Family Lessons in Frugality

I learned the word “frugality” from my American friend. We were at lunch talking about shopping. She said that she likes good bargains, thinks about herself as “frugal” and doesn’t settle for “cheap.” Even though my English was really good by then, I still didn’t know what “frugal” meant. My friend explained that it meant “spending wisely.”

Lately the life style of being frugal has become somewhat of a phenomena. Everyone is having heated discussions about it. Bloggers passionately write about it. People try to accurately define it. Why being frugal is such a popular notion? Probably because it is very difficult to be frugal in a consumerist culture (read about my financial discoveries in Saving Money Today). Then I thought about my own life experience and decided to compare my Russian definition of frugality with American definition.

Russian Frugality

I grew up in the family that was frugal by default. We were poor and used to live from paycheck to paycheck. My grandmother and mother were teachers and got paid twice a month: a small advance in the beginning of the month and a bigger lump amount three weeks later. My family was not cheap by any means. If we needed new shoes or coats, we would invest in quality goods. You have to realize that in the Soviet Union we did not have bargains, coupons or sales.

My grandmother and mother tried to stretch their paychecks as much as they could but the money would usually run out by the end of the month. We would eat better in the beginning of the month, and a little bit worse by the middle of the month. If something broke, it could become a big problem because it meant taking a good chunk of money away from what we usually spent on food. My parents used to borrow from close friends who were a little bit better off then we were. In fact, borrowing money from friends was a very common practice. Majority of the people in the former Soviet Union lived this way.

My family taught me four very important lessons about the ability to stretch money:

1. Get the best quality of clothes and shoes because they will last longer.

2. Don’t invest in cheap products because they will fall apart faster.

3. Try to save a little bit at a time because you will have an emergency spending sooner or later.

4. Evaluate your needs, wants and spend wisely.

Applying these rules are not easy, especially in the US where the consumerist culture encourages spending.

American Frugality

I asked my American friends what their definition of frugality was and this is what I heard back:

– Not being extravagant, spendy or wasteful;

– Balance your lifestyle: get what you need and want without overspending; look for deals and bargains; cut coupons and shop wisely; repair and re-use as opposed to buying new and discarding;

– Live within your means;

– The practice of acquiring goods and services in a restrained manner, and resourcefully using already owned economic goods and services , to achieve a longer term goal (when I heard this I wondered if it was a text book definition);

– Living a bare bones lifestyle (Really? This one made me depressed instantly. Even back home I never lived a bare bones lifestyle);

– Being cheap (I don‘t even want to comment on this one);

– Being mindful and practical (just like my grandmother!);

– A habit of choosing not to spend money that you theoretically could.

No matter how you look at it, frugality is a word with a controversial meaning. But it definitely has a lot of similarities no matter what culture you are from. For some people it means saving, being financially smart with your money, finding a good bargain. For some people it means being cheap, stingy, boring and having no life. Some defend frugality by saying that they enjoy quality and a respect for value. Some attack frugality by saying that a frugal lifestyle means saying “no” to everything that brings enjoyment to your life such as eating out, drinking lattes, shopping and traveling.

Sometimes I am still wondering if frugal people live for bargains or do they simply spend smart? I prefer to think that I practice the latter.

EDIT: This post was included in Festival Of Frugality #253 – Frugal Halloween Costume Edition hosted by Budgeting in the Fun Stuff.

25 thoughts on “Family Lessons in Frugality

  1. eemusings

    I think sometimes I go too far in my quest for a bargain.

    But I don’t think I am a scrooge: I will happily spend on things I value. Concerts. Travel. Cheese.

  2. Brown Eyed Mystic

    I must say you exhibit a great eye for detail, Aloysa. I loved the way your brought out subtle differences in shades w.r.t culture.

    Great post!


  3. retirebyforty

    I don’t agree with this one.
    1. Get the best quality of clothes and shoes because they will last longer.

    The premium quality cost a lot more than good quality. I believe that most people are tired of their clothes much faster than they last.

    1. aloysa

      This is true. People want to update their looks very often. Especially women. LOL However, I would rather invest in something classic and of good quality than buy … let’s say… Old Navy clothes that will look like crap after three washes.

  4. Invest It Wisely

    I don’t agree with frugality for the sake of frugality, and buying expensive stuff for “quality” is a tradeoff that needs to made. I won’t pay 4x the cost so that something only lasts twice as long… there are diminishing returns.

    What I do believe in is paying yourself first, saving up a LARGE portion of income, and getting out of the rat race sooner rather than later. By spending less and being more frugal today, you can greatly increase your consumption down the road. Frugality used as a tool can be quite good, indeed.

    1. aloysa

      Some people are not able to save LARGE portions of their income. It is a great goal (or a dream) but realistically not everyone there … I don’t think that increasing consumption down the road is an ultimate goal of frugality. I prefer to think that financial stability is the goal.

  5. Khaleef @ KNS Financial

    I think that some people have different motives for frugality. For some it’s fear, other’s just want to exhibit self-control. I know that some people hate working for others and they envision the freedom that comes with being frugal for a period of time. And some do want to ramp up consumption at some point, and they are willing to sacrifice now to do it.

    I think that’s one reason why you hear so many different answers when you ask people for a definition.

    Good post!

  6. Barb Friedberg

    Very thoughtful post. Reminded me a bit of my upbringing. My parents were brought up during the great depression in the 1930′s. They looked for ways to conserve their resources. Consequently, I hate waste. I am troubled by the excessive consumerism in this culture!

    1. aloysa

      Consumerism can consume you. I experienced it firsthand. Subsequently, I learned that material things don’t make us happy. Unfortunately not everyone realizes this.

  7. iamtheworkingpoor

    Frugality helps me to survive on a decreasing income. It is a neccesity now, however, I plan to keep my frugal living skills in better times to enable me to save more and spend on what truly matters to me.

  8. Squirrelers

    Really good post. I like how you drew upon your experiences and shared the differences between the two cultures in terms of frugality.

    Personally, I think frugality – as long as it doesn’t mean taking advantage or losing self-respect – is a good thing. Here in the U.S., I think it’s gaining credibility by the day, but it’s still looked down on in general, which is too bad. I like the idea of saving now, building a nest egg, and then being able to have freedom later. It’s all honorable in my view!

    I do like your Russian views, and find interesting the idea of paying more for quality clothing/shoes because they will last longer. As long as one isn’t too caught up in annual fashion, it’s a smart way to go. Quality lasts, and I have seen that with my purchases – so I agree with that view in particular.

    1. aloysa

      Thank you! I wanted to draw on differences and similarities… if it makes sense. I am glad you liked it.

  9. Everyday Tips

    Very interesting post. For me, I have a certain amount I must save, and then I am ‘frugal with the rest. In other words, I must maximize the amount of money left over after meeting my savings needs. Any extra goes into a vacation account.

    I buy only what I need, with the occasional ‘splurge’. (I got a coffee maker for my birthday.) But, I do spend money on travel, so that is my downfall.

    1. aloysa

      I really like the way you think. I am trying to save and be frugal and get rid off debt. All at the same time. It woud be much easier if I wouldn’t give in to my wants. If I’d only stayed with my needs…

  10. Kay Lynn Akers

    Life must be touch in Russia if schoolteachers are poor. It was interesting to learn the cultural differences.

  11. Roshawn @ Watson Inc

    Like Kevin, I do not agree with frugality for frugality sake, especially how most people use the word (closer to cheapness than frugality). To me frugality is all about obtaining great output for my input (dollars). It’s trading money for things that I value. I do not value cheap stuff that is horrible quality but I also don’t want to pay 3x as much just because your brand not only is high-quality but of high status. There has to be a balance.

    1. aloysa

      I guess it all comes down to the notion of value you are getting for your dollars. I look at it this way: when I go to an expensive restaurant I expect to pay a lot and I don’t mind if it is my favorite place with a great food. But I refuse to pay $5 for a bottle of water… Hope it makes sense.

  12. Money Reasons

    Hi, this is my first time here! Welcome to the club

    Frugality is a positive way to live, but I prefer a more balanced approach! To be frugal at all time means that you miss out on opportunities that only exists at a younger age, or a particular point in time.

    You name kitchesink1 almost through me, I thought you sold kitchware product (lol)…

    Being Cheap and Frugal are often confused. Being cheap is spending the least amount possible, whereas Being Frugal, you determine the best bang for the buck as possible (sometimes even doing it yourself).

    Have a great weekend!

    1. aloysa

      Haha… I don’t sell kitchenware… Maybe I should! Just kidding. I completely agree that a person should make choices. For me when it comes to travel, I just cannot say “no” most of the time. I cannot wait until I retire to do most of the travel. It won’t be the same!

  13. Deidre @ TransFormX

    Aloysa….I love your perspective on things. Actually, I will go further and say that I love how your perspective gives ME a new perspective on how I think. Which is even more important!

    Many people can be frugal to the point of obsession…then it is no longer the same thing, in my opinion. I don’t try to be frugal or cheap….my goal is to be ‘fiscally responsible’. Being fiscally responsible means (to me) that if I need a coat I buy a great coat that may be a bit more expensive but I know it will last for years. Being fiscally responsible means that although I have $$ in a savings account I evaluate each purchase and decide if the item is worth adding to my household inventory – does the item raise the value of the household? If not, then perhaps its not needed or the purchase can wait.

    It’s not a system I came to easily, I used to overspend like crazy. But I lived and learned and now it’s a good system for me. But…that’s just me

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