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.
This is really informative. Thank you!
artificial grass costs
I understand what you’re saying, but I see it as a very high virtue of the FIRE movement, that’s what drew me in. This is because at the heart of it, the people trying to escape the grind have come to the realization that what they do for 8 to 12 or even 16 hours a day is NOT contributing in a meaningful way. They are seeking FIRE in order to stop trading our most valuable resource, our time, for a dollar.
This is a fresh perspective which I appreciate. I have been frugal in many areas of life, and that “acting dead” is a dreadful feeling. Thank you for this deep post on frugality. It had a ring to it reminiscent of the philosophy explained in “The Courage To Be Disliked”.
Oh thank you for the jab at monthly income/expense reports…I dropped my down to quarterly because I honestly don’t care that much after three years of leaving the corporate grind.
I agree there is often a series of phases to frugality…the initial cost cutting and then adding in more spending on those things you love (that often gets forgotten). I think the issue for most ER blogs is really after a while you are so bloody optimized to your life there really isn’t much left to write on: yep life is still good, but thanks for asking.
I suppose that is why I don’t pressure myself anymore to write on some topics like cost cutting, investing and instead focus more on what makes you happy and the thought process I went under after I left work. The mental shift to ER is really interesting but often is overlooked by many blogs. It is like that can’t admit they had feelings of doubt, fear and confusion about their identity….and don’t even get me started on the stupid pressure to avoid having a job. I like shelving books at the library and I happen to get paid to do it so piss off Early Retirement Police.
Anyways, I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes Rich. Take care.
Thanks Tim, I think you’re right. I’m starting to drop a bunch of metrics too… not that I reported them publicly before, but it’s just not that interesting or rewarding even to track them internally. And certainly don’t want to shame anyone for doing their thing—I’m mostly teasing.
Mr Money Mustache was good about mentioning this kind of thing from the outset, at least insofar as stressing that work is not the enemy, and it’s OK to work in ‘retirement’. I think one of the problems might be the fact that the most prominent figures are highly unrepresentative of the typical outcome: the majority of early retirees will not have a large and lucrative blog, legions of fans, etc, and will therefore need to find their sense of status and meaning elsewhere.
In my opinion MMM is the One True ER Blogger, and no-one has held a candle to him since. But the fact that even he has more-or-less stopped posting (notably, except about things that don’t really relate to FIRE!) suggests there’s just not that much to say on this one topic, whereas the world outside of it huge and endlessly interesting.
I love that you went back to Ancient Rome and the real meaning of frugality. I have been reading Man’s Search For Meaning again during the pandemic and especially thinking about meaning being the ultimate goal in life. Early retirement as a goal gives your life meaning, but then what happens after you achieve it? Finding meaning (perhaps in the original meaning of frugality) is so important!
Thanks. I love that book! Need to read it again too, good idea.
As a reformed “FIRE blogger” who now writes very little about money and a lot more about how to have the best possible life, this is more or less the journey I’ve been on.
I think frugality, early retirement, and all the surrounding stuff is a useful launching pad to greater things. But too few people graduate to the bigger, better things they’re supposed to enable.
What’s the point of the “blue drink in the white sand” thing if you’re not doing anything meaningful (to you) with your day?
How is the early retiree who amasses $2M to retire and do nothing at 35 different from the executive who amasses $20M to retire and do nothing at 65?
None of the frugality navel gazing matters without a broader vision for life than once I [quit my shitty job/achieve a 50% savings rate/reach a $1M net worth/increase my passive income to $3,000 per month], then I’ll be set!”
The kind of thinking in this article is why I’m a dedicated reader and fan. Thanks for clearly articulating your position on this, and I look forward to the next installment.
Nailed what I was trying to say in two sentences. Thanks a lot David, I’m really glad to have you as a reader, and delighted that my fellow finance bloggers are not jumping down my throat right now—the scene seems to be maturing recently, which is really encouraging.
I have to say Richard
I can’t wait till the next article because I think you are hitting on something important here. Basically frugality can’t be a virtue of ultimate life satisfaction because ultimately it just becomes a means to an end. I think MMM gives a lot of good reasons to be frugal for other reasons like saving the planet by more people biking and stuff, but there’s totally a limit to it. So what you’re saying here is that the FIRE movement has to move from becoming a means to an end to a end to a means. Basically invoking some Kant here.
Previously you’ve said that goals are like prescription medication should only be used in low doses and sparingly, basically you’re also saying that FIRE in the wrong hands is dangerous because if it became more mainstream everyone would just be lying in hammocks not making the world a better place. It’s a dangerous thing because while FIRE can be used for greatness in the right hands, if you use FIRE to sit around all day you’re using the dark side of the force.
So effective altruism? Not sure if you’ve read The second mountain but he talks about how four of his life values are career, family, community, and faith. For Cal Newport he talks about Community, Contemplation, Constitution, and Craft.
Yeah pretty much. I’m not actually worried about everyone switching to FIRE—it’s been around for decades or centuries and clearly most folks are just not interested. But I do suspect that the type of people drawn to these ‘life-hacking’ pathways might be unusually talented/creative/smart, and it is a bit depressing that they’re not necessarily channeling those abilities to more inspiring ends.
If frugality brings financial freedom to cover basic living expenses it has worked in my opinion. It frees up your minds/time to do other stuff, first choices that change along the way… I think the association with the word retirement sends the wrong connotations. The same financial freedom achieved through get rich quick schemes, buy 5 houses, seem to be perceived as successful….surely it’s just the terminology that changes
Of course, within a week of posting my first “income report”, one of my favorite bloggers disavows FIRE! Only teasing, Rich. Longtime reader, first-time commenter. Imo, discovering and implementing FIRE is a developmental stage. When I chose my profession, I assumed I would never retire because I’d never earn enough. Nearly 15 years later and equally burnt out, FIRE was a mind-blowing alternative. Now more or less at the midpoint to my goal, I am starting think about what I might do while (or maybe after) I have my fill of living abroad and eating all the foods. Travel and leisure might have been the first answer to the question of what I would do if money were no constraint, but once those objectives seem less like pure fantasy, the mind opens to deeper, perhaps riskier answers. I hope as we approach, FIRE has the potential to seed a different kind of contribution. Thanks for posing the challenge.
Haha, oh no! Do whatever you enjoy Tara—clearly there’s a huge audience for this kind of thing, so you shouldn’t pay any mind to what I happen to think. And you’re totally right about it being a developmental phase: I couldn’t get enough of this stuff when I was planning my own escape.
This is the really important bit IMO, so it’s cool that you’re thinking about it so far in advance.
Thanks Rich for your posts – I always enjoy them and you can sure turn a phrase. This frugality business is pertinent to me as next year I myself will be giving up work and taking to the road on my bicycle. I think that frugality needn’t rule out imagination. If anything it is an invitation to invoke it. Finding solutions is surely more creative than buying your way out of a situation. And I agree that living frugally should not be an end in itself. But rather should be a basis from which to put your ‘dent in the universe’. The thing about buying stuff is you have to pay for it and keep it somewhere both of which are limiting of freedom. I like the distinction between stinginess and fragility – that is an important one. Anyway thanks.
Absolutely. It’s a powerful tool for opening up options, but what you actually do with that raw potential is another story. Congrats Paul, and enjoy your adventure!
Love it! And thank you for researching the background on frugality in the ancient world. It very much jives with Aristotle’s “doctrine of the mean” tldr; don’t over do one good at the expense of the others and the pursuit of eudaimonia, the flourishing life.
I think fire is pursued often from a place of burnout, and I totally get it. But as you tightly point out you need to be running *to* something, not just *from* something. Some where in the flurry of travel pictures and talk of noon wakeups this gets lost. fire bloggers should remind people they will have to build a new life and identity to step into as well.
I found a piece on effective altruism very humbling recently as the author is living frugally to be able to donate 50% of his earning to charity. Wow. Fire can open a lot of doors to change the world, it’d be good if we don’t lose sight that continuing to work could still help us with that.
Nice. Cicero’s whole thing was translating Greek philosophy for a broader audience—I think he was mostly into the Stoics and Skeptics, but a bunch of that stuff ultimately goes back to Aristotle.
Great way of putting it. I’ve only touched on effective altruism a couple of times here on the blog, but I’m a big fan—that’s one of the pathways I recommend in the book.
Harsh but fair.
Was expecting more pushback tbh… will see how we go in the next couple of posts.
I feel the link between frugality, minimising waste and intentional living from an eco perspective is potentially under-rated.
The pursuit of frugality for this reason is loaded with purpose
Yeah quite possibly. I am definitely generalising here—not many of the people/bloggers I know initially came at it from that perspective, it’s more like gravy for the underlying justification.
The herb and tomato paste, so to speak!
OK, yes, I’ll see myself out.
This is good stuff! As a long time reader of your blog and a lot of other circles, I’m also starting to get a sense of tiredness around these ideas I once thought were mindblowing. Mainstream ubiquity + understanding their limits leads me to be a bit cynical about this stuff.
It’s good to not throw the baby out with the bathwater though. There’s real value beneath all the posturing, escapism, and materialist chasing (imo even frugality can be done materialistically). Keeping that purpose + present living is timeless.
Another example of postmodernism -> metamodernism but applied to FIRE, lol
For sure. I want to be respectful of these ideas, especially since they’ve helped me so much, but I also feel it’s important to point out the ways in which they fail. I think it probably helps having gone through the whole lifecycle from card-carrying convert -> bored follower -> apostate. Maybe there’ll be a born-again phase!
Chase some other, more mind-blowing ideas.
If you like money, Monero has a few.
There are always UFOs. Pranab, father of antigravity.
Reality is malleable.
you a tripper B.B Jehoshaphat
You know it, bruh.
P.S. Check the email. Things go’n’ get craaazy up in heah.
What the heck — where is my coolface sunglasses emoji.
Would agree on the retire early crowd. After hearing about this or that savings rate it gets old quick. Reality is I set the auto payments at whatever % of income, 5 minutes later I was like what should I do now? The savings plan is chugging along, no point watching it grow from here – be like watching grass grow.
Exactly. The discussions about safe withdrawal rates were what did me in too. Glad to hear you’re on track.
People hear “retirement” and they think one of “tropical beach” or “nursing home”, but really they should think “broken wagie manacles”.
Eventually Rich gets rich and the wagie memories fade away.
No criticism, of course. It happens to the best of us.
There’s definitely an element of this, but for the record I am still very much a fan of breaking the wagie manacles.
Quoth Nassim Taleb: “If someone pays you for anything other than a specific transaction, you are a slave.”
Hm. Security is deeply important to many people. With the caveat that I haven’t read Nassim Taleb, this seems like a glib way to put people in boxes without accounting for the incredible variety of reasons people make the employment choices they do. (And that’s in the wealthy part of the west where we assume that we have employment choices). Unless the ‘specific transaction’ is broad enough to include ‘my time for your money’ I can’t see how that is anything other than a limited statement from a limited perspective.
You are quite right.
Indeed, historically — i.e., since the introduction of agriculture — slaves, de facto and de jure, have outnumbered free men by a ratio of ten to one, or more.
“My time for your money” is very apt.
Thanks Richard. Totally agree with you. Beyond the information of how to start of the path to financial freedom and it’s benefits – what next can lead to a malaise and boredom. And to some extent social media seems to have turned it into a competition with chest puffing by those who are doing it and those leading the 9-5 drudge ready to pounce on the fall from grace. But it is only a part of the whole and I think it is still admirable but it’s a means to the end.
Yeah, the new status-signaling games are pretty funny (who can do the longest bike commute in the snow!) but at least they’re an improvement over conspicuous consumption. All the foundational FIRE information is genuinely excellent IMO, but it doesn’t take very long to pick up, and potentially distracts from much more interesting avenues. ‘Means to an end’ is bang-on.
Yeah there’s an interesting parallel to the book “Spent” (which I know Richard has read). in a consumer society people compete for status with buying the fanciest most expensive status objects. Only by creating a separate community with different values can you re align the hierarchy. Wage slavery < FIRE < A self employed situation that somehow brings or other people satisfaction also yes to effective altruism. That probably is the best use of money for anyone who has extra money lying around. Maybe we could measure a life in harm not done and money given effectively.
Yes, following from your “harm not done” thought, is making wages proportionate to that, I would swap lawyers wages with nurses, first responders, aged care facility workers etc.
But ultimately maybe that is the rub, people who care do it anyway and those who don’t, don’t. However I do believe that without the daily grind a lot more people would do more good, seems like a bit of a UBI(universal Basic Income) argument.
Yeah I think a consumption tax on goods and services that do harm could help to equalize profits and wages for employees and companies between ethical and non-ethical… Coming from a lazy person I can tell you I see the benefit of a UBI world. But I have concerns about it just removing all motivation I have. In the end people will still need to show off their positive traits and compete for status and to do something meaningful with their lives. UBI could be a gateway to meaningful existence or video games and donuts all day. I digress. It’s hard to think about this stuff at a society level.. Doing no harm is a lot harder to find than doing good.
Then you have to define harm. Ask Google how that went for them 🙂 An example last week very local to me – environment protestors chained themselves to the gates of a phosphate fertiliser factory to highlight the damage they say the products do to the land and water here. Fair enough, and I’m probably on their side, there. But. We’re in a very uncertain economic situation, people losing their income all over the place, and the factory directly employs a lot of people, plus there are the companies that supply and deliver to them, and the distributors, and then there’s our incredible, unprecedented level of food security. Would all those jobs transfer directly to equivalent numbers of jobs in a regenerative agriculture model? Would regenerative agriculture provide a reasonable level of food security? Dunno. Organic farming is more labour-intensive than chemical farming (though arguably some of that labour is simply outsourced to the aforementioned fertiliser factory) so it’s definitely possible that there would be some transfer. But it would need to be quantified for our ‘do no harm’ evaluation of just that one business. Of course, ‘complex’ does not equal ‘shouldn’t be done’, and given the opportunities we have in this age it most definitely should be done, imo. But you will get people who quite reasonably disagree with your version of do no harm, and vice versa. Obviously the solution is to retire early and dedicate the rest of one’s life to implementing one’s own version of do no harm on the largest scale possible
Yeah, maybe try to do not to much harm while also doing good is the best scenario. Doing no harm is probably a little too idealistic. Probably best to even the scales in other ways. Tradeable carbon credits etc. It’s all very complicated stuff.
I think it’s vital to have an ideal to reach for, even if that’s unattainable on a practical level. There’s always compromises, and in my view it’s better to compromise on a stretch goal than on a lesser one. For myself, I aim for zero waste. One year my waste filled only a classic supermarket plastic bag for the entire year. This year I’ve already put out two full bins and there will be at least one more. But my goal isn’t 3 bins or fewer, it’s zero waste, so all my decisions get measured against that instead of thinking ‘if I buy this I can probably fit the packaging into about a cubic litre of space if I squash it really small, so that will mean later I can buy X or Y with lots of packaging cos I’ll still have room in the bin’. Context is vital.
That’s very cool! My sister is very similarly on a zero waste quest. I’m definitely impressed by people that can pull that off. The savings is a nice by product as well.
I’m fortunate in that my parents were hippies, so growing and making food, and buying very few possessions was instilled in me early. Picture 15 year old me rebelling by buying a box of tissues, knowing that I was, muahahaha, defiling the earth and supporting the capitalist machine. I had to hide them under my bed.