Wisdom of frugality

In an interesting new book Wisdom of frugality – why less is more – more or less, Emrys Westacott philosophises about why the ancient philosopher and sages advocated frugality as the road to wisdom. So the pull between the pursuit of riches and the desire to do with less is not a modern phenomenon as we think, it is there from the old ages. 

Emrys Westacott, who is a philosophy professor with Alfred University in New York runs a course on Tightwaddery, that  was named one of the hottest classes by the Daily Beast. Professor Westacott thinks that frugality is our only alternative to become environmentally more conscious. He also thinks that a frugal life is more meaningful than the one that follow a path of mindless hedonism and conscpicuous consumption. 

The course description says, “The basic idea underlying much of contemporary life and culture is: Spend money and you’ll be happy. This is a lie perpetrated by capitalists who want us to buy their products. This seminar will prove its falsity both in theory and in practice. On a theoretical level, we will consider how living frugally benefits your mind, your body, your relationships, your community, and the environment. On a practical level, we will examine personal spending habits, sharpen bargain-hunting, rip-off-detecting, and haggling skills, make field trips to yard sales and thrift shops, and prepare a class banquet for less than $10. At bottom, though, the course is less concerned with cutting coupons than with the question Socrates asked long ago: What is the good life for a human being?”

The class tracks the expenses of all the students, recommends ways to buy more for less and focuses on tracking all the expenses rigorously. The tightwaddery book list contains the usual suspects like the classic “Your money or your life” and some less well known ones like “Living well on practically nothing”.

In conclusion, both the book and the class website is a mine of information on the philosophical basis of a frugal lifestyle. It argues that frugality is not the last option but is a better option for people who may have enough. 

How much is enough?

It is a common experience that any goal set by one is not enough when achieved. In fact when comes closer to the goal, instead of feeling happy or even thrilled that you achieved what you set out to do, our minds start thinking the reason why that goal was not the right one in the first place. In fact, we do not need to see goal directed phenomenon to understand the attitude of “not enough”. When we compare ourselves with our forefathers who lived some decades or centuries back, we see that what they thought was “luxury” is thought of us as “ordinary”. And still we do not feel like the rich of the yesteryears. 

It is not important why this happens. What is important is to think about how we can overcome this phenomenon to feel more satisfied in life. One of the key reasons why this happens is that we compare ourselves with the people we see regularly including out relatives and friends. We try and average out the “perceived hedonistic level” of those people and mark our “better” with that level. Of course, this is a dynamic excercise and is bound to cause a lot of anxiety due to its changing nature, subjective evaluation and lack of transparent numbers for comparison. People are continuously stressed about “Keeping up with the Joneses”.

How do we tone down the desire in us to compare and put our life in hands of the people that surround us? How do we decide our consumption based on what is meaningful and enough for us? It indeed is a tough question and even tougher to implement in real life. It requires one to be comfortable with oneself and not associate one’s self-esteem with what one has. When one decouples one’s identity with the objects that one possesses, one has the hope of becoming free of the bondage of comparison. 

Of course, this is not easy and that is why most of the people who choose such a lifestyle try to find out other people who are doing the same. By seeing other people going through the same challenges, one gains strength emotionally and creative ways of leading such a life intellectually. So if you are interested in becoming free, try and find out people who can help you do so. These people could be on the internet, in the books they have written or some meetup that happens in your city. By seeing one’s ideals reflected in the world, one’s conviction grows. 

Financially prudent millennial

“I do not do debt”, says Patrick Olsen in a refreshing story about a millennial who spends within limits, does not believe in debt and saves for retirement.

“As for settling down, Mr. Olsen will have none of it. “I don’t want to buy a home – I find it to be a pretty crappy investment. You’ve got your utilities, insurance, interest – by the time it’s said and done the chances of making any money are minimal.”

He works as a millwright and earns about $125,000/- most of which he saves and invests in index funds and stocks. He is completely focused on financial freedom and retirement.

“Not that he’s spending it: he drives a 2004 Ford Taurus with his firm chipping in for gas. Rent is his largest expense at $800 a month – which includes utilities. When he does go out – rarely – he splurges a little, hitting a restaurant like the Keg, or going drinking with some friends.”

Considering the magic of compounding, he is going to do pretty well and I am sure he would be happy with the choice he made of staying within means, prudent spending, staying away from debt for homeownership or fancy cars.