Being frugal is for everyone

Everyone smart, that is. I read an article claiming that being frugal is for the rich, and I wanted to use it to point out a common fallacy: that because there may be larger societal-level factors at play, it doesn’t matter what the individual does. This simply isn’t true. Sure, making coffee at home instead of buying Starbucks daily won’t make you a billionaire, but it also can’t hurt your finances!

In general, there’s too much of this type of argument. “Look there! A Big Societal Reason that explains the unfortunate situation you find yourself in. See? Not your fault. All you have to do is continue to call it out.” In other words, we are taking from people perhaps the last thing they have: their agency. Even worse: we’re taking any sense of control they have over their own life outcomes. Is it ever useful to have individuals with little power focus on the larger scheme of things that may take generations to fix? Especially to focus on those factors as an excuse to ignore very simple choices that they can make for themselves every day?

I find that there’s no contradiction in saying that the U.S. health care system is one of the most inefficient in the world and also that personal expenses should be cut where possible. The latter won’t fix the former, but I think everyone can agree that a financial setback hurts less when there’s a savings/investment cushion to fall back on. And such a cushion can be built, at least in part, by frugality. Put another way, the fact that you’re saving money by going to clothing swaps rather than J.Crew in no way detracts from whatever work you do towards getting single payer health care enacted. You can do both. What’s harmful is saying “there are problems much larger than my shopping habits” and using that as an excuse to do nothing to reign in unnecessary spending.

The author brings up financial savvy and either growing up with wealth, or having high income as factors which are “glossed over and not given the weight they deserve.” While I agree that it would be useless to take advice on financial independence from a wealthy heiress like Paris Hilton (who has a situation that few could hope to replicate in their own lives) the popularity of bloggers like the Frugalwoods or Millenial Money Man comes from their situations having the feel of replicability. Financial independence blogs generally share that critical piece that not everyone was raised with: information. They take the form of “I did this, and so can you. Here’s how.”

What is the complaint really? That the masses are being deceived into thinking that being frugal like Warren Buffett will make them billionaires like Warren Buffett? That really it isn’t frugality that leads to financial independence, but starting with a high-paying job and parents who taught you about finances? That mitigate, on an the individual level, the harms from the less than stellar economic prospects we’ve inherited from previous generations absolves them of the bad decisions that put us here? I don’t think any of these are true, but even if they were, I wouldn’t take any of them as an excuse to throw aside the useful tool of frugality in favor of complaining about what a sad financial situation we were born into. We can acknowledge a bad system without ignoring the things we can do to make our own lives better.

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