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The benefits of frugality

Photo courtesy Flickr user 401(K) 2012.

Photo courtesy Flickr user 401(K) 2012.

Photo courtesy Flickr user 401(K) 2012.

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Being frugal or fiscally conservative sometimes gets a bad reputation. The stereotype some imagine is of a paranoid and hunched-over person counting the pennies in their wallet, clipping coupons to the refrigerator, taking extra hotel provided toiletries from the maid’s cart, stashing 35 Taco Bell hot sauce packets in their pockets when they leave, tipping poorly at restaurants like Dutch grandparents and only showing up to church for the Wednesday night cookout and Sunday afternoon BBQ. Or perhaps you imagine someone crankily yelling at you for enjoying an expensive cup of coffee when you could save $177,000 over the next 45 years if every time you felt the impulse to have Starbucks you put that money in a savings account. Are these stereotypes based in reality? In some respects, yes, but living frugally shouldn’t be limited to these stereotypes or dismissed because of them.

While there is definitely the larger debate on the role of the state in the economic sphere, today I’d like to make a case for the benefits of frugality or fiscal conservatism in one’s personal life. I’ll explain both the most straightforward and basic reasons as well as the more complex reasons.

While there are many tips for being frugal, anyone can find dozens of suggestions through Google. While I may mention a few, I believe that fundamentally head knowledge is less foundational than good habits. Initially, living frugally is more about action and discipline than about knowing the perfect strategy. Anyone can have a long list of ways to be frugal, but if they never follow through in a consistent manner than it is wholly ineffective.

So why, why be fiscally conservative? I think that perhaps the most obvious and base answer is that you save money, something we college students are often lacking. Living frugally over a longer period of time saves money that normally falls through the cracks.

Another more subtle reason is that living frugally increases creativity and helps develop habits of sustainable living. When we need something, often our impulse is to go and buy the product that solves the problem. Consistent financial conservatism and frugality causes the brain to invent creative ways to solve problems that others will solve with an impulse purchase. A mindset of reusability and a creative attitude helps eliminate excess waste in our lives, from food to fuel.

The next step is that frugality produces discipline and teaches the ability to balance priorities. In a 21st-century United States of America we are blessed with access to both the necessities and luxuries of life. Despite this, according to CNN Money, 76 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. When it is all too easy to get a credit card and rack up expenses by the end of the month with a multitude of goods and services to choose from, it’s easy to fall into the trap of acting rich, even if unintentionally so. The job of a business is to get you to buy their product, which means making what is really a “want” look like it’s a “need.” Writing a budget and using debit or cash are steps towards disciplining one’s self in a way that makes sure every dollar, even the dollars budgeted for fun, are being accounted for. While there are cases made for the use of credit cards, according to Carnegie Mellon University, George Loewenstein, a professor of social and decision sciences (SDS) and co-author of the paper examining how mental processes drive economic decision-making, said that, “Credit cards effectively anesthetize the pain of paying,” he continues. “You swipe the card and it doesn’t feel like you’re giving anything up to make the purchase, unlike paying cash where you have to hand over bills.” When faced with a precarious financial situation where every dollar counts, even the neurological “pain” of handing over cash or seeing the immediate dip in your bank account from a debit card helps discipline the mind and body. It’s about the power of saying no to the things we want with the knowledge that we are delaying pleasure untill a later time.

When you take the products of frugality — creativity, sustainable living habits, discipline and the ability to balance priorities — and apply them strategically it becomes more feasible to move beyond the volatile state of living paycheck to paycheck. By saving and preparing an emergency fund, a strategy made popular by financial advisor Dave Ramsey, you are better prepared for emergencies and better protected from a crisis. An emergency fund of a thousand dollars provides stability for a car crash or injury. Both the material reality of having money set aside for such a situation as well as the mental reality of knowing you are prepared helps stabilize the volatility of the circumstances. A larger emergency fund helps prepare for the worst-case scenarios like job loss.

Beyond financial security, fiscal conservatism provides the foundation for building wealth and preparation for the future. A greater financial security and frugality that leads to paying off debts and freeing up disposable income creates greater opportunities to take risks in the marketplace or invest for the future. Stability allows us to save for our kids’ college, prepare for retirement, and make generational changes in the way our children manage finances. According to a study published in the ASPPA’s Quarterly Journal for Actuaries, Consultants, Administrators and Other Retirement Plan Professionals on Retirement Success, “From a practical perspective, adequate savings is the most important driver of successful income replacement.” According to this study, it wasn’t asset allocation (20 percent), actuarial assessment & intervention (4 percent) or asset quality (2 percent) which are primarily responsible for successful retirement savings, but savings rate (74 percent), being consistently disciplined in putting away a small portion of income for the future.

For college students I believe this is very applicable. While it’s often difficult for us to see the future when we are up to our necks in homework and midterms, building the habits of frugality and personal fiscal conservatism may change the course of our lives. Beyond learning to better manage our immediate expenses and college bills, we are at a pivotal time where many of our decisions and habits that we develop will stay with us for decades to come. Changing our mindset now may redirect ourselves away from a future where we are among the 76 percent living paycheck-to-paycheck, and instead toward one where we are among those preparing for emergencies, building wealth and setting our kids up for a more stable and successful life.

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