Debt is a disease. It takes over your life, erodes relationships, and takes away your financial freedom. As a result, we suffer under its burden which results in crazy amounts of stress. A self induced disease of ignorance and consumerism.
My mother recently went through a very serious medical battle concerning her heart. It’s strange what happens when a loved one is faced with an ailment; You spend copious amounts of time researching while trying to understand the exact mechanisms that caused it and ways to cure it. It’s time we stop ignoring the disease of debt and the fundamentals of how to live a frugal life.
Being that debt is a disease, I decided to dive into the research with the same veracity as I did for my mother. I wanted to learn more about being frugal; Not just from today’s leaders, but an overall history of wise people who used savings and frugality as a way of life.
Living frugally is not a modern construct
My research began with determining whether frugality is a modern construct, or if it can be retraced to times long gone. It was quite a fascinating journey. Turns out, there are traces of frugality that date back as far as ancient Greece. From there on, from Greece to Rome to the United States, we have numerous examples throughout history of people living simply and frugally.
I studied the course of frugality throughout each era in order to understand how it became popular, to provide the reason behind their becoming frugal, and to unearth examples of famous people that we can model ourselves after today.
As it turns out, there have always been two clear-cut types of people in the world: the spendthrifts (“the prodigal sons” so to speak), who spend lots of money on various things and, at the other side of the spectrum, the frugal people. The latter are the ones who spend as little as possible and who are generally more concerned with sparing rather than with spending. Duh.
And as it is today, throughout history there has been debate as to whether frugality is a virtue or a vice. From ancient Roman’s to recent children’s stories; There are folks who consider Uncle Scrooge, the notorious cartoon character, an excellent example of being frugal, whereas others will simply label him as avaricious. Many will say it is crazy to see Uncle Scroogle as anything but a villain. However, as I learned, a large percentage of frugal people have crazy-like qualities.
Let us start our journey through frugality and see how it manifested across the ages, until the century we live in.
Frugal people in Ancient Greece
What location could be better to seek the evidence of frugality than Ancient Greece? Given that it was the cradle of philosophy, theater, literature, art, architecture and perhaps the most extensive mythology in the world, it is not at all unsurprising that we can find frugality there. We must throw light on some personalities from Ancient Greece that have spearheaded this value.
One of the very few people who practiced and preached frugality in the acceptation we know today was Epicurus, the titanic Greek philosopher who lived between 341 BC and 270 BC. In his view, happiness (eudaimonia) could not result from luxury, but only from frugality and a lifestyle that fringed a paradoxical form of asceticism. I say “paradoxical” because he did not get the need of having a few close friends out of the equation.
As we all know, Epicurus will influence the world for centuries through Epicureanism, a philosophical system based on his doctrines. He proposed a lifestyle even outside of divinity, which was a bold thing to do at the time – in other words, he advocated that man should live naturally, without indulging into gathering unnecessary possessions. Epicurus might’ve been the l’enfant terrible of his age, but is nonetheless one of the very first people to introduce frugality as a great quality.
Diogenes (412 BC – 323 BC) is the grandfather of cynicism and concomitantly the ultimate frugal. He is known to have slept in a barrel and to express an almost paranoid hatred towards social values and artificial products of society. He was ballistic with all those who tried to inflict common sense on him. A very interesting aspect concerning Diogenes is the fact that he worked with his father in banking, so his frugality is all-the-more mind-blowing. In fact, he was so frugal that he lived in a barrel, ate wherever and whenever he pleased and never lost an opportunity to burn society and all of its concepts/products. His frugality was even far greater than that of a hermit.
- Agesilaus II
Spartans have been made famous through the motion picture “300”. Agesilaus, however, is mostly unknown. He was born in 444 BC and was the king of Sparta between 400 and 360 BC when he died. He is perhaps one of the few historic figures of Ancient Greece to have been a fierce, feared warrior but also endowed with the attributes of a thinker. Agesilaus remains cemented in the history of frugality with two quotes:
- “By sowing frugality we reap liberty, a golden ”.
- “If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.”
While the first quote hints at how much he valued simplicity, the second is conversant of his contempt for superfluous physical things. There is even further evidence that he is one of the first bona fide frugal people.
Xenophon of Athens, a historian that lived between 430 BC and 354 BC, held Agesilaus II in very high regards. That’s why he wrote an eponymous small biography for him. That’s where it is written that whenever he was victorious in battle, he would use all the booty to increase the wealth of state, as well as that of his soldiers and friends. He would go home with absolutely nothing, as destitute as he had set forth to the conflict. Needless to say, he was frugal by choice instead of necessity.
Although these are the main three frugal individuals to be recorded in history, Ancient Greeks were frugal in general, especially in their cuisine. Their diet consisted of fish, olive oil, vegetables, wheat, and wine. In this case, their frugality was due to necessity. The agricultural landscape was rather pale in Ancient Greece. Therefore abundance was pretty utopic at the time. They had to make do with what they could.
Frugality in British ruled United States
- The Puritans
Frugality in the United States of America began with the Puritans, the religious group that attempted to purge the Church of England of its Catholic influence. After they embarked on the Mayflower and traveled to what will become New England, they adhered to a lifestyle that today’s people would find undesirable.
To be more precise, some people still find it distasteful, because the Amish, for example, still bear traces of the said lifestyle. Puritans shunned possessions and treasured education. This group has been extensively badmouthed and vilified, but they were not as taciturn as the modern era came to depict them
They lived the simplest lives, in concordance with the Bible. They wore simple garments, and their churches were not gilded with all sorts of trinkets. The food they ate was of a scarce variety and came from their own gardens. Whenever one thinks of frugal family living, the Puritans are the first image that comes to mind, although, as we’ve seen above, Greeks were considerably more frugal than the Puritans.
- The Quakers
This much persecuted Christian group, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, was plain-dressed and frugal by virtue, Thanks to their frugality, they became influential businessmen and businesswomen. They founded banks and worked with the same percentage of success in a large variety of businesses.
To give you an example of how good they had become at being frugal, Henrietta Green, a businesswoman from a family of Quakers, was given the title of World’s Greatest Miser, by the Guinness Book of World Records. She amassed an enormous wealth throughout her life but died because she wouldn’t pay $150 for a surgical procedure.
- Benjamin Franklin
The reputed author, Freemason, politician, scientist, inventor and last but not least one of the Founding Fathers was an exceedingly virtuous individual. Vouching for his presence in the history of frugality; His parents had been Puritans and he was swayed by their habits.
He had a charitable, industrious and overall thrifty personality. At the age of 20, he decided he wanted to guide his life according to 13 virtues/principles, which can be found in his unfinished biography. The two that are of utmost interest to us are the first and the fifth:
- “Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
- “Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
Despite the fact that he was an aristocrat, his clothes were no evidence of it. He dressed plainly, as did his wife, Deborah. They both ate modest meals and never indulged in spending money. The following quotes are sure to contribute to proving his frugality:
- “Beware of little expenses. A small leak will sink a great ship.”
- “Hunger is the best pickle.”
- “He that lives upon hope will die fasting.”
- “To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.”
- “Money has never made man happy, nor will it, there is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more of it one has, the more one wants.”
Frugality During the 20th Century
There is a significant difference between the frugality of the 20th and the 21st centuries. You will see that 100 years can engender some fabulous worldwide changes in respect to the way we spend our money; those changes are continuous and give no sign of stopping anytime sooner. In order for us to explain things better, we must first delve into a black chapter from the history of the United States of America, namely:
- The Great Depression
The economic crisis that took place during the Great Depression affected the entire world, not just the US, but the latter took one of the most tremendous falls. On September 4th 1929, stock prices suffered a shock, and the Great Depression spiked with the famous Wall Street Crash in the same year, on October 29th. The rate of unemployment skyrocketed to 25%.
The most plausible explanation for this catastrophe remains the sudden deflation of debt, although many other hypotheses have been formulated over the years. In the United States, the Great Depression lasted approximately four years (it is commonly agreed upon that the recovery started at the beginning of 1933). The signs of improvement appear late in 1938.
It goes without saying that frugality became a necessity, and maybe even more than that – an obligation. Countless workers had been laid off, wages were cut, investors were afraid to intervene. The scenario was a far cry from being anything but downright grotesque.
People were compelled to appreciate the value of even one superficial dollar. Children had to quit education in order to help their parents and parents, in their turn, struggled to feed their children. It might sound harsh, but people learned many lessons during the Great Depression.
The community was forced to learn how to survive with minimal requirements, how and, more importantly, on what to spend their deficient earnings and how to do things that they would’ve previously paid someone else for. There are somewhere around 30 million Americans that found themselves unemployed basically overnight.
Frugality was crucial to both rural and urban environments, but especially to the rural ones. Agriculture, of course, had been plummeted to unprecedented lows. Farmers didn’t have the resources to work the land, so they could barely feed their families.
Many were indebted to banks, so their properties were foreclosed on. This made them migrate to the West, hoping that they would find more fertile land where they could make do with minimum financial resources.
The Great Depression was a time when “less” was better than “nothing.” There wasn’t much “more” going on, except perhaps for those who found methods of getting rich off of the backs of others.
Paradoxically, the status of the women that lived throughout this dark time had been enhanced. It was not uncommon for women to get jobs more easily than men did. They became the main breadwinners, much to the chagrin of their husbands. It has been estimated that more than 1.5 million American women suddenly found themselves alone. Their men had left them and took to the road. They had to work many hours to be able to feed their children.
With all these, there was a need of something more than just bread on the table: a radical lifestyle change was due. Having what to eat one day didn’t mean you would have had what to eat the next. People learned how to save money and stretch small sums for weeks. It was a matter of life and death. The ones who complied with the new lifestyle survived, those who didn’t were decimated.
The U.S. wasn’t alone in its suffering. Countries all over the world had been hit viciously, and that might’ve been the one and only instance of level worldwide frugality that Earth has ever seen. Almost a century has passed since the Great Depression, but we have yet to learn a lot of things from it – particularly the fact that no-one can vouch it won’t happen again. With all these being said, we must move on to:
Frugal living moving into the 21st Century
Some would say that it is difficult to live a frugal life in the century we live in. It is true that the world is following an ever-growing consumerist trend. As a consequence, it has dwarfed the idea of parsimony. For most of us, frugality has become more of an option than a necessity.
It’s more of an issue in sub-developed countries with fluctuating economies, by no means in those with bustling metropolises all over them. Therefore, temperance is a choice. Naturally, we do whatever we want with our incomes. We might not be frugal because it’s hard to be when technology has come to accommodate even our most minor needs.
We’ve all been victims of impulse-buying at a certain point in our lives. To be completely honest, we buy things because we can. There’s such an endless variety of physical products that can arouse our interest and make us buy them on the spot that the greatest miser couldn’t contain his excitement.
New computers, laptops, smartphones and other gadgets evolve at such a fast pace that it’s almost impossible for us to keep up with the evolution. It’s not risky at all to opine that “acceptance” and “possession” have become rather synonymous. It’s rich ground for further debate.
Every new item that hits the market is a potential direct damage to our wallets. “I don’t know what that is, but I must have it” – you’ve probably heard this a thousand times. It’s certainly hilarious but also sadly true.
Consumerism has developed enough kitschy products that have no other use but to serve as decorative elements or not even that. We do not mean to sound post-apocalyptic. This is just the plain truth in which we bask each time we venture through a mall, for instance. We are assaulted with useless things that are so tempting and quite a sight for sore eyes.
Frugality, therefore, is interconnected with our budgets and our wills. Of course, we can buy things even when our financial position is tight; there are plenty of methods of doing that (loans, for example). On the other side of the coin, there are myriad ways to be frugal and save money in spite of the wide array of crap we are bombed with.
Why Literally Everyone Should Try a Frugal Lifestyle
In order to be frugal and actually stick with it, you need a good reason to do it. There is absolutely no “wrong” way of employing frugality in one’s personal life. Maybe you’re trying it out because you wish to purchase something in the near future? That’s OK. But the most frequent reason for moderation is accumulating money for early retirement. I could give many examples here. There are many people that have made incredible sums of money by being frugal. Of course, they still are frugal.
That, for sure, isn’t a bad reason. Everybody does a certain something for their own benefit, which is good. Needless to say, you can’t retire early if you haven’t got enough savings. Retirement is all about financial independence. It is perhaps one of the most honorable (and recommended) causes to reap the benefits of frugality.
Not being able to detach from the workplace is a nightmare. Socking away money is a good start to make sure you afford living unemployed. Being a consumer-led person, on the other hand, will decrease or completely nullify your chances.
Retiring at an old age has become the norm, which is sad in my opinion. Our bodies know their limitations. Frugality done with the purpose of early retirement can make ends meet more easily if the future retiree knows how to do some simple things like: car maintenance, house renovation, cleaning and many others; things that you’d think that everybody knows how to do.
Unfortunately, it is not so. There are too many people who choose not to mow their lawns, or shovel their driveway, or even carry their garbage to curb for pickup. This is simply flushing money down the drain. If you combine frugality with a few skills, your situation will just get a lot brighter.
So why should literally everyone try a frugal lifestyle? Because you’re either very very wealthy, and frivolously spending your accumulated riches won’t make you happier. Or, you’re drowning in one of the following to situations (or both).
- Drowning in debt – being so far in the debt hole can send some people into a spiral of desperation and depression. In this case, frugality becomes a necessity, and you shouldn’t think twice before starting to save money. Debts can leave you penniless and homeless. It’s close to redundant to say that paying off debts is a pretty potent encouragement to live the frugal life.
- Satisfying your need for luxury is a rather pricey hobby, and a good reason to find something else that fulfills your life. Reducing spending will also give you a whole new perspective on how much (or long) you worked for that money, boosting your frugality in the aftermath.
The Pros and Cons of Frugality in a Consumerist Society
Frugality is a quality. No one can ever negate that. However, did you expect it to have cons? Not if you ask some of the money hippies, but I believe there is another aspect to it. Frugality has just one con that is, ironically, produced by consumerism itself.
Until now, we’ve chased frugality from its birthplace to the U.S. It was always here with us, no matter what place on Earth or what period in our evolution of species we’re talking about. Neanderthals, for that matter, might’ve practiced some form of necessary frugality, hoarding berries and nuts for future consumption in case of drought or famine.
We focused on Ancient Greece and the U.S. because in these places we have witnessed the most overt signs of frugal living. As we got closer to the modern era, we’ve been faced with two seemingly incompatible notions: “frugality” and “consumerism.”
What does it mean to be frugal in a consumerist society? The same thing it would mean if it weren’t in one. The definition of this quality does not vary in concordance with the economic ideology, as much as we would like to think it does.
Therefore, what are the pros of being frugal when you could purchase anything you’ve ever imagined?
- You master the art of keeping life simple.
- You learn how to be happy with less.
- You learn that the things that actually matter cannot be bought with money.
- You can help other people (give your surplus money to charity).
- You educate your children to be thrifty.
- You save money that you could use in times of real need and early retirement.
With these in mind, can you venture to take a guess what the con is? It is not related to individual frugality, but to the universal one: we could not “afford,” pun intended, to live in a world where everyone is extremely cautious with how they spend their money. It’s something that Mr. Money Mustache scoffs at, but it’s true.
The reason is simple: the economy would collapse. 80% of all the companies that exist today, and maybe even more, would disappear completely in a record time if it weren’t for people who spend money recklessly. It is basic mathematics.
Like in the case of any given dichotomy, there must be a proper balance between being frugal and spendthrift. If all the people in the world would suddenly turn to frugality, another depression would ensue automatically. The number of people/families who take on living simply and frugally must be equal to the number of people/families who go into the shopping center and empty their pockets to the last dime. The equipoise must be held at all costs.
The number of people/families who take on living simply and frugally must be equal to the number of people/families who go into the shopping center and empty their pockets to the last dime. The equipoise must be held at all costs. In other words, others spending money friviously is what keeps YOU checking your 401k to watch it rise higher and higher.
Famous people living a frugal lifestyle
- Bill Gates: with a net worth of 84.2 billion dollars, he could easily disappear for the rest of his life in the Bahamas or anywhere else on the globe. The mastermind behind Microsoft is, however, far from spending on things he doesn’t need. Instead, he spends a great deal of his ineffable fortune on giving to charity.
- Warren Buffet: one of the most famous magnates in history, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway is worth 74.2 billion dollars. What he is even more known for besides his wealth is his unwavering frugality. His desk does not even have a computer, he has an old Nokia, he sent one single e-mail in his entire life and still drives himself to work. In a televised interview with Charlie Rose, he made the following statement: “I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing.”
- Michael Bloomberg: He donated large sums of money to various institutions, among which The Museum of Science in Boston (50 million dollars). He had two pairs of shoes that lasted him ten years and never allowed to be paid a salary more than that of the average worker.
- Zong Qinghou: the chairman of the Hangzhou Wahaha Group is deemed the richest man in China. His name may not strike a chord, but he is as frugal as he is rich: he spends dangerously close to nothing on clothes, he feasts on tofu and vegetables and eats lunch with his employees rather than in fancy restaurants. As a child, he worked in a salt mine where he learned how hard money is made. That could’ve legitimized a wildly wasteful behavior when he became a magnate. Zong, however, ran in the opposite direction, becoming one of the simplest rich men in the entire world
I like this list because it gives a glimpse past the urge to “make more money, now!” Some of the wealthiest personalities are precisely the ones that indulge in a frugal lifestyle. There are many other wealthy people that could’ve been included in the list, but I think these will suffice for us to prove two points: that the benefits of being frugal when you can have everything are 100% legitimate, and that money can change who you are only if you allow that to happen.
10 Quick and Easy steps that anyone can take to be Frugal RIGHT NOW
One of the first questions I had when looking into the frugal lifestyle is WHERE DO I START? What is my first step?
It was frustrating.
As I mentioned before, all it takes to become more frugal is to start developing a few skills and to do some easy things yourself, that you’d otherwise pay for. Here are a few tips:
- Start washing your car: cars need to be frequently washed, and that bleeds money. All you need is a hose, cleaner and rags to wash it yourself and save some cash.
- Quit smoking: cigarettes are a huge hole in the budget. If you make a simple calculus to see how much you spend on them monthly, you will surely quit. In many cases, smoking drains more than half of the income. You can try to go cold-turkey since nicotine patches are extremely expensive.
- Plan a garage sale: get rid of the clutter in your house. It will look cleaner, and you’ll make money off of it.
- Bring your lunch to work: instead of spending money eating in a restaurant/ fast-food, you can prepare yourself a nutritious lunch at home and take it with you in a brown bag.
- Make a grocery list: This was huge for my family. Whenever we go into a shop with no clear idea of what we need, we always end up spending more than we would’ve wanted to. A grocery list is highly recommended.
- Reconsider your gym membership: a lot of people pay for membership but don’t even find the time to go to the gym at least once a week. There are plenty of exercises you can do in the comfort of your own house, for free.
- Embrace DIY: you can do the maintenance on your car yourself, you can change your windows, clean your carpets, wash and dry clothes, cook your dinner and many other things that take a lot of money.
- Use free software: stop paying for software that you don’t need. You can get the same or a similar version for free on the Internet.
- Ask a friend to give you a haircut: you don’t need an over-the-top work of art made in your hair. There’s no need to pay good money at a barber’s shop when one of your friends could cut your hair.
- Learn how to cook: cooking is seriously easier than it looks like. It’s true that you won’t be the next Gordon Ramsey in the first week, but you can get there. Cooking at home saves a lot of money.
I’m tired of writing
This was a long post and my hand hurts from typing, but I’m glad I did it. Frugality has been with us for a really long time, and thanks to all of us it’s going to remain here.
Whether frugality is a necessity or a choice (for some of you higher earners), it is a decision that each of us has to make at some point. There are numerous instances throughout history that hint at the fact that it’s probably a little from both. Frugality per se is not dedicated to relatively poorer people only; rich people can become frugal, too.
Fundamentally, frugality is good for us because it opens our eyes: money doesn’t buy nor build happiness. Expensive cars, 5-story mammoth houses, the latest fashion fads, expensive meals at exquisite restaurants – all of these give the impression of happiness. In the long run, they are everything but. “But relaxation seems deeper when laying on a genuine leather sofa.” That is absolutely right: it only seems. A simple couch can do, as well.
Expensive things are not synonymous with quality. Often, they’re antonymous. You can live a self-sufficient, moderate life that isn’t less exciting and beautiful than a rich life that enables you to wonder what you can do with your money next because you’ve got too many. A thrifty behavior can get you a very long way through life.