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RISMEDIA, February 11, 2010—(MCT)—Frugality. That’s been the buzzword of the Great Recession. Sliding home values, stumbling stock portfolios and a shaky job market brought with them a consciousness about spending that many of us misplaced during years of consumer overindulgence. Americans responded to the crisis by buying less, clipping coupons more and increasing savings to 4.8% of disposable income in December 2009, up from near zero before the recession.

In the past year, blogs about frugality went viral. Everyone from Oprah to President Barack Obama joined the frugality parade. Now a new term is marching through the blogosphere: frugality fatigue. But I’d argue that if frugality is done right, there should be no such thing.

Being frugal doesn’t mean being stingy, miserly or downright cheap. The true spirit of frugality is to be mindful of how you use your limited resources. To be prudent with your money. To buy the best of what you need but no more. To avoid waste.

That’s why the new frugality aligns so well with the growing interest in living green, argues American Public Media’s economics expert Chris Farrell in his new book, The New Frugality. “A sustainable sensibility both saves money and does good,” writes Farrell, who also writes a column for the Star Tribune.

The new frugality also means embracing a “margin of safety” in your money life, he says. Spend less than you make. Have months’ worth of salary set aside in a savings account. Never charge anything you can’t afford to pay off at month’s end. That’s the new frugality.

But even more than smart saving and spending, to me the new frugality is freedom. By saving money and keeping life simple, a job loss or a drop in income doesn’t create an immediate catastrophe. Low expenses mean having the freedom to take a needed break after a layoff, or to choose a job with more than compensation in mind. The fewer expenses you have, the more you can spend on things that matter to you—family, hobbies, charitable causes.

I was taught early to manage credit, and I inherited a deal-seeking gene from my father. I hate waste. I hate clutter even more. My family deliberately keeps expenses low. We’re staying in our 1,400-square-foot house with three kids and a big dog because it’s close to our workplaces and we could afford the mortgage on one income, with some sacrifice. A bigger house would mean a bigger mortgage payment, more electricity to heat it, more stuff to fill it. Upsizing would probably move us farther from our jobs, making it harder to remain a one-car family. Longer commutes and higher expenses would translate into less time spent with our children and fewer family vacations. Keeping our footprint smaller is good not only for our family, and for the environment, but also for the community because we can donate more to organizations who are doing good work in Haiti or feeding the hungry here in town.

Living a frugal life is a work in progress, filled with compromise and contradiction.

Coming of age in a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses era, it can be hard to shun super-sizing for sustainability. I spend hours per month poking through real estate listings because I still can’t quash my dream of a Brady Bunch house on a super-sized lot, even though I know staying put is a good choice—even with the $6,500 repeat home buyer tax incentive.

I occasionally confuse frugal with cheap. And too much focus on saving money can mean wasting another finite resource: time.

I know living this way is impossible for some. It’s hard to raise a family on a single income these days. Many people are locked into high expenses, and most won’t walk away from an overpriced mortgage, even if it eats up most of their paycheck. But if you can afford to live frugally, the troubles of others in recent years make it crystal-clear that living frugally is a smart choice.

(c) 2010, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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