What is frugality?

Frugality is more commonly known as resourcefulness, or simply being careful with money. While the original sense was to be cautious with food, times have changed and now food is plentiful for most, while money is not.

The word actually exists in Portuguese, but to my surprise even those students who work in economics and the financial sector do not know the word, and generally only the older generation are aware of it. In Portuguese it is known as frugalidade.

Someone who is careful with his money is said to be frugal. The word is not common in spoken or informal English, and mostly reserved for academic and historical texts. It was one of the traditional Roman virtues, and is perhaps most widely known in this quote from the Roman philosopher Quintus Sextius, a man admired and often quoted by Seneca the Younger:


“This is the road by which one mounts to the stars: the road of frugality, the road of self-control, the road of courage.”

Why is frugality important?

Seneca once remarked, “I do not know what will happen, but I do know what can happen”. And what can happen? Anything that happens to anyone can happen to us; millionaires have lost millions due to failed business ventures, others have been hit not once but multiple times by misfortune, and savings are not unlimited; people lose their jobs in a mere fraction of the time it took to get them, and health problems dig deep into the pockets of anyone at any age. It is times like these when you will regret having maxed out your credit card and are still paying off the installments for a luxury leather sofa bed you rarely ever used, and if the illness is chronic and incurable, one you’ll never even get to use.


Isn’t being frugal the same as being mean?

Firstly, ‘mean’ doesn’t now carry the same sense as it once did, that of being a miser (from which ‘miserable’ is a derived), or in other words, not spending money at all. When we say someone is mean, we are generally referring to an unkind or unjust action he or she did, though it can still apply to someone who refuses to give money even though he has it to spare. A more widely used word is ‘tight’.

But being frugal isn’t the same as being tight. Frugal is to exercise caution in regards to spending money, in other words, to avoid spending on unnecessary, trivial, and superfluous things. To be tight is to refrain from spending at all.


How can you be frugal?

A good start is to avoid advertisements. Advertisers and marketing companies, at least in England, are extremely skilled at tricking you into believing that their product will solve all your problems and make your dreams come true; once you buy it, you won’t regret it. You may not immediately regret it, because once we buy something we have a habit of justifying the purchase, and many products which we didn’t originally need become essential items which we could never have imagined living without. But buying is addictive, and once the pleasure of having bought something new passes, the same burning desire returns, the same desire that burns from within whenever we don’t have something we want.

Secondly, identify what is essential, such as food and water, and what is desirable, such as a new TV or mobile phone. Cast your memory back to the time you bought a new mobile phone you had wanted for ages. How did you feel when you bought it? Probably very happy. But now how do you feel? Most likely you would like another phone, one with a better camera or display. This applies to almost everything. If any thing could satisfy us, we would have been satisfied long ago.

One would be wise to spend wisely. The time may well come when a low-spec phone or a faulty TV are the least of your troubles, and it’s times like these when you will need to fall back on your savings. Spend little on what you need, spend nothing on what you don’t. Frugality pays off in a future, either to act as a buffer zone to ease future hardships, or at the very least, to give you peace of mind safe in the knowledge that you have the money reserved if and when required.



“But I’ll be called tight!”

That may be so, but if you’re smart enough to spend money smartly, you’re smart enough to ignore those who spend money carelessly. When those who call you tight stumble into financial difficulties after having bought an expensive new home or car, then it is you who is safe at having safeguarded your well-earned money for a rainy day. And bear in mind rainy days are very often accompanied by a succession of violent turbulent storms. This is why in English we have the age old proverb: “to save for a rainy day“.

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