“But it’s not exactly fun, is it?”
My book, The Joyful Frugalista, was not long out and I was writing Q &A for a book chain’s newsletter. I was a little bit taken aback by the question, insulted even. But two years ago, pre-COVID, this was a question I got asked a lot.
“How do your kids manage having a frugal mum? Do they still have fun?”
“What do you do for fun?“
“What about your husband, is it fun for him being married to someone frugal?”
Fun, frugalistas and F.I.R.E.
It’s not just me who used to get subtle and not-so-subtle digs about not having fun. The whole Financial Independence Retire Early (F.I.R.E.) movement has been criticised for not being much fun. I remember a few years ago reading an article written by a guy in the UK who had decided (briefly) to try FIRE as a New Year’s resolution. I wish I still had that article. I was well-written and funny – he was a real comedian – but also a bit tragic at the same time. Basically, he identified that a key weakness he had was spending at the local pub, so he started using coupons and vouchers and complained that many of these pubs were a bit ordinary. And he started borrowing from his girlfriend to save money, which I am guessing didn’t make for relationship harmony. Cut off from his normal socialising, he felt isolated and bored. He gave up his FIRE experiment quickly.
Thinking back on this and expectations about how to enjoy life while saving money, I think the key problem is the word fun. Pre-COVID, many of us were addicted to fast, easy, credit-fuelled fun rather than seeking long term joy. We wanted it all now: and we didn’t want to wait. It was all bling, bling, fun, fun, fun and saving money sounded, well, boring in comparison.
Further, some people thought (and still do) that if you are committed to FIRE, that means no more fun. Ever. You have to just sit at home and do nothing, and you aren’t allowed to socialise. There are many negative stories in the media about super boring people who sit at home and are so focused on saving that it’s easy to wonder what the point of living is. Often the stories are related out of context. For instance, I often get portrayed as an extreme cheapskate even though we live a comfortable, middle-class life.
YOLO (You Only Live Once)
You only live once so why not enjoy your life? Who cares about credit card statements when you are dead?
A few days ago, I went to my third funeral in three months. Amidst the tragedy of lives cut short too early, and the cookie-cutter familiarity of how a ceremony will run (sadder still), it’s given me pause to reflect on the meaning of life.
You certainly can’t take your money with you, but when you are in a good financial situation you can do those things you have have always wanted to do. Why die still working in a job you hate when you could have been financially independent and quit to follow your purpose and passion and made a difference? And what about that overseas trip you had always wished you would have taken? Who knows when something like a pandemic might stop you going, so it’s important to plan now to have the finances to do what your heart is calling you to do.
And to my mind, living in financial distress is not fun. I enjoy sleeping well at night knowing I have paid for the roof over our head and that we are prepared for most financial contingencies. To me that’s pretty high on the joy scale.
COVID and the joy of frugal living
I would never have expected that a year and a bit of living slowly due to COVID would have led to a resurgence in frugal fun. I remember in early 2020 trying to give away jigsaw puzzles and board games, and convince an editor to let me write about sourdough baking. Well, I struggled to give away jigsaw puzzles and the editor thought I was crazy.
But now, months of being at home and living/travelling locally have helped us all slow down. I’m not the only sourdough baker I know – many of my friends enjoy baking. I swap jigsaw puzzles with my neighbour and other people on my Buy Nothing Project group – there’s quite a cycle of jigsaw karma going around. Other friends have picked up skills like quilting and sewing. Yep, there’s lot of frugal fun going on, and some commentators have even suggested that embracing frugality could even be one of the few good things to come out of COVID.
What is fun anyway?
You might think it is easy to define what is enjoyable, but often our view of fun comes from marketing. We see ads, videos, articles about happy, beautiful people having fun doing things that cost money: going to concerts, out to the movies, shopping for brand name clothing and stuff, going out to dinner at expensive restaurants and off on expensive holidays. This is not a coincidence: marketing agencies spend millions of dollars trying to convince us that spending money on their product = happiness.
But does it really? Maybe. I certainly like fine dining, but I don’t like feeling bloated after over-eating. Nor do I like feeling stressed if I wrack up credit bills from eating out too often. And when I think of a new car, the depreciation alone is enough to make me feel anxious rather than joyful. An expensive holiday is great, but if you’re in an abusive relationship, a fancy hotel suite and champagne isn’t going to necessarily mean you will feel happy being with that person.
Everyone enjoys different things. A few years ago, I sat down and wrote a list of the things that make me happy, and it wasn’t what I expected. Here are some of the things on my list:
- Hanging out laundry on a warm day and watching it flap against the blue sky;
- Playing cards (even better – Rummy);
- Writing blog posts;
- Coming up with creative ideas, especially entrepreneurial ideas;
- Helping other people;
- Having friends over for afternoon tea;
- Going to event/exhibition openings;
- Going for a walk;
- Reading; and
- Op shopping.
What I noticed when I looked at my list (and this is just part of it) was that very few of the things that I brought me joy were expensive. In fact, when I was honest with myself, some things that many people believe are fun didn’t actually bring me joy. I don’t really like going to movie theatres for instance (too loud, too dark, too many ads, can’t get out, sometimes scary and overwhelming), hanging out in large shopping malls (parking makes me feel anxious and the musak and crowds drives me nuts), nor do I like theme parks (rides scare me every since I was on one and the safety bar came loose). Oh, and I don’t like drinking coffee either. I quite like international travel, but one year I was away so often with work that heading to the airport was the last thing I wanted to do when on holidays with my family.
I’m not going suggest that anyone on here is wrong to like going to the theatre to watch the latest movie, going to a shopping mall, going on a scary ride at a theme park, drinking barista-made coffee every morning, or booking an international holiday. But the point is that I don’t really like those things so I’m quite happy not to do them. In fact, I’m happier staying at home, cooking and beating my family at Rummy (I tend to win a lot so my family tends not to want to play with me quite as much – my not-as-competitive husband sneaks good tiles to my youngest son so he can do well when I’m not looking).
I will add here that before I met my husband, I was more interested in being out and about when I didn’t have my kids. I socialised a lot. An invite for an exhibition opening or foodie event? Yes please. I’ve changed my perspective now (I kind of like sitting on our new sofa watching things on iView together), but to me I still like the buzz of being out in a crowd. Introverts and those who are exhausted from work/family routines might not want to be out socialising constantly; and that’s okay, too.
The risk of trying to lead an Insta perfect life
Unless you live in a cave, you are probably on social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook. And seeing the beautiful pictures of other people’s exciting events is almost enough to create FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) envy.
One of my close friends and Instagrammer Erna aka @simplycheecky shared with me how some people can go too far in pursuit of the perfect Instagramable image. She shared with me the sad tale of Lissette Calveiro, who wracked up around $10,000 in debt trying to create the perfect Instagram profile. “I was living above my means. I was living a lie and debt was looming over my head,” she said in an interview. [It ends up being a good story, as she conquered her debt and changed her habits.]
Let’s take an example from my own Instagram page. Last Monday we went for a bushwalk.
My kids had lots of fun, and I have other photos of my sons with big smiles. But what I don’t show is my eldest son whining and nearly in tears because he didn’t want to get off his computer. I also didn’t show me huffing and puffing behind them going up the hill, struggling with my personal fitness. All I have shown is that it was perfect weather and a great day.
The moral here is that what you see online is not always reality – it is just one small fragment of someone else’s life. It doesn’t tell you whether they are really rich and famous, or indeed, whether or not they are actually having fun. And above all else, it’s important not to overspend or go into debt trying to be someone you’re not.
Frugal friends flock together
One of the best ways to have fun and still save money is to choose frugal friends. I’m not suggesting you immediately ditch your spendy friends, but as you become more interested in things like saving money, investing and sustainability you will gravitate towards people who share your frugal interests and values.
For instance, I met my good friend Trish ‘online’ on the Simple Savers forum. When we get together we can chat for hours about our latest treasures obtained via our Buy Nothing projects, her sewing projects, what we are cooking, and how our family is doing. We have an authentic, genuine connection, and we don’t need to spend a lot of money to catch up. Years ago we went walking together each Saturday morning – chatting and getting fit was one of the highlights of my week. These days we tend to catch up over a cup of tea (a shame I don’t like coffee as she’s the best barista I know), home baked goodies and a chat.
Compare this with an experience years ago, when I went out to dinner with some workmates thinking it was the right thing to do to be part of a team. It was an expensive meal. They chose a big set banquet plus cocktails and then the bill was split at the end of the night. I no longer work there and I’m not in contact with any of them. Was it fun? Well, it was a nice meal but I wasn’t really fun as it felt a bit like a work thing so conversation was a bit forced, and also the big bill at the end kind of tarnished the enjoyment of the culinary delights of the evening. After that, I decided not to socialise outside of work with anyone who didn’t share my money values. I was always happy to have a tea/coffee/walk/chat, but I wasn’t going to jeopardise my financial goals by going out to expensive meals just because I thought I should be a good team player. That has included saying no to expensive pay-your-own-meal Christmas lunches and even on occasion expensive farewell lunches. I don’t think it is fair or right to put expectations on staff members to pay for expensive out of work events, and I stand by that decision.
I’m currently reading Atomic Habits by James Clear and there is a whole section in the book about the role of family and friends in shaping habits. Essentially, if you are into fitness, you will develop fit habits when you surround yourself with people who share your fitness goals and interests. And likewise, if you are around a group of people who say love talking about saving money and investing, then you are more likely to be into saving and investing. In law of attraction speak, those who are wealthy are the ones who like to talk about money and abundance – so surround yourself with them and have fun learning about investing.
Do you have frugal friends? Do you enjoy frugal fun? What things do you like doing that are cheap and don’t cost a fortune?