The internet introduced me to über-frugality a few months ago. Not that I had never heard of being frugal – my mother is from a region that is stereotyped for precisely that trait. She taught me to live below my means and save the excess. But the Frugalwoods, Cait Flanders, and Sam Lustgarten have deepened my scope: I realized that by living way below my means, I could spend more time doing the things I love. By getting used to wanting less while I’m still in school, never having had a “real” income (my parents generously support me, I have a part-time job, and there is no tuition in Germany), I’m giving myself more options after graduation. My job choice won’t be tethered to salaries, but to what adds value to my life.
It was an exciting discovery. But now that the novelty is starting to wear off, difficult questions are creeping in. I’m starting to wonder: Is being frugal making me greedier? Can I be frugal and generous?
Since adopting a more frugal lifestyle, I feel less generous, but mostly less generous to myself. I have not skimped on gifts for others yet, but Christmas is coming. I’m buying the cheapest vegetables, I don’t always buy organic milk, I welcome free food more than I used to. These restrictions sound small, and maybe they are. But watching where every cent goes creates a sense of greed and stinginess. A feeling of constraint, even if I were not actually spending less. Justifying purchases takes more mental space now that the default is “money stays in my bank account, where it belongs.”
Was I spending unnecessary amounts of money on myself before? Was my lifestyle inflated, with brownies here, dinners there, and some delicious cheese thrown in? Was I spoiling myself, making “normal” feel greedy now? I’ve only been tracking my spending for a few months, which means I’ve only been conscious of where my money goes for that long. Before, all I knew was that I was living below my means and saving about 20% of my “income”. I actually started tracking because I felt like there was too much money left at the end of the month. I wanted data to wave at my boyfriend: “Look, let me pay! I only spent 100€ on food this month!” I realize that this is a good problem to have.
My lifestyle was probably inflated, and compared to others it still is, but I can’t say by how much – I believe that as soon as I started tracking my spending in fancy spreadsheets, it changed. The Hawthorne effect, predictably. Typical things financial websites recommend cutting out were not a problem: I always made coffee at home and packed my lunch, I didn’t go out for many dinners (but more than I would have estimated!), I have stuck to my New Year’s Resolution of not buying any books (too many I own are still unread). I know I bought new clothes more often than I thought and would like to admit – after all, I’m referring to myself as a minimalist now. (I’m on a clothes shopping ban until at least Christmas; it started in September)
Perhaps cultural stereotypes are the true problem. Wealth is valued, but in our capitalist culture, it seems that the only truly accepted way of attaining it is by making a shitload of money, not by living well below our means. We’re expected to live just below them. Or maybe just above, so we can pay back our credit card debt plus interest? Thus, we spend to appear generous. We call others generous when they spend money on us. When we obsessively track our spending, we feel stingy. When we question every purchase, we worry that we have become greedy. Advertisements tell us not to feel bad, to spend more, but rationally, we know the clamoring voices are wrong. We know we’re better off saving and deflating our lifestyle.
Sometimes, frugality encapsulates generosity: if I invite a friend to have dinner at my place, that is more generous than going to a restaurant where we will each pay for our own meal. If I knit socks for someone’s birthday, a substantial part of the gift is time.
There is generosity in saving money. I’m generous towards myself by filling my emergency fund – knowing that I could easily deal with stolen bikes, broken computers, or lost phones gives me peace of mind. I’m generous towards my unborn children – a saving habit is beneficial both role-model and college-fund wise. Plus, imagine your parents died while still in debt. Here, you can reject an inheritance in that case, but I’d rather my children would not have to research that any further. I’m generous towards people I will never meet but who I support by donating to Doctors without Borders. While working on this post, I doubled my monthly donation, because even my small private attempts at redistribution matter.
How do you reconcile frugality and generosity?
In other news: my About Me page now actually contains information about me.