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Thinking About Frugality More Broadly // A Call to Action

if you’re reading this blog, it’s pretty likely that the word “frugality” is a part of your vocabulary. maybe you don’t use it much in real life (like us), but it’s probably something you think about and read about at least a little bit. none of us can make these drastic life changes, like early retirement, without embracing frugality to some degree at least.

lately we’ve been noticing some little things that have been expanding how we think about frugality: when we order coffee at starbucks (only when it’s on work’s dime!), we get a five or 10 cent discount for bringing our own cup. when we shop at whole foods, we get five cents off our bill for every bag we bring in. at the co-op where we shop sometimes, they even give us a nickel back for every jar we use instead of using plastic bags or containers, and that usually adds up to at least $1.50 off each trip, when combined with the bring-your-own-bags rebate. our local coffee roaster gives us a whole dollar off when we buy a pound of beans in our own canister, plus a free cup of coffee in our travel mug! just this morning, a food vendor gave a $.50 discount for not needing a plastic fork and knife, because we carry bamboo utensils in our travel bags. these companies appreciate that we’re saving them money, and they pass the savings along to customers to encourage more resource saving.

this got us thinking: isn’t it in everyone‘s best interest to be frugal (for the money savings), and consume fewer of the resources that will just get thrown away after one use (for the resource savings)? the companies encourage it, we like saving the money, everybody wins. being frugal in the individual sense — frugal with a small “f” — is great. we save money, we can build up our savings faster and we get closer to our goals. but what if we think about frugality collectively — Frugality with a big “f” — to think about how we can all save money and resources, to reach our common goals?

like it or not, this is a consumerist society, and our economy is built upon that idea. those of us who plan to one day rely on our investments to support us are actually forced to be hypocritical, because we don’t want to consume much ourselves, but we hope others will keep buying the products that will drive the share prices up or pay our dividends. this is a bummer, but not what we’re talking about today.

we’re talking about the seemingly inconsequential stuff — the plastic bags, the paper coffee cups and plastic lids, the plastic water bottles, the disposable food wrappings, the single use utensils. those things cost money to produce, and businesses pay that price and then pass that along to consumers. we’re always hearing about rising prices, like starbucks’ recent price hike. what if we all — consumers and businesses — jointly agreed to constrain prices by being smarter about how we’re using resources? all of us frugalists would sure be happy, but there would be a lot of other positive side effects: less trash going into the landfill (or ocean!), fewer trees getting chopped down to make paper cups, less oil being refined to make plastic water bottles.

and thinking even more broadly, can we redefine frugality to focus not just on saving money, but just on saving generally? and not just consuming less in terms of spending, but consuming less in an absolute sense. the frugal way of life is inherently more conservation-friendly, since we already buy and consume a lot less than most people. so this isn’t a huge philosophical leap. and if enough of us think this way, it’s bound to have a positive effect on prices, which is a virtuous cycle that all of us frugal folks would love to see.

what do you think? do you buy our idea of reframing frugality? think we’re being too optimistic and prices will always rise no matter what? think it’s too much work to carry your own bags, cup and utensils? (we think it’s just like any new habit, and becomes second nature pretty quickly!)

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43 replies »

  1. I agree with you completely! I manage to have my own coffee cup with me about 80-90% of the time when I get takeout coffee, and I also bring bags to the grocery store etc. Sometimes I get discounts out of this and sometimes I don’t, but I always think it’s worth it to conserve. (I think conservation is a good way to think about this, along with frugality.)

    • That is 100% of the reason why we rarely shop at Trader Joe’s, even though it would save us money. Just can’t stomach all that wasted packaging!

  2. I’m all for a good reframing session, so I relish these opportunities. I agree that frugality is one of the keys to conscious living that we need. In thinking of the example of the “single-use” utensils, are they truly items we can use only one time? What differentiates a plastic fork from a metal fork, other than price and material? What makes one fork “single use”?

  3. Oh plastic bags. I wish they’d go away faster than they are. I was shopping this weekend (gasp!) and the cashier decided to ask me “Did you hear some places are trying to ban plastic bags? What would we do without plastic bags?” It seemed so silly coming out of her mouth, but I was glad for the opportunity to remind her about paper bags or reusable bags. Maybe she’ll get it.

    As for my own personal consumption, I’m not the best at bringing reusable. For grocery shopping, nearly all places have paper bags and we use those for recycling. If a place doesn’t have paper, I am usually not prepared. For some foods, like Chipotle, I prefer to eat it with a plastic fork. Usually, I’m pretty good at reusing it. Now I just have to get away from my K-cup consumption.

    Thanks for the reminder to take some cloth bags down to my car!

    • We’ve seen change happen fast. Just a few years ago, we got funny looks for bringing shopping bags, and now plastic is gone and reusable bags are ubiquitous. And bringing bags is just like any habit: annoying at first, but quickly second nature. And, oh, those K-cups. Just remind yourself that your tastebuds deserve better. :-)

      • I was touched to see an older fellow in an NRA hat set up his canvas shopping bags.

        I feel it’s a real movement now but for the life of me I cannot change my husband.

  4. I love the idea of reframing frugality! A lot of the following rings true to me as well. Our city banned plastic bags in grocery stores over a year ago, and it’s fantastic! We have a large stockpile of reusable bags that we keep everywhere (they’re useful for everything, not just groceries)! What’s amazing is the ripple effect that occurs when you focus on consuming less/using reusable items: we recycle more & are able to eliminate a trash pick up of every week, to every other week creating more savings on expenses. By buying from bulk bins, we spend less and do not have to spend more money on pre-packaged items. Not only is the absolute sense more friendly towards the environment, but consequently it is more friendly to our wallets as well (which isn’t always the initial goal)! I think our city/state truly encourages the idea of frugality in an absolute sense. Recycling is key (most Portland neighborhoods only have trash pick up once a month), reusable bottle waters are a staple item (Hydroflask from Bend, OR and growler fill stations), and the business we work for is keen on sustainability by utilizing Post Consumer Resin pellets to create handles for companies to multi-pack their products that are fully recyclable. So I guess in a sense, many of the people in our communities practice frugality in an absolute sense just by second nature! I could imagine living in a city/state that does not encourage such practices would have to reframe their thought process on frugality with a big “f,” and support others around them to take on such practices. Now you’ve really got me thinking, thanks for this post! :)

    • Oregon puts the rest of the country to shame yet again! What a great point, too, about saving money on trash pickup. That’s another great benefit of “Frugality!” I especially love that your example shows how quickly social norms can change.

  5. Man, those are great points. We bring reusable bags to the grocery, and last year Mrs. SSC found some reusable bags for produce that were on etsy or somewhere. They’re little different colored mesh bags with a ribbon drawstring. Since you guys do your own pillows, they’d be a cinch to knock out one weekend. :) they’re different sizes and shapes but work perfectly for veggies and then we don’t have to use those veggie plastic bags!
    In my office I reuse my plastic spoon that I eat yogurt with. I think it’s about 8 months old now – and yes it gets washed. I also reuse chopsticks at home, if we can “re-use” wooden cooking utensils, how are chopsticks any different?

    • You are the frugal hero of the week — reusing your plastic spoon for 8 months and washing chopsticks! The 19th century would approve. :-)

      Love your idea for sewing produce bags. We have a bunch of simple cotton bags, but feel like we can always use more.

  6. This is a wonderful idea, but it’s going to be difficult to get everyone on board. The more frugal that we become, the more I notice how much other people seem to enjoy spending money. The average person earns to spend. Although your goal is admirable, there will be very few advocates. That being said, I agree that we may be able to encourage small-time vendors to give us discounts and any chance at saving money deserves a shot.

    • I’m reminded of the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” :-)

  7. I do think prices will always just continue to rise, as you say, but I also think that things are getting better as far as intentionality goes in our society. Reusable grocery bags have become very mainstream in the past few years. And I think that’s just a start. More and more people are realizing the waste and trying to change, but getting people to change is hard. So I think the grocery bags is a great start. Now someone just needs to come up with the next single step we can all make mainstream. Thoughts on what we should focus on?

    • Great question! We vote to get everyone to carry a water bottle as the next step. The amount of bottled water bought each day is shocking, and likewise the number of paper coffee cups with cardboard sleeves and plastic lids that get trashed each day is equally scandalous. We both carry an insulated 16 oz travel mug that works equally well for water and coffee.

  8. I like this idea a lot, unfortunately I think that companies are so focused on profits that it is unlikely to happen unless our culture changes drastically. I am hopeful that as sustainable and reducing the impact of global warming become bigger priorities, this will improve.

    • Totally agree. We’re committed to using less packaging because it’s the right thing to do, not to save money, but all these companies offering rebates sure has us thinking…

  9. I rarely use the word frugal, but I looked it up on dictionary.com. While it does use synonyms like penny pinching and misery, it also uses the phrase “prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful”. To me, this can be environmental resources and not just money. I used to tutor writing and the kids would get a new word list each week. In one of their assignments the use of frugal was used in this sense: “The frugal use of water is necessary to protect this necessary resource.” I was happy to see that.

    So, I think frugal is already the right notion and no redefining necessary!

  10. I absolutely love the way you guys think about this stuff. Expanding the concept of frugality beyond just money is such a great way to reframe the conversation, and honestly, I feel like it brings in even more positive associations. Sometimes when people hear “frugal” they immediate think of the negative side of “less”, but this is such a wonderful and positive way to look at less being a good thing.

  11. In belgium you pay for a plastic bag in the grocery store. That is why we and most people now bring reusable bags or boxes to do our grocery shopping. This is a great help for the environment.

    But the article made me think: why do i not take my own bag when shopping for shoes or clothes… No idea.. Or take a cup to starbucks or so…

  12. This is a great idea, one that everyone of us who commented will probably start putting into practice. We also bring our own bags when go food shopping, but sometimes we forget to. After reading this, I realised that there are other things/utensils we can take with us so we don’t have to ask for (a plastic) one every time we need them. I’ll start carrying my own stuff from tomorrow and I’ll let you guys know how I go.

    I think you should start a ‘reframing frugality movement’. I’ll be your first supporter. Haha!

    • Wow — you’re an easy sell! :-) Haha. Thanks for supporting the idea, and being game to jump in! Can’t wait to hear how it goes for you, and if you have any tips that make starting the new habits easier. Please share, if so!

  13. I agree – the whole idea of being frugal and living below your means should (and does) imply a more focused approach to generally “consuming less”. We bring bags up to the grocery store that we shop at for our veggies and get a coooooooool 10 cents per bag, but we haven’t done the jar thing yet. I think the wife keeps track of exactly how much we’ve saved with the bag credit, too.

    And then you have the big homes, 2 or 3 cars per household, and generally driving habits that all contribute to the idea of consuming less…there are so many areas of concern with this one. :)

    • We didn’t want to get into all the big stuff, to keep the call to action manageable, but of course you are completely right — the cars, the big homes, and all those utilities are something so many people overuse. And what a cool idea to track the bag discounts!

  14. We often bring our own bags to the store when shopping and carry reusable hot/cold cups with us for water or coffee. It’s a great idea. It reminds me of the time, many years ago our waste management department instituted a recycling program. Overnight he amount of garbage was so small and recycling amount was so big and all it took was a little change.

    • That’s great that you carry reusable cups, too, and not just bags! That’s the next frontier, we think. The horrifying thing that most people don’t know is that very little of what gets put into recycling bins actually gets recycled — most just goes to the landfill anyway. So we’re doing our best to avoid buying anything that will go in any sort of bin, be it trash or recycling. Love that you guys are doing your part!

  15. I have always believed that living frugally makes your life richer, and not just in the monetary sense! I think it’s hard to sustain all the rich experiences of life – art, culture, cusine – with the throw-away mentality. There’s no quality in that! To me, that’s the number one thing that makes me sad about how we as Americas live — we are missing out on so much because of our fast fashion disposable lifestyles.

    • Total agreement here. There is something so sad about living at a time when so many things are viewed as disposable. But the wonderful thing is that it just takes a slight tweak in mindset to live a more grounded life with only permanent quality goods around you. I actually think coffee tastes better in my stainless mug than it does sipped through a plastic lid (or, better yet, in a ceramic mug while sitting down at a coffee house!). And food tastes better eaten off of wooden chopsticks than it does off of plastic cutlery. :-)