Money Thoughts & Frugality Revisited

June 26, 2019
(Outfits: Tea Collection from last fall/winter)

Oh good, now we have our holiday card.

The above photo was taken by a professional photographer (Jody Gross for any locals!). We chipped in to do a big family photo session for Josh’s parents’ 50th anniversary. So worth it!

We did a big frugality episode last week on BOBW, and Josh commented to me that perhaps I am not the most qualified to lead such an episode. And he’s right; in general, I tend to like to spend. My personal ‘allowance’ does not last long; in fact I’m currently in some allowance debt (not real debt, just in my own YNAB fund) because I splurged on my current laptop when my old one bit the dust a little earlier than planned.

BUT, I don’t know. I think I spend pretty intentionally, for the most part. And to me, that is one facet of frugality.

Plus, one person’s frugal is another person’s spendy. It’s all somewhat relative.

Things I enjoy spending money on:

Plentiful, high-quality childcare.

Preschool. Camp and activities for the kids.

Some really nice clothes for the kids (mixed with cheap staples & hand-me-downs). See above Tea outfits. Getting them some nice clothing really brings me joy.

Vacations. Including fancy hotels sometimes. This is probably my favorite indulgence.

Beauty ‘investments’ – my hair straightening, pedicures every month or so, makeup (very sparingly, I tend to find products last a long time and I am not frequently shopping this genre, but sometimes I will splurge on favorite things)

Clothes for me. But I find myself buying much less often than I used to. I haven’t replaced my jeans in years. I am wearing the same few dresses to work most of the time. I am trying to get more wear out of my garments than I used to.

FOOD. Both groceries (at least I get deals and 5% back at Whole Foods with my amazon credit card) and restaurants. What can I say? I love good food. I feel like as long as we are not wasting food, we are doing okay in this realm.

Things I used to spend more money on but have not been doing as much lately:

Workouts. I joined a gym and love it, but find I get a more convenient and just-as-appealing workout at home most of the time and it fits better in my current life season. So I’m going to go ‘a la carte’ and make outside workouts a special treat (once/week or less often) rather than a high monthly expense.

Stationery products. !!!! You know what, I think I just got saturated. Plus I have found that my Hobonichi planner is most of what I need. I’ve even been reusing an old cover from 2016 (black, leather, professional) and this will probably continue to hold up for years to come.

Things I really don’t like spending money on:

Additional tech gadgets (no apple watch, no iPad, etc)

Home decor items or renovations of any kind. This is the absolute lowest priority for me. It’s SO expensive and I tend to not notice my surroundings much as long as they are neat and clean.

Living in a super-expensive area. Yes — for this reason, I am glad we moved out of Miami Beach. I do miss being able to walk to family gatherings and having easy access to so many good restaurants but — it’s not that far! I feel like I’ve just traded some weekday commute time for weekend commute time.

On this note, we also plan to try to keep our kids in the (excellent) public school system. We are outliers as physicians in the health system where we work in this regard, but man – it’s an insanely expensive decision to send 3 kids to private school! As product of public school myself, I guess I just want to believe that it will all be okay even if we do not ‘invest’ in fancy connections and opportunities. Maybe the kids will grow up with more perspective, too — never a bad thing. I’d rather have that money to take the family on amazing trips, and to save it for college!

What do you like to spend out on?

Several treasured objects: Lotuff wallet (which I will probably use for at least 10 years), BOBW mug, splurgey laptop, and beloved Hobonichi which has rendered many of my other notebooks obsolete!


  • Reply Karen June 26, 2019 at 7:00 am

    Sarah, your frugality is refreshing! Love BOBW!

  • Reply CBS June 26, 2019 at 7:06 am

    I think frugality has become such a loaded word (with connotations about making your own socks or whatever…), and I think you’re right to focus on more intentional spending. I’ve become quite thoughtful about my purchases and rarely have shopping regrets. I don’t feel any real need to level up on furniture and clothing (IKEA, Gap, Uniqlo, the occasional Boden are all fine for my lifestyle). We do 80% of our shopping at Lidl and Aldi, and spend the rest of the budget on fancy French bread, nice teas, and interesting food from local shops. We travel quite a bit and tend to do an Airbnb which allows us to save a bit of money and have a bit more space.

    On kids stuff – my mom tends to buy most of my little guy’s clothes but I’ll do the occasional splurge purchase from Boden or John Lewis. I also refuse to buy expensive shoes for a toddler. We do use cloth diapers which I know both you and Laura were sceptical of. With only one kid, I’m not convinced they were a frugal decision but more of a green choice.

    I have gotten a Birchbox subscription which feels like a slightly ridiculous expenditure but I’m not a big make-up skincare person and it gives me an excuse to try some new things.

  • Reply Kelsey June 26, 2019 at 7:33 am

    This is a fun topic and I like hearing your answers. For me I love to spend money on the house and home decor although I find it a little stressful because there’s always so much more I want to do. I also choose to spend money on more expensive gym memberships (see it as an investment in our health), good food and plenty of it (store bought mostly but also good food if we go out to eat), travel, and good quality clothes (although I maintain a pretty simplified wardrobe). I don’t care much at all about makeup, shoes, and purses but when I do buy them I buy high quality because I don’t want to have to buy them again any time soon. I bet I’ll think of more throughout the day. This is a good topic to reflect on and realize where you do and don’t spend money.

  • Reply Lisa of Lisa's Yarns June 26, 2019 at 8:44 am

    My husband and I are definitely pretty frugal, not so much out of necessity but because it’s how we were both raised. We spend money on good, high quality food, travel (although we opt for airbnb or VRBO so we can make some meals as we get burned out on eating out), and good quality clothes. We don’t have any magazine subscriptions, we both use the library, I packed my lunch 4 out of 5 days, we spend very little on our son’s clothing thanks to hand-me-downs, and I don’t have a gym membership right now as it’s too hard to get there on top of working full-time and caring for a toddler. We love our daycare but it’s not the most expensive one we looked at. We didn’t pick it for the price, we chose it because our friends’ kids go there, we got a really great feeling about it when we toured it, and it’s Spanish-immersion so we love that our little guy is going to learn some Spanish. We also will be opting to go the public school route and are outliers among our peers in the financial services industry. My husbands parents were both public school teachers so he went to public school. I grew up in a tiny town of 500 people in ND so private school was never an option. My schooling was pretty ‘meh’ but I feel like I turned out pretty well. 😉 I just can’t justify the cost of private school and I like that our son will go to school with a diverse group of students. I feel like parents play an important role in their child’s education. We aren’t going to 100% rely on school to educate our children and will look for other ways to challenge/expose them to new things through camps and such. I definitely understand why some parents opt to go the private school route, especially if the public schools in your area are not great but the schools in the neighborhood where we live are pretty good!

  • Reply Laura Vanderkam June 26, 2019 at 10:08 am

    We aren’t terribly spendy, but I do think that if the big pieces are right, the little pieces just matter a lot less. Go ahead and spend on good family photos!

  • Reply Gillian June 26, 2019 at 10:16 am

    Interesting topic. I actually feel like the word frugal makes me cringe, but I do try to be mindful with money. For my husband’s job we have to live the very expensive NYC area. We live in an expensive area outside of the city, but we have excellent public schools and we have 4 kids so that seems like a financial win. We do spend on food and I like nice furnishings and decor, but we don’t tend to replace these items often. I do spend on some nice clothing for my kids, but with 4 kids some if these items get used over and over again. Overall I really prefer to focus on quality and then replace things less often.

  • Reply BPS June 26, 2019 at 10:20 am

    I really like how you and Laura framed frugality on the “big” purchases vs. smaller things.

    I feel good spending on: high-quality daycare for our son, monthly apartment cleaning, Orange Theory 2x/week, good quality skin/makeup products, a few pieces I really enjoy wearing every season to add to my wardrobe, high-quality groceries, and splurging when we travel – whether it’s for a nicer Airbnb, or paying a premium for a car service with a car seat to get from A to B with no issue, or really decadent girl’s weekends 1-2x/year.

    Don’t spend on: Cars (unless there’s a safety issue), Kid’s clothes and toys (hand me downs from friends and gifts from grandparents have worked beautifully), eating lunch out everyday

    My baseline is as long as we have our emergency fund, and are saving above our monthly minimum goal (ideally we save more), we are doing fine. We hope to buy a home later this year/early next, and will likely have to compromise space for good public schools. Husband and I are products of (mostly) public education, so we are all for it. Also hoping to organize our living situation in a way where schools/daycare, work, and home are no more than 10-15 minutes of non-freeway driving. Learned this from my parents — nothing makes you feel richer than time!

  • Reply gwinne June 26, 2019 at 10:32 am

    I think ‘intentional’ is a much better term for what you describe than ‘frugal.’ And I do wonder about the socio-economic issues here. I’m in no way being critical, but frugality means something different, I think, when one talks about public vs. private school as opposed to, say, buying a latte when one makes minimum wage. A lot to think about for me personally, as the guy at my bank just called to talk about my savings account!!!

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger June 26, 2019 at 12:01 pm

      Yes, good point on my choice of words. I do feel less carefree about spending compared to how I once was. Perhaps that’s more the “intentional” because I am pretty sure Disney cruises and fancy Japanese planners are not necessarily the most “frugal” choices, but I am happy to have made both.

    • Reply Anne July 2, 2019 at 12:51 pm

      Yes, indeed, from a strictly semantic (and perhaps symbolic) point of view, in no way can a family of 2 specialist doctors speak of a frugal way of life. But I think it’s admirable that you’re thinking about public schools; social diversity must be a priority, and it is also part of a valuable learning experience. Teaching our children to be aware of their privilege is the best gift we can give them for the future.

      • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger July 2, 2019 at 1:23 pm

        Well, there are some physicians who choose to live very frugally with plans for early retirement. That doesn’t describe us, though.

  • Reply Omdg June 26, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    Sarah! I need to tell you about our amazing vacation to Vancouver! (Not now though, am post call and need to complete a grant submission). It was not frugal, but it was so amazing. This year I’ve really begun to appreciate the massive benefits of vacation for rejuvenating the mind and body. We spent too much money but I feel so so so much better.

    (It also gives me joy to spend money on activities and nice clothes for my kid. Hanna Andersson and mini Boden are *my* vices in that department. And pants, as you know. Just bought myself another pair of theory pants on sale and I love them. Of course.)

    I could write a dissertation on my thoughts about public schools. Suffice to say that there are a lot of schools where I live that suddenly “improved” after rich people moved into the neighborhood, which makes me question how different the education now is compared to before, and whether the improvements were due to changing demographics rather than, you know, improvements in teaching (or maybe they were already good to begin with). I’m sure ANA has plenty of thoughts on this. Also, if your kids are advancing quicker than the school curriculum you can always supplement their education with math or reading classes. Dylan recently told me she wanted to start Kumon and I had no idea what it was, but I think we may give it a try.

    • Reply Susan June 26, 2019 at 1:56 pm

      Thumbs up for kumon. It’s sort of trendy in my area but it’s been around forever – I did it as a kid and it was really helpful. It’s self paced and is timed. My brother did it all the way through calculus.

  • Reply Riley June 26, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    Oh my gosh, A. is basically your mini-me! I love that beautiful photo!

    I consider myself fairly frugal, but I don’t necessarily identify with the FIRE movement or even with most of the frugality movements currently in vogue. I adore reading the old “Tightwad Gazette” books that feature various uber-frugal tips (like making a garden trowel out of a cleaned and empty milk jug) but I don’t follow about 80% of the tips. I mostly adhere to the *philosophy* of frugality, but not necessarily any specific prescriptions. Every family and every individual has to determine how frugality fits into their core values and lifestyle and goals (both short- and long-term) not to mention their income, so I think it’s incorrect to assume that there is *one* way to practice frugality.

    You and Josh, for example, are most likely in a much higher income bracket than a lot of Americans, so you can practice a different level of frugality, and that is totally appropriate. My husband and I are the same — we have very good incomes, and we consider ourselves fairly frugal even though we *do* buy a lot of lattes (in fact, I’m sitting in a coffee shop sipping a latte now as I type this!), we take all our dogs to probably the most expensive and well-organized doggy daycare and boarding facility here in town (because they more than the others give me the peace of mind that my pups will be well taken care of!), and we like our hobbies (guitar playing for him, books and stationery for me).

    We spend money liberally on our dogs (pet insurance, high quality food, daycare and boarding as needed, training, toys, etc.; plus, one of our pups has cancer and has had chemo and radiation treatments, although thankfully his pet insurance covers 80% of it). We spend money on good coffee (we love the atmosphere of our local coffee shops, and because I work from home it also is a great way to get out and have some human company every once in a while!). We spend money on good food (we don’t have a Whole Foods but we do have Sprouts, which is almost the same if not quite as expensive). We spend money on books. We donate generously to charity and could probably donate more. We also love to travel 3-4 times a year, usually to beach vacations and cruises. I spend money on running gear: shoes, clothes. Oh! And after reading all your glowing reviews of the Hobonichi Techo planner, I bought that! 🙂

    We DON’T spend money on clothes (since I work from home my daily uniform is a t-shirt and jeans, and because I work in tech even business trips don’t require much more than that; and my husband works in a hospital so he’s in scrubs all the time). We probably spend about $25/month on average on clothes. We don’t spend money on eating out much as we much prefer cooking at home. We don’t spend much money on alcohol (we’re not big drinkers and usually average a couple of bottles of wine a month). We don’t spend much on personal care (I don’t wear makeup except for formal occasions and don’t do manicures or pedicures). We don’t spend much on electronics (my work provides my computer and phone, and my watch is an old Timex Ironman).

    When we were a younger couple on one income (my husband was back in school so I worked full time to support us) we were much more frugal: didn’t travel, didn’t go to coffee shops, lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and didn’t even have a couch, just a futon). That was the level of frugality that was appropriate for us at the time. We spend a lot more now, of course, but we would still consider ourselves fairly frugal.

  • Reply Emily June 26, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    Things we prioritize spending on: daycare, groceries (Whole Foods–although I’d prefer to be more frugal in this area, but my husband does the grocery shopping in our household and this is what he prefers), plane tickets/travel, charitable giving, the house we bought (we live in a neighborhood that is somewhat pricey for our area, although our city COL is low overall), eating lunches out sometimes (I work from home and use it as social time)

    Areas where we try to remain frugal and spend very little: kids clothes, our clothes, our cars, fancy tech gadgets or really name brand items of any kind like bags or purses, furniture and home decor, eating out as a family, babysitting (we rely mainly on extended family), workouts (we belong to a city gym that costs $5 a month and also run which is free!)

  • Reply Chelsea June 26, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    I agree that “intentional” is a better word to describe both you and Laura than frugal. Frugal to me implies that decisions are made – by design or necessity – with cost as the absolute bottom line. Although Laura likes to say she’s frugal, to me a frugal person doesn’t have a nanny, go on international (or really any) vacations, have her kids in activities, buy a $300 blouse, have a house with a basement and a mud room, etc. I don’t doubt those things are good decisions or the right ones for her family… but they are intentional uses of money – not examples of frugality. I read both of your blogs as well as The Frugalwoods, and one thing I like is that I think the two of you and Liz Thames bookend the spectrum of intentional spending very well. You and Laura inspire me to think about how to use money to achieve life satisfaction and The Frugalwoods (more the blog than the book) inspires me to think about how to achieve life satisfaction by intentionally not spending money. Interesting stuff.

    Anyway… right now I enjoy spending money on fun camps for my kids, their wonderful preschool, a vacation at the end of the summer, an organic meat CSA, our Y membership, a few races a year, and building up my business.

    I do not enjoy spending money on fixing things at our house (our appliances are conspiring against us!).

    I would like to spend money on – but am not prioritizing – some cosmetic things I’d like to do to our house like have someone paint and fix a problem (cosmetic but annoying) with our floor.

    We used to spend money on going out to eat but with our kids right now… just no.

    • Reply Caitlin Stevens June 26, 2019 at 3:07 pm

      I like that way of looking at the spectrum of Liz Thames and SHU/LVK, but with the metric you laid out including the house stuff, I’m not sure you could include The Frugalwoods. Their house seems pretty large and nice to me. I do enjoy reading the FW blog, but I think they also deprive themselves unnecessarily sometimes, to the point of making themselves miserable (I REALLY wish Liz would get a little more paid childcare), all in the name of their high standard of frugality.

      • Reply Victoria B. June 26, 2019 at 5:33 pm

        I totally agree with you, Caitlyn……The Frugalwoods come across as so miserly and miserable all in the name of being frugal and it’s very off-putting.

    • Reply Katie June 26, 2019 at 5:45 pm

      I agree- frugal definitely seems like a word to use when your absolute end game is saving money.

      Our most frugal choice is living in a low cost area (rural area outside a small Indiana town)- I don’t know that we could find a more frugal living option! We like the solitude and views so it works for us :). I love spending on skincare products for me and subscribing to Big Ten Network/ESPN for my husband… small things, but they bring a lot of joy to us.

  • Reply Susan June 26, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    I am sort of unhappily in the camp of spending a lot on the big things and therefore needing to scrimp on smaller things. We live in a very high COL area and currently live very central in a neighborhood with excellent schools and very short commutes. We will be in the market for a new house in the next year or two and I am having a hard time thinking of what I’d like more – longer commute, more house and less mortgage or sticking with our enormous mortgage and property tax and biking to work.

  • Reply Marci Gilbert June 26, 2019 at 2:56 pm

    We definitely are not frugal people, but I hope my spending is intentional and purposeful. I am also ok spending on things that make me feel happy when I see them (house things), or that I know are investment pieces (clothing, handbags, shoes, jewelry–not that any of these are too often!) or staples that I will get a lot of use from (everyday clothes).

  • Reply Jenn June 26, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    Food! We are forever accidentally going over budget on food simply because we LOVE services like HelloFresh and we LOVE going out to eat with friends and family! I really don’t spend much on clothes/appearance things, especially in comparison to some of my friends and coworkers. 🙂

  • Reply Andrea June 26, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    Interesting topic!! Newish physician here – I seem to be the outlier in that I don’t care to spend money on good quality clothes or shoes – always going for the cheap options (maybe this will come with a few years?) …I shop at second hand stores for my child. Labels mean nothing to me. I feel sick thinking about spending hundreds of dollars on one clothing item. Home decor & professional photos also don’t interest me.

    However I love to splurge on travel, luxury resorts and upgrades eg better plane seats. Spending money to outsource home tasks is also very appealing to me (although my husband hates it ….he’s an extreme DIY-er) so it doesn’t always come to fruition. Also splurge on food – no budget for groceries or eating out.

  • Reply Caitlin June 26, 2019 at 4:29 pm

    I love this! I think intentional spending can be frugal, as can spending more on higher quality items. Whenever I cheap out and choose something that costs less solely because it costs less, I end up regretting it. I love the quote “buy the best, and you only cry once” by interior designer Miles Redd (although I interpret that to mean “the best for me,” which is not necessarily the best or most expensive option). And I think that something that costs more up front often saves me money–I took my time to find a purse that I love, and even though it cost $80, I’ve had it for over a year and have no interest in buying a new one. Whereas if I bought one I didn’t love but cost less, I might have bought a couple of others to make up for the one I didn’t love. I buy less but buy better (again, “better” for me, by my own metric).

    Like you, I also love spending on high-quality childcare, beauty investments, vacations, and food. I also love spending on nice knitting and craft supplies, books (occasionally–I’m a librarian 🙂 and once in a while I like to spend on stationary supplies, nice clothes and shoes, and house decorations and improvements. I used to hate spending on car stuff, like snow tires, but I really appreciate having them, and my mechanic is awesome, so I’ve kind of turned it around as a form of gratitude.

  • Reply Margaret C. June 27, 2019 at 9:44 am

    As others have said, I love the wording ‘intentional spending’. I also think it’s important to asses priorities periodically and make sure your spending matches them. We’ve just gone through a VERY expensive few months. I now have a 3.5 month old and a 3.5 year old. I used to be a fan of tracking via YNAB etc but made a conscious choice to just ignore budget for this season of our lives. There’s been a lot of take out and late night impulse baby buys on Amazon as well as drive through coffee to get through this 4th trimester. But I also feel like we’ve reaped the benefits of frugal choices the past few years. In the past 4 months myself and my spouse have each taken 2 weeks unpaid to be home with baby. We purchased a new to us car that doesn’t require the person in the front seat to have their knees jammed into the dashboard and paid cash. I’m almost feeling like I could come up for air and start back up on budget and spending and I do want to. Because that way the next time we have this type of crunch we’ll have the savings to use.

  • Reply Liz June 27, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    I highly recommend the Integrated Schools podcast re: public vs. private school internal debate.

    My favorite splurge is travel/vacation. It definitely feels like a reward for hard work and refreshes the whole family.

    • Reply Emily June 28, 2019 at 12:03 pm

      +1–love this podcast!!!

  • Reply Sneakers June 28, 2019 at 6:35 am

    In my opinion, frugality means living well within your income and saving – no matter how much you make. Out of my first grad degree, and making 10% of what I make now, I shopped the grocery store sales, clipped coupons, ate out once a month and saving a % of my income etc. etc. And I had the time to shop around. Now, with a family (more expenses and more income), frugality is still making sure we save a % of our income (and the % has increased) – but I don’t shop grocery store sales – if its on sale when I”m there, great – no additional trips. And I find that I order more (hello Amazon) in anticipation of things because I value being prepared. I still pack my lunch for work most days, we keep cars until the repairs they need are more than the cost of the car – big and small things. On another note – thanks for your your planner reviews – I recently went back to work, and needed something to track home and work in one place. Sneakers

  • Reply Jen June 28, 2019 at 10:47 pm

    We don’t budget which stresses me out but neither of us has extravagant taste. We like nice hotels and vacations, but mainly spend in ways to make our life easier. Housekeeper, grocery delivery, child care/camps, and other little things that probably add up over time. Things I don’t care about- fancy cars, fancy restaurants, entertainment (I’m just as happy taking a walk or going to a movie as seeing a show or doing something that costs more), expensive furniture/art. I’d say our biggest purchases are travel and child related activities.

  • Reply Joy July 1, 2019 at 10:04 am

    I was a single mom for years on a tight budget so I’m just starting to give myself permission to spend money on myself. A few new refresh pieces for my wardrobe a couple times a year, books, and plants tend to be my spending areas.

    Your posts on planners last winter helped me find one that can include ALL of my various planners/notebooks in one. I’m looking forward to consolidating AND spending less money!

  • Reply Lori C July 7, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    I love this. I straddle the line too- I can be frugal in some areas but definitely NOT frugal in others.

    Where I spend money:
    Childcare- right now this is a private Montessori school for my 4 year old and a day care for my 2 year old. Preschool is $1200 a month and day care $1500 (for 3 days!!) and honestly if I had my way the 2 year old would still be at a different center which is the gold standard in our area (and about $2k / month for 3 days!) I know it’s temporary but dang it hurts to spend a mortgage payment amount on childcare!

    Clothes- This is something I never spent money on- I prided myself on deals and didn’t shop often but the result was a simply pathetic wardrobe. It’s still skimpy but now at least they are basic quality pieces from Trunk Club. I feel better about myself going to work believe it or not!

    Vacations & Dining Out- this is how I love to spend my leisure time. I spend far less dining out than I did pre-marriage/kids but when I go out I spend the money.

    Things I could spend on but I don’t… otherwise known as my defense to my husband when I spend on the items above :):
    1. Make up/ facials/ frequent salon trips / pedis and mania- a lot of my girlfriends seem to go to the salon or spa every 6 weeks or so. Not me.

    2. Fancy bags/purses or accessories- not my thing. I hate changing out purses or jewelry

    3. Booze- I gave it up a few years ago and was shocked to learn how pricey drinks are nowadays! We went out with friends last night and their portion of the dinner tab had $44 in drinks alone, and that was only 2 drinks each.

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