5 Frugality Myths Americans Believe That Would Make Ben Franklin Cry

by | BiggerPockets.com

I am going to make a bold statement. Ready for it? Here it is!

Frugality is the single most important characteristic in an individual who seeks to attain financial independence. 

Take a look at the financial independence expression:

Passive Income > Expenses

By being frugal, you work BOTH sides of this equation. Your expenses are reduced, while your savings rate increases, allowing you to invest in assets that provide passive income.

Have people succeeded without being frugal? Absolutely! Look at Grand Cardone and Donald Trump. They focus solely on increasing their incomes as opposed to reducing their expenses—yet they are still financially independent and live very lavish lifestyles.

Politics is my least favorite topic of discussion, so we will not talk about them here, but look at their reputations. Their followers are split amongst those who worship them and those who detest them.

Famous Frugalists

Instead, let’s take a look at some of the most famous figures who value frugality. There have been many, but I am going to focus on two: Ben Franklin and Warren Buffett.

Ben Franklin was essentially the founder of the financial independence movement. He created the first franchise known to the world, a printing business. He sold half of it and amassed enough passive income through the other half that he was able to retire at 38 years old. At the time, he was very wealthy, yet still spent as if he were poor. This freedom allowed him to pursue his passions and discover a few small things you may have heard of: the lightning rod, bi-focal glasses, electricity, and the United States of America.

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

Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, has amassed a net worth of over $85 billion (2018) by being the stock market’s best investor for the past 50+ years. How has he amassed so much wealth? The Snowball is a great book that illustrates this, and you can probably get the idea from the title. He kept his spending significantly lower than his expenses and invested the difference. With compound interest and above-market returns, his investments created the massive amount of wealth he has today.

Let me ask you this: Who would you rather be associated with? Grant Cardone or Ben Franklin? Donald Trump or Warren Buffett?

In this article, my goal is to help create more Ben Franklins and Warren Buffetts in the world. The first step is through frugality. Frugality might seem like a bad word to some. This is largely due to the five myths described below. I am going to debunk them.

Let’s go!

frugality

Myth #1: Frugality makes you “cheap.”

I recently wrote an article called The 4 Stark Differences Between Being Frugal and Cheap. This article debunks this myth in and of itself. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll leave a summary of the four differences here:

  • Someone who is frugal saves money. Someone who is cheap saves money at the expense of others.
  • A frugal person happily spends on things of value. A cheap person saves in any possible scenario, at all costs.
  • A frugal person values time. A cheap person values money.
  • A frugal person looks for value. A cheap person looks for the least expensive.

In other words, a frugal person does not value material items. They do not try to keep up with Joneses. They are perfectly OK driving their used Toyota Camry, finding deals at Goodwill, and packing a lunch. However, they do spend money on the parts of life that matter most to them.

Myth #2: Frugality doesn’t allow you to truly live.

This is the funniest one. I get it all the time. “Craig, you need to live a little.” These people clearly don’t know much about me.

As the song “Live Like You’re Dying” goes, I have been sky diving (in the Swiss Alps), Rocky Mountain Climbing (in Colorado), and even rode a bull (maybe he was named Fu Manchu?). I’ve climbed volcanoes in Guatemala, scuba dived in the Galapagos, and have been all over the United States.

That’s what “living” is for me. Those adventures and the people I meet doing those things are what I live for. You know what I don’t live for? Crappy restaurant food. “Nice” cars. Superficial clothing. Going to the same bar with the same friends every weekend. You get the idea.

It’s not just me. Talk to anyone who values frugality. Compare them to those who spend more lavishly, and I can almost guarantee the frugal person, the one who needs less to appreciate life, is infinitely happier than the lavish spender. They are more fulfilled, have more things that matter, and acquire less clutter.

“The richest man is not who has the most, but who needs the least.” I don’t know who said it, but I love it!

Myth #3: Frugality is too hard.

Congratulations! You are no different than 95 percent of the country. The “too hard, I can’t, it’s too much work” statements that spew out of Americans’ mouths baffles me.

Rather than think of ways to save 50 percent or more of your income, which, if done correctly will likely allow you to “retire” in 5-10 years, you would rather come up with the “it’s too much work” excuse and work 40-50 years.

I’m no mathematician. But it seems awfully clear that you are going to be putting in a LOT more work if these excuses persist.

Related: Living Frugally vs. Spending on What Matters: How I Achieve a Happy Medium

Myth #4: Increasing your income is better than being frugal.

This is a half-fair statement. You can absolutely make more money by increasing your income. However, the trap that most Americans fall into is that immediately as they increase their income, they increase their lifestyles. They reward themselves with a new car or live in a more expensive apartment, etc.

Increasing your income is a great way to go about achieving financial freedom. While there is unlimited scalability, it is far less efficient.

Back to the financial independence expression:

Passive Income > Expenses

Increasing your income only allows you to work one side of the equation. Frugality works both! By decreasing your expenses (right side), you are able to invest in more passive assets (left side).

Not only that, but when you cut expenses, you are saving after tax dollars. Ben Franklin’s quote of a “penny saved is a penny earned” is actually outdated with our current tax system. A penny saved is now 1.33 pennies earned (depending on your tax bracket).

Myth #5: If you have a family, frugality is impossible.

Having a family definitely makes it harder than if you were single. However, frugality is still possible. I am still the last node on my family’s tree (no kids), so I can’t relate. However, let me talk about a few people who can.

Meet Mr. & Mrs. 1500, Mr. & Mrs. Money Mustache, and Mr. & Mrs. Frugalwoods. I could go on, and I promise you do not have to have a “Mr. and Mrs.” in front of your name to be frugal. Let me give you a brief rundown of the 1500s and Mr & Mrs. Money Mustache.

Mr. and Mrs. 1500 started their journey of financial independence with two kids! Once discovering the concept, they set themselves a goal that after 1500 days they would be financially free, mainly through frugality. The 1500s live in a wonderful town outside of Boulder, CO, travel regularly, and Mrs. 1500 just purchased the car of her dreams. It all started with frugality.

Mr. Money Mustache (MMM) is the original frugality badass. MMM worked as an engineer for a few years and quickly realized he was amongst the few that were saving large portions of their income. After “retiring” at 31, he realized he was on to something. This freedom has allowed him to start one of the most successful personal finance blogs in the space, spend unlimited time with his son, and do things he loves to do.

Conclusion

There you have it—five common frugality myths, busted! Now, quit your whining, and take action! Here’s a challenge/action item for you.

Look at your finances, whether you use Mint or Personal Capital, or you just look over your most recent bank statement. Then, determine ONE THING you can cut from your life. This is preferably something with a meaningful impact. Perhaps you can cut your restaurant spending in half? Or maybe you can ditch that silly cable bill.

Whatever you decide, go at least 60 days without it. After the 60th day, if your life is just incomplete without this item, then bring it back in and cut something else out in its place. Run this experiment every single month.

Over the course of the next 12-24 months, these effects will have compounded, and you will have changed 12-24 things that you were wasting your money on. Your life will be optimized. If you’re a median income earner, your savings rate will likely be at or above 50 percent. You will be on the fast track towards financial independence!

Do you find that frugality is a necessary step towards achieving your financial goals? Is it something you struggle with or embrace?

Share your experience and strategies below!

About Author

Craig Curelop

After developing a huge love for real estate investing and personal finance, Craig decided to join the BiggerPockets team as a financial analyst. Over the past few years, he has looked at hundreds of financial models of startup companies. His experience will help BiggerPockets reach the next level as a startup company. Craig has a passion for helping others get out of their “comfort zones” to get what they want and achieve the “impossible.” In his spare time, Craig enjoys traveling, hiking, exercising, and sports of all kinds.

61 Comments

  1. stone cutter on

    That was great! My story, When I would drive my truck or car into the local shopping center I always had the oldest car or truck there. Wow this must be the wealthiest place on earth because all had nicer vehicles than me and I was worth about a million and a half, owned 6 houses free and clear and had about 600k in the bank! The funny party of it was all these rich people sat in line waiting to save 2 cents on a gallon of gas. Never could figure how someone could afford to spend 50k on a fancy SUV and sit in line to save maybe 30 cents on gas!!!!

    • Craig Curelop

      Thanks, Stone (is your name really Stone Cutter? If so, that’s awesome!)

      Great story! I have the utmost respect for anyone who has a large net worth, yet still lives well below their means and doesn’t flaunt it.

  2. Well presented and written.

    Here’s another couple of Myths, defer taxes on income by investing in a Traditional IRA v. a ROTH.

    Another Myth, pay taxes on income on a pay-as-you-go basis by investing is a ROTH IRA v. a Traditional IRA because you’ll have more money.

    You won’t, both end up in a dead heat. However, the similarities end there.

    The Traditional IRA is banking heavily, some may say living in a world of sugar plum fairies and Unicorns, that future tax rates will be lower, that Uncle Sam can curb his outrageous spending.

    The ROTH IRA owner, even with the same net amount as the Traditional IRA owner, can sleep peacefully at night because any future rapacious tax grabs by Uncle Sam aren’t applicable to him/her. His/her future income with be “Tax Free”.

    • Fay Chen

      Thank you, Tomas. My older co-workers and my dad have always told me to put money away for 401K. I don’t really see any incremental benefit of 401K except for the company matching. So I put away just enough to get all the company matching. I’ve always wondered about what if I have a higher tax rate when I retire? Then I should’ve just paid the tax now and invested how I wanted. But so many older ppl disagree with me. I thought I was missing something…

      • Stephen Shelton

        I don’t save to a 401K. There are billions, if not trillions, in these accounts and we have a government with a voracious appetite for money. I’m decades away from retirement and there’s no way I’d trust the government to leave these accounts untouched for that amount of time. I have already heard rumblings about doing “one-time” taxes to penalize savers to assist those in public assistance with iPhone Xs. I know after the 2016 election we got a bit of a reprieve from being punished, but we could easily get someone even worse than Obama before I retire.

        Local governments love to penalize property investors too (my property taxes have grown faster than bamboo) but these virgin-pure and vulnerable 401Ks are just sitting ducks for some sort of glitzy tax penality that sounds appealing to the new generation of voters (they they aren’t eating Tide Pods or snorting condoms).

    • Jason Hinton

      If a personals personal income tax rate stays the same a Traditional IRA and Roth IRA have exactly the same results so it comes down to betting on tax rates in retirement vs tax rates today.
      * If you believe your tax bracket will be lower in retirement then a Traditional IRA makes sense.
      * If you believe your tax bracket will be higher in retirement than a Roth IRA make sense.
      My wife and I hedge our bets and max out a 401k and a Roth IRA

      If you really want to avoid taxes max out a HSA account and use it as a retirement vehicle instead of a medical account.

      • Jason Hinton

        There is also this.

        A traditional IRA is a guaranteed tax reduction today. A Roth IRA is a PROMISED tax reduction in the future. There is nothing keeping Congress from changing their mind and taxing withdrawals from Roth IRAs in the future.

        Another bonus for Roth IRAs is that you can take out contributions penalty free after 5 years so you have access to the money for other things or early retirement. Of course some people get around this with IRA conversion ladders where they convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA 5 years before they need the money.

        There is no simple answer to which type of IRA is best for everyone. It depends on the individual goals of the invester.

        • Why does it have to be a debate and ultimate choice between the Traditional IRA and the ROTH IRA?

          For many people the best answers might be an Individual 401(k) which has both Traditional IRA and ROTH IRA components.

          That being said, I would not pick any of the three to begin with, I would choose an alternative plan that out perform all three.

      • Jason,

        I understand your approach and most would agree but at least the ROTH eliminates Uncle Sam’s future tax grab.

        Over the last fourteen Presidents ten had higher tax rates than now, even the beloved Reagan had a 50% top tax rate. Do you honestly feel with over a 20-trillion dollars deficient tax rate will be better 10, 20, 30 years from now?

        Not knowing what the future tax rate will be is, “Gambling” and that is what casinos are for.

        Also, any money in your 401(k) if accessed is taxable so you 401(k) is also gambling.

        And, with a Traditional IRA, ROTH IRA or 401(k), if you had accumulated $25,000 in each and die, your heirs get … $25,000 from each fund. There is a better approach to this. Both the Traditional IRA and 401(k) funds would be taxable if accessed by the heirs.

        And, with a Traditional IRA, ROTH IRA or 401(k), if you had accumulated $25,000 in each and became terminally, critically or chronically ill, your have access to … $25,000 from each fund that could be taxable.

        There is a better approach to this.

        And with a Traditional IRA, ROTH IRA or 401(k), if you had accumulated $25,000 in each and Wall Street tanks, you lose big time unless you are in a Money Market, Bank CD etc.

        There is a better approach to this that eliminates market downsides and the rich have used it decades. Over 80% of top Corporate Executives use this approach and will continue to do so.

        • Jason Hinton

          A person’s personal investing choices have a much larger influence on future taxes then what Congress does.

          The biggest factor is whether that person saves / invests enough so that their investments pay more in retirement per year than they are making today at their job. For the VAST majority of people the answer to that question is no. In that case they would be better off to put off taxes until a retirement when their income (and therefore taxes) are lower.

          I’m not big on guessing what congress will do 10, 20, or 30 years from now. I would think that at some point we would have to balance our budget but the current congress just cut taxes and raised spending so who knows. There is no guarantee Congress won’t decided to tax withdrawals from Roth IRAs in the future. So it is all a gamble.

      • Fay Chen

        Wow, I haven’t thought of putting money in the HSA account! That’s so clever! I have this healthcare plan where my company contributes $1000 into a debit card. And I can put pre-tax money in it as well. It has a high deductible (Max $3000/yr). But all the money sitting in the account actually pays interests. Putting money away for medical expenses is a good move before retirement. Thank you, Jason!

        • Jason Hinton

          The money put into an HSA and the earnings are never taxed. (Not even Medicare and Social Security) That is why I use mine as a retirement account not to pay day to day medical bills.

          My HSA works just like a IRA and I have a large number of mutual funds available.

    • Craig Curelop

      Thanks Thomas!

      This is great insight!

      The only argument here is that by investing in a traditional IRA right now you are investing pre-tax money. Ideally, in your first year of retirement or in a year where you make an incredibly low amount of income is when you will convert that into a ROTH and be in a lower tax bracket.

      I don’t think the argument is that taxes are going to get reduced over time.

  3. Bryan S.

    With the new tax law temporarily lowering individual income tax brackets and nearly doubling the standard deduction, one would likely pay less tax by using a Roth and after tax income right now, should those cuts not become permanent…which I surmise they won’t. Finally, assuming people will remain in the same tax bracket from working years through retirement years also fails to account for potential IRS income tax increases, which long term seem far more realistic as we continue to add onto our national debt and deficit spending.

  4. Bryan,

    I totally agree with your train of thought but you can go crazy trying to factor in all of the possibilities. For example if Jane were placing $500 monthly into her Traditional IRA and John paying taxes and then placing $350 into a ROTH IRA John is actually making larger contributions.

    I favor the ROTH because future text rates will statistically be higher, not lower and once retirement time arrives for a ROTH IRA Owner future tax rates become irrelevant.

    However, that being said I don’t recommend either of the IRAs because there is something superior in every aspect. Unfortunately people are not being told about it by their Financial Advisors or IRA Custodians.

  5. Camilla Sauder

    Totally embraced this lifestyle 30 years ago, still live it today. We all spend our money on something and we’ve chosen to spend it on experiences rather than things and giving instead of spending on ourselves. Living below our means is what enabled us to get into real estate in our late 40’s. In only five years, my husband was able to choose whether he wanted to work or not. I don’t really care if you call me cheap or frugal at this point!! 🙂

  6. Camilla,

    Congratulations.

    Most people simply do not have the will power to save and not spend, especially when Madison avenue manipulates its “Buy Now” and “You need it now” and “You deserve it now” seductive ideology.

  7. Chris Ayers

    I’d rather live like Trump or cardone. Is it just me?

    I follow the /r/financialindepence subreddit and you’ll find allot of people who save 70% of their income. You’ll also find people who are now miserable because they lost all their friends, spouses and such all in the name of FI. Do you really not want to hang out with your friends every so often just to save a buck?

    Life is short and we only have so much time on this Earth. If someone claims to be financially independent then can’t come out for a beer, how independent are you?

    Financial Independence means different things to different people. You don’t need to live like you’re poor to be independent. Just need to buy more real estate to afford more.

      • Craig Curelop

        Phaen,

        The fact that you no longer need to rely on a job to provide for you. You can quit and dedicate 100% of your efforts to something that is valuable to you. Spend time with family and friends? Travel? Create something such that you can leave a legacy? The possibilities are endless!

    • Craig Curelop

      Chris,

      If you enjoy going out with friends and grabbing a beer. By all means, do it! That’s one of the things you value.

      Personally, I have met all of ZERO people who save significant portions of their income (50%+) and have sacrificed any relationships. If the only thing you can do with your friends is drink, are they really even your friends? Try hanging out with friends without using alcohol and I’ll bet you a beer that you’ll find that those relationships are much much better.

      You don’t have to live like this forever…. as you continue to increase your passive income by investing in assets that produce it, it will be much easier to do the things you love to do. Just know that until you’re there, every beer is taking you further and further away. Especially if you’re drinking at a bar!

  8. John Murray

    I have studied Ben Franklin, his operating and manipulation of early American society was incredible. His doctrine of looking busy when it counts served him well. I’m an entrepreneur and have learned many techniques from Ben. His humor and dealings with “low women” sheds light on the human side of Ben. Ben lived life on his terms, never excepting limitations of his abilities. Warren Buffet is a bit of a mystery to me, I should read his book and perhaps his stock would increase too.

    • Craig Curelop

      John, thanks for this comment! You’re exactly right!

      One characteristic I do not want to follow from Ben Franklin is how he treated his family and his flirtations. If you do some studying on Warren Buffett, you’ll find that they are very similar.

  9. Joseph Moore Jr

    I used to be a spender in my 20’s and very unhappy in life. Lost everything when I was 31 and started from being homeless with no money to being comfortable at 48. I embrace being frugal driving a 18 yr old mini van which is also a work van. Now I own 5 properties although not making money with them yet. Have a decent emergency fund and a work in progress 401k. I travel to SE Asia once a year for a month mainly to the Philippines would be longer if I did not have a dog. Hoping to quit my job permanently at the end of 2019. I have to take a leave of absence each time I travel. 2017 into 2018 I took 3 months off.

  10. Edgardo A.

    GC started as being frugal. He doesn’t mention it much and definitively doesn’t call that but from listening to his podcasts/videos he mentions that he saved like crazy (he doesn’t like to use the word save though), drove a Camry (or something like that), that his first rental he paid $265/mo, etc. Even if he always says to increase your income, he has always lived below his means. It was through this plus his success that he was able to have hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest in apartment buildings when time was right. All of this has made him very successful and now lives very lavishly.

    Great article. I think that frugality should be a starting point for everyone even if they aspire to live like GC or DT. They problem is that they want to live like them without having the financial means of doing so.

    • Craig Curelop

      Edgardo, this is brilliantly stated!

      I actually should have included a paragraph like this in the article. If you want to live like GC, you need to start off by being frugal. Once you have the passive income and/or means to live like GC, then by all means go for it!

      Great comment. Thank you for sharing!

  11. Ali Hashemi

    I think too many commenting on this take frugality to be the end goal. The goal is not to be frugal, the goal is to not have to be frugal. But to get to that point you have to start out frugal.

    Frugality is a means to an end, not the end itself.

    • Kevin Moules

      Ali,
      I could not agree more. One could live like MMM for the rest of their life and make a game out of it. This is not my route of choice. I choose to be as frugal as possible so later on I do not have to be. As Dave Ramsey famously says, “Live like no one else, that way later on you can live and give like no one else” .This is my goal, to work because I choose to, not because I have to.

      Good article craig!

      • Nikki Wright

        As it happens, I have had dealings with Dave Ramsey’s wife. She tried to bargain for an item for sale at a charity event. People stared. When reminded the money she would spent went to charity, she shrugged and said, “I’m Dave Ramsey’s wife. I have to do this.” Frugality that embarrasses yourself and others? No thanks. I’d rather go with the flow while being conservative.

        • Craig Curelop

          Great input, Nikki!

          I totally agree – skimping on charity in any form, in my opinion is being cheap. The people you’re donating to likely need it much more than you do. If you’re at the event, be ready to dole out a few bucks for a great cause.

      • Craig Curelop

        Sure – every single hobo in this world is financially free.

        The point is to live extremely frugally, doing the things that only matter most to you right now and as your passive income grows, you can take your foot off the gas.

  12. Aleks Ulmer

    Love this article because sometimes I wonder if I cross the line with frugality. Occasionally I’ll find myself obsessing over certain numbers, so I force myself to step back and reanalyze what my true goal is. Fortunately I’m not cheap, as I never save money at the expense of others and happily spend on things of value (looking for deals if possible). Growing up I never had much money so after I got my first job it was easy for me to save and live below my means. Fast forward several years and I graduated college debt-free (while working to pay tuition), and at 26 have stacked up a solid 401K as well as other investments. Besides seeing my numbers grow, I try not to make it all about that… through the process of being frugal I have found I love living simply and enjoying life as it’s meant to be enjoyed. I’ve had a few cool cars in the past (paid with cash of course) but I find satisfaction currently driving a 4-cyl gas-saver while the rest of my money is working for me. To the future!

    Great stuff here! Wish more people would find enjoyment in being financially proactive, but hey, their loss 🙂

  13. Samantha W.

    Craig, you really nailed it with this one! When I was growing up, my mom always taught me small lessons on the importance of frugality, while still maintaining quality. I’ll never forget a story that she would tell me about a school janitor that retired wealthy because he was frugal – it always struck me that it had more to do with mindset rather than your salary.

    Little things really add up. If you purchase items that are higher quality, not only do they last longer and save you money in the long run, but they’re also waaay better than the cheap alternatives. It’s a win win! Great post!

    • Craig Curelop

      Thanks, Samantha!

      It’s funny how those little things Mom and Dad told us growing up stick with us. Sometimes, I tell my parents some things they told me that have stuck… and they don’t even remember saying it haha!

      Very true. That’s the difference between being frugal and cheap. Buy something of value, that lasts awhile and is of good quality, and you’ll be good to go!

  14. Steve Vaughan

    Great article, Craig. People look at me cross-eyed when I ask how much they keep after mentioning what they make when they do. I speak in ‘what is kept’ only.
    Anyway, this was a nice complement to your frugal vs cheap article. Spend on things that add real value to you. Find value vs just least expensive and don’t burden others with your cheapness. Great stuff!

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