How to Live Frugally Without Being an Extremist

by Joe Plemon on November 3, 2010

One can be frugal without living in a 100 SF house

Even though you live well within your means, do you sometimes feel extravagant because you don’t embrace the minimalist movement? While I admire those who only own 100 items, have ditched their automobiles for bicycles and live in 100 square foot dwellings, that life style is just not me. Today’s guest post is written to affirm the majority of us who are able to enjoy a frugal lifestyle without letting frugality identify that lifestyle.
Cheap is a four-letter word in my circle of friends (my circle of friends also doesn’t know how to spell). With the limping economy and increasing awareness of the ills of consumerism and clutter, though, it’s hard to simply go on about our business. Still, I take one look at people like Tammy Strobel, who doesn’t own a car, and say, “Not for me." The good news is that there’s a healthy balance between mindless consumerism and extreme frugalism.


The first step is to get a feel for what you already have and to eliminate excess. Most people are surprised by how much they’ve accumulated over the years that’s still lying around in closets and in the garage. Remember that each item, unless it was a gift, once had a price tag on it. If you ponder on each item long enough to reflect on the price and whether or not it was worth said price for where the item is sitting right now—either in use or covered in dust—you get a better feel for what you should purchase in the future.

Start room by room and go through everything. That includes DVDs, power tools, knick-knacks, toiletries, and all. Keep three questions in mind:

1. Do you remember the last time you used this item? If not, it’s safe to say you can toss it.

2. Have you used this item in the past six months? If not, think of why, and gauge for yourself whether you can go a year, two years, etc. without it.

3. Do you use this item almost daily? If so, keep it.

Sell, Donate, Recycle

Get in the habit of doing all of those. When you’re cleaning out the kids’ room and determining which toys they no longer play with on a daily basis, don’t simply throw them out. Wash the toy and donate it to a local orphanage or school. Have a yard sale or go on eBay or Craigslist to make a little pocket cash out of unused furniture. The same can be done with books, art, clothes, shoes, appliances—the list is endless. Simply putting all your clutter in a landfill is irresponsible and bad for the planet. Out of sight, out of mind won’t work for future generations that have to deal with the clutter you produce today.

Many companies will even pay you to bring in old cell phones, appliances, cardboard boxes, and more so they can be recycled. Take two minutes to do your research online and do your bank account and the planet a favor.

Recycling doesn’t always mean blue bins and recycling centers, either. If you’re the DIY type, you can rework an old shirt to be a washcloth, or sew up a hole in a pair of “ruined" pants. If you’re not the DIY type, try getting into it. There are plenty of tutorials online for making your own greeting cards, fixing household appliances and clothes, and feeling big on a little budget.

Go Green

This includes outrageous energy bills. Join the rest of the planet and use greener habits, like turning your thermostat down in winter and up in summer. My dad would walk around in shorts and a t-shirt in mid-January while the heater went full-blast and wondered why my mom gave him dirty looks at the end of the month. Put on a sweater.

Get in the habit of unplugging unused appliances. You’ve heard of “phantom" or “ghost" energy by now—energy drained from appliances even when they’re turned off because they’re still plugged into the wall. Vampire devices (those that eat up the most energy) include DVD players, computers, TVs, and printers, and taking these out of the wall can save you several dollars a month.

Stop Paying for Stupid Things

Remember: you’re all grown up now. You don’t need cell phone ring tones or wallpapers that cost $3 a pop. Here’s a list of other things you can go without and should never spend money on again:

  • Paper towels (use old rags or convert extra towels into rags by cutting them up into convenient sizes)
  • Bottled water (Buy a Britta filter. Plastic bottles create a mind-blowing amount of waste.)
  • Gym membership (You don’t go anyway- don’t lie. Take the dog for a walk or run in the great outdoors instead.)
  • Precut produce (These usually cost an entire dollar or more than the actual fruit. All you have to do is wash the fruit with diluted soap water and cut it. It literally takes one minute or less. Don’t let your own laziness cut into your paycheck.)
  • You also don’t need to buy drinks every weekend night at the most expensive bar in town to feel like you’re living large—try going classy and sharing a bottle of wine with close friends at home, instead.
  • While you’re at it, cook in with friends and family instead of going to restaurants where food is hugely overpriced and where you have no control over ingredients. Join the local food co-op to get the lowest prices on organic in-season produce to save money while supporting the local economy.

What You Buy Won’t Make You Happy

It’s a trite saying, but money won’t buy you happiness after a certain point. Reconnect with the family by going for an outdoor stroll or a picnic in the park. Take the kids to a local music festival. Have a quiet evening with friends over a home-cooked meal and a bottle of wine. Spend an afternoon on the patio with a good book.

Peace doesn’t have a price tag.

Readers: How do you keep a balance between frugality and extreme frugality in your life? What additional tips do you have for being frugal without being extreme?

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