Shh . . . It’s The Secretly Frugal

by Katy on October 28, 2011 · 31 comments

The following is s reprint of a previously published post. Enjoy!


Frugality is everywhere. It’s on TV, in the papers and certainly on the internet.

It’s inescapable.

But that doesn’t mean that frugal folk stand out any more than your average American. Often, frugality is completely behind closed doors.

I come across a wide cross section of society in the course of my job as a hospital nurse. I was caring for an East African woman a few weeks back and sure enough, the subject of frugality came up. I explained the measures my family takes to live inexpensively, and her response was, “Oh, but there are no other Americans that live that way.”

This got me thinking about how I might appear to someone who would simply be taking me at face value.

Because I live in a large house in a desirable neighborhood, to a stranger it would be a safe assumption that we are the Joneses.The outward appearance of our lives would appear as anything other than your typical mall shopping, credit card swiping average American.

Of course, you know better. You know that we cook inexpensive meals from scratch, shop thrift stores for almost all our needs, shy away from pricey gift giving and do almost all of our home improvement projects ourselves.

Of course, there is the opposite situation where people appear to live in luxury yet are actually swimming in debt. This, we expect. This, is covered quite nicely in the media. This, people expect from Americans.

But the secretly frugal are not on people’s radars as much. We exhibit no stereotypical signs of poverty such as run down cars and grubby clothing. We appear to be living the American dream.

No wonder my patient thought there were no frugal Americans.

Do you feel like your frugality is behind closed doors? Are you private about the financial choices that allow you to appear to be living beyond your means? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

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

Click HERE to follow The Non-Consumer Advocate on Twitter.

Click HERE to join The Non-Consumer Advocate Facebook group.


{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

zerowastelifestyle (Sonja) October 28, 2011 at 9:02 am

At face value we are also your average family who appear to have a lifestyle going on. Our lifestyle is indeed a lifestyle-a frugal one where we aspire to as little waste as we can!

Best Wishes


Jessica @ Faith Permeating Life October 28, 2011 at 9:28 am

This is a really, really interesting notion. I hadn’t thought about this before, but you’re absolutely right.

Forgive me for getting political, but I wonder if this explains some of the negative comments I hear about welfare and the like. I often hear people say things like, those people who are getting governmental assistance obviously must be wasting their money / financially incompetent / etc. I would venture to guess there are many people who are pinching every penny possible and doing everything they can to make money, but they don’t “look poor enough” to be “deserving” of government assistance.

We do hear so much about people going into mounds of debt that I can understand why that might be the heuristic for trying to understand someone in a living/financial situation different than oneself.


Jude October 28, 2011 at 9:41 am

I am secretly frugal. At lunch today, a friend complimented my son’s homecoming attire. She was the only person I told that I had purchased his really sharp-looking wool blazer at the Goodwill store for $4.99, saving over $55 on the next cheapest one I could find.


Katy October 28, 2011 at 10:03 am

My son went to a Winter Formal last year where he bought his natty-looking suit at a secondhand shop for around $30. He’s worn it since numerous times and always looks fantastic. His friend, who is from a low income family bought his at Macy’s.



fiwa October 28, 2011 at 10:23 am

I have definitley experienced this. In my job, in fact.
I work at a small compay, and earlier this year we had to take a 10% pay cut (among other things), because it was either that or everyone was going to be out of a job. I wasn’t happy about it, but it’s better than no job at all, so I went to my budget and figured out where I could tighten things a little so that I could make it work. Apparently because I didn’t make a big deal about it and whine and moan like everyone else, I am perceived to have plenty of money. I would like to point out that I haven’t take a vacation in 10 years, my husband and I both drive used cars that are over 10 years old (horrors!) and we buy 99% of our clothes and household needs from Value Village. I make due with less, but I’m perceived as having an easy time of it. I’m really irked by it all – can you tell?! Thank you for letting me vent!


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land October 28, 2011 at 5:42 pm

We have people who really wonder what our deal is since we’re both home most of the time. My husband is a part-time classical musician and I sell online. We’ve had our house paid off for years and owned an income property free and clear, too (that we have since sold). Wasteful relatives who used to make fun of our frugality are now barking up our tree for money. It seems they’ve finally discovered there’s a correlation between frugality and wealth. Yet, they don’t want to do what we do–it’s just too “weird” and less convenient.


Steady Plodder October 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I’m guessing that we probably keep people confused and guessing. We have a nice house in a nice n’borhood, but there are so many things that we say NO to. When my son’s team wants to go somewhere together after every game (which would cost our family about $50 each time) I tell the team mom that I’m sorry but we don’t have the $ to spend on that. Occasionally, we’ll do something with the team, or I’ll send my son with a teammate.

I drove my car for almost 13 years so that we could put $ towards other things that were important to us (savings, travel, etc.). When I bought a “new” car, we paid cash for a good quality used car. I have to catch myself from saying “We can’t afford it” to saying “We don’t have money to spend on that right now”…b/c our $$ is going to other things that are of more importance.

So – people probably wonder b/c we’re very frugal on some things but will spend money on things that are really important to us. And — one more thought…when people point out to us how much we travel I will let them know that we cut back in several areas of our living expenses in order to afford it.


Danna October 28, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Frugality in and of itself has a negative connotation because to most people the word implies that you have to be cheap or never do anything fun. My husband came from parents who declared bankruptcy when he was 16 and feels that cutting back on expenses means we’re not making ends meet. We just had a conversation the other day about how when we do spend money, it should be for things that we really value in terms of what makes us feel content and not deprived. “Frugal” is truly to me just being smart and conscious about your money, whether you make a “lot” or “a little.” It’s just a word that can portray a certain lifestyle, and there are many different levels of frugality.


Robin October 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm

I am sure to outside viewers that we appear very well off and we were while I was working my high pressure, soul sucking wall street job. Now I’m a SAHM and though we still have the ‘trappings’ from our wealthier days, in reality the budget is tight and I struggle to be frugal. I miss the money but not the job 🙂
I’m pretty sure though that my friends think we are still wealthy which makes me wince.


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land October 28, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I wear my frugality on my sleeve. We don’t look poor (and certainly, I hope), we don’t act uneducated. One benefit of letting the frugality shine through is that people will offer useful tidbits of information. I’d never know of my favorite berry-picking destination, for instance, if I hadn’t dared to mention that I forage fruit.


Ann October 28, 2011 at 2:27 pm

We are secretly frugal. We have our chosen extravagances and hobbies and reduce our consumption of other things in order to plow our money into what we are “into”. I have a nortoriously “cheap” brother-in-law (who is a surgeon – you do the math) who talks about deals and sales and scoring free stuff all the time. Hence, our secrecy. He is an eye-rolling bore.


Laura's Last Ditch--Adventures in Thrift Land October 28, 2011 at 5:31 pm

I think your brother sounds fun, personally!


Barb October 29, 2011 at 6:01 pm

I tend to agree. I lvoe hearing about a good deal. the fact that he’s a surgeon in no way means that he shouldnt appreciate a good deal.


Katy October 29, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Your brother-in-law sounds like my kind of guy.



Jennifer October 28, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I guess I’m one of those eye rolling bores too. I love sharing how I got a great deal. It’s fun! Like today, I scored a really nice framed, matted print for my kitchen for $1, and and boat load of clothes for my son, including 5 pairs of jeans (knees intact, thank you!) and two khakis, shirts, pjs, and Purdue gear for $12!! No secret about my frugality, I think it’s much more fun, unique and creative than just schlepping out to the store (and forking out the big bucks!) Although my frugality is a necessity for our family, I’m sure I’d still be fairly frugal, as this is how I was raised.


Indigo October 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Some people assume I must make a pretty decent paycheck. People who ask know why I have money in the bank.

That snazzy black wool turtleneck? Thrift store purchase for $1.50 because it had a torn seam. I have to tailor in nearly everything so it was fixed when I altered it. Same with the grey wool slacks. The scarf? A trade from a crafty friend when I helped her with some yard work.Those original oil paintings, photographs, and other pieces on the walls? I made them or traded them with artist friends. The nice dark wood furniture, other people’s trash I rebuilt, sanded, and stained.

On the other hand I don’t have cable, a home phone, I bought my car used and it is over 10 years old (but well cared for!), I do my own home improvements, I bring my own made from scratch lunches to work. Grow many veggies and herbs, forage for wild mushrooms, nuts, and fruits. My vacations generally involve a tent.

I think the thing is the Jones like to shout how much they enjoy their stuff as if trying to convince themselves of it, we’re too busy enjoying our lives.


darmuzz October 29, 2011 at 3:00 am

If you had a blog, Indigo, I would read it 🙂


Indigo October 29, 2011 at 3:50 am

Well thank you.


Katy October 29, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Yup, Indigo is the best!



Kristin @ KlingtoCash October 28, 2011 at 7:52 pm

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley is one of the best books I ever read about those who are really wealthy and those who look wealthy. When I got my first job as an accountant, I saw that Mr. Stanley was correct. Those who looked wealthy were all hat and no cattle. Those with the most savings were those with modest incomes who bought used cars and regular clothes. Great book. I’ll have to read it again. It’s been a while.


Lisa@Granola Catholic October 28, 2011 at 8:00 pm

We live a frugal lifestyle here, old cars, clothes from thrift stores, they are nice, so no one realizes it. We do “splurge” on food. I buy organic when I can, but we don’t eat processed food so this saves us. People think we do lots of fun things but they are low or no cost. Being thrifty and frugal means we don’t have to work as hard or as much to afford the things we want. However the last vacation we took was one my mother paid for us to go on and that was 4 years ago.


pat October 29, 2011 at 6:16 am

Food is my one splurge too. I cook most foods from scratch and do huge cooking days (today I’m making 6 different soups to freeze for lunches later). I want to actually know what is in what I eat. The funny thing is I was talking how I plan out our menu and cook in advance at lunch one day and one of my fellow teachers obviously was really listening because he told me a couple weeks later that he was doing the same thing for his family and he can’t believe how much money he was saving.


That Other Jean October 29, 2011 at 3:00 am

Not secretly, just. . .quietly frugal. We have a lot of material things from before retirement, to the point that we don’t really need to spend much on stuff, except things that will make our lives easier/better. We’ve learned to live within our income, stick to a budget, and think hard before we decide that we want to buy something. We bargain hunt, use coupons, buy used if we can, cook at home almost always—all the things we need to do to indulge in our hobbies, keep our cable TV, and buy season tickets to our local theater. We just don’t make a big fuss about it.


pat October 29, 2011 at 6:22 am

My younger sister always refers to me as ‘rich’ which really bugs me. I also choose to shop resale/thrift stores. My husband actually prefers some of the Aldi brands over our regular grocery. I try to shop local or locally-owned. And while my house isn’t completely paid for I am working diligently on putting extra money each week towards that goal. So if I live in a nice home, drive a nice used car, wear nice thrift store clothes and I appear ‘rich’ , well I guess I am since I still have money in the bank because I haven’t wasted it buying new.


Ellie October 29, 2011 at 6:41 am

Interesting questoin! I acually think about this one a lot!

On one hand, I think some people see us as “rich”, or at least “upper-crust” – the phrase “upper-crust-y” was once applied to us by a friend in an only half-joking manner.

Now I will say that my husband and I benefitted enormously from middle-class upbringings: we both got advanced degrees with our parents footing the tuition bills, so our education and lack of debt gave us huge advantages for which we are grateful every day. We also inherited a lot of stuff – not pricey designer stuff, but well-made old things (furniture, lamps, cookware, vases, nice china and glassware, a vintage quilt, etc.) from our families, and have also gotten lots of more recent cast offs (a decent TV, a nice rug). We did have to clean and repair and re-furbish and take things that others thought were “old junk” – yet for some reason, our house looks pretty darn classy, if I do say so myself. Most of my artwork is either second-hand, or original stuff purchased for cheap from local, unknown artists (supporting unknown local artists and craftspeople is one area where I feel that buying new is okay, at least for me, and i have done so on a few occassions). We budget to spend money on stuff WE care about – travel, theater tickets, the occassional piece of aforementioned artwork, and hobbies we like to DO (as opposed to have). Our cars and appliances are always reliable “Consumer Reports Best Buys”. So I can see why people see us as “well off”.

On the other hand…

I know some of my inlaws see me as CHEAP and WEIRD. My SIL, in particular, thinks we’re crazy for living in a small house in a working-class neighborhood (can’t we afford ‘better’?), wearing the same non-trendy clothes year after year (don’t we want to be stylish?), using and repairing second hand things (can’t we afford new?), shopping in thrift stores (“ew!”), eating mostly vegetarian, using our cars and appliances untl they fall apart and can no longer be repaired (you don’t want new stainless steel appliances? why not?! everyone else does!!), and so on. My SIL and some other inlaws have very different priorities, and to them, we look like we’re living a “downscale” life!

I don’t make a secret of how I live, nor do I broadcast it. But it all depends on who you ask – some people seem to think we have nice fancy “stuff” and live in an “upper-crust-y” fashion, despite knowing that almost all that nice stuff is second-hand. Others seem to think the same lifestyle is cheap and downscale!

Go figure.


Denise October 29, 2011 at 8:15 am

Is it bad that I take secret pleasure in people’s confused/shocked looks? For example, a woman I know, who always dresses her child in the latest fashion complimented me on my daughter’s outfit the other day. I told her “Thanks, it’s all second-hand. I haven’t bought new clothes for the kids in nearly two years.”
Her face registered shock, then bewilderment, then, was it, pity? Or something condescending? I don’t know and really don’t care. But I walked away chuckling to myself.


Megan October 29, 2011 at 8:30 am

Agreed. We splurge on big ticket items- but pay cash unless we can get a discount using store credit cards. They are all important to us- a new sleep number bed, barely used snowblower, SLR camera, etc. We have a nice house in a nice neighborhood. My son wears nice clothes, I have a nice (not new, but nice) van. Because we have these items people think we are loaded. We are not.

They don’t know that we shopped around excessively to find the best deals, made do with what we had for a long time, and have a 15 year loan rather than a 30, my van has been paid off for 2 years, and my son wears almost exclusively goodwill or garage sale finds. These factors certainly required sacrifice on our part, but it’s paid off!


Dogs or Dollars October 29, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I have literally been referred to by friends as “Scrooge McDuck” who goes home and swims in her pile of gold. This makes me laugh. Clearly, I make no secret of my frugality. I agree that putting your frugal ways “out there” spurs conversation. Otherwise, I’d never get to hear about all the ways my frugal and not-so friends save money. Its thought provoking. Even if they do think I’m super strange.


Fran October 29, 2011 at 1:43 pm

I think a lot of the people who are doing the judging may be making payments on everything they “own”, and expect others to be doing the same. So when they see our things, they think (maybe subconsciously), “If I had that vehicle, I’d be paying $xxx a month, and if I had those name-brand clothes, I’d be paying $xxx a month on the credit card, so that family must be paying that amount a month for all those.” Many people don’t realize no everyone lives the way they do.


Madeline November 1, 2011 at 1:51 pm

We’re edging up near retirement.We have lots of “stuff” and have a larger-than necessary home (paid for) from our higher income days. Maybe we’ll see it–maybe not– it doesn’t cost much in upkeep,we do most everything ourselves.. and maybe I’ll even rent out a room..??

We live very frugally now as we want to save as much as we can for retirement.And I gave up my job a couple of years ago.

I don’t advertise that I shop only resale, go to Goodwill, or, that I actually don’t shop much at all anymore.. I turn down “shopping” dates with old friends who still “shop” for fun. I’d rather work a volunteer shift at the botanical garden.

I already HAVE most of what i need! I can go shopping in my own cupboards,closets and garage.

I was exhausted last week and did not feel like grocery shopping. I found that my well stocked pantry and freezer held plenty of food for another week.No need to shop EVERY week!

My wealth is in my relationships. As I make more time to volunteer, cook, relax, play with my art, I am way happier than when I sold my soul for a paycheck.

I feel living frugally in general has prepared us for what retirement will be like. And now,I am more “seriously” frugal than my dear husband can also retire someday soon..

We are vegetarians, mostly, I do cook from scratch, do splurge on some exotic foods to make at home sometimes. Dinners out are at cheap Vietnamese local joints for Pho.


Heidi January 21, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I don’t know where else to post this, but I think it’s a cute and fun idea, so I’ll add it here.

We pay to have our driveway plowed when it snows. We need to do this because my husband leaves at 5 am for work, and can’t clear the driveway in time if it snows in the night. (The plow guy knows to come around 3 or 4 am.) However, if it snows on a weekend, then my family shovels together.

Today, I challenged my family (hubby and me and 2 teenage girls) to get the driveway snow-free before the plow guy came. He charges $40 per plow. I told them, if we can do it, I’d discount it by half, and put the $20 in our grocery budget, or eating out money. So we saved half the cost, and got a nice little boost to our grocery budget.

We did it. 🙂 I’ll get something fun and indulgent, a treat. Maybe call out for pizza, or get chinese.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: