Frugal For a Season

We’ve posted a lot about our reasons for being “frugal,” or living on less than we could. 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 as you will, but ain’t nobody got time for my semi-crunchy lifestyle of yore. (Actually, I recently made granola for the first time in years, but only because I was on one of my dreaded anti-sugar crusades.)

I’m also not sure what to call our former so-called “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 formerly frugal head in shame while ordering extra Christmas gifts for the third kid she won’t steal the middle kid’s presents.

Looking back over 16 years of adulting (read: marriage), we were frugal for a season. And for a reason: we paid off our first home. We got the investment snowball rolling. Started college funds. Travelled. Gave to charities. All of which would have been a lot harder to do one income had we taken on car payments, consumer debt, or a lot of restaurant dining.

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 3 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 worth it. 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. Now we’re nailing down 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 and blogs 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? Very moderately. 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 buys paper plates 300 at a time.)

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. A lot of smaller things like cooking at home, camping for some vacations, and buying secondhand didn’t hurt.

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 not buy clothes 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 telling us what we need to improve 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?

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3 Responses to “Frugal For a Season”

  1. Chard says :

    This is so true, I feel bad that I just spent $50 at Goodwill even though I just graduated with my MBA with zero student debt and now have a bigger paying job. I’m like I don’t like spending money on new clothes, but seasons really do change

  2. Carrie says :

    We have been through many seasons over the years. When we were first married, attending college and trying to survive on low-income jobs we were frugal because we had to be. When we had children at home it definitely was a less frugal time. Christmas gifts, summer camp, swimming lessons and braces took a lot of our budget. Being frugal about some things allowed us to pay for those things. We lived in a modest-sized home and drove smaller vehicles. Now our children have left the nest and our debts have been paid, we are firmly in savings mode. Our expenses are low, there is nothing we need and we have ramped up our savings. Next thing on the horizon is retirement.

  3. EB says :

    Now that we are approaching retirement, I’m extra glad for our frugal habits, even though they might not pay off as much as in the early years.

    First, they are helping us cope with our current inflation.
    Second, they are making our retirement more certain.

    Finally, and maybe the most important, they were a model for our children (who chose less-lucrative careers). Anyone can have a nice vacation with a $xx,xxx budget. But our kids have experienced nice vacations on a much smaller amount. Same with dining, cooking, housing choice, home repairs, clothes, etc.

    And the kids have seen how we never stressed about money. Credit cards were paid off completely every month. Mortgage, groceries, cars all paid for without stress.

    OTOH, they’re making a few money mistakes of their own. Youngest just filed taxes … and paid $25 to e-file state! Learning experience.

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