Simple Living or Frugal Living?

(photo credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

A couple of days ago I was remembering an old friend in Portland, someone I considered to be quite frugal. One of her many skills was finding and buying bulk food deals for her family (four children) and I recalled her telling someone that she kept three freezers full of all her frugal finds.

Three freezers? I remember thinking at the time that there was no way I would want to manage or keep track of three freezers full of food, which was w-a-y more complication than I needed or wanted to take on in our similarly-sized family’s quest to live more frugally.

That got me thinking again about frugal living versus simple living. What am I trying to accomplish now? Which is more important to me these days?

Although frugality and simplicity make a good match, living frugally does not always equal living simply. For example, even if I only shopped at Goodwill, other thrift stores, or yard sales, if I bought a lot of stuff and brought it home, that wouldn’t be living simply although it saved me some money over buying new. I’d still end up with more stuff that I have to track and maintain. If I drove all over town to get the best deal with coupons, that would use both time and gasoline in the pursuit of saving a few dollars. In my life, maintaining a closet full of clothes, keeping track of a lot of food, or taking the time to drive all over town are complicated undertakings, and there are plenty of other things I’d rather be doing.

My definition of simple living is doing more with less. This does not mean not looking for the best prices, having reserves or buying extra when something is on sale, or enjoying the hunt at a thrift store or yard sale. It means setting limits that work for us. Being frugal for frugality’s sake isn’t an end in itself. Frugality means that Brett and I continue to learn how to do things better with less.

We remain a work in progress. One freezer full of food along with a well-stocked pantry would be more than enough for us, too much actually, these days. I like knowing what we have without having to resort to spreadsheets or calendars in order to use what’s on hand in a timely manner. We have enough clothes. We have much less furniture than we did three years ago, and it’s more than plenty for the two of us. Less means it’s simpler these day to keep our house clean, open, and light.

More than anything else we’ve done, being able to cut back on not just possessions but on the time we spend acquiring possessions (including food) has allowed us to focus more on saving and as well as doing a better job of saving. It’s frankly been liberating, and helped both Brett and I get to the core of what we need to feel secure, content and even happy.

Just becoming more frugal wasn’t the answer for us because frugal living didn’t necessarily equal simple living, and that has turned out to be our ultimate goal: A simple life.

What simple living means to me or our family might either be too complicated or too bare-bones for someone else. Everyone has their own “sweet spot.” For my friend, that meant having three freezers full of food. For me, it has meant not only spending within our means, but having more time to do the things we enjoy, and not feel burdened by the need to always be in search of the best deal or “have it all.”

18 thoughts on “Simple Living or Frugal Living?

  1. I almost always enjoy your posts—I found your post today very inisghtful. It’s not that profound but it hit home for some reason. Thanks for all the effort you put into these posts.

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    1. Thank you!

      LOL – I don’t think anything I write is profound, but I do enjoy writing and sharing, and love the feedback and comments I receive from readers. I learn so much from everyone.

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  2. To be honest, I am incredibly jealous of your lifestyle now – and when you were traveling the world as well! I’d love to be able to downsize to a smaller apartment or condo, but right now, I couldn’t find something for less than what I pay for my house! It is my goal though. I’ve cleaned out so much and I love living more simply. I’d like my daughter to be able to take over the mortgage here, as I’m leaving her the house. Then after I fully retire in a few years, I’d like to travel by AirBnB as well. And then possibly live in a couple of different places for a while depending on what I find. I also have to wait until my cat and two dogs pass away so I don’t worry about leaving them (and not adopting any more in the meantime lol!).

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    1. Denise, we were right where you are several years ago, and “aged into” where we are now over several years. What you want will come.

      We’re growing closer to the point where rent anywhere equals what we were paying for a mortgage back in the day, but going smaller helps with that too.

      I cannot imagine you not having cute doggies (or a cat!). If we could have another dog where we are, we would, and then figure the traveling out.

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    1. Thank you! Defining simple living is something everyone has to figure out for themselves. In my opinion, there are ideas to be found in books, but the solution that works for you has to be yours entirely.

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  3. This is so true! Minimalism, frugality, and sustainability seem to go hand-in-hand, but in practice I often find them all at odds with each other. It is hard to reconcile giving away perfectly good objects (even if you don’t use them regularly) with a frugal and sustainable mindset. But I think we should just do the best we can while trying not to drown under our things. Thank you for the insight!

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    1. It took us a while to figure this out, that often frugality did not mean simplicity nor did it mean sustainability. I like to think (and hope) that when I let go of perfectly good objects that they are going to someone who will find them useful, or equally take the joy from them as we did.

      I’m finding as I get older that I need fewer and fewer things to bring me joy. Experiences and relationships now are what bring the joy.

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  4. Even with one smallish freezer, I find there are things that get lost, so having a large full freezer would be wasteful for us. I think part of it is stage of life. Like you, I find myself simplifying as I age. When I see a beautiful large home, I no longer think it would be great to live there. I think – wow, that would take a lot of upkeep and time to keep clean. 😂 We haven’t pared down as much as we could (and we keep ending up as the US storage space for our kids in other countries…ha!) but we have a LOT less than we used to and we’re getting rid of things on a regular basis.

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    1. We had a small freezer during our first time on the island and even if we had room for it now it would be too much. I do wish we had a larger (full-size) refrigerator/freezer, but there’s no room for that either and we are making do. Less is more, I keep telling myself.

      I can’t imagine living in a big home either. Brett and I figured out pretty quickly when we traveled that we were happier in smaller spaces.

      I have already informed our daughters that they will be taking things back with them when they’re come for the holidays. I am sort of shocked with how much we are currently storing for them, and we don’t want to pay to ship it for storage again. Our big purge otherwise will begin next year – I’m looking forward to it!

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  5. Nice post regarding simple living vs. being frugal. I would say my wife and I are on the simple living side. We don’t have to be frugal to get by, but we don’t like over spending on anything either. We love a bargain at a thrift store!

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    1. Sorry for the late reply – your comment ended up in the spam folder for some reason.

      We don’t have to be as frugal as we are either, but it’s habit now, and there are things we’d rather do with our money.

      I love a bargain too! We stopped in the nearby ReStore to day and bought a silk palm tree for $38 – new ones sell here on the island for over $500! We had to think about it for a while before going back to buy (and hoping it was still there), but we love the way it looks in our living room now. We’ll sell it when we get ready to travel again.

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  6. This is an interesting topic which only highlights how different people make their decisions about how to spend their time/energy/resources in order to achieve a sense of contentment and control over their lives. Finding their own “soft spot” as you very well described it.
    As much as I admire the people who clip coupons and chase sales, I know that I just don’t want to put that much time and energy into that type of pursuit. I’d rather use less or do without. I suppose I don’t qualify for a frugal person. And that’s okay, there is enough room under the Sun for everyone and as they say to each their own.
    It is obvious that you love your current lifestyle, that you both are content with what you have, and that you are in your own sweet spot. Isn’t that the most wonderful feeling?

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    1. Everyone has the place where they feel comfortable, and when it comes to simplicity what works for one definitely doesn’t work for another. That’s why books about simplicity are great, in my opinion, for ideas, or thinking about the topic, but shouldn’t be used as a roadmap for simplifying your life.

      I tried couponing for one brief period but hated chasing the deals and sales, and came to realize that I spent less by shopping less frequently and buying what I needed versus buying something because I had a coupon. I’m glad it works for others, and I love that many donate the deals they find to food banks and such, but it’s just. not my thing.

      We have found our sweet spot, but think we can downsize a bit more. A big change for when we were in our 30s, when we wanted to own EVERYTHING. We bought a lot, but discovered it didn’t make us happy or provide much joy in life.

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  7. The puhs/pull of money vs. time is always interesting to me. When we were younger and had more debts and less money, every $5 saved was important. Now, we have no debt but busy top of our career lives, and the time is more valuable to me than the $5 saved. BUt my husband will soon retire and then the focus may swing back! It’s always interesting to read how frugality/simplicity/intentionality intersect for others.
    One thing I learned from COVID is that I will never go back to shopping weekly for everything. One big shop a month and an every 10 days quick stop for produce and non-dairy refrigerated milk products. I find i waste less this way and enjoy getting creative at the end of the month to use up stuff. We have a pantry and a freezer so i easily have the space, and this keeps me from being so often tempted into expensive and sometimes unhealthy treats.

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    1. I have never been a weekly shopper – when Brett was in the navy he got paid every other week and that is when I/we shopped. I got used to preparing two-week menus and making my list from that. Also, when we were first married, military pay was so low that after we paid our rent and utilities and a $25/month payment for a washer and dryer (we rented our furniture, another $25 payment), we had exactly $36 left for food for two week, and we had to buy baby formula out of that. Talk about paying attention to every penny! I still don’t know how we did it, but we ate pretty well, and a year later, after moving into base housing, tried to duplicate our shopping on the same budget and couldn’t – prices had gone up that much. Simple living, frugality, and intentionality then was a necessity, but I learned a LOT and it has stuck with me. I still can feel very guilty about putting some items into my shopping cart even though we can afford them now.

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  8. Giving yourself permission not to acquire things is really important. I try to ponder each purchase instead of “just need it” mind set.
    My mom just moved. She lived most of her life in 5,000 ft house- went to 3,000 then to 1000 and now one 12×12 room within a senior house. Getting rid of stuff has been our task. LOADS of work. What is left? Wall to wall art. Now I know where I get it. LOL Yes, I am moving ALL of the art—again.
    It is tempting to acquire things for the grandchildren, but have now put that to the side as well. Now it is time to concentrate on adventures for them. Lessons, school trips, (braces), visits west. All good things.

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    1. I can’t remember the last time we made an impulse purchase – the closest I think it when we arrived here and had to buy furniture. We didn’t buy much, but choices were slim and there was no way to comparison shop, etc. We’re happy with what we got though. Usually though any purchase we make these days is discussed, and set aside for a while to make sure it’s something we really want/need.

      I’m with you on grandchild purchases – more experiences, less things. I admit to having a whole lot of fun though taking them shopping when we’re over in Japan.

      I am so glad we have downsized as much as we have already. We let go of a LOT of art before we left Portland (sold through an auction house). We thought carefully about what to let go of, and honestly haven’t missed any of it. I’m happy someone else is getting enjoyment from it now, and I love the pieces we kept – I would miss them.

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