In our not-so-distant time of plenty, the word frugal might have conjured images of hardscrabble folks who’ve deliberately divorced themselves from modern pursuits. The Amish live frugally; the rest of us may cut back when times get rough, but when the world takes off again, we’ll be right there to grab our share. With a historic recession affecting virtually every industry, we are all Amish now, and frugality has become a necessity. In search of tips on austere living, a couple of months ago I stumbled upon Wise Bread, an entertaining two-year-old group blog and user forum whose slogan is “Living large on a small budget.” From there, an entire frugal world opened up to me— Frugal Dad, Frugal Village, About.com’s Frugal Living blog, and many personal journals documenting lives of cultivated asceticism.
These sites brim with advice ripe for the times: what to do when you suspect you’ll soon be laid off, what to do after you’ve been laid off, and how to spend next to nothing and still have a classy Christmas. (For instance, it’s within the bounds of good taste to buy someone a second-hand gift.) But frugality blogs offer more than just a few useful tips—many are on a mission to create a new American money culture, to make scrimping seem not just necessary but normal. “In a country where common sense left the financial world long ago, I felt a calling to remind people of some very basic principles,” writes Jason White, whose onetime job in a credit-card call center inspires his work at Frugal Dad. “Spend less than you make; save money for a rainy day; live debt free. I know, I know, earth-shattering ideas here, huh?”
Consumer advice is nothing new online, but the most popular sites have traditionally focused on telling you how to buy stuff cheaply. Behold, for instance, Slickdeals.net, which is flooded with news of sales from around the Web. Sites espousing frugality also push deals, but they do so with advice to remain cautious. A deals site will tell you where to find a high-def TV; a frugality site asks you to consider cutting your cable subscription.
The frugality cult emphasizes that their lifestyle is different from merely being cheap. Cheapskates aim to buy as much as they can for as little as possible, not caring much for the quality or environmental and ethical virtues of the items they’re consuming. To be frugal, on the other hand, is to consider the full ramifications of every purchase. Eating at McDonald’s is cheap. Cooking dinner and saving the leftovers for lunch the next day is frugal. These sites argue that your commerce should be calculated and purposeful. Go ahead and spend $800 a year on cable if you want, but don’t do it blindly—do it only because you’ve decided that’s the best use of your money (instead of, say, buying an Xbox, a Wii, several games, and a subscription to Netflix or just putting the money in a savings account).
What’s most attractive about the frugality movement is how it has adopted lessons from lifehacking gurus—the methods of a scrimping life are presented as small, practical steps that can be easily folded into your daily routine. Oatmeal is a cheap and nutritious breakfast, but the instant stuff is terrible. The solution: Put real oats in a crockpot or rice cooker outfitted with a timer that’s set to turn on in the middle of the night. When you wake up in the morning, fresh oatmeal will await. Analyze your phone calling patterns—if you’re mainly using your cell phone, get a cheaper landline plan, and if you’re using your landline, get a cheaper cell plan. Avoid stores: Visit a retailer only when you’ve got something to buy, not just because you’re bored (lest you try to entertain yourself by buying stuff you don’t really need). Look online before hiring an expert to repair your car, your computer, or any other complicated thing—you might find that you can fix it yourself. (Check out these simple ways to remove dents or replace your brake pads.)
Just because these tips are practical doesn’t mean they’re necessarily right for you. As you surf the frugal Web, you’ll inevitably find money-saving ideas that cross your personal line. Some people may be OK with wearing used clothes or taking the bus or buying food on its sell-by date, but perhaps not you. My personal aversion was piqued by tips involving leftover food: I’m awfully obsessive about freshness and quality, and so the idea of throwing breakfast meat and wilted vegetables into a slow cooker to make a dinner stew struck me as too gross to contemplate. I’m fine sacrificing TV, but I’d be terribly unhappy if I were made to give up restaurants, my high-speed Internet line, and my almost foolishly expensive mobile phone. That’s just not something I could do.
Am I a big-spending snob who epitomizes my nation’s reckless ways? Probably so. But we snobs aren’t a lost cause to frugal bloggers. Philip Brewer, one of the writers at Wise Bread, argues that people get in trouble when they don’t realize that they’re essentially snobby. “There’s a problem with this kind of thinking—with imagining that ‘you’re not the sort of person’ who does certain kinds of things: You can start to believe it,” he writes. If you actually believe that you’re not the sort of person eats wilted leftovers, you’re going to feel like a miserable failure if you get laid off and then can’t afford to eat anything better.
This suggests the best way to prepare for what looks to be a long and deep recession—even if you’re not moved to begin scrimping now, admit to yourself that your future is uncertain, the frugal bloggers counsel. Anticipating loss will help you get through the worst, if it comes to that: Sometime over the next couple years, you may find you’ve got no choice but to cook up wilted vegetables. At least you’ll know where to look for some recipes.