When most people think of frugality, they think of it primarily a way to reduce spending so they can do things like pay off debt or save for a goal like retirement or a downpayment on a home. It’s seen as a personal finance tactic with purely utilitarian ends. But for philosophers and theologians going back all the way to Ancient Greece, frugality was seen as an essential virtue in order to develop wisdom and true happiness.
Today on the show, I talk to Emrys Westacott, philosophy professor and author of The Wisdom of Frugality, about the philosophical history of penny pinching. We begin our conversation discussing what philosophers mean by frugality and the various philosophical schools that gave frugality primacy. We then go on to summarize the arguments as to why frugality makes people wiser and happier, the counter-arguments to frugality as a virtue, why the ideal of frugality changes based on circumstances, and why living frugally is harder to do today than in times past.
This show provides a nuanced look at a much-praised virtue and will leave you mulling over how, why, and to what extent to strive for it in your own life.
- Why a philosophy professor decided to write a book about frugality
- What ancients like Plato and Socrates thought about frugality
- Frugality as a lifestyle throughout the ages
- The seeming morality of being frugal and the immorality of luxury/extravagance
- Why Emrys disagrees with virtue ethics, which argues that virtues are inherently good
- How frugality and simplicity encourage human flourishing
- How technology makes self-sufficiency more difficult
- The surprising benefits of extravagant living
- How the meaning of frugality changes over time and with personal circumstances
- Why is there a disconnect between desire and behavior when it comes to simple living?
- Practicing frugality without descending into miserliness
- The possible downsides of being frugal
- How Emrys himself practices simplicity, and how his mindset about frugality changed as he wrote the book
- Appreciating life’s simple pleasures, and being okay with indulgences now and then
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- A Primer on Plato
- Cynicism (the philosophy)
- Franklin’s Virtue of Frugality
- A Primer on Nietzsche
- What it Really Means to Be Self-Reliant
The Wisdom of Frugality provides a nuanced look at a much-praised virtue. I know after I finished reading it, I had a lot to chew on regarding how I lived the virtue of frugality in my own life.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. When most people think of frugality, they think of it primarily as a way to reduce spending so they can do things like pay off debt or save for a goal like retirement or a down payment on a home. It’s seen as a personal finance tactic with purely utilitarian ends. But for philosophers and theologians going back all the way to ancient Greece, frugality was seen as an essential virtue in order to develop wisdom and true happiness.
Today on the show, I talk to Emrys Westacott, the author of the book The Wisdom of Frugality, about the philosophical history of penny pinching. We begin our conversation discussing what philosophers mean by frugality in the various philosophical schools that gave frugality premise. We then go to summarize the arguments as to why frugality makes people wiser and happier, the counter arguments to frugality as a virtue, and why the ideal of frugality changes based on circumstances, and why living frugally is harder to do today than in times past.
This show provides a nuanced look at a much praised virtue and will leave you mulling over how, why, and to what extent to strive for it in your own life.
After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/frugal.
Emrys Westacott, welcome to the show.
Emrys Westacott: I’m glad to be here.
Brett McKay: You are a professor of philosophy and you’ve written a book called The Wisdom of Frugality. It’s all about frugality, this sort of penny pinching or doing things to save money, being resourceful. I’m curious, what’s a philosophy professor doing writing a book about frugality?
Emrys Westacott: Well, I could make jokes there about my salary, I guess, couldn’t I? It’s actually about more than frugality. It’s about frugality and simple living. I started writing the book because I was intrigued by the question why do we consider frugality a virtue because it has been considered a virtue from ancient times all the way through Ben Franklin to today.
I actually got interested in the question because I was teaching an evening class called Tightwaddery or The Good Life on a Dollar A Day. It was a kind of honors class at Alfred University where I work. Although, there was some sort of amusing parts to it like students learning how to cut each others’ hair and having a class banquet for $10 made entirely of Depression era recipes, there was actually quite a lot of philosophy in it. We read Epicurus and we read Thoreau and we read the Stoics and some contemporary critics of consumerism and this sort of thing. That got me really thinking on these questions, but when I started writing about why we should consider frugality a virtue or why philosophers have considered frugality a virtue, I found it was very difficult to separate frugality from simple living in general, and so the topic of the book became broader.
Brett McKay: As you mentioned, philosophers have been thinking about this idea of frugality, simple living, going all the way back to Plato and Socrates. When they talked about it, frugality or simple living, what exactly do they mean? Because I think the way we describe it, in a lot of ways it’s probably the same today, but I’m sure they had some different implications for that word back then.
Emrys Westacott: I think there’s one aspect of frugality that has remained constant for a long time from Plato to Ben Franklin and today and that is the idea of living frugally meaning being fiscally prudent, living within your means, not getting into debt, not indulging in gross extravagances, which can land you in trouble later on. Most philosophers would advocate being fiscally prudent, but then most financial advisors will too. Most people with common sense would. In a way, although that’s the first thing people think of, perhaps, when they think about frugality, it may be the least interesting aspect.
What’s more interesting is where you’re talking about frugality and simple living in answer to the question “What kind of life should I lead?” And for anyone who’s read Plato’s Republic, you’d remember he says there that we’re talking here, he says, about the most important question of all, which is how we ought to live. Really it’s a question about lifestyle and the choices you make.
One kind of lifestyle is to live simply in the sense of, not just of staying within your means, but living cheaply, enjoying simple pleasures, being self-sufficient, perhaps practicing a certain amount of self-denial, perhaps staying close to nature, and all those senses. In the first chapter of the book I look at many senses of the concept of simple living. I think that they kind of form a family or cluster that tend to hang together in a lot of people’s mind.
Brett McKay: What I thought was surprising, as you went back through the history of the philosophy of simple living, frugality, is that everyone, even thousands of years ago, were pining for this age when things were simpler. We think that’s sort of a new thing, but like, no, even the ancient Greeks were looking for that idyllic age.
Emrys Westacott: Yeah. As they say, nostalgia’s not what it used to be.
It’s an interesting thing. Back two and a half thousand years ago people were looking back to a time when people were more honest, they lived more simply, closer to the earth, they were less pretentious, less affected, less bothered about material possessions, luxury and extravagance, and that kind of thing. As they say, the more things change, the more things remain the same.
Brett McKay: Are there any schools of philosophy that have particularly pushed frugality and simple living as a way of life?
Emrys Westacott: Yes, and I think it’s important to mention here that in ancient times, particularly we’re talking here largely about Western philosophy, in Western philosophy you have the Greeks and the Romans, and for them philosophy was very much a matter of philosophizing about life. The central question was, how should we live? What are the best lifestyles? And if you joined a philosophical school like the Stoics or the Cynics or something like that, then it wasn’t just a matter of holding certain beliefs, you would practice certain practices. You’d talk the talk and walk the walk.
Probably the first school that really advocated frugality in a big way were the Cynics, represented by people like Diogenes, who famously lived in a barrel with virtually no material possessions.
There were the Epicureans. They were more self-indulgent than the Cynics, but still they lived simply. They greatly valued living communally, friendship, just having simple meals with good friends, and staying out of business like politics, which just makes you depressed.
Then the Stoics, later on particularly the Roman Stoics, also very much advocated simple living and frugality as a way of toughening yourself to prepare for adversity, as a way of avoiding disappointment, and that sort of thing.
Brett McKay: And then this continued on even throughout Western history. Like Rousseau in the Enlightenment era really hit this simple living idea hard.
Emrys Westacott: Right. Rousseau is not necessarily representative of the Enlightenment. He’s a little bit more representative of Romanticism because he particularly opposes what is natural with what is the result of civilization and he tends to be very critical of the so-called fruits and benefits of civilization and thinks that we need to get back to nature, to some extent. Of course, Thoreau is in that tradition too, along with a lot of other Romantic writers.
So, yeah, right up to the present day. You’ve got Edward Abbey and you’ve got plenty of people today who also advocate in one way or another a more simple lifestyle, a movement back to nature. You see it in all aspects of life in the houses people live in, in the kind of food they eat, in the kind of work they do, clothes they wear.
Brett McKay: Throughout Western history frugality has been pushed. The reason why is because a lot of philosophers viewed luxury and extravagance as moral failings and it’s something to avoid. Why is extravagance and luxury viewed as something that can hurt the soul?
Emrys Westacott: I think that it’s a very interesting question, that. I think that one reason is that luxury is associated with softness. In the book I mention the Spartans who were famous for their austere lifestyle and for their practice of really toughening people up in a big way so that they would make great warriors.
For most of human history, life has been pretty uncertain for many people. They were subject to diseases, subject to shortages, hardship, famine, the oppression, war. This kind of thing. It was a pretty useful character trait to be able to stand up to adversity and not be crushed by it. By comparison, our lives are relatively comfortable and relatively safe even though, of course, we still have poverty, we still have deprivation and injustice. But in a sense, we don’t have to be quite as tough as people used to be, I don’t think. Sometimes life will through us a curveball and we do need to be resilient, but the curveballs we get today are rather less than people used to get on the whole, I think.
That’s one reason, the issue of toughness and softness.
I think another thing is simply, a slightly deeper issue is having sound values. The thing about luxury and extravagance is that if you go in for those then you start to become obsessed with material possessions, with money, with wealth, with competition, with being superior to neighbors or to others. That can incite other traits like envy or resentment or bitterness or frustration, unsatisfied desires.
I think that those are some of the main reasons. In the book I mentioned that a lot of the colleges in the United States were set up in rural locations precisely because people thought that these rural locations would keep people away from temptation. A bit like the location of monasteries.
Brett McKay: Do you think there’s a bit of sour grapes going on there, too? Like sort of a Nietzschean inversion of values where, you know,”Extravagance, all that great stuff is bad. This plain living, that’s the good stuff.”
Emrys Westacott: Yeah. Well, it could be. Someone like Nietzsche or someone else might say, well, yeah, these philosophers, they basically because they’re no good at making money, or perhaps because they’re no good at really living interesting adventurous lifestyles, that’s not their sort of thing. And so they praise to the hilt the kind of life that they’re most comfortable living or the kind of life that they are capable of living. Nietzsche does make that kind of accusation, although he himself, of course, is a classic example of philosopher living a very, very brutal, simple lifestyle.
There’s something to that. There’s also another aspect, which is that simple living is also associated quite strongly in many people’s minds with wisdom. This is a very interesting question because if you ask, “What is wisdom?” I would say that wisdom, more than anything else, is having sound values. It’s knowing what’s important and what’s not.
If you go back to Plato and Socrates and the Stoics and the rest, they’re basic argument is wisdom is all about having sound values. What matters to them, Plato and Socrates, is being moral, being a virtuous person. What matters to Jesus is spirituality and a relationship to God. What matters to the Buddha is Enlightenment. These are all kinds of wisdom, forms of wisdom. Luxury and extravagance tend to draw one away from those things towards false values, you know, the value of material possessions, of wealth and domination and that kind of thing.
Brett McKay: Frugality’s been called a virtue, Ben Franklin listed it as one of his 13 virtues he followed as a young man, but virtues, as we remember from Aristotle and Plato, they’re things that are good in and of themselves. Things like justice, beauty, things like that, but whenever I think of frugality, I always think of the benefits that frugality provides me. These are like prudential reasons. I save more money, I become more self-reliant, etc.
What’s the case that frugality and simplicity are inherently good?
Emrys Westacott: Okay. I’d have to say you’re asking the wrong person that question and I’ll tell you why. Because that view, the view that something is inherently good, a certain character trait is inherently good, that is a view in philosophy known as virtue ethics. It’s where you say what really matters is having certain virtues, certain character traits that are inherently good. I’m not terribly sympathetic to that view.
I’m more of what philosophers call a utilitarian. I think what is really good in the world is happiness, pleasure, well-being, self-fulfillment, self-realization and that kind of thing. These don’t have to be bland. They don’t have to be simple. They can be complex. There’s plenty of place in a good life, in a happy life, for pain and unhappiness actually, so I wouldn’t want to make it uncomplicated. I think a fulfilling life can be a very complicated thing, but I think that all the traits that we think of as virtues, whether it’s wisdom or frugality or generosity or courage or anything else you want, kindness, and compassion I think we call them all good because we think that they in some way promote human well-being, human satisfaction, human happiness.
Brett McKay: So what are some of those ways that they make us? You mentioned a few that make us happy or produce flourishing, makes us more self-reliant, allows us to enjoy simple pleasures. Are there any other ways that frugality and simple living can bring out human flourishing?
Emrys Westacott: Sure. I think the third chapter of the book’s all about the association between living frugally and simply and being happy. I think that there’s a whole battery of arguments that it might be good to mention just one or two. I think one of the most interesting ones that’s actually relevant to today’s political and economic situation is this. That if you can get by on a few things, if you can reduce your basic needs, and live simply then you actually don’t need to work at much, which means you can enjoy more leisure. This is very much an epicurean kind of argument going back to Epicurus’ philosophy, as he put it, forward with his friends in the garden that he grew.
At the moment in our society, many people work quite hard. Many people work harder than they actually want to work, but we’re actually entering an interesting and perhaps very difficult time where machines are taking over from human labor to quite an extent. In some ways you can imagine a future not too distant where there really is a need for people to work less and therefore find a way, maybe they’ll earn less money so they need to find a way of living on less, yet enjoying life on less. That’s a matter of learning to, perhaps, cut back on the extravagances and on the luxuries, but also a way of making good use of your leisure time.
I think that’s one of the most important arguments for simple living, which it is a way of actually increasing your leisure.
Another argument, it fosters a certain independence and self-sufficiency. In ancient times, when people talked about self-sufficiency and independence, the philosophers what they really had in mind was not having to flatter people, not having to fawn to your superiors, not having to be in someone else’s pay kind of thing, and always sort of sucking up to them. I think that nowadays though, it’s interesting that as our lives have become in some ways further removed from the basic means of producing, the means of life, from growing food and making clothes and this kind of thing. In that sense, you could say that we live rather alienated lives now, rather distant from the fundamental means of production and yet there’s a tremendous interest in people going back to doing things like growing their own gardens and knitting their own sweaters and just doing things for themselves.
Doing things for yourself is immensely satisfying for many people. You can probably tell from my accent I’m not originally American. I grew up in Britain. One of the things that has really impressed me in the United States is how many guys I know who are fantastically self-sufficient, people who can literally build houses including the plumbing and the electricity and the foundations and the roof and the walls and everything. Most of my friends and family in Britain by comparison are lamentably unself-sufficient. I think it’s a very interesting feature of American culture is the value that’s placed on people being capable of that kind of thing.
Brett McKay: Into that self-sufficiency section you talked about how Hegel’s master-slave metaphor, that the master ends up in charge at first, but he begins delegating so many tasks to the slave that eventually the slave is in charge. I noticed that kind of dichotomy play out in my own life where I outsource so many things to other people, I’m not saying these people are slaves, but just outsourcing to other people who do this work and I realized, boy, I’m not really in charge here. I wouldn’t be able to do this for myself. These people are in charge in a way.
Emrys Westacott: No. And of course, one of the things is that the role of technology in our lives makes the whole business of self-sufficiency rather complicated. For example, I’m not great at car mechanics and do a little bit, but it seems to me it used to be an awful lot easier to fix your own car than now because so many things on your car now need a computerized check with fancy equipment that you’re just not going to have at home. It’s almost like the technology trends almost force us, in some ways, to become less self-sufficient. Yet on the other hand, some technology makes us more self-sufficient. For instance, now when we take photos with a digital camera we don’t send them away to be processed. We just process them ourselves, but we process them on our computer, which of course we haven’t built ourselves usually.
We’re heavily dependent on the technology, but in some ways the technology allows us to be more self-sufficient, just like a washing machine allows you to wash your own clothes rather than sending them out to the washer woman.
Brett McKay: One issue you bring up about frugality, sort of the problems of frugality in our modern world, is that, you just mentioned one of them, it’s hard to be frugal in some ways in our sort of dynamic, interconnected, specialized tech-infused economy that we have. I’ve noticed in my own life when I tried to follow the traditionally frugal path, I’m going to do it myself, I end up actually spending more money, more time, and you make the seven trips to Home Depot over and over again because you got the wrong part.
Is it becoming harder to live frugally in our sort of modern world?
Emrys Westacott: I think in some ways yes. I think on the one hand we do have more options, in some ways, but it’s a matter of how much you want to be on the grid or off the grid. A really good example is, let’s say, having a smartphone. Having a smartphone obviously no one thought about that 30 years ago. Now, if you’re an ordinary person with a professional kind of job, living in a city, it’s pretty hard to manage without a smartphone. It’s expected. If you’re applying for a job and to not have a smartphone now when you’re in the business of running around applying for jobs or something would be like not having an address.
If you go to college, let’s say. I’m a college teacher and all the students have phones, cellphones, usually smartphones now, and to not have one would be to be completely cut out of the loop. You wouldn’t know what was going on. You’d never get any invitations to anything. And so, you’re virtually forced.
There’s a wonderful phrase by Juliet Schor, a social critic, that I like. The old phrase is necessity’s the mother of invention. She said invention is the mother of necessity in the modern world because people invent things. At first, they’re luxuries, like remote controls on TVs used to be luxuries, but who’d buy a TV without a remote control now? Or an answering machine, except the answering machine’s are on the way out because now people are getting rid of their landlines.
You really have a hard time if you don’t keep up with the technology, but the technology costs money and it’s expensive and it’s complicated and it breaks down on you sometimes.
Brett McKay: One argument that you made in the book was that we praise frugality and we publicly eschew extravagance. We look down upon it. But you point out there’s actually some great benefits to extravagant living that we all benefit from as a culture. What are some of those benefits?
Emrys Westacott: Well, the most obvious thing when you think about it is just think about where you go if you’re on holiday, where you go as a tourist. If you go to Europe, let’s say, you’d go to see the Renaissance art of Florence. You’d go to see, perhaps, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, you might go to see the Palace at Versailles. Further afield, you might go to the Taj Mahal or something. What are these? These are all basically monuments to the extravagance of long dead fat cats. I mean, that’s what they are. They’re fantastic works of art and architecture that were very expensive to produce, but we don’t now wish that those people had lived frugally.
The people who hired Haydn and Mozart and people like that as court musicians or commissioned their musical works, we don’t wish they’d lived more frugally. We’re glad that they hired these musicians. We’re glad that they commissioned the works. One way of putting it is, you know, extravagance produces the stuff of culture, which we’re all grateful for.
Socrates in the Republic fantasizes about everyone sitting around on logs just, you know, drinking water and having philosophical conversations, but most of us, as his interlocutors say in the Republic, “That sounds a bit boring, Socrates. Couldn’t we have a bit more?” Most of us actually do rather relish the fruits of civilization, which are also the fruits of extravagance.
On a more personal level, if I, say, stand up in front of my class of students and I describe, let’s say, the ideal life according to Epicurus where you basically live in a house with a nice garden, growing some vegetables, and you live there with friends and every evening you have a meal together and you do a bit of writing and you do a bit of weeding and you do a bit conversing and you lie around in a hammock, and that’s your life. A lot of them would say, “That’s not what I want. That’s boring. I want to travel. I want to see things. I want to do things. I want to make things. I want to get somewhere.” In other words, they’ve got a different vision, a much more sort of active, adventurous, dynamic vision of what the good life is. That’s because we, in a way, we live in modern times where a lot of the basics are taken care of.
For most people throughout human history, I think, actually a life where you avoided famine, pestilence, disease, plague, war and depression and tragedy was a pretty good life, but for most of us now it’s not enough. We take all that for granted that we’re not going to die in a famine or a plague and we now want to do more with our lives. We want adventure and excitement.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, as I read your book, I found myself finding that frugality, the concept of frugality or simple living was a lot more slippery than we often think it is. We often think it in very cut black and white, but it changes. The concept of frugality changes based on our standard of livings. What’s frugal 100 years ago is just being a tightwad today.
It is sort of relative. For example, the relatively of frugality and extravagance, say, a person who’s making $50,000 a year buys a $5000 watch, well, we would say that’s not being frugal, but if you make 10 million dollars a year, a $5000 watch is a drop in the bucket. I think it’d be .05% of income, maybe. But we would still think, like I think, on a gut level, that guy with 10 million dollars buying the $5000 watch, well, that’s being extravagant. What’s going on there, do you think?
Emrys Westacott: I think what’s going on is there’s two notions of extravagance. The millionaire who buys the expensive watch, the $20,000 Rolex or something, they’re not being extravagant in the sense that they are landing themselves in debt and it’s all going to end in tears. No. I mean, they’re filthy rich and they can buy several Rolexes. Right? But they’re being extravagant in another sense, in the sense they’re just throwing the money around.
There are two points, two critical points a lot of moral philosophers would make. I’d make them too. One is that you could say that money could be much better spent on more worthwhile things. That point is made very often. The other point though is that what does it say about the person? What does it say about a person that they want to buy a $20,000 watch? I mean, why do they want it? What’s the point? Surely, the point is, there can only be one point, really, and that is to show off to other people how much money they’ve got. They might make other arguments. They might say, “Oh, no. It’s just a beautiful artifact and I enjoy looking at it.” I’m inclined to say, “That’s rubbish. You basically want to show off how much money you’ve got.”
I think that people are justifiably or reasonably suspicious of that sort of motive. What kind of person is it who is so concerned to display their wealth?
Brett McKay: We’ve talked about a lot of the benefits of frugality, self-sufficiency, just enjoying simple pleasures, things like that. I think people intuitively understand the benefits of living a simple lifestyle and I think we all yearn for it. There’s tons of books, blogs, magazines, all about this topic on how to live this simple lifestyle, which I think is kind of ironic. There’s a whole industry dedicated to simple living. Why is it? We know the benefits, but we don’t live frugally? What’s going on? Why is there the disconnect between desire and behavior?
Emrys Westacott: Yeah. That’s a bit of a million dollar question. I’ll be quite honest, that is one of the guiding questions in the book. The philosophers for two and a half thousand years have been telling us to live frugally and simply. Why have they had such a hard time persuading the majority of people? To be quite honest, I don’t think that I come up with a single or simple answer or complete answer to that question.
I think that one reason is that human beings do have a tendency, many of us, all of us perhaps at sometimes, to favor short-term goals over long-term goals. We see something we want, whatever it is, and we, perhaps, can’t really afford it, but we’ll do it anyway. We’ll get it anyway, whether it’s a house or a holiday or a watch or whatever. In a sense, we put our short-term goals before our long-term goals. The short-term pleasures have a tremendous sort of magnetic attraction to us. That’s one reason.
I think the deeper reason is that we are also products of our culture. We’re shaped by our culture to a very great extent and it’s very difficult not to take on the values of the culture. People wear Rolex watches, people buy houses they can’t afford, and we all do these kinds of things to some extent because we live in a culture where money really does talk. It really matters. It’s a fundamental value. People who are rich, they are looked up to. They do enjoy a kind of greater level of respect and esteem. They do have more power and influence on the whole. It’s one of the primary markers of one’s place on the totem pole, just how much money you got. If you want other people to know where you stand on the totem pole, you’ve got to spend the money.
It’s very, very difficult to be immune from the cultural pressures of the society around us.
Brett McKay: We talked about philosophers who have praised simplicity and frugal living and extravagance and luxury. Do these same philosophers who praised frugality, do they condemn miserliness as well or were they like, “Yeah. Let’s go all in? Just like be super penny pincher, Scrooge McDuck.”
Emrys Westacott: As usual, Aristotle is the one who goes for balance. Someone once said, “As I get older, I find Aristotle gets smarter.” It’s really true. Aristotle has a moral philosophy where he often says that the most desirable character trait is a sort of mean between two extremes. Courage lies between recklessness, which is kind of too much courage, courage without wisdom, and cowardice, which is a vice. He goes through a lot of virtues like that.
He actually does praise, in a way, extravagance. That is, he condemns miserliness. Miserliness is a failing. It’s a moral failing. But the extreme of extravagance, profligacy, is where you’re just throwing money around right, left, and center and that’s foolish. Between those would be a proper, not extravagance, but a proper generosity, a liberality. You don’t put so much value on money that you’re tight-fisted with it. You show a proper generosity at the same time. You’re not stupid about it.
When it comes to what you might call extravagance, Aristotle does praise what he calls magnificence. This is a very interesting concept. He says most people can’t practice magnificence. Magnificence requires you to be one of the very wealthy. You’ve got to be in the 1%.
Parsimoniousness would be where you’ve got tons of money, but you’re really cheap about it. You really still don’t do anything with it. You just hoard it, but on the other hand, the bad extreme at the other end would be a kind of vulgar extravagance where you just sort of make vulgar displays of how wealthy you are. What’s in the middle is something like, in Aristotle’s days, someone, for instance, providing funds for the building of a public temple or providing funds for to help pay for a sports event or something like that. Today, you might think of philanthropists who give a lot of money to worthy causes like fighting diseases or for that matter, sponsoring museums, endowing universities, and that kind of thing.
Aristotle is one of the people who says, yeah, that’s a virtue, although most people can’t practice it.
Brett McKay: As you’ve been thinking about and you’ve written this book, how do you find your approach to frugality and simple living, has it changed any at all since you began this project?
Emrys Westacott: That’s a difficult question. First of all, I want to make it sure that I would never hold myself up as a paragon of frugality and simple living. It’s true that living in a rural community in a small college town in western New York, it is actually quite easy to live somewhat simply. Walk to work, come home. Probably the most common kind of social entertainment that I go in for is just having potluck dinners at people’s houses and hosting them too.
Just the where I live and the community I belong to enables me to live simply in some ways, but I wouldn’t say that I’m especially frugal. For instance, I like to travel. This summer we’ll be going back to visit friends and family in Britain and that all costs money.
I think it’s made me more self-aware, I think, writing the book and thinking long and hard about all these things. I’m a very enthusiastic grow my own vegetables gardener. I’ve lots of raised beds with vegetables in them. I’m looking out of the window now and everything’s covered in snow.
I think it’s made me more self-aware, particularly more self-aware the value of the simple pleasures. The pleasures of friendship, communal eating, growing your own vegetables, that kind of thing. I’m inclined to think I was already that way disposed anyway.
Brett McKay: It seems like you’re taking sort of an Aristotelian approach. Right?
Emrys Westacott: Sort of. I’ll tell you one thing where it’s actually may have had a opposite effect because it also, you mentioned earlier, miserliness. One of the things is if you go in for frugality there is a danger that you’ll start to develop, for instance, ungenerosity, a lack of generosity or miserliness or something like that. This was something that people back in ancient times also warned against.
One sort of slightly subtle way in which this can manifest itself is you can sometimes, let’s suppose you can afford something and it something that would be a good thing to get, it would save you a lot of trouble, and yet you don’t do it just because you’ve bought into the idea of frugality. Let’s say there’s a meal on a restaurant you really want. You can afford it. Let’s say it’s $20 or something. You say, “I’m not going to pay $20 for that.” So, you don’t do it and so you deprive yourself of a perfectly enjoyable experience. Or you don’t take a taxi. Instead, you walk for an hour in the rain or something and it’s totally miserable and the truth is it would have been worth $20 or whatever.
In my life I think I’ve done that quite a few times and maybe, just maybe, you’ll have to ask my spouse about whether this is true, but maybe I’m improving. In that sense it’s made me, perhaps, a little less frugal.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done anything like that.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, yeah. It’s just all about wisdom. Trying to be making better choices. Yeah, I’ve indulged myself a little bit more where I can afford it and it actually made my life better. But I’m definitely in that mode where, like, “No. We’re not going to spend money on that because that’s just a waste of money.” But it would be better if I-
Emrys Westacott: But then sometimes, don’t you find that sometimes afterwards you think, “You know what? That was stupid. I was in that place once in my life and for $15 I could have done that thing, seen that site, whatever, and I didn’t? I wouldn’t miss that $15 now, but I’ll never have that experience.”
Brett McKay: You can’t take the money with you to the grave.
Well, Emrys, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about your book and your work?
Emrys Westacott: Sure. You can just go to my website to learn more about my work because I publish other things, write other things as well. If you just google my name, Emrys Westacott, the first site you’ll come to will be my home page, which has got stuff about the classes I teach and the articles I’ve written and things like that.
For the book, you can go straight to Princeton University Press or Amazon or whatever.
Brett McKay: Well, Emrys Westacott, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Emrys Westacott: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Emrys Westacott. He’s the author of the book The Wisdom of Frugality. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Go pick it up. It’s a great book.
Also, make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/frugal, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed this podcast and have got something out of it, I’d really appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot in spreading the word about the show.
As always, thank you for your continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: July 5, 2017