The No So Thin Line Between Frugality and Sustainability

by Katy on March 18, 2009 · 15 comments

New Seasons Market

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.”

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony March 19, 2009 at 6:21 am

You might want to look into joining a CSA for locally grown food that is not too expensive. Buying directly from the farm eliminates the middleman, even the local grocery store will mark up the price quite a bit, especially if it is locally grown organic because most people buying that type of food are making a choice on principal and not finances. Also try growing your own it doesn’t get any greenier than that.


MaryC March 19, 2009 at 7:36 am

I am glad you posted this. I have long pondered the how it could be more ‘green’ to buy a new, energy star appliance than to keep a perfectly usable thing out of the landfill.
Sometimes I think that your way is the more green choice, particularly when considering non-consumable purchases.
If we really want to be green, we grow our own organic apples. But that makes people unemployed. I really think your way is the best way. Try to make good decisions, based on your situation.


Stacey March 19, 2009 at 11:27 am

This is such a great and timely topic! I found you through Kristen’s blog and found her right at the time I had set some savings goals and needed to look hard at where we were spending our money. She spends so little on her groceries it inspired me to do the same.

I used to spent $150-400 a week at our pricey whole foods grocery store (we also love to entertain and that created the heftier bills). Shopping the discount groceries I spent $50-80 a week. I loved the savings but I just couldn’t jibe them with my understanding that factory farming is not a sustainable practice.

Just last week I decided I would go back to buying only local/organic fresh produce (apples for $1.79/lb) and I spent $90 – totally doable within my budget. And I think I could get it even lower with a little more careful menu planning.

I also work part-time (in one 24-hour shift at the hospital) and my husband does not work for pay (he makes sure the household runs smoothly with our young son and spends about 15-20 hours on community/political activism) – so I really would encourage folks to challenge the belief that they have to work harder/longer in order to make sustainable (often equated with expensive) choices.

I agree (and I haven’t heard any environmentalists disagree) that you should use up what you have (be it car or appliance) before you send it to the landfill and buy a new, energy-efficient model.


TryinginToronto March 19, 2009 at 11:51 am

Lately I have been struggling with the same question. When I first started to actively think about money and frugality, I was determined to reduce my expenses. But I’ve morphed some.

The more I read about resource use and the environment and social impact of traditionally produced foods and items, the more disturbed I become by what I have been unknowingly supporting. The corporation that makes decisions that are I consider unconscionable is able to do that because I buy its product or support it through my investments. Recently, we looked into buying a small investment and discovered after digging that Monsanto was one of the corporations that we’d be investing in. We said no. But when I buy the cheap bananas or lettuce sprayed by them, then isn’t that the same thing? I really don’t know what companies our retirement and kids’ educations investments support (it’s on my to-do list), but I suspect it isn’t pretty.

My husband wants to leave his job, which our frugal lifestyles allow (although we’ll have to pitch our dream of being mortgage-free very early on), but he sometimes feels like I make life more difficult by trying to live more responsibly (let’s just be happy!). He’s right, of course. And it’s more expensive even though we don’t buy much of anything. We keep food costs down through smart, vegetarian shopping and scratch cooking, but I could get it down to next to nothing if we eliminated organic dairy, eggs and produce). The Tom’s of Maine’s toothpaste is something like 8 times more expensive than Colgate (I don’t think I’ll be doing that one again soon). We too pick and choose. But to really be true to sustainable living, we’d have to change lots and lots of things. It would cost more, although the “do without” part of your philosophy and more diy helps.


Meg from FruWiki March 19, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Frugality is just the opposite of wastefulness, and what is sustainability if not anti-wastefulness?

Both frugality and sustainability often lead to financial wealth, but that doesn’t mean that the most frugal or sustainable choice is always the cheapest choice.

We often think about frugality in terms of dollars and cents, but you can waste other kinds of resources as well such as time, space, health, friendships, etc. Therefore, to be truly frugal, you must consider many more factors than just the price tag.


Meg from FruWiki March 19, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Re: appliances, if you can give the old appliance to someone in need and get a greener one for yourself, then that may be a better option (assuming you can afford it and that they probably couldn’t afford a nice, new green model).

Have you tried toothpowder? I use Ipsab and have used Ecodent, too. It takes a few days to get used to the taste, but I can’t stand regular toothpaste now. You can make your own as well, but buying it is very affordable since a little bottle will last much, MUCH longer than a large tube toothpaste.


Angela March 19, 2009 at 3:09 pm

As always, a timely and thought-provoking post. And something I constantly wrestle with.

Luckily, I find that a lot of times the “frugal” option is also the “green” option. But we live in Los Angeles, and a lot of our friends shop at Gelson’s or Whole Foods and drive a Prius, and I’m just not willing to work the extra hours that lifestyle would require. I’m like you Katy, I choose to work part-time so that I can do the work I love and spend time doing other things that are important to me as well.

I do think the food purchases are the hardest, and luckily here in California we can usually buy good produce at Farmer’s Markets or other types of markets at a very good price, even if it’s not labeled “organic.” It’s fresh and local and usually doesn’t have nearly the amount of pesticides.

I think your philosophy of scrutinizing every purchase is the main point. When we’re just unthinking consumers, we spend more, waste more, exploit more. When we consider our income and do our best to make responsible purchases, that’s a step forward.

Also, to TryingInToronto and anyone else interested in responsible investing, may I suggest Domini Social Investments. When you purchase an IRA or mutual fund through them, they are investing in companies they have screened for a lot of issues like child labor, “green” quotient, sustainability, etc.


maclynx March 19, 2009 at 7:11 pm

Like all of the above it is something I also struggle with. In Australia we have two major supermarket chain stores and Aldi has recently entered the market. I struggle with the issue of carbon miles and prefer to buy local produce. Would love to buy organic but find it too pricey. Coles and Safeway have played games with the farmers for too long.
As a compromise I spend only a portion of my budget at the big supermarkets – getting the specials, the majority at the family run supermarket and the rest at farmers markets. Recently have joined an organic co-op and I grow and preserve what I can.


Mariah March 19, 2009 at 7:48 pm

In reply to “Trying” I’m concerned that inflammatory comments about the costs of organic and sustainable goods are what scare many people away from them.

Let me first say that I have absolutely no connection with either Tom’s of Maine or Colgate. So I just did a quick internet search for the price of toothpastes and found that Colgate averages about $3.00 for a 6.4 oz tube. I’m pretty sure NO one would pay $24.00 for a tube of Toms. But Toms actually averages about $4.00 for a 6 oz tube. So the Toms comes out to 1.4 times as expensive as Colgate. And you can find sales and coupons for both brands to get them cheaper.
Decide for yourself which is right for you but please don’t scare others off! For myself, that $1 a tube is not really going to make me have to get another job or not.

Here’s info from the Tom’s website that I base my buying decisions on:

“Do you have dental care? Millions of Americans aren’t so lucky. Buy any Tom’s product in January and we’ll donate $1 from each purchase to help community dental clinics expand or improve their services.”

“We make our natural products with you in mind—they’re free from artificial ingredients, never tested on animals, and produced using environmentally sustainable business practices. And if you’re not happy with your Tom’s, we’ll give you a refund!”

” We donate 10% of our pre-tax profits to charitable organizations supporting the environment, human needs, the arts, and education.”

“We encourage our employees to use 5% of their paid time volunteering at nonprofit organizations of their choice.”

and… get this! “Toothpaste giant Colgate acquired the company for about $100 million in May 2006.”


marianne March 20, 2009 at 3:33 am

i’ve felt for awhile that i can add value to my dollar by determining where to spend it. if im going to actually go out to a restaurant, the locally owned one gets my money over a national chain. if im going to get food, the grocery store in my town gets my money over the one two towns over. if i want a muffin, the local coffee shop gets my business rather than dunkin donuts. i always choose my local hardware store over the big box store that is a 20 minute drive away. i won’t pay double for something thats closer, but a few cents here and there can keep my town the way i like it. full of local variety and flavor. you can add more power to dollar by determining where to spend it. even when you spend a little more in the summer on fresh local veggies and then freeze them for winter. you get fresh local food all year long and the local farmers have money to sustain them through the off season. so buy up their crop in bulk!!!! you can buy lots of #2 tomatoes in august when they have a surplus and can them as tomato sauce to get you through winter.


tammy March 20, 2009 at 5:39 am

I’d love to be able to purchase food at our local shop, but it is double or triple the price of my neighborhood Kroger store.
I do support LOCAL charities by shopping at my Junior League thrift store. I also support the arts by buying things made by my friends and acquaintances.
I really like Meg’s comment about frugality being the opposite of wastefulness. I clean, repair, patch and cook at home to save money which equals life energy. It’s important to me to continue to do the work I love (i work with musicians) and in order to do that, I must be watchful of my expenditures.
Another great post Katy!


Sheila March 20, 2009 at 7:07 am

great post that hits the spot! i think the mere fact that you and the others are considering the trade-offs so seriously is a great testament to how much you’ve done already in terms of being frugal and sustainable.

i’m only just starting to take baby steps to being frugal. i’m an ex-shopaholic/spoiled brat and I would tend to spend more on the sustainable end of the spectrum than the frugal end.

perhaps one way to make decision making easier is to write down decision rules based on the values that you hold dear. that way, you can assess for what categories of purchases you are willing to make the frugal choice or the sustainable choice should you need to choose between the two.


TryinginToronto March 20, 2009 at 10:36 am

Hello MegfromFruWiki and Angela,

Thank you for your suggestions on toothpastes and ethical investing – I will definitely check these out.

Hello Mariah,

I did not think I was making inflammatory comments about organic and sustainable goods – I certainly did not mean to. I mentioned that we buy some organic goods and still keep our food costs quite low. But they do cost significantly more (at least where I am) and I think it’s fair to state that reality, regardless of whether I think it’s a good value and truer reflection of the costs involved (which of course I do, otherwise I wouldn’t buy them). I hope demand for them will grow and make costs even more affordable.

I love Tom’s philosophy, especially on animal welfare (and their toothpaste!). I bought a 75ml tube for $6.59 while I can get a 130ml tube of Colgate for $1.49. Those were the prices I used for my rough calculation. It may be prices for certain things are higher/different here in Toronto. I know that Colgate-Palmolive acquired Tom’s (quite controversial in some circles). The toothpaste was relatively expensive to buy, and as the discussion was on conscious spending on each item we buy, this is one that probably won’t work for my family right now. I’m sure it will work very well for others though.


glenn March 21, 2009 at 3:42 pm

I can definitely sympathize with your plight. There are always tradeoffs to be made. I believe the key is to choose your battles.

I think Tony’s idea of joining a CSA is an excellent one. It would be hard to beat the deal you get through a CSA, even at the conventional megamarket, and what you get is always fresh and in season. Plus, by supporting your local organic farmers you support your own community, so the investment comes back to you in other ways.

As I mentioned in a previous thread, I think it is really important to get yourself a list of the most important fruits and vegetables to eat organically, as well as the safest to eat non-organically. I found a printable list that you can carry in your wallet, that is probably the best list out there:

I strongly, strongly recommend not eating apples that have been sprayed. If you can’t find organic or spray-free apples that fit your budget, it is far better to eat none at all. No piece of fruit is worth dying over, and cancer costs a whole lot more than organic apples.

As the studies that comprise that list show, you can avoid the vast majority of poison residue by avoiding the worst culprits; apples being one of them.

I used to be pretty cavalier about food safety and dangerous chemicals, but now I have life-threatening conditions that may be the result of my old attitude about it.

For what its worth, comparative studies have actually shown that Whole Foods’ own organic brand is often cheaper than the equivalent at Albertson’s and Kroger etc.


glenn March 24, 2009 at 9:50 am

My wife Ashley mentioned a great solution for getting organic apples for cheap…. pick-your-own farms! They are a lot of fun as well.

I googled it, and found a bunch of them in the Portland area:

Many of them are berry farms as well. We love to go to pick-your-own berry farms. We get more than we need, and Ashley cans amazingly yummy jams with them.

We actually save money two ways by making our own jam from the berries we pick. We save a whole lot on jam, and we give jars of it out as gifts, so we save a bunch there as well.

This year money was tight, so we made small care packages of homemade treats for all of our family Christmas gifts (jam, spiced nuts, caramels, cookies, and chutney).

Homemade canned goods make a great gift because they are more personal than a dvd from Best Buy or whatever, and they are truly delicious. Tie it in a bow and it’s good to go. They also make a great last minute gift because you always have them on hand.


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