Extreme vs. Classic Frugality

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 GandhiDo 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:

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?

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43 Responses to “Extreme vs. Classic Frugality”

  1. Sarah Noelle says :

    Ah, yes, I think this is a very important point you’re making here, especially “owning a car or two, living in a multiple-room home, and eating three full meals a day makes us filthy rich by global measures.”

    I suspect that language like “extreme frugality” arises simply from the desire to get more blog clicks. A huge percentage of blog post titles are basically teasers, and sometimes the teaser language continues into the post itself. But I agree with you: this language is not really a good description of how many people are actually living.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m sure you’re right about click-bait, but by the time it’s making national news, it would be nice to see more honesty. (But why am I expecting news agency to report the truth?)

  2. Tonya says :

    It’s all relative that’s for sure! I’m sure if you were to go to a poor part of India or some other country you would see extreme frugality, and it wouldn’t be pretty. Maybe even extreme frugality in this country would actually look like normal frugality to someone living like that. There seems to be a sliding scale. My only beef is people who claim they are on 100% shopping bans, get a load of attention for it, but they still have loads of exceptions!

  3. Indre says :

    Truth be told, “extreme” frugality can so easily become just plain stinginess, or something to take pride in. It’s important not to lose sight of your goal : of simply watching out for unnecessary purchases/spending, in order to allocate that money to helping others with their needs, spiritual and physical.
    Stinginess and prideful boasting about ones great deals is a very unattractive characteristic in people and does not reflect the heart of God.

    • Kalie says :

      You’re right that “extreme frugality” can sometimes be stinginess and that is certainly a bad reason for frugality. I agree that watching out for unnecessary spending in order to help others is much more helpful and motivating.

    • Denise Ann says :

      This is the best response of all, Indre. God bless you!

  4. Cat says :

    You’re right. Most of what we do is not “extreme” frugality at all. It’s just viewed as “extreme” these days because frugality has gone by the wayside and over consumption is the new norm. We are not “extreme” in our frugal habits by any means, but we are definitely more frugal than most.

    • Kalie says :

      You’re so right that it’s only extreme compared to the new norm. I just find it helpful to keep our frugality in perspective. It helps me keep going without feeling deprived (because I’m not).

  5. Gary from Super Saving Tips says :

    I agree with the distinction you’re making, but I object to the term “extreme frugality” for another reason: putting the word extreme in there makes it seem like it’s outside the range of acceptable behavior and therefore should be avoided. Being money-conscious shouldn’t be a contest, and shouldn’t be considered odd behavior, even if it doesn’t represent the typical American’s lifestyle.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point that “extreme” can sound undesirable or unhealthy. Labeling normal frugal practices that way could deter people who might otherwise benefit from some thrifty tips.

  6. Josh says :

    A similar question came into my head the other day that relates to “extreme” consumption. In our current society with so many “material blessings” and the overconsumption of these blessings, how far will the pendulum swing the other way?

    Individual households and most developed nations are living like money grows on trees and the good times will never end, but will that mean that eventually the bad times will never end?
    To quote Newton: “For every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction.”

    No, I don’t think self-induced “extreme” frugality or living a lifestyle akin to true international 3rd world international poverty is the answer.

    • Kalie says :

      I know, how long can our economy operate under such artificial assumptions, such as the normalcy of excessive debt and over-spending?

      Though the recession a few years ago was real, it was hard to hear people compare it to the Great Depression while they sipped Starbucks and wore one of their thirty outfits. Again, not to judge individuals or their purchases, but the loss of perspective is frightening.

  7. Lisa B says :

    I hesitated to comment, but then I never had a truly unspoken thought and frankly I that often applies to written expression as well. Here goes, the word “extreme” has lost meaning in a world where we are inundated with the likes of “Extreme Weightloss,” “extreme couponing,”and “extreme sports.” Just turn on the tele. Our culture is drawn to the dramatic, the intense and the unattainable as ideal or praise worthy. That term, dare I repeat, “extreme,” is so overused that I turn off my listening ears, only to nod rhythmically to the monotonous drivel. Once a word or idea becomes trendy, it’s time to move on an embrace the novel or the practical. It’s like the saying, “That place is so crowded, no one goes there anymore.” I like where this idea of getting away from extremes could lead. Run with it. Soon, there will be a place where everyone wants to go and it will not only be helpful, but engaging.

    • Kalie says :

      Interesting angle, Lisa. I hadn’t thought about the “crowded place” phenomenon but I like the idea of make “frugality” seem normal and accessible.

  8. Our Next Life says :

    I love this post, and I’m glad you guys hit “publish” on it — I’m sure you hesitated for at least a moment! It’s a sign of how much perspective most people have lost that we think of being sensible as being extreme. (Granted, there are extremes out there, like some of the tiny house scenarios I’ve seen, or some van dwelling scenarios, but I know that’s not what you’re talking about.) Before she died, my grandmother wrote a book about her experiences growing up, and I’m so glad she did. She grew up with eight siblings in a two bedroom farm house, they made their clothes out of flour sacks, and there were no vehicles owned by anyone, except a tractor that multiple farmers shared. And my grandmother’s family were viewed by their neighbors and friends as the “rich ones,” because they had a dairy farm and actually got to drink milk! So yeah, all of the things that are now labeled extreme are things that she just naturally did, even years later, when it was no longer the great depression. So much of this is the larger issue of needing to label everything that our society seems particularly obsessed with, and I’m sure many of the bloggers whose stories have been featured in the media wouldn’t say that what they’re doing is extreme, it’s just logical. Same as how we don’t even think of ourselves as frugal at all (we make no secret that our FIRE progress is fueled by high incomes much more than by scrimping, though we do spend much less now than we used to), but our friends call us “super frugal.” Just because we try not to spend wastefully or mindlessly.

    Thanks again for sharing this great piece!

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for the affirmation about posting this. And great story about your grandmother’s upbringing. I really can’t get enough of these stories that shed light on life today. And you’re so right that “extreme” everything is a trend right now that makes any endeavor get more attention.

  9. DC YAM says :

    I think it’s an interesting thought, but I also think everything should be taken in context. Sometimes living a “slightly less ridiculous” lifestyle is a huge step for someone. I think sometimes people take frugality too far and/or push people who have little interest in the topic. I’m very conflicted on the frugality topic – maybe that’s why I focus on increasing income.

    • Kalie says :

      Good points about the step toward deflating one’s lifestyle feeling big. I agree that forcing the issue on those who aren’t interested isn’t friendly or helpful. I try to keep my mouth shut (in person) unless people are asking for help. Even then, you have to read their responses to discern if they are really interested. The definition of “slightly less ridiculous living” is where I’m coming from with frugality.

  10. Hannah says :

    I’m very glad that you brought this up. A friend from church is trying to get me to teach a class on finances for our youth group. Our youth group is mostly kids who are growing up in American poverty.

    It is a good reminder that it was not so long ago when the lifestyles of today’s low-income/poverty were not uncommon. While I don’t claim to practice any frugality (extreme, classic or otherwise) it is helpful for me to remember that our goal isn’t one lifestyle or another but buidling contentment in all circumstances.

    • Kalie says :

      Teaching that class would be great! Even if it was a one-time deal where you could lay out a few helpful principles & strategies. Contentment is hugely important, and re-framing our thinking about what a normal lifestyle looks like could go a long way to building it.

  11. Laurie Frugalfarmer says :

    SO true!!! We’ve become such a consumerist society that the slightest tendency to avoid that consumerism is hailed as heroic!!! It drives me freakin’ crazy. We are pretty frugal by comparison: we spend $400 on groceries, $100 or so on entertainment for our family of six, and roughly $120-$200 a year on clothes for each member of our family. But when you’re comparing world wide or to 60 years ago, we are gluttonous pigs. Not saying that as an insult, but to prove a point. 99% of people in America don’t have a clue what extreme frugality is simply because they have three meals a day. Wonderful post, Kalie!

  12. Jim Wang says :

    Extreme is all relative, what’s extreme to one person living in one place will be different than what’s extreme in another. I suppose the question then becomes, why does the label matter, right?

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that building a life in line with your values is way more important than the name you assign to it, but when communicating with others the meaning behind labels becomes more important. I realize it’s a bit unfair to compare our lives to completely different cultures or times, but I also find it helps me stay content and motivated to be mindful with our money.

  13. Mel says :

    I love, love, LOVE this! I practice “classic” frugality by the rest of my family’s standards and they’re all overly impressed that I manage to fund my life just fine on a low salary job in the arts. In reality, I’ve just managed to prioritize what I do care about and I don’t often feel I need things “now.” I’d rather save up a few months than go into debt over something or just use common sense. When I suspected my computer was starting to die a year ago, I started setting aside $100 a month to buy a new one when it finally crashed. It died just yesterday and I went out to the store and bought the new one I’d wanted – because I knew I’d have a need in the future and prepared for it.

  14. Abigail says :

    I hadn’t realized that such things were classified as extreme frugality. I consider that to be frugality plain and simple. Extreme frugality is things like (and this was an actual example someone *boasted* about) turning your underwear inside out to wear for a second day. I don’t think that person understood how sweat etc works.

    It’d be giving up everything but rice and beans because everything else is too expensive. And so on.

    We’re by no means on the track for extreme frugality. We have plenty of stuff, and we have more room than we need for just 2 people. And lots of other ways we don’t bother to follow the classic frugality principles. But we do the best we can according to our abilities and priorities. That’s what frugality is supposed to be about. (Assuming it’s not out of necessity, anyway.)

    • Kalie says :

      I agree with your conception of frugality–and extreme frugality. Gross!

      And yes, everyone has different limitations and desires. I guess today it’s impressive to not mindlessly spend all or more than you make on stuff you might not even value much.

  15. Luke Fitzgerald says :

    I don’t have much to say other than….Well said!! I really enjoy reading your perspective on frugality.

  16. Zandria says :

    You are so right on about this. I hate when someone takes on a “shopping ban” and suddenly everyone thinks that person is doing something so tremendously difficult. Extreme frugality doesn’t mean living in a house smaller than 2000 sq ft, or driving a car more than five years old. Mr Money Mustache is more extreme than I am (taking his bike pretty much everywhere, whereas I choose to take the bus), but he is certainly not living in a shack. These extra measures can be taken without much (or any) hardship.

    Yesterday was Christmas and for the first time ever, my husband and I decided not to exchange any gifts. Neither of us missed it. Was it a hardship or extreme frugality? No. If we want something later, we’ll get it.

    • Kalie says :

      There is so much potential to cut back in the typical American lifestyle without experiencing hardship, like you said. I love your reasonable view of Christmas, as well. We still exchange gifts but it’s often something we’ve been wanting for some time, and decide to wait until Christmas to buy it.

  17. Rob at MoneyNomad says :

    Too many people get caught up on consumption. We spend too much with no thought for others or the environment. This is one reason I have been thrilled to find a great PF community online full of people passionate about creating a new trend. And it was great to get the description of your blog title. Thanks again for great content!

    • Kalie says :

      It’s huge to have others helping you think through expenses that others just assume are necessary. Thank you for the feedback on the title description!

  18. Lay says :

    I’ve wondered wgatcthe fuss is all about extreme frugality while they were living in luxury because they had closets brimming with clothes and shoes and houses filled with stuff. I can call that no-shopping-ban as reducing /eliminating too much consumerism or materialism not extreme frugality.

  19. David says :

    There’s a difference between being frugal and being cheap. Cheap is spending as little as possible and frugal is getting the best value for your money. Sometimes it’s worth paying more for higher quality.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree with your distinction. I think sometimes the best value for your money is skipping something altogether, and sometimes that’s just cheap. It takes some trial and error to figure out the best approach for each person.

  20. Prudence Debtfree says :

    Well said, Kalie. I’ll just say that those of us who have been part of the “sizable segment of our population (that) has gone completely crazy with their spending” do feel we’re doing something extreme by switching gears to what you accurately call “classic thrift”. The relative nature of “normal” means that we are not normal when we drive our 19-year-old van, don’t replace our worn-out bar-b-que, and staycation through March Break. I’m feeling more and more settled in this “classic thrift” – but our step into it was an extreme step.

    • Kalie says :

      Great point, Ruth. I completely agree that those who make a major lifestyle switch truly are doing something extreme for their situation. I have the utmost respect for those big changes. Honestly, it’s way more impressive than for those of us who were born thrifty! I think it takes more character to transform than for the naturally frugal. I just don’t like it when a quite comfortable lifestyle is portrayed as extremely frugal because it makes it seem less attainable, less attractive, or even deprived.

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