Friday, July 16, 2010

Is tech frugal?

One of my cohorts on the Dollar Stretcher forums recently brought up the subject of modern technology. Many folks said that they found new technology confusing and frustrating. One noted that "I yearn for a simpler life...I used to see my parents and grandparents as old fashioned and not up on what's going on in the world. Now I see that perhaps they, as I have, made a conscious choice to not clutter my mind and life with things that I didn't need before and find no need for now."

This got me thinking: is modern technology frugal or anti-frugal? Is it a waste, something that we don't really need, or it is something that saves time, money, and other resources once when we use it well?

Naturally, the answer isn't entirely one or the other. Some modern technologies are obviously more useful, more frugal, than others, and the same gadget will be more useful to one person than to another. So maybe a better question is, how can you tell whether a specific piece of technology is or is not frugal for you?

My answer to this question is pretty simple: I evaluate new technology the way I would any other consumer choice. I ask myself, "Is this something I need? Will it make my life better? Is it worth the money?" If so, I embrace it; if not, I ignore it. For example:
  • I do have a cell phone (just one that I share with my husband), but I am one of the five or ten people on the planet who truly does use it only for emergencies. It's a very basic model with a prepaid plan, and we pay about $5 a month for it. Anything more than that would be, for me, unnecessary.
  • We don't have cable TV or satellite, but we do have a home-built media computer that lets us get free entertainment from Hulu and other such sites.
  • My computer is a 9-year-old Mac that's been upgraded multiple times over the years and is still quite capable of handling everything I need for both work and personal use. (I specifically bought it instead of one of those cute little iMacs because I thought it would be easier to upgrade, and would therefore serve me longer. So far, so good.)
  • I'm not tempted by the new e-book readers, since, as I noted last month, I don't see any compelling reason to prefer them to the paper-and-ink book. However, I am somewhat tempted by MP3 players (if I could find one cheap enough), mainly because with one we could listen to podcasts of our favorite radio shows during long car trips.
  • We have high-speed Internet at home mostly because I rely on it for work, but the money we spend on our cable modem saves us on all kinds of other things, such as postage (we use e-mail for personal correspondence and pay bills online), a newspaper subscription (the New York Times can be read online for free), and entertainment (see above regarding our media computer).

There are probably many other examples that don't come immediately to mind. But my point is, although many people equate frugality with "the simple life"—living off the grid, churning your own butter, that sort of thing—a fast-paced modern lifestyle can be just as frugal, albeit in a different way. If your home is full of gadgets that save you time and money and genuinely improve your quality of life, there's absolutely no reason to feel inferior to the person who cooks over a woodstove and reads by candlelight. To each tightwad his own.

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