Frugal Without a Cause

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Frugality is an issue my wife and I struggle with. That’s why it’s always nice to hear another physician’s perspective on it. I’ve learned a lot from PoF, and I hope you can too. Enjoy!

Armed with the Sharpied-up ad with circled products and prices, I meandered through the aisles picking up the essentials like 36 taco shells, 8 pounds each of both sugar and flour, a couple jars of peanut butter, and some dog treats that were marked down to a dollar, (but looking at the receipt, I see I paid $2.29). Dang it!

All together, I bought 27 items for $45.86, compared to the “everyday low price” of $87.68, a savings of $41.82. Darned near half price. Big score, right?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
nice work, sir saves-a-lot

Meanwhile, I have a habit of checking my investment balances daily. It’s not a great habit, but Personal Capital makes it really easy to do, and frankly, it’s a hard habit to break.

On a slow or mixed day, the grand total of my investments changes by a 3 or 4-figure sum. Most weeks, the day-to-day swing will be a 5-figure number at least a couple times. On a particularly good or bad week, I can gain or lose a full year of my family’s expenses from the nest egg (although technically I don’t gain or lose anything because I’m not selling). I understand that some volatility is normal with a fairly aggressive portfolio, and I’m comfortable with it, but it really puts into perspective the 2-figure sum of $41.82 I saved on the grocery bill.

Why So Frugal?

Frugality is a mostly learned habit. Some of us were raised to live frugally out of necessity, or as a result of being raised by parents who were raised by survivors of the Great Depression. Many of us had to be frugal in medical school and residency just to make ends meet. I had a negative net worth in my later twenties, and I didn’t like that feeling at all. When I finished residency at age 30, I started to splurge a bit, but I had a lot of ingrained frugal habits that are alive and well ten years later.

I’m not ashamed of my frugal ways, but when I look at the big picture, I realize that at this point, I’m like a seriously uncool James Dean. I have neither the jacket nor the hair. A Frugal Without a Cause.

Since my family is now financially independent after years of living below our means, we could afford to start living closer to our means. The fact is we’re not exactly wanting of anything that money can buy. Except perhaps freedom, which is something I expect I’ll buy in another 5 years or so.

I also realize that increasing our spending alters the FI equation, and I don’t want to be a fraud. Having told the internet that I’m now FI, spending an extra $20,000 a year would require another half-a-million bucks, and I’m not quite there yet!

What Frugal Habits Should We Drop?

At some point, frugality will have largely served its purpose. It helped you get out of debt, to start building a nest egg, and perhaps even attract a life partner with similar ideas about money.

If the internet is any indication, it can be difficult to break free of old habits even when they might be doing you more harm than good (see Bogleheads threads herehere, and here (there are dozens of similar threads, but 3 is more than enough)).

I believe your life can actually improve in some ways by letting go of some of those frugal ways: How so?

  • Save time. I’ve said it before, money buys time.
  • Be more comfortable (better clothes, sheets, furniture, car).
  • Be healthier (cheap foods are often bad foods, gym membership).
  • Higher quality products. The cheapest item is cheap for a reason.
  • Better experiences. A walk in the woods is free, but the entrance fee to the museum / amusement park / ballgame is a whole different experience.
  • New friends. The beer in your fridge costs less, but the ales & lagers at your local taproom are also being enjoyed by neighbors who share your passion for craft beer.
founders tap room
have a seat. make a friend.

If you’ve read my posts about frugality, and you’re starting to get the feeling that I’m conflicted, you couldn’t be more right. On one hand, frugality has played a big role in putting us in a great financial situation today. On the other, many of our frugal habits are largely inconsequential, and may actually be holding us back from living a life of optimal happiness.

The Difference Between Frugal and Cheap

It’s important to distinguish pragmatic frugality from dastardly cheapness. A frugal person might choose not to spend on himself, but is willing to spend more freely on others.

A cheap person isn’t willing to pay the price of admission, even when the rest of the group wants to go. A frugal person has already scouted out something fun for everyone to do that won’t break the bank. A frugal person might forego buying dessert at the restaurant and have some ice cream at home.  A cheap person splits the bill by throwing in $12 for their $11.95 burger, leaving his “friends” to pick up the tax and tip. Oh, yeah… thanks for the nickel, friend.

A frugal person buys the first round at happy hour. A cheap person reluctantly takes orders when half his friends are in the bathroom or otherwise occupied.

It’s perfectly acceptable to be frugal when your choices don’t affect your friends and family.  It’s perfectly uncouth to be cheap.

A Frugal Mindset

I still have a mindset that celebrates little money-saving victories, and I don’t think frugality is inhibiting our ability to live a fulfilling life.  While I do try to remind myself it’s alright to loosen up those purse strings, I don’t often feel the need. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Not long ago, I started tracking our actual expenses. The good news is, we are actually FI, as we said we were.  The bad news is the monthly expenditures seem frighteningly high for a relatively frugal physician’s family that carries no mortgage or any other debts.

While I would like to say we’d be comfortable spending a bit more, it might not be worth the shudder at the end of the month when we review the monthly output. In other words, I’m still trying to figure this out.  When I have life mastered, I’ll let you know.  Until then, I’ll keep writing.

What’s your take on frugality? Is frugal living a trait you are trying to learn or trying to break? Are you also Frugal Without a Cause, or a Hopeless Spendthrift? Maybe you’re comfortable with the status quo? Are you in agreement with your S.O.? Let us know and comment below!

19 COMMENTS

  1. I think a lot of my friends and colleagues think I’m frugal about a lot of things, but like POF said, it is just a habit learned by being raised by parents who were raised by depression era grandparents. My parents definitely don’t think I’m frugal–it’s all about perspective. I was out to dinner with friends the other day and when I commented that $15 was too much for a cocktail I got the whole “but you’re a rich doctor spiel.” I don’t know why how much money I make has anything to do with the value of some potato juice. But I am cranking up the heat this weekend, gas/electricity bill be damned. This is an argument my husband have had over the years, and I’ve finally won :). Some things are just worth it.

  2. You described my state of mind exactly. I am retired and older than you and my side gigs are doing incredibly well so I could kick up my annual spending by an additional $100k and still be fat FI yet I still refuse to fly first class, or buy brand new cars or do anything very extravagent. I mean I go through gut strings in my tennis racquets at the pace of $65 per week and I am a member of the country club but outside of that I live cheaper than most of the hourly workers that used to work for me when I ran a big facility. We buy store brands, my slim wife and I always split entrees when we eat out or bring doggie bags home and our cars are not top of the line and all have over 100k miles. I just can’t seem to break frugal habits even though I have way more money than I need. I don’t think it is a bad thing, but sometimes I wonder.

    • I believe there’s nothing wrong with spending good money on the things you truly value, obviously as long as your necessities are covered. Sounds like your spending is dialed in and you don’t long for more, why change?

  3. Vagabond MD calls this selective extravagance — frugal in general, but there are certain things where you choose to splurge. For you, it’s tennis and the country club. For us, it’s probably travel. It’s certainly not cars — I think we’re now at 300,000 miles between our two cars from last decade.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

  4. Haha! Love the title. I wish I was frugal without a cause too. As of now, my wife and I are frugal for the very cause of one day achieving financial independence. Maybe in 6 years… but who’s counting? We’re trying to enjoy the journey (and I’m also trying not to obsessively peek at my Personal Capital too). Luckily my wife is just as frugal as I am (if not more). I imagine it would be very tough if we had different views on how we should save/spend/invest our money. When we do reach FI, I picture us remaining relatively frugal in our day-to-day life, but loosening up the purse strings a bit and splurging on travel and other experiences.

    • I’m shooting for a balance whatever that means. I don’t want to delay my travel and experiences too much. Who knows if your health will be there? So I try to spend on things that are important to me now, and in other areas I have no problem skimping.

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