An Essay on Decadent Frugality

Today, I am starting a new job, one year and three days after being laid off from my previous one. My “gap year” was great fun, with lots of travel and family time. I took the time to rejuvenate, sharpen up my skills, and find a job that suits me very well. Though there are aspects of a layoff and job search that aren’t so much fun, I will always look back fondly on this past year, because there was truly a lot of good.

The layoff experience and job transition was made much easier by the fact that our family has been living somewhat frugally. When some people think of frugality, they might think of budgeting, penny-pinching, sacrifice, and doing without. That sounds kind of bleak.

When I think of frugality, I think of squeezing the maximum possible pleasure out of every resource that comes my way. When imagined that way, frugality can sound truly decadent. What could be more decadent than maximizing raw pleasure?

My most scarce and irreplaceable resource is time. Employment is trading time for money, while hiring someone is trading money for time. Neither time nor money should be squandered, but they should both be savored and enjoyed to the fullest. The “decadent” part of decadent frugality is that each individual gets to use his/her own value system to determine what is the most pleasurable way to spend time or money.

A mistake many people make is to not take a long view of pleasure, but go for the instant gratification of debt, without considering the long-term cost. The math of compound interest will cause debt to suck vast sums of pleasure out of your future life and replace the pleasure with worry if you allow it to do so. That same compound interest, in reverse, will bring vast sums of decadent pleasure and security into your future life, if you forgo just a little bit today. When you accept a loan, you are giving the bankers access to large sums of your future resources. Everything costs more on credit — you have to decide for yourself how much you want to donate to the bankers.

Ask yourself if there’s anyone in your neighborhood who gets by earning 10% less than you do. Does that person live an OK life? If you can live like that person for a while, you can build up a healthy cushion of savings in a short time.

I encourage everyone to carefully align your spending with your values over the long term, and make the most of what comes your way. Having spent a long time living in the spirit of decadent frugality made my unemployment situation much more tolerable, because not once did I worry about my family’s roof or other essentials. We went on vacation, and enjoyed spending at very nearly the same rate as when I was employed. We were secure, and that security felt truly decadent.