I watched the proceedings at the Vatican to select a new pope for the Roman Catholic Church last week. I saw the white smoke rise from the small chimney on the Sistine Chapel indicating a selection had been made. Then it was a waiting game until the new pope's name was revealed and what name he chose as he assumed his new office in the church. Finally, his name and the name he selected, Pope Francis, was revealed. The new pontiff, a Jesuit, selected the name of the saint identified with forming the Franciscan order, St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis chose to live a life of poverty and to do what he could to assist the impoverished.
I'm not a Catholic, so I watched the event as I would the coronation of a monarch in another country, with intellectual curiosity and interest. But, the choice of the name Pope Francis and the back-story of how he lived his life and conducted himself as a Cardinal of the church in Buenos Aires inspired me.
Now, it's important to make a very distinct differentiation between poverty, as related to St. Francis and Pope Francis and frugality, the topic of this post. While I believe most people who choose to live frugally have a clear understanding of the difference, I'm not sure that the larger percentage of the population, especially in the United States, understands the difference. In my last post about the Catch-22 of Living Free, I explained how many aspects of living a non-conforming, living free lifestyle are constantly confronted by Catch-22 situations. Living frugally, an aspect for most who choose to live free, is also confronted by Catch-22 situations.
Poverty is typically defined as someone who does not possess an acceptable (by the standard of someone, an institution or a government) amount of money and possessions. These judgments are made by people, groups or a government agency that attaches some number to what "they" consider to be a level of living in poverty. Much of the judgmental thinking is based on a society that measures position (in a supposedly classless society) based on financial worth, material possessions and consumption of goods and services. I find it interesting that many people who grew up poor (in poverty) didn't know they were poor until it was pointed out to them, typically, by someone who had more than the individual and with or without intent, made the individual feel like a lesser value person.
Poverty is another of the Catch-22 situations in our society. Certainly there are many individuals who raise themselves out of poverty to the Middle Class or even to significant wealth and lives of luxury and excess. The vast majority is confronted with a continual series of obstacles. The term "the cycle of poverty" is often used as succeeding generations stay in the same impoverished life that their parents lived and their parents before them lived. A few fortunate, impoverished people work hard, find some "breaks" and obtain an education, display superior athletic ability, have talents to enter the music industry and other parts of the entertainment industry or, unfortunately, fall into a life of crime of one form or another to leave poverty behind.
Interestingly, however, while it may seem ironic and, perhaps, to be an oxymoron, there are many people who live well, are happy, productive and enjoy their lives in poverty. While it may defy logic for most people, there are those who choose austere, nomadic lifestyles. There are those who choose to be homeless and not because they have some mental illness or deficiency or are uneducated. They choose the lifestyle because it is a way to live simply and free from material possessions that can restrict, limit and even imprison them. There are even those who actually have financial means, perhaps, from a retirement fund or an inheritance or trust fund or ongoing royalties for something they did at an earlier time. But, they choose to live simple, austere lives of poverty. Pope Francis is one of these kinds of people. He chose to live in a basically furnished, small apartment in Buenos Aires, Argentina rather than the Palace of the Cardinal provided for him as part of his station in the church. He took public transportation. He wore simple and rough robes and he wears a simple wooded cross. And so do many of those who have means, yet choose a life of poverty, often using their money to help others anonymously.
Frugality is quite different and applies across the board. One can be poor and be frugal or one can be wealthy and be frugal. Being frugal is a conscious choice and a state of mine. And, just as an aside, in my definition, there is a big gap between being frugal and just being "cheap." Frugality is simply about getting the "biggest bang for your buck." But even more, it's about getting only what you need and really want. To be frugal is to gain the greatest advantage from the resources available.
You don't have to be poor to be frugal. You don't have to appear poor to be frugal. You simply make intelligent and calculated choices and decisions on utilizing your money and resources to your best advantage. I regularly see folks considered to be from the upper crust portion of a community, including doctors, lawyers and successful business men and women, in Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl's, JC Penny's, Costco and Sam's Club. This doesn't mean that they may not also shop at Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom and Neiman-Marcus. It simply means that for certain items they have found it more economically sound to make their purchases at stores offering the same or similar quality merchandise for lower prices. A better value for their buck!
Frugality is an art. It requires each individual to take into account exactly what their resources are and what they need and may want and then how to use their resources to fulfill these needs and wants. Years ago, as I walked through Costco (where I have been a member for 25 years), I began asking myself a simple question. "Can I live without this?" Amazingly, about 99% of the time, I realized the answer to that question is, "Yes! I can live without this." I go in with a list and I leave with those items. Sure, I see lots of things that I want, but I've come to realize that those items are displayed specifically to get people to grab whatever it is, throw it in the cart, pay for it and then, later, usually much later, realize they really didn't need it at all.
Let me say right here that you and I are very different. How I define my needs and wants and you define yours will be different. I use the anecdotal stories from my life only as examples. I am not a hypocrite. I will flatly admit I have indulged myself to a point of, as I now see it, annoyance. I have owned about 24 cars during my lifetime. Believe it or not, at one time, as a single person I owned three vehicles and at another time I had four vehicles. There was a long period of my life, as a single person, where I believed I had to own at least two vehicles so I'd have a spare if one of them broke down and needed to go in for repairs. That's crazy thinking if you look at it realistically. When I owned two or more vehicles I could only drive one at a time. However, I still had to pay an annual registration fee, a city or county decal tax, a personal property tax and insurance on each of the vehicles. Add to those costs the expenses of repairs, routine maintenance and replacing things like tires and belts that just deteriorated while the vehicles sat around. Then add to all that the annual loss in value through depreciation. The bottom line is that it was costing me thousands of dollars and perhaps as much as a hundred thousand dollars over my lifetime for that faulty thinking. It's much less expensive to simply rent a car for a few days when My McVansion (my van) has to go in for some work. It might cost me a couple hundred dollars a year, but that's far less than the cost of having another vehicle.
The same thinking holds true in my decision to purchase a vehicle. A vehicle is a convenience and a necessity of my chosen lifestyle. I've owned about six new cars during my lifetime. The rest have all been previously owned. I have enjoyed the utility and functionality of vans, so I've owned six full-size vans of some configuration and one mini-van. I discovered the enjoyment and luxury of driving upscale luxury cars, so I've had six Cadillacs. The rest of the cars were either economy or sporty cars. My frugality instinct caused me to buy all of my Cadillacs pre-owned (used). I typically paid between 10 and 20 percent of the new car price when I bought these vehicles. They were upscale cars, so well cared for and maintained. They cost me less to own and drive over the period I kept them than the monthly payments on a new, averaged priced Ford or Chevy. And I had the pleasure of years and years of luxurious driving.
I always thought it would be great to have a convertible. But, there are only a limited number of days each year when you can comfortably enjoy putting the top down. They are drafty in cold, damp weather. The tops deteriorate over time and have to be replaced. They are not secure and can be broken into much easier than a regular car. You loose some trunk space to accommodate the top when it's down. And, they cost more to purchase and insure. It just didn't seem to be a practical car for me. But, I've still enjoyed driving over the Golden Gate Bridge or in the Sierra Nevadas or in sunny Florida in a convertible. I simply rent one when I can enjoy it the most. Again, the occasional rental has been a pittance in comparison to my cost if I had owned one.
I can go on and on with stories about having eight to ten business suits and bunches of shirts and ties, a dozen or more pairs of shoes, more sweaters than I knew what to do with, etc., etc. The fact is that most people only wear 20% of their clothes most of the time. That's right, it's the old 80/20 rule, yet again. I buy virtually all my clothes at three places because I know they have what I want. I watch for sales and only actually buy something if I need it to replace something that I've worn out. My personal big challenge was "toys" and I don't mean inexpensive things like video games and such. I mean recording equipment. I've always been a gear slut; I want to have what I want to have when I want to have it when it comes to microphones and recorders, computers, software, etc. Finally, I've adopted the philosophy of "less is more." Wow! What a difference. I actually have less gear and can do everything I need and want to do.
Frugality, I say again, is an art. It doesn't mean buying cheap stuff or junk. It means making wise, calculated choices and decisions. If you find a brand of clothes you like and it feels good when you wear it, then those are the clothes you should purchase, just shop carefully. I take care of my clothes and I get years of use out of them. Amazingly, I'll wear a shirt I've had for, perhaps, ten years and people will still compliment me, even though they may have seen it numerous times in the past. People don't remember what you wear. Always buy the best of everything, but not because of the brand name, but because of the value. I have a millionaire friend who will see me in a pair of shoes or a shirt and say something like, "I have a shirt just like the one you're wearing. I got mine at Nordstrom's for $75 on sale. You probably paid $10 for yours, right?" Yep! He was right.
Buy used. Unless a piece of audio equipment is very inexpensive, I won't buy it new. I'll wait until I find a good used one on Ebay and I'll buy it and typically save 40 to 60 percent or more. It works just like the new one and when I decide to sell it, I almost always get the same amount back that I paid for it, so I used it for free. Go to thrift shops and similar places. You'll often find brand new designer names in everything including clothes, housewares, appliances - you name it. You may buy a brand new shirt or blouse with the new tags and original price still on it for $2 to $5. Scour yard sales and flea markets when you have a free Saturday or Sunday. I bought a perfectly good DVD player with its remote for $20 from a pawnshop. There is NOTHING wrong with being frugal and buying right. You work hard for whatever money you have regardless of whether you're living in poverty or in luxury. Get the most for what you have.
Catch-22 of Frugality
Yes! There is a Catch-22 in Frugality. But, in reality, the Catch-22 isn't as much your problem as it is the problem of our materialistic, consumer, marketing hype, capitalistic society. Oops! Let me clarify something before I go further. I AM PRO CAPITALISM! I have been in business all my life. I'm an entrepreneur. Capitalism is what drives our economy. But, like just about everything else, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. The U.S. government talks in circles and in riddles. It talks about creating jobs, but the government can't create jobs other than putting more people on the public dole and they can only do that by either taking more money from those who are productively driving the capitalistic machine of commerce or by borrowing it. Private sector jobs are only created on a supply and demand basis.
The Catch-22 is that there are too many people, too much stuff, a marketing machine hyping us that we need (no we don't) all this stuff, constant technological advances in every field of endeavor that make more and more forms of human labor obsolete and a commandment from the "talking heads" in government that we need to buy new houses, new cars, new boats, new clothes new stuff, more and more to keep the machine fed and operating. Unfortunately, these same "talking heads" don't tell you, realistically, that the employment market really stinks. They don't mention that when people are able to find work it's, typically, for less money than ever before. And, of course, those who still have jobs haven't seen any increase (actually it's been a decrease) in their spendable income. In other words, you're being encouraged to spend money you don't really have on things you don't realistically need to support a system that needs to be constantly fed so that the various levels of government can continue to extract that money to provide services that most of us don't and probably never will need. Catch-22!
Here's the good news! People in the U.S. and some other developed nations are conditioned to spend and consume. It's a way of life. It's an addiction. When a woman breaks up with her boyfriend she goes on a shopping spree to buy stuff she really doesn't need, but it makes her feel better (releases endorphins - a good workout at a gym would do that, too). A guy sees his friend's new $45,000 tricked out pick-up truck and he "needs" one, too. The kid comes home from school and says, "all his friends are wearing the latest Air Jordans sneakers and he's being ostracized because he doesn't have a pair, too." There goes another $200 to put royalties into the pocket of Michael Jordan. Add as man of your own examples as you wish.
Think of it this way, this is good news for you because as long as they keep doing it, the system will keep rolling along and you're the beneficiary of it. That's right! You're the one who'll get to use that pick-up truck when the guy has to upgrade again and you'll get all the use out of it at a way lower cost. You'll buy those designer clothes for $2 and $5 at the thrift store with the tags still on them. You'll probably even find those Air Jordans in the thrift store with just a few scuffs on them. You'll also buy cars, computers, George Foreman Grills, all kinds of knives, kitchen appliances, tools, clothes, etc. sold on QVC and HSN and even those expensive "doowop" CD and DVD packages from PBS given away as gifts for large donations. You'll find them on Ebay, Craig's List, Freecycle, in thrift stores and in pawnshops. But, here's the good part, you'll be paying pennies on the dollars and will have long ago realized that you don't even need most of this stuff anyway, so it will keep the sanitation workers in their jobs at the landfills.
Vow of Frugality
So, now it's time for the Vow of Frugality. This is NOT a vow of poverty. The Vow of Frugality in no way is meant to deter you from having everything you NEED (and, please, what you truly need is very different than what you want). You will fulfill your needs with the best values in everything you acquire to provide you with the best, long-term service possible, no matter what it is.
Again, since this is not a vow of poverty, you certainly deserve to enjoy the things you WANT. But, let's be realistic, most of the things you want are not realistic wants. Remember my example of owning a convertible car. I didn't deprive myself of the enjoyment of driving a convertible; I simply chose not to own it for the various reasons I stated. I had the use of it when I could gain the most enjoyment. This applies to everything from jet skis, skidoos, ATV's, tricked out pick-up trucks, an RV you'll use for two weeks or so, every year, several designer gowns, 30 (or more) pairs of shoes, every imaginable video or computer game, huge, 3D, flat screen TV's and flat screen TV's for every kid's room, etc. In other words, if it's really not practical or you won't use it at least several times every week, then you can live without it and . . . you won't miss it.
You'll evaluate each purchase you make to gain the best value for your expenditure. You'll forego designer names (and prices) for equivalent products that will serve as well and save you 40 to 75 percent over the designer value. You will rent your place of residence if, after very careful scrutiny of all the costs of ownership compared to renting, you will come out ahead for the money expended. You will continually seek ways to live very well on as little as possible. The result is that you'll be living well and in a secure financial position with little or no debt. We'll revisit this concept of frugality again in the future with more ideas. Now here's the vow . . .
I (we) ________________________________ having come to the conclusion that I (we) can live a full, fulfilling, comfortable lifestyle with all of my (our) needs met and realizing all of my (our) realistic wants in life, hereby take this Vow of Frugality. I (we) will continually educate myself (ourselves), explore opportunities, never buy anything on impulse without first calculating the true cost and value to me (us). I (we) will always ask myself (ourselves), when interested, intrigued or hyped about some product or service, the simple question, "Can I (we) live without this?" I (we) will allow myself (ourselves) at least three to five days to answer that question honestly, before seriously considering such a purchase. For my (our) own edification, I (we) will keep a journal of my (our) expenditures with the actual cost I (we) paid, the maximum amount I (we) might have paid, the savings and the reason I (we) made the purchase. Additionally, I (we) will list all the expenditures I (we) didn't make, the amount I (we) saved by not making the expenditure and the reason I (we) decided not to make the expenditure. I (we) will tally the expenditures and the savings at the end of each month and at the end of each year and realize how well I (we) lived for the month and year and how much further my (our) resources can take me (us) toward living a comfortable and fulfilling life for the rest of my (our) life (lives). I (we) will further share this Vow of Frugality with anyone wanting to live well for less.
Signed: __________________________________ (and _______________________________)
Review your vow every time you feel yourself slipping back into your old behavior patterns. Good luck!