Ask the Readers: Is Frugal Movement Just a Fad?

According to the experts it is once again cool to be frugal.  I’ve heard advertising types tossing around articles with titles like, “Frugal is the New Black.” My favorite recent article on the subject was from Randall at Credit Withdrawal where he writes, “It’s Hip To Be Spare” (take that Huey Lewis!).  Yes, these are good times for those of who live frugal lives and were made fun of unmercifully when times were good. One has to wonder, will the frugal trend last?The last two decades lead me to believe no, frugality won’t be a lasting trend, at least among the masses.  In fact, despite what the media tells us, I’m not even sure frugality is a trend now.  The last time a new version the iPhone was released I passed a Best Buy store on the way to work and saw dozens of people camped outside the store at 7:00 in the morning–for a telephone (so it’s more than a phone, but come on!).

Last weekend my wife and I stumbled on an old $25 Olive Garden gift card we had received as a gift, and we enjoyed a nice evening out.  We decided to go early to avoid the crowds, but even at 5:00pm there was a 45-minute wait!  The wine was flowing freely from the tables around us, and when we left the restaurant the line waiting to eat was nearly twice as long.

All this to say that it does not seem like people are living very frugal, despite how good or bad their finances are.  I imagine the level of frugality displayed varies by locations, so I wanted to get your take.

Based on what you’ve seen around your hometowns, is the frugal movement something that you believe will take hold and stick around?  Or is it simply another fad that disappears as soon as the markets begin to rebound?


  1. That is such a good question! Most of my closest friends have always been frugal, its hard to tell what others are thinking but I do see many cutting back and trying. I think it will take a long time for most folks to learn how to do it. Will they stick it out? Not everyone, but quite a few will I think when they start to realize the benefits.
    Of course if your idea of frugal is stopping for a less pricey latte– you’re probably not quite ‘getting it’.

  2. That is so funny that you say that because the EXACT same thing happened to me and my husband. We had a $25 Olive Garden gift certificate that I won in a drawing and showed up on a Friday night during the heart of the “Economic Crisis” expecting that we could walk right in without a wait. Oh no. We waited behind a line of other families that kept growing as the night went on. We thought… well shoot, things can’t be that bad if people still have enough left over at the end of the week to go to the O.G.!

  3. Probably a fad, like leg warmers. I am seeing a few more people using coupons and one of the local TV stations has started a segment called ‘Frugal Fridays’. Last week the woman from the Grocery Game was on.

  4. I think there is percentage of the population that falls into the frugal category regardless of the economic conditions of the day – they just fall under the radar and no one really knows they’re there quietly clipping coupons, saving money and living sustainable lives. Then, in times of economic uncertainty when the masses are forced to examine their spending and savings habits a new spotlight is thrown upon frugality that brings the under-the-radar-frugal-movement into the spotlight. Lots of people who aren’t usually frugal will adopt frugal habits out of necessity, but when the economic good times return (eventually?) most of them will revert back to their old ways.

  5. I use Grocery Game and have been tracking my savings–by looking at how much I actually spend on groceries each month–and by gosh, it works. Its not a fad for me. I’m sold.

  6. Hmmm, that’s a good question. I guess it depends how long this recession (depression) goes on, doesn’t it? I mean, my grandparents were frugal all their lives, and they credited those skills to living through the Great Depression. We can only hope it’ll go on long enough to leave some lasting effects (or not, as a thrift store shopper, I LOVE buying the name brand clothing others discard!)

  7. I think it’s a fad that will “take” for some of those who follow it as a trend. How many make it a permanent practice will depend on many factors, not least of which will be the severity and duration of our economic recession/depression.

    I thought it was also interesting to note that Obama used the word “sacrifice” in his victory speech on election night. Leaders have a very powerful bully pulpit that has in the past been used to encourage much greater frugality and self-sufficiency than is currently normal. If Obama tries to steer this country back to victory gardens and belt tightening, I think the country may readily follow.

  8. I’ve been wondering about this as well. In the past year our family has made a lot of changes to minimize and live more frugally. Getting into a routine was tough, but now it’s pretty much second nature, and we really think through buying anything without a coupon or a sale.

    It’s also been easier to get progressively more frugal. One step leads to another and so on.

    My hope is that we’re in it for the duration but only time will tell.

  9. I believe its a trend that needs to stick around. America is going broke, everyone keeps buying things on credit. And then trying to file for bankruptcy and do it all over again.

    I was raised in a frugal family so I am used to this way of life. People used to make fun of my family for being so frugal even in the good times, but now we got our revenge. My parents retired early Dad 55, Mom 50 and now they are enjoying the good life, they so deserve.

    It may be a fad, but its one that works and has been proven time and again. Its good to be frugal!

  10. Perhaps those people are using their “splurge funds” on the same nights you are. Since there are so many people out there, it could be that they are being frugal in other parts of their lives so that they can continue to eat out or do other things you consider to not be frugal. There are degrees of frugality, and not everyone will meet your standards.

    I think we’re back to the old “media would like to make things out to be worse than they are” issue. It was the same thing when I saw people online and on the news complaining about high gas prices. I really did not see any fewer people on the roads and traffic hasn’t changed much now that gas is now $2.20/gal where I live. Oh and that “credit crunch”? I’ve managed to increase all three of my credit card limits by at least 10% in the last three months. I’ve also applied for financing just for fun to see if I could get approved — and I was. Amazing. And I don’t even have a score of 800 yet. I don’t think it’s a credit crunch, I think it’s banks just going back to doing what they should have been doing before. Not loaning money to people who are credit risks; y’know sub-prime lending!

    Not to disparage those who lived through the Great Depression, but I think that unfortunate period in US history churned out more “cheap” people than “frugal” people. I know it did in my family. Squeezing every penny isn’t necessarily being frugal. At least not in the sense that I think FrugalDad is trying to speak of in this blog.

  11. @DavidK: Definitely a difference in being frugal and being cheap. I think “cheap” people will be that way regardless of the economic conditions or their personal finances, and to a certain degree, the same could be said for “frugal” people.

    For instance, I’ve maintained much the same lifestyle over the last couple years as my income went up and the economy went down. This was after falling victim to the “boom” years of the late ’90s, when I got away from my frugal ways. Won’t happen again.

  12. What we’re having here is an international wake-up call. As with all wake-up calls, there will be some who get it and some who don’t.

  13. my guess is that it isn’t a trend even now. People like to say that they’re frugal, or that they’re spending less, but when it comes down to it, they’re just spending a little less and still overspending.

  14. I have to agree with a lot of the comments. I think it’s a fad for the masses, but some people who embrace it will end up sticking with it, while those who were always frugal will continue to be so anyway.

    But as a whole, people are shortsighted and have short attention spans. Look no further than the past year and gas prices. Six months ago we were headed for complete disaster, many people started riding bikes, buying hybirds, and taking mass transportation. Now that gas is cheap, I saw a story earlier this week that said SUV sales were on the rise. Sad, but true.

    So, while the media hypes up being frugal, you’ll see a lot of people doing it. But as soon as that story dies down as the economy improves, just like with gas prices, many people will go back to their old ways.

  15. Not a chance. Not in Belfast anyway. I’ll nip out at lunchtime to pick up some bits and pieces and see people putting their lunch on a credit card and a lot of people still carrying around what appear to be a dozen bags from designer shops and a Starbucks coffee seems to be as commonplace as a pair of gloves in the cold weather. Some people are being a bit more frugal out of necessity but I don’t think it will stick.

  16. @Jeremy, unfortunately it’s better to look at statistics than at headlines. The news thrives on the fact that people believe headlines rather than actually look at the numbers themselves and come to their own conclusions.

    To say that SUV sales are on the rise most likely means that after a “drought” period for the last 6-7 months, some people are back to buying SUVs that they put off buying before. (Some people do need them, despite what others may say.) Looking at the sales figures, ALL car manufacturers posted profit loss percentages in the double figures. Heck, even Toyota said sales were down by almost 3% and their profit loss figures down by 39$! Toyota! (source: Now as another sign of a spending drought, Starbucks coffee posted a quarterly loss for the first time ever in the company’s history. Does this mean that people are being more frugal or just that they are holding off on spending that they would have otherwise done? I, along with others here, would side with the latter opinion. People, in general, are short-sighted and tend to have short memories. It’s the way of society at large — and I don’t just mean Americans.

  17. My wife and I think it is a fad, if it is even happening. Where we live in Boca Raton, FL, there is very little evidence of people shifting to a more frugal lifestyle. I think at this point some people are starting to cut back, and it is very location dependent, but even more so it is a media constructed “fad” intended to get things rolling as our economy faces some tough times.

    We are actually a little miffed that it is now cool to be thrifty. We’ve been living that way all along; no lavish vacations, rarely eating out, not using the AC until the full heat of summer sets in, hanging clothes to dry rather than using the dryer — things like that. Suddenly if it is cool to be thrifty, we may be cool, but we won’t be different anymore. But I guess that is a good thing. And when times get better, people will go back to spending like its 1999! 🙂

  18. I think it is a temporary fad, however, there are folks that will pick up new things that will keep them – those who cancel their cable and never go back, or drop their landline, that kind of thing. But I get the feeling that people are doing it grudgingly, not willingly – and that is why it won’t stick.

  19. I think it’s always been around but thought as differently now. Prices and expenses are up as salaries haven’t increased and job security is low and unstable. More people accept the practice. I try my best but unfortunately for me as a post grad, I am living in the world where things revolve around weekends and going out and meeting people. Gets kind of pricey.


  20. I’m not sure that any of the frugal stuff is more than just talk right now. I know that my friends have all talked about cutting back, etc. and none have done anything yet. Actually, they are probably spending more.

    I’ve never been big on shopping, eating out or any of that stuff so it hasn’t affected me.

  21. Well, I know it isn’t just a fad for me. My wife and I live a modest lifestyle. It is just who we are.

    Of course, it seems most people are caught up in trying to keep up with the Jonees. It appears plenty of people are spending money like mad. Like you observed, the malls and restaurants are as packed as ever.

    I feel much more comfortable in the present economic climate being financially conservative. I think the advertisers are just trying to capitalize on situation.

  22. I agree that people are still spending, but there have to be some that are cutting back. The reports from retailers and car dealers are too grim for things to be business as usual (not to mention rising unemployment).

  23. I’m not sure what others are doing. I don’t personally see others cutting back but then again I don’t really talk with them about their spending habits. I certainly have gotten on the frugal bandwagon but it started well before the current fad hit. I just suddenly realized that the convenience I thought I was paying for (i.e., not paying attention to sales) was really an illusion. It is just as easy for me to scan the current sales while shopping at the store to find the cheapest food, for example, as it was for me to buy whatever I wanted. (For the most part.)

    I think that we might see plenty of people eating at mass-market food chains even during a recession. When people are hurting they want to go out and talk. A friend of mine who grew up in poverty as one of two daughters of a mom who immigrated from Poland shared a two bedroom apartment and had virtually nothing. Her mom said they never skimped on good food though. Both daughters are now very successful I am glad to say. At one point they all slept in one of the bedrooms so the other sister could have the 2nd room as her art studio, as she was a budding (and now successful) artist. Choices, you know?!

  24. It’s not a fad for me. Like a lot of the folks on this forum, being frugal has been a long term part of my life. Actually make it easier to be more frugal if need be when times are tough.

    While the losses in my investments are a bit painful, I don’t have to worry about losing anything because I can’t make the payments. Can relax and ride it out.

  25. @Nicole: I would suggest getting a good, solid beginner emergency fund in place while paying minimums on your outstanding debt. Once you have $1000 saved (minimum) then you can use that extra money to attack your debt snowball. It sounds like you are right on track!

    Thanks for commenting, and being a Frugal Dad reader!

  26. I have a feeling for some people frugality will become a new way of life. Probably because this was a true learning experience. Others, I am afraid, will use frugality until the next boom hits, then fun-fun-fun.

  27. It may be a fad, but as fads go it is probably one of the best! Hey, maybe it will become a lifestyle for at least a few.

    I think for it to become a lifestyle, though, attitudes will have to change about what frugality is. It isn’t being a penny pinching shrew but rather making choices with your money and being a good steward of what you have. There is a lot of contentment and satisfaction with knowing that you are a good steward of all you have been blessed to have.

  28. Guess I’ve been ‘cool’ over 30 yrs then… but it sure didn’t feel like it at the time! 🙂

    If the media can grab ahold of this thing and sway public opinion (which they are very good at doing) I think it would be a good thing for more people to “try on” being frugal… maybe if they like the fit, they’ll keep it! And that would be good for their old age.

    I see a little more frugalness here, but I have to say in this area it’s more to do with necessity and payroll being cut, and worry about the mills going down in the future, and the usual stocking up for the long low income winters here – that happens here every year.

  29. Hmm, you are frugal, and you were at the Olive Garden, so how can you assume all of the others there were not frugal. 🙂 For all you know they could have been celebrating their own big events and also paying with gift cards, if not money saved up over a long period.

    I haven’t seen frugality being hyped up as hip, (though, of course, I don’t get out of the house much), but given the continued downward spiral of consumer spending indicators worldwide, something is obviously up. I think it has a lot more due to unemployment and general economic hardship, though, than any attempt to live a simple, sustainable lifestyle free of impact to the world.

  30. I’ve decided to be frugal with some things, but not so much others. I still like to shop, but I go to the thrift stores in search of hidden treasure! I’m cooking more, and out of the garden no less. Made a mean Ratattiolle (sp?)the other nite, all from the garden! I didn’t use the air conditioner this summer (it’s broke, I didn’t get repaired on purpose), we kept the drapes pulled during the day, and opened windows for a cross breeze at night and it worked wonders! I also installed a clothes line and hang sheets, dresses, tablecloth’s ect. It looks so nostalgic and saves money too!

  31. I think it depends on what you mean by “frugal.”

    For some people, being frugal may mean buying a tall-sized latte instead of a “venti”-sized latte. It may mean getting a manicure once a month instead of once a week. For others it may mean shopping at Goodwill instead of Ross.

    Lifestyles that we may not consider frugal at first glance could be a big change for some people. Maybe some of the customers at Olive Garden usually eat at somewhere much more expensive.

  32. Here in Germany, nobody talks about frugal. It is always about the poor who cannot afford this and that. Being poor means that you have less than 60% of the averadge income, so you can get in and out of poverty without changing your income. The idea of living frugally as your own choice is almost unknown.

  33. I think people might end up spending less than the did previously but in all honesty, they won’t go all the way to what we consider being frugal.

    As you say, it’ll last until the recession is over and then people will go back to their spending ways. People like stuff and partying, that won’t change.

  34. I love this blog. Such differing opinions and all expressed so well. I think being frugal is being self sufficient. It’s equating purchases with life energy. Do I really want to spend 4 hours of my life energy (work) on a purse. Not me. But I applaude all humans, no matter their station or spending habits. We are an interesting bunch, you must admit.
    I like being frugal but not cheap. It’s good to be aware of spending habits. When this current crisis hit, I already knew how to live mindfully. And I think that is what it really is. Conducting life mindfully spending instead of unconciously spending like there is no tomorrow.
    I so enjoy all your comments
    Thanks again for this forum FD!

  35. The whole “fad” frustrates me. Many people would not be in this predicament if they lived within their means to start with. Americans tend to buy based on what they afford instead of buying based on values. My boyfriend and I just took a well-derserved vacation and spent a week in Maui. It was our first real vacation in several years. The best part? We may have come back broke but we also came back DEBT-FREE having decided in advance to pay for the entire vacation in cash. To those of you out there who have had to cut back I ask: Are you willing to live this simply after the recession ends?

  36. I think that for the people who have always been frugal, even if just a little, it will stick. For others I think they will start spending freely again. Unfortunately I keep hearing others say how finally the government is going to “fix their finacial problems” Too many people are relying on somebody else to dig them out of debt.

  37. Some day a lot of people who have been frugal for no particular reason other than to be “frugal” are going to look back and wonder “what did I do that for?” Frugality should be a strategy followed towards a larger goal.

  38. I agree that frugality isn’t really a trend. I think a lot who are starting to cut back now are doing it out of fear and necessity and not out of desire to save. People are still twittering and powncing about buying iPhones and Macbooks.

    I have a cousin who decided to pursue a culinary degree after getting his Masters in architecture and his father told him he would no longer pay his upkeep, and he told me “I’ll have to live frugally like you now.”

    But the moment the iPhone came out, he bought one. He also buys every new model of the iPod, and made fun of my digital camera which I bought in 2003, calling it ancient.

  39. I agree with you. Americans will get a little frugal, we’ll also be upset, complain and blame it on everybody we can. When the economy comes back, most people will forget frugality.
    I have helped build churches in 8 different countries in the Carribean, S. and Central America including Haiti and have seen the conditions they live in. Those who think they’re being frugal ought to visit. Most Americans don’t know how good we have it!

  40. Here’s where I think the fallout will be:
    Frugal by necessity vs. Frugal by choice.

    Once the necessity is ended, that group will not hang around any longer.
    Those that are frugal by choice will stick around as it has become their habit, their lifestyle. It will stick.

  41. I can’t see that the way people think has changed in our area. People are still buying things at astronomical prices, going out to eat, traveling. I do believe that living frugal is a lifestyle and people who are not committed to just living a more simple, contented life, aren’t going to change their way of thinking until things have gotten so bad, they have no other choice, and sometimes even that won’t change them.
    Getting caught up in the ‘I gotta have’ mentality is so easy. People look at me very strangely when I tell them that I’d rather live with less, drive paid for used cars and live in a more modest house, than sacrifice the time and relationships I get to enjoy with my two teenagers and my husband of 25 years.

  42. I follow a “frugal normally so we can splurge occasionally” theory. We intentionally live way below our means – on about ~50% of our take home pay. We do it by cutting out all non essentials, eating at home, brown bagging lunches, shopping at Goodwill, driving only used cars and driving them until they drop, no fancy TVs, game systems etc. To some it wouldn’t appear that we’re being frugal, but maybe that’s because we’ve achieved what we feel is a good balance. We built our own home for far less than buying it. In order to fund the construction, we delayed having children for the first 10yrs of our marrage so we could save up to buy the lot and start construction. We sold our starter home, and lived for two years in my parents unfinished basement with all our posessions in boxes stacked around us while we built the house. You haven’t lived until you sleep beside the furnace for two years… To the world, all they see is the lovely big house on several acres of forest, not the sacrifices that made it possible. Last summer we spent a month in Europe with the kids. I can’t tell you how many hours I spend online researching travel deals to put it all together at a very reasonable price. We flew almost completely on points, got deals or freebies on virtually everything, and due to extra cost cutting in the months before we went, everything was paid for before left. In every city we balanced low cost options with splurges on once in a lifeime moments. We stayed in modest hotels, skipped fancy restaurants most of the time and picniced or bought from street vendors. On the flip side we splurged on a gondola ride, let our son go for a ride in a Ferrarri, toured every castle we passed, and bought a couple of nice souvenirs. For every splurge there was a corresponding compromise. The trick for us was figure out which experiences really make the trip and which are ultimately not worth the cost. In many cases the most memorable parts of the trip turned out to be the least expensive or even free. To the world, all they see is what appears to be a lavish holiday with no expense spared. Our system wouldn’t work for everyone but we’re willing to do without what we consider the non-essentials in order to get the things we want. Once in a lifetime trips aside, mostly what we want is to be completely debt free and retire early.

    As for the long-term trend toward living frugally, I agree with most of the other posts, and for those who are doing it out of necessity most will revert back to their old lifestyles as soon as possible. For us, living way below our means has meant that there really hasn’t been any stress as a result of the current economy. We aren’t concerned about losing anything because we can’t make the payments. Actually, I’ll be laid off in the next 4-6 months when my company shuts down. I’m looking for another job of course, but I’m not in a panic because I know if I haven’t found a new job before the layoff, we’ll still be fine on one salary for a long while because we have so much headroom in the budget. Living frugally gives us the breathing room to take whatever life throws at us.