Frugal? Yes! Miserly? No.

Originally published on

It’s time for polite society to reclaim the “F-word” and give it back the historic respectability it so undeservedly lost.

I’m speaking, of course, about “frugal.” The word enjoyed a stellar reputation for most of recorded history; when Thomas Jefferson gave his first inaugural address to citizens of the fledgling United States, he discussed, among other things, the importance of “a wise and frugal government.”

His contemporary Ben Franklin also spoke well of frugality. Franklin’s credited with coining such phrases as “Waste not, want not” and “A penny saved is a penny earned,” both alluding to the F-word without actually saying it. He was more explicit when he said: “The way to wealth is as plain as the way to market. It depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality: that is, waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both.”

Not that praise for frugality was limited to early Americans. As early as 2,600 years ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility….”

And if we had time, I could show you dozens if not hundreds more pro-frugality comments made by wise men and women from pretty much every culture, era and time period in history — except maybe now.

Look up “frugal” in a modern dictionary. What do you find? defines it as “economical in use or expenditure; prudently saving or sparing; not wasteful.”

A cold character

The online Oxford Dictionaries say “Sparing or economical with regard to money or food,” but when they offered certain “example sentences” demonstrating how to use the word, this one topped the list:

“Schmidt is potentially a cold character, spartan with words and frugal with money.”

A cold character. Not a flattering depiction at all. Nor are many of the synonyms the dictionaries offer for “frugal”: stingy, scanty, miserly, self-denying, close-fisted … the general implication is that you can be frugal, or you can have a reasonably comfortable life (plus friends), but it’s an either-or option. Frugal, miser . . . same thing, right?

Not even close. More like complete opposites, especially if you focus on the end results: misers practice self-denial just for denial’s sake, whereas frugal people do so in pursuit of a given goal.

Think about the standard (and often obvious) money-saving tips you find in any “How to cut expenses, pay down debt and build up your savings”-type article: if you make your own food at home, that’s cheaper than buying frozen or precooked dinners, which in turn is cheaper than eating in a restaurant. If you stay home and take various day trips, that costs less than a faraway vacation. Shop secondhand to save massive amounts of money on everything from clothes and home furnishings to power tools and camping equipment. Et cetera.

All valid advice, especially for those people currently worried about their high debt and low-to-non-existent savings. Yet somehow, in popular imagination, being “frugal” means: “It doesn’t matter who you are or how much money you have; you should never eat in a restaurant, ever! Or visit parts of the country or world more than a day trip away. And you can never buy anything new, never have nice things, never have any fun at all if it costs money…. ” which is a pretty good summation of a typical miser’s mentality, but isn’t remotely the mindset of frugality.

Thrifty habits

So what is? I discovered it as a kid, when one of my mother’s spring-cleaning friends offered me some old books she no longer wanted, including a battered copy of Everything But Money by Sam Levenson (a former Borscht Belt comedian who’d acquired a degree of national fame some decades before I was born).

The book is mostly comic reminiscing about Levenson’s experiences as one of eight American-born children of a Russian-Jewish immigrant couple, raised in the tenement slums of 1910s New York.

But for all his funny stories about eight siblings’ old-fashioned shenanigans (the book’s very title stems from Levenson’s oft-repeated joke that his was a childhood rich in “everything but money”), he’d occasionally sneak in some serious points about his immigrant parents’ thrifty habits, including one that lodged itself in my childish memory and never left: Mama Levenson often said that sometimes, you have to do without today so you can have tomorrow with.

That’s what made her frugal rather than a miser. Misers always do without, long after they reach “tomorrow with,” and choose to live in deprivation no matter how much wealth they have, whereas the point of frugality is to avoid living in deprivation, at least when it counts. The frugal person understands that money is finite, so depriving yourself of small, temporary pleasures now helps you afford bigger, more lasting pleasures later. Setting money aside when times are good means you’ll have it when times are bad.

In my own case, although I remain pretty frugal by contemporary standards, my current lifestyle is ridiculously extravagant compared to how I lived during my “poor years” (college, grad school and some time thereafter, until I’d paid off my damnable debts and built up a decent savings cushion).

Nowadays you’ll see me eat in restaurants sometimes, or order out for pizza, and even vacation far enough from home that I must pay for places to sleep. Yet I almost never did these during my “poor years,” not from any masochistic miserly desire to avoid things I enjoy but because, like Mama Levenson, I desired other things even more: “Do without today and have a tomorrow with more money, and freedom from debt.”

Granted: where tales of personal suffering and sacrifice are concerned, “I avoided restaurants, took my lunch to work, shopped in thrift stores and didn’t travel much” is pretty weak. Which is fine; I was no miser hoping to win any misery awards, but a frugal hoping to avoid certain types of misery, specifically the not-enough-money kinds.

And since I’m fortunate enough to live a full century after Sam Levenson’s childhood, what I called “doing without” was still immense luxury compared to when the Levenson kids had to “do without” in the slums of the gaslight era.

Besides, self-denial in pursuit of a goal is hardly the only part of frugality. Other common frugal tricks, like stockpiling non-perishables when they’re on sale so you never have to pay full price for them, require no self-denial whatsoever, only a little planning ahead. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the best way to distinguish between the miserly versus the frugal: A miser always hates to spend money, whereas a frugal person only hates to waste it.