Can Being Frugal Make You Happy?

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Gen Y is bringing frugality back in style. As a financial planner, I’m delighted to find frugality is cool now. I’ve read their blogs (where else would they write?) with fascination and appreciation for their candor. I’m calling this the New Frugality, and you’ve probably heard or read about some of these ideas, including the Tiny House, where people live in a home often smaller than 200 square feet. Others are embracing Minimalist Wardrobes, creating a personal, seasonal clothing uniform (think Steve Jobs with his jeans and black mock turtleneck). This past week, there was an article in Forbes about the Frugalwoods, an anonymous Boston couple who is saving 71% of their income so that they can retire at age 33 and move to a Vermont homestead with their rescue Greyhound.

In these blogs, the authors are never afraid to share their personal stories, from big-picture motivations and life philosophies, to the smallest minutiae of their daily decisions. Along the way, we invariably learn of their challenges, missteps, and triumphs. The blogs are part diary, part instruction manual, and part entertainment for their friends and fans. Even with different goals and approaches, there are common beliefs.

  • The New Frugality believes that less is more, and does not buy into the modern American idea that “buying more stuff” can make you happy. They have a maturity (which takes some people 70 years to develop) that recognizes that happiness comes from rewarding experiences, positive relationships, and a work/life balance that includes a higher purpose.
  • They want off the financial treadmill. Some had large student loans or crippling credit card debt before having an epiphany about becoming debt-free. Others found their corporate careers unsatisfying and were brave enough to recognize that spending the next 40 years in a job they hate isn’t worth it just to be able to afford a big house and a fancy car.
  • While others may view their frugality as a sacrifice, they often find that simplifying their lives and eliminating clutter brings a clarity to their sense of what is truly important to them.

The New Frugality is about seeking the quality of life you want today, rather than believing you should wait until some future date, i.e. retirement, before you can really do what you want. It’s an implicit rejection of the old notion of working 50 hours a week until age 65, then never working again.

[In case you are wondering, I contrast the New Frugality with previous beliefs about frugality which were created by those who lived through The Great Depression and who raised their children in a different, frugal manner. While both the old and new approaches want to stretch each dollar, the old frugality was characterized by self-reliance, never throwing away anything you might need in the future, risk avoidance, and mistrust of financial systems. Some of those traits were largely fear-based, which does not resonate with the abundance mentality I embrace and believe is required to be a patient and successful investor.]

Does frugality make you happy? I think the most literal answer is no. By that, I mean that if you are unhappy, spending less won’t make you happy. If you really enjoy going to Starbucks every morning, cutting out that $5/day habit isn’t automatically going to improve your satisfaction, even if it enables you to save $1,825 a year. Frugality works for these bloggers because they were willing to embrace changes to their habits even though society was telling them to spend more money instead. There’s no doubt that frugality is financially beneficial, but the sources of happiness include a lot more than just your financial situation.

Reading their blogs can help you appreciate your own spending more as well as to feel good, and not alone, when you do choose a frugal approach. We are continually bombarded with advertising that suggests we’d be happier, cooler, and more attractive if we had the right car, clothes, or beauty products. We’re told that our current life would be better if we had a bigger home, nicer furniture, or luxury vacations. Of course that’s not true. We know that spending to increase our satisfaction is at best a fleeting pleasure which can leave consumers addicted to living beyond their means. Unfortunately, there are so few voices pushing back on the advertisers’ message to consume.

Even if you don’t want to live in a tiny house, reduce your wardrobe to a few pieces, or bike to work, you can still take frugal steps to ensure you are working towards true financial independence, which we define as working because you want to and not because you have to. Here are six lessons to take away from the New Frugality:

  1. Beware of lifestyle creep. Many of us were very happy in college, even though we may have had a rickety car, tiny apartment, and slept on a futon. It doesn’t take long after graduation to discover the urge to “keep up the Joneses”, as friends buy big houses and fancy cars. How can they afford it? Oftentimes, they can’t and they’re up to their eyeballs in debt. They’re more concerned about their image than their net worth, and that’s not something to emulate! If you increase your living expenses every time your income goes up, you aren’t ever going to become wealthy.
  2. Save at least 15% of your income. Set financial goals, including a “finish line”. If you are highly motivated (or just impatient, like me), you will realize that the more you save, the sooner you will reach your finish line. Saving then is not a sacrifice, but the fastest, most direct way to achieve financial independence. When your goals are more important to you than a new (fill in the blank), your spending decisions become much easier.
  3. Avoid impulse buys and emotional shopping, that is shopping to distract you from sadness, frustration, or boredom. Never buy on credit; if you don’t have cash to pay for something, it’s not worth going into debt. Be conscious and intentional about your spending behavior. Do your choices reflect your goals and beliefs?
  4. Buy used. There is a growing market for used items, often selling at a small fraction of the cost of new items. This is the Craigslist economy, which is growing around the country. You can often buy what you need without paying full retail prices.
  5. Savor success. There is a great deal of intrinsic satisfaction in becoming financially independent. Even taking the initial steps towards creating a positive cash flow are great confidence boosters because people feel empowered when they take control of their financial life. As every financial planner will tell you, the more you need to spend, the larger the nest egg required to be able to fund your future needs. Therefore, when you reduce your spending, you not only can save more, but you also reduce the size of the nest egg you will need to replace your income.
  6. Reduce stress. While money is not the source of true happiness, there is no doubt that being broke, in debt, or just knowing you are not setting enough aside for the future, can be a significant source of personal anxiety and marital friction.

As a bonus, you will find great common sense financial planning tips on these blogs. What are the Frugalwoods doing with the 71% of their income the save? They maximize their 401(k) contributions and invest the rest in the market. They write: We’ve done well because we invest in boring index funds and we don’t sell when the market is down. That’s a great recipe for success!

Reading about the New Frugality is entertaining because many authors are willing to take their frugal habits to quite an extreme. Even if we don’t adopt their spartan lifestyle, they can remind us that we don’t have to spend money to be happy.