"Frugality" and "minimalism" are two words that appear frequently nowadays. But they tend to be confused in many corners of the Internet, and even used interchangeably, so I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what each one means.
What Is Frugality?
Frugality refers to a conserving of one's resources, usually financial, though it can also refer to food. A frugal person is one who makes do with what he or she has, is willing to go without, avoids superfluous spending, and tends to be unconcerned about the outward impression that his or her careful spending practices may give.
Being frugal does not mean that a person never spends money. He or she simply makes very careful decisions about where and how to do it. For example, it could mean buying a more expensive product that will last longer, viewed as a long-term investment. A frugal person is not a cheap person; cheap has a negative connotation that suggests other aspects of life quality are neglected in a never-ending quest to save money.
I like how Trent Hamm described it in a 2017 article for The Simple Dollar blog:
"A frugal person is usually willing to make small sacrifices of their own resources – time, energy, and so on – to save money, but they generally won’t impinge on others to do so, nor will they sacrifice large quantities of their own resources to save money."
Frugality can, however, lead to clutter in the quest for deals. One might buy multiples of something that's on sale, thinking it will save them money down the road, while ignoring the psychological effects of filling one's home with stuff that cannot be used immediately. And if, for some reason, it never gets used, then it ceases to be a true deal.
What Is Minimalism?
Minimalism, by contrast, refers to the paring down of one's belongings and obligations in order to live a simpler, less cluttered, and more flexible life. Minimalists don't want to feel weighed down by physical stuff or have their finances tied up in real estate. They prefer being able to travel at a moment's notice, pack everything they own into a single (and likely expensive) bag, and rent/buy/borrow specialty items as needed, rather than storing them for occasional use.
Minimalism has become trendy in recent years, though it isn't a new concept. It's now something of a status symbol to portray stark, sleek, modern white living spaces on social media that are devoid of unnecessary decor and color. Achieving this look can cost a lot of money, which is why minimalists are not necessarily frugal; they're willing to spend to create a space that's conducive to their philosophy.
There can be a downside to this, as described by Chelsea Fagan in a scathing article for The Financial Diet. Fagan is not a fan of minimalism, claiming that the "minimalist aesthetic as a personal style choice" is really just a way of "aping the connotations of simplicity and even, to a degree, asceticism, without actually having to give up those sweet, sweet class signifiers... 'Stop wasting money on all that IKEA nonsense! With this $4,000 dining table hand-whittled by a failed novelist in Scandinavia, you will never need another piece of furniture!'" This isn't true for every minimalist; many are happy to make do with what they have, after purging the surplus.
Both Are Important
As I see them, both frugality and minimalism are powerful reactions to our hyper-consumerist culture. People are sick and tired of the rampant spending and colossal consumer debt that afflicts so many Americans. They're failing to thrive in homes that are so full of junk they can hardly move around; they feel trapped and chained down. So they're responding by embracing these philosophies.
The ideal is to strike a balance between the two – to be a frugal minimalist, if you will. Life coach Natalie Bacon describes this person as a powerhouse:
"She wants to spend less when she buys something (frugal), and she wants to own fewer items (minimalist). She cares about quality, but won’t overpay for it. Her dollar means so much to her that she refuses to overspend. She has a distaste for clutter and is simple at her core."
So, in conclusion, frugality is about spending less money on stuff, and minimalism is about owning less stuff (but not necessarily cheap stuff).