The Connection Between Happiness and Being Frugal

On Friday we considered the effect that being frugal has on your ability to achieve financial freedom in The Connection Between Financial Freedom and Being Frugal. Today, we are going to dare consider that there may also be a connection between happiness and being frugal.

While being frugal may seem to be primarily a financial activity, or at least one that specifically targets finances, I think that their are also ways in which being frugal can have a positive effect on your emotional well-being and happiness.

Traveling light in life – detaching ourselves from stuff

It often seems as if it is part of the “natural order” of human existence to accumulate stuff in life. We buy stuff because it makes us feel better about life and about ourselves. Perhaps it even gives us a sense of security. Maybe it’s that in surrounding ourselves with stuff we are unconsciously creating a protective barrier around us that somehow insulates us from some of the harsh realities of life.

The Connection Between Happiness and Being Frugal
The Connection Between Happiness and Being Frugal
If any of that is the case then what we’re really doing is creating an emotional attachment to things. It can sometimes seem harmless, but it’s usually anything but. When we become emotionally attached to stuff, we feel the need to protect it, often at a considerable price.

If you have a large enough trove of stuff, you will need a larger than necessary house to store it, and that by itself can create a battery of entanglements. You are now working to support a house, that provides storage and protection for your stuff. It turns into a vicious – and costly – cycle.

But no matter how it looks on TV, life isn’t about stuff – it’s about people, relationships and experiences. And as a practical matter, living life to the fullest often requires having as little stuff as possible. In order to fully experience life, it’s usually better to travel light so that you’ll have the mobility and financial flexibility to take full advantage of whatever opportunities and adventures come your way. That’s harder to do when you are carrying a ton or two of stuff in the backpack of your life, or trying to live life according to standards set by others.

Detatching yourself from the trap of maintaining a certain standard of living

Loosely speaking, standard of living is about maintaining a lifestyle that is consistent with the community around us. It’s a way of blending in to our surroundings, financially speaking.

But as comforting as it may seem to be able to blend into our circumstances, it’s also an expensive way to live and fast becoming unsustainable for millions of people. As you become more frugal, you begin to realize that conforming to monetary standards set by others may not be in YOUR best interests, even if it seems good for so many others.

Yes, that can make you a pariah in your own neighborhood, but it’s also liberating. You don’t have to buy a new car every five years, prepare for “the best” education for your children, have top quality merchandise, or be on the constant hunt for a bigger and better home. When you let go of all that, you also let go of the stress that comes with constantly striving to have more. And in an almost inexplicable way, the world starts to look very different too.

Frugality and faith

As best as we can tell from the Gospels, Jesus had very few possessions in life. And the people who followed him – particularly his disciples – similarly had few material attachments. Much of Jesus’ teachings, as well as those of his disciples later on, dealt with minimizing the importance of material possessions.

The Sermon on the Mount is filled with such teachings, but Jesus makes a very specific comment about this topic elsewhere:

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – Mark 10:25

I’ve always thought this passage to be symbolic, however some years ago a minister set me straight on it – it actually had a literal meaning to the people of the day. In Biblical times, when rich people traveled, they typically took their most valuable possessions with them. They loaded their prized possessions on the backs of camels, and as they did the camels – already tall animals – were stacked even higher.

There is a gate in Jerusalem sometimes referred to as “ The Eye of the Needle”. In order for the camels to make it through this gate, they would literally have to drop to the ground and crawl through the gate. In this way, the rich were forced to lower their possessions in order to pass through. And so it is with the Kingdom of Heaven.

This has a profound meaning to us today even if we don’t think of ourselves as being rich. In order to walk the faith walk, we have to lower the value of our possessions. Our possessions can get in the way of our faith in much the same way they can burden us in life. They can even obstruct our view of God given the human tendency to bend scripture to fit our own personal preferences.

Being frugal means shedding some possessions, and that can clear the way for a less obstructed faith walk.

Greater self-reliance from thinking beyond money

I have a confession make. During the course of my life I have resisted efforts toward being more frugal. It just always seemed to be easier to pay someone else to take care of something for me, or to pay a little bit more money to have something now. Being frugal, after all, requires strong measures of self-reliance and self-denial.

But as I have gradually become more frugal, I’ve actually found it to be empowering. The more I can do for myself, the more self reliant I’ve become. In addition, I’ve become more confident about my abilities to do things that I didn’t think I could in the past.

But there’s something else that is even more significant.

Being frugal is enabling me and my family to live on less money. The less money that you need, the less worried you are about it. For example, I used to worry whenever something broke. It usually meant either having to pay someone else to fix it, or pony up to replace it completely – both expensive options!

Now I have something of a checklist that I go through when something breaks:

  1. Fix it myself, or
  2. Tap into a low cost repair source (you develop these as you become more frugal), or
  3. Replace it with something secondhand and inexpensive.

Which ever option I use, it’s always less expensive – and usually far less expensive – than the practices of my previous life. Being frugal means thinking outside-the-box, which usually forces you to think beyond money. Once you break that barrier, it gets steadily easier to do. And it feels a lot better than always writing a check or swiping a credit card too!

Greater emphasis on people and on community

This is actually a pretty simple concept: the less you are wrapped up with possessions or with living a certain standard of living, the more concerned you become with people.

Being frugal has a way of bringing you closer to people. When you pay for everything that you need – usually to third party services – life is more insulated. You don’t need to take the time to get to know the people who are helping you, because you’re paying them.

But being frugal involves greater reliance on people. It’s not just a matter of paying – you have to get to know them, to work out reciprocal arrangements, and develop a life of cooperation. That forces you to build more constructive relationships. It may seem old-fashioned in our day and time when convenience is king, but it’s actually the way people interacted for thousands of years.

It’s what we might call community!

We often mourn over the fact and there seems to be no community. But there won’t be in a world where everyone is simply paying others to do everything for them. Community is about cooperation – oftentimes no money changes hands at all. You might cut your neighbor’s lawn one day when they are out of town and unable to do so, but a couple of weeks later they might baby sit your kids.

That’s community – it’s the kind of arrangement that you try to build when you become more frugal. Being frugal not only means greater self-reliance, it also means increasingly relying on the people around you. And as they also rely you, you forge reliable grassroots relationships that are based on cooperation and trust.

Do you agree that being frugal can have significant benefits beyond money and that it can even make you happier?

( Photo by Denna Jones )

8 Responses to The Connection Between Happiness and Being Frugal

  1. Great article. You connected two of the three themes of my blog, so I just have to love it!

  2. Thanks David! I just added the section on standard of living, so maybe we’re covering all threee now!

  3. Yep, as much as our consumerist society tries to drill the opposite into our minds, I think the evidence is pretty clearly on your side of the debate. That’s what drew me into freelance writing: the ability to set my own hours, be content with less, and enjoy my limited time on earth to the greatest extent possible.

  4. Hi Jacob–As a fellow freelancer, you can understand better than most how it’s important to set your own living standard and not follow the herd for guidance. Being frugal can open up career options, like freelancing, because it enables you to live on less.

    Your comment “enjoy my limited time on earth” strikes a chord in me as well. We often forget that we’re not building empires here, and that most of us will be completely forgotten just a few short decades after we’re gone. It hardly seems worth the struggle to accumulate our little empires. Better to live a rich and fulfilling life doing what we like to do.

  5. I am much happier with less, it has allowed me to travel the world, settle where I felt like, eat healthier, have more time to pursue interests, etc. I love the few things I own, they are quality, expensive items that are enjoyable to use, but do not need more. Great point about the sense of self worth when you can do things yourself. From a pizza dough to fixing a water pump, it does make you feel great.

  6. Hi Pauline – You’re living the life that a lot of us frugal types dream of. Without a doubt though, being frugal expands your options where ever you’re at in life.

  7. Back in 2011, I decided that I was going to leave my corporate executive job and travel the world. After 3 years of living in Silicon Valley I didn’t realize I amassed so much “stuff.” I started selling off my belongings and realized the more I got rid of things the lighter I felt.

    Come two years later and I still do not own a car and use alternatives to get to and fro the places I need. Most assume since I don’t have the BMW or the larger home that times are rough but instead times are even better since I’m tied to family and experiences and not to stuff.

  8. In my opinion you’re living the life Jason! You’re traveling light in life and living for people and experiences. My guess is that your frugality is enabling you to have even greater enjoyment of those people and experiences. And I’d guess that you have a greater sense of financial security as well. Even if it isn’t providing a bigger bankroll, the lower expenses mean less uncertainty and a greater sense of control. You’ve found the better way!

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