Frugality Isn’t What It Used to Be

What use is there today for one of the oldest virtues?

Ping Zhu

As many Americans go about their days, I imagine they have two little angels perched on their shoulders, whispering conflicting messages about happiness and material wealth. One angel is embodied by James Altucher, a minimalist self-help guru recently profiled by The New York Times. Altucher claims to have only 15 possessions, after having unburdened himself a few months ago of 40 garbage bags’ worth of stuff and never looking back. As I read about Altucher, I rolled the numbers 15 and 40 over in my mind, thinking about the belongings in my bedroom and the garbage bags under my kitchen sink.

The other angel is Tyler Brûlé, the editor in chief of the fantastically high-end lifestyle magazine Monocle and a columnist for the Financial Times. He is the sort of writer who tosses off such lines as “I zipped along the autostrada through the Val d’Aosta with the ever-trusty Mario (my Italian driver for the past 20 years) at the wheel” with little regard for how privileged and pretentious he sounds (especially in his superfluous parentheticals). Still, there is something, I’m a little ashamed to say, that I envy about Brûlé’s effortless cosmopolitanism—which, it’s hard to miss, is only made possible by unusual wealth.

It is not just 21st-century Americans who feel pulled in separate directions by narratives like these: People have been trying to reconcile the tensions between them for hundreds, even thousands, of years.

That is the most rudimentary takeaway of Emrys Westacott’s new book, The Wisdom of Frugality: Why Less Is More—More or Less, a roughly 2,000-year intellectual history of the concept of the simple life. Westacott, who calls himself “certifiably tightwaddish,” is a professor of philosophy at New York’s Alfred University. He explains in his book’s acknowledgements section that the idea for The Wisdom of Frugality originated in a class he taught more than a decade ago called “Tightwaddery: The Good Life on a Dollar a Day.” In that seminar, Westacott led discussions of philosophical texts but also taught his students to live more cheaply, having them learn to do things like cutting each others’ hair.

There are no hair-cutting lessons in The Wisdom of Frugality, which focuses on a group Westacott calls “the frugal sages,” a disparate collection of philosophers and thinkers whose ideas have accreted to form today’s received wisdom about money and happiness. Westacott employs an expansive definition of “frugality,” using the word not just to indicate financial prudence, but as a stand-in for a wider body of lifestyle choices and values: Frugality is about appreciating simple pleasures and generally easing up in a society that encourages materialism and competitiveness. One of Westacott’s central preoccupations in the book is why, if so many smart people have championed frugality, it hasn’t become the global norm.

The Wisdom of Frugality is not organized chronologically, but by concepts, as Westacott breaks down the various cases for and against frugality into their component parts. Reading it is like watching a sort of reality show in which celebrity contestants buzz in whenever they have something wise or pithy to say. Here is Epicurus suggesting that it’s difficult to make a lot of money without becoming subservient to an employer or a crowd of fans; there is Ben Franklin arguing that “he that goes a-borrowing goes a-sorrowing.” Even if it is rather disproportionately peppered with dead white men, it’s a pleasant intellectual tour that usefully blows a layer of dust off of old writings. Westacott tells readers, for instance, that if Epicurus, a frugal sage who scorned excess but embraced pleasure, were alive today, he would balk at trading gastronomical contentment for the sawdusty texture of Soylent, much like plenty of aesthetes today.

Westacott’s eye for detail allows his survey of the frugal sages to transcend a mere assembly of aphorisms. Take the Spartans, who, if they were alive now, would likely find Soylent to be, if anything, too indulgent: Westacott writes that they were renowned for serving at their communal tables a “notorious black broth made of pork, blood, vinegar, and salt,” which was so unappealing that one visitor reportedly remarked, “Now I know why the Spartans don’t fear death.” Spartan laws and culture, Westacott explains, were fine-tuned to make citizens courageous, disciplined, and uninterested in wealth. At those same tables, Westacott writes, “The rations were meager to keep the young men lean and supple and accustomed to functioning on an empty stomach.” He goes on to describe a detail that suggests Greeks are more familiar with austerity than they typically let on: Spartan boys, who ate alongside the men, were purposely served too-small portions so that they’d cultivate the wiles to steal more food.

While The Wisdom of Frugality’s chronology-agnostic organization affords Westacott plenty of space for leisurely, detail-filled digressions like this, it can make the historical development of ideas about simple living a little hard to piece together. Though he never explicitly says so, the bulk of how present-day Americans think about frugality—or really, how they think about anything—was established during two especially fertile philosophical periods, in Greece two and a half millennia ago and in Western Europe a few centuries ago.

Thinkers in the first of those two periods were preoccupied with material wealth, and whether securing it could bring happiness, as aristocrats of the era seemed to think it could. This is the time when Epicurus warned of having to brown-nose in order to make money, and a number of his contemporaries chimed in with other critiques that echo today’s skepticism of acquisitiveness. Plato, for his part, advocated for modesty in housing, clothing, and food, arguing that simplicity in those realms would encourage moral purity. This vision of the ideal life is one that has proved extremely durable. Plato’s position essentially set the precedent for every homespun lifestyle blogger with a garden, a kitchen table made of reclaimed wood, and a penchant for serving drinks in Mason jars.

In contrast to Epicurus and Plato’s measured advice, Westacott introduces readers to one of their more extreme contemporaries, Diogenes. “Although he is usually depicted as using a barrel or large earthenware jar as a shelter,” Westacott writes, “this may have been during his more decadent period.” Diogenes slept on his folded-up cloak, and ate and loitered wherever he pleased. He practiced a frugality that went beyond even monk-like radicalism. After watching a child use his hands to drink, Diogenes threw away his only cup, upset that the child had out-simplified even him. Westacott notes that Diogenes was “considered pretty eccentric in his time,” but “anyone emulating him today … would probably be viewed by most people as mentally ill.”

The thinkers in the second, more recent, period are responsible for a different intellectual contribution to how people think about work and money today. The scaling-up of capitalism—in its applications as well as in its theoretical underpinnings—expanded the scope of what constituted upstanding behavior. Whereas the ancient Greek philosophers were for the most part skeptical of selfishness, the 18th-century theorists Adam Smith and David Hume spun it as a virtue. Smith contended that when men acted purely in their own interest, “an invisible hand” ensured that they would contribute to the greater good—“selfishness” became, less threateningly, “self-interest.” It’s easy to see how such a transition could support a rationale for mass consumption, which Hume offered in a 1742 essay. In it, he praised “the commodities which serve to the ornament and pleasure of life,” and wrote, “In a nation where there is no demand for such superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment in life, and are useless to the public.”

To be sure, this second broad period had its share of frugal sages, some of them in other parts of the world, such as Ben Franklin and Henry David Thoreau in America. But Westacott sums up the period’s important intellectual pivot neatly: “What has always been condemned as private vices came to be reassessed … on the grounds that they confer public benefits,” he writes.

Within their respective theoretical vacuums, Plato et al. and Smith et al.’s advice for how to live sounds reasonable enough. But when combined, as the two schools of thought are in 21st-century America, they are disorienting. “It seems,” Westacott writes, “that our culture is still torn between accepting acquisitiveness as a necessary condition of economic growth and denouncing it as an undesirable character trait that bespeaks false values and encourages unethical conduct.” Altogether, Westacott’s work shows how Altucher and Brûlé promote contradictory lessons and yet exist side by side in American culture.

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As wise as the frugal sages were, their advice was not unassailable, and Westacott spends a good portion of his book musing on how their teachings can be misapplied in modern times. He is at his most insightful when probing the notion of self-sufficiency, an ideal dear to most of the thinkers he discusses, Ralph Waldo Emerson most famously. Emerson wrote of self-reliance in terms of thinking independently, but another sense of the term took firm hold in American culture: a tendency to look favorably on those who make an effort to knit clothing instead of buying it and fix malfunctioning cars in the driveway instead of taking them to a mechanic.

Westacott acknowledges the obvious money-saving perks of such acts, but questions the virtuous independence they supposedly embody. Baking one’s own bread, for instance, has become a potent symbol of wholesomeness and self-sufficiency, but, Westacott argues, it’s hardly an act of pure independence. Since most home bakers are not growing their own wheat, grinding their own flour, constructing their own ovens, and so on, they are aided by labor-saving technologies that are miraculous and yet commonplace. It’s perfectly valid to bake bread because it’s cheaper, fresher, and less connected to processed-food supply chains, he suggests, but don’t get carried away: Baking bread at home is the result of the remarkable interconnectedness of the modern economy. Likewise, he notes, powering one’s house with clean energy and getting around on a bike still mean being reliant on a sophisticated electrical grid and a network of paved roads.

Further, Westacott adds, today’s economic efficiencies have rendered many traditional notions of self-sufficiency obsolete. “There was a time when it almost always made economic sense to repair an item rather than replace it, so people would darn socks, patch sheets … But when half a dozen socks cost what a minimum-wage worker can earn in less than an hour … some of the old ways can seem outdated,” he writes. If stitching up worn-out socks is no longer the most efficient way to spend one’s time and money, does it remain virtuous solely because it is a symbol of self-sufficiency? Probably not (though of course it could still be considered a principled vote against consumerism and for environmentalism).

Westacott uses home-made bread and easily-replaced ratty socks to demonstrate that today’s conception of the simple life would’ve been unimaginably luxe in Emerson’s time, let alone Plato’s—which should give pause to any modern person who fancies themselves in touch with the ways humans have done things for thousands of years.

The fact is, Westacott points out, generation after generation has yearned for a simpler version of life that they imagined to have come before them. Two and a half millennia ago, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote longingly of the era of the first humans, a “golden race of men” who were “free from toil and grief.” Seneca, writing 500 years later, pined for “the age before architects and builders,” before humans felt that their happiness depended on such luxuries as “hewing timbers square.” As time and technology progress, the baseline for what is considered a simple pleasure (let alone a necessity) rises gradually upward, such that even today’s simple pleasures—riding a bike, baking bread—are several degrees more complex than hewed timber and other excesses of yore.

Similarly, one could make the case that, just as the virtues of being self-sufficient have been overhyped, life in a modern economy has left frugality itself less valuable than advertised. A simple life may well be the surest bringer of happiness in a culture that sends confusing messages about the pursuit of status and wealth. But when it comes to securing a stable lifestyle, being financially sensible only goes so far.

A lot also depends on the economic conditions people find themselves in. The U.S.’s median household income has been stagnant—even a recent uptick couldn’t bring the figure up to where it was back in 1999, after adjusting for inflation. And even moving up the earnings spectrum, families are feeling squeezed as they pour their time and money into housing and education—their best shot at providing their children with long-term financial security in an economy that can be cruel to the less-educated. In other words, pinching pennies is of limited value when there aren’t enough pennies to pinch in the first place.

Westacott does address a version of this concern, though only briefly and in The Wisdom of Frugality’s final pages. He writes:

Some who desire more radical social change might even argue that the advocates of frugal simplicity effectively encourage people to accept an unfair economic system. … But this criticism is misguided. The teachers of frugal simplicity criticize avarice and consumerism on the grounds that working ever harder to make ever more money to buy ever more stuff is not the road to a satisfying life. … The alternative is to argue that working, getting, and spending are the essential ingredients of human happiness.

This would be perfectly reasonable if the argument Westacott is rebutting was that the economy should provide vacation homes for all. However, the actual argument is that public policies should ensure that the poor can afford their first house before the rich can afford their third or fourth. Even simple comforts are often out of reach—many Americans, even those who earn well above the median, experience a level of financial precarity that can’t be fully explained away by some insatiable desire to spend.

The truth is, something fundamental has changed in the American economy in the past half-century—something that the frugal sages did not account for. The financial journalist Helaine Olen explained it well in her 2012 book Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. Olen describes how personal-finance coaches and large banks popularized the idea that by cutting back on small daily luxuries—a latte at Starbucks being the quintessential example—anyone could retire a millionaire; all they had to do was invest the money they saved from not buying a coffee into the market (and, preferably, let the personal-finance coaches and the banks manage those funds). “Collectively,” Olen writes, “they fed into the American streak of can-do-ism, our Calvinist sense that money comes to those who have earned it and treated it with respect.”

But there are problems with scapegoating the latte. Aside from describing how the personal-finance gurus were fudging the numbers to exaggerate the payoff of skipping coffee, Olen pointed her readers to research indicating that while a bunch of $3 lattes may pile up, there were systemic issues that played a larger role. “The problem,” she writes

was the fixed costs, the things that are difficult to cut back on. Housing, health care, and education cost the average family 75 percent of their discretionary income in the 2000s. The comparable figure in 1973: 50 percent.

In other words, individuals’ frugality at the margins—one fewer latte here or there—matters less as the basic costs of living march ever higher. With that in mind, Ben Franklin comes off as a little naive when he wrote, “Beware of little expenses; A small leak will sink a great ship.” Small costs do add up, but they rarely amount to anything close to the big ones.

The simple life, as Westacott frames it, is something that can be opted into, and doing so is often a principled decision. But in many ways, it’s easier to choose to live simply when one has more money. For one thing, there are the logistical efficiencies that money enables: Wealthier people can afford to, say, buy toilet paper in bulk, which has been shown to save them money as well as several trips to the store. And not having money may make it harder, psychologically, to be frugal: According to research by the Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, poorer people aren’t inherently short-sighted—the very fact of not having enough money or time “clogs up the brain,” making it harder to deploy their limited resources in the most efficient way.

And this gets at why there can actually be a dark side to frugality: Living a pared-down lifestyle necessarily means having a lifestyle to pare down. More often than not, the decision to live frugally is one made by people who can afford to opt out of a well-paid, well-spent lifestyle they have already secured.

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.”

These people are evidence that if Diogenes were alive today, he would be on TLC. The acts on Extreme Cheapskates are socially unacceptable, and besides, they are pointless economic rebellions, doing little to affect people’s financial security in any meaningful way. Mr. Money Mustache had saved up $250,000 by the time he’d been working for five years—no amount of cleaning plastic straws with T-shirt shreds would have gotten him there.

To be sure, there are probably plenty of people out there who truly have simple tastes and made decisions at early crossroads in their lives to live modestly, on a modest amount of money. But these are not the self-selected poster children of frugality, the lifestyle bloggers who periodically ride their online followings to a profile in The New Yorker or a piece in the Times. And this is what Westacott’s book helped me see: In truth, James Altucher and Tyler Brûlé aren’t at odds. They are both eminently secure financially—which is what I suspect is at the root of what draws me to both of them—and the main thing that separates them is how they chose to use their money. Brûlé put it toward globe-trotting; Altucher stashed it away.

In The Wisdom of Frugality, Westacott at one point dwells on how wealthy people spend money to acquire status. It used to be that a fancy car or a country-club membership sufficed. But as these became available to more and more people, the acquisition of physical things has mostly taken a backseat to the acquisition of exotic experiences. Now, Westacott writes, because “not working is in itself no longer a badge of honor,” what the economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 called “conspicuous leisure” is being displaced by conspicuous recreation. To describe the behavior of those who tire of this arms race, perhaps there needs to be yet a new term: conspicuous frugality.