Surviving or Thriving on a Budget... What Is The Difference?

My super frugal grocery shops- for me a pleasure, for others,
 just barely surviving
Today I got into a discussion with someone who is familiar with my blog, and I was mentioning to her about how the focus of my blog is about living as well as one can within their means, however small, and not just doing what you need to survive. The tag line of this blog is and always has been "A Rich Life on a Minimum Wage" and I feel my life and my blog live up to that.
This person, however, said that she felt my blog was more surviving, not thriving, since I talk about family cloth, dumpster diving, and getting free chicken frames and such.

Hence this post.

Because I need to explain something that, I feel, is the essence of my approach to life and finances and frugality. 

Frugality is not one size fits all. In any way, shape or form.

Not only does everyone have a different financial situation, you can have two people with the exact same income, and frugality for each of them would look different.

Why is that?

Because, at least according to me, the ideal frugal lifestyle is a life in which you live within your means, while at the same time, be happy with where your money is going. If you look at your finances at the end of the month, seeing where every penny went, and you realize that the vast majority of your money was spent on things that aren't important to you, and you didn't spend the money on things that were important to you, you missed the point. 

I've written before about the difference between frugality and miserliness, and I think part of that is that miserliness is just penny pinching for the sake of pinching pennies, with no ultimate goal in mind other than seeing how little money you can spend or how much you can hoard. Conversely, frugality is conscious spending, deciding what things are important to you, and cutting back on your expenses for things that aren't important to you, so that you can afford the things that are. In short, I'd call frugality "Put your money where your heart is".

Not only should your version of frugality be different from someone else's, even within your own life, you shouldn't be stuck on one version of frugality and ways of doing things. Rather, you should regularly evaluating your life and priorities and see where money should be spent, and where it can be cut back.

When someone is thriving on a small budget, in my opinion, it means that despite there not being a lot of cash to go around, they managed to prioritize their expenditures so that they figure out how to get and do the things that are important to them, so they don't feel like they are suffering, and instead feel like they are living a life filled with joy and wonderful things. 

Frugal bare bones survival, on the other hand, is when your lifestyle means that you aren't able to have the things that are very important to you, where you feel emotionally neglected and feel like you are suffering because of all those lacks. 
This can happen because of a few different reasons. It may be because someone didn't sit down with their finances and prioritize what is important to them and what is not, and ends up spending on things that aren't important to them so there isn't anything left over for the things that are their emotional needs. It can happen because there simply isn't enough cash to go around, no matter what, so there's no way to cut back in one area to have extra for another. And sometimes it is because someone's expectations in life are way too high and far above their financial means. 

For the first, the fix is relatively easy enough. For the second and third though, the solutions are much more difficult. When there simply isn't enough cash to go around, you need to do something to either cut your expenses drastically, bare bones grocery budget with the bare bones in terms of food, or move to a significantly cheaper home, both of which can be emotionally even harder, and make you feel like you're struggling even more, that you're surviving and not thriving... Or you can do what you can to bring in some extra cash. When we were in that situation, I did anything to earn a buck or two, including working as a cleaning lady, which I didn't enjoy, but at least it brought in money. My husband took on as many extra hours at work as he could, even if it meant coming home exhausted.

As for the third, when your expectations of life and what you need to be happy are well above your financial means, the only solution to that (other than increasing your finances if possible to be able to afford your emotional needs) is to do a lot of emotional work and mindset shifting from what needs are to what are extras and "nice to haves". I'm not claiming this is easy by a long shot. This may very well be the toughest thing you ever do in life, but if you can change your expectations of what is normal and needed even a little bit, it can pay off in the long run tremendously. 
One way to help with that is to try to surround yourself with people who live the type of lifestyle you can afford, even if it is far from your ideal lifestyle or how you grew up. When you live around people that have "the good life" and you see them having all the nice things you wish you could afford, it can be very challenging to be the only one without, and jealousy can eat away at people. 
Sometimes moving to another location with people who may be with a lower socioeconomic level, or at least whose values are more in line with "simple living" can help you adjust your expectations, because attitudes rub off on people, and you may absorb these via osmosis. If moving isn't an option, social media can either help or hurt in this aspect. Joining simple living and frugal minded and even extremely frugal minded facebook groups and message boards can accomplish similarly to living in such a neighborhood, and reading blogs of bloggers who write on such topics can help. 
Conversely, keeping on touch with friends and family members who are "living the high life" when you cannot afford to live that way can make things extra hard. Friends of mine in such situations found that unfollowing them on Facebook, or disabling their news feed on Facebook in general took away a lot of the emotional pain that they got every time they were seeing what their friends were doing that made them have the urge to have similar. 
I'll admit that, despite in general trying my best to look at the good I have in life and counting my blessings, and appreciating them instead of looking at what I lack, and really trying to not "keep up with the Joneses", I too was influenced by what I saw my friends and family posting about on social media- when I saw so many people going away on fancy vacations for their tenth anniversary, and mine was fast approaching, a desire for a nice vacation to celebrate turned from something nice to do, that was at the back of my mind to what felt like a real need, emotionally, without which I didn't know how I could manage. It really and truly became an emotional need, which is important to take care of, and fortunately we were able to swing it financially, and it was a wonderful experience. But even so, I noticed how much it affected me to see people talking about that, and I began to understand why people either leave Facebook or shut off their news feed. 
I learned a lesson from there. When a local group about home building, that I joined to get ideas about things for our new home, started having posts showing their glamorous kitchens and homes, much nicer and larger than our new home that, until that point, I was really excited about, I decided to stop then and there. I made the decision to not read any posts in the group about people's dream kitchens or how to design their dream home, because I knew the power these things had to influence my attitude. 

So back to surviving or thriving, it all has to do with attitudes and perspectives, and what is important to you, not on actually what you're doing. My friend Juli and I were talking about this today, and I realized that while some people may consider family cloth and dumpster diving and getting free chicken just bare bones surviving, for our family it wasn't or isn't. For the record, as much as my family's use of family cloth earned caused us to gain some notoriety, I didn't suffer from it at all, and in fact, preferred it to toilet paper. But for the past few years, we have not had a single drop of family cloth used in our home- its plain old toilet paper, at my husband's request. Dumpster diving, again, isn't something that bothers me in the slightest, and I know people that are wealthy who dumpster dive when they see something nice, because of environmental consciousness or otherwise. And lastly, getting free chicken frames and such from the market doesn't bother me at all.

You know what would make me feel like I was suffering, and wasn't thriving?
If the only things I could afford to feed my family on our budget was legumes and grains as the staple of our diet. I don't feel good on a vegan diet, and even back in the day, when our budget was tighter and I did make lots of vegan meals, I only did a few days vegan food before eating a meal or two of animal proteins, because if I go more than 3 days or so without some animal protein, I end up really feeling the lack and start feeling deprived. I would much rather scrounge around and get free chicken and eat necks and chicken frames and fish heads on a regular basis than eat lentils or beans. Because that's me and my priorities and what matters to me.

I'd also feel really deprived and like I was suffering if I could only afford white sugar, soy or canola oil, and gluten based foods. Healthy eating and gluten free especially is extremely important to me, and I'm happy to cut out so many things financially to be able to buy my healthier products while staying within our budget.

If I had to eat the same foods again and again, if I couldn't afford diversity in my diet and just had a rotating weekly or bi-weekly menu plan, I would suffer. As a lover of good food, I crave variety. If I don't have it, I just lose my appetite. I have no interest in eating the same foods ad nauseum. That would be yet another reason if I had to survive off of rice and lentils or beans I would suffer. The monotony!!! However, because I make things from scratch and forage wild edibles, I am able to really diversify the cuisine that I cook, so that I never get bored from eating the same foods too frequently. Even the same items can be made differently and thereby be less boring to me and enhance my life by cooking a variety of different culture's foods from scratch, especially when made with foraged items that vary by the season and by what I can find. The fact that I buy only produce that is in season in the grocery store means that what comes into my house varies week to week and by the season, so I'm constantly forced to come up with ideas using what I then have available. What would cause one person to suffer (not being able to have their favorite foods) actually enhances my life.

I can go on and on about things that would make me feel deprived, if I didn't have them, but many others are happy to do without (such as- in no specific order- birthday celebrations, date nights, alcohol, desserts, home birthing, trips with my kids, presents, coordinating color schemes in my home, fashionable clothing that fits properly for myself and my kids, not having plenty of reading material, etc...) and what things I do frugally and super frugally that don't make me feel deprived in the slightest (going car-less, dumpster diving, buying second hand, borrowing things, buying cheap quality accessories from China, going to free days at local attractions even if they are super packed, or just going to free events and parks instead of paid ones, making things from scratch, etc...) but what makes me feel deprived if I don't have it, and what makes me not feel deprived even if it makes others feel that way really isn't relevant. 
The point is that I figured out what things I'm ok doing without, the ways that I can save money without sacrificing my sanity, and still have the things that are important in my life. If someone wants to be able to thrive and not just survive with their budgetary constraints, they need to figure out their priorities and what things are less important to them that they are willing to do without, and won't feel like they are suffering. I plan on making a mini e-book (for free) to help people figure that out for themselves, but that will take a little time to put together.

In short though- the difference between surviving and thriving is a combination between your perspective and expectations in life, and prioritizing your money so that you can afford the things that are important to you.

Do you feel, currently, that you are surviving or thriving on your current budget? What things do you feel are emotional needs that others may not feel to be necessary? What things are you willing to do without that others may feel are non negotiable?

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I think this is one of your best posts. I would likely be considered one of your more affluent readers. I actually stumbled upon your blog because I am a vegan (vegetarian at the time) and I liked several of your posted recipes. I continued reading your blog not necessarily because I NEED to save money, but because I liked your posts about living intentionally. While your life is different than mine I found many of your ideas resonated, and your posts about frugality, community, environmental issues, and so on seemed to suggest we shared similar values.

    My son is profoundly disabled and medically fragile so I have spent a lot of time thinking about the idea of thriving as opposed to merely surviviing. My life can be quite restricted not necessarily by finances, but by significant caregiving demands. And while money factors in to the equation (he's an expensive kid!), the issue is much broader. However I find the things I grapple with intersect with many of the ideas you talk about on your blog - about thinking about the life you want and working to make it happen within the realities of your life as it is - be it money or caregiving responsibilities.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  2. Absolutely. My husband and I were talking about this a bit last night. Since our income is going to be less stable, we've been trying to cut expenses. Unfortunately, we realized that one expense we were cutting was something that, while certainly not a necessity, is one that we both enjoy and helps us keep our stress levels down. We pay my aunt to come clean our house every week, and we had cut that out. However, we both had cleaning with a passion and neither of use seem to have the time or energy to do it regularly. So we had the dual problem of having to clean ourselves and often just having a dirty house, which I also hate (sadly for us, the cleaning gene apparently skipped a generation, though I very much appreciate a clean house). We sat back down and went through other areas where we can save a bit instead of losing something that makes our lives easier.

    1. Ariella...

      In my family, the cleaning gene skipped TWO generations!

      How coincidental! I recently took on an extra job (which I ended up liking) -- with the sole purpose of being able to pay someone to clean my house!

      I think this speaks to Penny's point of living with purpose. Personally, I don't mind eating lentils and brown rice most days, but I hate the thought of fish heads (sorry Penny). On the other hand, other people like them.... to me, it's kind of the same thing.

      Hiring someone to clean my tiny house may seem like a waste of money...

      Once you decide your priorities, then put your spending in order. At my age, if I prefer the luxury of someone else climbing to scrub my bath, AND I'm willing to work extra hours to make that happen, it seems like a win-win for both me and the housekeeper (who is struggling to make ends meet).

  3. OMG. This post was one long meandering ramble. Had to stop reading pretty quickly.

  4. To Anonymous -- why in the world did you feel the need to make such a rude and negative comment? If you stopped reading so quickly, you should have just moved on and not commented at all.

    I think this is a very good post, and clarifies many things people wonder about and have problems with. The comment from a friend that this blog is "just surviving" is also without merit, in my opinion.

    I don't do things the way this blogger does all the time, but she lives a VERY frugal life VERY well, and I almost always find something that gives me new ideas or just makes me nod in agreement.

    Rude, insensitive comments are not needed, and merely make poster look bad. And, if you felt the need to comment negatively, at least have the courage to identify yourself.

    This is one of the blogs that I look at every day, hoping for a new post, and that will not change! Keep up the good work, and ignore the haters.

  5. Yes Anonymous - you want to be rude, put your name to it. Otherwise you are a coward. The beauty of the internet is if you don't like one blog or blog post just use your mouse and move on to one that does interest you.

  6. am very glad I read your post today am frugal because I hate wasting money but when I get the chance enjoy a treat but my idea may not be yours enjoy Penny's posts a lot & learn a lot from them so thank you


  7. Another great post, thanks.

    I was blessed with becoming a person who is practical and therefore always focus on what I need, not what I want. Because of this mentality, I never feel like I am surviving, but always thriving, even when I'm broke. Downside is that when someone ask me what I want for birthday or Christmas, I never pick a want, always a need. I don't know what I want anymore. Life has changed my entire perception.

    My financial situation has changed recently and the extra income is being used for savings, over due needed items, and a few wants by my husband. For me, I splurged and bought a t-shirt for $36 (including shipping.) Never would I have done that before but the money is there and I've given up gardening and wasting $$ on plants that die.

    One thing I've never swayed on is diet coke and cigarettes. Stupid I know, but I've always made sure they are part of the budget. Now, I'm trying to quit my bad habits just because they are bad, not because I can't afford them.
    I hope to change my entire diet and move away from pre-processed foods that are un-healthy to only healthy foods. Wish me luck.

  8. I think the difference between surviving and thriving is between "have to" and "want to". If you are forced to be frugal, it feels like you're poor because you don't have a choice in the matter. After you've reached financial goals, being frugal is truly a choice and to me, it seems like the better choice most of the time.

  9. I think the difference between thriving and surviving is pretty personal and individual! If you are Trump, perhaps not going to the most expensive restaurant in town is 'surviving'. Us regular's different! And I hope blog readers can figure that out! I'm a long time reader of your blog, and I enjoy it, and it makes me so happy to see you getting a new home...and creating an income source by renting out half of your new place, but it also goes for you writing an eBook, and then getting a book deal! WOW! Or giving local classes on foraging. That all sounds like thriving to me! I don't embrace everything, my husband shudders at the idea of 'family cloth', but I know I could do it--if we needed to! I love chicken wings, trying international dishes, fish frames, making soup from nothing...maybe we just find joy together and 'thrive' when we save money, rather than wasting it. I would dumpster dive and embrace the idea of no waste....if I had a pal to do it with! It's not within my husband's comfort zone however, but that's okay. Some people shudder at the idea of wearing non "new" clothing...I look at the big picture of the environment and find it's a good thing to do, plus has saved my family a ton of money. when my kids were young and money was tighter, I made my own yogurt and bread, and bought the cheapest chicken and made do, and bought thrift store clothing and items and toys, and you really couldn't tell the difference between my kids and others, or the way my family dresses. Except I could afford to be a stay at home mom, and we eventually paid off all of our debt. We drove older, used cars, and didn't go to Hawaii every year, didn't have the newest greatest cell phones or computers, but we didn't go without, either. With NO debt, we are now in our late 40s, and can work p/t at home together on an online business, and we don't make much, but it's enough! I certainly don't envy families where both parents work and barely can make ends meet, going into deeper debt trying to keep up with the Jones'. We're happier than we've ever been, done working for 'the Man', and we don't even have to scrimp as much as we used to. It's not how much you make, it's how much you SAVE. (and don't spend!) Terrific Blog!

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