Live Frugal, but Stop to Smell the Roses

For my twentieth birthday, more than ten years ago now, my grandfather wrote me a letter that I saved and have referred back to on many occasions in the decade since. There were many nuggets of wisdom contained, but one that stuck with me is his advice to “Enjoy life – stop and smell the roses.” Perhaps my grandfather sensed early on that I would be a go-getter, to the detriment of my family and personal relationships. Maybe he knew that I would work sixty hours a week in my first job to try (in vain) to advance. The early career burnout I felt after six years at this pace, and his words, combined to have a profound effect on who I am today. I no longer maintain such an aggressive schedule, and put family ahead of any career pursuits. I also used this advice to loosen up a bit when I felt myself becoming deprived by our frugal lifestyle.

Take time to stop and smell the roses

Smelling the Roses

A common theme amongst personal finance writers, particularly those who write about frugality, is the constant fear of overpaying, blowing a budget, or buying something frivolous. Conceptually, and financially, these ideas make sense, but not so much in real life. If the only thing you do with your money is save, pay off debt and squeeze every single penny until it screams, eventually you will grow to resent your financial plan (and your family may grow to resent you). I take the advice to “stop and smell the roses” to mean that life is supposed to be enjoyed. We have a finite number of trips around the sun, so why not enoy the ride. That isn’t an invitation to blow everything you earn on season tickets to your favorite baseball team, or to take the European vacation you’ve always dreamed of, but it is an invitation to do a few of those things in moderation.

Make “Fun” Part of the Budget

In a recent article I mentioned the benefits of keeping a “Sunny Day Fund.” This is the opposite of a rainy day fund, which is usually recommended for having a cash cushion when something bad happens. Conversely, a sunny day fund is for the good times. By identifying a few fun things you would like to do you are providing extra incentive to stay on track with your financial plan. After all, if you blow the food budget you may not be able to fund the sunny day fund this month, putting that Disney vacation off another month or two. Here are a few ways to add some “fun” into your budget:

  • Solicit feedback from all members of the family. Ask them what they would love to do or have, but haven’t been able to because of worry about money. Last year my wife said she would love to take my daughter to a Hannah Montana concert because she had never been to a concert, and at the time she loved Miley Cyrus. A concert and souvenirs can get pretty expensive, so I was initially put off by worries over the cost of our adventure. However, I remembered the lesson – “smell the roses” – and I agreed to go ahead with the plan. We managed to get tickets rather inexpensively and surprised my daughter with a trip to Atlanta to see Cyrus in concert for her birthday. It was an experience none of us will forget, and I’ve never regretted the expense.
  • Set a target date and start saving. My family really wanted a Wii, but we didn’t have the cash for one. We decided as a family it was something we all wanted, and that we would make it a priority in our sunny day fund. Over the next couple months we saved $50 or so a paycheck, plus any “found” money, directly into the sunny day fund. When the balance in the fund had accumulated high enough to buy a Wii and one game we withdrew the money and paid cash for a new Wii. It hasn’t disappointed, and many family fun nights are now centered around Mario Kart.
  • Include something for yourself. This sounds dangerously similar to “I work hard so I deserve it.” We all work hard, but you don’t necessarily deserve everything. After all, some things are out of reach based on cost, your income, etc. That’s a fact of life. But there are probably a few things you would really like to have, or to do, that are well within your means. Budget for these items and enjoy.

Having the occasional treat is the key to staying motivated for the long term. “Frugal burnout” leads to spending sprees that can drive you deeper into debt, or deplete savings accounts. Instead of depriving you and your family the occasional fun things, plan for them responsibly and enjoy the memories. After all, memories are the one thing that can’t be purchased.


  1. I am a big fan of stopping to smell the roses. I think that this is a very important subject and I’m glad that you have written about it. Practicality and frugality are great disciplines, but it is also important to live a little. After all, isn’t this why we want to be wise with our money? Isn’t it because we want to enjoy life more fully? Once we get control of our money and create margin between what we make and spend, then there is nothing wrong with buying something just for enjoyment. Pamper yourself once in awhile!

    By the way, isn’t Mario Kart a blast? 🙂

  2. The first thing I put into our new budget yesterday after deducting the set payments was ‘fun money’. So many people forget to budget for fun that they don’t have any and when they’re asked to ‘go out’ they can’t because they didn’t plan for it. Even setting aside just $20 a month for can prevent people from burning out on a budget.

  3. I love it! And I definitely agree that there’s a difference between doing something nice for yourself and succumbing to the “I deserve it” trap. (And we’re totally saving for a Wii because of Mario Kart–glad to hear you’re enjoying it!)

  4. Reminds me of the great movie “Dead Poets Society”. Robin Williams’ character says the phrase that becomes part of US lexicon – “carpe diem – seize the day.” Everyone loved this phrase since it was very easy to remember and many used it for quite awhile.

    But there was a better analogy I remember from that scene. He said, “look at the faces of the young men in these photos. They all have one thing in common. They are all dead. What would they say to you if they could. ‘Make your lives extraordinary.” In short, everyone dies and the advice a dead person would probably give to a live person would be to “seize the day” and make every day, every hour, every minute – count like it were your last…

  5. We have a 14 year old teenage boy who is well, 14. Image is everything. Reputation is everything. I know he feels embarrassed by his 2 year old cell phone that lacks the latest features.

    Our current situation dictates that a frugal lifestyle is in order. It’s not always fun. I recently missed a concert that I really wanted to see. Instead, we allowed our son to enjoy some end-of-school-year activities with his friends.

    If you don’t strike a balance, you’ll foster resentment from both sides. You resent having to spend money on something and you resent not being able to spend it.

  6. I have a line item in my zero-based budget that is called ‘fun money’. This is where I put my entertainment, travel, and other ‘fun’ expenses. Granted, this is the last category to be calculated (after bills, savings, food, etc are taken care of) but it helps me recognize that there’s more to life than work, work, work, save, save, save. My personal relationships and socializing are also very important to me, and this line item reminds me of it every time I create a new monthly budget.

  7. Thank you for this reminder. Sometimes my poor husband gets “frugal burnout” from all the saving and scrimping we do and he does get a bit upset that he can’t get the things he wants. I have to remember (before he gets to that point) to save a bit for him to use “just for him.” His salary is the main onein our household(i’m a national guardsman but a stay-at -home mom as well) and he works hard for it so I think he does need to do a “mini-splurge” from time to time with saved money. Time to make another ING sub-account!

  8. This post on “Live Frugal, But Stop to Smell the Roses” triggered some old, unfinished business for me. I am an underearner who grew up in a family where there was a lot of deprivation. I had to give up a lot, and was wounded a lot, because of my parents. For all of my hard work over the past 30 years, I have little to show for it, because I still don’t know how to earn what I deserve. When my parents were growing up, they sometimes didn’t have enough food to eat, and so when we four children “came along”, everything was controlled and measured. My father didn’t really earn enough to raise 4 children, so we lived in an atmosphere of deprivation, always on the verge of triggering his explosive temper. I’ve been frugally burned out ever since.

  9. What a great post. I read a ton of “frugal” blogs, and I do feel like some are a little too extreme. Of course there are times when you have to be extreme in order to reach a goal. Thanks for showing another point of view. Be frugal, but don’t miss out on life. But don’t waste money either!

  10. My family has a plastic piggy bank that has been our big-ticket item sunny day fund for years. My dad and mom would put their pocket change into the pig for a year or two and when it was full we’d empty it and vote on what to do with it.

    Us kids got to suggest ideas and vote on them, although my parents had the final say.We went on trips, bought a skiball machine and other fun stuff. One year the choice came down to a dishwasher or a canoe. Us kids chose the dishwasher, much to the surprise of my parents. 🙂

  11. I always say it’s not worth saving if your money always goes to “serious” things. There is absolutely no reason to feel guilty about going out for ice cream or visiting Disneyland or even buying a big screen television. My husband and I actually have several different accounts. One is for a college fund for our son, one is is for renovations, one is for retirement and one is for fun.

    Something else we do is reward our son for going the extra mile by giving him fake money for good deeds and behavior. For instance, he might get a couple of fake dollars after spending the day helping his father or I do chores instead of playing. It’s always his choice though.

    He can save up this money and redeem it for real goods of equal value at any time. He’s only six but it teaches him about saving money and it’s also a good reward system. We feel he earned the toy or game and didn’t spend frivolously.

    Really, what good is money if you can’t have fun with it once in a while?