Frugality is a career tool


I have earned a lot of money in my life. But I have never had an extravagant life. I don't own a house. I've never bought a new car. I've never bought a new piece of living room furniture, and I do not own a single piece of real jewelry. What I have spent money on was always intended to help me with my career. That was so I know that I can always earn money doing something I love.

I leased a BMW when it was clear that that mattered when it came to making deals in LA. I hired a stylist when I realized my clothes were holding me back in NYC. In Madison I have tons of household help so my kids don't have a crazy schedule because of my work schedule.

I am convinced that frugality is a key quality for a successful career. Here is why frugality helps your career:

1. Spending money is generally a distraction.
We know this. That people use it as therapy. People use it to fill holes they perceive in their lives. But the psychic energy it takes to spend money actually distracts us from what matters to us. Pay Pal reports that people wish their significant other would spend less money on Valentine's Day. This encapsulates the whole problem to me.

2. Spending money is a vehicle for overcommitting.
The biggest example of this is graduate school. The people who do best in a bad economy are those who are flexible about the types of jobs they can take and the types of careers they can move into, according to Philip Oreopoulos, professor of economics at University of Toronto. This flexibility is specifically limited if you go to graduate school — you commit two, three, four years to a given career whether or not it's going to pan out for you in the long run. And you commit to paying back school loans, which means you need to take a job that earns enough to pay those loans.

3. Spending money limits possibilities.
If you invest in an expensive bicycle because you're going to do triathlons then you limit your ability to take off more time from work to actually train for the triathlon. In most cases, renting a house is better for you than buying one: If you buy a house, you cannot easily downsize, you cannot as easily relocate, and you end up limiting your earning power. (That link is to my brother’s blog. This is dinner table conversation in my family.)

4. Entrepreneurship is a safety net if you’re frugal in your home life.
Careers today are unstable, and while companies used to provide safety nets for employees, today we have to create our own safety nets. The best way to do that is with entrepreneurship. But starting your own company is nearly impossible if you have high income requirements. Startups don't provide high incomes at the beginning.

As I write this, I think about my friends who spend a lot more money than I do. I have friends with really nice houses, friends who take super fun vacations, and I have friends who would not be caught dead in the clothes I wear to work (for example, plastic rain boots because I don't want to pay for snow boots.)

My friends would say there's a compromise: You don’t need to invest everything in your career. You don't need to give up all the creature comforts of life. You can still have a good situation with both.

Maybe it's my obsessive nature. I'm willing to make extreme tradeoffs. I wrote earlier about wanting to be an expert. About how it takes a singular, daily focus. And I think I have had that with writing. But in order to do it, I have given up a lot. I'm not sure if that's right.

Do we hear about Mozart playing kickball? I know, there wasn't kickball. But if there had been, he wouldn't have played it. Because you give up stuff.

So I guess what I'm saying is that being an expert in something requires frugality. It's not just a spending frugality. It's a focus frugality. It's the recognition that spending money is actually a distraction from the passion at hand. So the less you spend, the less you're distracted.

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  1. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Wow, I don’t know where to start.

    “I have never had an extravagant life”? The fact that you are spending money on things that you see as necessary to your CAREER doesn’t make them frugal. Flying to LA for a haircut is extravagant. Especially for a woman whose board of directors (and employees) already see as abnormal. I really don’t think hair or clothing or eyebrows outweighs Aspergers, given how much it seems to affect your relations at work.

    2nd, grad school does not require loans. it requires good credentials and test scores. If you have those, you can go with a full scholarship and a stipend. The short time out of the workforce can thus be quickly made up.

    3rd, the goals behind spending money, for most people, are not about their career. Most of us “put up with” our careers in order to do the things we really enjoy. I love gardening. I spend money on wood and stone and dirt and veggies and that is money well-invested, becuase it gives me hundreds of hours of enjoyment, by myself AND with my family, outside in the garden (not to mention all the food we grow ourselves).

    True frugality requires the ability to be objective about what is a good expenditure and what is waste. If you’re starting from the assumption that everyone’s goal is to advance their career at the expense of their life, your points might be correct, but that’s not true for most of us.

    • jennifer
      jennifer says:

      Ditto. From
      Frugal: entailing little expense; requiring few resources; meager; scanty:
      Flying to LA for a haircut doesn’t really fit the definition here.

      • Caitlin @ Roaming Tales
        Caitlin @ Roaming Tales says:

        Agreed. Nor does having a “house manager”.

        @Penelope You are many things but do you really, honestly believe you are frugal? That just does not strike me as true, based on what you’ve told us about your life previously.

      • Anna
        Anna says:

        She’s probably got flyer miles that expire. It’s nutty, but not extravagantly so.
        But not owning a house in Madison? That’s crazy. Even if you don’t live there, you can rent it.

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      Agreed. This post isn’t about frugality, it’s about priorities.

      And that’s fine, but why not say so?

      • Lynn
        Lynn says:

        I completely agree. I think frugal has become a buzz word…everyone wants to be “frugal”. But if you have a stylist and a leased BMW then that simply is not the word that I would use to describe you, and I think most people would agree with me. Penelope is making smart choices with her money based on what she wants out of life. She is certainly still spending a lot of it.

        I find it particularly interesting that you would pay a stylist and buy a car for your career but that you begrudge someone a Masters Degree. Doesn’t a Masters Degree open up career opportunities? I guess your argument for it being a financial mistake is that you assume people are going into debt to get them. Which is true for some, but it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps that is the message I wish I had read today. Living frugally can allow you to make these choices without suffering the financial consequences if it does not work out.

        I find it fascinating that you think a stylist is better for your career than advancing your education. Perhaps it speaks to the business practices of the day or just a woman’s true place in the work force but I find it disturbing.

    • Lisa Earle McLeod
      Lisa Earle McLeod says:

      is spending money on clothes or eyebrows any more extravagant than chowing down at Applebee’s every night, or ordering a truck load from pottery barn to fill your mini mansion?

      People don’t want to admit it, but in business personal appearance matters. Nobody knows whether your house was furnished from Ethan Allen or Goodwill, but if you show up driving an again mini van, you’re not going to get the gig.

      Is it shallow, yes, but this is America, what do you expect?

      As for spending money on help with the kids, when my mother was on her deathbed she said her biggest regret in life was that she didn’t hire more help.

      It matters.

  2. Joey
    Joey says:

    One of the most important things to be frugal with is your time. I get teased often because I don’t hang out a lot. I try to tell people, everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. Choose how you spend the time wisely! You can’t get it back. Thanks for another great post. Perfect for a Monday. I needed the motivation!

  3. Amber
    Amber says:

    Hi there–just wanted to let you know the link in #3 above (to your brother’s blog) is broken, and I’d like to follow it!

  4. Jamie Beckland
    Jamie Beckland says:


    First, the link to your brother’s blog is broken – but I’m excited to read that post!

    More importantly:

    This post is hugely important, and has really broad implications.

    Most people think of frugality as sacrificing things you want, but it’s really focusing on things you want. It doesn’t mean you don’t spend – it means you spend on what’s important to you.

    If you love your career, then, spending money to advance your career is really doing something for yourself; if you don’t love your career, then spending money on it is just a drain – it’s exhausting and unsatisfying.

    Therefore, you don’t have to *feel* frugal at all – you just have to be spending it on the right things: things that matter to you.

    Spending is only a distraction when the thing you’re spending on is not meaningful for you.

    Each of us reveals our true priorities by how we spend two things: our money, and our time. When we are aware of how we spend those two resources, we can shift them to align with our values.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I fixed the link. Thanks for letting me know.

      Also, I love your take on frugality. In a way, spending money on things that matter almost makes consumerism sound spiritual. I love that.

      It’s so easy to spend money and so hard to figure out what matters.


      • Jamie Beckland
        Jamie Beckland says:

        Ah! Now you’ve hit on the real question – *how* do we decide what we spend money on?

        Being a conscious consumer is tough, especially with billions of dollars in marketing trying to sway that consciousness. I’m not trying to be all zen, but we don’t think of spending choices as trade-offs very often.

        Of course, all economic activity is based on trade-offs; it’s just the reptile part of our brain that makes those decisions.

        If you have a frugal mindset, your default position is to tell yourself that whatever you are considering buying could not possibly be worth the money. Then, once you have thought about buying it a dozen times, you figure out *why* you want it.

        If it’s important enough, your brain will keep reminding you that you really do need it.

      • Pratik Stephen
        Pratik Stephen says:

        >>But in order to do it, I have given up a lot. I'm not sure if that's right.

        Of course it’s right. I just wrote a short post on Self Discipline and Sacrifice today.
        “Self discipline does not mean suppressing/sacrificing your desires.
        Self discipline means always choosing your deepest desires, over your many superficial desires.”

        >>”Each of us reveals our true priorities by how we spend two things: our money, and our time. When we are aware of how we spend those two resources, we can shift them to align with our values.”
        Super comment Jaime!

        I personally see “saving money” as “spending money to buy security, flexibility, future buying power and some compound interest.”

        And spending money on one’s career/skills is probably the highest return investment one can make.

      • Barbara Hunter
        Barbara Hunter says:

        I think spending money IS spiritual…if you do it consciously. And that entails knowing what really matters to you. The older I become (53 in a few months) the less I am concerned about “image” and the more I become committed to spending money on what inspires and nurtures me: gardening, travel, comfortable furnishings. That nurturing, in turn, provides me with more to share in terms of my career (writing).

    • Tzipporah
      Tzipporah says:

      Thanks Jamie, you’re saying what I meant in a much nicer way. Sorry for biting your head off, Penelope, I guess you were really hitting a sore spot for me.

  5. Dorinda
    Dorinda says:

    Great timing for another thoughtful post. Another way to be frugal with is your choice of friends. It used to be important to me to have a large variety of friends – providing interest at my dinner parties. Slowly I had to pull away from those with whom I drank too much (requiring a couple of days to recuperate), or spend too much (finding myself making similar impulse purchases), or wasting precious, valuable time with acquaintances who leaned too heavily to a “dark” side, incompatible with my maddeningly “perky” disposition. I miss them sometimes, but not enough to sliver off little pieces of my self pursuing an unfocused dream.

  6. Van
    Van says:

    I love this post. I am passionate about frugality- I take slow steps toward making a career about it. I write about it every day. Frugality is no longer simply a survival technique. Because of its limitations, it forces you to be creative. Frugality forces you to manage time and resources wisely, and it’s important to practice it for your career.

  7. Patrick
    Patrick says:

    I think the line — “Do we hear about Mozart playing kickball? I know, there wasn't kickball. But if there had been, he wouldn't have played it. Because you give up stuff.” — misses the point of life and is a very American view of life. Europeans works considerably less then Americans – they often take vacations (NOT working vacations) and their productivity is not considerably lower then that of the US. Playing a game of kick ball is good for you and refreshes the batteries in a way that work cannot even if you love your job. Enjoy life and you will be a better worker and get ahead in life.

    • Francine
      Francine says:

      I agree. I don’t know about Mozart playing kickball. But Leonardo da Vinci sure would have. The most productive people in the world seem to be the most diverse and balanced. Americans, in general, haven’t got that down. Busy, over-scheduled, overwhelmed, and myopically focused on one’s career does not equal productive.

  8. Leslie Juvin
    Leslie Juvin says:

    Ms. Trunk,

    I love how you’re getting people to THINK about the way they spend their money, time, resources, and focus. I also like what you’ve done with BC and how you intend to help future generations make the most of their careers and in turn, their lives.

    To relate to your article, I come from two backgrounds: dirt poor, living in a trailer and the other with a family wearing Chanel before Chanel was Chanel. What poor family taught me was to realize that being financially literate and resourceful with money is essential to comfortable living. My wealthy family taught me that you CAN have the best, but one must consider the value things and experiences bring to our lives.

    And with money comes responsibility, frugality, and discretion. Flashing money is an absolute faux pas in our family. Which is what I believe young professionals today need to learn: Take care of what we have – whether its a pair of rubber boots or a pair of Todd’s shoes – and learn to not use our income as a means to measure our self worth.

  9. Jason Alba
    Jason Alba says:

    When I lost my job I sat down with my wife to do a financial inventory. We hadn’t really had to do that before then.

    About six weeks later when I had the hairbrained idea to start my own business, I could look at the decisions we had made earlier and how they allowed us to move forward with financing our business.

    If we were to have had too many expenses and debts it would not have been possible (to your point #3: spending money limits possibilities).

    Here’s another twist… my two primary investors are my dad and father-in-law. If we had crazy spending habits and lots of stuff and lots of debt/monthly expenses, I guarantee they would not have been excited about funding my new venture (that was 4 yrs ago).

    In other words, how we spent our money before the crisis helped potential investors have a comfort level with what we would do with their money.

    Not saying we were perfect but we weren’t buried with lots of financial obligations.

    • Lynn
      Lynn says:

      “If we were to have had too many expenses and debts it would not have been possible (to your point #3: spending money limits possibilities).”

      Wasn’t starting your business a huge expense though? Didn’t that limit your possibilities?

      I agree that spending money and burying yourself in debt is a bad choice. Everyone would. I disagree though that getting a masters degree is so fundamentally different than starting a business. I bet there are just as many failed businesses as unemployed masters grads.

      • Francine
        Francine says:

        I’m sure starting his own business did ultimately limit his imminent possibilities. He could have found another high paying job, made more money, and continued hanging on to it forever, thereby creating limitless possibilities until the day he dies, but never testing or enjoying a single one of them. So the possibilities are really just abstract ideas, existing in some sort of suspended state but never realized. What kind of life is that?

        Also, consider the chance that his business succeeds and generates even more revenue for him, which opens further possibilities in the future. I don’t think anyone who ever made any impact on this world sat back and said, “Nah, that’s just too risky. I’m just going to sit here and enjoy my possibilities for the rest of my life.” Frugality doesn’t mean never taking action with your money. It encompasses making a calculated risk-benefit analysis and acting accordingly.

  10. dee
    dee says:

    I really like this post. It really hits home because I have a master’s degree, I am looking for work, and I am trying to be as flexible as possible and capitalize on my transferrable skills.

    In your opinion, Penelope, how do you think one can remain flexible and open to options (be open to a wide range of possibilities) and frugal (not being all over the place) at the same time?

    It would help me tremendously if you (and also any of your thoughtful readers) weighed in on this question.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great question. I think that part of being open to a lot of options is being able to commit, invest, find out it’s wrong, and change. It means that you give yourself lots of time and energy to invest in what matters — to the point that you do not get too upset if you make a mistake because you have the time and energy to give. Again.

      I’d love to hear what other people think about this, though. It’s a great question.


      • Pratik Stephen
        Pratik Stephen says:

        You’ve got to list the different opportunities you are open to, and make small (20%) investments in them, to get up to “80%” of the return. (Pareto’s Principle)
        In making these initial investments of time/money, the first thing to focus on is testing your assumptions, to minimize wasted time/effort.

        Eg. I was interested in starting a fitness blog, a technical software blog, a personal development blog and a general personal blog 2 years ago.
        I started them, and with each, I tested my assumptions that :
        – I was super passionate
        – I had a lot to share
        – I would get a return on my investment of time (monetarily or otherwise)

        Within 1 week, I realised that a personal development blog was not for me.
        Within 1 month, I realised that a fitness blog is not for me.
        Within 6 months, I realised that a techie software blog is not for me even though it was well received.
        And I was free to focus on my personal blog which was gaining readership, and I was getting positive feedback.

        Another challenge that I had was “too many different brilliant ideas at the same time”.
        I had about 5 brilliant, ambitious ideas for side projects/websites that could turn full time.
        In 2 years, I prototyped only 2 of them, and kept talking about the others.
        Then, I realised, that I HAD to focus, dive in and ship/discard 1 idea at a time instead of “excitedly thinking” about all the ideas.

        So my new strategy is to focus on one “side project” at a time apart from my full time job as Program Manager at Microsoft.
        I review/shift my focus on a monthly/quarterly basis.

        A wise man said that you cant do more than 2 big challenging things at a time. I did not believe this for myself earlier, but my experience shows it’s true.

      • Sital
        Sital says:

        Hi Dee

        Want to be flexible without sounding ‘all over the place’? – Well focus on the ingredients, not the dish

        Lets use the analogy of eating out for the first time in a foreign country. Instead of defining which dishes you want to eat and not eat (…which you often have no clue about because you’re in a foreign land) you usually focus on being very specific about the ‘ingredients’ you want in your or meal and then be open about the actual dish you’ll consider. Because you’re in a different country and may not know all the dishes available.

        So if you discuss ingredients with a waiter: “I prefer fish or chicken, I enjoy spicy food and I prefer rice – but dislike anything with tomatoes” – it opens you up to a whole range of exciting dishes whilst also ensuring you’re likely to find a dish you like – and very often a dish you may never have considered.

        And what if you don’t like the dish that arrives? Well you’ll order something else or maybe just smile, be polite and avoid that dish next time. But isn’t that part of the adventure of travelling? New stories and experiences….?

        The same applies to your career right now. Focus on the ingredients, not the dish

        Your career ingredients include: key strengths, skills, values, natural style, the kinds of environments you thrive in, the kind of people you work best with etc

        So when speaking with recruiters and contacts:

        1. Be specific about 4 or 5 key ingredients you want from your next role (in the same way you would with a waiter in restaurant)

        – That way you sound clear and focussed

        2. But be very open about the actual job / sector / location (i.e. the precise dish)

        – So you come across as being flexible and open minded too

        3. Be willing to screw up and get it wrong

        As Penelope says, you’ve got to screw up, figure out what you like, don’t like and adapt as you go (ie pretty much what you’d do if eating in a new restaurant – try, test and adapt)

        You may make a wrong choice or decision – but the experience and stories will serve you well in the long term. Just like travelling, your career is too an adventure and journey. If you make a mistake or screw up, it will become a lesson or story for the future…

        Enjoy the journey and I wish you well with the search


  11. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    I recall a story maybe anecdotal about the great pianist Horiwitz. A society lady invited to the after the concert party gushed at him “Mr. Horiwitz you are so amazing. I would give my life to play like you do.” Horiwitz is said to have looked her up and down before he responded,”Madam, I have.”

    I think about that when my own journey gets tiring.

    and thank you for your great writing. You are one of the few that I subscribe to that I actually read.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love this question. I’m gonna answer it. Because actually, a Brazilian is expensive.

      I’m pretty convinced that, after all my happiness research, the only thing that matters is being married. Married people are so much happier than non-marrried people that people should just shut up about career stuff and focus on getting married.

      And, if you are dating, looking to get married, I am 100% positive you will have more options if you get a Brazilian. Quote me on this.

      This is a huge departure for me. And it actually contradicts what I’ve written in this post becuase it’s not how I have lived my life — spending money on non-career stuff. For example, I don’t have a bed. And I didn’t have a bedroom for eight years of my marriage. And I am pretty convinced that we spend money on what’s important to us. So I decided that I should try spending money on relationship stuff. See what that feels like.

      In general, I have to say that it’s difficult for me. Not natural to me. For example, I still have a mattress on the floor instead of a bed. But paying for a Brazilian is me trying to teach myself to be less career obsessed and more relationship focused.

      I think I just contradicted this whole post. Hopefully it counts as a growth moment to contradict one’s own post in the comments section.


      • Mitch
        Mitch says:

        Marriage = happier is a rather large overgeneralization, in my opinion. I think that not being lonely = happier, and marriage is a major way people shield themselves from loneliness. I am not one of those, though; I was married 6 years and was very lonely. Now I am single, and I’ve never felt so loved in my whole life.

      • csts
        csts says:

        Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply.

        I agree with you, it does rather contradict the apparent main theme of your original post. But your original post was really much broader than that initial theme.

        As one or more of your commentators astutely observed, you were really advocating that we spend solely to advance key priorities, not for spending’s sake itself.

        Whether the priorities are work (one source of happiness for many people, and it should be for more if possible), marriage (I agree with you that marriage is a huge source of happiness, though not all men feel their love lives are enhanced by sleeping with someone with a Brazilian!), or gardening (I loved the reply by the commentator who pointed out how much she gained by her gardening expenditures), a financial system that invests in these while shutting off money to practically everything else is sound and sensible. As you point out, it also frees up time for one’s priorities, by minimizing the amount of money-earning hours required.

        Rarely is the unhappily pervasive priority of “keeping up with the Joneses”, which I believe fuels most consumer spending in our culture, as fulfilling as the majority of Westerners seem to think, and it certainly, paradoxically, commits one to rather un-fulfilling work, lots of it, in order to pay the bills. You justifiably made this claim, which is entirely consistent with your new comment, in your original post, and I think this is what the post was really about. So maybe you didn’t really reverse yourself but just clarified, expanded and renewed your original position(!). :)

      • Brad
        Brad says:

        “And, if you are dating, looking to get married, I am 100% positive you will have more options if you get a Brazilian.” Feel free to be positive, but quite simply, you are completely wrong. No guy has ever said “she might have been the one, but dang, those pubes!”

      • Valter
        Valter says:

        PT: “I’m pretty convinced that, after all my happiness research, the only thing that matters is being married.”

        Honey, it isn’t the marriage that matters, it’s a fulfilling relationship. :-)
        Married people could be as miserable as single ones (and they often do). ;-D

        I don’t think a Brazilian might do wonders for your dating… but feeling good with your own body, it surely does.

        I wish you a deeply nourishing and inspiring relationship. It’s not an easy finding for a person like you (both difficult and precious), but I know it’s possible. :-)

  12. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Frugality used to be a virtue. It was called thrift, and it was greatly admired.

    But somewhere along the way in our culture, advertising, materialism, consumerism, etc. replaced the virtue of frugality with the vice of “being cheap”. There is now a stigma to frugality.

    So call it simplicity instead — making a conscious choice not to carry extra burdens.

  13. Odysseus Valise
    Odysseus Valise says:

    Penelope seems to confuse “frugality” with “high expected return on investment”. As others point out, there is no way leasing a BMW reflects frugality. Penelope would likely call it “money well spent”, and the reason she viewed it as money well spent was because it had a high perceived marginal return on dollars spent.

    Her friends who she views as not frugal may perceive very high returns to extravagant vacations. Penelope does not.

    An economist would call this allocating resources efficiently to the activity that has the highest marginal utility.

    • Jamie Beckland
      Jamie Beckland says:

      Yes! Exactly! Marginal utility is possibly the least understood concept in America, but it makes so much sense. And, it’s the reason that happiness doesn’t increase much in households with incomes over $40,000. The marginal utility of those additional dollars, even when allocated efficiently, can’t match the marginal utility of the first dollars.

      • Alexandra
        Alexandra says:

        This this this, exactly this. I have often thought, if I could somehow ensure that ONE concept from economics was implanted into peoples’ brains automatically, it would be the concept of marginal utility. (The other concept, which vies for top position, is opportunity cost.)

  14. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    Being an expert in something means sacrifice. Not frugality. You can’t have everything, so you must choose to have what really (reallyreallyreally) matters to you. Ideally your sacrifice would not require unreasonable sacrifice from your family, which is why you, PT, are spending $50K on a house manager: so your kids don’t suffer for your choices. Right?

    You said that spending can lead to overcommitting. Often, committing requires spending. I mean, if one is really serious about triathalons, one is going to have to cough up the money for a good bike. It would be a shame to train that hard and then fail to finish a race because one’s chain fell off. So: not frugal, but deliberately choosing where to spend money.

    The truly frugal thing would be to skip competitive triathalons & just run/bike/swim for fun! Then if your chain fell off your ancient, heavy bike, you could take the time to fix it yourself.

  15. Livvy
    Livvy says:

    Odysseus, I love it! Completely insightful comment, on top of being cheeky.

    But it raises an important point for me about the nature of some of the comments: I think we shouldn’t get too bogged down with the semantics of the thing. Ms. Trunk used her examples to demonstrate that one big expense outweighs a bunch of other little ones. If the comments are any indication, it’s clear that what constitutes frugality is relative, and it’s that way because of we all of us have different priorities. You can’t fault someone for where theirs lie. One person likes gardening, the other wants to further her career: there’s nothing wrong with either.

    And really, isn’t frugality all about “return on investment?” You make decisions on what to spend money on (e.g. BMW rentals; gardening tools) and what to cut back on (e.g. clothing; BMW rentals) to get the most out of your life.

  16. Livvy
    Livvy says:

    Getting a Brazilian ~is~ expensive, and yes, many people have to pay back enormous student loans once they finish grad school. Scholarships don’t cover everything, and not everyone gets them.

  17. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    You’d been on a no-bullshit streak for a while but this is an absolute load of crap.

    I personally see flying to LA to get your eyebrows done as an extravagant life. I spend my money on holidays and socialising because to me, having fun with the people I love is important. I don’t see it as a distraction from my work life but then, I work to live, I don’t live to work.

    I don’t see how you can’t see the insanity of flying to LA to get your eyebrows done but being too tight to buy snow boots. That doesn’t make you some kind of money genius, it makes you someone who is incapable of prioritising. By all means, get pneumonia because you don’t have proper footwear but at least you’ll look good!

    And in Australia, where I come from, buying property is an investment that usually pays off. Very few people who have earned the sort of money you have would still be renting or sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

  18. mysticaltyger
    mysticaltyger says:

    I would say the one big way you haven’t been frugal, Penelope, is that your life is generally unstable. Changing jobs and careeers. Multiple moves to different areas of the country. Divorce. All these things indicate instability, and instability is VERY expensive. It’s like a jet taking off and then suddenly landing…wastes a lot of fuel.

    So it’s good you haven’t succumbed to the siren call of Stuff. But, unfortunately, you made up for it in other ways.

    Not to dis you, though. You had a lot of really good insights in this post, as usual!

  19. mysticaltyger
    mysticaltyger says:

    I think you’ve been more extravagent than you realize, Penelope. You’re not a big aquirer of Stuff, which is good. However, where you blow a lot of money because of the instability in your life. Divorce. Multiple moves to different parts of the country. Lots of job and career changes. These things are all very expensive. One could say that your endless pursuit of career flexibility has paradoxically had the opposite effect in your life.

    Not to dis you, though. Balance is always difficult to achieve and your post had some great insights, as usual.

  20. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    Great post, Penelope. (And perhaps the best part was your 180 in the “Brazilian” comment.) But I liked it because it’s interesting to think about frugality and how we all define it so differently. I think it really comes down to “need” versus “want” (and being frugal, it can be argued, is spending only on need, never on want). But the really interesting thing is how we can all rationalize the “needs.” You can say you “need” to lease a BMW, but most of us think that sounds pretty extravagant. You can convince yourself that you “need” a Brazilian because otherwise you’ll never find a husband. (Love that one!) And I’m sure other people’s “needs” sound ridiculous to you. (I have some pretty crazy arguments for mine, also.) But I think the interesting part is that we all must simply acknowledge we are rationalizing our “needs” so we’ll feel more frugal. It’ll always sound crazy to someone who defines success differently.

  21. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    On some level, this post is insulting to people who don’t have much money and have to be frugal. Frugality is not spending much on anything at all, weighing what you do spend very very carefully.
    You’ve just got different priorities to your friends with the nice houses and “fun” vacations. BMW and frugal = oxymoron.
    Getting a brazillian is not frugal. Not getting anything waxed to save the $$ to spend on the baked beans, potatoes and lentils you live on is frugal. Having lots of help around the house is not frugal. Doing it all yourself AND holding down a job is frugal.

    Apropos your marriage, not having a bed (I assume you mean a base or a bed frame, or did you sleep on hard wooden floors – now THAT’S frugal! Are you saying if you’d spent money on your marriage you’d have stayed together? I guess it does indicate where your priorities lay at that time, but if you and your then hubby agreed, fine.

  22. Jamie Flinchbaugh
    Jamie Flinchbaugh says:

    I absolutely agree, especially point #3. By keeping your living standard below your means, that buffer gives you the freedom to make choices. You can take risks, because if they fail you aren’t out of options.

    Indepedence is one of my most deeply held values. I like nice stuff, but sometimes buying stuff just because of you can gets in the way of independence.


  23. Isabel S
    Isabel S says:

    Frugality is a career tool as much Gossiping is; as much as unethical practices are; as much as rudeness is, and so on.

    For the last year I have been working in a team that I refuse to call TEAM.
    My wrong doing?
    Accepting the promotion and being too nice to every single creature working with me.

    I suppose I forgot to read the memo that teaches one how to be frugal with ones relationships at work…

    Ok, I do get it, you were referring to a more materialist frugality, right?!

    But truly the quantities you serve Yourself to others, matter as much as the quantities of money you spend.
    Paraphrasing Epictetus:
    "In order to please others, we loose our hold on our life's purpose."

    Needless to say that I’m not being frugal with this bucket of Peanut Butter Ice Cream…

  24. Mitch
    Mitch says:

    It seems to me that a little acceptance of the contrary points of view works well here. Thus Penelope’s now-infamous “Brazilian comment.”

    Our society is very consumeristic, and Penelope is merely railing against that, giving the other side of the story. That doesn’t negate the contrary.

    Let me rephrase her points with the contrary point illustrated.


    1. Spending money is generally a distraction. Or, when well thought through, it’s the complete opposite… like spending something to take those dance or cooking classes you’ve always thirsted to get into.

    2. Spending money is a vehicle for overcommitting. And not spending money is enables those who are afraid of commitment.

    3. Spending money limits possibilities. So does not spending money. Sometimes, spending money creates more possibilities; the key is to have an open mind, no matter what.

    4. Entrepreneurship is a safety net if you’re frugal in your home life. So is a high-paying job, if you can get it. However you can save, do it. And if you’re putting away $300 a month, don’t be afraid to buy those awesome shoes you’ve wanted for a while. Just keep it to one pair of shoes a month. :-)


    None of these contrary positions negates what Penelope is saying. I think she is just accenting the frugal side of things because modern American culture is so gorged with unnecessary consumerism, as opposed to afflicted by runaway frugality, ain’t that right?

    Here in the dead of winter, 65 degrees Fahrenheit feels warm! But during the summer, that’s kind of cold. Neither point of view is wrong. :-)

  25. Isao
    Isao says:

    I am on the process to get rid of stuff except basic clothes so this entry encouraged me a lot. I might say the situation in big cities of Asia might be different than in the US because here (for me Taipei) you can rent a cheap apartment and share it to keep the rent bill down to $300 a month, and still live at the center of the city. I heard similar stories in Tokyo and Shanghai. The metro and public buses are so convenient (plus medical bills are cheap) so it might work to be both frugal and be accessible. Getting a good job as a “foreigner” is a different issue though…

  26. a.e.
    a.e. says:

    Penelope, thanks for linking to your brother’s blog! I’ve spent a few hours there already and love it. I am a finance geek and he has great ideas and a great tone. Thanks!

  27. Ruth
    Ruth says:

    Penelope, even if you don’t fit strictly into the definition of frugal yourself, this is still a great post. I love hearing people tell me NOT to buy so much. I would add another reason to your list: “Stuff weighs you down.” The more stuff you have, the more time and energy you have to devote to cleaning it and keeping it up and moving it every time you move.

    On the issue of buying a house, it CAN be a frugal decision if you buy a house that is cheap enough to cash-flow as a rental. We bought a house last year, then got a great job offer in Taiwan and left our new place, renting it out. It costs me nothing (besides the initial down payment), someone else is paying my mortgage off, and I never have to think about it because I pay a management company to do that for me. However, I agree–if we had bought the kind of house we qualified for (about twice as expensive), we would still be stuck in the suburbs, wondering what the Taiwan job would have been like.

  28. tina
    tina says:

    I agree with some, but not in every point. I would not say that the money only fill holes in life. we buy often things for a hobby or for others and this can cost much.

    • Judy
      Judy says:

      As a Libra, most of your money probably goes to clothes and jewelry. You can maximize your “marginal utility” if you buy them at a thrift shop. And have fun doing it!

  29. Amy
    Amy says:

    What a thought provoking post. I guess for me, knowing that I’m finacially secure (and that means being frugal enough to not have to worry about money) frees up head space for me to be able to think more aobut my career and business.

  30. Jorge Lazaro Diaz
    Jorge Lazaro Diaz says:

    You are absolutely right. A well budgeted life opens up so many possibilities. As you have said, it can empower you and enable you to be in control of your future and career.

    It’s primarily a matter of balance where you understand your priorities and your life reflects that. This balancing your life article takes your concept a step further by applying this sort of thinking to the non-money spending parts of your life.

  31. sadya
    sadya says:

    Frugality gives you flexibility. With bonuses , enviable remunerations packages & company shares yuppies like me & my friends are now so used to our lifestyles that even though we are miserable at our jobs & want to try other options because we are still young enough to , we just don’t that. Keeping up with Jones & all that image building , makes us buy things we don’t need to impress people we can’t stand. And guess which industry my friends & I work in – yup banking. So yes frugality is a corporate virtue , a career virtue actually – it gives you the freedom to get up from your desk & walk away.

    Sadya S.

    • Judy
      Judy says:

      “Keeping up with Jones & all that image building , makes us buy things we don’t need to impress people we can’t stand.”
      I think that is what leased BMWs, LA eyebrows and a personal stylist are all about.

  32. Mike
    Mike says:

    Before I buy anything, I spend a moment thinking: Will this make me happy?

    More importantly, is the amount of happiness offered the product/service higher than the price?

    For example, if going on a $1,000 vacation is going to give me about 30 hours of happiness, then each hour is equivalent to ~$33. That means I need to be earning $33/hour (after taxes, college loans, etc) to break even.

    That’s assuming the happiness rating on the vacation is equal to the unhappiness rating at work. If it’s lower, then I would need to increase the earnings per hour to break even.

    I know it sounds complicated, but it only takes me 1-2 minutes to calculate (and I do it in my head, so nobody thinks I’m a freak).

  33. Michael
    Michael says:

    Penelope –

    Great post. As a pastor leading a church, we have to be frugal (in many others besides money). What I hear you really talking about is having a laser like focus, and never losing that focus, so you become frugal regarding what you need or don’t need.

    It’s so practical and applicable in our lives, but we lose sight over it, because we desperately want gratification, since our lives may be lives of less than. One other word along with focus comes to mind, wisdom. Use wisdom to help us stay focused in our efforts to succeed.

    – Michael

  34. Mark F.
    Mark F. says:

    Frugal is important, FOCUS IS ALSO IMPORTANT, PASSION IS THE SECRET SAUCE…I don’t thing its singular in nature…you need a good recipe with the ingrediats tweaked just right for your own life/success path…

  35. Pratik Stephen
    Pratik Stephen says:

    I want to thank you for your awesomely insightful posts!
    For me, and for my girlfriend!
    For some reason, your voice seems to get through to her much better and smoother than mine on topics like frugality etc. : )
    She totally looks up to you as a mentor!
    Thanks for being awesome, and taking the time and effort to share the awesomeness.

  36. Katelyn Sack
    Katelyn Sack says:

    On #2, the advice about grad school I wish I had gotten as an undergrad is this: professional schools (law, medicine) often require 6-figure loans. Terminal Masters programs also don’t usually have good funding. But good PhD track graduate programs fund their people. I don’t know why no one advises undergrads of this, as if these financial commitments don’t matter!

  37. emily
    emily says:

    I was just thinking about this topic last week. I’ve been interviewing for a new job for a few weeks now, one that would pay significantly more than I make now. The interview process is long and stressful, involving meetings and presentations that stretch over a period of weeks. Throughout, my friends have told me to “splurge on new outfits, you deserve it with all of the work you’re doing,” and go out for expensive meals since “you’ll be making more money now.” First of all, an interview is not a job, and I think my friends are jumping the gun here. But more importantly, they’re encouraging me to upgrade my lifestyle to grow into a higher salary, which effectively would trap me in the new job. I passionately agree with you that living frugally gives us flexibility.
    I’m 25 years old, and I have no significant expenses right now. I’ve calculated that if necessary I can comfortably live off of $1100/month (including student loan payments). I chose to “upgrade” my lifestyle about a year ago to $1500/month, and am still saving more than 30% of my take home salary. This is not a hardship, it’s actually a huge source of relief for me any time I’m concerned about job security or want to make a change in my life. Spending is the real burden, not saving.

  38. ioana
    ioana says:

    When you buy a BMW because it’s expected it’s called “keeping up with the jonses” which is the exact opposite of frugal. Nix.

  39. Eileen Schlesier
    Eileen Schlesier says:

    Loved your posting on frugality (as I wear my plastic rain boots).

    I think we all struggle to keep up with the Jones’s when we should really just be focusing on our own personal nuclear family’s goals for the future.

    I will keep reading, thanks so much!

  40. mike
    mike says:

    The current economic mess is causing all of us to rethink our plans for the future, especially those of retired or thinking about retirement. We have seen big hits to our investment accounts…some are saying “I can’t afford to retire now”…really?
    Have you considered lifestyles that are cheaper but also fun? Living aboard a sailboat is something we did for 8 straight years. It was not only the most fun we have ever had it was a very cheap way of living as well.

  41. Jim
    Jim says:

    How very true, Penelope. Great advice for our economic times. Gen Y seems to be more minimalist than Gen X, and we Boomers went overboard on conspicuous consumption (though it did help drive the economy). Given the uncertainty we’re facing in North America about our future job market and standard of living, following your advice, as well as that of people like Zen Habits’ Leo Babauta, would do us all well. Paying down debt, living more simply and being more environmentally responsible make us more adaptable to change and better stewards of Planet Earth.

  42. prostate problems
    prostate problems says:

    Frugal is economical in defense. Frugal people often uphold values and traditions that patronizations too convictions and standard of living. Often a frugal uses resources for buying strictly moral services and goods in moderation.

  43. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    Before buying anything it is good to think of how many hours of your life spent working will be required to pay for it. It puts things in a different light and avoids the “keeping up with the Joneses mentality.”
    No one needs a BMW but their advertising is great at getting people to think so.

  44. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Fascinating post and comments!

    It’s always great to remember the importance of saving and the freedom it gives you. I guess it’s just hard to know where to draw the line and know what will truly make you happier.

    But having a brazillian is overrated. I think it’s sad American women are under so much pressure to change themselves constantly. It’s expensive and painful and takes time. Do you think the rest of the world isn’t having great sex just because they have hair down there? I don’t think so. There’s so much more to it than that.

  45. Freddie
    Freddie says:

    I have to say, Penelope – I really liked your blog as a young person starting out my career, but your aversion to graduate school and higher education in general has really soured my feelings.

    Sure, you may have bombed out of your graduate program. But there are plenty of benefits to a higher education, particularly outside of M.A. programs in English.

    Personally, I am looking at professional programs in economics because I have found this to be essential for my career path. All of the programs I’ve considered have a track record of placing graduates in good jobs or to very competitive PhD programs. What is the harm in forgoing working in dead-end jobs for a couple years by doing a program that propels me in the right direction professionally? Granted, I took a couple of years after undergrad to work and find out what I really wanted to do. I think more young people should do this rather than going directly to graduate school. Yet dismissing the option of pursuing a higher education because your own negative experience is short-sighted at best, and at worst a little pathetic.

  46. Dina
    Dina says:

    The availability of credit cards and the convenience of on-line shopping makes frugality difficult to implement. For me, the credit card bill at the end of the month is a wake-up call. It usually keeps my credit card in my purse for a good 2 weeks!

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