The military teaches everyone how to live an extraordinarily frugal lifestyle. No matter what reputation your service has, at some point you’ve lived in a very small room with a narrow bed and little storage. Maybe you did without a room or even a bathroom for quite a while, let alone a bed, and all your possessions had to be carried on your back in one piece of “luggage”. Food was mass-produced or delivered in a pouch, snacks were hard to come by, and maybe you missed an occasional meal. Entertainment was rudimentary at best — no high-definition satellite TV or Internet access, let alone clubbing downtown!
If we all know how to live as cheaply as Tibetan monks, then why don’t we practice that lifestyle and save 80% of our paychecks? We’d all set new records for early retirement! Servicemembers could eat all of their meals in the galley, spend their spare time reading library books or studying for advancement exams, and work out in the (free) base gym. No money would be wasted on gasoline, let alone energy drinks, alcohol, tobacco, or video games. No one would even need to buy civilian clothes. Veterans would have no problem retiring, and they could even return to the same lifestyle– the galley, the library, and the gym.
The irony of this example is that we all actually do know people who live like that. They’re perpetually saving their money, rarely socializing, and hardly ever going out. The problem with this single-minded focus on a Spartan lifestyle (and its extremely high savings rates) is that it’s very difficult to sustain. For the vast majority of us, that life can get boring, unfulfilling, and frustrating. These people seem to be pretty one-dimensional and not much fun. Maybe they have a very good reason for squeezing the most out of every nickel, or maybe they can’t help themselves, but it doesn’t look like a way to enjoy a career or a life. They’ll make their short-term goals, but usually in the long term they’ll drive themselves (and everyone around them) nuts.
There’s a happy compromise that’s short of the extreme. Frugality is just simple living– a lifestyle that avoids waste and suits your values. Extraordinary frugality, however, can be deprivation. Everyone understands how to avoid waste, but everyone also has a standard of living they’re not willing to give up to achieve that level of avoiding waste. Financial independence benefits from frugality, but it does not require extremes. It’s your choice to balance lifestyle (and values) with the time it takes to achieve that financial independence.
The difference between frugality and deprivation is personal and derived from your values. Everyone has a line between the two that they choose not to cross. The difference is that frugality feels good and makes you enthusiastic about reaching your goals.
It’s a challenge, and when you’re doing well at it then you feel like a winner. You might not even miss the consumerism and the materialistic lifestyle that you’re doing without. However, deprivation is always doing without for a higher priority, willingly or not. Frugality matches your values and usually frees up quite a bit of savings that can be applied toward financial independence. You’re living a life that you enjoy and you’re making progress toward your goals– it’s easy to feel good about it.
Deprivation, however, rarely matches your values and feels more like slavery than volunteering. You may be making great progress but it’s definitely not easy and you will not feel good about it. Prolonged deprivation is extremely difficult to voluntarily sustain and it usually leads to unhappiness.
The military teaches frugality (while imposing deprivation), but society does not always value either of them. We even have expectations of the ranks– junior officers are seen driving hot sports cars, senior enlisted have hefty pickup trucks or SUVs, senior officers buy luxury vehicles and nice houses with lots of creature comforts and big yards. Even junior enlisted may stand out among their barracks peers with a nicer laptop or a new smart phone. If you’re one of the few who can’t flash an attention-getting possession, then you may be pitied. And everyone teases the junior officer driving a 10-year-old hatchback– or a bicycle!
Frugality may occasionally put you at odds with the standards of a materialistic society. The more frugal you are, the more you may appear to be “left out”. Again the difference between frugality and deprivation is how you feel about it. If you relish the challenge, enjoy the achievements, and have fun while saving money, then you’re doing great. If you’re amused by the comments of your shipmates then your frugality reflects your values (and probably your net worth). If you’re feeling “left out” or even unhappy about the lifestyle remarks, however, then you’ve probably crossed the line into deprivation. You need a critical short-term goal to endure deprivation, or you need to modify your values.
An interesting aspect of frugality and deprivation is that they can change your values, maybe even permanently. An extreme example of this is the Great Depression. In the 1920s a significant part of society was living very materialistic, even luxurious lives. In the 1930s many suddenly found themselves struggling to find enough food and stay warm, let alone have a job or even luxuries. They didn’t volunteer for deprivation but they quickly became extraordinarily frugal and managed to cope with the trauma.
Over the years the habits became ingrained and part of their value system. When the Depression and World War II rationing ended, these members of The Greatest Generation didn’t completely revert to their carefree spendthrift ways. We all know people of that era who can whip up a gourmet meal out of leftover cornflakes. They can fix anything in the home and think nothing of (*gasp*) walking to their destination. They even know how to do without!
The other side of their frugality, though, is that many of these people will not spend money. They may still shun mortgages or credit cards, will not invest in the stock market, and won’t buy newer technology or update their skills. They may castigate others for waste and may even have difficulty treating themselves to a luxury without feeling guilty. Their values were significantly changed by earlier trauma and they may struggle with what they see as modern society’s degenerate lifestyle.
Many people see frugality as tedious, time-consuming labor. Once again, it depends on what you value. Cooking a meal from scratch is almost always more effort than dining out or picking up fast food. But you may feel that you get more value from preparing your own healthy, creative, high-quality meals. You might enjoy cooking as a hobby, not endure it as a chore. You may think that restaurant meals lack your talent for nutritious ingredients, proper seasoning, and creative presentation. The crowds, waiting, noise, and traffic might be discouraging. Or perhaps you prefer to save dining out for special occasions, and the experience would be less enjoyable if you did it every day.
But while you’re quite happy to eat at home and save your money instead of dining out, you may draw the line at rinsing and re-using plastic bags. It doesn’t matter to you that others see this labor as keeping waste out of landfills. You’re not willing to spend your time on the same goal. Do the things that bring value to your life, and keep an open mind for new ideas, but don’t feel obligated to cross the deprivation line.
Frugal zealots may be accused of taking advantage of others. For example, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to drink water during a restaurant meal (instead of sharing a pitcher of another beverage) or to order smaller, cheaper menu items.
However, if you’re sharing with others then it’s wrong to skip your turn to buy the next round of drinks, or to help yourself to food that you’re not paying for, or to skimp on your portion of the tip. That’s not being frugal– that’s being cheap. Frugality means avoiding waste and spending money on the things you value, not tricking others into spending their money on you.
Practicing frugality is not an all-or-nothing lifestyle. Learn about as many techniques as you can and then choose the ones that you feel bring value to your routine. You may enjoy the daily challenge or you might decide to only be extra frugal if you had an emergency expense that month. You may only adopt one or two ideas (like bicycling for short trips) and then expand them (commuting or taking a bicycle trek for your next vacation).
Drying one or two loads of laundry on a clothesline may be no problem when you’re single, but the labor might be a bit much when you’re raising a family of young children who can’t yet do their own laundry. Monitor your spending, decide what’s worth your effort, and change your habits as necessary.
Families can adopt frugality very easily and raise children with strong life skills. If you attempt to impose deprivation on your family, however, then you’ll be facing rebellion in the ranks. People will have to either choose to upgrade their lifestyle or change their values until deprivation eases up to frugality. If you’re imposing deprivation on them then you may not get the cooperation you expect. Be patient and be ready to compromise.
The Dollar Stretcher website & newsletters: commonsense advice and encouragement. The weekly newsletter is particularly useful for regular small doses of information and motivation.
Simple Living: more straightforward lifestyle advice and many reference books.
Early Retirement Extreme. Caution: not for the faint of heart.
Amy Dacyczyn and her Tightwad Gazette: a military familymember and the godmother of frugal living. You’ll find her book at the public library.
Jeff Yeager and The Ultimate Cheapskate: More big-picture frugality advice from another early retiree. He did it on a low income and without any military benefits!
Does this post help? Sign up for more free military retirement tips via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter!