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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.