109: The Frugal Life Will Set You Free

19 minutes, 34 seconds Read

I argue in favor of the frugal life and explain why I find alleged fine dining to be a poor use of my money.

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Rough transcript:

You’re listening to the Stoic Solutions Podcast – practical wisdom for everyday life inspired by the ancient tradition of Stoic Philosophy from Greece and Rome. I’m your host, Justin Vacula. Visit my website at StoicSolutionsPodcast.com. 

This is episode 109: A Frugal Life Will Set You Free. I argue in favor of the frugal life and explain why I find alleged fine dining to be a poor use of my money.

Happy Holidays to those listening to this episode published in December of 2022! In January 2018, I released an episode titled ‘Preferring Frugality.’ Years later, I still prefer the frugal life and question what I see as unnecessary spending and consumerism. In many ways, I’ve leveled up my frugal game since I started with the credit card miles and points game, a focus of my other podcast, the Hurdy Gurdy Travel Podcast, in late 2018. 

I traveled to many locations, including Rome, Italy; Athens, Greece; Hawaii; Las Vegas; New Orleans; and numerous other areas at next to no cost and often with what some would call luxurious accommodations flying in business class or first class and staying in expensive hotels. One business class flight to Italy was advertised for about $6000, but 160k Delta SkyMiles, earned from one credit card welcome offer, covered the trip. I’ve eaten complimentary meals, often shared with others, that would have cost $100 or more. 

These experiences don’t disqualify me from being a Stoic because Stoics talked about such things as ‘preferred indifferents’ – things that can enhance our lives but aren’t needed for a virtuous life. Stoics warn that too much desire for food, travel, fame, power, and other things can ruin us, especially if we sacrifice our principles in the process. 

We’re to be mindful and ask: what must be traded for what? Shall we spend $100 eating out, for example, when we can just cook food at home for a much lower price? Should we spend $150 on designer jeans when we can spend $20? Should we work another job to afford higher monthly payments towards a brand new car? If you choose to pursue a relationship, why spend lots of money on a first date when you could instead go to a place that sells cheap drinks, especially Panera Bread, where you can get free drinks or drinks costing very little with the Unlimited Sip Club? Why pay $3.50 for soda when you can get ice water for free?

Ask yourself: is it worth trading my time for money to get things, especially a brand new car, rather than a modest used vehicle that I don’t really need? Should I spend $150 at a steakhouse when I can use $12.50 in a reward currency, casino comps, for unlimited high-quality food and drinks? The Amphora Lounge at Borgata reigns supreme.

I aim to optimize my spending when it comes to things I view as optional, especially food. I don’t see value in spending more than $12.50 in casino comps, for example, when I have a choice to spend $12.50. I look at food as a means to an end: eat something to get nutrients and feel full. Now, with the miles and points game, I haven’t missed out on alleged fine dining experiences. I’ve had dining room meals on three complementary cruises and comped meals valued at $100 or more at casinos and hotels. Every few weeks or months, I have a ‘fine dining experience’ at next to no cost and every time, after walking away, I don’t have desire to spend full price or what I see as a high price to indulge again. Once in a while is more than enough.

A frugal life allows me to lower risk. Should calamities happen from minor car troubles to major physical injury, I have more money to withstand misfortune. Financial peace of mind is quite valuable to me, and with this money behind, I don’t have to worry or stress about how the next bill or expense will be paid like many living paycheck to paycheck do. I also gain freedom of time because I do not have to put in extra work to pay for certain expenses. Even though my financial situation has greatly improved in recent years, I still have no desire to spend on alleged fine dining, it simply has no appeal to me. In fact, alleged fine dining for high cost has negative appeal because it threatens my freedom. 

The frugal life allows me to buy back my time and take off days when needed. Since I quit traditional work and make money mostly on my own terms, I don’t have to ask for days off of work and get heat when I try to use off-time nor am I asked to work more before I leave or return to work. I don’t have to wake at a certain time if I don’t want to and go to work when I had difficulty sleeping or am sick. I can attend special events like conferences, spend time with family, and not have a schedule restrict me. Even those still working, enjoying a frugal life, won’t have to sweat taking unpaid time off or not working overtime. Maybe one can leave work early to do other things rather than sit around in an office. 

The frugal life allows me to invest. I could retire early if desired, because I invested in the stock market, and be financially independent rather than being in my sixties or later working a 9 to 5 position. The frugal life allows for making money, including having extra cash to park in checking or savings accounts to gain hundreds of dollars in bonuses.

But Justin, do you spend at all? Do you recommend people stay at home all the time and have no entertainment or leisure? I spend some money on leisure, but when I do, I’m getting far more value than $150 or more for maybe an hour of alleged fine dining when I can spend less or eat elsewhere instead. I purchased a Nintendo Switch mini for use on flights and cruises when wi-fi is unreliable. I also play sometimes at home. I lowered the close to $200 cost with discounted Best Buy gift cards and account credits. So far, I have finished games lasting more than 100 hours, so this was a great value hour per dollar spent. 

I’ll also spend some money on travel, but the most significant expenses, including flights and hotels, are at next to no cost. I paid for admission to Stoicon in Athens, Greece and got good value for the money even though there was some cost for meals, train, and bus tickets. I typically buy a new cell phone every year. This year I spent about $50 for a Samsung Galaxy 22 after some promotional offers. I use the phone to learn, make money, save money, and communicate with people. I’ll also spend or risk money to make money as I do with investing, Poker play, and positive expectation online Blackjack play, utilizing promotions & rewards.

I watch Poker videos that improve my play and engage my mind. I follow various YouTube content creators and podcasters for information and entertainment. I meet friends, family, and people new to me often sharing information and gains from the miles and points hobby. I’m establishing a non-profit to help others. 

The cries of ‘you’re missing out’ from some who lament the frugal life have yet to show me something I am missing (or at least I haven’t found their arguments persuasive). I heard ‘you’re missing out’ for several years and I still don’t think I’m missing out. In a recent Facebook post, I lamented an article lauding the reopening of a steakhouse boasting a pricetag of $350 for a certain steak. A press release for said steakhouse promises “luxury, style, distinction,” and a “first-in-class steakhouse experience.” 

That’s $350 on a steak, not including tip, possible taxes, and additions. And for what? It’s what I see as a hallow promise of luxury and maybe some pleasurable feeling in your mouth for maybe a few minutes. I say maybe here because I have heard many accounts of people spending lots of money at steakhouses and later recounting how the food or experience didn’t live up to their expectations. 

Other entrees on the menu feature grossly overpriced items starting around $59. Appetizers range from $14-$27, and they’ll even charge you $8 for what they label “chef’s special bread preparation.” Interesting, make the menu sound fancy or exclusive and charge for bread when many other places provide free bread. Sadly, the masses line up to spend in excess when they instead can go to another location, spending maybe $10-20.

Returning to the Facebook post where I was critical of people’s reasons for such lavish spending, some inferred my psychological state claiming I was angry, that I should relax, and that I am bothered. Rather than providing arguments for lavish spending, they engaged in shaming language. 

One interesting response was, ‘I work hard for my money, so I want to enjoy it.’ I fail to see why we look towards food for enjoyment and why we would be willing to spend lots of money to have pleasure from food. Working hard, I also think, should lead us to be more intentional about how we use money rather than spending with little concern. Scorn societal messaging wanting you to engage in conspicuous consumption with messages like, ‘you deserve it,’ ‘treat yourself,’ ‘have some good food,’ and ‘indulge.’ 

People talk of steak as ‘good food,’ but I find very little good in participating in the slaughter of animals, often pumped with chemicals causing a great deal of environmental harm. The production of steak, after all, takes up a large part of land, pollutes water, and often leads to animals in questionable living conditions. Vegetarian argument aside, I wouldn’t even spend $60 on Thai or Indian vegetarian food when I could spend far less.

Others on Facebook deny that people even order the $350 steak, “nobody in the broad sense.” Even if only a tiny percentage of people order the $350 steak, I still don’t find value in the $350 steak and wouldn’t even spend $60 in that steakhouse. I can’t even see going to a steakhouse whether I am vegetarian or not. The same person encouraged a message of tolerance and discouraged me making arguments against lavish spending, “it is an amazing world where people make their own choices based on their own life goals and happiness. I also find no reason to convince others. I respect others that are different than me and I respect their opinions and likes and dislikes.” 

I gave up on this type of live and let live don’t criticize others’ choices or values messaging around 2009 when I started to openly criticize intolerant behaviors and beliefs that lead to harm, particularly fundamentalist religious beliefs, including refusing medical care for children in favor of alleged faith healing. Might spending be harmless? Maybe people making six figures each year can afford the cost, especially once in a while, but at least some people can’t afford the cost later, finding themselves in debt because they didn’t listen to the frugal message. 

It’s wild to see celebrities and professional athletes go from rags to riches and back to rags. It’s sad to see people paying high amounts of credit card interest because they bought things they couldn’t afford. Obesity rates are also rising in the United States, very likely due to so-called ‘good food’ or ‘fine dining’ that contributes to the decay of health. Wouldn’t it be great if more spoke out against lavish spending arguing that alleged fine dining really isn’t as great as advertised?

And why not criticize or even ask questions about others’ values or choices? I presented a case from 2005 in Washington state in which people had, shall we say, intimate encounters with horses. One such encounter lead to a man’s death and a son without a father. In a documentary produced after this incident, people argued that horse love is just like love a human can have for a human and that this shouldn’t be contested or made illegal. 

Is it wrong to criticize these choices if people decide this will lead to happiness? Should we respect their opinions? If it’s okay to criticize or raise questions about one value, why is it inappropriate to raise questions about other values? Stoic authors call us to question everything, especially our own beliefs and the beliefs of our friends and families. We should especially question crowds and ask whether popular opinion is correct. Just because something is popular does not make it right.

One commenter also spoke about how at the end of one’s life, we should spend money on first-class accommodations, travel, and Michelin Star restaurants rather than wealth going to children and the government. Personally, I’d rather my money go to worthwhile charitable funds instead of the Michelin Star restaurants. I can travel at next to no cost already rather than spending in excess. 

I’d rather not engage in a high degree of hedonism at the end of my life or any part of my life, especially if it involves high cost. Leisure is occasionally okay, but I’m aware that too much indulgence can corrupt, and the costs add up. Psychological research also talks about what’s referred to as the hedonic treadmill. As lifestyle creep sets in, spending more money to have more things or experiences, we spend more and more and never end up finding lasting happiness. 

The same commenter said that hopefully, I’ll have more money later in life to afford ‘nice things’ like steak. As I mentioned, I don’t want the steak, I don’t think it’s a nice thing, and I have no desire to spend for alleged fine dining even though I can afford it. The issue isn’t whether I can afford it. The issue is that I don’t find an argument for spending money on expensive food.

What were some other arguments for alleged fine dining? People mentioned they like to spend money at steakhouses for what they refer to as special occasions. I find the phrase ‘special occasion’ to be suspect because it’s arbitrary. Any occasion can be viewed as special and calling an occasion special is often just a way or excuse to justify spending money. 

Why do you need to spend in excess to commemorate an alleged special occasion? Why can’t you just meet with people at Panera Bread, a local Indian restaurant, or somewhere else, spending no more than $15 per person? Enjoy the moment of conversation, physical shared space, and more without spending $60 on a steak. Similar to a special occasion argument, someone noted that they liked having “a memory of good eats and company” after he spent $57. I fail to see why we need to pay $57 when we could spend less and still have memories, company, and food.

Some talk about how they enjoy the service and are willing to pay more for the service. What’s so special about a team of waitstaff bringing items to your table that you’re willing to spend maybe $100 when you could have instead spent $15 or less? Personally, I value saving time in having food already prepared. What a wonder modern technology is to order ahead on an app like Grubhub, especially when you have a $10 credit to cover the cost of Chinese food. After showering at a local gym, I place my order, walk next door to the restaurant, and eat the food rather than waiting on a team of waiters to bring bread, water, appetizers, an entree, and then dessert. I suppose if you’re with other people and want to delay the arrival of food, okay, but even then, I don’t want to pay such a high price for such an experience.

One commenter then criticized how I spend my money, saying that some would call me ‘cheap’ and that my behavior can ‘look a bit crazy’, saying ‘no judgment.’ She then asks why I am judgmental when parts of my life can be “ripped apart.” I welcomed such objections to my lifestyle but got none. If someone wants to present an argument that I can use my time better or the things I do aren’t yielding a good return, I’m happy to hear that. In fact, this is how I improved in past years, especially in the game of Poker, subjecting my play to scrutiny by reviewing hands and my thoughts to friends, on forums, and in different groups. I find it odd to say I am being judgemental, but that’s not an argument for the lavish spending. 

Maybe I should cut my own hair rather than paying $15, tip included, at a local barber shop? Perhaps, but my haircutting skills aren’t great, and this likely will take more time than going to the barbershop. Should I cancel a gym membership for maybe $275 a year and just run outside? Maybe not because the weather can be a hindrance and there can be safety concerns. Can I learn how to fix and maintain my own car versus paying others? Maybe not, since my auto repair skills are low. I’ve estimated monthly expenses at just $2000 on average, and even then, some of these expenses lead to more money or saving money, including paying for a cell phone bill and paying for car insurance needed to drive legally. Some costs are worthwhile, but high spending on alleged fine dining, in my eyes, is not.

The best argument I heard for lavish spending on food appealed to the uniqueness of ingredients and appreciating a specialized cooking technique they could not muster. The commenter did not say they’d spend $350 on a steak, but at least this was something other than cliches and shaming language. Personally, I sometimes eat at Thai and Indian restaurants for low cost, especially when traveling and low on free options. Both types of cuisine include ingredients I don’t use at home and involve food I don’t cook. However, I don’t need to spend $60 or more for uniqueness or a specialized cooking technique.

In the end, as commenters have alluded to, people will spend money for preferred indifferents, but question how and why you spend your money. Question your wants and priorities. Are you really getting value from the things you spend money on? Might societal messaging about what is worth spending on, from the people who want you to spend money, be flawed? Ask also how you are spending your time and attention. Be mindful of all areas in life. Question everything, even Stoic Philosophy.  

I’ll wrap up by providing some quotes from the Stoic author Seneca who encourages frugal living.

On being happy with less and not trading our time for lavish things:

“Nature’s needs are easily provided and ready to hand. It is the superfluous things for which men sweat – the superfluous things that wear our togas threadbare, that force us to grow old in camp, that dash upon us foreign shores. That which is enough is ready to our hands. He who has made a fair compact with poverty is rich.”

On not being slavish to bodily pleasures:

“I do not maintain that the body is not to be indulged at all, but I maintain that we must not be slaves to it. We should conduct ourselves not as if we ought to live for the body, but as if we could not live without it.”

On not conforming to the crowds and having special occasions without extravagance:

“It shows much more courage to remain dry and sober when the mob is drunk and vomiting, but it shows greater self-control to refuse to withdraw oneself and to do what the crowd does, but in a different way – thus neither making oneself conspicuous nor becoming one of the crowd. For one may keep holiday without extravagance.”

On the simplicity of fulfilling hunger and saving your money:

“A pleasure of that sort is according to our nature, but it is not according to our needs. One owes nothing to it, whatever is expended upon it is a free gift. The belly will not listen to advice, it makes demands, it importunes. And yet it is not a troublesome creditor; you can send it away at small cost, provided only that you give it what you owe, not merely all you are able to give.”

On the dangers of too much desire for pleasure:

“Desire must have unbounded space for its excursions if it transgresses nature’s mean. Utility measures our needs, but by what standards can you check the superfluous? It is for this reason that men sink themselves in pleasures and they cannot do without them when once they have become accustomed to them, and for this reason they are the most wretched, because they have reached such a pass that what was once superfluous to them has become indispensible. And so they are slaves of their own pleasures instead of enjoying them; they even love their own ills.”

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