When is Frugality Worth the Work?

Some of the links in this post are from our sponsors. Read our disclosure to see how we make money.

Frugality is a great way to save money, but it can often take a lot of effort. Here’s how I balance living frugally with enjoying life with my family.

While I’m on vacation this week, please enjoy this contribution from my friend FemmeFrugality. 

When I first had children, I quit my low-wage job to go back to school. In all honesty, there wasn’t a big gap in income between not holding a 9-5, and paying for daycare. I chose to allot more time to my studies and children rather than paying someone else to watch them while I slaved away at a job that wouldn’t help ends meet.

That did, however, mean that we were a single-income household while I furthered my education. In order to make those ends meet, we had to get pretty creative. We rolled coins. We clipped coupons. I mystery shopped, and allowed myself to be the subject of medical studies. I applied for scholarships and grants that covered more than my schooling, giving us a small infusion of cash once a semester.

We were the epitome of frugality. While things were still tight, our practices allowed us to get through my graduation without taking out student loans.

Then I returned to work. As my career picked up, things changed. I wasn’t able to spend every single day with my children, and then head out to night classes for a few hours. Our income improved by leaps and bounds, but we started noticing something. Where before we were echelons of frugality, we were now spending money on convenience.

The Danger of Convenience Based Spending


We were eating out more. We would stop at the neighborhood grocery store because it was right there, rather than driving two neighborhoods over to get better prices. Organizing things to sell on Craigslist and eBay suddenly seemed like a task too overwhelming to be worth the money, so we’d donate our old stuff to hassle-free thrift stores for zero profit.

When I made this realization, I was alarmed. What was the point of making more money if we were inflating our lifestyle? There wouldn’t be increased savings. We wouldn’t gain financial advantage.

At this point I created the Frugality Challenge, where I could compete with some of my virtual friends to get this convenience-based spending under control.

The challenge is helping. We reined in our spending though we’re still spending more than when I was a student. While we do want to improve further, we’ve reduced our stress by recognizing that frugality takes effort.

Frugality is Work


Clipping coupons takes time. So does listing products on virtual marketplaces, and evaluating a business during a mystery shop. While they’re all great ways to make or save money when you don’t have a lot else going on, they become less attractive when you have a lot of other things going on.

Some of those other things are profitable. Like my job. While clipping coupons has the potential to save me 40 percent on my grocery bill, I’d have to sacrifice a few hours of work to do so. I can make more money at my job than I could save on groceries in that timespan.

Some of those other things are not monetarily profitable. Like spending time with my kids. While I do want to give them the best life possible, saving 40 percent on groceries is in no way worth missing out on the limited time we get together as a family, or helping them meet their educational and emotional needs.

At the same time, my husband is pursuing his own education. Asking him to sort through kids’ clothing to take to the consignment shop in lieu of studying for a test is not an option. The time he puts into his degree is something that will benefit us long-term, and benefit us in a way that is worth a lot more than getting $30 on a box of gently-worn clothes. I realized it was all about finding a healthy balance.

Finding the Balance That Works for You


When I accepted that frugality was work, I started breathing a little bit easier. It isn’t a quality, or an identity. Just as I wouldn’t work 15-hour days in the name of finances, letting my family life struggle on with my money but not my time, I can’t pursue my career and simultaneously pursue every last money-saving or money-making technique I used when I was willfully unemployed.

There are some things I still do frugally. I get super cheap oil changes by taking two minutes to order a coupon to my local auto shop. We use specific gas stations to get fuel-rewards. When we travel, I use rewards points and affiliate programs to minimize our costs. These are all easy things to do that don’t tug at too much of my time.

Time is the ultimate resource we have in this life. If you have enough of it to pursue extreme frugal measures, like I did when I was in college, then by all means do. But if frugality starts limiting the time you spend with family and friends, you might need to cut yourself a break.

Make smart spending decisions, and be resourceful when the opportunity arises, but don’t allow the pursuit of frugality to rule your life.

I have plenty of work to do. I have children to raise, and a career to bolster. While I’m sure there will be future points in my life where I have the time to dedicate to the work of extreme frugality, that time is not now. And that’s okay.


What’s your take on frugality? Is it fun or work? Or both? Do you extreme coupon? What frugal habits have you dropped? Which would you like to pick back up?


Author info: Femme Frugality is a freelance personal finance writer and editor. You can check out more of her writing on her blog, where she writes about money for parents, non-traditional students, brides and philosophers.

The following two tabs change content below.

John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.


  • Natalie @ Financegirl says:

    I moved into a less expensive apartment to save money (and to put more money on my student loans), but it’s right near a Walgreens that I can walk to. I needed makeup remover so went there and bought it for $9. The next time I was at Kroger I saw it for $4.99. It was a tough lesson for me that even though Walgreens is super convenient, I need to not shop there!

    • Femme says:

      Exactly! That’s what we were doing, too. A ton of people in our neighborhood don’t have cars, so they’re largely limited to the neighborhood grocery store. The store knows this, and inflates prices since people largely can’t comparison shop. We do have a car, but have found ourselves stopping there just because it’s there. The price difference for convenience can be staggering!

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    We’re extremely frugal when it’s easy to be frugal, but more selective about our frugality when there is considerable time or hassle involved. Time costs money too, and saving a few dollars isn’t worth it for me if it takes an extra hour. It really depends on the situation, but I mostly go for the easy wins.

    • Femme says:

      That’s about where we are. For things we can easily integrate into our routine, we’re still frugal mastheads. But the things that cost us our time just aren’t worth it at this point in our lives.

  • Emily @ JohnJaneDoe says:

    Some things seem super easy and convenient, like using a cheaper phone service or cutting cable. Other things we are doing to save money are a lot less convenient, but seem worth the hassle, like keeping an inventory of our pantry and freezer, which saves money at the grocery store, reduces waste and helps with meal planning. But there are definitely some things that just aren’t worth the trouble.

    • Femme says:

      One thing I actually HAVE been wanting to invest more time into is meal planning. I feel like that could save us a bundle, and make my grocery trips less crazy. Will have to integrate it into our routine…I’m sure it gets easier after you’ve been doing it consistently for a month or two.

      • David says:

        The time you invest in meal planning pays you back in two ways. You mentioned one, savings at the grocery store. The other is time. A meal plan makes shopping and cooking more efficient. You wil get more time back than what you spend in planning.

  • MrFireStation says:

    For me, it all comes down to an equation of “dollars/hour”. How much do I need to save to make the frugal effort worth it. I like to use $40 as a hurdle. I will drive across town to buy a few things, reconfigure an existing plan (insurance, cell phones, or cable!), or buy/sell something on Craig’s List if I think I can save $40/hour spent. One thing I don’t do is hold a garage sale. I’ve done them in the past, but it doesn’t seem like you make anything on them. (better to just take a few high priced items to a friend’s sale). We are early retiring at the end of the month (@49 years old)!

    • Femme says:

      I largely agree, though there are some things that aren’t necessarily monetarily profitable that are still worth more than $40/hour to me. Like time with the kids. For others it may be time with friends, etc. Congrats….only 24 days left!!!

  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach says:

    It just depends on the situation. I think one of the keys to successful frugal living is slowly adopting practices in your own life and see how they stick. For me, that extreme couponing thing is not worth it because it takes time, too much energy, and the food is generally crap. I think it’s important to remember that aside from you challenge, being frugal isn’t a competition. 🙂

    • Femme says:

      Haha touche. While the competition motivates me, it’s not good to play the comparison game. You know that quote that says “We all have the same 24 hours in a day?” I hate it. Because it’s simply not true. Everyone has different obligations and responsibilities, and if I have to spend my time at different things accordingly, it doesn’t make me an un-frugal person. It means I have to prioritize my efforts differently. That’s a major reason I tried to place such a heavy emphasis on the easy wins that make a big impact when creating the scoring, like budgeting, tracking spending, and saving portions of your income.

  • Michael says:

    We don’t have time to clip coupons. We use cell phone apps like Ibotta to get cash back on groceries.

    This year my wife started meal planning, that has given us the biggest bang for the buck – we are saving about $50 a month on groceries. It only takes her about 15 minutes to plan for the week. Now the refrigerator is roomy and has exactly what we need.

    • Femme says:

      I’m definitely going to have to start prioritizing meal planning after all these testimonials! And I love coupon apps. A ton easier than busting out the scissors and going through the paper.

  • Gary @ Super Saving Tips says:

    For me, frugality is mostly a habit. Things like clipping coupons and comparison shopping are just natural behaviors for me. But some behaviors take a bit more effort, like planning meals and cooking at home rather than getting convenient take-out. I have the time, I just need to make sure I have equal amounts of energy and discipline.

  • Hannah says:

    I don’t tend to look for frugality opportunities which is why I found the competition to be extremely motivating. Just looking for no spend days has helped me and Rob to eliminate almost all our mindless consumption. We still have almost zero no spend days, but we’re getting better and better.

    Its also nice to have no or low cost activities become the default option. Going to the park is fun, even in the winter, but it’s not always the option that came to the top of mind except when I wanted points for free entertainment 🙂

  • Allan @practicalsaver says:

    I think that the best way for frugality to work is to make sure that the value of your time is less than the value of what you are doing or the result of what you’re doing.

    What I mean by this is, if you put a dollar value on your time, then, what you are doing or the results of it should be worth more than your time. If it’s not, then, you really are not being frugal.

  • Greg says:

    I am glad you brought this up!

    Often being frugal takes more time and effort than using those resources for income producing activities.

    It is a good idea to consider and weigh the time vs reward of any task.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *