I grew up in a pretty low-key family, financially speaking. We always had plenty of money for groceries and my parents never went into debt, but if you were one of the Joneses* living down the street from us, you’d be hard-pressed to notice any flashy spending.
This upbringing occurred in a pretty small town (we only got our second stoplight around the time I reached high school), and there wasn’t a lot of wealth to be flaunted around there. The closest thing to riches was a very attractive girl in my class named Kim who got to drive her parents’ brand new 1992 Mercury Cougar to high school every day.
This town was located in another country, the one called “Canada”, and we were known at the time for being less wealthy and flashy than our neighbours to the South. Hearty dudes with big beards and plaid shirts were our iconography, even if my own area was a bit more clean-shaven.
And finally, all of this happened over twenty years ago, at a time when all of us had simpler and less flashy lives. The very first cell phones – the ones that were tethered with a coiled cord to a base unit as big as a car battery – were only things to ogle curiously and were priced at $1999 on the last page of the Radio Shack catalog.
Even in university I was barely aware of wealth. We Engineers are notorious for our lack of cash-flaunting (and status-detecting) skills, so I thought of all of us as equals. There were a few rare kids that had expensive mountain bikes or laptop computers at the time, but for the most part, we all paid our own tuition and lived in cheap basement apartments.
So for most of my early life, I wasn’t even aware that money was something that could be flaunted to others. I thought it was a tool for buying your groceries, or if your parents really did well, a back yard swimming pool.
I think I experienced my first flaunting experience just after I had graduated and started working full-time in the software field. Some friends and I went on a summer trip to “Sherkston Beach”, a low-budget Canadian version of what they call “Spring Break” here in the US.
Beers in hand, we walked along the shore to join the party. I noticed that a long line of very clean and shiny cars had been parked along the strip, and each was playing some sort of boo-tss-boo-tsss dancy music from an upgraded stereo system. The owners of the cars, invariably tanned and bare chested dudes with expensive sunglasses, frosted hair tips and their little muscles carefully flexed, were busily walking around their cars, tending to this or that, setting up beer coolers or polishing volleyballs or otherwise keeping themselves busy.
“What is going on here?”, I wondered at first. “Why are their cars so clean? Why are they so well-groomed on a camping trip?.
“Oh… I think I get it … they are attempting to show off their wealth for the benefit of all the fine ladies around here.”
The whole scene seemed a bit amusing and evolution-driven, like the complex bird mating dances in Madagascar that David Attenborough likes to teach you about:
At the time, I was working in my first engineering job so I was probably making more money than any of the dancing bird boys. I even had a nicer car, since I had not yet learned of the folly of this type of purchase. I remember my car, dusty and parked over next to my tent, getting a bit of positive attention from men and women alike… and I admit it felt pretty nice at the time.
When I got older and moved to the US of A, however, everything stepped up a few notches. I saw parking lots just casually filled with cars fancier than anything I had seen in my entire childhood. I learned about neighborhoods where people talk about each other’s wealth, and even enforce gardening and house painting standards upon each other to “preserve their property values”. I heard about “Golf Club Memberships”, a bizarre concept where you pay thousands of dollars in advance, for the privilege of paying hundreds of additional dollars each time you play golf at certain courses. And I learned that people consider it prestigious to spend money on these expensive things, even while they consider it a hardship to lead a life that does not include the expensive things.
When newcomers stumble across the space 4 art blog, they are immediately excited by the idea of early retirement and a lifetime of freedom. But then they are immediately dismayed when they realize that to earn this freedom, they will need to spend much less money than they earn, for several years.
“Damn!”, they say. “I want the reward, but I really don’t want that hardship and struggle that it takes to get there. I will be viewed as a lesser person among my peers if I dare to embrace such frugality!”
Well guess what? You can now drop your fears of looking like a loser, because things have changed. If you haven’t heard the word, here it is: Frugality is the New Fanciness.
Let me explain, for those still not convinced.
In the olden days, times were much tougher. Most of us struggled to keep food on the table and to keep the water from leaking through our roofs. The economic system was simple, based on slips of paper in bank vaults and file folders, and gold coins. The credit system was in its infancy so the average Joe couldn’t just go out and borrow money to buy whatever he wanted.
In these conditions, it took real skill to get ahead. A man had to really master the system to pull himself up out of material scarcity. This meant studying financial concepts, understanding the emotions of fellow humans in order to rise into a position of leadership, and even conquering his own fear and lethargy to avoid the temptation to sit at home and do nothing all day.
Only after mastering these tasks, could someone start a successful business or earn a promotion to the top of an existing one, and only at that point would he have enough cash to buy a flashy house, or expensive artwork, or jewelry, or whatever else the status symbols of the day were.
So when the successful olden-days businessman walked down the street with these trappings of success, it could reasonably be deduced that he was actually somewhat badass. Of course, if he later passed on his wealth to children who would then flaunt the wealth without having earned it, he’d be watering down his own badassity. But for a moment, let’s suppose that a good chunk of the wealth in early 20th century America was self-made. Because of this, showing your wealth was a sign of status, as it was proof that you had taken a more difficult path and succeeded.
Now let’s fast forward to the present day. Everything is fucking amazing – we all have touchscreen computers in our pockets that can listen to our voices and speak back, while accessing the sum total of humanity’s knowledge instantaneously through invisible radio waves. We have cars that can shoot us across the country in climate-controlled comfort, yet they’re cheap enough for teenagers to buy them on minimum wage. And most significantly, credit is so widely available that anyone with a heartbeat can sign up for tens of thousands of dollars in debt. You can buy anything you want, even if you have no money at all. People buy houses with an 80% mortgage, and then get a second mortgage for the other 20%, and cars are bought with zero dollars down as well. And almost every single person does this.
In this environment, the easy path is to do what everyone else is doing. You see an ad for the iPad, or the Chevrolet Traverse, and you are excited by the power and the sleekness. You’ve got no money, but thanks to the advertising and peer pressure you’ve got plenty of desire. So you swipe a card or sign some paperwork, and now you too have the fancy stuff.
Everyone likes going out for sushi on Friday nights, and buying a few bottles of Kirian and Sake to go with it. They laugh and have a grand old time. They’re not worried about the fact that they don’t own their own houses and even their cars are borrowed. “This is socialization, it’s important!”, they rationalize. “And besides, sushi is extremely yummy!”. You too want to participate. You drive yourself to the restaurant in your own borrowed car and live “the good life”.
It can be pleasant to indulge in these things, and it sure is easy. But there’s another path available: the more difficult one.
Certain rare people live in the same society, and work the same jobs as the folks described above. But they’re a little bit better at math, and they can think a little bit further into the future. They see that money is useful for spending, but even more useful as a tool for earning more money. So they train themselves to master finance, and hard work, and self discipline. And they figure out how to have just as much fun as the big spenders, while being sure to do it in a way that allows them to save at least 50-75% of their income. It has already been proven that these people can meet or exceed the happiness levels of the more spendy group. The only difference is that they are able to spend less.
To top it all off, research comes in that the spenders are in fact consuming too much of the world’s resources. Oil reserves, Ice caps, and Ecosystems are taking a huge hit. The spenders refuse to believe this, latching on to any information that justifies the continuance of their lifestyles. The companies that provide their consumables are only too happy to furnish this information. Only those with the ability to understand scientific research are able to see through the haze.
In this situation, which group is more badass, more skilled, and thus more worthy of social status? The spenders, or the savers?
See? Frugality is, quite obviously, the new Fanciness.
The only reason to maintain a non-frugal lifestyle in the face of all this evidence, is if you’re too stubborn and stupid to accept it. Will you continue to fight against frugality, to show the world how stubborn and stupid you are? Or will you wise the hell right up right now and start showing your better side?
The only thing that has been missing for the rich world’s Fancy Frugal people, has been a support community. When you’re smarter than 99% of your neighbors in a way that intimidates them, you’ll tend to run short on people to invite to your weekly poker nights.
But now the times are ‘a’ changin’. The Mustachian Nation has been born. Look around at the comments on these articles and in the Forum. These are real people, tens of thousands of them, who have collected here on a less-than-one-year-old website that does no advertising or promotion. These people were already out there, and they are growing in number every day as more people see the light.
A great thing about frugality is that it still allows you to show off in a hilarious and social way. In the olden days, the executives at the golf resort felt camaraderie as they showed off their Rolexes and BMWs and thousand-dollar titanium drivers. It wasn’t the actual nature of these products that made the situation fun, it was the fact that they felt close to each other as they joked about their latest purchases.
When Mustachians gather, they show off the way they have modified their 30-year-old work trucks to work harder than brand new ones while burning less fuel. They bring their home-made radios to the campsite and share tales and tips of how it was made using entirely leftover materials. They discuss strategies on how to feed a family with peak nutrition and deliciousness, for less than $1 per person per meal. And unlike those who compete to consume more, these people actually have something to be proud of – they are blazing the necessary path towards a sustainable life for everyone. Eventually, all humans will have to learn to live on what the planet can regenerate each year. When you use more than that, you’re stealing resources from your own kids, and from the rest of the people you share the globe with. You don’t have to feel guilty about this.. you just have to feel good when you stop doing it.
This appreciation for our badassity is still rare, but it’s growing. If you adopt a frugal lifestyle, you may occasionally have to endure some misguided shit from clueless consumers around you. I took lots of it from the MSN readers back in January, although nobody has hassled me in real life so far. But you will also find you start getting some envying looks and respect from other people for your frugality skills. Eventually, just like the BMW-financing 21-year-old gets respect at Spring Break today, you will in due time become a hero in your own community for doing what’s right.
But ironically, the same skills that will get you there, mean that you won’t give a shit what they are thinking.
Onwards, my Fancy Frugal Friends!!
Shit! I just realized, one day after writing this article, that I had been planning for months to include a reference to this article by A.J. Kessler. Just to try to embarrass him, because he dares to mock both my shopping habits, and my writing style in this blog’s very first post. He and I became friendly frugality arch-rivals after somebody forwarded me his post months ago. So even though I missed my big chance, please click on that link so he’ll see the flurry of visitors and know we are talking about him.
*we really did live two doors down from the Jones family. But they didn’t buy much of anything either.
Further reading on the current trend of misguided spending as a silly social cue: