Is frugality for the rich?

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EdithKeeler
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Is frugality for the rich?

Post by EdithKeeler » Wed Apr 04, 2018 2:16 pm

I came across this today—I don’t see a date, so I’m not sure if it’s old or not, but it was new to me.

https://theoutline.com/post/3840/frugal ... i=g7sxrvrr

It’s kind of a snarky take on living simply/cheaply, plus talking about the “plight” of millennial with a dash of baby boomer bashing.

While I think the writer has a bit of a point—cutting your own hair and giving up lattes is probably not going to get you a $500k farmhouse any time soon, it seems to dismiss the idea of being frugal as some old-fashioned hold over from the 18th century.

I personally don’t think it’s so simple as millennial bashing or boomer bashing—and we have a fair amount of both of those around here sometimes.

Anyway.... just sharing and am curious re your thoughts, especially since many people here have quite impressive savings rates, and not always with high incomes.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by Crazylemon » Wed Apr 04, 2018 3:07 pm

To me it read as a little bit whiney. Yes if you earn more you save more. But it does seem to have deliberately missed the point that the rate of saving is what factors in to FI. Maybe it 'doesn't count' if you only spend £10000 a year or less.

I thought it was going to get in to it being easier to be frugal when you are already skilled and used to not purchasing solutions such that you get the same result for far less cash outlay and live more efficiently/effectively. Maybe that is expecting too much.

Obviously if you work absolute minimum wage then it isn't going to be easy.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by jacob » Wed Apr 04, 2018 3:23 pm

It's relatively fresh.

The frugalwoods(.com) just came out with their book which had been heavily promoted doing a very big circuit (podcasts, newspapers, ...). Not surprisingly, to me anyway since I've been there and done that (although nowhere near this degree), this backfired somewhat because it exposed the book to too much of a Wheaton range. I had the same problem back in 2011 when I tried to spread ERE to the masses.

If we plot a graph---because the proverbial we really likes to do that---with income on one axis and spending on the other axis, we get an idea of where all the angry people are coming from. To get an idea of the number of people voicing complaints, maybe draw these axes in percentiles rather than dollars. Here 55k/year (as a family unit) is about at the 50% percentile for both making and spending, since the majority of people don't save anything.

This harks to the big difference between achieving FI in easy-mode and hard-mode.

What the Outline article harps on is that many FI (maybe bloggers in particular) achieve FI in easy mode. That's the part of the plot above where incomes are way above average while spending is just slightly below average. This goes back to the joke about how certain online groups comprise people in the 90% percentile income congratulating themselves for spending like the 70% percentile. Of course, this is not funny to people spending less than that .. especially not if they make even less. Basically when people playing in easy-mode get too happy about how they fixed their #firstworldproblems, people playing in hard-more get angry.

Frugalwoods is essentially getting chewed out because their income is well into the 99% (see amazon reviews) while their spending is around 25-30k/year (well-documented on their website with monthly spending reports) which for all US households puts them around the 15%(*). However that number is for all US households. I must assume that when it comes to Millennials, there are more than 15% of families making less than 25k. Suppose we assume young people are single, then the median income for a single of any age is 30k/year. This is just about what the majority of FIRE bloggers spend already while declaring themselves paragons of frugality. So that 15% might be more like 50%+ for Millenials. This is why the message doesn't go over well for a significant fraction of a mainstream audience.

(*) I couldn't find any spending distributions, so I went with income, again presuming that income-spending ~ 0 (savings rate). https://politicalcalculations.blogspot. ... nking.html

This leads me to the second issue: The R-word. Or even the FI-thing. If you're spending 30k/year---and this is presuming that you don't live "rent-free" because you own your home requiring the addition of an imputed rent for a fair comparison (see big discussion here)----and making 100k/year, then your voluntary frugality leads to a 70% savings rate that makes you FI within a decade. Cool beans! HOWEVER, if you're a median-Millenial (making 30k/year), your frugality is now mandatory and you'll NEVER retire because your savings rate is de facto zero. IOW, easy-mode is aptly named.

Of course there are still lessons that can be taught and learned:

Depending on what field you're in, it's still psychologically hard to spend significantly less than you make regardless of income. If you do so, you'll have to deal with colleagues, friends, family, neighbors, etc. who think you're a loser for not "spending up to your potential". E.g. driving an economy car, wearing the same clothes (jeans+polo) every day, eating a regular SAD diet, enjoying all your vacations at Myrtle Beach,... Being psychological in nature, this is different from the physiological challenge of actual poverty of not being able to afford rice, rent, or new tires. However, swimming against the stream is still hard on the soul and there are many lessons that can be learned from this.

Also, and along the same vein, that it's possible to make a deliberate choice and pursue your dreams (in this case a homestead) insofar you have the money to do so. Important point here is that there IS a choice... whereas most classes (high and low) in the US are taught that there really are no choices at all. Just options. The career equivalent of the fake choice where you can pick between 8 varieties of canned tomatoes, but they're all the same when it comes down to it.

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Bankai
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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by Bankai » Wed Apr 04, 2018 3:25 pm

The basic premise of the article is that high earners can afford to be frugal while low earners have no choice but to be frugal (and implied that therefore, they shouldn't even try and instead whine how unfair the world is).

I disagree.

Low earners can still be high spenders (on credit) - we see this all the time. For some, this is a form of compensation for the perceived shittiness of their everyday lives. High earners are usually also high spenders. Yes, it's easier to save when you earn a lot. But it's even more important to save if you don't earn a lot. The same $50 restaurant bill represents 1 hour of life energy for the semi-high earner or almost a day of work for the low earner. Who benefits more from eating at home instead?

Telling people saving is for the rich is not useful or helpful. Especially for those who don't have an easy way to increase earnings, saving might be the only option to "get ahead" or "break the chains".

This whole article tries to move people out of their circle of influence into the circle of concern.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by JBmoney » Wed Apr 04, 2018 4:47 pm

Using Frugality as a vehicle to wealth is for people that have no control over their time or the amount of $$$ they can earn. They're hourly or salaried *workers*.

Personally, I'd like to move to being the person that has people working for her.... a business owner. I want to know that there's no cap on how much I can earn and that my time isn't linked to a specific value.

With that said - there is something good to be said about frugality. It's a great way for non-business owners to find those extra savings they need. And, just because someone has money doesn't need they should be spending it all willy-nilly. As Ramit Sethi says.... spend freely on what you love and cut costs drastically on things you don't care about.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by Tyler9000 » Wed Apr 04, 2018 8:15 pm

Setting aside the issue of whether frugalwoods is intentionally deceptive about their income (I've never read them and don't know), the problem with the basic premise of the article is that the author compares a single successful family to the average millennial to conclude that the average young person can't do the same thing. I don't necessarily disagree, but it misses the point entirely. Half the population does better than the average, and many more people could similarly retire early with better decisions. By defaulting solely to the average for comparison purposes, the author dismisses any opportunity for self-reflection and entirely relinquishes responsibility for his own choices.

BTW, I can see Jacob's point that the added publicity probably hurt their cause. You'd think it would grow their market, but I suspect it just exposed them to lots of people who really aren't their market at all and they reacted... poorly. Not every idea is scalable

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by ffj » Wed Apr 04, 2018 8:16 pm

"But here’s the thing. Regardless of intent, these Millennials are telling an older generation of elite Americans — the very people whose policies and financial decisions kneecapped the economy — what they want to hear: that everything is more or less okay, and young people just need to be more thoughtful about their money. And that’s a shitty idea to perpetuate. Because whatever happens in the years ahead, penny-pinching will likely remain a lifestyle enhancement for bourgeois Millennials who possess enough money to enjoy the dividends of being thrifty. For most of us, there are no dividends: just thrift."

Wow, what a loser mentality. I will grant that a frugal lifestyle is not for everyone as they don't have the foresight or grit to see it through to richer days ahead. And I think that is what irritates me the most, a belief that there isn't a payoff for having financial maturity and displaying wise daily decisions. And what is the alternative? To go lay down and suck your thumb? The author's mentality is incredibly short-sighted.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by EdithKeeler » Wed Apr 04, 2018 9:40 pm

Interesting reading the negative comments on Amazon about the Frugalwoods book. So many "sour grapes" sort of comments that miss the point entirely of what the F-woods did it and why they did it. OK... they had a high salary, but they still saved a ton in THE most expensive city in the US (Boston) before they moved to Vermont. They looked at their spending and their reasons for it. They made a plan and stuck to it.

Really, if anything, their story is sort of formulaic at this point. I'm not sure their story is significantly different from Amy Dacyzyn's. In her case, they weren't especially high earners, but they had significant extra sorts of benefits from her husband's military career--I seem to recall them being criticized for that. AND, they ended up making a good bit of money from their newsletter. Also not significantly different from Mr. Money Mustache who saved money from a pretty good salary as I recall... but also made significant money off his blog.

I used to read the Frugalwoods blog from time to time and enjoyed it.

What is frustrating to me is that so many people have this "we can't do it because <insert excuse here>" attitude. I see it in this article I linked to: we can't save money because millennials don't make as much as boomer did, because the financial crisis. Because.... But I also see it in my Gen-X/young Boomer friends. A coworker is retiring somewhat early at age 58. It's the subject of a lot of discussion at the office. "How is he doing it? He won't have enough money. HIs wife doesn't make much. What about health insurance? How does he go on all those trips?" What they are not paying attention to is the fact that he NEVER eats lunch out unless it's a business lunch that someone else pays for. They don't think about the fact that he's owned exactly 2 cars in 35 years. They laugh at him for being "cheap" for resoling his shoes and wearing the same belt forever, and when they question his travel, they don't pay attention to the fact that he meticulously researches prices and I know for a fact that he and his wife spent 2 weeks in Europe 2 years ago for a total cost of about $1500 for the two of them because of clever use of air miles, B&Bs, not being big drinkers, etc. I talk to him and get tips and learn; they talk about him behind his back while in the next breath bitching about how they'll never be able to retire.

I guess you can look at someone like the Frugalwoods and say--"But they had money... but this, but that." Or you can look at them and say: "wow, they did that, and I think I can too. I don't make as much money as they do, but I can start by plugging these leaks and then go from there." I dunno... lately I find I don't have much patience for listening to people complain about things that they actually have a measure of control over.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by black_son_of_gray » Wed Apr 04, 2018 11:44 pm

I agree with many of the points already raised. It is interesting to me that the criticism comes from a social/cultural perspective ("classist myth","older generation of elite Americans = the Man??), and the impression that I have is that the author finds the economic situation of most young people as profoundly unfair. It might even be true! If western civilization is entering into a declining fossil fuel/long descent scenario (a la JMG), expect this viewpoint to be pervasive for the next couple generations.

Ok - life isn't fair - but I'm not sure what they want the Frugalwoods to do about that: is it better for the author or the world generally if the Frugalwoods remain working lucrative 9-5 city jobs vs. downshifting into a country home? Do they just want the Frugalwoods to stop "proselytizing"? That's a tall order coming from one blogger to another... Do they want their readers to ignore the Frugalwoods because they have had some luck/advantages in life to help them out? I feel like the post would have been better served with a call to action against the perceived structural disadvantages rather than simply wallowing in the despair. Gee I wonder if there are any good personal finance blogs that could provide some practical ways to buck the backwards system...

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by oldbeyond » Thu Apr 05, 2018 6:17 am

There's definitely smug people on easy mode and thrifty people on min wage with negative net worth. That's important to remember. But there are also a lot of people with good or great salaries saving very little. It's not like 100k/year means that your financial house is in order, just look at NW numbers/401k contributions by income. It's sort of like bodyweight, it gets better as you move up the income ladder but it's still bad.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by 7Wannabe5 » Thu Apr 05, 2018 8:53 am

Two thoughts.

The first would be that, as Jacob has repeatedly noted in other threads on the topic of Wheaton levels, the middle class defines normative behavior. Almost everybody is in agreement that there is some spending level below which one can't be expected, or even encouraged, to function, because the necessary strategies would veer so far away from the conventional. For instance, shopping at ALDI is good, but dumpster diving is bad, or "not something I am inclined towards doing." Splitting the rent on a tiny apartment with financial-peer BF/husband is a good way to achieve 75% savings rate on $40,000 income, but not-splitting the rent on somewhat larger apartment with financial-superior BF is not as acceptable as means to achieve 75% savings rate on $20,000 income, because the "sour grapes" are running in the other direction down the middle-class hump. Other very low resource use savings strategies, such as living in an off-grid camper on an auction-acquired vacant city lot, are deemed not just socially-suspect, but actually illegal!!! by the moral majority. It's okey-dokey to take tax breaks available to somebody with $80,000 household income that are not available to others with $320,000 household income, but it is not okay for those with household income of $20,000 to make use of EBT card towards savings scheme. Etc. etc. etc. However, anybody inclined to perform the exercise of declaring 75% savings rate as non-negotiable hard-line primary rule at any given income level (strictly preclude possibility of raising income in exercise), would quickly ascertain that different strategies would have to be employed at varying income rates in varying settings.

My second thought on this matter would have to do with the fractal dimensions of networks. Financial wealth will most readily be earned in high density network realms, but more readily conserved in low density network realms. For instance, common sense informs that you will earn a higher salary in the big city, but be able to better afford square footage of housing out in the countryside. So, even a very high functioning individual such as the Animal could have difficulty achieving a 75% financial savings rate in rural Alaska while dining on bounty of free moose meat, because of the distance he would literally have to hike to explore even the 3 closest nodes where he might find opportunity of employment for money.

In recent times, the location of the densest information network realms have been somewhat diverging from the densest network realms of real goods, such as potatoes. As evidenced by the manner in which Bitcoin is nipping at the heels of Wall Street. My hypothesis, which one could perhaps prove mathematically if one were not far too lazy, is that this divergence of networks is the basis for the emergence of the modern FIRE movement. This is why the majority of adherents to this movement are initially employed in the tech or other closely related professions. This does not preclude the possibility of success for individuals who do not meet this description, but it requires adoption of strategies that create a similar field of operation, in terms of relevant ratios which may be visualized as slopes in similarly scaled terrain of game board.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by jacob » Thu Apr 05, 2018 9:56 am

It's interesting to note that the sweet spot in terms of popular outreach for FIRE is about 25k-35k/household for "standard skilled"(*) consumption. The popular FI bloggers/authors mostly fit into this range. If you look at Joe Dominguez's numbers and CPI adjust them from 1970 to present values, he FIRE'd with a income of 37k/year and a net of 650k, so YMOYL also fits into that. (However, due to being in rolling LT bonds, his income would be dropping in real terms and he would have been compensating by continuous development of frugal skills eventually going to "high skilled". 6k/year in 1997 (the year he died) would be 9.3k/year today.)

(*) By which I mean levels 1-3 on the Wheaton scale.

Why is 25k-35k popular/dominant? Because it allows for a normal/modest lifestyle with ALL the middle class amenities: A normal-sized home in a normal area. 1 or maybe even 2 vehicles. Grocery shopping and eating inside the parameters of normality (meat and and preprocessed (no staples)). Clothes that are bought off the rack.

You do not have to go without anything and it's affordable by choosing one or two "sizes"/models smaller than the average which is okay. Some frugality can be included but nothing outrageous is required. One does not have to take more than one or two steps forwards on the Wheaton laundry-scale of fancy "all red" Tesla-branded Washer and Dryer sets ($2000 retail for the package) -> regular American white toploader ($300) -> using coupons for detergent -> buying detergent at ALDI -> line-drying -> DIY detergent -> bucket hand-washing.

Now, lets take the median income at 58k and assume that the tax rate is around 17% (say 7% for SS and 10% for the Fed and State effectively; maybe it's a bit higher, maybe a bit lower), then that leaves a disposable income of 48k for a savings rate of 28%.

According to the math, this means you can retire in 29.5 years---that'd be age 55ish or so. Not really something that makes for a popular blog these days...

The "modest/frugal middle class lifestyle" is thus incompatible with FIRE for the majority of incomes. Thus ... wrt to the title of the OP link:

Frugality is not only for the rich. However, FIRE resulting from modest frugality is indeed only for the rich. Last time I checked (which admittedly was a long time ago), there still weren't many bloggers/authors/journals in the sub-10k space. I'm still looking for more people in the sub-5k space (maybe Mark Boyle and Daniel Suelo).

To add: Early on, I wrote this http://earlyretirementextreme.com/how-t ... -wage.html ... Later (see the "Angry People"-post), I realized that income tends to correlate fairly well with other kinds of capital, e.g. energy, motivation, discipline, intelligence, education and anticorrelate with negative kinds of capital, e.g. lifestyle diseases, crazy relatives, accidents, bad decisions, ... So I would arrogantly declare that my minimum-wage post is practically irrelevant because someone making that little and yet have the tenacity and temerity to implement a hardcore plan like I suggested would not remain on minimum wage for more than a few months before they got promoted to assistant manager, etc.; unless of course they're in grad-school :-P

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by 7Wannabe5 » Thu Apr 05, 2018 11:26 am

@jacob:

Yeah, "crazy relatives" is currently my second biggest form of negative capital, second only to priding myself on being clever :lol: I am saving a lot more money living with my moderately frugal BF than I was able to save living with my extreme bi-polar spendthrift mother, even though I was theoretically paying zero as my share of rent in both circumstances. I thought I could deal with my mother because she is older and fairly well-medicated, but I was wrong. Every $ I was saving on rent ended up being spent on concessions to her cuckoo-bananas standards for "keeping up appearances" and extreme entitlement. For example, I had to spend $200 on clothing because my wardrobe did not co-ordinate with her interior decorating. Maddening. OTOH, my BF sometimes wants to buy me stuff, but his choices will be closer to choices I might make. For instance, a very nice simple BIFL rose-gold watch with a leather band, or a mini-tactical back-pack, or boots from the tractor store. But, he wouldn't buy me a Little Buddy indoor safe propane heater or a pellet rifle as an Xmas present, probably because he suspects that would better allow me to do something like run away and live in a van in a National Forest parking lot.

I think that maybe your "becoming wealthy on minimum wage" post needs to be updated a bit for actual numbers, but overall it seems like a good and valid recipe, although unlikely to yield 75% savings ratio in near future, unless likelihood of simultaneously increasing income is included in calculation/strategy. Another interesting challenge would be to strictly limit direct working for money hours. For instance, by following the formula that you work two days/week for money, two days at community service, two days at non-lucrative creative endeavors, and totally relax on 7th day. In my experience, it will be extremely likely that both the community service and creative work will lead to lucrative offers and opportunities, but what would happen if you religiously stuck to your guns on only working for money 2 days no matter what?

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by oldbeyond » Fri Apr 06, 2018 1:47 am

@jacob: Even with that savings rate you’d have a fully funded retirement ahead of the ”official” age. Kind of a pipe dream for median folks generally, so I think it’s fair to say that FIRE/frugality is for the average Joe, too. But it isn’t freedom after 10 years in your tech career LARPing middle America, of course.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by 7Wannabe5 » Fri Apr 06, 2018 8:11 am

After following all the blog post bread crumbs in Jacob's above post, it occurs to me that a person who works for herself at less than minimum wage will feel less stuck in "slave mentality" than somebody who earns a very high income but spends it all. I agree with much of what supply-side Sowell writes in his "Basic Economics", except for where the rubber hits the road at the juncture between economics and ecology. For instance, true minimum wage would have to be in terms such as energy expended digging potatoes. Very few people are too lazy to go rummaging about for food when they are hungry. According to my calculations (quite possibly flawed), it is already less expensive to purchase solar powered farming machinery than feed human serfs on potatoes. The ramification of this being the likelihood that some of the "able-bodied" must now claim membership in humanity as sole entitlement to food. Further ramification being that if you are not among those who own or create technology at the margin, or those who hold dominion over range where they may self-sufficiently survive with less use of latest technology, best join line for Universal EBT card now.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by SavingWithBabies » Fri Apr 06, 2018 12:17 pm

oldbeyond wrote:
Fri Apr 06, 2018 1:47 am
But it isn’t freedom after 10 years in your tech career LARPing middle America, of course.
That hits close to home. I grew up in middle America and, after a stint on the West coast, I'm happy to be back. So maybe if you grew up coastal and then had to hunt for middle America-level COL, it would feel like LARPing. But if you grew up in middle America, for some, it's a sigh of relief to come home. At least for me with a wife, some kids, access to remote (tech) jobs, etc.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by Clarice » Fri Apr 06, 2018 3:20 pm

The angry reaction to Frugalwoods is a reaction to the fraud of their message "Do what we do and you'll achieve our results." Neah... A so-called average person (whatever that means) would be much better off cutting on junk food, cable TV, and Starbucks. By no means he would get to FI this way. Without a full financial disclosure the Frugalwoods mislead their math-challenged followers into the illusion of a possibility of FI using their method. An average person needs a daring attitude of Daniel Suelo to become FI, but then he would stop being average. The Frugalwoods' message of anti-consumerism for the average person is solid, their math (for the stated purpose) is not. They've somewhat outed themselves with the publication of their book and now are getting the backlash. Their humble, understated "FI for the average person" is not an option. If you are FI you can not be average. That's the truth.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by jennypenny » Fri Apr 06, 2018 4:50 pm

It's not really about money. Being rich is about having options ... the more choices you have, the richer you are. Anyone can learn to live comfortably sub-$25K. That's not the same thing as having the option to *choose* how to live sub-$25K. The reviewer was wrong to mock their frugality, but FW was wrong too in not realizing their flavor of frugality is light years away from the average person's.

Someone with a below average income can live comfortably and still feel poor because they have to work harder and avoid pitfalls for much longer before developing enough capital to have some options/resiliency. Even if they work just as hard or harder than people like FW, they have to get lucky longer to get to the same place, and statistics show that luck favors the rich (better health, higher IQs, more stable families, better schools, etc).

Grrr, I don't think I"m saying this right but I can't think of another way to say it.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by jacob » Fri Apr 06, 2018 5:58 pm

jennypenny wrote:
Fri Apr 06, 2018 4:50 pm
Being rich is about having options ... the more choices you have, the richer you are.
I'm sure I wrote this somewhere central (FAQ, bio, ...), but the rich (or rather wealthy) image of what rich means is having optionality, accessibility, and control. (I just wanted to expand on the optionality.) This [trifecta] is also what I'm seeking.

The middle class image of rich is being able to buy whatever you want. From this we get luxury-goods for the consumer class, by design [sad]. The actual rich know what these are and shun them. This is what the [modestly frugal] FI community is turning it's back on.

The poor think that being rich means being able to solve all their current/prevailing money-problems. Pay off debt [euphemistically, "their bills"]. Live beyond paycheck to paycheck. And eventually retiring. This faction generates the core of this controversy.

At a higher level, this goes beyond money. One can be rich w/o having money. See e.g. academia. This presents its own kinds of problems where people have influence but no money. Likewise, people coming from the business side might resent having money but no influence besides what they can pay for. This refers to the different kinds of capital. But I think maybe this paragraph is not a pertinent one, rather ...

The difference between ERE (with FI) and a poor person is that the the former has financial capital. This provides a lot of optionality for the ERE/FI that poverty doesn't have, namely: emergency fund, health care fixes, and the ability to pay cash (w/o financing). => Optionality. Since money talks, FI also provides some accessibility ... however, society is strangely more concerned about income than assets, so assets are not as valuable for social standing as one might think. Finally, control comes from cashflow, connections, and skill. Thinking that one over, I think it's a wash. I can elaborate on that if so desired.

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Re: Is frugality for the rich?

Post by Mister Imperceptible » Sat Apr 07, 2018 9:20 am

@JLF

We do desire that you elaborate on that :)

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