The Virtuous Life: Frugality

by Brett on March 30, 2008 · 15 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue


Americans’ are saving their money at the lowest rate in 73 years-the lowest rate since the Great Depression. The national personal savings rate was negative (!) 1% in 2006. That means that as a whole, the country is spending more than it is taking in.

With the economy on a downhill slide, Americans may start tightening their purse strings. But I predict that instead, people will simply start running up more credit card and loan debt. They have gotten used to a certain lifestyle, and feel entitled to continuing living it.

I was once watching a TV show in which a round table of finance gurus were dispensing money advice to the studio audience. One of the advisors said that people should give up little luxuries like a daily Starbucks run and save and invest that money instead. A woman in the audience stood up and cried, “But what if I don’t want to give up Starbucks?” The crowed roared and clapped in approval.

The Founding Fathers feared such attitudes. They feared that too much luxury made a nation weak. They would often point to the Greeks and Romans as examples of what happens to a nation when it lets prosperity go unchecked by temperance and frugality. John Adams often preached against “effeminate luxuries.” And although wealthy, Ben Franklin lived a relatively simple life. He made an effort to eat and dress plainly.

Unfortunately, Americans have lost sight of the importance of frugality. For a generation of men who have grown up in a period of unprecedented affluence, living frugally seems down right silly and old fashion. But if a man wishes to remain economically and emotionally independent, frugality is an essential virtue to develop.

Why Being Frugal is Essential to Manning Up

Frugality Keeps You Out of Bondage

Think what you do when you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty.~Benjamin Franklin

Our society is laden with debt. Personal debt is slavery. The interest that accompanies high consumer debt never sleeps or dies. If you fail to live up to your obligation to pay, it will crush you.

Last summer I clerked at the U.S. Trustees office, the section of the Department of Justice that handles bankruptcies. While many of the people filing bankruptcy were there because of catastrophic events like serious illnesses, most were there because frivolous spending finally caught up with them.

While bankruptcy provided these people a chance to start fresh, it came at a serious price. Their credit will be ruined for the next ten years. Every time they apply for a loan or a job, prospective lenders and employers will see that big black ugly mark on their record.

Debt can and will ruin you. It will take away your liberty and dignity. Avoid it like the plague. Embrace personal responsibility and enjoy the liberty and peace of mind frugality affords.

Frugality not only frees you from the bondage of debt, it also liberates you from the shackles of excessive stuff. Think about how much time you spend keeping track and taking care of your stuff. By reducing the amount of stuff in your life, you reduce the amount of time you have to spend taking care of it, which leaves you with more time to focus on the things that are truly important in your life.

Frugality Builds Self-Discipline

Success in life requires a man to have self-mastery. Learning to control your spending is one way you can develop your self-discipline. The ability to distinguish between wants and needs and to postpone those wants until they are affordable is a mark of a true man. It is child-like to rush out and buy something simply because you feel you must have it now. Maturity means having the self-discipline to live within your means. If you have the tendency to make frivolous purchases, make a concerted effort to not make the purchase. After a while, you’ll notice that it will become easier to fight the urges to buy stuff. Self-discipline in your finances can translate to self discipline in other areas of your life.

Frugality Helps You Be Self-Reliant

“Do we not realize that self respect comes with self reliance?”~ Abdual Kalam

Frugality not only provides an economic advantage, it also grants you the feeling of independence and self-respect that comes from being self-reliant. Think back to last time you fixed something around the house. How did you feel? Pretty damn good I bet. A few months ago, the cable on our clothes dryer went out. I could have called the repair man, but I wanted to save money. So, I just looked up the problem online, bought a replacement cable, and tinkered with the dryer for a couple of hours. When I got that thing to work, it was a great feeling. I felt good because 1) I saved some money, 2) I learned a new skill, and 3) I felt self reliant; I didn’t have to depend on repairman to fix it for me. I could do it myself.

Fathers used to pass down to their sons skills like how to change a tire, build a workbench, fix a faucet, change a car’s oil, build a shelf, ect. Today that unfortunately doesn’t happen as often. So you may need to check out a book, search Google, or ask a friend before tackling a problem you would normally hire someone to do. The extra time put in will be worth it. We’ll be posting some “how-to” articles here on the blog as well.

Frugality Forces You to Embrace the Real You

You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f*** khakis. ~Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Our consumerist society wants us to believe that we are what we buy. Consumerism says that everything you purchase and own sends a message to the world about who you are and the values you hold. If you want to change your identity, it’s as simple as going down to your local mall and buying the clothes, the music, or the appliances that will give you that identity. People can spend fortunes in an effort to capture some idea of “cool” that marketers are currently hawking.

The reality is that buying a SUV doesn’t make you rugged, buying North Face jackets doesn’t make you outdoorsy, and buying “Red Products” doesn’t make you socially conscious.

Frugality forces you to come face to face with the fact that you’re not what you own. Instead of looking for external modes of affirmation of personal worth, frugality requires you to look internally. By making the decision to not spend your money on stuff to make you feel better, you can start spending time developing habits and traits that will make you a better man.

How to Be Frugal

When it gets down to it, being frugal basically means not buying stuff you cannot afford. For more information, watch this video.

Don’t Buy Stuff You Can’t Afford

If you’re looking for resources on how to practice frugality, there are hundreds of websites out there that are dedicated to it. Here’s a list of my favorites

Get Rich Slowly

The Simple Dollar

The Digerati Life

Lazy Man and Money

The Frugal Law Student (OK, this one is mine. It’s shameless self promotion, but I think it has some good info that people might find useful.)

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nickoli March 31, 2008 at 12:36 am

I find it somewhat ironic that every response so far appears to be trackback spam advertising credit cards…

2 Santa March 31, 2008 at 5:00 am

“Personal debt is slavery…” is a concept that a lot of people in my generation (I am 29) do not understand. Most in my generation and the generations after have been brought up learning to spend money, and put enjoyment over investment. I was fortunate enough to learn a few things from my grandfather who grew up in the 20s, fought in World War II, and lived through the depression. It seems like those in his generation knew how to save money and stretch every dollar because even the banks at that time couldn’t be trusted. They were forced to learn to do with very little. There is a lot of talk that our nation is setting itself up for another depression and though people aren’t completely concerned, when it hits it will be for the better of this nation.

3 cribcat March 31, 2008 at 12:00 pm

The Four Hour Work Week is a book that I like by Tim Ferriss. Lose credit cards.

4 Dan March 31, 2008 at 1:43 pm

The much publicized -1% Personal Savings Rate is a bit misleading. It does not include 401K or IRA savings. When you include those, the rate is still low, and declining, but it is not negative. (I vaguely recall it being around 4.5%, but a quick Google failed to find the right number.)

I’d also point out that not all debt is bad. Borrowed money is not some evil, corruptible force. Debt is just another tool. One that can be used to great benefit, and even profit, if you possess true discipline and self-control.

Also, unfortunately, some debt is unavoidable. It isn’t always about Grande Lattes or pimped out SUVs. More people declare bankruptcy due to medical debt than any other reason.

The American economy is in a downturn, but be cautious of fluff statistics and sensational reporting making things look worse than they really are. Things are rarely so one-sided or bleak.

Lastly, don’t lose faith in your fellow Americans. This nation has seen far greater challenges than this. We will carry this burden, just like we always have.

5 Brett McKay March 31, 2008 at 2:42 pm


Good points. Some debt is inevitable and even helpful, but should be approached with discipline and self-restraint.

Do you have a source for your statement that most bankruptcies are caused by medical expenses? During the summer I worked at the Dept. of Justice, the number of non-medical related bankruptcies were outweighed by those caused by poor financial choices. Of course that isn’t a scientific sample, so I would be interested to know if there are any hard numbers out there.

6 Rodney Hampton March 31, 2008 at 8:17 pm

I’m going to write in all caps because I think that everyone needs to get this through their head: DEBT = SLAVERY

All of us are slaves to the banks. Let that sink in. Everything you see, pretty much, is not owned outright. A lot of it has been purchased with consumer credit card debt, mortgages and second mortgages. The boats, the cars, the SUVs, computers, playstations, and the houses are all being purchased on somewhere between 5% and 25% interest. Very few people pay cash on the barrelhead these days.

I worked for a commercial bank for over 2 years. Banks don’t like to be undercollateralized. They’ll jack up your rate, cut down your access to credit, demand more collateral or interest when they think you’re a risk. God forbid you miss a payment or bounce a check. If you don’t have money, they’ll charge you more! Here’s a particularly funny comedy routine about this ironic situation:

And, as we can see from the most recent economic news, the banks live by different economic rules than we do.

There is no such thing as good debt. You may think leverage is a good thing, as long as you’re on the right side of the lever. But conditions in the marketplace can change rapidly. And — unless you’re like Donald Trump — you won’t be able to negotiate when your creditors come calling or it’s time to face a margin call.

I’m on a mission to pay back all of my debt within the next 20 years. I may get lucky and get everything paid off in 10 if I transition from a well paying IT job into an even better paying job at a big law firm. Most people aren’t as lucky as me.

This consumer culture is sucking us dry. The inflationary policies of the federal reserve are a disincentive on savings. The concept that there is good debt flies in the face of centuries of human wisdom.

Reject consumerism. Take advantage of the 401k and, if you’re lucky like me, the employer matching funds. Invest in precious metals or foreign currencies like the Swiss Franc as a hedge against inflation. Teach your kids that DEBT = SLAVERY. Get off the grid. Live frugally.

7 Parker Dutro March 31, 2008 at 10:06 pm

While some debt is unavoidable (if only temporarily) Bankruptcy whether resulting from sudden overwhelming medical expense or uncontrollable Starbucks addiction could be avoided in many cases by having 6 months to a year living expenses saved. It takes more discipline than most of us own to put that kind of financial security together, but it is quite possible for anyone who commits to living within their means. The problem is that we are not objective and honest when we discern what our means limit us to, and we therefore are more inclined to make lifestyle decisions that are beyond them.

8 Rob O. April 1, 2008 at 6:10 pm

Credit cards in themselves are not evil. In fact, with the right card and some fierce determination, you can actualy make them work for you. My wife & I use our Citi Platinum Dividend card for virtually every purchase or payment we can so we can get the cashback dividends. But we never – ever – carry a balance. We behave as though it were one of those old-school AmEx cards that wouldn’t even allow a balance to roll over from one month to another.

I truly do believe that debt is the freedom killer. So many of our friends have rushed out and bought really prestigious newer homes that’re beautiful, yet they’re so far in debt with the mortgage that they can’t afford a bucket of paint to change anything up.

Conversely, my wife & I bought a dumpy, diamond in the rough, fixer-upper home in a decent, but far from upscale neighborhood. 12 years later, it’s unrecognizable! We’ve redone every room (to some degree), including an extensive overhaul of the kitchen and one of the bathrooms. We’re planning to gut & redo the master bath this Summer. Point is, the house was very low priced so we’ve been able to easily afford to do lots & lots of upgrading to make it into a very nice home. It’s still quite modest-sized – and features none of the vaulted ceilings or other trappings of the new McMansions – but we love it!

9 John Michailidis April 4, 2008 at 7:29 pm

I just stumbled upon your site and have found it to be a “breath of fresh air.” With society’s attempt at the emasculation of men, it’s good to find a site that celebrates men and manhood. Good job!

10 Brent Hodgson April 9, 2008 at 6:55 am

Great post.

Recently here in Australia, employees of several financiers have complained that they are pressured to “sell loans” to people that can’t afford to repay them.

Fortunately, savings here are (slightly) higher than in the USA.

11 Eamonn Magrath June 20, 2008 at 1:36 pm

I have never saved. I will never save. I have nothing (in monetary terms). I have everything (in non-monetary terms) … where am I going wrong?

12 hogan July 23, 2008 at 10:31 pm


Just wanted to send out a message about a website I created ( for personal finance since it could help out people in this group. I used to do all my finance stuff on Excel, but that was a pain because I had different versions floating around on different computers.

This website does stuff like track expenses, create a budget, etc. If you want to give it a try, visit It’s free and I am not making any money off of it (no ads). Send me any comments if you have feedback or suggestions.


13 Donna January 3, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Hey – just wanted you to know that I stumbled across your site and really enjoyed this article and some others around here!

I posted about your site on my blog as well!

Great job here! Love it!
-I will look over your ebook and likely use it for my teen boys.

14 chris July 28, 2010 at 4:45 pm

First thing I love that you quoted Tyler Durden, I honestly just wrote that exact quote down yesterday after I finished the book. I think you would appreciate a lot of his other quotes. Ex. “If our father is our basis for God, and our fathers abandoned us, then what does that tell you about God?” Its a little extreme but I think it relates to the “normlessness.” If our idea of norm is our fathers which in most men is the case, that’s probably why men don’t feel a purpose or “mature” as you would say until they are a father. But what about the “generation raised by women.”(-Tyler Durden) What norm do we have? Does it then get defaulted to society’s which is either nothing or a version of Entourage?
Would love to hear your opinions, thanks.

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