Frugality Over the Ages
From Socrates to Thoreau, from Franklin to Gandhi, philosophers, moralists, and spiritual leaders have identified frugality as a virtue and associated simple living with wisdom, integrity, and happiness. The Cynics were the first to reject wealth, power, sex, fame, and other desires in favor of a simple life free of all possessions. Diogenes the Cynic (portrayed in image) famously lived in a wine barrel and had no worldly goods.
For the Puritans, the love of material consumption was an evil; their spiritual doctrine stressed, in the words of the American historian Edmund Morgan,
A man was but the steward of the possessions he accumulated. If he indulged himself in luxurious living, he would have that much less with which to support church and society. If he needlessly consumed his substance, either from carelessness or from sensuality, he failed to honor the God who furnished him with it.
Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, a doyen of the self-improvement movement, listed frugality as one of the 13 virtues he followed as a young man. Between 1732 and 1757, Franklin published such famous aphorisms in his Poor Richard’s Almanack as “be industrious and frugal, and you will be rich,” “beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship,” and “he that goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing.”
For the American philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, frugality or “transcendental simplicity” was a means to a higher end. In Man the Reformer (1841,) Emerson wrote, “Economy is a high, humane office, a sacrament, when its aim is grand; when it is the prudence of simple tastes, when it is practiced for freedom, or love, or devotion.” For Thoreau, “high thinking was preferable to high living;” he wrote in Walden (1854,) “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meager life than the poor”.
Thoreau inspired the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. After suffering a mental breakdown in the late 1870s, Tolstoy, who was born into Russian nobility, rejected his family’s estate and serfdom. He renounced his decadent, racy lifestyle and engaged in a revolutionary brand of Christianity based on spiritual and material austerity.
Tolstoy’s philosophy showed the way for the creation of utopian communities of simple, self-sufficient living—the most famous example being the “Tolstoy Farm” ashram that Mahatma Gandhi established in South Africa. Gandhi was the quintessence of simplicity and sported austere homespun clothing. He famously said, “you may have occasion to possess or use material things, but the secret of life lies in never missing them,” and “our civilization, our culture, our [nation] depend not upon multiplying our wants—self-indulgence, but upon restricting our wants—self-denial.”
Frugality is a Moral Virtue
The distinguished career coach Marty Nemko once wrote, “I even take care to tear-off single sheets of toilet paper. Because I’m cheap? No. Because it’ll help the environment? No. I just think wasting is wrong.” That, in a nutshell, is why I’m frugal.
For me, frugality suggests an appropriate limit on individual and collective desires; it denies the materialistic expectations that the modern society imposes upon us.
Frugality is not some form of world-denying asceticism or austerity. It is a part of principled stewardship of not only the resources I’ve been blessed with but also of myself.
Frugality is about forgoing a subset of desires—as part of a quest for an abundant life. In other words, frugality restricts my indulgence of materialistic appetite, with the intention that I leave space for the cultivation of diverse forms of pleasure.
When I started to work while still in college, frugality was an element of my quest for financial independence. It became the lynchpin of a deliberate set of lifestyle choices and values. But my focus on achieving financial freedom never let me pining for the pleasures I might have had.
Six years ago, I gave up a corporate job and significant earnings in favor of a simpler life with plenty of discretionary time and money for world travel, leisure, learning, culture, and meaning.
Idea for Impact: Enjoying a rich life is more important than zealously stewarding one’s savings and investments.
Living frugally, with the particular intention of achieving financial freedom, requires a good measure of renunciation. This renunciation is easiest when one regards it not as deprivation, but as a deliberate choice in a trade-off for an enriched life.