Saturday, August 14, 2010

Frugality versus simplicity

Following up up on last week's entry, my mom sent me a link to this interview with the woman described in the Times article who made the transition from the "work-spend treadmill" to a life of extreme frugality. This article contrasts Tammy's "before" lifestyle (a $40,000 salary, a two-bedroom condo, two cars, $30,000 worth of debt, and "enough wedding china to serve two dozen people gazpacho at the same time") with her "after" lifestyle (no car, no TV, a 400-square-foot studio that she shares with her husband Logan, about $24,000 a year from freelance work, and no more than 100 personal possessions in total). Then the site poses the question: Which would you choose?

Now, I'm sympathetic with Tammy's decision to simplify her life. I definitely think that when the stuff you own is not contributing to your happiness, you should get rid of it. And I absolutely agree that it's better to do a job you enjoy and earn a modest income than to pay for an extravagant lifestyle with work you hate. But all the same, my honest answer to the question was "Neither." I certainly wouldn't want her "before" life, with a job she didn't care for and an apartment full of stuff that wasn't making her happy. But when I contemplate living the way she lives now, I have to admit that I don't think I could be happy that way, either.

I mean, think about it for a minute. One hundred possessions total? Including books? Okay, I'm willing to admit that among the books presently filling (and overfilling) my shelves are a lot of volumes that I'll probably never read again (or in some cases, never read at all). I'm sure I could part with some of them and never miss them. But even if I kept only the ones that I really love and read (or refer to) over and over, I'm sure I'd have more than one hundred. And I can't believe that getting rid of them all—or even just the ones I only look at once in a while—would make me a better and happier person.

Likewise, I can't see myself becoming happier by giving up our beloved house and yard in favor of a one-room apartment. We worked and saved for years to buy this place precisely because we knew we wanted a home of our own, a place we could keep and tend and make all ours. Yes, we do spend a lot of hours working on the house and the yard—but we do it willingly, even joyfully, because it gives us a sense of satisfaction to make the place we live in as beautiful as it can be. I can't see how giving that up could ever make us happier. And while I can admit that our house has more space than we really need for just the two of us (although it's still much, much smaller than most new houses) I really don't think that a single 20-by-20 room would be enough space for us to cook, eat, sleep, work, and play in. I can't help thinking I'd always be going and hiding in the bathroom just to get a couple of minutes to myself—not because I don't love spending time with my husband, but because I don't want to spend every minute of my life with anyone.

Tammy Strobel's story seems to me to be less about frugality than about simplicity—getting rid of the excess in your life. Naturally, these two goals overlap to a certain extent, but they're not the same goal. A lot of people's idea of a "frugal" life is a bare-bones life like Tammy's—which is an appealing vision for some, and so unappealing to others that it turns them off to the whole idea of saving money. But my version of frugality doesn't have anything to do with austerity. Rather, it has to do with abundance—having more and doing more with less (as I discussed in this entry back in May).

For example, in the interview Tammy Strobel claims that "Americans spend one-fifth of their income on their cars," and posits that giving up your car could make you happier by freeing up all the hours you have to spend working to make those payments. But when I consult our budget, I see that Brian and I spend approximately one-fiftieth of our income on our car (and that's take-home pay, not gross). By making the distinction between luxury (a shiny new car for each of us) and necessity (one reliable car that can get us to all the places we can't reach via foot, bike, or mass transit) we get what we need at a price we can easily afford. And the same principle applies to every aspect of the frugal life—housing, food, clothing, and those books stuffing my living room shelves.

To put it another way, we really can have our cake and eat it too, as long as we're willing to bake it ourselves. And to me, that's a much better deal than going without any cake at all.
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