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Extreme frugality – a good thing or a bad thing?

Posted by on Friday 22 July 2011 in Featured, frugal | 14 comments

Extreme frugality worries me. I’m not talking about when people have to do it from absolute necessity – when they have no other choice because either their kids will starve or they’ll immediately lose their home etc. I mean when already frugal people declare they’re going to tighten their belts to a supermodel-thin level by choice – as various frugal living bloggers do from time to time.

Of course, personal reduction challenges can be useful in themselves or very interesting as self-reflection exercises. They can help break bad habits, force you to try new things (dried pulses can be fun!) or reveal things about yourself. A great example of this is Consumption Rebellion‘s $2 a day food challenge – it was fascinating to see how quality of food can affect someone in the short term as well as the well known health effects in the long term.

“How low can you go” can be interesting too – watching as people reduce their outgoings by choosing cheaper alternatives or cutting out luxuries – but at the same time, I worry that it can become a one downmanship game, an unspoken “you have to be –> this frugal to be a frugal blogger” competition. I also worry that with some people, there is a martyrdom aspect to their new “extreme” path, as if they’re trying to atone for previously spendthrifty behaviour. They wear their extreme frugality as a hair shirt.

Most importantly though, I worry that general extreme frugality is like a short-term extreme diet. Everyone knows those diets are bad news – that they’re more likely to result in bingeing behaviour at weak spots and people tend to regain all the weight lost, and more. Extreme frugality doesn’t seem sustainable and could impact their (and their families) general attitude to frugal living.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Obviously “extreme” is a very subjective term and what I might think of as “extreme” frugality isn’t what the people doing it think – although from descriptions, I suspect there is some overlap.

I also suspect it very much depends on the individual’s goals/priorities. My priority is kinda indicated in the blog’s title (and certainly on the About page) – I want to live well on a budget rather than super-frugally because I’m really interested in the ongoing journey not the destination. Admittedly part of that is because I don’t have to live super-frugally – we have enough money for our day to day living, aren’t having to save for anything in particular at the moment and don’t have debts (other than a mortgage) to pay off — but even if I was saving furiously/paying off debts, I think I’d prefer to have a slightly larger amount to spend day to day and less going into savings/debt relief – I want to enjoy my life, to live a really good life. While I suspect it’s easier for me to say this now than if I was living it (life with debt is scarier than most debt-free people think), I’d rather spend a little longer paying off those debts than be miserable and potentially risk my health in the meantime. Perhaps that’s just me though, and I’m worried about “extreme frugal” stints because it’s something I would be reluctant to do, without a very good immediate reason.

What do you think about “extreme frugality”? Have you given it a go at any point? What was your experience? Do you think my worries are unjustified? Do you think I’m being unfair?

I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this.

(Photo by sufinawaz)


Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. strowger

    what we think of as ‘extreme frugality’ looks like incredible luxury to a billion people. you don’t *need* variety in food, just protein and vitamins.

    this chap takes things to extreme – but sets out convincingly that most of us are only 5 years away from retirement, if we start taking frugality seriously http://earlyretirementextreme.com/

  2. Attila

    We’ve had to live ultra frugally in the past out of poverty. We had enough to eat, we paid the bills, but we couldn’t afford a tv, video etc, a car (and we did need one); if an appliance broke down it was a disaster. I would never choose to be like that; it wasn’t fun or good. Now we are ok, comfortable but still generally considered poor by this country’s standards. So we live frugally but have savings, no debt (never had much anyway) and splurge on a few things that we consider worthwhile. We live frugally in most areas so that we can afford what we really want and I think that’s balanced. I think that if we are extreme and we are not harming anyone else, that’s fine, as long as we are sensible about health, but pushing that idea and making it into a competition? Well, let them go; bye bye, have fun, but that’s not for me. Frugal and balanced; that’s us.

  3. Tanya @ Lovely Greens

    If you’re on a budget then fair enough… But my stance is that if you have the money to buy something you really need then by all means buy it. Maybe people tend to forget that these days money is literally being printed by the BILLIONS of dollars/pounds/euros? This definitely makes me wonder about how much it’s really worth in the end. And it would be a crying shame if a future currency shake-up causes one’s sneaky stash of cash to massively decrease in value – especially when it could have been wisely invested on that heavy-duty wheat grinder or set of solar panels ;)

  4. strowger

    ah now that’s a different issue entirely.

    cash money saved now will certainly lose its value very quickly indeed.

  5. Millie

    Good question! I agree in that I think some people “play” at being frugal as a game of one upmanship. Obviously some people have to be extremely frugal out of necessity, but those people probably aren’t running blogs about how they lived on £5 for a week.

    Like you say, I think it’s like dieting. You can either learn about vitamins and nutrients, and change your diet to be super healthy (a sensible diet, and a lifestyle change), or you can eat cabbage soup for a month (not healthy, and not manageable long-term). Extreme frugalers fall into the cabbage soup group, whilst sensible frugalers learn about what they can live with out, and still get to eat chocolate occasionally!

  6. Aurora

    I am personally reluctant to take part in such challenges just for the hell of it. Periods of my childhood were incredibly austere – and the memories are still with me. It wasn’t pleasant or romantic to have just a microwave to cook in and to eat the same discounted tins and store cupboard food everyday, and have to sit in the dark when the electricity metre ran out. Those ‘feed your family (one mediocre meal) for a fiver’ ads make me genuinely laugh now, because a fiver is a day of food to us and we eat very well – and could go lower if the need arose.

    That said, we periodically have to tighten our belts – we have done it to pay off a debt at the end of the month, for example, where the pay off is worth the pain. I get the impression that the kind of people who would benefit from such a challenge (reckless spendthrifts and those who need a little humanity injected into their world view) are the very people who would never even entertain the idea. If you already try to husband your resources carefully, then you probably won’t benefit.

  7. Mo

    Interesting post, and interesting comments. I see ‘frugal’ as meaning economical which, in turn, I also interpret as not being wasteful. I was brought up knowing that if you couldn’t afford something, then you couldn’t have it, unless you sacrificed something else. I keep to this. I feel no urge to be ‘frugal’ for the sake of it, so to speak, I just try to live within my means, and try not to be wasteful. Some people have more ‘means’ than others, that’s life.
    I do resent having to pay over the odds for something I can grow or make myself for a fraction of the cost, although one has to factor in the time it takes one to do this.
    I’ll shut up now ;)

  8. Alison

    I totally agree with you, and you are not the first to question the wisdom of extreme frugality when not absolutely necessary. I thought I may be able to shave extra off my food budget this month but I have found that it is too low now, and I do not like eating cheap, tastless food.

  9. Albedo

    Frugality to me (like Mo above),simply means not being wasteful, and not buying something which I don’t need. It doesn’t imply not having enough money, unlike extreme frugality which does imply just that.
    A travelling companion of frugality seems to be self-sufficiency, or at least some measure of it, and a caring attitude towards others seems to go along for the ride too. I don’t know of any really uncaring bloggers in this frugal-cum-grow-your-own community, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what their financial status truly is. All I know is that most of us are guided by what our hearts tell us!

    • PipneyJane

      To me, extreme frugality is akin to being miserly – it’s forgetting about the “living” part of “living below your means”. If it makes your quality of life suffer, then it’s too extreme. Frugality for me is about making choices that enhance my life but keep me within my budget (and there have been times when I’ve fed two adults for a month on less than £30 because that’s all the money I had).

      Do you remember the stories about Kath Kelly, the Bristol teacher who lived for a year on a discretionary spend of £1/day? I read her book: that £1 had to cover everything except her housing costs. She made it work for her but there were times it was very difficult. To her advantage: all her friends were in on the challenge so helped her find no-cost entertainment and cheap food; and she lived close enough to work to make commuting by bike feasible.

      – Pam

  10. kaye

    i can empathise with the poverty aspect of frugality , no cooker for 3 months and using a camp stove, our £8 fridge cheap because it was mucky,and the simple fact its going to be a cold winter as we dont have the £1000 to fill the oil tank….sometimes i get sick of out of date food and 10 packs for a pound weird foreign food , but i grow loads of fruit and veg for variety , make do and mend wherever possible and look at the future for a glimmer of light on the horizon ….lifes rearly not that bad

  11. Rachel

    I’m generally not in favour of extremes, so I agree with you on this. I did get a bit extreme in my frugality a few months ago, but that was due to anxiety about whether we could make the new life ‘work’ or not. Now I’ve found that we can, I’ve relaxed a bit and life’s much more fun!

    On the other hand, I’m in favour of frugality as an attitude to life that can be adopted at any income level. I think what I mean by this is an anti-consumerist, anti-greed philosophy, to do with appreciating that money doesn’t buy happiness, and suchlike. Once principles have been adopted as A Good Thing, it’s quite easy to slip into extremes. If tightening the belt is good, a body-modifying corset must be even better, right?

    Simple rules, whilst not exactly easy to live by, are at least straightforward. Adopting a philosophy of not spending on fripperies but only things that are really worth spending money on, without backsliding on what counts as ‘really worth it’ – that’s more difficult.

  12. louisa

    Hi guys, really interesting discussion – I’ve very much enjoyed reading all your thoughtful comments on the subject.

    After posting this, I had many lengths discussions about it with the other half of my brain (John) and we concluded that my issues with such challenges/self-imposed extreme frugality are really related to me having different priorities from the other person’s. Quality of life-right-now is very important to me but I recognise that it’s not going to be the same for everyone.

    For some reason, people who adopt extreme frugality as a life philosophy people like the five-years-to-retirement guy (Strowger’s link) worry me less than others who do it in casually entered-into (and exited out from) stints or challenges. Like Rachel says, it’s quite easy to take babysteps into extreme positions and I’m going to be careful that I don’t arrive there by accident myself.

  13. kay

    I don’t have it yet, but I have read excerpts on the philiosophy
    of Zero Cost Living. Amazon has it. You can download it for $5.00. It talks about the rich, and it talks about why they want you to spend, spend, spend. This book cuts the rich at the knees. They aren’t exactly philanthropists you know. Not that I am, but I just haven’t decided I want to devote my entire being to being rich…I just haven’t found a rich person very personable. But I refuse to beg from them…

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