Friday, April 27, 2012


I guess the debate never ends since each of us think we are frugal while everyone else is stingy. I am no exception and I think I am frugal. And I think everyone else is either stingy or a spendthrift. But so does everyone else! So how do we distinguish the two? Can we even define the two terms?

Classical Indian philosophy has always expounded simplicity in lifestyle. There are aphorisms and sayings in most Indian languages that say 'Economize', 'Do not overspend', 'Lead a frugal life', etc. In fact, thinking about this for a long time, I think each person's definition of frugality is different. I feel compelled to mention Thoreau and his life at Walden Pond here, but that deserves its own article. Going further, we can probably define the whole spectrum as follows:

Austerity --> Necessity --> Frugality --> Spend-thrifty

And it is austerity and necessity that our scriptures tell us to follow. Man should consider that he is only inhabiting the earth for a short duration and not be an unnecessary burden on Mother Nature. A lavish lifestyle is only possible from pillaging and ravaging the natural resources.

Austerity is definitely tough to follow. The dictionary defines it as "Having no comforts or luxuries; harsh or ascetic". This is surely a penance and cannot be expected of everyone.

Necessity is probably a more relaxed form of austerity. This allows you to lead a very simple lifestyle; however only basic needs are met and man should not be greedy to 'want' more than what his basic needs are. In fact, anyone practicing this kind of lifestyle can attain a higher goal, happiness and fulfillment in life.

Frugality is the term that is hazy to define. Frugality is defined as "practicing economy; living without waste; thrifty, Practicing or marked by economy, as in the expenditure of money or the use of material resources" by the dictionary. Now interpreting this is the problem. Everyone claims that they are judiciously spending their resources (money), but later get into debts and other problems! Or they might get into an endless loop of trying to make more money to satiate ever-increasing 'wants' which can eventually become 'needs'. So in my definition, a frugal person is one who 'judiciously' spends money on what he thinks is important. Note the italicized word. This is what makes it hard to interpret. One man's priority is not the same as another's. One may wish to spend all his money on travel and lead a basic lifestyle to save for it while another may consider a lavish house as more worth-his-money than an occasional trip. The truth is that each person's frugality is defined by his own interests. However, we must be careful not to get influenced by others' spending habits and lose sight of our own. Even among friends, I think one should never confuse one's wants with others' needs.

The new social network culture has probably contributed more to this habit without even people realizing it themselves. On Facebook, when people see others' photos of costly trips, buying expensive trinkets, clothes, houses, etc they inadvertently fall a prey by 'wanting' all those. Most people fail to realize that those people who spent on a new car may have saved up on everything else, those who traveled extensively may have given up on cable, eating out, etc (just a trivial example!) and so on and so forth. Indulging in all such unnecessary wants can leave you wanting! But it is altogether a different matter that these days, most people don't give up anything to enjoy a particular luxury! Good jobs, a care-free attitude and an irresponsible streak has provided all comforts and luxuries.

On the other hand, what may appear as 'cheapness' to others may actually be frugality since outsiders can never see the other perspective. Also, it is impossible to justify one's priorities to everyone for its own sake. A frugal/simple lifestyle is an innate belief in a way or life. In fact, a simple lifestyle can even be called the 'Hindu Way of Life' since this is what our Dharmas say. A simpler life automatically leads to a more refined lifestyle, purity of thought, more time for other pursuits that can bring joy and happiness in a way that material comforts just cannot.

If frugality were established in the state, if our expenses were laid out rather in the necessaries than the superfluities of life, there might be fewer wants, and even fewer pleasures, but infinitely more happiness.
Oliver Goldsmith (1728 - 1774)

Simplicity is divine beauty indeed.