Or, at the very least, those are the people—today’s frugal sages—whose lifestyles tend to be showcased most prominently. Earlier this year, The New Yorker profiled Peter Adeney, an uber-frugal father of one living outside of Boulder, Colorado, who writes a personal-finance blog under the nom de plume Mr. Money Mustache. Adeney, who preaches “financial freedom through badassity,” gets around town on foot or by bike—he uses his car only when he’s transporting something heavier than 100 pounds—and he says that he and his wife spend, on average, $24,000 a year. He is not living in squalor, either; he is just incredibly discerning about his expenses, and spends a lot of time doing things that are free, like hiking.
Why isn’t every American living this low-overhead life of leisure? Perhaps because not every American is paid well enough in a tech-industry job, like Adeney was, to save up enough in their 20s to retire at age 30.
Other present-day apostles of frugality have a funny habit of having made copious amounts of money early in life. Zach Klein, an internet entrepreneur and the founder of the video site Vimeo, is an evangelist of small, simple cabins in the wilderness, writing in the introduction of his book Cabin Porn about the importance of “a place for a bunch of friends to be outdoors, somewhere we could be less preoccupied by our professions and more reliant on each other.’’ (The book was covered by The New York Times Style Magazine.) Similarly, The Minimalists, a duo of frugal gurus living in Montana whose message of simplicity has earned coverage from, among other places, The New York Times, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and, yes, The Atlantic); one of the Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn, said that by age 27, he had “a six-figure salary, a big house in the suburbs with more bedrooms than inhabitants, and all the stuff to fill it.” All he had to do to simplify his life was quit his executive position at a telecom company.
Now seems like a good time to provide some background about James Altucher, too. He made millions of dollars on startups in the 1990s, and presumably still has a good deal of money to fall back on. Part of his message as a lifestyle guru these days is that college isn’t worth the money; interestingly, though, he himself graduated from an Ivy League school.
Whatever all these people—or, more specifically, these well-off white men—may say, perhaps the best lifestyle advice is to make loads of money at an early age (and then, for good measure, make clear one’s distaste for the system that allowed one to earn it). Meanwhile, the sorts of desperate money-saving behavior meant to stretch skimpy paychecks is mostly met with scorn. On TLC’s Extreme Cheapskates, viewers can gawk at people who game all-you-can-eat restaurants into feeding a family of six for the price of three, get their produce from the dumpsters of high-end grocery stores, and reuse plastic straws after cleaning them with a fishing line and cut-up strips of old T-shirts. It’s implied that this behavior is compulsive and pitiful; the title of one YouTube compilation of particularly offensive clips promises a “GUARANTEED GAG.”