Ask The Non-Consumer Advocate — Frugality vs. Simple Living

by Katy on January 14, 2013 · 32 comments

A question popped up on The Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook Group that I wanted to answer here on the blog. Both to address it personally, but also to give you, the readers a chance to weigh in here. So here goes . . .

“Love to hear your thoughts on the difference between a frugal life and a simple life.”

This is a hard one as the line between frugality and simple living is thin, blurry and will be differently defined for every person.

For some people, frugality is simply about being cheap, but to me I like to think of it as being wise with money. Usually this means finding the cheapest solution to a problem, but other times it means knowing when to spend more.

For example, the cheapest way to live my life would be to prepare every meal from dried beans that I bought in bulk at Winco. However, this would result in a family revolt that would require possible therapy bills and definite emergency room expenditures.

“Serve me that lentil soup again and I. Will. Cut. You!”

Frugality to me means living within one’s means so that the money is available for the pricier stuff that actually matters. Spend less on clothing so I can take my son out for lunch without worrying about the cost. Spend less on entertainment so I can pay a tutor to keep my son caught up in school. My family’s income fluctuates, so how much I spend out varies, but I try always keep within my means.

Simple living also means something different to each person who chooses this ill-defined lifestyle. One person may decide to only own 100 possessions and live in a tiny house, while another will choose a more traditional life and be at peace with their possessions. Do I practice simple living? Well, I’m certainly not a minimalist, but I have made a choice to be deliberate about my possessions. Paring down, creating organizational systems and keeping as few just in case things in my house as possible.

To choose simple living while also choosing to have kids (who will become teenagers) is almost laughable.

I may choose to not take on extracurricular activities that require us to haul our tuchuses out of bed at 0-dark-thirty on a Sunday morning, but that doesn’t mean squat when I am only one of four decision makers in this family.

I know families whose lives are more simple than ours and also families whose lives are less simple. I try not to compare. My husband coaches multiple youth soccer teams while also playing on a team himself. He also sits on the board of two different non-profit community soccer organizations. He’s the volunteer uniform manager for a 800 player league, which means that our basement sports racks of balls, T-shirts, scarves, patches and whatnot. Oh, and he works 44 hours per week.

Not simple.

Should he stop volunteering and participating in these activities in order to simplify?

The label of simple living is broad enough to almost be meaningless. Car vs. bicycle. Possessions vs. minimalism. Child free vs. childless. Paid work vs. volunteering. Shared housing vs. suburban traditional home.

I believe frugality and simple living all boil down to choosing a deliberate life. And how this is defined can change from day to day, hour to hour.

I am not the most frugal person you know, and neither am I basking in the most simple life. What I am is deliberate.

Now you. How do you feel about the line between frugality and simple living? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

AnnDenee January 14, 2013 at 10:25 am

To me, frugality is about money. It’s about making smart, conscious financial decisions. It’s about not buying-in to the I have to have it because everyone else has it thinking. It’s about paying off current debts and then avoiding debts.

Simple living, to me, includes frugality, but it’s more than just that. For me, it’s raising chickens for eggs and meat, which means I’m not depending on another source. It’s making most of my foods from scratch, again so I’m not caught out if that other source fails me. It’s honoring my roots and familys’ heritages — farming, gardening, preserving, handcrafts.

Simple living does not mean less work or easy living. It would be less work and much easier to brown up some hamburger and make hamburger helper, but that’s not healthy and poor health is not simple living. So I guess simple living also includes looking at the long term picture rather than just instant gratification.

Simple living, to me, means independence or cooperative interdependence. And that, to me, makes sense.

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Reese January 14, 2013 at 10:41 am

I think this is sort of like comparing apples to oranges. Both sort of are the same concept, but not the same thing.

I feel like frugality deals specifically with behaviors associated with money or financial aspects of life.
Whereas simplicity deals with how certain behaviors are carried out.

So in this context, you can be frugal and simple. Or just frugal. Or just simple.

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Carolyn January 14, 2013 at 10:50 am

It ‘s all good. It does not matter so much how we define it, but that we find the life that is right for us.

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Zipporah Bird January 14, 2013 at 10:57 am

Sometimes I worry that my minimalism will create pack-rats out of my kids, but here is what semi-minimalism helped me do in the last week:

–I bought a nice purse because I only own and carry three. One of those was bought at a thrift store, which off-sets overall cost of handbags.

–I made bread and soup from scratch for a women’s small group, AND got my kids in bed by 7pm, AND had a clean house, AND was in bed by 9pm myself on a day that my husband works. I was exhausted, but happy about the efforts of the day.

–I paid off my student loans and started snowballing our mortgage.

I couldn’t do these things if we weren’t very deliberate about what comes in and out of our lives. I don’t want to sound haughty–I am grateful for these situations that provide ease and joy.

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Krystal January 14, 2013 at 11:49 am

I’ve never thought about the labels of either too much, I guess. I say I’m frugal, but more interested in simple living/minimalist/zero waste, and that probably fits me better.

I’m definitely a minimalist with stuff, and stuff that makes me feel bogged down and unhealthy. I keep a small amount of things I actually use in my house, and I have a minimal work load because I realized how unhealthy I was at 60 hours a week. However, I did that to get out of debt, which allowed me to live a simple life.

I’m frugal when I can be. We’re working on our house, and we’re preferring used over new, which we do in many things (clothing as well), because it does contribute to our life philosophy and our minimalist life. I do not bat an eyelash at purchasing something that is new and expensive if it greatly improves my life and doesn’t add to my clutter. I bought a Tempurpedic bed which greatly improved my quality of life, as my husbands, but I don’t hold a big-screen TV in the same regard–we still have our old box! It works just fine 🙂

I will also opt for something more pricey to keep in line with my attempt at zero waste. However, I find most waste-free options are generally cheaper (bulk!), so I rarely have to pick one or the other.

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Zipporah Bird January 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm

I agree. We actually reduced the stuff in our kids’ rooms by 75% to make the daily clean-up routine easier. One of my girls, 48 hours after this streamlining event said, “You were right, Mom! I am happier with less toys!” But, for Christmas, to counteract my “cheap” tendencies, I splurged on the extra-large bean bags instead of buying the small ones like I would normally do to save some bucks. My kids LOVE them! What a great expenditure of some extra money that we saved by other means!

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Katie January 16, 2013 at 3:55 pm

I so would have loved a really big bean bag as a kid. Good splurge!

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Alicia January 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Ouch, I feel like I’ve just been given the label of “poser” because I try to live simply, as I call it.

Frugal to me just means being cheap – the motivation behind it is purely financial. And I certainly agree that it means living within one’s means.

Living simply adds a mindful component to frugality – it is an awareness of how your actions as a consumer affect the environment and others around you. For example, driving vs. biking, the type of food you consume and where it comes from. What does your money support? How do you spend your time?

It has a spiritual component, a community component, and a justice component. Living simply may mean buying something more expensive because it was produced more ethically – or going without. It may mean spending time investing in your community and its children by running part of the soccer league, or it may mean planting a garden or supporting a CSA. Living simply is “ill-defined” and manifests itself differently for each person because there is only so much time in one day and each person prioritizes how he or she invests time and energy differently.

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Katy January 14, 2013 at 3:21 pm

When I wrote “ill defined,” I referring to my own inability to place a single definition on simple living. And I believe that frugality and simple living share a large center of life’s venn diagram.

Katy

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Linda in Indiana January 14, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Wow, what a thought provoking post…good to make us think.
I think I try to be both and sometimes do well and other times fail miserably…but come back trying each and every time.
I think frugality is choosing to spend so you receive the best buy for what you are acquiring…sometimes that is satisfied by a cheaper item and other times it means buying quality with durability. If I can aquire said item by trading, bartering or buying used I feel that I am more successful at being frugal. If I live frugally, then I have the means to spend on things that are really important to me…be it experiences, helping others, sharing. I think living simply is not cluttering your life with the things that don’t add value. So it would be different for each person. To be honest with yourself about things and what they actually add to your life can be a real challenge for me. Sometimes I find I think I really,really need something and acquire it only to find it isn’t a good fit after all. That isn’t simple living. But if I keep it around and don’t pass it on…that is sure not simple…it is adding clutter to my life and that just plain ain’t right!
I will be thinking on the two topics for the rest of the day….like I said, good food for thought!

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Katy January 14, 2013 at 3:23 pm

“Living simply is not cluttering your life with the things that don’t add value.” I love this, as what gives value to each of our lives is going to be completely different.

Katy

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lindsey January 14, 2013 at 3:48 pm

We live extremely frugally, some would say cheap. (For example, we have never gone to Starbucks or bought fancy coffees at any shop like that.) We eat out less than once a month, we can and freeze and dehydrate our huge garden ($2000 worth of fruits and vegetables last summer), we harvest free greens like nettles, dandelions, chickweed and lambs’ quarters and use them for salads instead of buying lettuce, we cut each other’s hair. We buy no paper products except for toilet paper…all of which is to say, we squeeze every penny out of our money for one part of our budget so we can spend for other parts—with no worries that we are going into debt. It is a choice we make with joy.

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AnnW January 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm

I guess you can live frugally, but not simply. You can acquire twenty pair of sneakers, either from Goodwill or freecycle. You can be frugal, but your life won’t be simple. Many hoarders are frugal, but their lives are complicated. A simple life is a life lived with care. Careless behavior is wasteful, selfish, and stressful. Somehow my TV changed channels this afternoon. A dog must have rolled on the control. I found myself watching Katie Couric and her show on human slaves in the workplace and sex slaves. A website called Made in the Free World shows you how many slaves support your life style. It is mind boggling. That is another reason to buy antiques or buy everything used. No one is being hurt by your purchase and no resources are being wasted. The website didn’t say exactly which products were bad, just which raw materials were produced by slave labor. Food for thought. This made as much impact on me as Katy’s review of the book Overdressed, which said that our cheap clothes are ruining the planet.

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Lilypad January 14, 2013 at 5:22 pm

I agree with Alicia above that “simple living” has ethical and spiritual implications. This is perhaps best explained by the saying “Live simply so that others may simply live”.

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tna January 14, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Ha! I really don’t know. I just want to leave a gentle footprint. I was raised a mega consumer and was very good at it. I had no idea I didn’t need all that stuff to exist and was causing some harm along the way. Sometimes I’m just tickled pink that I need so little to live. It just makes me giggle a little….oh, man! I thought I had to have all that crap! Nope, just a little. : )

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Practical Parsimony January 15, 2013 at 12:06 am

I live frugally but maybe not simply all the time. I can spot Waterford Crystal from across a shop. I bought two Waterford crystal vases in two weeks, $500 worth of vases for $7 and $11. So for $18 I had something not so simple–two highly breakable and remarkably heavy, never-used vases. Sterling silver that is badly tarnished is often a frugal find but not simple. I live a frugal life when it comes to purchases. I have antique furniture because I shop well and pay little. I have reupholstered pieces of furniture and loved some pieces because of their good bones, some clean lines and some ornate.

I have frugal friends who certainly can buy more expensive items than they do. They are not cheap. Money-saving and the not spending more than they have to is their motivation. They do not live frugally or simply, but they never spend more than they have to.

My life is simple in other areas. I eat simply. I don’t require exotic ingredients to eat well. I have a 2000 Malibu that I have driven 11 years and do not plan to get rid of it until it can no longer be repaired. Is that simple or frugal? Both, I think.

Minimalism, in my opinion, does not have a connotation or denotation of frugal. Minimalism only defines the number of objects, the lack of clutter, or cleanness of line. I have seen pictures of minimalist penthouses that are certainly neither simple nor frugal.

Thoreau lived simply and frugally, yet he did not forego certain comforts. He straightened nails from the ground, but had the riches of books, even hundreds that he wrote and published.

There is a certain person who touts a lack of possessions and frugal lifestyle while also bragging about the ability to use the possessions of others in order to spends personal money on world travel. Relatives at home store possesions for the day the travel is over. I just that shows no personal responsibility–not frugality or simplicity.

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chris January 15, 2013 at 1:34 am

for me my simple living path involves more intention than my frugal path; both are very closely related i think, but the point has been made by others that simple living doesn’t necessarily include frugal living which i agree with; another thing to consider is minimalism as an example; you would supposeminimalists are very frugal, when in fact, many are not; i think that minimalism and simple living run similar paths because it’s not about the money; it’s about quality over quantity; craftsmanship over mass production

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chris January 15, 2013 at 1:34 am

for me my simple living path involves more intention than my frugal path; both are very closely related i think, but the point has been made by others that simple living doesn’t necessarily include frugal living which i agree with; another thing to consider is minimalism as an example; you would suppose minimalists are very frugal, when in fact, many are not; i think that minimalism and simple living run similar paths because it’s not about the money; it’s about quality over quantity; craftsmanship over mass production

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Shelley January 15, 2013 at 2:36 am

Frugality is about being careful with money. Simplicity is often an excuse to get rid of all the old and buy the ‘best’.

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emmer January 15, 2013 at 7:31 am

looks like mostly agreement here on what frugality is, while definitions of simplicity are all over the board.
for me, simple living has an environmental base. it seeks to reduce my negative impact on my planet thru thotful choices. it results in fewer possessions and better, as frugality usually does, but it also seeks to be a way of lfve that gives less to commercial pressures and more to relationships and experiences.

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emmer January 15, 2013 at 7:32 am

looks like mostly agreement here on what frugality is, while definitions of simplicity are all over the board.
for me, simple living has an environmental base. it seeks to reduce my negative impact on my planet thru thotful choices. it results in fewer possessions and better, as frugality usually does, but it also seeks to be a way of life that gives less to commercial pressures and more to relationships and experiences.

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Carol Lee January 15, 2013 at 7:41 am

I agree with many of the previous posters. Frugality is a financial choice,buying economically to have more money for other things or making do with what you have. I live a very simple life, but not neccessarily frugal. My husband and I have been blessed with very good incomes but I hate the thought of just consuming to be consuming but I wouldn’t consider myself frugal. For example, I purchase all of my food at the local co op, I could probably buy most of the same foods from the grocery store for less but I like the completely local ownership of the co op, the amount of $ and time they give back to the community and so I only shop there. I also plan to sell our big house after our last one flys the coop and buy a tiny home, hopefully entirely sustainable, it will probably cost more than my current home but will provide us with the simplicity I crave.

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jennifer January 15, 2013 at 8:13 am

Great post – good points. Yes, I agree, there is a difference between living a frugal lifestyle and a simple lifestyle, though I feel both can be intertwined…I guess it all depends on the individual and what each word represents to each individual…I look forward to pondering this comparison more and writing more about it myself – with a link back to you of course!! Great question to ask!

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Jennifer @ Little Blog in the Big Woods January 15, 2013 at 8:16 am

I feel like frugal living has more to do with how one chooses to spend their money, where simple has much more to do with the heart and mind. Simple to me is having quiet, slow times as a family or as a person. Time where you aren’t being pulled in 14 directions and can just be. None of us can be simple all the time. But we can carry simplicity with us through our hectic days when we decide to be in the present moment and not take on the problems of others. Not that we don’t care for and support others, but deciding to not take on what is not yours.

For me this involves not listening to the news, and not always being plugged into a screen or phone. For me simplicity is outside time, in the woods or in my garden or inside at my sewing machine. Simplicity for me is just trying to be me, and not what others expect of me.

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Tammy/psmflowerlady January 15, 2013 at 9:13 am

I think that what I personally try to do is live a NON-Wasteful life. I am trying really hard to not waste anything that adds value to my life and to focus my energies on using things fully & efficiently and living a life that is deliberate. I try to not consume things that don’t add value – for me that is cable TV, gadgets, fancy cars, new clothes and shoes, etc. I do have a car with 120K miles and I put lots of miles on it – not especially environmentally friendly, but I live in the school district that I feel adds value to my kids’ lives and I have a job that pays well. But a long drive daily does not enhance my life, could be considered a WASTE of $, time and fossil fuels, so I have a fuel-efficient car, with a good warranty and carpool. A fancy car would not enhance my life and would WASTE $$. I love cofee, but paying $4 for a cup from a fancy barista does not add value to my life. That’s a WASTE of $, therefore, I don’t do it. I could buy coffee for $1 @ the golden arches, but again, will a single cup of coffee that is part and parcel of the fast food industry enhance my life more than the invisible cost that I personally won’t pay? Nope. Therefore, that’s a wasteful choice too and I avoid it. I have a perfectly good coffee pot that I got as a gift. I maintain it, use shade-grown and free-trade coffee. If I don’t drink the whole pot, I heat it the next day. I’m not FRUGAL, or I’d just buy store-brand cofee. I’m not “Simple” because I’d give up the coffee unless it was locally-sourced and even roasted myself. Nope – I like me my coffee and it enhances my mornings. But not enough to generate a little plastic cup every time I make a cup or enough to pitch my coffee maker or enough to cut into my family’s budget to justify a logo on a single-use cup of coffee that was grown and processed who knows where. I’m trying to make value-based decisions. I tend to be “cheap” so people might consider that frugal. I prefer to think of my decisions as being based on not wasting resources whether they be time, money or natural or human resources and always asking do I really NEED that and is it worth the price – knowing that I am not necessarily the one paying the price.

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Elaine in Ark January 15, 2013 at 9:59 am

Great answer about being “deliberate”. This really does cover it all. To be deliberate, you need to really think about all these different aspects of your life, and how frugality and/or simpler living will work in different situations. I’ve made the move to deliberate (I know where my money is going, and I know how much I’m spending) and I feel a lot less anxiety about my finances, even though my paycheck just got considerably smaller. I’m also downsizing my possessions and enjoying some empty spaces in my house.

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Katy January 15, 2013 at 11:00 am

“Enjoying some empty spaces in my house.”

This is a wonderful way to view things. I may have to embroider it on a pillow. 😉

Katy

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Shannon January 15, 2013 at 11:42 am

I’ve been rethinking “simple” for some time now. I was doing all the frugal- and simple-living things I had been reading about on blogs, the baking, the handwashing the clothes, the sewing and crafting, visiting the thrift stores, gardening, etc, then realized that I was exhausted. I was trying to do way too much, with small kids who needed me, and at the end of the day having no time at all for any personal projects or growth. I was also comparing myself to all these amazing bloggers, which became a source of dissatisfaction, and even a tiny bit of depression to me. I now view simplicity as only taking on the things that add value (such as is mentioned by several posters already.) For me, I basically turned the way I was doing things upside down-I wanted to hike and play with my kids and husband more, I wanted to volunteer more, i wanted to work on personal art projects and do art with the kids, and I wanted to get fit. So those activities take precedence now, and I do my best to still live in a way that reflects my values. For example, we still eat well, but i let the CSA bring our veggies. I still dont buy a ton of processed foods, but I don’t bother anymore with the home made applesauce. I just hand my kids an apple. I do use the washer and dryer, but we all try to be sparing with our clothing washes. Things come in cycles, priorities shift. Basically I’ve scaled back the gardening, the crafty stuff, the thrifting, the baking, and most importantly the comparing 🙂

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Katy January 15, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Sounds wonderfully balanced.

Katy

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Shannon January 15, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Well, theoretically…

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Koliti January 16, 2013 at 10:11 am

First off…I don’t like labels because people then form pre-conceived notions based only on where they are coming from.

In the dictionary…
frugal 1. economical in use or expediture; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful. 2. entailing little expense; requiring few resources; meager

simple 1. easy to understand or deal with. 2. not elaborate or complicated; plain; unembellished. 3. not ornate or luxurious; unadorned. 4.unaffected; unassuming; modest.

To me, “frugal” is how you choose to aquire and use STUFF.
And “simple” is how you choose to nourish your AUTHENTIC SELF while surrounded by all of your STUFF.

How about if we just “Wake Up and Pay Attention”?
We can be the WUPAs (pronounced woopa) – haha!!

EVERY SINGLE THING you choose to bring into your life and your home DEMANDS time and attention – how do you TRULY want to spend your time? And what do you TRULY want to give your attention to?

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