Breaking Your Own Frugality Rules

Here at Casual Kitchen we don't think of frugality as a rigid way of life. Rather, we view it as a tool--the kind of tool that we can pick up or put down as we need to.

And oddly enough, our efforts at saving money on healthy food have never really been a function of our income. Back when I was making medium-sized bucks during my Wall Street career, we still ate out infrequently, carefully managed our food spending, and regularly cooked the easy and low-cost recipes readers can find in CK's recipe index.

It's pure fun to come up with counterintuitive (and sometimes downright unusual) ideas on how to optimize effort, time, money and food, and it's a privilege to be able to share these ideas with readers. And hey, saving some serious dough ain't such a bad thing either.

Hypocrisy and orthodoxy
However, I've also written posts you'd never expect to see in a frugal food blog. Many people would make the case that articles on Kona coffee and champagne, or posts about our extended visits to Chile, Hawaii and New Zealand have absolutely no place here. Some readers have pushed back hard against these posts, saying essentially that it's misleading, even hypocritical, to write with one hand about lentil soup at 60c a serving, and then turn around and write with the other hand about $29-a-pound coffee.

Does the world of frugality require this degree of rigid orthodoxy? And if you don't adhere at all times to an impossibly high frugality standard, are you, like, some kind of a cheater?

Some of us even internalize this frugality standard to the point where it becomes a source of guilt. I've seen talented bloggers beat themselves up on their own blogs because they weren't always following all of the frugal ideas and recommendations they offer their readers.

Winners, losers and lentils
And then there's an exact opposite reaction I often see: people will react with inappropriately magnified revulsion to a certain frugal tip or practice, as if a certain tip, like eating lentils, psychologically pushes them over the edge into a place where they feel like a cheap loser.

Look, this is all ankle-biting. It misses the point.

So what is the point? It's this: frugality is all about making thoughtful choices about how and where you spend your money. It's about allocating your money to things that are most important. And when I say "most important" I mean most important to you. Not what meets some imagined and impossibly high frugality standard.

You are not on this earth to make spending choices to meet some imagined social construct. And you are most definitely not on this earth to impress your neighbors or social peers, either by what you save or by what you spend. Frugality is not some kind of a contest with winners and losers.

The right to break your own rules
Here's the ultimate truth and the real advantage to regularly using your frugality muscles. If you make conscious and intelligent choices with how you spend the bulk of your income, you'll have extra money around to break your frugality rules if and when you want to. You'll have the resources available to splurge on the good stuff from time to time. That's the real reward of a life of conscious spending decisions.

In my view, the rules of frugality are made to be broken. And the more you use frugality as a tool, the more often you'll earn the right to put that tool down when you want to.

Readers! What frugality rules do you break? And do you think a blogger can break his or her own rules without being hypocritical?

I'd like to thank Marcia at Frugal Healthy Simple for inspiring this post.

Related Posts:
Why Do Products Go On Sale?
A Reader Asks For Help
Spreading the New Frugality: A Manifesto
How Give Away Your Power By Being a Biased Consumer

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edj3 said...

Preach it, brother Daniel. Spot on.

looloolooweez said...

This is such a thoughtful post, because it reminds us of something that a lot of us, myself included, sometimes forget-- that frugality itself is not the goal, it's a means of reaching some other goal(retirement savings, a yearly vacation, car payments, or even just the ability to pay the rent in full on time). Plus, everyone has some different level of frugality that they have to or just want to aim for. It would be ridiculous for anyone to expect any given food/budget blog writer to conform exactly to one reader's own specifications!

Anonymous said...

Exactly! Me and my mom talk about this all the time (we're 2 frugal peas in a pod). Frugality to us is not missing out on anything, it's gaining the things we want. I'm frugal not because I have to but more because I like to prioritize the things I want in life and being frugal puts the things I really REALLY want high on the list. Like Trippy said, it's the means of reaching some other goal. If more people thought of it that way, it would be easier and less degrading to those who don't want to eat lentils.

Diane said...

Really, what does it matter what people say - those people aren't spending your money or managing your budget - you are. When they manage your money, they can tell you how to spend it.

We all have limited funds, and need to decide where the money goes. Frugality opens up more choices.

Little Les said...

did you really write about lentils with one hand and kona coffee with the other? I didn't know you were ambidextrous :)

you probably know what I think about this - it's your blog, so write whatever you want. I suppose if you're worried about seeming hypocritical, you could explain in a post (about kona coffee) that this is a splurge you are able to make due to eating lentils most of the time. For me personally, I don't have "frugality rules" but rather "personal values" and I have learned not to care about what anyone thinks about how I spend my money.

MCM Voices said...

I agree with all these articulate commenters. Unless frugality is a game of sorts, it usually isn't the goal per se.

And where did this lentil thing come from? Lentils as synonym for poverty or pitiable lot in life? My mother used to make a lentil and sausage dish when I was growing up and I always thought it was so sophisticated and cosmopolitan. I wish I knew how to make it...

chacha1 said...

I break frugality "rules" all the time. Mostly in the interest of what I consider an acceptable level of food quality.

I won't buy a 20-pack of factory-farmed chicken legs at the grocery store even if the whole pack is two dollars. I *will* happily buy four leg quarters from the clean chicken vendor at the farmer's market, and don't really care what they cost.

I realize I'm lucky to have that option. But when DH and I quit eating out all the time (in order to save money), we agreed that eating WELL should still be a priority.

Which is why organic coffee beans, wine, and Haagen-Dazs Five are still in the grocery budget. :-)

Joanne said...

I think any lifestyle that requires you to rigidly adhere to one doctrine is just ridiculous. And so I wholly support breaking the rules on occasion. I feel like the whole POINT of being frugal is so that you can save money for those every-once-in-a-while splurges. Like really nice cheese. Or good quality chocolate. Or a vacation. Otherwise, what are you saving for? You can't take it with you, that's for sure.

Daniel said...

These are great insights. Thanks for the civil and productive discussion. And I'm happy that I have such independent-thinking readers.

And to @MCM Voices: The whole lentils thing (for me at least) is an inside joke from my post on The "It's Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food" Debate.

It refers to a NY Times journalist who make a deeply (and unwittingly) elitist statement about being "relegated to lentils."


wosnes said...

I once heard Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet, say that frugality wasn't necessarily about penny-pinching or always buying the least expensive thing(s), but about making wise purchases and using what you purchased wisely.

Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

Well, I suppose I will be the dissenter. I do think frugality - the best and wisest use of money- CAN be a goal in and of itself. A spiritual exercise in separation from materialism, a way to measure "just enough, just what I need" so that one can give more fully to others. In this way, it is a means to an end yet also something to be sought after itself.

bashtree said...

Dan - I think you're spot on. I think of my frugality rules as more of a guideline. And if I need to eat beans and lentils for a week to be able to have my gourmet loose leaf tea in the mornings, so be it. You're right about frugal - it's about having priorities, not about spending as little as possible.

Marcia said...

I break all of them.

I buy mini-yogurts for my kid sometimes.

We order pizza sometimes, just because we are tired.

I enjoy wine. I figure, the more lentil soup I eat, the better wine I can drink.

I buy free range eggs and organic chicken.

Teddi Taylor said...

Dave Ramsey's motto is "If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else" meaning, if you can give up the frivolity now and determine to get yourself out of debt, you can be legitimately wealthy later on (having saved thousands+ on interest) and spend where you like. Frugality in food is the same way... eat your lentils so you can drink your wine!

I once had a customer in a restaurant I served at, tell me that he skimped on his meal so he could tip me well... how sweet was that?!

Dave said...

Great post. I tend to look at it as bang for the buck. Every product has a "sweet spot" where spending more doesn't really get you that much more in terms of discernible quality.

Like spices - I can spend a little for bland grocery store cinnamon. I can spend a little more for very good Penzeys cinnamon (and have a wider choice). Or I can spend a whole lot more for some boutique brand that was hand-harvested by monks and shipped via yaks. In a case like that, I'm buying Penzeys.

Now with something like diced, canned tomatoes - I'm sure there's a difference between brands if you taste them side by side. And I'm also sure the more expensive brands taste better. But can anybody the difference between Hunts and the store brand in a pot of chili? No? Then it's store brand for me.

Jen said...

Another way of looking at frugality in the kitchen is less about getting the most for your dollar but instead getting great nutrition and great taste for a great value while making healthy decisions about the big picture of your budget. Good quality spices, for example, are not cheap but are crucial to eating well.

SR said...

This is very similar to the way some vegetarians and vegans are...taking a 'holier than thou' stance when someone chooses to set aside their usual eating practices.

In my case, I describe myself as a vegetarian, but I cook vegan as much as I can. However, my grandmother (who is 85) makes her pie dough with lard, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stop eating my grandmother's pie.

m.k. said...

In my case, buying organic, 100% Kona (or other Hawai'i-grown) coffee is about putting my money where my mouth is. I recognize that I currently have the luxury of deciding that my frugal choices include being able to choose to support local agriculture with fair practices in some areas (I know that not all of the produce I buy is organically grown by fairly paid and treated workers). I drink that coffee slowly and enjoy it as a luxury.

It may get even more expensive soon - the coffee cherry borer (an insect) is here now and damaging crops.

Owlhaven said...

Love it when your Sunday review points out a post I've somehow missed in the past. I couldn't agree more. Our day-by-day frugality when it comes to food makes it possible for us to take our family on some wonderful trips. We've been to the Olympics. Six of us have seen Korea. Six of us have visited Ethiopia. We go on vacation to the beach every year.

With ten children and a moderate income we are most decidedly not rich. But in a way, eating lentils and beans and homegrown home-canned tomatoes (and making many other small frugal choices) has allowed our family to become citizens of the world. We have a daughter who got engaged in Taiwan, and another who (as you know) was an exchange student to Chile and ended up getting married there, with her parents and grandparents in attendance. A third daughter is preparing to become a missionary in Africa.

Is frugality worth it? You bet. Is there hypocrisy involved because we are decidedly UNfrugal in some of our choices? No way. It's all about priorities: how do you want to live your life?

Daniel said...

Mary, that's a great comment, thank you as always for sharing your insights with readers here.

In fact, you are one of the best examples I know of this exact philosophy of life. Thank you for setting such a great example for the rest of us!