Hiya friends! Last week, a super special thing happened here: we had our first 100 comment post. To say that we were floored by it would be a tremendous understatement. We just want to let you guys know how thankful we are that you’re reading. And commenting. Every single comment is a big deal to us, and we love how much we learn from things you share. Big hugs all around.
// Sidebar: That blue in the header photo has absolutely zero color correction or filter applied. Not that our sky is that blue every day, but that is what you get in the cold, dry mountain air, way up high. Amazing, right? We’ll never get sick of that! //
I’ve been having weird feelings about the word “frugal” lately, especially after reading great posts by Pretend to Be Poor and Creating My Kaleidoscope about what frugality really means (hint: remember the Great Depression?). Or, as I wrote to Penny last week in response to her brilliant post, the Privilege of Pretending, it feels like when we talk frugality, we’re really just being frugality tourists. (“We” meaning the two of us — Mr. ONL and I — not this blogging community.)
Because we really aren’t frugal by any reasonable definition of the word. We never consider forgoing things we need, we only occasionally forgo things we want and our fill-the-bucket list is very full. Okay, sure, we spend less than other people in plenty of cases, but in lots of other cases we spend more. Yes, we have a high savings percent, but we also earn more than about 99.9 percent of the planet. (See where you rank on the Global Rich List. I bet it’s higher than you think. You only have to earn $33,000 annually in the U.S. to be in the top 1% globally.)
Our One Frugal Habit
I know a post is coming on this whole frugality tourist notion, but while that one keeps cooking in my brain, I decided to look at our lives and see if there was any area in which we truly are frugal, and ask what that means for us. And there is one example: the thermostat. So here goes confession time:
We keep our house at 56 degrees.
(That’s 13 degrees Celcius.) If that’s all you knew about us, you’d have a very skewed picture of our lives. You’d think we are for-real-frugal, when in fact that’s our only real and true frugal habit. And that’s actually a habit we picked up well before we started blogging, before we had our retirement timeline set, before we ever thought we’d admit to the internet that we keep our house so cold.
To us, it’s simple: energy is extra expensive in rural areas, we live in a cold place, ergo the natural gas bill in the winter would be unacceptably high if we heated our house to a more normal temperature. How high? Like north of $400, which was the first gas bill we received after moving in, using the setting the previous owners had left on the thermostat, which was an entirely reasonable 66 degrees (19º C). As it is, we pay about $200 a month in the winter to maintain 56, with occasional bumps up to 60 (15º C) when we’re in a treat yoself mood.
And we don’t have air conditioning, but I’m sure that if we did, we’d probably never turn it on in the summer, although we don’t really have any humidity in the mountains — see that bright blue sky for proof — so would only need it once in a while anyway.
What’s super interesting to me about the thermostat to me is how it has this strange power that nothing else in our lives has. If we’re out of coffee, I will say: “Let’s go buy more coffee” (at an unfrugal $16 a pound for our organic, shade-grown, locally-roasted beans). If we need [name some other grocery item or household necessity here], it will be the same answer: “If we really need it, then it’s okay to buy it.”
But for some reason we don’t apply this same logic to the thermostat. If we’re feeling cold, we should say, “Let’s turn the thermostat up.” But we rarely do. Even though turning it up for a day would only cost a few extra dollars. We’ll put on our fleece socks and fleece robes and have our hoods up in the house before we’ll turn up the temperature. I’ll shiver at my desk, blowing on my fingers to keep them nimble enough to type, before I turn up the thermostat. I wonder what the neighbors would think, if they saw us bundled up and huddled under blankets, like paupers, while watching Netflix on our decidedly unfrugal home theater? They wouldn’t be unreasonable to question our priorities.
What Keeping Our House Cold Has Taught Us
First, we’ve learned that even smart people can behave irrationally, which is the only way to describe applying one set of logic to certain things and a completely contradictory set to other things. Especially when the bizarro-logic attached to the thermostat sometimes means sacrificing our comfort and maybe even our safety. But that’s just an academic finding, not anything meaningful for our lives. After all, we’ve already established that we’re quickly prepaying our mortgage despite the math that says we should be investing all that money instead. We already know we aren’t perfectly rational beings.
Second, and more meaningfully, we’ve learned that we in fact can be frugal when we decide to be, which shocks no one more than it shocks me. If you’d asked me, before we received that first gas bill, if we’d be willing to keep our house at such a low temp for five winters running, I would have responded with some variation on “Hell no!” I probably would have even said that it was worth a few hundred extra dollars a month not to be cold. Well, I would have been wrong. It isn’t worth it (to us), and our ability to stick to our guns on this for five straight winters tells me that we can stick to our guns on other frugal habits in retirement, especially if our investments do poorly some years and we have to tighten our belts.
Third, we’ve learned that we’re more adaptable than we think. I always used to be cold, and what’s fantastic about living in a cold house is your internal thermostat is forced to adapt. Now, I’m usually cold at home, but I’m rarely cold elsewhere. It’s like magic.
But The Question Still Remains…
Why does this one thing in our life have such power over us? Why does it warrant its own set of logic? Is it because of anchoring, because we think that more than $200 a month is too much to pay for heat in the winter? Is it because we like the challenge of having to adapt to something different? Is it because the cost of all the other things we’re comfortable buying is relatively low (even for a pound of coffee), compared to the extra $200 or more we’d be looking at for more heat? In truth, it’s probably a little bit from each one.
What’s an even more interesting question to us is: What will this habit lead to? We’ve now learned in an irrefutable way in our own lives that something society claims with near certainty (the temperate range in which humans are comfortable) is relative, not absolute. We’ve learned that we can live perfectly well without a lot of heat, so of course I wonder what we’ll eventually give up, realizing that our perceived need of it was an illusion all along.
Have you given up anything crazy, like reasonable indoor heating, in the interest of frugality? Think we’re ridiculous for keeping our house so cold when we don’t scrimp in more frivolous areas? We’d love to hear it all!