Splitting your own wood warms you twice, so goes the old proverb. Similarly, practicing frugality enriches you twice: first, by leaving more money in your pocket and secondly, by shaping your character into a person who makes better choices about money generally.
Nonetheless, frugality is not as glamorous a virtue as say courage—especially when practiced in the form of a budget. Furthermore, in this day of easy credit, it’s tempting to neglect frugality and even consider it just a quaint skill from a bygone era, something like churning butter.
And yet, according to our nation’s founders, frugality is a timeless virtue vital for the maintenance of self-government. In a previous article, I described the founders’ belief in a natural union between virtue and happiness. I argued that we should use our current economic prosperity to increase our capacity for self-government.
Developing the virtue of frugality is one way to increase our capacity for self-government by increasing our independence from necessity, generally, and debt, particularly. Even more importantly, though, practicing frugality increases happiness by relieving economic stress and making each transaction—big or small—a more measured and more pleasurable choice.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 includes the assertion “that no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”
The founders understood that even if Americans won their liberty through the Revolution, they could easily lose the blessings of liberty if they became a people who used that liberty without self-restraint. License, they knew, is not liberty; in fact, it destroys liberty.
A scholar of the U.S. founding, Thomas G. West, cited a 1790 American magazine article to define frugality as “the habit of managing and spending one’s earnings carefully, so as to be able to provide for oneself and one’s family in the future.” From his exhaustive survey of public documents from the founding era, West concluded that the founders considered frugality a “republican” virtue because they thought it vital for maintaining the condition of independence required for self-government.
Frugality and Happiness
Frugality also increases happiness. Over the past year, I have learned firsthand the benefits of fortifying my liberty with frugality by submitting my whims to a budget. The experience has made me a more discerning consumer, a less dependent debtor, a more generous neighbor, and a happier person. All of those things make me a better citizen, a person better fit for self-government.
The greatest effect of budgeting is that it introduces into my reasoning the idea of scarcity. I never took scarcity—the reality that my income is finite—seriously. I avoided running into debt by maintaining a vague sense of how much money I had and how much I would need in the future, but I never made that imprecise notion concrete nor transferred that concept into the reasoning involved in each transaction. The result was that I constantly lived with a base level of economic stress of which I was not even conscious until I started budgeting.
Mindful now of the scarcity of my resources, I am better able to make rational choices. Before budgeting, I was not really making choices; I was making guesses. Now I am able to exercise prudence in each transaction because I know how much money I’ve already allotted to the category of each transaction, and I can weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option before I make a choice.
It’s through my capacity to make choices that I exercise my most human attribute—the faculty of reasoning—and it is through making good choices that I improve my character. Each day is filled with opportunities to make choices, many of which involve my pocketbook, and every choice is an opportunity to choose well or choose poorly.
Because each choice I make shapes my character into the kind of person who will choose similarly in the future, each choice takes on a significance that extends beyond the immediate circumstances of a particular choice. And I have found that using a budget helps me to choose well.
Making good choices about money allows me to feel greater pleasure about each transaction I make. Before I used a budget—when my choices were merely guesses—every transaction was tinged with a degree of doubt and reluctance. Often I would refrain from buying something I wanted because I could not be sure that it was a good choice, or else I made a purchase and later experienced buyer’s remorse.
Now I am able to accumulate money set aside for specific items and then purchase those items free from guilt and hesitation. As Aristotle noted, pleasure is the rightful reward of bringing an activity such as choosing well to completion, “like the bloom of well-being in people who are at the peak of their powers.” Frugality, to the degree that it helps us choose well and become good choosers, can thus be a source of great pleasure.
Finally, as the definition above describes, frugality helps me fulfill my duties to others by helping me to be generous to those who have a right to my charity, first those dependent on me and second my friends and neighbors. Self-government includes acknowledging that rights and duties are reciprocal, and thus I should expect my rights to be only as secure as my determination and capacity to fulfill my duties.
There are many budgeting programs to choose from today. The important thing, though, is simply to choose one and to choose to stick with it. That is the first good choice.
Our times are generally prosperous ones, but our ability to be self-governing in the future is never assured. History teaches that liberty is easily squandered. We must use our prosperity to increase our capacity for self-government. And we should cultivate the virtue of frugality to help us “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Clifford Humphrey is originally from Warm Springs, Georgia. Currently, he is a doctoral candidate in politics at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @cphumphrey.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.