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Our Triple Bottom Line // Balancing Frugality With Our Values

we hope you had a wonderful thanksgiving, friends! even if you’re reading from canada and celebrated two months ago. :-)

one of the misconceptions we used to have about frugality was that frugal people were cheap at all costs. we’d see people at the store stocking up on the most unhealthy foods or most polluting products in gargantuan quantities for rock bottom prices and think, “whoa! if that’s frugality, that’s not for us!” we even went through a couponing period (not gonna lie — it was a little extreme), but ultimately rejected that way of shopping because it was crazy time-consuming, the foods we could buy with coupons made us feel lousy, and we didn’t like the amount of food packaging that we were contributing to the landfill from all of the prepared foods we were buying. and we mistakenly thought that, if we weren’t willing to shop with coupons to a somewhat extreme degree that we could never really be big savers.

it’s easy to view frugality as all or nothing, or to see frugality as trumping other values. but it doesn’t have to.

Our Triple Bottom Line -- Balancing Frugality with Our Values // Our Next Life -- financial independence, early retirement, environmentalism, social justice

a breakthrough idea for us was reframing how we see frugality in terms of the business term triple bottom line. as you can read on the wikipedia page for triple bottom line, it’s a redefinition of a company’s ultimate goals, most often embraced by newer social ventures or socially responsible companies.

here’s a simple breakdown, starting with the first bottom line: money.

in traditional business accounting and common usage, the “bottom line” refers to either the “profit” or “loss”, which is usually recorded at the very bottom line on a statement of revenue and expenses.

in essence, the first bottom line is: how much money are we ending up with? it’s profit or loss, which may translate for any of us into retirement savings or debt payoff, both hugely important to any solid financial plan. but there are two more bottom lines in the triple bottom line model:

over the last 50 years, environmentalists and “social justice” advocates have struggled to bring a broader definition of bottom line into public consciousness by introducing full cost accounting. for example, if a corporation shows a monetary profit, but their asbestos mine causes thousands of deaths from asbestosis, and their copper mine pollutes a river, and the government ends up spending taxpayer money on health care and river clean-up, how do we perform a full societal cost benefit analysis? the triple bottom line adds two more “bottom lines”: social and environmental concerns.

when we think about our values — not just our money — and what we want our contribution to the world to be, the top three that rise to the top again and again are:

  1. achieving the financial freedom to see the world and expand our horizons (money)
  2. using our privilege to help people, and to ensure that our purchases don’t support oppression (social)
  3. not trashing the planet, using more than our share of resources, or harming our health (environmental)

for a long time, it seemed like these values were at odds with frugality, or at least the second and third felt that way, and so we kept obliviously blowing our paychecks… again, that all-or-nothing thinking. if the cheap processed food at the discount grocer violates #3, then it must be fundamentally at odds with #1, or so we thought. but we finally realized that they don’t have to be at odds at all, and that realization helped us shape what we think of as our triple bottom line approach to the “business” of our life.

realigning those top three values as bottom lines, we get as our triple bottom line:

  1. money saved (achieved through frugality and increasing our earnings)
  2. people helped or not oppressed (achieved through volunteering, donations and not supporting stores or companies that don’t respect their workers)
  3. environmental and health impact (achieved through minimizing our purchases generally, making choices with the smallest impact, minimizing packaging and garbage as much as possible, and choosing organic, unprocessed foods most of the time)

our new model actually happens to align pretty perfectly to a business triple bottom line model, which made us think: shouldn’t everyone go through this exercise and figure out what they want to balance in their own lives, so that their finances are never at odds with their values?

because, ultimately, we not only want to save money, we also want to be able to sleep at night, and to know that we stand for something. for us, if we do all of our shopping at stores that might save us money, but which fill our bellies with unhealthy processed foods and fill our garbage can with a huge excess of packaging, we will never be happy. and that’s what this push toward fire is all about, right? happiness? so let’s all agree not to undermine our happiness by letting money trump what we hold dear in our hearts!

here’s a concrete example. we all love fresh salad greens, right? and the stores make it so easy these days to just toss a big plastic box of baby kale into your cart. knowing that we want baby kale, we have several options to obtain it:

  1. buy the absolute cheapest volume of it at the discount grocery store in a thick plastic container (pro: cheap. cons: workers get paid peanuts, kale unlikely to be organic, and kale comes in a plastic box that’s unlikely to be recycled, even if you put it in the recycle bin.)
  2. buy a similar bin for slightly more at the natural grocery store (pro: workers paid better, kale likely to be organic. con: more expensive, still comes in plastic.)
  3. buy the kale from a loose bin, using reusable produce bags, at the natural grocery store or farmers market (pro: workers paid better, kale is organic, no packaging. con: a little more expensive.)

using our triple bottom line model, it’s pretty easy to see that we choose option 3. yes, we pay a little more, which is hard for someone focused solely on frugality to swallow. but for us, thinking about the triple bottom line instead of just absolute price gives us the best ratio of pros (3) to cons (1), as opposed to the inverse ratio in the rock bottom cheapest option. of course, paying attention to the triple bottom line doesn’t mean not caring about price — you can still care deeply about price, and do all of the same comparison shopping, and find the best deal — but do so in the context of ruling out any deal-breakers for you.

while this post isn’t meant to be a lesson just for cyber monday, it is another good example of balancing multiple values, not just price bottom line. so while we might save a buck or two on products ordered online today, we’ve significantly cut back on what we buy online because we’ve gotten sick of receiving huge piles of cardboard and plastic whenever we order something from amazon (really guys? you needed to put that box inside another just slightly larger box? or use a giant box and a million plastic air bubbles for one tiny thing?).

it always comes back to happiness and peace of mind — finding what it takes for you to have those. if all you care about is the balance on your ledger, then you have some easier decisions, and can buy on price alone. nothing wrong with that! if, however, you’re like us, and basing decisions on price alone doesn’t quite sit right with you, then we highly recommend doing this exercise to figure out your triple bottom line, and aligning your choices moving forward with your trifecta.

how do you balance your money goals and your non-financial values? have you ever thought about frugality in terms of triple bottom line? please share!

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50 replies »

  1. We are balancing our frugality with our desires to be hospitable, generous, and to volunteer with our church. So instead of side-hustling we spend time teaching Bible studies and meeting with friends. Instead of putting every spare dollar in the stock market, we give away a certain percent of our income. And we regularly allow large groups of people (even children!) to stampede our home. I agree that everyone needs to live for something bigger than money and frugality can be just as mis-focused as over-consumption. We need a deeper purpose.

    • Letting kids stampede your house is downright saintly! :-) I think it’s awesome that you guys keep your values front and center in your money decisions. We used to side hustle, too, but like you, felt that it kept us from volunteering and doing other things we wanted to do, and decided to give it up. I love how you put it — we all need a deeper purpose.

  2. This is definitely an area that my wife and I could probably spend a little more time paying attention to. While price isn’t necessarily the ONLY element in our buying decisions, it is most definitely the main one. It is tough for us to willingly spend more money on something at a particular business when we could just as easily get it elsewhere for cheaper. We aren’t Walmart shoppers, but we tend not to spend more at some stores because the workers might be paid more money or that the cost to the environment is less.

    However, we will buy in bulk as much as humanly possible. We have a couple local stores that offer several items in bulk, and that definitely helps to keep both our costs down as well as our environmental usage to a minimum.

    • Glad we could get you thinking! If you’re not Walmart shoppers, you’re already ahead of the curve. :-) And hey, if this stuff isn’t hugely important to you, there’s nothing wrong with that! And hooray for your bulk shopping — that’s awesome!

  3. I have been struggling with this very issue recently, in two arenas. First, our fancy one cup at a time coffee maker (purchased pre-retirement). While I love the convenience of choosing what beverage I’d like without having to brew an entire pot or make two different pots (I’m decaf, hubby isn’t), it strikes me as wasteful every time I toss one of those little pods in the garbage. I know you can tear some of them apart and separate the recyclable portion, but the truth is I just don’t want to be that busy. After having it bother me for months, I finally decided to purchase whole beans, grind them ourselves, and use the permanent pod supplied with the machine. Although we’ll now be using soap and water to clean it, we won’t be throwing away each individual little pod after every cup (and I’ve been using the tea pods twice as it is). Does this save any actual money? Probably a little, the pods are expensive! Which brings me to the Amazon issue. We buy the pods, and a lot of other items, from Amazon. We retired to the sierras, and many items just aren’t available locally, necessitating a minimum sixty mile round trip (if the item is available in the closest larger town), or a couple hundred miles if we have to travel to a major metropolitan area. Not wanting to waste fuel, time and effort, we purchase hard to find items online. However, the endless cardboard waste has become a concern. It seems we’re spending a lot of time breaking down boxes these days. It may just be setting up the new place, or adjusting to price comparisons that frequently result in an online purchase, or buying in bulk, or all of the above, but it certainly feels like there are a lot of boxes to be dealt with these days. It’s a balancing act, and a work in progress, to do what’s best for our budget and best for our souls as well as best for our beloved little planet. We’re still learning, but for today I’m pleased with my new (non-Amazon) coffee bean grinder and soon to arrive (Amazon) decaf coffee beans. It’s progress.

    • Good for you for breaking away from the coffee pod monster! Those things are an environmental disaster on par with plastic water bottles (not to mention expensive!), so it’s nice to see people starting to find other options. And give yourself a pat on the back for your progress… that’s awesome! None of us are perfect (and the ones who are perfect are the most annoying). :-) So progress is worth celebrating!

    • An option might be to save up all Amazon purchases and only hit “buy” biweekly or even once a month. Then the majority of items ship together and packaging is greatly reduced. I don’t know if it would offset the secondary option of numerous trips to and from town or not but it would probably go a long way. I personally do that, and then take my extra boxes to my workplace who then use them to ship other things. Win!

      • That’s great that others use your boxes — win, indeed. We too often go through the effort of consolidating an Amazon order (we’ll sometimes wait as much as two months of keeping things in our cart to do just a single order!), and then they ship the order in several oversized boxes anyway. Sigh. :-( But we each have to figure out what’s worth it to us, and what reflects our own values — others may not lose sleep like we do over a little cardboard! ;-)

  4. We went through the coupon phase as well. We just wasted time buying loads of processed foods. We ended up donating most of it. We only coupon now for body wash and things of that nature. I think our frugality has lead us to be more environmentally friendly also. We buy used items and consume less. As far as food is concerned we believe that quality input =quality output so it’s ok to pay more.. call it a long term investment :-)


    • You know the coupon pain. :-) It can be pretty fun to get stuff for cheap or free, but man! What a time suck! We did enjoy getting to donate so much, though… I miss that part. But love that you guys went in a more environmentally friendly direction, too, as a part of your frugality. They really should be naturally complementary (buying and using less stuff = better for the environment), but somehow the cheapest stuff is also environmentally the worst — such a shame! Hope you guys had a great holiday!

  5. I’ll put money towards things where I have a strong value, mainly healthcare. I know people poo-poo things like supplements, but I consider then an insurance policy. Or other things like healthy food. Why bother saving money and buying ramen when you will pay for it later in health care costs?

    • What you’re doing is so smart! It’s our problem with all the cheap, processed foods — sure, it’s cheap now, but how much will it drive your healthcare costs up in the future?! Or, worse — how much will it shorten your life? Not a good trade-off, even if it’s cheaper! :-)

  6. I love this way of explaining how we decide our level of frugality. It’s basically what we do… but we never put it so eloquently. Though you’re much better than us at the sustainable front. We lose a lot of those capabilities living in Alaska (is ANYTHING sustainable when it gets shipped up on a big barge?). Our fridge has the plastic box of spinach in it. Basically, if it’s at Costco, that’s what we have to get. (When prices are more than double at the grocery stores sometimes, that wins out over worrying about the box. Wish we had more options!) And that’s our confession. :)

    • Our stuff may not come on a barge, but it definitely comes on lots of big semi trucks! Honestly, everyone’s products have a lot of miles on them these days. And you shouldn’t beat yourself up about the big plastic tub from Costco… you guys have different decisions to make, and with a family. It’s a luxury for us, for sure, to be able to turn down the cheapest option and make one that suits our conscience better. But thanks for your confession… you’re always safe confessing here. :-)

  7. I’ve never thought about it in these terms. We simply have found that we’re happiest when our spending is aligned with what we value.
    For example, we would never spend money buying each other the fanciest new electronics or jewelry b/c we simply don’t care about that stuff. However, we won’t skimp on things like taking a trip we’ve been wanting to take or skiing a resort we really want to ski b/c it makes us happy and strengthens our relationship.
    With our daughter, we buy her very little in the way of clothes (plenty of hand me downs from family and friends) or toys (we’d rather she learn to use her imagination). However, we very willingly pay for things like swim lessons and good snow gear that promotes her getting out and being active so she isn’t fearful or miserable and she actually enjoys getting out with us and knows that as her lifestyle.

    • You guys are pros at matching your money to your values. I think in the *what* you spend your money on column, you have it exactly right. And same with us — we won’t buy status stuff or new gadgets, but we’ll definitely spend on travel and experiences (and, occasionally, new skis). :-) I think the triple bottom line discussion is more about the *from whom* decision and *how it’s made,* speaking only about things we know we need to buy. The rest falls in line easily.

  8. Wow, what a great discussion of this issue! This is something I think about a lot, but I didn’t really have the vocabulary (“triple bottom line”) to talk about it before.

    One thing I might add is that animal welfare may have a place on this list in some form, either as part of “people” or part of “environment”. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian and don’t have a huge amount of knowledge about animal welfare issues, but one example that does sort of freak me out is the egg industry. I wish I knew a local farmer who I could get eggs from, because at the moment my only options are to buy pasture-raised eggs at Whole Foods for $7.99 a dozen, or to buy eggs that I’m really just not sure about. Or to not buy eggs at all. I haven’t totally figured out what to do about this yet.

    I think one thing that’s hard in all of this is the fact that oftentimes we really don’t know 100% of the facts about the way a particular food item or other product was produced. But that’s not to say that trying to figure out our triple bottom line is a lost cause, because it’s definitely not! :) I think we can generally make very good educated guesses about social/environmental impact, as you do in your kale example.

    Thanks for writing about this. I think it’s really, really important.

    • Thanks! We completely struggle with the egg question, too. We’d love to just solve the whole thing by having our own chickens, but that definitely won’t work with our current and future travel schedules! We have a local coop that sells outdoor raised, local-ish eggs for $6 a dozen in bulk, so we can reuse our cartons. It’s tons more expensive than buying the dollar eggs at the super market, but I can’t stomach the thought (literally!) of eating eggs produced the worst way possible, and packaged in styrofoam. That’s the compromise I’ve made peace with, and in truth we don’t buy as many eggs as we otherwise might, because of the cost. So yeah… no answers here, but I hear ya! And your point about the lack of transparency in the food system is HUGE… we do our very, very best to buy local from producers we know, but it is not always easy. And at the very least, we can avoid shopping at Walmart and other retailers that treat their employees poorly and force the degradation of global manufacturing standards and pollution regulations. :-)

  9. I like this concept, and it’s not even always the case that you have to make a trade-off between the three values. Often, it just takes a little more effort or intentional thought to optimize all three. The bulk food is a great example — we have a local supermarket with the absolute lowest prices on beans, rice, grains, spices, etc., with no unwanted packaging, AND they pay their employees well.

    I used to feel better about the big plastic and glass containers knowing that we have some of the most robust recycling in the country here, but this recent NYT article was sobering: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/opinion/sunday/the-reign-of-recycling.html With all the inefficiencies of recycling, it’s probably better to consider all packaging to be “trash,” whether or not it goes to the landfill.

    • We read that NYC article, and have a friend who is an expert in this stuff, and we’ve come to the same conclusion — anything you toss out, regardless of what bin you put it in, is probably going to the landfill. Such a bummer, and something more people need to know. But how wonderful that you guys have a store that has the best prices on bulk staples! Win-win-win!

  10. This is an incredible break down, and way to put into context the pros vs. cons in a 3 point format! I think one of the biggest points we try to hone in on is buying local whenever we can. Whether that’s small businesses, farmers markets, co-worker home food growers, student entrepreneurs, etc. That way we know that most of our dollars spent are funneling back into providing employment opportunities for people in our city, funding someone’s passion, and strengthening our parks/infrastructure/development. As feasible as it is to get the better deal online, I am more apt to paying extra dollars to stay within our community!

    • Bravo, Alyssa! Buying local as much as possible, and avoiding chain stores, is a great way to go. And I love the point you made — you’re more likely to be funding someone’s passion that way. Love that point! :-)

  11. We buy many things in bulk from Costco. They have a number of high quality items and feel it’s the most logical and frugal path. We do order online but only from reputable retailers like Macy’s. Amazon is a bit ridiculous with their choice of packaging. I bet they will need to cut down on that when they start their drone deliveries! Great insight, great post!

    • Great point about Amazon’s drone deliveries! Their little planes won’t be able to lug giant boxes! And it’s great that you’ve found an approach that works for you. :-)

  12. From an environment point of view, we started trying to save energy and eat local food long before thinking about financial independence ! If we want to survive as a species, we need to be a bit more mindful about the environment, beside, it is not really hard to tweak you lifestly to lower your impact, and hey, often it even saves money !

    We kind of grew into our FI goal, and it only challenged us to tweak a bit more !

    Now, one thing we enjoy is gardening, and cooking, so we hardly ever buy pre-processed food (such as pre-cooked meals), so beside ingredients, and meat, we buy vegetables that we can’t grow, and freeze what we over-produce for the winter.

    Great saving, really tasty food, and net a positive impact on the environment !

    • You guys are on our wavelength! :-) I love all of what you’re doing, and wish we could do it, too — alas, we have a super short growing season in the mountains, and our property is nothing but shade from our big pine trees. But kudos to you!

  13. I have those same cringe moments when I see the price difference between chicken, and no hormone or antibiotic, free range, chickens, and then I think, “Is it worth saving $4 to eat those chemicals? Especially when I KNOW they’re in there?” We try to reduce packaging too, but it’s difficult. We use reusable produce bags – Mrs. SSC found some on Etsy, not made in China lol, and we do the reusable grocery bags and stuff, but with Amazon wrapping boxes in boxes, padded with boxes, I think I need to invest in a cardboard supplier to them. To get around that, we try not to nickel and dime Amazon orders and have things set up to come as full packed boxes.
    We’ve never gotten into couponing for every reason mentioned above. It’s not usually stuff we eat and seems like a major time suck – pun intended.

    • That’s the crazy thing — it’s not a *maybe* with our food, we *know* that bad stuff is in there. Love that Mrs SSC found those bags, and supported a small craftsperson in the process! I think it’s great that you consciously fill your Amazon box before ordering… my favorite (sarcasm) is when you go through that whole process and then they ship it in eight different boxes anyway!

  14. This is an interesting idea that I really haven’t thought about before. We probably don’t think about the full big picture as much as we should but we have been making more of an effort to support our local community by buying more produce at local farmer markets. Looking at it this way, we actually have been doing something triple bottom line items without realizing it!

    • That’s awesome that you’re focused on buying local — you’re already doing a triple bottom line, indeed! :-) If it’s something that interests you and your family, you can think of more shopping that way, not just produce — for sure you have tons of local producers in your area, and even buying from local stores instead of big chains can make a difference if that’s something you want. :-)

  15. I think everyone thinks in these terms (multiple objectives) even if they don’t realize or articulate it as well as you did. Personally, we think saving money is important because money is a valuable tool that frees up your decision making and gives you tremendous flexibility. I don’t want it walking out the door without it going with some intention.

    That said, it’s not the ultimate goal. It’s not even the penultimate goal. The other line items – being a good person and doing the right thing, for starters, often leads the charge (I suspect, or at least hope, this is the case for most people… even if they won’t be listing it since it should be ingrained).

    The value in this exercise is in writing down some of these objectives, these bottom lines, because it can really help guide your decision making process. Everyone is already doing this, even if they aren’t able to put words to the priorities in their minds. :)

    • Hi Jim. I think you’re right that people balance multiple ideas when making decisions, but we often think when folks start focusing on frugality, it often feels like saving money needs to trump everything, including values. Our goal was to give people permission — even those super focused on frugality — to continue keeping their values in the equation — sounds like that comes more naturally for you, which is awesome! :-)

  16. I think your triple bottom line is very interesting. I would probably consider a few goals:
    Enjoyment achieved
    Relationships enhanced
    Money saved

    I have a fairly broad definition of relationships, but I also notice that these goals influence how I use money more than anything else. It’s also why I’ve never thought of regular giving as conflicting to the pursuit of financial independence.

  17. I feel like I’ve come at this a thousand different ways, through small decisions I’ve made a bunch of times since I set my goal of saving 50% of my income. Buying bags of expensive organic spinach vs. filling up on bread and rice? Easy choice, because I value my health more than the savings associated with cutting out a moderately more expensive, but healthy, choice. But buying every meal in the prepared section of a grocery store, vs. cooking healthy and cheap meals myself once a week for lunches? That one I can do.

    You guys have inspired me to actually formalize what I’ve learned about my triple bottom line over the past few months in a post! I’m going to take my time with it, but I’ll make sure to send it to you when it’s ready!

    • Yay — look forward to reading your post! Always love your take on things. And yeah — it’s easy to think of a lot of this as ingrained, since like you said, many of these decisions are natural. Mostly I wanted to shift our thinking since I always felt like I was somehow sinking our retirement plans every time I didn’t buy the cheapest option, and I wanted to stop feeling that way. This approach clears my conscience, and reminds me that we’re just letting our values as a whole, not just the single value of frugality, dictate things.

  18. Just listened to a podcast where they briefly talked about triple bottom line. This post was the first time I heard of that and now this podcast I just listened to. I’m so thankful this is now on my radar – I now have so much to think about. Thank you sharing your thoughts.

  19. Wow, fantastic post! I’ve never heard of the triple bottom line, but I LOVE IT! This is a post that I think everyone starting out FIRE should read … when you first get into the matter, you are focusing on saving as much as possible as fast as possible, and at least for me, at times that meant compromising my values. Only through experience did I realize I wanted to “stand for something.” That’s a quintessential part of the FIRE journey – how am I going to not only save money but become the person I want to be. There’s a million ways to retire early, and I think y’all are a great example that you don’t have to be into extreme frugality to make it happen.

    • Thanks! We try hard not to be extreme at anything (including the enviro side — it’s easy to get extreme and preachy with that too!). Love that you are thinking about values with your money — it doesn’t surprise me to know that, of course, knowing your blog, but it’s so rare!