Monday, October 27, 2014

Frugality versus simplicity, part 2

In her latest post at Live Like a Mensch, blogger Emily Guy Birkin talks about her conflicting impulses to "embrace a little more minimalism in my life" and to avoid spending money unnecessarily. On the face of it, the two goals seem to be inextricably linked: the less stuff you own, the less money it costs to buy it, maintain it, and furnish space for it all. But as Birkin points out, the two goals come into conflict when it comes to getting rid of stuff you "might need again someday," such as the numerous "big-ticket items" that her younger child has now outgrown—car seat, stroller, sling—but that might be needed if they ever have a third child. On the one hand, these items aren't being used now and may never be used again, so at the moment, they're just a major waste of space. But on the other hand, giving them all away would turn out to be a major waste of money if they ended up having another kid and needing to replace them all.

This article intrigued me, because the conflict between frugality and simplicity is one that I've confronted often over the years, most explicitly in this post back in 2010. In it, I noted that while frugality has a lot in common with simplicity or minimalism, they're really very different ideals. Minimalism is about having less: less earning, less spending, less work, less stuff. Frugality, by contrast, is about having more—more money in the bank, more time for what matters, more enjoyment—without spending more money. Adopting a minimalist lifestyle is one way to achieve frugality, but it's by no means the only way. Indeed, as Birkin notes, in some cases the two goals can actively conflict with each other, because getting rid of stuff may end up costing you more money in the long run. For instance, if you had a tool you seldom used, such as a circular saw, you might decide to give it away or sell because it was "unnecessary"—but then every time you did have a need for a circular saw, you'd need to rent one. It might still be worth doing, if the extra space was more important to you than the extra money, but it would depend on your personal situation.

Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) wrote about this very problem in a Tightwad Gazette article called "The Frugal Balance." She said frugality isn't just about saving money; it's about making the most of all the resources available to you, including money, time, space, and personal energy. Thus, a hoarder who stuffs her tiny apartment with egg cartons and rubber bands that "might be useful" at some unspecified time, for some unspecified reason, is not being "too frugal"; the problem is that her frugality is out of balance. In her efforts to save money, she's wasting space. Her lack of space may also end up costing her time and energy (because it takes so long to find anything), and even, ironically, costing her money (because she ends up buying new things when she can't find what she already has).

Keeping your frugality in balance is a matter of being lavish with the resources you have plenty of and stingy with those that are scarce. Thus, if you have a high income but little free time, there's no point in spending hours on end making all your holiday gifts by hand to save money; you'd be better off spending working just a few extra hours working to earn extra cash for presents. Contrariwise, if you have a huge house with tons of space, there's no need to live like a minimalist; storing things you "might need someday" is actually easier than living in a half-empty house and running out to rent items (spending both time and money) when you discover a need for them.

If my goal is to make the most of all the resources available to me, it doesn't really make sense to view getting rid of stuff—even unnecessary stuff—as an end in itself. Instead, it's a means to an end: making room for something else that matters more. If I have a sweater in my closet that I seldom wear, that's only a problem if the closet is overcrowded; if I have a massive amount of zucchini in the garden, that's only a problem if it'll go bad before I'm able (or willing) to eat it all. In other words, having a lot of anything is not, in itself, a problem. "A lot" doesn't become "too much" until it starts taking away space (and time, and energy) from everything else.
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