”
What has volunteering taught you about yourself? Have you found a good match that uses your strengths while meeting needs?
“I’ve tried to be better with money but it just doesn’t work. I was shopping at ALDI, but then I bought some strawberries that were moldy. So I’ve started using coupons. We replaced our weekend night out with take-out so we don’t have to pay a tip. I had to get a car payment because I can’t break down on my way to work. But now I’m saving on gas because the car gets better mileage. Plus I get fuel discounts from my grocery card. And I can’t get out of debt because I don’t want to wipe out my savings. If only I made more money, then I could follow all the financial advice I hear.”
Sound familiar? We’ve probably all heard or made some of these statements. If to err is human, so is to make irrational excuses. Don’t worry, I’ve erred and excused with the best of them. We nursed our student loans for a couple years (and went to Europe, and bought a house) before deciding to decimate them. I withdrew funds from my retirement account after leaving my first real job at age 21. (Doh!) We all make mistakes, and we all have different priorities. But I hear a lot of people who are completely mystified about their financial frustrations because they genuinely believe they are pretty frugal.
So how is it that some people cut coupons, shop sales, eat Meatless Mondays, even give up cable (!) , but just can’t seem to get ahead financially? Chances are, they’re only pretending to be frugal, which is a world apart from pretending to be poor. In a materialistic culture that masterfully markets the financial fallacy that we save money by spending money, it’s almost impossible to resist the pitfalls of faux frugality. The point here is not to feel guilty, but to wake up and get clarity about our financial decisions so we can take charge. I can’t sit back and let comrades Pretend to Be Frugal, when they should instead Pretend to Be Poor. Let’s explore the difference.
|Pretending to be Frugal||Pretending to be Poor|
|Finding less expensive ways to inflate lifestyle||Finding ways to deflate lifestyle|
|Views spending as a way to “save”||Views spending as something to minimize; actually puts “saved” money into savings|
|Seeking luxury, comfort, and convenience at a discount||Minimizing luxury while increasing usefulness|
|Views spending as a game to get “more for my money” via coupons, sales, “freebies,” tax write-offs, etc.||Challenges oneself to increase savings and generosity by reducing expenses|
|Focuses on small savings areas instead of big ones||Ruthlessly prioritizes savings on the big three (car, house, food); continually finds new small ways to save|
|Lacks consistency in frugal practices||Has a detailed plan and focuses on results|
|Lacks goals and purpose of frugality||Focused on financial goals & bigger purpose of frugality—understands why|
|Makes excuses for lack of savings, blames lack of income||Tracks own progress toward goals|
|Fights with spouse/SO over spending. Competes for resources with spouse||A frugal team, work together to find new ways of saving|
|Stuck in survival mode||Generous|
So are you frugal or just pretending? Are you simply finding cheaper ways to inflate your lifestyle, or taking concrete steps to deflate your lifestyle? In other words, are you looking for discounts on luxuries, or continually searching for the bottom boundary of how little you can be content with? You are either pushing the upper limits of your budget with excuses to spend, or challenging yourself to spend less and less.
Faux frugality views spending as a way to save. Do your “thrifty” habits belie spendthrift problems? We’ve all been tempted to spend extra to get a “free” gift, “free” shipping, or a tax write-off. But spending $50 to save $10 doesn’t mean you saved $10. It means you spent $50. On a larger scale, someone might upgrade a vehicle to “save” on fuel costs. But many times the cost of that upgrade can’t be recovered by the gas savings in a reasonable amount of time. People even buy houses because the mortgage payment looks cheaper than rent, and fail to consider the hidden costs of home ownership.
Those who Pretend to Be Frugal see spending as a game that consumers can win. If people who Pretend to Be Poor see spending as a game at all, it’s how little they can spend. Not how much crap can I accumulate while shelling out hard-earned cash. Instead, they want to spend in order to secure real needs and carefully chosen wants for as little as possible. I’m thrilled to optimize spending, but I’m not optimizing my money if I’m indulging in discounted luxuries that I don’t truly value. Materialism is a losing game, and I’m out.
Another big distinction between faux and true frugality is a willingness to tackle the big expense areas. The top three cost of living categories are housing, transportation, and food. If you can get these under control you are well on your way to financial progress. Often people stop at smaller areas like clothing or cell phone plans. I believe no budget line is safe from frugalizing. And people often need to start with something smaller and more manageable. But if you’re unwilling to delve into the deepest savings potential, you’re only playing at frugality, and it won’t get you anywhere. You can shop exclusively at ALDI and Goodwill, but if you’re unwilling to get rid of your car payment, slash your $300/month dining budget, pay off your student loans, or stop paying outrageous interest on credit card debt, you will not get ahead financially.
The Faux Frugals also lack consistency in key frugal practices. For example, they may shop at a discount grocery once in a while when it’s convenient, but mostly end up over-spending in unplanned trips to the Big Store. Until you are truly committed to the bigger picture of why you’d Pretend to Be Poor, you’ll lack the motivation to plan ahead and build frugal habits into your routine. Whether it’s hanging laundry to dry, packing a lunch, saving up for purchases, or paying off debt, consistency is key. You can’t practice frugality only when you feel like it; you’ll never see a difference. It’s those who give up too soon who say, “I tried being frugal, it didn’t really help.” The problem wasn’t the advice, but the lack of perseverance.
And this brings us to the issue of motivation. Pretending to Be Frugal has many possible motives. If you find yourself constantly comparing spending to friends, fighting with your spouse about money, or making financial decisions out of guilt, you probably haven’t latched onto lasting motivation. Understanding why you want tosave money is going to get you a lot further than just knowing how to save money.
Why the heck would I wash poopy cloth diapers or go camping for vacation with two tots in tow? What keeps us going is our purpose. Pretending to Be Poor is not about being a miser. There’s nothing actually impoverished about our lifestyle. But we are essentially pretending to have less money than we do, so we can have the flexibility to take opportunities that come our way (like my trip to India), prioritize people, and practice generousity . Authentic frugality increases your usefulness as you learn new skills, get creative, help others, strengthen your relationships, and enjoy it all as a fun adventure.
So stop playing at being frugal. Unless you make a ton of money, if you want to make progress financially, you have to go all-in. That doesn’t mean tackling your entire budget at once. But you have to be willing to challenge any area of spending, one at a time, big and small. You have to quit the materialistic game of spending to “save.” You’ll need to give up some preferences and be consistent. And you must get your reasons in order to secure lasting motivation.
Consider Proverbs 14:23: All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.
What other differences do you see between faux & real frugality? What motivates your frugality?
I was born frugal. That’s not to say I’ve never wasted money, but the frugal force is strong with me. As a kid I would eat all the stale, half-portions of cereal left in the bottom of the box that no one else wanted, because I didn’t want food to go to waste. I would pick out each color of crayon from our craft box before school started, because why buy a new box when you already have lots of crayons? (My mom got me new ones anyway.) I read grocery ads from a young age because I just needed to know how much things cost.
I was born frugal, and I’ve had to un-learn cheap. Stingy. Miserly. Because I definitely can be. In college I ate an incredibly frugal diet that only cost about $10 per week—and in retrospect must have been vitamin-deprived. Just this week I felt seriously conflicted over whether to let my kids get ice cream at the school art show. First of all, what does ice cream have to do with art? This is a money trap! And secondly, we have ice cream at home! But when all your friends are eating ice cream together in the gym at a once-a-year event and we can afford it, why I am so conflicted over spending $6?
Of course, I don’t want my kids to feel entitled to every treat we pass by, but they hear no plenty so it wasn’t really about that. It was about the fact that I’d never fall for the school art show ice cream trap as a super-frugal kid. So why do I have to fall for it as an adult?
Because I’ve learned something about when frugality doesn’t fly.
Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to generosity. I don’t give money to pan-handlers, but I do believe that generosity is the antidote to frugality gone wrong, not to mention it helps others and is a joy to the giver. We plan our generosity ahead of time so we can always afford it, and also so we don’t have to think too hard about every single opportunity that comes our way. We can feel free to say yes or no as we feel led to the requests that we encounter throughout the year, knowing we’ve already prioritized giving to the causes most dear to us.
Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to friendship. That doesn’t mean we’re picking up the tab every time we go out. But it also doesn’t mean I’m skipping friends’ birthday dinners just because I don’t prefer to spend at restaurants. We go out about once a week with other people. Because that’s what people do. Often we pre-game by eating dinner at home, and just order a drink, side, or appetizer to share. And if it’s someone’s birthday or other special occasion, make sure the birthday person isn’t paying!
Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to gifts. I’m not an extravagant gift-giver and probably never will be, but I do like giving my kids and husband something they’ll really like for Christmas and birthdays. I also try to be moderately generous for weddings, showers, and kids’ birthday parties (it doesn’t take much too please kids, though). If I can use a coupon or gift card or shop a sale, I will.
Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to hospitality. Again, I’ll never be the person spending $100+ on dinner parties. I don’t believe in “entertaining” where the focus is on my beautiful home and gourmet spread. But I’ll happily spend enough to make sure guests feel comfortable and cared for. That means we spend more on a food, period. And it allows us to invite people for dinner, playgroup, a prayer breakfast, or evening hang-out. I’ve learned recipes and snacks that please a crowd without being expensive or complicated.
Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to quality time. As mentioned above, we spend money on our dates and on our marriage in general. This includes the occasional getaway, occasionally buying an attractive outfit, and spending on restaurants and babysitters.
We also aim to take our kids on weekly dates, which usually entails buying some kind of treat like an ice cream cone or French fries. Often we do super-frugal stuff like going to the park or the library or riding bikes. Once the boys went on a canoe trip that was not cheap, but formed a special memory. For a special date I took my daughter to a high school production of Beauty and the Beast. We don’t want to spoil them, but we definitely want to spend quality time alone with each kid on a regular basis, especially since we spend several nights a week away from them with our ministry. And as our family grows it’ll be even more important.
Frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to deciding whether take a family trip or go on a church retreat. We just say yes to these because we highly value them, but again, we still find ways to make it less expensive. We camp, we earn some free hotel stays, we try to avoid tourist traps, and we pack snacks for the road.
Frugal doesn’t fly when quality is a better value. There’s a danger here of thinking you need the best everything. But as we DIY an upgrade for our main bathroom, for example, we won’t be using the cheapest possible materials. We’re willing to spend a little more to maintain our home properly and to furnish it with pieces that will last. And I cannot wear cheaply made shoes.
Perhaps this all sounds very frugal or rather spendy to you. It’s all relative. But to my extremely frugal, borderline naturally stingy self, I wouldn’t spend on any of it. I wouldn’t spend any money on restaurants, and would sit home reading a book while my friends went out. I wouldn’t travel; it’d always be a staycation. I wouldn’t buy extra snacks and drinks to have people over; I wouldn’t even buy meat or treats for my own family! And I certainly wouldn’t buy ice cream at the school art show.
But I’ve learned there are times when “frugal” i.e. stingy doesn’t fly. We all know there is a difference between frugal and cheap, but where we draw the line is somewhat personal. I’d say if it has to do with other people or your deepest values, it’s worth your money. Not all your money, and not spending to the point or debt, but it’s worth what you can afford while also meeting other goals.
Where do you draw the line between frugal and cheap? What areas would you say frugal doesn’t fly?
Low-expense living is trending under the guise of “extreme frugality.” But I call BS on this terminology.
I have no desire to pass judgment on others’ spending since everyone’s situation and values are different. Not many conversations are less pleasant than the who’s-more-frugal pissing match. And the media is probably more to blame for this misnomer than the families it features, who are just trying to live reasonably.
But when did eating at home become classified as “extreme frugality?” Is a year-long clothes-buying ban, perhaps following ten years of over-shopping, actually extreme? Does hanging clothes to dry make you a frugal rockstar?
Again, I’m NOT saying people with a certain habits or possessions aren’t frugal enough. My beef isn’t with anyone’s lifestyle, but with attaching the term extreme to what is nothing more than simple, reasonable, classic thrift. Yes, resisting lifestyle inflation is counter-cultural. But as some of the richest people on earth, can we all agree that most of us are not leading extremely frugal lives?
“Extreme” is Actually Classic
We prefer to view our lifestyle as nothing more than classic frugality–with plenty of luxuries in the mix. Let’s consult historical context to clarify terms. In recent history, we find the advent of modern personal finance/early retirement blogs beginning with Early Retirement Extreme and then Mr. Money Mustache. (For some reason, my 2008 “How to Be Cheap” blog series didn’t make it as big.) MMM has made it very clear that, while his family of three lives on only $25,000 per year, they are not claiming to practice extreme frugality. Their lifestyle is just “slightly less ridiculous than average,” to use his self-description. Laurie at the Frugal Farmer also wrote about this topic in her post When Frugality Was Normal.
Rewind a bit further, and we find ourselves practicing the same money-saving habits our grandparents did, while living in a larger home and owning more cars. For example, Neil’s grandparents grew old in the same small bungalow where they raised five children while owning one car. You’d better believe they hung clothes to dry, cooked from scratch, and bought only what they needed. They didn’t need to employ gimmicks to control their spending. Their whole 95 years on this planet have been a shopping ban.
If we want to talk about extremes, let’s talk about people like Mother Theresa or Gandhi. Do you think Gandhi was making cash envelopes for “Rice” and “Dhotis”? When he died he owned about ten possessions, including his iconic spectacles. Now that’s extreme.
I’m all for shopping bans or cash envelopes. I just can’t get on board with calling them extreme. To me, extreme frugality means something more like living out of a van, or one-bedroom apartment with multiple kids, dumpster diving for food, and keeping your heat at 50 degrees.
Classic frugality means something more like:
- Not having a car payment.
- Shopping at discount and thrift stores.
- Trash-picking when you find something good.
- Packing lunch and limiting restaurant spending.
- Skipping subscription services like cable.
- Camping for vacation.
I’m not trying to debate about who does which frugal practice. I’m just saying, this type of frugality is what we’re into, and we don’t view at as extreme. It’s simply reasonable. After all, owning a car or two, living in a multiple-room home, and eating three full meals a day makes us quite spendy by global measures.
“Classic” Is More Motivating
The only “extreme” we’re surrounded by is extreme over-consumption. So I suppose our thrift is a marked difference compared to the insanity of going out to lunch every day, building brand-new 4,000 sq. ft homes, and leasing cars for $500/month. But just because a sizable segment of our population has gone completely crazy with their spending, doesn’t mean we’re living an equally far-out alternative. We’re just enjoying a more lavish version of past generations’ simplicity, and keeping that in perspective is intriguing, contentment-building, and motivating, all at once.
Surely viewing a slightly deflated lifestyle as “extreme” suggests it’s formidable or unreasonable to maintain. If we could embrace simple living as just a thrifty throwback to normal, we may find it much more manageable. And I’m all for sensible views that will fuel our financial flexibility over the long haul.
If our site title seems to suggest we think we’re doing something extreme, allow me to clarify: it’s all relative. We see “pretending to be poor” not as literal, or meant to demean those who are truly struggling to get by. Rather, it’s the only viable alternative we see to be pretending to rich. Either you’ll live on more than you make, or less. And only living on less will allow us to invest both in our future, and in the lives of those in need. We are very much “Just Pretending“and that keeps us going way more than if we thought we were doing something difficult and extreme.
Do you agree with this distinction between classic and extreme frugality? Can you see any other drawbacks to using this misnomer?
I’ve been quiet on the blog because I’ve been uninspired, feeling like I have very little to say about money that I haven’t already said. And I’ve been preoccupied with lots of other things that, to be honest, have made personal finance seem like a trite and irrelevant topic. Of course, I can only say that because we’ve achieved a good measure of financial flexibility. And so I guess that means personal finance is very relevant—what a blessing and privilege not to be worrying about money in the midst of so much else going on.
What’s been going on? Our closest friends and neighbors moved. I got pregnant, and that of course comes with symptoms, appointments, and preparations. My family of origin is going through some challenges. We’re busy with regular life–work, kids, volunteer ministry, continuing ed, etc. Plus our bathroom remodeling goal has gone from “probably should” to “high priority” after we discovered the subfloor was water damaged.
Financial flexibility is an accounting term that describes “a company’s ability to react to unexpected expenses and investment opportunities.” We find this concept useful for personal finance as well. What options would open up if you could live on half your current income? How easily could you weather a job loss or unexpected illness? Could you say “yes” to travel, moving, or giving opportunities that come along? In other words, can you touch your financial toes?
Financial flexibility has afforded us the privilege of not thinking much about money during this less than low-key season. We can complete a DIY (with help) bathroom remodel without going into debt. I’ve been able to take care of myself instead of stressing about side hustling to make our financial plans work. We can weather the extra expenses of adding to our family. And our systems of auto-withdrawal for giving and investing can mostly steer our financial goals during a time when we’re not devoting much thought to money.
Our deeply ingrained “frugal” habits also allow us to just continue on autopilot. I suppose it would be easy to start ordering more take-out, shopping for stress relief, or spending more on conveniences or entertainment for our kids. We’ve certainly increased our expenses a bit to accommodate our growing family, but overall our lifestyle remains similar in the day-to-day. And it’s not through some super-human effort, but the sheer power of habit.
We’re far from financial independence–and totally content with that. We’ll get there when we get there, and we won’t sacrifice our values or purpose for it at all. I’ll be home with the little ones, Neil will be turning down work that would take him away from family and friends too much, and we’ll continue devoting nights and weekends to fellowship and volunteering rather than paid side gigs.
Everyone’s got their things that they’re willing to spend on, and those they aren’t. Our are just examples. The key is trying to sort out what’s really worth it to you, and limiting that list. Because everything doesn’t have to be your favorite.
If you’re still nowhere near FI, take heart: financial flexibility is a continuum you can make constant progress along. And as you do, you’ll experience real, growing benefits even while you’re still very tied to the day job. Our decisions have become less and less influenced by money, and increasingly tied to our values and purpose. We can say yes more and more. Another mission trip to India? Sure. Another baby? Yes. Home upgrades as needed? Fine. Sponsor another child in need? Absolutely.
And that feels like freedom in many ways.
What the next step along your financial flexibility continuum? What benefits have you experienced from growing financially?
It’s true, the PTBP household is expecting another member by the end of June! While having another child was anything but a financial decision, we couldn’t help but think through the financial implications. It’s just how our brains work. And it seemed the most relevant aspect to share here. So here’s the breakdown, including thoughts on kid-raising costs, college funds, resume gaps, and when to upgrade to a bigger home or car.
The Quarter Million Dollar Baby?
The average cost to raise a child is widely reported to be $250,000. If that strikes horror in your heart, rest assured. Oh wait, I have no idea how much it costs to raise a kid. My oldest is only 6.
There’s the cost of prenatal care and delivery, which we estimate will run us about $3000 this time.
Speaking of insurance, paying for a family plan vs. a couple is a big hike in premiums. But—it’s a flat fee after that, so get your money’s worth by having more! #ifonly And of course, kids get sick and that costs something, too.
Young-mommy bloggers will tell you how very little kids costs. Indeed, we spent very little on the first five years of child-rearing. Hand-me-downs abounded, and gifts and buying used items filled in the gaps. We found plenty of fun, free activities via the library, metro parks, playgrounds, etc.
Then we paid for preschool: $1200 for a year. Hand-me-downs slowed and we spent a bit more on clothes and shoes for our oldest. We also spend more on food now, because guess what—at some point they actually start eating.
Then there are the birthday parties kids get invited to. And school supplies, fundraisers, and donations for class parties. And sports and swim lessons, and don’t do that stuff year-round. We also pay for the occasional family attraction or event, especially on vacations.
The Income Question
Another big financial factor is that each kid sets the clock back on me returning to the paid workforce by 5-6 years. We decided before having kids that I would stay home with the kids till they’re in school full time. Part-time working from home worked well until #2 came along. Clearly having a huge resume gap is not going to do me any favors, but for us that’s not a determining factor. And I know how incredibly blessed we are to be in that position.
I’ve heard of families in similar size homes upgrading to make way for baby #3, and I can understand why, but it’s certainly not necessary in our case. In lieu of a larger house, we purchased a used wooden bunk bed ($160) to clear a room for the nursery. I’m glad the kids get the experience of sharing a room, anyway. I could see someday wanting more space as the kids (and their friends) get bigger, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
Since getting pregnant, I’ve fielded a LOT of questions about when we’ll get a minivan. Answer: we’ll get a larger vehicle when we need one. Our family car is a 2003 Ford Taurus Wagon. It fits three car or booster seats in the second row, so in my book, we’re golden. But the wagon isn’t going to last forever, or maybe we’ll need more seats for driving the kids’ friends. We’ll see what becomes a problem first, and the next car will definitely need to have third row seating.
What About College?
I’ve heard more than one family say they’ll limit family size due to the cost of college. I understand how very real of a consideration college costs are for families these days. How much/whether to help with kids’ college is a controversial, personal decision.
Our stance is: we will save and we want to help, but we aren’t promising to pay for all of it, either. There are more and more ways of getting college credit without paying top dollar, and we very much expect our kids to explore these options. By offering substantial help, but not a massive sum, we hope to motivate them to make responsible choices, while offering an advantage as they get their start in the real world.
Another approach some people seem to take is resume-loading. Parents will pay for private tutoring, music lessons, year-round sports, and other extracurriculars, all with the hope of their kids getting significant scholarships. I wish there was a way to do the math on this. If you invested (in a college fund) all the money you spent on those tutors, activities, and experiences for your kids that you hope will lead to a scholarship, who would come out ahead? I’m placing my bets on the average growth of regular contributions. And this doesn’t require nearly as much running around.
The Bottom Line
Bottom line, we’re not making family choices based on money. On the one hand, that’s an incredibly privileged position to be in. On the other hand, there is perspective as well as privilege involved. Kids do cost money—don’t let those toddler mom bloggers fool you. But my guess is they don’t have to cost a quarter million each (barring unusual circumstances). We don’t feel the need to buy a bigger house, a larger car (yet), or the greatest possessions and experiences for our kids. We also don’t need to pay for the most extracurriculars, or float the full cost of college. And this is very freeing, both for our current stress level, and our ability to make family size choices based on other values.
What factors determined your family size? What are some other financial considerations parents face these days?