Our Thoughts » On Frugality

Since our son was born, we’ve spent more time thinking about what kinds of values, character traits, and virtues are most important. We know that our influence on James is only partial. He is his own person and will forge his own path. That is as it should and must be. But a practical question remains: What virtues do we want to model consistently while he is in our care?

This is a useful question for any person to consider, even if they don’t have children. We agreed that “perennial virtues” are the most important; character traits that withstand the ups and downs of history and are fruitful regardless of life circumstances. The list will look different from person to person (and there is evidence that those differences correlate with political leanings), but our initial list included:

Honesty, Curiosity, Humility, Compassion, Generosity

Honesty inspires trust and the relationships built upon it. Curiosity and humility encourage personal growth and protect against close-mindedness. Compassion is the melding of kindness and empathy. Generosity encompasses both unselfishness and the ability to forgive.

Surely many people share our moral intuitions, and few would move to strike one these five, though they may choose to prioritize others. We can’t say the same about our sixth and final virtue:

Frugality

We doubt it is near the top of most lists, if it makes it at all. Why is that? And why do we consider it so important?

Maybe it is a matter of definition. For us, frugality means something like: “The intentional, thoughtful, and efficient use of resources, especially time and money, to improve one’s life or that of others.” The opposite of frugality can be defined more succinctly: “Unthinking wastefulness.” Frugality is not about “penny pinching”, “saving money”, or, worse, self-denying miserliness. It is about being conscious of how and why we consume – requiring an awareness of both means and ends — including our use of the most scarce resource of all: time.

To some, frugality’s emphasis on consumption may seem “low” compared to the lofty aspirations of the other virtues. The devout surely expect God’s moral ledger to include a column for honesty. But frugality? It does seem a bit below the Almighty to concern himself with, say, your choice of automobile.

And yet, why not? Frugality is the other virtues’ practical, level-headed cousin. Yes, compassion and generosity are necessary motivators – and, boy, can they talk a good game. But frugality is where the rubber meets the road, how shit gets done, when you use your time or money to take action – or not. Frugality is an ethical “force multiplier”, because it increases our ability to do things. We should want people to have “good morals” and the ability to tangibly act on them. How good, just, or helpful is a “moral person” who wastes the resources at their disposal? How many generous impulses are stillborn due to credit card debt? Frugality enables a kind of practical freedom and power that enhances and gives life to the other virtues.

In our case, the practice of frugality has led to the realization that we can live really well without spending a lot, which has, in turn, spurred us to be more generous with our money. We have pledged to give away at least 10% of our gross income each year for the rest of our lives. In all honesty, this isn’t terribly generous. But we consider it a step in the right direction, and it is a direct result of frugality.

For parents, there is an additional, purely prudential reason to model frugality: It is a hedge against the whims of fortune. You may have skills and interests that society rewards monetarily, but your child may not – perhaps through no fault of their own. Every parent wants “the best” for their child, but at what point do outsized material preferences actually harm a child’s chances of living their best life? No parent sets out to “spoil” their child, but I wonder how often a similar effect is achieved through the best of intentions but a lack of frugality.

Like any parent, the virtues we wish to model for our child remain a work in progress. None of us are as compassionate or generous as we could (or hope) to be. But we are convinced that the practice of frugality continues to help us to not only live better but be better. That is a worthy pursuit and one we hope our son will also choose to embrace.