I was quoted in the Globe in Mail a week ago in an article on Extreme Frugality. And while I most certainly did not appreciate the journalist using the words “obsessive” and “compulsion” to describe some previous experiments with couponing and bargain-hunting (words I never would have used to describe myself) I thought I would put aside my complaints for now and focus on my thoughts about “extreme” frugality.
It’s a classist discussion
Whenever I hear talk of extreme frugality in the media, what bugs me is that there is always an assumption that everyone has the same means, the same financial resources, that everyone has enough – more than enough. These articles always start from a certain vantage point, assuming that the people who use so-called extreme frugal measures do so in the context of a certain degree of wealth. And I feel like this element needs to be considered when exploring extreme measures of frugality, because we don’t all have access to the same means. Many Canadians live in poverty. Many Canadians are faced with difficult financial choices. Many Canadians suffer from other complex issues that affect their choices, such as addiction and mental health issues. So when journalists and bloggers make fun of people who take “extreme” measures to meet their needs, it kind of bothers me, because certain realities – and certain people – are being ignored.
Arguments about extremism assume that debt is normal
Most people would consent that extreme measures are okay if it’s a matter of life and death, but what if it’s a matter of life and debt? If someone is using “extreme” frugal measures to live within their means, but does not technically have to, because they have access to credit, is that being responsible, or is it pathological? It’s a thought worth pondering. In the media, giving up luxuries for the sake of living within ones means is portrayed as extreme. But Gail Vaz-Oxlade argues that debt is not normal.
How I define extremism
However, I have my own limits. For me, I define frugality as being “too extreme” for my own lifestyle when it falls into one of the following categories:
- jeopardizing my health
- being unethical or taking advantage of others
- reducing my quality of life
- causing the decline of self-respect
- harming personal or professional relationships
During tough financial times, I aim to find ways of cutting back so that I don’t have to jeopardize the above. For the most part, it can be done, it just requires a lot of planning, a lot of creativity, a lot of hard work and a positive attitude.
Our throw-away culture: an environmental hazard
However, many of the “extreme” frugal measures listed in the Globe article may not necessarily compromise any of the above categories. The re-using of dental floss in particular strikes me as interesting, because the blogger who refused to post this tip recognized it as a safety concern. Although I’ve never re-used dental floss (and don’t intend to) I don’t like the automatic repulsion to the idea of reusing things in our throw-away culture. We’re so used to buying and throwing away disposable items that we don’t stop to ask, “can this be reused?” Or, “is there an alternative to this product that doesn’t have to be thrown away?” Recently I realized that I could, for example, reuse my aluminum foil. I only discovered that it was reusable when I ran out of tinfoil and urgently required some, and decided to wash my last piece instead. It was like a lightbulb went off – “why am I not reusing this?” Granted that this is hardly a life-changing realization, but it’s a simple of example of how we get used to throwing things away thoughtlessly, because “there’s always more where that came from”. We usually only question these habits when we’re in a position of scarcity – but sometimes that’s when we realize that we can actually make-do with less and do quite well. Maybe we need to start imagining scarcity in order to be a little more creative and a little more environmentally responsible.
So if someone finds a way to reduce their environmental impact by reducing or reusing, and it does not cause harm in any of the ways I listed above, are we right to call this extreme, or are we right to call this responsible?
An enviable life
I found myself telling the reporter that I live an “enviable” life. After all, I have a job that is well aligned with my values and that is meaningful to me, I am surrounded by natural beauty, and my home only contains posessions that reflect my personality, my loves, my passions. It is a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle that truly reflects my values. Some of my practices would be considered extreme – not watching television, for example, or not having junk food in the house. These habits could be considered extreme by others, but to me, they just make sense – they enhance the quality of my life and my health.
Indeed, it’s taken me a while to find this balance. Partly, I think it’s about experimenting and discovering what’s important to you and what fits within your goals. Sometimes frugality and simplicity can complement each other but sometimes they are antagonistic to each other, and finding a way to align them has been my goal. After a few years of experimentation, I can finally see them aligning into a nice balance.
What do you consider to be “too extreme” frugal behaviour?