Two similar words, one big difference

Here’s a minor, but important point.  It’s the distinction between these two words:

  • Thrifty
  • Frugal

A thrifty person doesn’t waste much water, energy, money, etc.  In contrast, a frugal person uses as little of everything as possible.

Now, being thrifty is a resilient trait.  It’s something I strongly approve of.  By wasting less, you reduce your costs and accumulate more, faster.  Being thrifty makes it easier to bounce back from set-backs and disasters.

In contrast, being frugal is a false resilience.  Sure, if you use very little, it’s likely that many set-backs may seem inconsequential.  However, this is an optical illusion.  It’s done by setting your standards for existence very low (being cold, hungry….).

My friend, the writer Bruce Sterling, has a good test for whether you are frugal or thrifty.  He calls the dead great, great grandfather test.  It’s simply this:

IF your aspiration is to use less water, energy, money, food, things, housing, etc. than your dead great, great grandfather, you are on the wrong track.  You are trying to act dead.  

Let this sink in a bit.

This makes sense.  Life requires the expenditure of resources.  Nature is replete with waste.  Focusing all of your energy on cutting back on what you use isn’t a natural way to live your life.

In contrast, avoiding waste through thrift, and using the waste you can’t avoid to feed other systems (that generate more resources that you can store or consume) is a natural way to live a life.  It’s how our bodies work.  It’s how the natural world works.

Your thrifty analyst,


John Robb

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  • Matt

    I don’t know how many resources my dead great, great grandfather, or great grandfather, or grandfather used. I do know they were all thrifty and part of that thrift was getting the most out of the resources they did use. That included using only what was needed and most of the consumption in excess of daily needs went into creating products that others used as their resources. All my grands were farmers, lumberjacks or millers or combinations of all three. All were resilient by nature.

    • johnrobb

      Thanks Matt. Concur, thrift is the way to go.

      The idea wasn’t to compare your actions to your great grandfather was alive, but what resources they use up while dead. The conclusion I was aiming for: A dead person uses nothing. If your goal is use nothing (zero water, zero energy, zero food, etc.), you might as well be dead.

      However, I will make an exception for ascetics. They use frugality to enhance the spiritual. JR

  • Craig Ambrose

    I’m not sure I agree. The thing about thrifty is, it simply implies that you are efficient in using resources to achieve your intended purpose. The trouble with efficiency is, so far most of our efficiency gains have not reduced our resource consumption at all. That sounds like a paradox, but when we are able to do something more efficiently, we (as a society at least) don’t tend to just what we used to do with less resources, instead our newfound efficiency allows us to do more.

    Frugal instead implies that we actually do less. I think that this is a powerful message for the current times. To me, of the two words, “frugality” does a better job of evoking the idea of behaviour change to actually be happy with less, and get off the hedonistic treadmill to some degree.

    While Bruce Sterling might think that’s acting dead, there are plenty of schools of life philosophy who have disagreed. Acting alive is in my mind related to the pursuit of happiness. There are many ways in which we might deprive ourselves of things (ie; be frugal) in order to increase our happiness. Not all the time perhaps, but there is value in this approach. Just ask Thoreau, or William Coperthwaite, or the greek Stoics or Cynics, or Bhuddist monks, the list goes on.

    • johnrobb

      Craig, What you are describing is asceticism. The denial of the body and the world in order to enhance the spiritual. Becoming an ascetic is clearly a very personal decision. A path taken by select people and not something you can expect everyone to follow. JR

  • Penny Pincher

    Aristippus passed Diogenes as he was washing lentils.

    He said, “If you could but learn to flatter the king, you would not have to live on lentils.”

    Diogenes said, “And if you could learn to live on lentils, you would not have to flatter the king”.

    • johnrobb

      PP, Nice. However, I think we can do much better than this. A window of opportunity for decentralization is opening up. We need to grab it. JR

  • ryan

    “This makes sense. Life requires the expenditure of resources. Nature is replete with waste. Focusing all of your energy on cutting back on what you use isn’t a natural way to live your life.

    In contrast, avoiding waste through thrift, and using the waste you can’t avoid to feed other systems (that generate more resources that you can store or consume) is a natural way to live a life. It’s how our bodies work. It’s how the natural world works.”

    well put. considering the amount of waste industrial humans have generated it seems most appropriate to attempt develop means repurpose and remediate waste and apply it in means that may be able to compete with inefficient production designs.

    this is cool – Two-In-One Device Uses Sewage as Fuel to Make Electricity and Clean the Sewage –

    although this may sound like a pretty advanced technique, it can actually be replicated DIY relatively easily… provided one has access to a culture of anaerobic bacteria that efficiently break down waste and are happy to donate electrons. one of my friends build a small one from stuff at home depot and a culture of rhodoferax ferrireducens. it produced decent electricity but required refined sugar (expensive). figuring out a microbial community capable of growing while degrading tough to break down stuff in compost/waste and still generate energy would be the next step.

    • johnrobb

      Thanks Ryan. Bio-digesters are pretty interesting. JR

  • Nick

    Nice concept to ponder. I’ve erred on the side of frugality before and it seemed the only thing positive I could get from the situation was a deeper perspective on the resource flows we really need to be comfortable and happy, otherwise it was a draining experience of fighting against the “current”.

    From that experience I imagine thrift is more of a somewhat zen state of going with the readily available resources at hand and making positive use of them, well not getting too bogged down in conserving and thereby hindering resource access (frugality) nor getting too obsessed with capturing everything (greed). Poor analogy but anyways nice article.