Frugality / by AB Mann

Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.

How do you define good when you’re talking about spending money? Is it good to buy dinner when you’ve spent most of the evening out of the house, running errands? How bad is buying a cup of coffee at a coffee shop when you write that thing you’ve been stuck on? Do you need another book?

I firmly believe that the core of frugality is not “be cheap” but “by useful things that will last.” Buying the cheapest toaster does you little good if it breaks a month after you get it. But buying the best toaster makes little sense if you make toast once in a blue moon.

You have to balance cost with longevity and use. The best example I have is my satchel (1). I bought it in 2009 for about $350. I carry that thing with me every day. It gets bumped against things, falls off desks, gets rolled over by chairs. All I need to do to keep it in good shape is rub it down with leather conditioner every six months or so. I love that bag and will probably have it for many, many years longer. Even over the life of the bag to this date, it’s cost me about 21¢ a day (2).

Obviously the amount I use my satchel suggests the amount of money that makes sense to put into it. You can think similarly about cars, snow shovels, cell phones.

In short, frugality is not about being cheap. It’s about reducing unnecessary expenditure. Franklin was pretty keen on frugality as a way to wealth (5) and much of what he wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack was advice on saving money. Two of his proverbs in particular resonate with me:

Beware of little expenses; A small Leak will sink a great Ship;

For want of a Nail the Shoe was lost; for want of a Shoe the Horse was lost; and for want of a Horse the Rider was lost, being overtaken and slain by the Enemy; all for the want of Care about a Horse-shoe Nail

Small expenses add up but not making the right expenditures can be devestating. This is what I’ll keep in mind this week. Balancing expenses with need is important. Honestly, I have no problem spending the day at a coffee shop when the atmosphere helps me write or research. But getting coffee because I’m too lazy to make it myself is problematic.

Edicts for Frugality:

  1. Define the need for each little expense - is the benefit greater than the expense?
  2. Before you buy something, consider existing tools to accomplish the task. If this one offers no benefit, in time or ease of use, is it worth it?
  3. Save first.

So - take care with little expense, especially consumables like coffee or dinners. They aren't necessarily bad but understand why you're making them. Which is as applicable when buying durable goods; ask if you have something now that would work and, if the benefit in time saved or ease of use doesn't match up, don't buy it.

And save first - figure out how to save more as early in the saving process (more on this later).





  1. This was actually the second leather bag (3) I bought, the first being the briefcase from the same people at Saddleback Leather.

  2. I’ve spend about $50 on leather care products. So 50+350 / 1911 days since I bought it on 11/1/2009 is 20.9¢ a day.

  3. The big leather briefcase, which I still use as a gym bag nearly every day, rigger bag every month, and travel suitcase every few months, was about $650. I bought it a year before (4) comes to 28¢ a day.

  4. I used to take pictures of everything and it’s becoming a great reference for my life. Searching for “leather” on my flickr stream is really nice.

  5. Primarily “by the practice of industry and frugality, free from debt, which exposes a man to confinement, and a species of slavery to his creditors.”