Frugal materialism.

One of my earliest articles for MSN Money was called “Living ‘poor’ and loving it.” In the essay I noted that there’s real joy in knowing that you have everything you need and some of what you want.

But what if your goal is to have more than one of everything you need, and a whole bunch of what you want?

My daughter, who blogs at I Pick Up Pennies, wrote about this in a post called “I like stuff.” Abby enjoys clothes, accessories and technology. She wishes she could be a minimalist, but she isn’t one – even though she writes a personal finance blog.

It seems to me that some people consider “minimalism” a synonym for “frugality.” But it ain’t necessarily so. I can get by with very little, but I choose to keep a bunch of things that make me happy.

Splurging and purging

Some of the pieces I’ve read about minimalism make it seem like the moral high ground: I have less stuff than you, therefore I am purer in my frugality.

I’ve also detected a whiff of class snobbery in some discussions: “I have 10 billion books but no television set and certainly no commemorative Slurpee cups or ‘Star Wars’ figurines.”

Understand: I am opposed to mindless consumerism. Some people simply can’t seem to quit buying, even after it stops doing them any good. Check out an episode of that “Hoarders” television program if you want to see extreme examples.

Others buy and buy, then donate or sell it all so they can buy and buy some more. (Abby calls this “splurging and purging.”) Certainly I’ve seen quite a few things still shrink-wrapped and price-tagged at yard sales and thrift stores.

But some people appreciate pretty things. Or they just want to collect the whole set. So what?

One of my best friends has a wide variety of books, DVDs, figurines, posters and ephemera concerning her favorite actor. A close relative of mine spends a ton of cash on gardening – but she budgets for it. Hundreds of hours spent outdoors every summer makes her happier than, say, dinners out or a closet full of designer clothes.

A dedicated model-maker might ditch furniture to add more display cabinets. And just try telling a quilter that she has “enough” fabric.

These things make them happy. Why should we care how much stuff they have? They’re the ones who have to dust it.

A matter of personal choice

Stuff isn’t inherently evil. It’s our attitude toward stuff that bears watching. When we’re obsessed with acquisition to the detriment of family or budget or long-term security, it’s time for an intervention. (And maybe a yard sale.)

Abby practices what she calls “frugal materialism”: She and her husband enjoy their belongings but they try to shop intentionally rather than constantly. They discuss before they shop. They buy with frugal hacks such as Swagbucks and cashback shopping, and seek out those yard sales and thrift stores.

These are good tactics for those who aren’t minimalist by nature. You can avoid being overrun by belongings you can’t really use or fully appreciate. (See “Hoarders,” above.) You can also avoid going deeply into debt to get the things you want.

It’s your life. You get to decorate it the way you like. If you want one of everything and two of some things, well, it’s your money.

And if living with just a few carefully chosen objects makes you happy? Then live that way, and the heck with what other people think about your decor. Or your lack of collectible figurines.


14 Comments

  1. karla

    I think Abby’s “splurging and purging” and “frugal materialism” should be bumper stickers.

  2. priskill

    Yes — so true! Your “Living poor and loving it” was a great piece which, if i recall correctly, was all about making choices. Because you were operating at the the extreme end of the spectrum, you were able to show how little it takes to be happy, solvent, and to accomplish your goals. It was a GREAT message but you never proscribed for anyone!

    And i have thought of that article so many times — it resonated for me, and informed some of my thinking and actions, even if i am not quite so frugal. Your whole message was to be mindful and choose.
    Even if it is the commemorative slurpee cup.

  3. sharon

    I used to do recreational shopping every weekend, usually at the bookstores, so it didn’t seem as bad. Books are good things, right? That was before I rediscovered the library. And, as my aunt used to say, you can’t eat books.

    Several years ago my mother divested herself of most of her knick-knacks, keeping just a few that were really important to her. She made the remark about “less to dust” that I didn’t understand at the time, but totally understand now. I moved in January and still haven’t hung pictures, which were once very important to me. Now I like the Zen of empty walls, and am looking for a good outlet for selling some of them (the artwork, not the walls).

  4. Donna Freedman

    @Sharon: My ex was a compulsive book-buyer. I thought that was OK, too, until the bookshelves started to take over all available space — and he rarely, if ever, re-read a book. Sigh.
    I love the library.
    Thanks for reading.

  5. I loved Abby’s notion of frugal materialism! I am working on becoming more minimalist and less ‘Hoarders’ but true minimalism is probably not for me.

  6. Kimberly Caron-Lohman

    Splurging and purging, that’s priceless!!! I’ve been guilty of that on more than one (or a dozen) occasion… love the idea of frugal materialism… I’ve been reading many blogs on minimalism lately and I’m drawn, but I don’t think I’m a 100 or 79 thing gal. I like my toaster and coffee pot and my craft stuff and prefer a nice throw rug over my bare wooden floors….. or at least I would if I had any bare wooden floors, which I want but currently don’t have…..

  7. rosa rugosa

    Yes! My sister does that – and this describes it very well!

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this out loud! (Er, I mean in print. Or pixels.) So many people seem to be fixated on this idea that frugality means *giving up* things, even things you enjoy. Not a bit of it! Frugality means not wasting your money and your time on the things you *don’t* care about, so you have more money and time to spend on the things you *do* care about. The way I like to put it is that frugality is about abundance, not scarcity. It’s not having less; it’s getting more for less. I think I’ve made this point more than once in my blog, and I know Amy Dacyczyn made it repeatedly in her Tightwad Gazette books, but somehow it never seems to get through to the general public.

  9. shari

    OMG – I splurged and purged this weekend. As well as remorsefully returned – but I felt better afterward. Thanks for the great post – these things definitely help me focus more on the mindful part of consumption!

  10. Agreed! As long as your materialism isn’t causing you to spiral into debt, I don’t really care what you do with your money. I’ve been guilty of being an aspiring minimalist snob before because it feels like so many of my friends have money troubles but think it’s fine to hoard clothes and books like they’ll be lost without them. It’s all about attitude though, not the actual possessions.

  11. Beautifully put! Love your phrase “frugal materialism”!

    Having worked as a home stylist and having and artsy bent, I love to live in an environment that I consider beautiful and creative. However, since growing more and more aware of the effects of consumption on the environment (and my pocketbook!), I’ve begun to take a different approach – reusing, recycling & remaking.

    It allows me to change things up from time to time without spending much money at all. But best of all is that I’m stretching my creative muscles!

  12. I am one of those people who thought that minimalism and frugality went hand in hand…in many ways, I still feel this way. I think one can lead to the other. When you are frugal, you understand that material possessions are only as important as filling a need or a want (and frugal folks are acutely aware of what constitutes a want). Frugal people aren’t running around the shopping malls in a blind fit searching for satisfaction through consumption but rather are meticulous in their spending choices because they put their money where their priorities are. That is what I love so much about frugality, that it doesn’t restrict anything but instead, eliminates the fluff, allowing us to focus on what we value. Whether that is gardening, quilting, Star Wars memorabilia or, in my case, world domination…errr, travel.

    Still, I think it is almost natural to see a shift towards a more minimalist way of thinking. Maybe people won’t find themselves purging their homes of everything they own in order to create a Zen surrounding but the thinking of a minimalist is definately there. From my own experiences, I find myself saying, “I don’t need that,” more often than not. Is it frugality or minimalism? I think it is more of a minimalist mindset than a frugal one, since my focus is more of whether or not I can live without whatever widget I am considering buying. If it were frugality, I think the internal dialogue would sound something more like, “I need (or want) this but maybe I can find it elsewhere for a better price or of higher quality. I’ll do some research and come back to it.”

    Of course, frugal folks aren’t necessarily minimalists, like you pointed out in the article, but I do think there are traces of both in all of us.

    Great article!!!

  13. Hi Donna,
    I love you articles. I don’t know if I am frugal or just cheap.
    We are now living on a fixed income.
    I love my gardening and spend hrs out there moving dirt around. I’ll buy a plant if on sale and its usually a perennel so it comes back ec yr and I can split it to make my garden larger.
    I love garden mags but refuse to buy them now because they are up to $9.99 or $11.99 each. I’ll go on line & hunt stuff up. Not as pretty but I can afford it. I think I should get a spelling bk too. :) On ocassion I will get a garden book through the mail but
    I really should find a way to sell them. They pretty much say the
    same but I get hooked on those glossy pictures.
    My husband says he feels like he is living in a jungle w/all the house plants I have. Most slips of other plants.
    When the kids were young making clothes was the thing, now it is buying fabric. So I don’t go near that part of the store.
    Most of all our money goes on house bills or groceries. Haven’t bought clothes for so long I forgot what it was like, except socks.
    You tell me, and I cheap or frugal or maybe even a bit lazy to go find deals.
    thanks, Keep up good work.
    Can I get a copy of “Living Poor & Loving it”?
    ps, I would love a cast iron spider but not practical w/a glass top stove. Can’t you just picture it now, droping it on it. O My!!

    • Donna Freedman

      I think you’re frugal, but that you’re worried about called “cheap.” Don’t even think about that: You are simply using your money wisely to create the best possible life for you and your husband.
      Unfortunately, “Living ‘Poor’ and Loving It” no longer exists online. When MSN Money switched platforms that was one of the articles to disappear. At some point perhaps I can put it up as a blog post; I’ve gotten permission to do this with a few other pieces I wrote back then.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

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