Where do you draw the line between frugal and cheap? It’s a gray line, certainly, but it exists somewhere in the ether. Socially we place importance on the distinction. We insult people when we call them cheap. Calling someone frugal is akin to calling her resourceful. When speaking of others it acts as a compliment; when speaking of ourselves it acts as a goal, an ideal to which we can aspire.
There’s another line, too. If frugal is to the left of cheap, then wasteful is far to the left of frugal. This is a pretty fine line. If you leave the lights on when you leave the house, if you throw away the peanut butter without scraping the jar, if you let the shower run for 10 minutes before hopping in, you’re being wasteful. That’s a far greater insult than being cheap, since it sits so far from the other two reference points. No one wants to be labeled wasteful.
Yet there is, in my estimation, a time for being wasteful. It isn’t all the time, nor is it even a significant portion of time. There are times in our lives, though, when we’ve earned the right to pamper ourselves. Some of the pampering process will involve indulgences, and we will necessarily waste things: time, money, resources, etc. If we can keep these instances under control, then we can find balance. It’s a slippery slope, though, and it’s all too easy to find the bottom of the barrel.
And so we can add another line to our little graph: indulgence. It’s pretty clear to the left of frugal, closer to wasteful. The nice part about the indulgence line is that it’s not one you can home in on. It’s temporary. If you lived indulgence constantly, you’d slide down to wasteful pretty quickly. It’s during these periods of indulgence that we can throw what we know to the wind and let everything go. As long as we can control these periods, they’re quite cathartic.
My favorite example involves household electricity use. In the summer months I try to run the fan as often as possible, eschewing the air conditioning until I feel a bead of sweat on my brow. I also keep all lights off, except for the one in my office. Basically, everything not in immediate use is turned off. It leads to a not-so-horrible electricity bill. Had I run the AC more often, or if I turned on another light, because I like more light, I’d pay more. The saved money I can use elsewhere.
Yet I do enjoy being surrounded by light. I like opening the windows, even if it means letting in the heat, which means running the AC more often and on a higher setting. I like turning lamps on to illuminate my office more clearly — and that goes triply for when I’m out in the living room. I like keeping the TV on while I go into the other room to do something, so it’s on when I get back. I don’t do these things normally, but every once in a while, maybe one day a month, I allow for these indulgences. It makes it easier to remain frugal the rest of the time.
Sure, the SCADA man is watching. (Not sure what SCADA is? Don’t worry, I didn’t until recently either. You can click here to get a better idea.) My bill is running up, for sure. But it’s just one day’s worth. How much am I really burning through here? A couple dollars? So my electricity bill comes in at $88 instead of $85. Big whoop. If all that day of indulgence costs me is $3, it’s no biggie.
It’s akin to cheat days on diets. You work hard six days a week to maintain a healthy diet, staying away from high-glycemic carbs and other inflammatory foods. But one day a week you indulge in whatever you want. It not only gives you a release, but acts as sort of a reset. Now you have six more days until your next cheat. In the same way, indulging in other areas once a month makes it easier to stay frugal the other 29 days. Is the indulgence really not worth the few dollars it costs you?