Frugal For a Season
We’ve posted extensively about our reasons for being “frugal,” or not maximizing our expenses. We want to live purposefully and generously. We want to invest time and money into our family, friends, and community now and as our financial flexibility increases. However, I use quotations around frugal and even hesitate to quote my own blog title anymore, because our thriftiest days are behind us.
I’ve already chronicled my fall from homemade-yogurt-making diva to grocery delivery slacker. Blame it on the third kid, middle age, or financial frivolity, but I simply don’t have time for my semi-crunchy lifestyle of yore. (I did recently make granola for the first time in years, but only because I was on one of my dreaded anti-sugar crusades.)
I’m not even sure what to call our former “frugality” because much of what is today deemed extreme frugality was standard fare a generation ago. My mom hung laundry, cloth diapered, composted, thrifted, and side-hustled without seeming to think twice about it. Not to mention Neil’s grandparents raising 5 kids in a small bungalow with a postage stamp yard, because that was normal.
And then there’s us. Third kid, we buy a minivan and a bigger house with a bigger yard. Spend $$$ on gymnastics, etc. (but so did my frugal mom for me; it comes full circle). I hung my once frugal head in shame while ordering extra Christmas gifts for the third kid so she won’t steal the middle child’s presents.
Looking back over 16 years of adulting (read: marriage), we were frugal for a season. And for a reason: we paid off student debt and our first home. We got the investment snowball rolling. Started college funds. Travelled. Gave to charities. All of which would have been much harder to do one income had we taken on car payments, consumer debt, or a huge mortgage.
Now I’m left searching for a new term to label our lifestyle. The phrase financially efficient comes to mind. This is, like our title, both subjective and tongue-in-cheek, since there’s absolutely nothing efficient about having three children, and in many ways, this choice was the end of all efficiency for us (See “We Hate Money, or We’re Having a Third Kid“). But our growing responsibilities and expenses led us to re-evaluate what is worth saving our pennies over, and what is not.
Now, as the stock market and time have been working their magic on investments, and as our income has grown, and as we’re pulled in more directions than ever, saving dollars in my old crunchy ways seems less worthwhile. A decade ago we were newly settled into our first home, had recently paid off our student loans, and were enjoying our first Christmas with an infant (hello, college fund). Now we’re discussing the details of Roth conversion ladders because a period of more flexibility is not so very far away.
A few thoughts come to mind as I look over our financial journey, and the many personal finance articles I’ve read over seven years of blogging. On the debate between growing income versus cutting spending: it’s more about your values and priorities than numbers. I.e., what do you want and need to focus on? How much did hanging laundry and cloth diapering speed our progress? Only slightly. But having chosen to stay home with the babes, I wanted to do what I could. And it’s better for the earth (says person who now buys the 300 pack of paper plates).
What did help was buying a home we could afford, putting 20% down, and paying it off early. Paying our student loans off early as well. Avoiding car payments and other consumer debt. And with the cushion provided by no debt except a smaller mortgage, we got those investments rolling, because the first $100,000 really is the hardest. Many smaller things like cooking at home, camping for some vacations, and buying secondhand didn’t hurt, either.
I’d also point out that the posts you see about extreme frugality or no-buy challenges usually reflect a very limited period–a season. Sure, many people could live on a limited income for a year or two. You defer home upgrades & large purchases, and use your stash of clothes and cosmetics for a couple years. There is a real value in breaking needless shopping habits, learning contentment, and rethinking how you consume. Considering how we’re inundated with ads and influencers suggesting we need to constantly “improve” ourselves and our lifestyle, these frugal challenges have their place. And funds directed toward bigger goals have a lasting impact. Just don’t feel bad if your average spending doesn’t match up to an catchy headline.
More important than the number you spend, save, or even give, is the why behind what you do. Do you have financial goals? Are you happy with how you’re spending? These are topics we like to revisit near the beginning of the year as we look at our budget and plan for the future.
How has your approach to personal finance changed over time? What are your goals this year?