Scarcity: A Good Frugal-Living Principle

posted by Andrea | 09/18/2013

scarcity

Over the years, I’ve regularly talked about my efforts to keep our pantry and freezer stocked with plenty of go-to snacks and meals. I’m also fairly adamant about keeping a hefty supply of diapers, wipes, toilet paper, and paper towel on hand — because those are items you just never want to run out of!

I’ve shared our journey of frugal living, budgeting, and living well below our means…however, I’ve often thought about how much wiser we might steward our resources if they were extremely scarce. 

For example, if I knew I only had 2 diapers and 2 wipes left in my entire house, you better believe I’d make the most of them and only change Nora’s diaper when absolutely necessary — using only one wipe per time.

If we only had a little milk left in the house, I certainly wouldn’t be eating cereal for breakfast, making pudding, or wasting even one drop (yes, we love milk over here).

If I only had 1 load of laundry detergent left, I’d most definitely wait until I had enough clothes for a very large load — none of those half-full loads just to empty the hamper.

If I only had 1 T. of salad dressing or pasta sauce left, I’m going to scrape out that container with a rubber spatula — and maybe even add a little water to really get every last drop out.

If I only had $50 in the bank, we’d start eating out of the pantry, canceling our cable, cell phones, newspapers, and magazines, and selling anything I possibly could on Craigslist.

But since we always have a reasonably large stockpile of all these items, and we thankfully have more than $50 in the bank, I change Nora’s diaper more often than necessary, I use more wipes than necessary, I drink milk whenever I want, I do laundry whenever I want, I don’t think twice about throwing out a tiny bit of salad dressing, pasta sauce, ketchup, mustard, or any other condiment, and I don’t monitor every single penny that passes through my hands.

So is that wasteful? 

pennys

photo source

I honestly wouldn’t consider myself wasteful at all; it’s just a lot easier to inadvertently waste when you have plenty.

Don’t you think?

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I’ve even noticed that as our income has increased these past 7 years, we are MUCH more willing to splurge on little things like basic cable, smart phones, frozen custard at Culver’s (still with BOGO coupons), a special treat for Nora at the grocery store, running the air conditioning a little more in the summer, bumping the heat up a few degrees in the winter, snatching up a good deal on Craigslist, or even extra special finishing touches on our house projects.

We are most certainly NOT living outside our means (read this post from last week if you’re questioning us!), we’re not going into debt to make these purchases, we’re not spending frivolously… and to be fair, our income has increased more than our spending has.

We’re just spending a little more freely than before because funds aren’t as scarce as they were when we were fresh out of college, just starting our jobs, and working like crazy to pay off those student loans.

But for the most part, if we’re really honest, none of the things we’re splurging on are necessary at all. We could manage without  the air conditioning, we could put on another layer to stay warm, we could go without ice cream, cable, smartphones, Craigslist, house projects, etc. etc.

We COULD, but we DON’T.

So again, is that wasteful?

photo source

I’m fairly certain that if we were constantly running low on everything, we’d use less and waste less… just because we HAD to. So maybe there’s a fine line between being organized, prepared, and “fully stocked” and being wasteful.

On one hand, scarcity forces us to be excellent stewards of our resources, waste less, live frugally, live simply, etc.

On the other hand, it can cause stress, unhappiness, and greed (which can then cause debt and more stress)

Dave and I have worked hard to stay out of debt, live below our means, organize our finances, plan ahead, etc. so that we CAN afford to live more comfortably — and even splurge every now and then. But I also know that we COULD live without cable, smart phones, Culver’s, and so much more — and then give the extra money to charity.

I’m not saying we should all start living like we’re poverty-stricken (believe me, I’m not planning to do that either). I just think that scarcity is a good principle to think about every now and then.

It might be surprising how much we could all save (and how much less we’d waste) if we simply stopped to think how we might act if this was our very last dollar, diaper… or roll of toilet paper :)

What are your thoughts on scarcity and stewardship.

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36 comments

  1. Jenn L.

    09/18/2013

    Well said, Andrea. I couldn’t agree more!

    [Reply]

  2. Stel

    09/18/2013

    Mmm…there might be a wide, grey area between “fully stocked – prepared” and “fully stocked – wasteful”. Joseph stocked the grain stores for 7 years, so they could have enough for the 7 lean years. Also, being prepared/stocked means you don’t have the middle of the night crisis of no diapers, or similar.
    I realised I don’t necessarily stock up on foodstuffs (except for the huge freezer – the husband hunts), but I do have extras of most cleaning materials in the storage cupboard. Extra soap, diswasher tablets, dishwashing liquid, detergent, sponges, toilet cleaner, toilet paper, etc. Once the one I’m using is finished, I just grab the next from the cupboard, and replace it on my next trip to the shop.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Yes Stel, as I mentioned at the very end of the post: “I’m not saying we should all start living like we’re poverty-stricken (believe me, I’m not planning to do that either). I just think that scarcity is a good principle to think about every now and then.”

    My point is not that we SHOULD do without, or stop stock piling — it’s just that we could probably all benefit from THINKING about how we might use our resources if they were scarce.

    [Reply]

  3. Briana S

    09/18/2013

    I agree! When my husband and I were first married, I was still going to school full time and he was starting to pay off his student loans. We worked very hard to pay for my schooling in cash so we didn’t have to take out more student loans and therefore ate a lot of pasta and spent most of our nights at home :) Those experiences have made us so much more grateful for what we have now, even as our income as increased over the years.

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  4. Jen

    09/18/2013

    Where do you get your BOGO coupons for Culver’s? I look for them in mailers and things, but we never get any. And we LOVE us some Culver’s custard.

    [Reply]

    Dorothy Reply:

    Here in metro-Detroit, Culver’s sends out a mailer with the Monday junk mail about once per month. But our Culver’s also runs a B1G1 happy hour every day from like 1-4, so if you go then, you can get 2 Concrete Mixers for the price of 1.

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    stephanie Reply:

    I was wondering the same thing! We love our Culvers. Our special treat nights come when taking the surveys at the end of the receipt and waiting until we have 3 of them (3 in our family) to get our custard for free! :)

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    Andrea Reply:

    Jen, the coupons come in the paper or in the mail — usually once a month. It’s a big flyer and usually has at least one BOGO coupon for mixers, sundaes, and burgers. We go to culver’s usually once a month to use the BOGO burger coupon and sometimes we splurge on the BOGO mixers too :)

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    Nelly Reply:

    Our Culver’s also takes expired coupons which is nice.

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  5. morgan

    09/18/2013

    I love the image that you used for this post, because my sister and I always joked about toilet paper (when she lived with me last summer). When its the start of a big roll, you tend to use big looong pieces. When you get towards the end of the roll, you use just one or two squares. If you suddenly realize that’s the last roll and you’re already sitting on the pot (haha sorry if that’s gross) you’ll pull the last shreds off the roll!
    I totally agree and think this was a really well said and relevant article. It is inspiring me to see what I can live without/survive with less of in the house!

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    Jill Reply:

    I love your comment. It is so true, how many of us use more toilet paper than we need because it is there and then use it sparingly when we get to the end.

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  6. Kayla H

    09/18/2013

    I totally agree! It concerns me sometimes how much my parents waste, and this is my own personal opinion btw, but it worries me that they won’t be prepared enough for retirement [I have some idea of what they have saved because of our conversations]. More things are not as well taken care of now because over the years their income has increased, and so they can always just go buy another instead of really taking care of whatever it is they have. My husband and I actually feel like we thrived more and made more progress on getting out of debt when we were first married and did not have kids. We had a smaller income and groceries and gas were a lot less expensive (groceries have doubled around here in the last few years), but we did not have a lot of extras that we have now.

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  7. Melissa

    09/18/2013

    I couldn’t agree more! We are also very fortunate to be debt free and have savings for emergencies, vacations, splurges, etc… and I’m always stockpiling the items you mention in this post. I’m happy to live with less ‘stuff’ and can never seem to get rid of enough ‘stuff’ but having the essentials is a priority for me. It definitely puts things into perspective though when I volunteer with or see others less fortunate. We are all very lucky!

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  8. Debby

    09/18/2013

    Well said and came on a perfect day. Our checkbook is a little lean this week due to car repair and a couple other “surprise ” expenses. Now trust me, we have plenty of money in our savings, but I decided that there was no need to transfer funds. Let’s just live on what is in our main checking account until Friday. And you know, it’s kind of fun to get creative. It is making me eat out of my freezer tonite instead of grabbing a bite to eat on the way to an away soccer game. Thanks for always hitting home and inspiring me.

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  9. Jennifer

    09/18/2013

    I don’t know if seeking out scarcity itself would ever be very helpful – and in this sense I think extreme minimalism (I mean extreme) can sometimes prompt some of the bad ‘scarcity’ attitudes like being greedy and being unreasonably attached to everything you own, just because everything is vital and the only one you have.

    However, when we encounter real times of scarcity for whatever reason, it seems to me like the skills and attitudes learned are useful to retain for times of greater plenty. As a very poor graduate student I learned a lot of practical skills for thriftiness, and a lot of spending habits, which are serving me well now even though I have more to live on. I wouldn’t ever wish the poor days back (they were horribly stressful), but I now find the skills and attitudes of that time to be useful, in moderation, for a time of greater plenty. I now don’t stress out when a precious pair of shoes bites the dust, because there’s money to replace them, but I do still take care of my things and curb my spending to a degree I never would if I hadn’t been forced to.

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  10. michelle

    09/18/2013

    I’ve heard of people taking 1 month and trying to eat everything they have stocked up in their freezer, or a month where you buy nothing…except essentials. I’ve haven’t tried either but I should!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Yes Michelle, we kind of did this in May (you can read about it here). I did by milk, eggs, fruit, etc. but other than that, we didn’t spend any money on clothes, food stockpiles, out to eat, entertainment, etc. It was harder than I thought in the beginning but then easier as the month went on.

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  11. Sue

    09/18/2013

    I understand what you are saying.. And we do all these things.. rinsing out the tomato sauce jar. Turning the old t shirt into a dust rag.. etc.. But in my opinion.. by doing this this gives you the ” special things ” going to get the ice cream.. cause if you do not do that “fun thing” once and a while.. What is the point of saving?

    Sue in NJ

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Yup, I totally agree — which is why I said at the end of the post: “I’m not saying we should all start living like we’re poverty-stricken (believe me, I’m not planning to do that either). I just think that scarcity is a good principle to think about every now and then.”

    My point is that we could probably all benefit from at least THINKING about the principle of scarcity a little more often — not necessarily that we need to live ultra simple lives with no fun or splurges.

    [Reply]

  12. Martha

    09/18/2013

    I loved this article; it’s a concept I return to again and again in my mind. I was raised in scarcity, and my husband was raised in luxury, so we have different approaches to both lean and fat times in our marriage, but thankfully we have great communication and can find common ground in spite of this. He gladly lets me manage our finances, but balances me out because I become too – for lack of more gracious word! – MISERLY!
    I do not believe there is a cut and dried formula for managing our resources within a given situation, but we are given good minds to make appropriate decisions as each day comes. I think our approach to stewardship becomes distasteful when we foist our opinions and limits upon others, and become self-righteous in our actions and words.
    But as you said, remembering Scarcity is a wonderful way to periodically realign our perspective and priorities…and induce gratitude and simplicity once more when our lives become cluttered with Stuff.

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  13. Kristen @ Joyfullythriving

    09/18/2013

    Very thought provoking, Andrea. Like you, I stockpile my groceries and non-perishables by getting good deals to stretch our dollars. Yet, like you, I don’t always think so carefully about the last little bit. I think I’m going to think a bit more carefully now about what I use, so thanks for the reminder because I agree with everything you said!

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  14. Cindy

    09/18/2013

    Good reminder! Having an attitude of gratitude helps too!

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  15. Heart and Haven

    09/18/2013

    I think a good example of this concept is the Parable of the Talents.
    If we are good stewards of our stuff, more will be entrusted to us.

    “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

    ********************
    This can definitely be a difficult thing to put into practice though. Like this month, I put a self-imposed “no spend” for the month of September. Although we don’t have debt other than our mortgage, I noticed we were spending more than we wanted on unnecessary stuff (like eating out for convenience, etc.) rather than our goal of paying extra towards our mortgage to pay off quicker.

    Of course, then I went window shopping at Home Goods the other night (just to get some “me” time away from the kids)…and I found some beautiful white porcelain dinnerware at such a great price. That I could replace my current off-white melamine dishes that I really don’t like. Ugh, such a temptation. I haven’t bought the dishes…yet. I mean I’ve been wanting white porcelain dishes for such a long time…and they were such a great price….but aren’t “necessary” items. Ah, what to do? Andrea, I know you will totally convince me to buy the beautiful white porcelain dishes on sale, right? ;-)

    (and yes, I definitely feel very blessed to even have this decision to make. I know so many other families make much tougher choices, like whether to pay for rent or groceries, or medical treatments for a sick child, etc.)

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  16. Chris

    09/18/2013

    I have also read of it leading to WAIST. lol That is overeating when you have an overabundance on a good deal, like from Sam’s Club.

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  17. Ree Klein

    09/18/2013

    Hi Andrea,

    I love this post. At this stage of my life, I look back on my early years and how tight money was. Mostly because I was stupid with it! Now, after learning the hard way and figuring it out I, too, have the luxury of being able to enjoy some of what I’ve created.

    I still consider myself mindful of money and a saver. I believe in buying quality for the long haul and often times in bulk!

    So, in answer to your question, no, I don’t think the way you live is wasteful. The very fact that you would examine the question shows you are conscious of what you do and the impact your actions have on your family’s life/wellbeing.

    Cheers to being wise with money and also being able to enjoy it!
    Ree

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  18. Kim

    09/18/2013

    I love this post. Great food for thought.

    We have had some hard times, and I went to enormous lengths to stretch money, not spend money, etc……………..and it lead to some wonderful creativity. Remember, “necessity is the mother of invention” as they saying goes. These were times when I came to realize that we really can do well on less. This nation is such a consumptive nation who has ABUSED the word “need.” Myself included. I am very thankful that these are easier times; those other times were very stressful. But, Andrea’s post does re-alert my mind to slipping toward wastefulness.

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  19. Becky

    09/18/2013

    Both my husband and I come from very Dutch backgrounds with grandparents who lived through the depression. We laughed at the little things they saved like tiny leftovers but thinking about it it makes sense to make things go as far as they can. The stories my grandmother has told me about her childhood and my grandfathers are amazing and I’m so thankful that I didn’t have to go through that. So here’s to trying to do our ancestors proud by not wasting but also being so thankful that we can waste little things that they never could.

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    rebeccasdelightfulhome Reply:

    You are so right, Becky! My Oma was an orphan at the age of 5 and took care of herself somehow. My mother lived in refugee camps as a child and had next to nothing (but I’m sure had much more than my Oma did!). We always tease my mom about the little bits of leftovers she saves or how she gets every last bit of toothpaste out of the tube – she is the smart one! I guess my frugal roots run deep – LOL! We do need to be thankful every day for everything we have. I REALLY feel guilty now about letting that produce spoil before eating it. My ancestors probably would have eaten it anyway!

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  20. rebeccasdelightfulhome

    09/18/2013

    I have been there! Debt stinks & is so hard to dig out of! I learned so much during that time – I was constantly looking for creative ways to save money. Now that that season is over, I am still implementing some of the things I have learned, and actually enjoy it! I guess that’s why I keep going back to my frugal ways. It is sort of a challenge for me to try different healthy, frugal recipes and see how I can update my wardrobe for just a few dollars. I find it so much fun to hunt for décor for my home at resale shops and yard sales. I hardly ever pay full price and have gotten some really nice things! With the money I save, we are able to put it towards improving our home and things like that. I like to save where no one will notice or feel deprived so we are able to afford other things.

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  21. Daniele

    09/18/2013

    This is such a great, thought provoking post!
    As for food waste, I have read that Americans (& we Australians are the same) waste approximately 40% of food produced for consumption. Add that up over a year!
    In Australia food is very expensive and we don’t have ‘coupons’, so my annual grocery bill is huge!
    For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a little personal experiment, and jotting down anything that I throw away…food that has expired/spoiled or left-overs not eaten etc.. It’s easy to not realise how the little daily things add up. When you see it all written down and listed, you really see how much money & food you are wasting. It’s made me much more mindful of keeping an eye on how much I buy or cook & minimising waste. It has become a bit of a fun personal challenge for me.

    [Reply]

    rebeccasdelightfulhome Reply:

    I have been so bad with wasting food lately! I keep buying lettuce and other produce that spoils before we eat it. I get lazy and don’t wash it right away and then don’t feel like doing all that prep work when it comes to making the meal. You would think I’d learn by now! That is a great idea to jot down everything that’s wasted. Maybe I would be more mindful (and less lazy) when it comes to meal prep. Thanks for the idea!

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    Daniele Reply:

    You sound like my twin. I know exactly what you mean, regarding the fresh produce etc..
    I was horrified to see how much I wasted over a week. I really didn’t realise the amount that was being wasted, as you forget from one day to another what you have thrown out.
    When I added up my list, and then averaged it out over a year…very expensive and wasteful!!! Yet I have been complaining that grocery prices are going through the roof here, and didn’t think there was anything I could do about it.
    Writing it down is really helping me stay mindful, as I don’t want to add more to that cringe worthy list of waste.

    [Reply]

  22. Kalyn Brooke | Creative Savings

    09/18/2013

    Though it’s smart to keep expenses well below your income, it’s also completely OK to let yourself live a little. Money is a tool, and you SHOULD use it! :)

    [Reply]

  23. Tshanina @ Thrifty T's Treasures

    09/19/2013

    Andrea,
    I’m like you! I remember the days when I had to scrimp and save every penny – my budget was tight and I made it work so that I wouldn’t go into debt. Now, our budget isn’t as tight and we also spend a bit more on “extras” while staying well within our means!

    It’s like Dave Ramsey says, “Live like no one else so that later you can live like no one else.”

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  24. Ashley Pichea

    09/19/2013

    Having lived in the land of scarcity, working hard to find ourselves in the land of prosperity, and then making an intentional choice to go back to the land of scarcity (because money does NOT equal happiness), I have no qualms with our choice of lifestyle while living in the land of prosperity. Like you, we worked hard to pay off all our debt (with the exception of our mortgage), and we were able to spend more “carelessly” while still growing our savings (income>expenses).
    Was it difficult to return to the land of scarcity? Yes and no – it was a bit of a bummer to have to stop eating out as much and watch our spending again, but even in the land of prosperity we always had in the back of our minds the idea that we shouldn’t get “used” to living there.
    Life doesn’t hold any guarantees, and living within/below your means (even if you’re not living in “scarcity mode”) is rarely poor stewardship.

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  25. Kevin Wilderman

    09/24/2013

    Great points- couldn’t agree more with you. Both my wife and I are trying to work our debts off right now, and it’s definitely been an uphill battle for us. But we’ve made major progress and it’s definitely possible and feasible!

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