A relativist view of frugality is the view that everyone has to decide for him or her self how frugality applies to his or her life. This is the prevailing view and it’s a fine view. Frugality has no strict definition, there is no value that one has to achieve to be considered frugal. Instead, we have to be like that judge in Texas who was said “I know pornography when I see it”. We have to know frugality when we see it.
This isn’t really a problem, until, we start treating frugality as a virtue. When we act virtuous, we often feel good about ourselves and others who behave virtuously. The problem is, when we can apply the frugal label audaciously, then it collectively reduces the power of the word.
So we come to what I like to call the Lamborghini problem.
A wealthy man, buys a Porcsche because it’s cheaper than a Lamborghini, in the relative frugal world, that decision could be seen as being frugal. That’s if we throw around the word frugal so carelessly. The wealthy man feels virtuous, but still in an absolute sense has spent lots of money on a status symbol.
Here is an analogy. I decide to eat a bucket of chicken that comes with extra skin that’s only 12,000 calories rather than the emperor size pizza that is 15,000, look at me, I’m dieting.
The problem with this, is that if every square can be forced into the circle mold, then frugality ends up meaning almost nothing. If someone wants to be frugal, but can be talked into spending $500 on headphones because they are BIFL (buy it for life), is that frugal?
“But I won’t have to keep buying $60 headphones every month”
You’re either frugal or you’re not. Where do you draw the line? Well that’s the tricky part. I can’t give a normative list of what you ought to buy, or ought not to buy, but a serious demeanor towards frugality means hard choices.
We typically feel good about being frugal, it’s like being on a diet, hell it is being on a diet. There is more in common with being frugal and dieting, that I have hard time thinking of a more apt analogy. If you eat a 2,000 calorie pizza, that’s not a wise diet move. Sure you might be at a party, having fun, it might be the best damn pizza this side of the Panama canal, but god damn, it’s still not dieting.
The problem is, that we have to acknowledge that very few of us is going to make are purely frugal. We don’t have the cognitive resources to do a cost-benefit analysis on a can of creamed corn. The issue is seeing every purchasing decision through the optics of frugality. We all have different needs and wants, perhaps you want to spend a butt load on the Muse discography because you have a recognized psychological condition that requires constant eeriy rock music. But that purchase isn’t frugal.
If we fall into the pit trap of allowing every purchase to be frugal because we have impressive mental gymnastic skills, then what’s the point of being frugal?
There is really no frugal reason to buy a new iPhone. You may like iPhones, but barring some extravagant situation, buying an iPhone is not frugal. It can be a decision that values other things (like looking trendy) but it does not fulfill a frugal criteria, even if you decided that the 16 GB is cheaper than the 32 GB thus frugal. But some will attempt the impressive mental gymnastics to claim that their iPhone purchase was frugal.
What’s the resolution?
It’s all a word game. We recognize that we have areas in our life that can be frugal, but we don’t have to be frugal in every category (or you can choose that). You can be frugal in the pasta aisle, but don’t pretend that the new iPhone 6 is frugal. The key to be better at being frugal is recognizing areas in where you are not frugal. Otherwise if most purchases are eligible for the frugal credit status, then it’s all meaningless. You’re free to save your money and spend how you want. There are more dimensions than cost, but if you want to focus on saving money and avoiding waste we have to be honest with our purchases and recognize when we are not being frugal.
To end off, while the word frugal does not offer much guidance in meaning, we know from communities that organize around frugality that it entails a type of savings. My Porsche buying person from earlier, wouldn’t be on /r/frugal or anywhere else related to frugality.