A Frugal Diet, Or A Frugal Lifestyle

Photo courtesy of Thinking Tree

Last week I mentioned our project to cut the cost of watching television for one year.  That project recently came to an end, and after some internal discussion as a family we decided to sign back up for the expanded cable service (not digital, not high-definition, no movies – just the regular cable lineup).  The decision was an easy one for our family, but a controversial one amongst readers.

Long-time reader, Robert, called me out:

Jason, I have been following your posts for a few months now and as an outsider looking in, it kind of seems like you may be on a financial diet vice a financial lifestyle change.”

My gut reaction was to be a little defensive, but then I realized in a way, Robert was right.

A Diet or A Lifestyle Change

When people start and fail a new “diet” plan they are often told to make a lifestyle change, rather than embark on a fad diet.  It’s good advice, because diets come and go, but lifestyle changes stick.  In some ways I have been on a spending diet, because early on in our financial turnaround it was required to free up some cash to use towards debt reduction, and to build our savings.

Now that we have a little breathing room, we are relaxing that spending “diet” some to allow back in a few “quality of life” expenses that we missed. For instance, cable was something we missed for the entertainment value it brought.  The monthly cable bill is cheaper than a night out at the movies for a family four.

This phase is commonly referred to as “maintenance” in the dieting world.  It’s the phase where you reintroduce carbs or fats or whatever it is that you restricted during your weight-loss phase, and it is by far the most dangerous time.  If you let too much back in you start putting weight back on, and if you allow too many new expenses to rack up you’ll suddenly find yourself right back in debt and living paycheck to paycheck.

A Frugal Lifestyle Not Without Luxuries

One of the things I’ve tried to stress here at Frugal Dad is the idea that you can live frugal and still enjoy life.  You don’t have to live a spartan existence, or be completely miserable, to lead a frugal lifestyle.  In fact, most frugal people I know are quite happy.  Having nice things and being frugal don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  In fact, I have a few nice things I am proud of, but I make sacrifices in other areas to balance things out. I try to avoid waste, but I don’t mind spending money to get a good value.

What Robert was right about was that my dedication to minding expenses was beginning to weaken.  It was a wakeup call I needed, and I appreciate his willingness to tell me.  Oddly enough, when things are going well, financially, we tend to let down our guard.  When things are going bad we make penching pennies our top priority.  I like to think I’m usually somewhere in the middle, but I occasionally need reminders like this to make me lean more towards the side of penny-penching.


  1. The issue being raised here is very important. I find this a highly thought-provoking blog entry.

    My thought is that the resolution comes from getting out of the habit of viewing spending as “bad” and saving as “good.” It’s true that most of us engage in more bad spending than bad saving. Theoretically, though, both choices contain equal measures of good and bad. The aim is to obtain the greatest possible value from your money; sometimes, that means spending it, sometimes that means saving it.

    The question you should be asking is — Where is the money that you would otherwise spend on cable going to go if you cancel cable? Having cable is a plus. There’s not a thing wrong with having cable. The question is — does it do more to help you achieve your Life Goals than the alternative use of the money?

    When I was trying to make the shift to being a freelance writer rather than a corporate writer, I made all sorts of choices that some viewed as “extreme” because the payoff for making spending cuts was so great. As the money coming in increases, my inclination is to restore some of the things cut because they really do provide value.

    So there is not necessarily one choice on any spending call that you want to stick with for life. Cable might be a poor choice at one stage of life and a good choice at another stage of life. It turns out when you think about it that that’s true with eating too. Choices that leave you fit at age 25 do not do the same at age 50 because our metabolism changes when we get older.


  2. Every so often someone dies who was thought by their community to be very poor and is discovered to have been worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

    It makes no sense to throw money away, however reasonable ones income and savings, but it is a natural move to improve ones standard of living when the income/savings are good and there is no/low debt, to cut back to the bone, to become a miser, is not healthy.

    As soon as things are not so good or there is something that needs saving for one pulls back to increase saving.

    I consider myself a frugal person, but if I want to have a nice meal on a Saturday evening I am not prepared to beat myself up over it. We are going to give living without cable a try – if I find I miss my favourite cable channels I shall be signing up again. I’m sure there are people who would look at my life and think I spend too much on something they think a waste of money – and I’m sure I could do the same to them.

    It’s all about personal choice.

  3. Similar to dieting for weight-loss, dieting for finances sometimes requires a super-strict beginning to get the ball rolling and then progresses with a more normalized level of maintenance. I agree with you that it’s easy to get too lax when money isn’t as tight, but there is a level of normalcy that you’re looking to achieve as a result of the initial penny-pinching. Congrats on getting the cable back 🙂

  4. A truly fantastic analogy!
    I like Nicki’s comment about the “level of normalcy” we must all reach with our frugality. And Robert makes a great point about how sometimes (as in my case) we’re raised to think that spending is “BAD” behavior. This upbringing has left me unable to enjoy much of what life has to offer. But it also taught me to live very far below my means. It’s kind of an internal struggle to undo the SPENDING IS BAD mindset.
    Another enlightening post FD!

  5. This is indeed a good analogy.

    Like losing weight, it may seem difficult at the start but after a while, we find a way to incorporate and enjoy our new lifestyle.

    Which “feels” better? Wearing the $200 pair of jeans or knowing you banked the money? In my book, the feeling of being smart and frugal lasts longer.

  6. I think you can further this analogy as well and point out that frugality, like weight loss, is ultimately between you and yourself. There will always be people who are skinner or fatter – or more or less frugal – and ultimately all we can do is come to the right balance for *us*. You can’t compare yourself to someone else who is a different person. Even if you could, it’s not like there are prizes for most frugal (or skinniest). Ultimately we have to answer to ourselves and live with ourselves and our choices.

    Cable is an interesting topic. It’s like the moral high ground in frugality circles, isn’t it? We have the largest (non-HD, but including all the movie channels) DISH package there is. Personally I’d cut it back, but this is my husband’s decision. The way he looks at it is that we are very frugal in the other aspects of our life and he went to law school and therefore we can afford this luxury. If we needed the money he’d absolutely cut the cable, but he doesn’t want to cut just to cut. He wants to be able to feel like his hard work pays off in having a few small luxuries that he likes.

    I worried that cable would be like a gateway drug – you slip on one thing and it makes it easier to slip on others. We have our moments, but overall it’s just stayed *cable* – no new TVs or fancy cars have been justified because we splurge on cable 😉 I don’t think you have to be *the most frugal person ever* in order to be frugal.

  7. I appreciate the level of thoughtfulness going into this discussion! Just as there’s no diet that fits one for all, frugality has to be an arena in which one’s personal decisions are made with values that fit one’s own life situation. For me, frugalness is not a matter of deprivation, like a diet, which I’ve never done to myself, but a matter of choosing wisely for my health – and financial “health,” to me, is more about lack of wastefulness, such as not buying a new flat-screen TV even though they’re good deals right now and just because they’re “in” and all my friends have them, when my brown box TV is perfectly fine, especially with the cable wire running the picture. Personally I keep cable because I work at home and need to relax in the evenings – I read, I knit, and I watch travel shows on TV (and no longer yearn to spend my savings on traveling either because of them), and I don’t like the way the mainstream TV shows make me feel; I’ll I really don’t think anyone can make a blanket statement that cable is wasteful for all sorts of individual reasons, including if you have a family of four – not only is it less expensive to go out, but you also don’t have all the temptations of the mall stores where your theater is located (e.g., “ooh, I did want to get myself a new blouse and there’s one in that window), and just as importantly, there is also much better selection on cable for both you and your kids – today’s sitcoms are frightening role models for today’s kids and depressing for the adults who watch them. So think “mottainai” – everything is precious, so choose what YOU decide you need wisely (allowing for some mistakes and re-decisions), do your best not to be wasteful or greedy or “lustful” (in the sense of material goods), and be grateful for every material thing you are allowed to have. These are true underpinning attitudes of “financial health.”

  8. I think Rob Bennet nailed it. It is about figuring out what you are passionate about in life. The real things that give you life meaning and fulfillment. Once you start figuring that out, then it becomes a lot easier to figure out if your other decisions are ‘right’. Right in this case means getting you closer to your most important dreams.

    Cable may very well do it to some degree, but is there other uses that might provide more return for your money? Only you can answer that.

    We, humans, often have short term views on our money and spending and have a tough time connecting with deeper more fulfilling currents in our lives. Depraving yourself of something starts not to look like deprivation but rather gaining of deeper more important things when you frame it differently. It also becomes a lot easier.

  9. I agree with comment #1 by Rob – There is no one decision on spending that you must stick with for life.

    If you view everything that you try as something you MUST continue forever, it would hamper your interest in trying a new approach to saving. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind!

    You lived without cable for a year, saved some money, and decided cable was worth spending on. That’s a valid experiment, had a good outcome of saving for a year, and made a reasonable decision to go back to cable.

    We’ve tried some things that work, some that don’t and some that we use partially (buying store brands, for example). Some items are fine in the store brand and save money – some we just don’t like and won’t buy again.

    We could certainly live without cable if it became necessary, but we work at home, cook at home & relax in the evenings and sometimes work in the evenings while watching TV. Cable adds some value to our lives and we have cut back in other areas, so we keep what we enjoy.

    As for letting down our guard when things are going well financially, I suppose that is true in some respects. For me, the more I have in savings the more I feel inclined to save to keep the accounts building!

  10. Years ago the Frugal Gourmet (I know, I know) said something to the effect that being frugal is not cheap it is being a good steward of your money and being careful in you spending choices. For example, he would advocate buying one very good knife that you could take care of, that would make your cooking easier and safer, and that knife would last for years and years or if you were going to be buying an ingredient, getting the most out of it for your meal.

    Same thing with cable. You found, after a year, that your cable is a good use of your money for your family. If you are using it, enjoying it and feel it is a worthwhile, well considered, way to spend part of your paycheck, then have at it and enjoy it without guilt.

    Watch some Bravo and HGTV for me…:-)

  11. Excellent article. We need to remember that being frugal is not the same as being miserly. Frugality will include luxuries…just more sensible ones, and cable qualifies.

  12. You nailed it right here:

    “I make sacrifices in other areas to balance things out. I try to avoid waste, but I don’t mind spending money to get a good value.”

    That is the point of my frugality as well. Not necessarily to accumulate wealth or to be a miser, but rather to provide a cushion of security while still being able to enjoy life.

    Great post!

  13. There are over 852 million starving people in the world. They will never have the dilemma that you and I have regarding cable. I was found myself thinking about this cable problem and then the thought of the starving people came into my mind…I have to end here because I am in shock that again I find my thinking is me me me..

  14. I agree when you said “I make sacrifices in other areas to balance things out. I try to avoid waste, but I don’t mind spending money to get a good value.”

    well put

  15. Okay, well, here’s the thing. To make a lifestyle change, you do sometimes have to create a “diet” to see how it goes. Then you can evaluate and decide how long you can/want to keep up the habits that got you to the desired point.

    I think, in this case, you decided that TV was an allowable luxury. So you added it back into an otherwise frugal lifestyle.

    I think any change is, essentially, a frugal diet until you get to your goal. Then it’s a matter of deciding whether it’s a change you want to make permanent.

    For example, most of us cut back on how much we eat out, while we pay down debt. But once our debt is paid down, we will probably allow slightly more luxury in and dine out from time to time.

    Sometimes, frugal changes are a means to an end. Other times, they’re a lifestyle change. It’s a completely individual choice.

  16. I LOVE this analogy–being on the maintenance phase of a diet. Sometimes you don’t know until you give up a bunch of stuff which of them are simply worth the calories and which you find you can live with out. If you try and deny yourself even the ones you love, you wind up bingeing after awhile, so it sounds like adding back the cable will help you not to binge on, say, a satellite dish in the future!

  17. I love discussions like this as we are the type of family who had “poor” childhoods, now have “earned” the right to spend our money and realize we are wasteful even though we balance it with plenty of giving. I do believe in the being good stewards with our money and possessions and not being wasteful. But for us, we need a diet frequently to get us back on track. A lifestyle change hasn’t worked for us as we are not disciplined. We KNOW what we should do, but need the “go on a diet” mentality to get us started. Each family has to find what fits them. We are the type that needs something to hold us accountable (we teach/facilitate the Crown.org Life group classes). We need a life changing event to get us motivated. I applaud all of you who are dedicated to doing the right thing with your money. I also know, that being generous with giving is a balance to include in your frugal plans.

    Alyzabeth’s Mommy for Six Months!

  18. Wow, this was a great post. I think it is so easy to get frugality mixed up with simplicity! In my case, I am very frugal and drive a piece of crap car, but I was just able to build a beautiful home for me family that most my age cannot afford. Why? I have no debt and we curb our expenses!
    As a side note, Dave Ramsey will be speaking at my church for the next for weeks. If you live in Florida, Oklahoma, New York, Arizona, Texas, or Tennessee, consider looking up a campus and visiting. If not, you can attend church online! In either case, visit lifechurch.tv for details.

    Thanks for the post!

  19. I agree, it’s too easy to get lax when times are good. We tried to make it a habit to spend less regardless, but sometimes; we fall into the trap of mindless spending.

    With my fiancé, his father grew up during The Great Depression and made it his life goal to never live that way again. Over the past six or seven decades, he has accumulated enough wealth for himself and his wife that we are out of the clear in terms of taking care of them financially now that they are in their ’80. On the other hand, my S/O never had to be frugal growing up and its been a hard lesson as an adult (since he doesn’t live off of his parents).

    We are always constantly going over out “diet” and finding ways to cut things out without suffering too much!

  20. Love the post! Our family is going through a similar phase right now. We decided to scale back a couple of years ago to really start making some serious progress with your debt repayment. Now that we are one track, as long as nothing interferes with our plan to be debt free, we are starting to reintroduce a few things, and have learned that by planning ahead and saving up for big purchases ahead of time, and changing the ways that we shop, that we can do this! I think the key for us is to just keep being mindful and tracking those expenses so we don’t lose sight of the big financial picture.

  21. Excellent, thoughtful post. I live overseas where prices on consumer items are high, such as clothing, shoes, electronics, DVDs, and name brand toilitries. Every time I go to visit my parents in the States I have extra spending money and basically end up in the binge mode, at least in comparison to my every day life. It feels very weird to binge and purge with spending. Although it makes sense financially, since I get all the good deals, it stresses me out a good deal. I feel incredibly spoiled while in the States and after the first couple of months of enjoying my new items rather deprived abroad. To be honest neither emotional state feels so great! It is all about moderation.