When Frugal Doesn’t Fly

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?

11 Responses to “When Frugal Doesn’t Fly”

  1. Jeremiah Ramsey says :

    I think you have hit it right on. As a comparable item, I would add that frugality does not fly when it comes to burden-bearing ( although this is probably more in the category of “generosity”, so maybe you did address it.

    Well-articulated.

  2. Tonya says :

    For me, frugal doesn’t fly when it comes to health/nutrition. What good is eating $1 ramen when you will have major health problems later in life? Or you won’t be around to enjoy the wealth that you’ve accumulated.

    • kddomingue says :

      I agree. Frugal doesn’t apply when it comes to health/nutrition. When the hubs and I were just starting out, we were as poor as the proverbial church mice. We bought what we could afford which was incredibly cheap stuff that probably had as much nutritional value as the box that it came in. The hubs and I are in agreement that we do not cheap out on food. Good food is important because our health is important. We do not cheap out on what we serve our family or guests in our home. We may not serve/offer you the fanciest food or drink but it will be of the best quality we can afford. We know family members who will host a gathering and will serve family and friends a hotdog, chili, chips and cupcake meal made out of the cheapest items that they can find. It’s usually pretty bad. And it’s not that they can’t afford better because they absolutely can. They are not frugal. They’re cheap. They have literally told me me that they won’t waste their money to put good food in other people’s stomachs. I guess it never occurred to them that I was one of those “other people” that they were referring to? Saving money is nice but not at the expense of treating friends and family poorly.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree; it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice health for lower food costs now when you’ll likely have expensive health problems later. We don’t eat all organic or the most trendy health foods, but try to eat plenty of whole foods and raise/grow as much organic food as we can on our burbstead.

  3. Bethany says :

    Frugal is just the idea of “not wasting”. It’s not the idea of “not spending”, which we can all agree is the definition of cheap or stingy.

    I think I lost the naturally stingy part of myself when I realized that there was enough of everything to go around. Enough money, enough food, enough clothes. In fact, there is more than enough.

    My family was always stingy about frozen fruit. One time I got reprimanded for offering to bring frozen strawberries to a smoothie party because ice would have been cheaper. When I moved out and got married, I realized how easy it was to grow strawberries in the garden. What a miracle! That prized possession, fruit, literally growing on bushes in the backyard!

    I still hate waste, but stinginess is something different altogether and is really a heart issue…. part selfishness, part fear that there won’t be enough for everyone.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, realizing there is enough is a great way to shift from stingy to thrifty but willing to share. I guess there are people for whom there isn’t enough, but that’s not the case for us and we want to share out of our bounty!

    • kddomingue says :

      Yes! Frugal is not being wasteful. Frugal is about not feeling compelled to keep up with the Jones. Frugal is about spending where and on what you feel is important and choosing not to spend on things that aren’t important to you. It’s not about not spending at all. I can’t abide stinginess….that’s a heart that’s closed as tight as a fist.

  4. Prudence Debtfree says :

    I would say frugality doesn’t fly when it means you’re actually sponging off of someone else. I’ve seen this happen: Person A drives Person B home from work regularly. Person B could chip in for gas or treat Person A with a gift card as a sign of appreciation – but doesn’t. Person B might be considered “frugal” for not driving a car to work, but that kind of frugality is at someone else’s expense – and it doesn’t fly.

    • kddomingue says :

      There’s being frugal and then there’s being a cheap, unremorseful user of others.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, so true, Ruth. That is definitely crossing into stingy when your savings come directly at someone else’s expense.

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