What comes to mind when you think of the word frugality? For me, it’s a used tea bag sitting in a saucer, waiting to be re-dunked. Or arguing with the store manager to try to get a discount. Or ‘mum says we have food at home’.
And that’s coming from someone who loves this thing. The first post I ever published was my viral 2016 ‘coming out’ essay on the life-changing power of frugality. This is still the best experiment I’ve ever run, and set me up for everything that followed.
But longtime readers might have noticed that I’ve moved away from this kind of material over the years. Partly, it’s because I find most early retirement blogs interminably boring. If I see another ‘monthly income report’ post I will scream.
I’ve also been feeling a little uneasy about the virtues of frugality and the early retirement movement. My upcoming book is about how I fell out of love with these ideas, and my attempt to build a more well-rounded philosophy. Whether or not you read the book, I feel like I owe blog readers an explanation of how my thinking has changed in recent years.
A few threads to tug on:
- The old-school virtue of frugalitas vs the modern version
- Nihilism and acting dead
- The case against early retirement
One of the surprising things I found out while researching the book was just how dramatically the notion of what it means to be ‘frugal’ has changed over the years. This drift in values is right at the heart of my unease, so let’s start there.
How did frugality fall from grace? And how might we restore it to its former glory?
The Glory Days: Frugality as the Mother of All Virtues
The Roman virtue of frugalitas was held in such high esteem that it stood on the same pantheon as justice, honesty, and mercy. As Saint Augustine famously put it, frugality is “the mother of all virtues”.
Augustine was riffing on Marcus Tullius Cicero, a prolific writer and orator who made the same observation several hundred years earlier. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero translated the Greek concept of frugality into Latin, and defined it as encompassing the virtues of courage, justice, and prudence:
Let us allow, then, frugality itself to be another and fourth virtue; for its peculiar property seems to be, to govern and appease all tendencies to too eager a desire after anything, to restrain lust, and to preserve a decent steadiness in everything.
This idea of temperance in all things was a big deal in Ancient Rome. Contrary to the depictions of wild orgies, it was embarrassing and unmanly to show anything other than moderation and self-control. This is the same aesthetic preference behind the huge muscles and child-like genitals of Greek statues: big dick energy demonstrated a cringeworthy lack of restraint, and was reserved for satyrs, ugly old men, and other objects of mockery.
The virtue of frugality was so high-status that a Roman consul had the honourary agnomen ‘Frugi’ added to his name, beginning a family tradition that spanned several generations and a couple of centuries.
Imagine this happening today: I shall henceforth be known as Richard the Frugal, and I will bestow this title upon generations of descendants, all of whom will proudly bear my name and definitely won’t get shoved into lockers in high school.
Outside of very specific subcultures, it would be extremely hard to argue that frugality is high status today—and the opposite is much more likely to be true.
The Fall From Grace
I was curious about the connotations of frugality today, so I asked readers to compare various related terms:
‘Lifestyle design’ was the least-appealing term by quite some margin, but you gave ‘frugality’ the silver medal for ickiness. ‘Deliberate living’ and ‘intentionality’ had comparatively positive connotations. And this is a survey of folks who have self-selected to read this blog!
I initially assumed frugality had lost its virtuous shine because people were confusing it with being cheap. This is a common misunderstanding: frugality is about making deliberate trade-offs with your resources, in such a way that it maximises your own values. If you make a trade-off at someone else’s expense—’forgetting’ your wallet, hogging a common resource, monopolising someone’s time—that’s just being a tightwad.
But this misunderstanding is unlikely to be the explanation, because people have been making the same mistake since forever: St Augustine, writing in 380AD, tells us that the word frugality is already commonly being used as if it were synonymous with ‘stinginess’.
It’s possible that cheapskates have become more prominent in recent times, but I don’t see the modern proponents of frugality behaving selfishly. Or at least, not explicitly selfishly. And this turns out to be an important distinction to make.
Augustine points us back to Cicero, who traces the etymology of frugalitas to fruit (fruge), which is “the best thing the earth produces”. To be frugal is to be fruitful.
The equal and opposite vice is prodigality, or worthlessness (nequitia). This is a state of being without purpose (nequicquam); in which circumstance we are called Nihil, nothing. The opposite of frugality is nihilism.
So these are our paired states: frugality and nihilism, growth and stagnation, esse and non esse, being and nonbeing.
The old-school version of frugality was virtuous because it served a higher purpose. The point of living simply and economically was to be able to better perform one’s civic duty, and be more fruitful in the world—not to retire early and lie around on chaise lounges eating grapes or whatever.
It used to bug me that frugality had a less than gleaming reputation. Now I think the assessment is fair enough: there is nothing especially virtuous about frugality as it exists today, and in the worst case, it has degenerated into a funhouse-mirror perversion of the original virtue.
Frugality as Escapism
Being mindful about consumption and reducing waste is admirable. But let’s be honest. Most money bloggers did not start out as eco-crusaders. The real motivation for practicing frugality can usually be summed up by one word: escapism.
Don’t be a cog in the machine. Escape from the 9 to 5 grind. Retire early. Hack life. Tune in, save up, and check out.
At least, that was certainly what motivated me to go down this path. I even did the cliché palm trees and tropical island thing! And thank God for that. Getting a taste of mini-retirement early in life was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it saved me from wasting decades chasing after a phantasm.
Nothing magical happens when you scrape together enough shekels to quit your job. You still need a reason to get up in the morning. This is the problem with the modern version of frugality: it is a purely subtractive philosophy. It has a lot to say about what to avoid, but it doesn’t elevate anything in its place.
Frugality and early retirement can lead to great life outcomes. They are powerful tools, and I am definitely not saying they are ‘bad’.
But I am saying they have stunted aesthetics. There are ways in which they reliably lead to drab, uninspired outcomes, and there are structural reasons why no-one wants to talk about this.
I see the modern practice of frugality as shuffling towards nihilism. Not enough risk-taking, not enough exploration, no being fruitful in the world, no trying to put a dent in the universe. Just the bare minimum required to take care of you and yours. One million identical personal finance blogs churning out the latest update on the great escape, month after month, and year after year.
If we’re going to make frugality great again, we have to address this failure of imagination—the phenomenon of ‘acting dead’, which I’ll say more about in the next post.