Are You Spending Intentionally?

Every now and then I read something that aligns so closely with my own philosophy that I literally scream out an approving “YES – that’s it!” upon reading it. That’s exactly what happened a couple weekends ago when I was catching up on a few of my favorite blogs.

Donna Freedman (MSN Smart Spending fans will recognize that name) submitted a fantastic guest post to Get Rich Slowly, Reader Story: Surviving and Thriving (the title also happens to be the name of Donna’s new blog).

Donna’s story was inspiring enough, but within the post  I found a brilliant line that perfectly sums up my feelings on living frugally – something I’ve struggled to put into words in the past, but Donna did so eloquently.

“And it’s not that I don’t ever indulge myself. Frugality means saving where I can so I can spend where I want — on frugal travel, say, or the occasional therapeutic massage. But it’s not about who cuts the most corners. It’s about using money intentionally.”

Yes, that’s it! Living a frugal lifestyle is about using money intentionally. It is not about using the least amount of money to fund your lifestyle, rather it is about maximizing the money we do have by making its spending a reflection of our values.

This goes much deeper than my previous attempts to separate the difference between being frugal and being cheap. This goes to the very heart of the frugal spirit. People often ask me how I could be frugal and drive a late-model truck. How could I be frugal and dine out occasionally, or buy organic foods? How could I be frugal and spend money on books when I can get them free at the library?

While each of these representative items from my budget could be obtained cheaper (cars, food, and books), by increasing my spending in these categories, and lessening it in others, I am intentionally spending money on those things that matter most to me.

I don’t mean to say cars themselves mean much to me – after all, I’ve driven beaters most of my life. But now that I have a family, I value reliability and safety when it comes to a vehicle predominantly used by my wife and kids.

I enjoy the occasional splurge of eating out. The kids get a chance to practice their manners away from the usual dinner table at home. My wife and I get a night off from cooking and cleaning. It gives us all a night to look forward to every couple weeks.

I like books. There are a number of books that I like to keep on my bookshelf for future reference, rather than return to the library, so I buy them (I still like to use for the best prices, so the frugal side of me never totally disappears). I could borrow them from the library for free, or search yard sales looking for a copy, but I don’t.

Some people like to travel. Others see every new movie that comes to the theater. Some invest heavily on making upgrades inside their home, or to their outside landscaping, or on jewelry for themselves or their significant other.

The point is that everyone has a different value system, and their spending is a reflection of their personal values. This leaves little room for others to criticize others perceived lack of frugality. Your coworker who espouses frugality in the office, but may be found at the golf course every Saturday morning may brown bag lunch throughout the week to offset his cart fees.

A friendly contest of “out-frugaling” your neighbor may appear won after you discover she receives a manicure once a week. However, you later find out she dropped her gym membership to keep her monthly budget balanced.

It’s not fair to judge others value system. The only thing we can control is how intentionally we spend our money. Are you currently spending your hard-earned money on the things that matter to you, or is your paycheck funding credit card interest and bad habits?

It’s up to you to decide where to spend your money, and the more intentional you are about spending and investing your money, the better.


  1. Great post! I’ve been thinking just how to put this into words and you’ve done just that for me. Thanks.

  2. I agree with Donna, you said it much better than I have been saying it. “Everyone spends money on what matters most to them.”

  3. This leaves little room for others to criticize others perceived lack of frugality

    I agree completely. The question of what is worth spending money on depends too much on the spender’s personality and Life Goals for outsiders to be able to say that the call made is a good one or a bad one.

    There is a need for some criticism of non-intentional approaches to money management, however. I have long criticized the “Pay Yourself First” concept on grounds that it argues for automatic saving. “Pay Yourself First” is a non-intentional money management approach.

    There are millions of people who were never saved anything until they began following a “Pay Yourself First” strategy. it works in the sense that it gets people started. I think that’s undeniable.

    But I see it as a training wheels approach. It gets you started when you are not able to save at all but it limits you greatly if you stick with it for too long. Over time, we should aim to graduate to intentional money management strategies, which do not favor saving over spending but encourage an assessment of the long-term value propositions offered by the two competing money allocation choices.

    Another good one, Jason.


  4. Nice post! I agree that a frugal lifestyle doesnot mean a poor lifestyle! It is you who has to decide where to spend and how much to spend. If you can control the manner in which you spend your money, then you will never end up in a tight financial situation.

  5. yes – exactly…
    being frugal allows me to spend on those things that matter to me 🙂

  6. I so like this approach. I read a lot of blogs on saving and frugal living and it bothers me that so many people are critical. I think that the more we can learn to live the way we wnat to live, the better. For me it is a learning experience, and I toss out the things that don’t work for me.

  7. This is so very true. I am sure that since we spend money on vacation, it would appear we are spenders. However, I shop early and shop for deals, always. I also don’t want to stay in a Motel 6. I stay in 2 bedroom places so my family can be comfortable on vacation. Yep, I may spend 200 a night on a room, which seems crazy to others, but it is the one splurge in our life. I save to share experiences with our family. I clip coupons, buy everything on sale, try to invest wisely, you name it. But a lot of that is so we can travel some.

    You gotta balance saving with living!

  8. I agree with Everyday Tips.
    I place more value on experiences rather than stuff. Therefore, our vehicles are older (but reliable) Hondas and we spend frugally on clothing and quality used furniture. However, we like to eat out once in a while and are currently saving for a month-long winter vacation in Florida (Feb. 2011) which promises to be a fantastic experience for my family.
    Everyone has different values. Prioritize and enjoy!

  9. I think part of the fun of being frugal is that you are able to choose where to spend your money, saving money in one area to make so you can spend more in another! It helps you spend your money more wisely and yes, make sure that you know where your money is going.

  10. Love this! Would much rather have a nice vacation once a year than eat out for dinner twice a week. All about priorities in your life.

  11. I completely agree, which you can tell by the name of my website. There are things that you should never spend money on, only because you can get those items for free with coupons and when you do take the time to cut corners you can splurge and spoil yourself in other ways.
    We all have different ideas of that splurge, you are so right. I do like the word “intentionally” it really does sum it all up.

  12. Most definitely one of your greatest posts. Living frugal is not jsut about saving money, but to save money so you can do the stuff you enjoy. Otherwise what would be the point in life.

    Events are definitely worth spending for in my opinion. I’m in New Zealand for a few weeks and I’ve probably spent more in these weeks than I have in a few months back home in New York. But I have to say it is completely worth it. When else am I going to get a chance to see New Zealand.

    I can be very frugal again once I get home. Even while I’m in New Zealand I’m frugal. I try to make my own food at home rather than eating out all the time. That way I can spend more money on exploring the rest of the nation.


  13. Well, of course Donna is awesome (as are you Frugal Dad!) and her philosophy reminds me of a sermon where the pastor equated money with love. Because how and where we spend demonstrates our priorities. Or maybe more accurately, “You are what you spend.”

    So the question is, do I really WANT to be an overflowing closet full of clothes?

  14. My thoughts exactly. I can’t be frugal 100% of the time, I just don’t have it in me — and I don’t want to be (I recently wrote a post about my feelings on the subject). And I am one of those folks who will cut from one portion of my budget to justify spending in another category. For instance, my husband and I are thinking about upgrading our cell phones but that would require an extra $60/month in data usage fees ($30 per). We’ve decided if we go for it, we’ll cut $60 from our dining-out budget and cut our discretionary spending. So we do spend, but we still watch our total outlay each month.

  15. “And it’s not that I don’t ever indulge myself. Frugality means saving where I can so I can spend where I want — on frugal travel, say, or the occasional therapeutic massage. But it’s not about who cuts the most corners. It’s about using money intentionally.”

    This is brillient, if I could live my life to this principle I think I would be a whole lot happier….

  16. I have always been criticized for my traveling. People that travel are not frugal, really? First of all my type of travel is not for a spendthrift. I am not a ‘tourist’. I like to get into the deep thick of things and sleep where the locals are sleeping, eat where they are eating, do what they are doing. This is the cheapest and most exciting way to go (especially in other countries).

    But it all still costs money. And so I cut corners in other areas. While the rest of the world is eating out, seeing movies at the theatre, enjoying the heat in their homes in the winter, and cooling A/C in the summer…I am watching those pennies like a hawk. Nothing slips through my fingers on the day to day that I can help it. So I stockpile, stockpile money that is. Then I enjoy it, on trips. The memories of my trips far outlast the last movie I saw in a theatre (which by the way was Titanic, that tell you anything?) or dinners out.

    People may laugh at me, but I assure you as that plane takes off down the runway, I am the last one laughing….

  17. Excellent post! And I agree, very eloquently said by Ms. Freedman. There’s a huge difference between depriving yourself of the things you want in order to save money and saving money on certain things so that you can spend on the things that are important to you.

  18. I’ve had this window up on my screen for three days now, trying to process through the differences & similarities between frugality and spending intentionally. I think because our income just barely meets our expenses we are forced into intentional spending in such debates as: would I rather spend $10 on a festival or eating out? I’m going to save this post in my “refer to” file so I can keep processing.

  19. I really like the comments on “frugal travelers”. I have also been a determined traveler, since earning my degree. I have always wanted to see the world, or as much of it as possible. Saving money, rather than going out and spending, is difficult for a University student. Luckily, my goals were achieved. It was well worth being frugal as a student (sacrificing some partying) and now living life the way I want to.

    My financial responsibility developed over those years as a student. Now, even with the opportunity to spend heaps of money while I travel; I am mindful of my cash and keep myself in check. I believe there are true instances where spending is acceptable, and you will realize those moments when they come around. If you are ever second guessing whether it’s worth the expense or not… it’s generally not.

  20. It’s important to realize what Benjamin Franklin Said:

    Its far better to spend and have rather than spend and crave.

  21. I am not saying people shouldn’t watch their spending but who feels good cutting back to the bare mininum, nobody. One thing I learnt from Robert Kiyosaki is for you to plan on increasing your means of making more money. Educate yourself on how wealthy people think, find a mentor & learn from them

  22. @MakesRealMoneyOnline: I disagree that nobody “feels good cutting back to the bare minimum.” Even discounting the obvious nuns and monks — and there IS joy in service, no matter what you may perceive about the lacks in such lives — there are people for whom minimal living feels pretty darned good. A few examples:
    Those who practice voluntary simplicity
    People working their way out of debt
    Artists who live on little but who remain true to their visions
    At-home parents who cut costs in order to be full-time moms or dads
    I lived very close to the bone myself, after leaving an awful marriage. Now I make my living writing about frugality and money management, both for MSN Money and on my own site. Believe me when I say that it’s possible to have material goods and still be miserable enough to die, and to find that rice and beans and a library book can make you feel very happy indeed.
    Besides, spending intentionally does not necessarily mean the same as bare minimum. It simply means making sure that your money is going where you want it to go.

  23. Thank you so much for this article! I get so discouraged when I read many of the frugal articles on blogs… it’s all about how to combine 3 coupons and a sale to get something for free, or how you should only spend $50/mo per person on groceries, and it really IS a contest! I end up feeling discouraged and inadequate.

    The idea of making sure my spending is intentional and reflects my values really resonates with me. As a person with strong faith, I do a lot of donating to individuals and organizations, which takes up a good chunk of my budget. But, that reflects my values!! I don’t have to feel bad about the fact that I spend more than another person, if I spend intentionally according to what I believe God is leading.

    Thank you again for your encouragement in this area!!

  24. I think too much of my money is spent unintentionally. Sometimes I get caught up in a moment; Like, spending $300 shopping when I really only needed a pair of shoes. Or, buying a round of drinks for friends when our team scores. Sometimes these moments really get the best of me and after it’s done, it’s done.

    Your post is brilliant and really opened my eyes to the mistakes I have been making with my money. These moments of spending are completely unintentional, I’m quite controlled when it comes to money in most cases. I’m not sure how to “solve” my problem, but your post has inspired me to take more initiative. Thanks!



  25. Wow – this post absolutely hit the nail on the head. I love reading “money” blogs and getting all the great ideas about how to be frugal. One thing I’ve struggled with, though, is that it often seems that people are worshipping at the alter of frugality rather than just simply being good stewards of whatever it is they have. My husband and I very blessed to have well paying jobs and frankly the time and energy many dedicate to squeezing that last red cent out of every single situation just doesn’t make sense for us. There are a lot of things that are worth the money to me (like having our lawn mowed so the kids and I get those 2 – 3 hours with my husband).

  26. Aimee – I agree with you to a point – and we all have “something” that we will gladly spend the time on. Once you are debt free, there is a guilt-free feeling to splurging more often… but until the mortgage was paid off, I couldn’t feel good about paying someone to do the lawn when I could do it myself… I just looked at what I was spending on lawn mowing (say $50/month? average year round?)… and said, hey – what if I put the $50 on my mortgage every month? (USe any number $10 to $100/month)… How many years can I cut off my mortgage by cutting the lawn myself and putting that $$ towards the mortgage…. when I figured out the lessening of the mortgage years,(on line amortization schedules) (and how much less I would spend on interest), I was happy to mow my own lawn 🙂