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'Frugal' doesn't mean 'deprived'

Being careful with your cash means it goes further. But that just means you get more out of it.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 8, 2012 12:05PM
Logo: Clouds in a blue sky (Purestock/Getty Images)The first piece I ever wrote for MSN Money was called "Surviving (and thriving) on $12,000 a year." Some readers responded with words like "hardship" and "deprivation."

I didn't see it that way. Although temporarily broke, I wasn't deprived. In fact, having relatively little made me that much more grateful for what I did have. In the grand scheme of things, I had quite a lot: food, clean water (hey, water-borne illnesses kill people all over the world), shelter, family, friends, a radio, a library card, a computer and, in midlife, a university scholarship.

You know what else I had? Peace of mind.

I was (and still am) aware of so many people constantly shopping, searching, seeking, coveting. They were always after the Next Big Thing, the newest gadget that would fix their lives and make them truly happy. What they often wound up with were empty wallets and a sense of being let down -- which they then tried to fix with more shopping.

Understand: I like buying things. I just don't do it very often. Not because I'm too cheap to spend, but because I already have everything I need and some of what I want. This sense of enough has been the greatest blessing of a frugal lifestyle.

And when I do need/want something else? The money is there. Saving where I can allows me to spend where I want. (Not that I pay retail if I can help it.)

Looking at money differently

If you're new to this -- and especially if you're experiencing forced frugality vs. voluntary simplicity -- then you might feel a little deprived.

Or a lot. Maybe you were accustomed to buying whatever you pleased the instant you decided you wanted it. Perhaps high-end furnishings, frequent travel, luxury attire, and the finest food and drink were the underpinnings of your life.

In that case, then technically you are deprived: You no longer have the things that you formerly considered necessities. But living richly doesn't have to cost a lot. That's the whole point of the Frugal Nation site: to live the best life you can without going into debt to achieve it.
Look at your situation as a learning experience, not a punishment. And if what you learn is that you want to go back to buying things? The "save where you can so you spend where you want" rule does more than just get you through tight spots. When times are better, you'll get lots more bang from your newly increased bucks.

However, you might surprise yourself by being more canny with your coins. Frugality, whether embraced or forced, helps you look at money differently. Sometimes the "I'm broke! How can I get the best possible deal?" mentality morphs into several different filters:
  • "How much does this really cost?" (Translate "smartphone upgrade" into "one-third of a take-home paycheck." Ouch!)
  • "Could I get by with what I already have, at least for a while?" (Will the new phone make a big enough difference to be worth 13-plus hours of work?)
  • "What's really important to me?" (Am I sure this is where I want to put that much money right now?)
Spending intentionally
Such filters are the default settings for those who are happy being frugal. But they're filters, not blinders, i.e., sometimes the answer is: "Yes, I'm going to spend -- on my terms."

Thus you might limit lunches out to once a week, but decide that it really is time to replace that ancient computer. You're also likely to use a discounted Groupon for that noontime meal and to postpone your laptop purchase until the great holiday deals start showing up.

The fact is, you get fed and you get your computer. You just do it intentionally, not blindly.

For me, that means a stress-free decision. The money is there and I've found the best possible price, whether it's for an ice-cream cone or a cross-country trip to see my dad.

So stop thinking that "frugal" means "can't ever have fun again." On the contrary: It frees you up to enjoy every dollar to the utmost.

More from MSN Money:

Jul 4, 2013 9:07AM
I can't believe living frugal is a good thing. My husband became disabled at 29 and I was taking care of the kids full time. He was in construction, a heavy equipment operator and put to the task of using a jackhammer(something he never had used in his life). That's what broke the camels back. I didn't have to work for he made us a well deserved living. Yes I guess you can say it was sorta frugal but we did go out each Friday night for the kids and eat or have fun. 13 years later, he is still disabled, after second surgery also to improve it. Nope, it did some but to no extent in going back to work. Now skip back to  Oct, 2011, I had been doing well health wise and doing a few jobs to help out here and there. Nothing as of paycheck value you see, but we got along. I was alone on a weekend and doing the single for a weekend kind of thing.LOL Going to watch movies, eat snacks and peace and quite, home alone, whoohoo. That was a Friday and by Monday morning I was going to the hospital. I thot it was a pinch in my back which turned out to be a chest pain and going into a widow-maker. 6 days later I got a triple bypass at age 43. I thot I was in good health, life happens. I am now a person with heart issues and a blood disorder(ITP). You can look it up. Anyways less than a $1000 a month, we are both disabled now, but we are blessed to be alive. When you can't work and bring in the bacon its rough. Obama wants to make us get insurance now too. I hope he can come up with extra money with that, cause I personally can't afford it. If I do get S.S. benefits it will help some, extra $200. Frugal......its hard to be humble when your frugal in everyway.
Jul 3, 2013 1:41PM
Over the past two days I've spent a lot of money.  I plan to look at the receipts and see where it all went, which is something i plan to do in the future to see what I can cut out.  I did make a good decision.  There were some canisters marked down to 3.00 to 5.00 each, about half price.  I put them in my cart.  Then I decided no, I already have two sets of canisters at home and I'll make do with them.  I'm happy about that decision.  Less stuff is a good thing.  I bought a badly needed standing oscillating fan, a pair of slacks and a table cloth.  After my Kmart rewards were used, all three items cost me about fifteen bucks!!!  I also went to the supermarket and forgot I had a 3.00 off my shopping trip coupon - yep, forgot it again and it expires soon.  I'm trying to do better with coupons and rewards and I'm really only buying things I really need.  
Apr 1, 2013 2:30AM
Good article, however, though I am very frugal, I know I could never live on $12,000 a year.  My house payment alone is $950 a month, my car payment (7 year old car) is $266 a month.  That alone totals about $14,590 a year, and that's not counting money for food, insurance, gasoline, utilities and health care (I don't have medical insurance). And I certainly don't take vacations or buy frivolous things (well, ok, designer jeans, but only when I can find them in my size, with the new tags still on them, at a thrift store).   I've tried buying an older car so as not to have payments, but that never saved any money, since I ended up spending $400 to $600 every few months or so just trying to keep the thing running.  Last year I made about $18,000 a year and it wasn't easy, since I am now in danger of having to foreclose on the house (I have 20 years left of a 30-year mortgage).  I guess a person could live on $12,000 a year, if they didn't have a house or rent payment, or maybe had one that was only about $200 to $300 a month. But in this day and age, I just don't see how a person could do it.
Jan 29, 2013 8:32PM
I live frugally but don't do without anything.  I have a very pretty home that actually pays for itself.  I buy things from Craig's List mostly because I hate having to assemble things from stores and that has really worked out for me.  I'm not a good assembler.  People who come into my home always say what a pretty house it is.  It's true - it's very stylish, but many of the things in the house were quite cheap.  I have a ten year old, low mileage car, which I plan to keep another ten years, God willing.  I have learned a bucket of paint goes a long way when it comes to decorating and it's really cheap.  I've learned to do many things by myself I never thought an old lady (ha ha ha ) could do!  I'm paying cash for most things now because it's more real than using a debit card - you can really see the cash thinning out in your wallet.  
Nov 10, 2012 10:41PM

right now i am forced to be frugal a bit more than i like. In a few monthes my car will be paid off and I will stay frugal because i have realized that some of what i thought i needed i just don't. I plan on saving the money i was using for the car payment to buy a house next yr. and not get nervious if i don't work enough hrs one week because we were slow.


Nov 9, 2012 12:47PM
Being frugal is very liberating! It loosens up and makes available a lot more money and pays handsomely for the time you spend doing your own cooking, making your own coffee, shopping and buying only that which is under priced. I've learned groceries are available at places that beat warehouse club prices, electric and heat utilities that can be cut in half by adopting a few simple rules regarding their use. Would you believe $336 for heat, hot water, cooking and drying for the past year for 1600 sq ft in Central Mass? Cooking uses heat twice over central heating, and three times when you eat what you cooked. Central heat, even a new system, is very wasteful and chimneys draft cold air into the house 24 hrs a day. Just heat where you sit and no where else. Electric comforter for chairs and electric mattress pad on the bed. Sit in the kitchen where food's cooking. Have a hot cup of Joe, tea or soup. Its winter! Dress for it and stop complaining! Don't drive your car if you haven't three places to go. People who live wastefully are Big Oil's best customers. My son and his wife and children used 150 gallons last year. Used to be 600 gallons. They turned their thermostat down to 60F and control the system with a switch, not a thermostat. That's how factories use heating systems. Thermostats are just for looks and people who believe the Hollywood/Big Oil myth that people freeze to death in their own homes.
Nov 9, 2012 11:26AM

Why is msn trying to convince us that being poor is a good thing? there is peace of mind knowing that you can eat the next day or have enough to retire on so you can enjoy a little time without worry of running out of money or having to work until you die.

Why is being rich or wanting to be rich such a bad thing?

Being rich or in my case wanting to be rich is NOT a bad thing.

Nov 9, 2012 11:01AM
My 7-year-old nephew created hand-drawn Thanksgiving cards, on it he said he was thankful for supper, his family, the dog and his pajamas, very wise young man, many adults could take a lesson. Cudos to his parents who are teaching him well, wise financial management and living within your means and appreciation for what is important is something you teach your kids starting from day 1, it is a mindset that will serve him well in life. Take a walk thru the public library in most cities on a subzero day, notice the old folks and homeless hold up there to get warm, it will give you a new appreciation that the newest gadgets don't amount to diddly-squat in the grand scheme of things. At 70-ish we have each other, decent health, groceries in the cupboard, heat in our little paid-for house, zero debt and evan a couple bucks left in the checkbook after we paid all the bills, life is good.
Nov 9, 2012 10:54AM
I made a concious decision early in my career to be frugal and I thank my lucky stars daily. I have no debt and live comfortably. I am amazed at how few people have it figured out!  Now, how do we convince the masses to stop spending our money on all the junk they want?  Free cell phones for welfare recipients? REALLY?
Nov 9, 2012 10:02AM
My wife and I are what folks would call frugal. We by no means feel deprived. We have been able to pay off our home, autos, have 0 debt and quite a lot of money saved and or invested. We live a full life and enjoy the satisfaction that a paid for lifestyle brings. Some feel they have to have all the new fancy doo dads, by all means, have them. But don't whine if you are broke. We love our life.
Nov 9, 2012 10:00AM
By spending intentionally instead of blindly we force multi-milion dollar corporations to drop their price points to meet demand into something more reasonable.  It's simple economics, the one percent is just that because we make them that way, if demand drops, prices drop, and wealth spreads more evenly.
Nov 9, 2012 9:56AM

I totally agree, that being frugal is not depriving oneself but saving money  when there is a need to buy the necessities you have money to spend for. Being frugal is spending wisely, keeps you out of trouble and headache pay for the things you realized later that you do not really need and not that important.


Be frugal and  save for the future.

Nov 9, 2012 9:46AM

I too used to keep up in the world of Audio/Visual, theater systems and the such. And now, while I can afford it, it doesn't appeal to me anymore... I never did embrace the latest cell phone thing - only keeping up a late model prepaid phone and service... Google, Intel, Apple, Sony and so many others are enjoying the weakness of today's society, and the fashion world is also doing the same !


Seek help, or let time mellow you to sensibility, just as it has for me... :)

Nov 9, 2012 8:46AM
I have never felt deprived with my frugal lifestyle. I read a lot of historical fiction and  the lessons learned from those books help keep my silly aggravations in check. I never worry about having a warm place to sleep or food in my belly. Anything on top of that is a bonus.
I find it laughable that people who have nasty things to say about me often take digs at the fact that we live in a 700 square foot cabin--That we don't have the best of the gadgets and toys... as if living within one's means is mock-worthy.  It just goes to show you how shallow, and materialistic people are, that they believe somehow the fact that we choose to live humbly is a bad thing, to live humbly and comfortably is some sort of slight on our character.  We are not defined by how much money we spend. We struggle just like everyone else, but we do not have the stress of keeping up with the bills for silly conveniences and overpriced toys.  I am proud of our small house and our humble life. It is how we choose to live.
Nov 8, 2012 11:28PM
I agree with Donna on this.  I grew up poor, and even after I was on my own with a decent job, I always saved money, looked for bargains, and didn't buy things I couldn't afford.  I think growing up in a wealthy or big-money-spending household in many ways is more of a curse than a blessing.  When you grow up with next to nothing, you appreciate the things you have.  With the economy being what it is, I have basically been forced into early retirement at 57 when the company I worked for for years went bankrupt.  But it's OK.  My wife and I put each other through college without borrowing money.  Our house and cars are paid for, and there is enough money in our investmests to live the rest of our lives, whether we work or not, as long as we maintain the conservative lifestyle that we are content and happy with.  We even have enough to help others out now and then.  And we don't feel deprived in the least.
Nov 8, 2012 8:29PM
I can definitely relate to this article. A few days ago I was honored at a meeting at work for reaching my 10 year anniversary. It's hard to believe that 4 years ago I started my effort to be more frugal due to a boss wanting me gone. If it was up to him, I wouldn't have reached my 10 year anniversary: probably not even my 6th!

I guess I have him to thank for the "blessing" of learning to live a more frugal lifestyle. I think the net result is that I am much more careful with money (I brown bag my lunches 3-4 days per week) but also a lot more generous and prone to help others.

Family members experiencing more month than money can count on me to send them packages to help them out. I am currently supplying toiletries to a local church's women's project and also volunteer time every week sorting and hanging clothing for distribution free of charge.

Recently a friend lost her grocery money so I let her "shop" in my refrigerator and freezer.

I guess I've learned that there are a lot more important things in life than shopping/acquiring in general. And, I'm poised for a financially secure retirement due to my ability to live within my means.

Nov 8, 2012 6:53PM
"I need and some of what I want. This sense of enough has been the greatest blessing of a frugal lifestyle."

The way you write about contentment is one of the reasons I think you're head and shoulders above so many thrift writers. You're right that focusing on what we already have is often more fulfilling than always looking for more. And I truly believe that if we're going to compare what we have to what others have, we have to look up AND down the economic spectrum. We can't lament that we don't have the latest thingamajig when we do have food, shelter and water. 
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.