Financial Seasons and the Fallacy of “Extreme Frugality”

When I hear people write or talk about “extreme frugality,” I cringe for a couple of reasons. First, because we’re wealthy compared with over 99% of the world. Secondly, because you can only maintain “extreme” frugality for so long.

For example, we put up to half our income toward a financial goal for 5 years. We cooked all almost all our food at home, drove old cars, and did very little to update our home during this time. We did bare minimum shopping for clothing, and almost everything was purchased secondhand. Gifts for our children were modest and often used. The kids wore mostly hand-me-downs. Some might say we were “extremely” frugal in this time, though I never viewed it this way because we always had everything we needed, purchased what we really wanted, and maintained habits like giving, vacationing, and hosting.

Since meeting that goal and sending our first child off to school, spending has increased in comparison with the previous 5 years. We bought clothes and shoes to replace those that had worn out. We decorated our home (a little). I bought my kids clothing for the first time, since the hand-me-down chain slowed down around school age. We spent on preschool, then soccer. Quite a few items in our home had seen better days, so we replaced them.

There were “luxury” items, too. Neil got invited back to India. We went to see a professional musical. We bought our 6-year-old a birthday gift that was new rather than used for the first time–the amazing Lego Boost. Neil got me a laptop for Christmas.

I’m sure you get the picture. We limited our spending quite a bit for about five years, and then we let up because things were worn out, and we were just ready to loosen the belt a bit.

We all go through financial seasons. There is a time for saving, and a time for spending. Yes, we always need to do both. But there are seasons when one takes precedence over the other, and that’s normal.

Unfortunately, many frugality articles don’t make this seem normal, at least at a glance. When bloggers publish monthly expense reports that highlight extremely low spending, it makes it seem like they will be able to live off that amount forever. They won’t. And you won’t, either.

Maybe you’ll attend–or be in–lots of weddings or have the opportunity to travel. Maybe you or someone in your family will experience health problems. Maybe ants will eat your house. Maybe you’ll need to replace a vehicle sooner than you’d expected. Maybe you’ll need to move. Maybe you’ll have a baby. In other words, maybe life will happen and it will be expensive.

We all pass through different financial seasons in life, and a snapshot like a monthly expense report can’t convey that complexity. You may be in a different season than others, so take expense reports (or real-life spending comparisons) as information, or inspiration, but don’t take them too much to heart. You’re looking at a moment in someone else’s life, a little bit like those cheery Facebook photos that reflect only the happiest, most envy-worthy moments.

I believe in the power of frugality in making financial progress, hence our site name. But I also know that frugality has its limits, and “extreme frugality” is not only an oxymoron by the time it appears on a web page, it’s also not as sustainable as people sometimes sell it as. Live reasonably, work toward your goals, and be generous. Always keep money in perspective: “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5).

What financial seasons have you experienced? Was it hard to go from a saving season to a spending season? 

19 Responses to “Financial Seasons and the Fallacy of “Extreme Frugality””

  1. FullTimeFinance says :

    “observe due measure; moderation is best in all things’, Hesiod ancient Greece. Frugality is about ultimately about value based spending. Deprivation just as hedonism is a road to nowhere.

    • Kalie says :

      Great quote. I do think it’s very hard for many today to even have an idea of what moderation looks like when we live in such an environment of excess being the norm.

  2. Ann Maureen says :

    Excellent post! And I would add that being very frugal takes a lot of energy: always looking for the lowest price, rummaging through second-hand items for something usable, making all your own food, mending those trousers one more time . . . I’ve lived much of my life having to make every dollar dance, and it does get tiring. So I am all for spending more when you can, within reason, of course, and with gratitude for the blessing. 🙂

    • Josh says :

      You’re not kidding about sometimes spending more time so you don’t have to spend money. Thankfully, we have found a few stores and sites and figured out how to usually time their sales and specials based on the day of the week or time in the month it is.

      Signing up for email lists makes the task a lot easier as long as your disciplined enough to not buy every “sale.”

    • Kalie says :

      For new clothing, we do try to time shopping with seasonal sales and clearance. And I agree–only sign up for emails if they won’t tempt you to spend when you don’t need to.

    • Kalie says :

      “Make every dollar dance”–I love this phrase. It is very time-consuming and some measures just don’t make a lot of sense when you’re reached a certain point in your income and financial goals.

  3. Oldster says :

    Frugality is a tool, a means to an end (usually, FI or a component thereof). Frugality for its own sake is a waste of energy. If you are not saving for a purpose (house, vacay, charity, travel or FI/RE) then you are just depriving yourself for no reason.

    • Kalie says :

      I imagine most people use frugality as a tool to reach goals, whether it’s to make ends meet or reach FI. But if your whole FI/RE plan estimates are based on a few low-cost years, you might want to pad the numbers to account for years when things will break or wear out, or when you just don’t want to hang your laundry (for example) anymore.

  4. Harmony says :

    Thank you! This is one of the reasons why we don’t really have a set budget. We try to spend as little as possible, but it’s hard to set a specific amount that will cover all of your expenses, every single month.

    I would say that 2017 has been a bit less of a frugal year for us – with having the twins and buying the bus being big factors. I’m actually looking forward to a fairly low-key winter during which we can keep our expenses low and maybe earn some extra money when we’re stuck inside staying warm. I should probably get a jump on DIY Christmas presents if we want to meet that goal.

    • Kalie says :

      We find that we don’t spend any more or less when we make a monthly budget, as compared with when we don’t. We make sure to set investing or saving goals for the year based on estimated annual expenses, and the rest sorts itself out.

      I imagine having twins would cost a bit extra. That’s great you can DIY Christmas presents. My crafting skills are pretty sub-par and I always regret spending time on DIY present fails. Starting early is a good way to score deals, though.

  5. Megan says :

    This whole post reminds me of Ecclesiastes 3 – there’s a time for everything under the sun. It’s a good reminder for sure that there are times to save and times to spend. My first few months of marriage ended up being “a time to spend” after a car mishap, a broken phone and an international hospital bill. That definitely came unexpectedly, yet it was good for my marriage to learn to trust God in that short season, continuing to give to the church even if it was confusing or hard. And now I feel like I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum, but it’s good in that next summer we need to make a somewhat big purchase. Thanks for sharing! Good to know others experience this too

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing about your spending season, and how you gave faithfully through that. It’s nice you have time to save up for your big purchase and can plan ahead!

  6. Prudence Debtfree says :

    “Live reasonably” – Unfortunately most in our society don’t do that. We finance our lives with debt, resulting in a widespread, unreasonable culture of excess and waste. A paradigm shift is needed to correct that culture, and the adoption of frugality is a means to that end. As someone who is intentionally embracing that shift – to correct years and years of bad money management – I agree with what you say. Even in our years of debt payoff (our goal is complete debt-freedom – and it’s looking like it will be a 7-year effort) there have been more spendy times than others. “Reasonable” has been the radically new element throughout. For instance, when we needed a new roof, we saved for it. (How radical!) And although we have enough saved now to buy a new vehicle, we’ll keep saving until our old cars don’t work anymore – and then buy used. Again, for most of us, reasonable is a radical shift.

    • Kalie says :

      Well said, Ruth. I agree that “reasonable” is hard to even discern, let alone practice, in our culture today. There is so much abundance and truly clever marketing that excess just seems like the norm. I’m glad to hear you’ve learned a new normal and are seeing through your old, less reasonable ways.

  7. Mrs. ThriftyOnTheLake says :

    Hello There! What a great post! I like reading and learning about ways to be more frugal but always have to remind myself that our family’s reality is often different from what I see on personal finance blogs. We are raising two teenagers now and, while we try to be as frugal as possible, we have come to realize that we are in the higher spending season of our lives. It seems that for every spending category we remove we end up adding another. We no longer need to worry about diapers, toys or daycare, but we pay for additional cell phone lines and expect our auto insurance to go up significantly when the kids get their drivers licenses. Public schools often request payments for field trips, class equipment and supplies. Extra curricular activities that once were inexpensive gradually rise in cost as the kids become more passionate, more competitive and more serious about them. You can say that we should make the kids pay for their expenses by getting jobs, but that is simply not practical in our case. We have learned to focus on doing our best towards our goal of financial independence even if the journey there is less than perfect.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m sure our expenses will rise as our kids get older, even without saying “yes” to everything. I can’t believe how many times his school has asked for money in the two months he’s been in school! School pictures, book fair, two fundraisers…And there hasn’t even been a field trip yet!

  8. David says :

    Frugal and miserly are not the same thing. Frugal is trying to get the most value for your money. Miserly is trying to part with as little of your money as possible. Working on the snow at a ski resort I can give dozens of examples of frugal vs. cheap with winter clothing. Spending more for quality gear that lasts is less expensive than being cheap and buying something that won’t last through one winter. It also makes a big difference to my personal comfort which makes the job more fun.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, there is a big difference between the two. For some items it makes sense to spend more for quality. For others, you might just being paying for branding or style more than anything.

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