Personal Finance

A Case Against Frugality: Why Pinching Pennies is NOT the Best Path to Wealth

Expertise: Business Management, Landlording & Rental Properties, Personal Finance, Personal Development
65 Articles Written

After reading articles by Ben Leybovich and Elizabeth Colegrove where they discuss frugality and the mechanics behind it, I figured I’d jump into the mix with my thoughts. As a millennial, the idea of frugal living is constantly being force fed to me via articles, friends, relatives, etc. This is likely a direct result of the economic struggles this nation (and world) have experienced in recent decades. However, I’m an investor and I like to take a contrarian view to the norm and as such, I disagree with the commonly promoted frugal lifestyle.

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The commonly promoted frugal lifestyle is all about cutting out anything that isn’t a necessity and never (or rarely) splurging. They say doing so will allow you to save, save, save some more, invest and eventually retire early. While there are certainly successful frugalists among us, this advice isn’t practical, as so many people indulge in the immoral activity of spending money for a nice Starbucks Latte or buying the latest and greatest iPhone. Further, some of these splurgers have still figured out how to retire early. How? They ignore the shadow frugal living advocates cast and instead focus their time and energy on building businesses that pay for their splurging plus some.

Related: You Should Take $1 Today, NOT $2 Tomorrow: A Counterpoint

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for “living within your means” and not financing your entire lifestyle to simply keep up with the Joneses. I also like the definition of frugal: “economical in use or expenditure.” The ability to make smart or “economical” decisions in managing one’s finances is key to generating substantial wealth; however, I disagree that pinching pennies is the best way to live your life and build that substantial wealth.

Scarcity vs. Abundance

When you hear the word “frugal,” what do you think about? Probably spending and living on less allowing you to stash more money away each month. While exhibiting control over your expenditures is important, frugality is the wrong way to think about building wealth.

People who abide by the commonly advertised frugality lifestyle see money as a scarce resource. These people tend to think money is limited and difficult to access. Frugal people spend their time devising methods to stretch their paycheck so they can achieve financial independence and retire early. Rather than learning how to earn an extra dollar, they learn how to save an extra dollar, which is only good up to a certain point, as you can’t save more dollars than you earn. Frugality teaches people how to be a miser, not a mogul.

The fact is: Money is abundant. The rich know this and spend their time developing systems to tap into said abundancy and snag a share for themselves. They don't waste an hour figuring out how to save $10, as they know they can make $100 in that time. They don't stand in a 30-minute line waiting for a free sandwich from Chik-Fil-A because 30 minutes of their time is not worth the $5 they'd save.

Ben gave a great example in his article – his business (clients) and tenants pay for his mortgage and provide him with passive income to pay for his lifestyle. Ben has spent his time developing systems that will earn him money so that he can live a comfortable life and splurge as he wishes. Saving is important, but building additional streams of income is likely the primary focus.

Create Additional Streams of Income

Think about this – if a person makes $50k after taxes, the most that person can ever save in any given year is $50k. They can’t save a penny more because they haven’t earned a penny more.

On the other hand, a person who is focused on building additional streams of income, whether they be passive or active, has unlimited potential in terms of the amount they can save. They can invest in their income streams to make them larger and more lucrative. The possibilities are endless for the person focused on expanding their annual income by developing diverse streams of income. 

It really isn't difficult to create additional streams of income. By defining and leveraging your core competencies, you will find there are plenty of business opportunities to take advantage of. The main goal, as the majority on BP would agree, is to create passive income streams. By dedicating yourself to creating quality products up front, you can essentially build businesses that run themselves and require little maintenance once established (e.g. real estate, royalties, software as a service, etc.).

By focusing on creating additional streams of income, you will learn good business habits. You will be able to splurge on that Starbucks coffee without it seeming immoral or feeling depressed at the expenditure.

Best of all, creating additional streams of income diversifies your income risk. People with one income stream (e.g. W-2) are more susceptible to risk than people who have started a business or multiple businesses. If a W-2 employee gets fired, their income is gone. On the other hand, if a business owner has 100 clients, that’s 100 streams of income – talk about diversification. A business owner can also adapt to a slowing economy by moving capital around and reorganizing. This is not a luxury an employee can utilize.

It’s All About Opportunity Cost

I live in an up-and-coming area in DC and as such, I pay a hefty $1,200 per month in rent. The building is new, nice, and safe (keyword “safe”). I’m within 100 feet of a metro station, which allows me to get anywhere in the city in under 15 minutes (this also happens to be my average commute time). I’m also within 50 feet of a grocery store entrance and right around the corner from a CVS and a dry cleaner.

If I bent over backward to live a frugal lifestyle, I may move out to Northern Virginia, where I can rent a similar place for $900 per month and save an additional $300 per month. However, I’d also be burdened with an additional 1.5 hours per day in commuting alone, equating to 30 hours per month simply to save $300.

Instead, I asked myself how I can boost my income to justify the higher city apartment expense and save on the grueling commute time. So I started a side CPA practice (I have a W-2 job), as I know that I can make significantly more than $300 with the 30 extra hours I’d save living in the city apartment.

An example that may hit closer to home for BP members is whether to rehab your properties or hire the work out. Doing the work yourself saves money and may make sense towards the beginning of your investment career. However, eventually you will reach a critical point where your time simply isn’t worth the cost savings of doing your own work.

I’m in the beginning stages of my investing career, and I invest at a distance. Naturally, I have taken the oversight/manager role rather than getting into the weeds and performing the work myself. Taking this role, even early on in my investing career, provides me with significant experience in developing a business system that is scalable and applicable to many different locations, strategies, and environments. By figuring out how to develop a system that removes me from the core operations, I am able to spend my time souring deals and partners — and ultimately growing my portfolio.


Conclusion: Find a Balance

Unfortunately, many people support the frugal lifestyle, and I think it’s because frugality is the path of least resistance. It’s easier to spend less money than it is to earn more.

Related: 10 Things Only Personal Finance Nerds Would Understand

But I firmly believe that everyone reading this article has the ability to generate additional streams of substantial income. It’s very important to develop financial competence and live within your means; however, the logic promoted by frugalists is flawed – they spend too much time and energy figuring out how to save their already limited income. They employ a scarcity mindset rather than one of abundance. Finding a balance, as Elizabeth stated in her article, between saving and developing additional income streams is what it’s all about.

[Editor’s Note: We are republishing this article to get the opinions of our newer members. Let us know what you think with a comment!]

What do you think? Do you agree, or would you argue that being frugal is the most important concept in building wealth?

Leave your opinions, comments, agreements or disagreements below!

Brandon Hall is a CPA and owner of The Real Estate CPA. Brandon assists investors with Tax Strategy through customized planning and
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    David Fisher from Great Falls, Montana
    Replied almost 3 years ago
    Thank you for the post! This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately since I’ve been more on frugal side of finances, which I think is important to learn but in the same time I think it’s more important to be frugal with your time. In other words having discipline to manage time is more important since there is so much opportunity to have more cash flow, if you learn how to manage your time. Thanks for putting my thoughts into words!
    Ali Hobart
    Replied almost 3 years ago
    “I’m an investor and I like to take a contrarian view to the norm and as such” AMEN I think you have the right idea. Gotta treat yourself to bottle service once in a while. Plus it’s network building!!! 🙂 🙂
    Alex Ramirez
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Favorite quote from the above blog article: “It’s easier to spend less money than it is to earn more.” That’s where I’m at right now, trying to fight that natural tendency as I go out and earn more instead of only spending less. Thanks for your words Brandon.
    Paul Coelho
    Replied over 2 years ago
    An old saying, “You have to spend money to make money.” Very true. But be sure your spend is less than you make. That’s being frugal. If your “spend” goes above your “make” all the time or is a matter of lifestyle, you’re in trouble. “Buy low, sell high”. Another frugal concept. If you waste, it’s wasted and you can’t make on waste. I’ve worked with clients that don’t think they can afford to buy the investment property because they “don’t make enough”. Well, in reality as soon as they put a name to every dollar they spend, they realize a $6 daily cup of coffee is unnecessary. That can turn into a $2 cup of coffee and the $4 can go towards better wealth. That’s $120 dollars a month to go towards increased wealth if put towards something that return you more than you spend over time. Let’s not dis frugality completely. Keep in mind there could be unnecessary spending even when treating yourself well. Don’t get me wrong, if you hold on to money with a closed hand, you will never receive any. Hold money with an open hand so that the open hand can both give money as well as receive money. Just do it with wisdom.
    Gerardo José ROJAS OSSA
    Replied over 2 years ago
    Thanks for the Post. I’m now living on a business I have equity in. And changing my whole mindset towards finding new income sources. It’s nice to realize I’m on the right track.
    Kory MacKinnon Investor from London, ON
    Replied about 2 years ago
    Great article Brandon! Your correct that too many people look at how money relates to their life with a scarcity mindset, and they don’t put a value on their time. I’m all about saving $ and being thrifty when a person can. Like many people I don’t like to be wasteful. I also value my time at $100-250 per hour so I regularly hire things out, and focus on increasing the bottom line of our portfolio so we can afford the vacations and splurging that top 2-5% work very hard for. You can be frugal and never get a chance to enjoy the money you are saving. I’ve lost too many friends in their 40’s and 50’s who were waiting to check things off their bucket list. Make a plan instead to earn more income (extra jobs, extra businesses, extra properties, raise rents annually, etc.) to afford the lifestyle you want. Warren Buffet grew up in a different era. Today it is about the velocity of money, proper leverage of time and you hit the balance of the topic on the nail head. Cheers!
    David Neilson Real Estate Investor from Stratford, CT
    Replied about 2 years ago
    Thanks for writing that article Brandon. I couldn’t agree more and have believed whole heartedly that there is always more money to be made in one way or another. If you live without because it’s too expensive instead of trying to find a way to afford by generating additional income streams you may be missing more than just opportunities.
    Amy Pfaffman
    Replied 7 months ago
    I think the main issue is getting away from trading time for money. I've set up my life to earn money while I'm not working, and it's infinitely scalable. Yes, I'm talking about real estate investing. For me, the most passive way to invest is buy and hold. My income comes from collecting rent, rather than buying and selling. I've learned many lessons the hard way, but all in all, I'm working less than pretty much everyone I know, making more money every year than I ever did working jobs, and have the highest standard of living I ever have.