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Friday, February 5, 2010

Being Frugal is really Personal

Since I was fairly critical of one of Penelope Trunk's blog posts about the value of college as measured by job placement, I am pleased to balance the karma scales by praising one of her recent posts. I really like Trunk's post about "Frugality as a career tool" and equally enjoyed the comments.

The post is about Trunk's approach to frugality and the connection to overspending or investing in aspects that can limit future mobility or entrepreneurship. The comments included a range of opinions on what was considered to be frugal spending and what was not. There was agreement, disagreement, other opinions, questions, and in general it was better than Cats. Generally, we all think that we're frugal and our neighbor is not.

I think that I'm frugal because I have only bought about 9 books since the Y2K implosion that never was but read hundreds. I've read more books in the book store coffee shop than I've purchased. I also think that I'm frugal since my vacations involve camping trips and I've slept in my car more time than I have slept in a hotel. Some call sleeping in your car an example of homelessness, I call that my home away from home. Finally, my furniture reminds me of my childhood since it was my parent's furniture when I was a child. My sister got the furniture that reminded me of being a teenager.

However, I buy cars that are new and own a house that currently has an unoccupied bedroom. I went to a fancy college and MBA program. Based on this, some might accuse of me of blowing money like a Jersey Shore socialite. Even this MBA, who blogged about getting foreclosed might have congratulated himself on his frugality.

Some have called this prioritization as opposed to frugality but frugality is a better word. It's not about what you're spending money on but what you're not spending money on. Ultimately, it's about not trapping yourself with your purchases. In other words, don't buy anything big 1) that you can't sell if you need to, 2) that you could pay off if you lost your job, or 3) that doesn't lock you on a career path that is difficult to leave and makes you miserable.

However, our current political parties will probably agree on something significant before there is consensus on even these 3 vague principles that I outlined. For the first, sometimes you have to sell something in a week or you just need to sell it eventually. Illiquid assets from houses to a herd of llamas to a kilo of crystal meth are dependent on their market.

For the second, the bigger question is what percent of savings should be used to pay off a debt and what are the consequences of not paying off the debt? For houses that are worth less than their remaining mortgage, banks are trying to use a moral argument to guilt people into not walking away since there isn't the economic argument. The image of banks taking a moral high ground reminds me of the George of Arrested Development's conversion to Judaism.

The third creates the biggest argument as it's another way of asking about the ROI on graduate school. I've posted links about the 20 year salary trend of MBA's by programs and the unemployment rate by professional degree in support of graduate school. Others can probably post some dismal information about the number of law school graduates who are still working in the field. I'll offer the political third way which is that graduate degrees will help move you forward if you stay within your field. That requires a fair amount of soul searching before picking a graduate program. Or do what I did and apply to a dual degree program (MBA and Masters in Social Work) so you improve your odds.

By the way, the political fourth way is to be the first to call your opponent a Nazi.

In conclusion, a post about the right kind of frugality for a career is a really good blog post because it triggers a lot of debate, anyone can participate, and there is no right answer. Like the, "Why do you want an MBA" essay question it forces people to develop a game plan and really think about their answer before responding otherwise their argument will fall flatter than the latest CEO apology.

The only really solid answer that I have come up with for not trapping yourself with your spending is to insure yourself really well and find a really good arsonist. Then you'll always to be able to walk away.

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