The Not So Thin Line Between Frugality and Sustainability

by Katy on March 19, 2019 · 14 comments

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

I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of frugality vs. sustainability, which is a tricky subject. Yes, we want to be buying locally made and grown products, but not at the expense of our financial stability.

So which should we choose?

Luckily, things are never so black-and-white.

I went to a reading for my father’s recently published novel a few weeks ago. It was held in a small, locally owned book store. In the introduction, the owner said that, “Your decisions of where you shop truly determine your community.” I was struck by this notion and spoke with her afterwards to make sure I got the wording right. At this time more than any other in our lifetimes, our weak dollars are powerfully strong. We can choose to save a few bucks here and there buying from national chains that do not support our local communities, which has the potential to destroy our communities. Or, we can decide to support the businesses that we want to keep in our neighborhoods.

Does this mean I’m spending $2.50 a pound to buy locally grown organic apples? No. I choose to work part-time so that I can be the parent I want to be, and have time in my life to do the things that give me pleasure and satisfaction. Life is about balance and moderation, and I try to live as frugally as possible without being cheap in my decision making. It’s a fine line and I definitely straddle both sides. I’m very deliberate in my spending, which makes all the difference.

Sometimes I make the sustainable choice, but other times I make the purely frugal choice. I would like to be making 100% local and sustainable choices, but that would mean working full time. Which goes against how I want to be spending my energy at this stage of my life.

There are some areas where I’m willing to spend more to support my values. I pay extra for green energy, choose a locally owned bookstore over and let my kids spend their money at our favorite neighborhood art supply store.

Do I buy our groceries at New Seasons Market, our locally-owned-mostly-organic-and-local supermarket?

Sadly no, as this would at least double our food expenditures.

There are very few absolutes in life. I make neither completely frugal nor completely sustainable choices in my life. Every purchase I make, (or don’t make) is a opportunity to create the world I want for my family. Spending too much means driving 20 miles to work and back, and being away from my family. Getting the cheapest deal at any cost means supporting a disposable consumer culture that perpetuates the type of consumerism that I try to not support.

In the ideal situation, the most sustainable solution would also be the most frugal. An example of this is line drying one’s laundry or repairing something instead of replacing it. But to buy an energy efficient washing machine that uses less water does cost more money. A lot more money. (My $45 craigslist non-Energy Star model is still going strong five years post-purchase.)

Besides joining The Compact, (buy nothing new movement) what’s a Non-Consumer to do?

Beyond suggesting that each and every life purchase should be individually scrutinized, I don’t really have an answer on this issue. But I am curious to read your thoughts on the matter. Please share your take on frugality vs. sustainability in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

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

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Momma L March 19, 2019 at 2:36 pm

I struggle with the same question. Ultimately, it depends on my current finances and choosing the most sustainable that I can afford. I think any step we take is a better choice than no step. I’m not going into debt to be more sustainable, I have to make hard decisions. I do believe in buying local when I can afford it and only when I need it, not just want it.
I think that’s where people tend to disagree with one another, but we are all in different situations and should share and support each other in both endeavors


Cindy in the South March 19, 2019 at 3:32 pm

I am right there with you. It is a balancing act. Many times it is a tightrope act. I pick dandelion greens , mulberries, and pecans because they are free. I eat a lot of catfish grown here because it supports our local farmers and our local processing plant, where, again, many folks work. I generally only buy Gulf Coast seafood because it supports our local fishermen. However, when very broke, I will buy sardines, canned tuna, and canned salmon, which are all, obviously, not local to me. I do buy mustard greens, collards, turnip greens, peaches, tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes,and watermelon from our local farmers market. They are not any higher than the regular stores. The chicken in the supermarkets here is local, we are a big poultry producing state, so I am lucky it is usually 40 cents a lb for tighs and drumsticks. I try to buy all my clothes at thrift stores here, or on FB.


Lindsey March 19, 2019 at 7:05 pm

Like Momma L and Cindy in the South, for our house it is a balancing act. For us it is complicated by the unusually high food costs in Alaska and the fact that our farmer’s markets cost more than what we pay at the grocery store. That is why we grow so many of our own vegetables, even though that limits our diet since a lot of things won’t grow here. For books, when I don’t use the library, I use Amazon. The only bookstore here is a B and N and it drove our locally owned bookstore out of business, so I have no loyalty toward it. For clothes, we buy from Salvation Army or garage sales. And we never buy knick-knacks for gifts, so we never go into those sorts of shops. Shoes have to be purchased from Fred Meyer, now that Payless has closed, so those are ordered online, too. It is frustrating.


Cygnet Brown March 20, 2019 at 4:45 am

First I want to say that all of what we do is a journey. We are part of the circle of life that doesn’t begin with our birth nor end with our death. There are natural systems that humankind seems to think that they are not a part. It is to the planet’s and mankind’s destruction for us to believe that we are somehow above it.

That said, I am starting to learn that it is possible to be both frugal and sustainable. For instance, you talked about going to the farmer’s market to get locally grown foods as opposed to store-bought cheaper foods. Right now we are getting ready to move so I can’t plant a garden, but I did start a couple container gardens. However, where I am moving, I plan to create a vermiculture worm composter and start a vegetable garden and small orchard. This will not only be frugal, but also sustainable as well. I have been looking into doing no-till gardening (like Back to Eden) to create an even more regenerative gardening system. Home grown is even better than what’s grown at the farmer’s market and extremely frugal, especially if I save my own seeds!

I think that using an old washing machine is not just frugal, but sustainable too. So it’s not an energy star. Realize that it takes more energy and more materials to produce that new washing machine plus there’s the transportation getting the parts to the plant to make it, to get the new washing machine to the show room and then more energy to get it set up in your house and then there’s the issue of what to do with the old washing machine. Recycling also requires energy and creates pollution. Therefore, if you consider all of that, being frugal is also part of being sustainable.

I have recently started being more mindful of leftovers and how I use them in creative ways. My household has been throwing out far less food than the average household.

I have also started using more natural but frugal products in housecleaning and personal care. Vinegar, baking soda, Ivory soap, Dawn dish detergent, coconut oil, and peppermint oil go a long way toward taking care of my needs in these areas. I discovered that used coffee grounds can sweeten the refrigerator so I have put a jar in the fridge and am putting my coffee grounds (filter and all) instead of spending $1 every month for a box of baking soda. (After the jar is full, I empty it into the compost.) I used to make my own laundry detergent and I am thinking about doing that again as well.

I think we need to not worry about what we can’t do and focus on being creative on what we can do and determine where we can make the most frugal and sustainable choices in our lives as they are right now. I don’t think there’s ever just the option of either sustainable or frugal. I think that there is always a third option even if it’s just another way of looking at the situation like seeing the act of seeing the sustainability of not buying a new washing machine. There will come a time where you will have to buy a new washing machine and that would be the time to look at the energy star rating as well as how long the machine is likely to last.

It’s the thoughtful, creative recognition that there is a need for both frugality and sustainability and this where the writer and readers of this column are a step ahead of the blind consumer. There are solutions, even better ones than we have already seen. We just have to open our eyes to the possibilities.


Bee March 20, 2019 at 5:05 am

Striking a balance between, frugality and sustainability is not always easy. Sometimes they go hand and hand; sometimes not. I think that one’s ability to do both well is influenced by many factors– where and how one lives, availability of sustainable options, personal finances and priorities.
On a personal level, I have my set of “rules” that I use to incorporate both:
* I buy as much as I can secondhand. Like many NCA readers, I do have a short list of items that I buy new. (underwear and running shoes)
* I buy and keep what I love and try not to worry about fashion.
* When I can’t find what I need secondhand, I buy the best quality that I can afford at the cheapest price and keep it for a long time.
* I try to re-home things I no longer need.
* When buying food and consumables, I primarily purchase from a nearby grocery stores. I am fortunate to have 3 excellent stores within 5 miles. I know that Aldi and Wal-mart are probably cheaper, but the closest of these two stores is 20 miles away through terrible traffic. I can’t see using 2 gallons of gas, contributing to carbon emissions and spending an extra 1.5 hours on the road to save a small amount of money.
* I shop the sales, eat seasonally and buy in bulk to keep my food cost down.
* I also have a farm share delivered every other week.
* I use the dirty dozen list to decide what organic produce items to purchase.
I would like to definitely improve in some areas: grow some of own veggies, be less car dependent, raise chickens, get totally away from single use plastic, put in solar panels, buy 100% organic and hormone free, and so on. However, I do what I can.


A. Marie March 20, 2019 at 9:29 am

As previous commenters have all noted, striking this balance is a fluid thing for all of us. We all have different priorities and different life challenges. So I think that as long as we’re all making the effort in our own ways, this is good–and I for one think that ironclad “shoulds” (as in “You should be doing X, Y, and Z”) are inappropriate.


dianne March 21, 2019 at 2:18 pm

I’m in agreement with you! Our town does a Farmer’s Market every Sunday. I can’t afford to shop there. They were charging $5 for 1 pound of organic potatoes – yes ONE pound! There’s a fishmonger that I can’t even afford to look at, let alone buy anything there. It’s crazy. When I made a comment about the unaffordability of this Farmer’s Market on our local FB page, I was told that if I can’t say something nice, I shouldn’t say anything at all. If I were to spend $20 at the market, I would be lucky to go home with a small bag of veggies. When I go to Shop-Rite I can fill 2 large groceries bags with fruit and veggies. It would be nice to eat organic, local grown food, but for some of us it is simply unaffordable. Same for the local mom and pop shops. We simply cannot afford them. It’s very sad.


Alison Hicinbothem March 22, 2019 at 11:56 pm

I agree with you. The local farmer’s markets are outrageously expensive here. Hubby can get a ton more veggies at our local Shop Rite. I will stop at the farm stand in August to get the good/excellent corn and a nice beefsteak tomato for dh.


Annie April 5, 2019 at 11:11 am

Yes, the issue is the same for us when it comes to food. When we do shop the Farmer’s Market near us some items are affordable and some are budget-busters. One vendor had a huge bunch of radishes for $1, but the meat and seafood is too much. I will occasionally splurge on bread and pretzels though. There’s a vendor who sells really delicious handmade hard pretzels 16 pieces for $5 and a bread place where loaves are $4-$5 each, (we are in NYC, a notoriously pricey place.) I buy them because they support local vendors and the quality is top notch. I am a pretzel fiend and will down a huge bag of regular ones in no-time. These pricey ones are large and hard enough that one satisfies me so it also helps my waistline. As for the bread, it’s organic and high fiber and delicious. I buy bread from the grocery store most of the time, but the Farmer’s Market one is waaaaaay better.


janine March 21, 2019 at 2:59 pm

This post struck a special chord. We all have to do a difficult balancing act between frugality and sustainability. Sometimes one out weighs the other. Many times we are able to act in concert with both these values. We are aware of the choices, do out best and try not to feel guilty.


Alison Hicinbothem March 23, 2019 at 12:02 am

Our income has increased over the years and our wants/needs have declined. Having that extra bit of money makes it easy for hubby to stop at our town’s hardware store to pick up what he needs. He lamented long and loudly when our town’s Ace Hardware went out of business. But he’s not a fan of wandering around a huge big box store for his hardware needs. Also our town’s hardware store contributed a lot of paint for my son’s Eagle Scout project.


JC March 23, 2019 at 11:32 am

I think the overlap between frugality is often quite high. One area where that is not true is when “cheap” items are artificially cheap. The $1 widget at the Dollar Store might cost $5 if the real environmental costs of the product were taken into account. Cheap things from China are often only cheap because the cost of shipping (e.g. fossil fuels) and labour do not reflect the REAL cost of producing them. The pollution (and resulting environmental and human health effects) produced mining the the metals for our phones is not reflected in the price of the phoens, for example.


Indigo March 23, 2019 at 9:27 pm

I grew up in a large and poor family. Certain ideas of frugal were simply the only option, like wearing hand me downs and thrift store clothes to roadside pick ups and dumpster diving for furniture. For me that is no longer the only option and I’ll admit that I’ve bought brand new on occasion over the years, but those tend to be very specific items that are particularly difficult to find for my body type, let alone second hand, like my suit for my brother’s wedding.

We recently did a big spring clothing buy for my step daughter at a local thrift store sale. She’s out grown everything from last year and we walked away after a full day of thrifting with a good 20 outfits, some dishes, a few gifts, and some other odds and ends for less than $100. She is new to thrifting and is quickly seeing the benefits.

We have a small flock of chickens who we give veggie scraps, let free range, and feed. We get our feed from a local feed and hatchery. It is excellent quality but more expensive than stuff from the larger stores but the hatchery was a local kids project that grew into a small business that eventually paid for his college, he went to study poultry at NC state and wants to create sustainable mass poultry farms with humane treatment of the birds.

Sometimes we do the less than frugal thing and go out to a coffee shop. Largely because my partner and I get cabin fever at times as we both work mostly from home. We could take better paying jobs where we would hardly see one another or we can keep a tighter budget in mind. We do however make a point of going to our locally owned shops and I come home with a big bag of the compost coffee grounds for our garden, so free organic fertilizer.

It is a balancing act, but it is one we make consciously in order to have the kind of life and community we want and hopefully add to others being able to have the life and community they want as well.


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