Budgeting and Consumer Responsibility

One of the biggest reasons that people tout for embracing frugality or minimalism is that those lifestyles provide the money and time to live in accordance with your priorities. When you spend less, and have fewer things, you can wield your time and money as tools to sculpt a life the reflects your goals and values.

This is the main reason I want to get control of my stuff, and my money, so that I can live in accordance with my values. I am a long way from where I want to be, but I’m taking steps in the right direction.

I read a lot of blogs about minimalism, and a few about personal finance and frugal living. A lot of the personal finance and frugal living blogs that I read are about saving as much of one’s income as possible, to ensure future (or continued) financial freedom. Some have goals of retiring early (VERY early) and some just want enough in the bank that they never have to make a decision based on a lack of funds, or to do the work that makes them happy but can’t support them completely. In almost all of these cases, the main goal seems to be saving money, by any means necessary. Year long shopping bans are instituted, eating out is shunned, gift cards are used to buy other people gifts. The main idea is to save, save, save so that later (or now) you can have the life you want.

But one thing I’ve found curiously missing from the personal finance and frugal living conversations is the idea of consumer responsibility. I think we can all agree that most of the time the cheapest choice is not the most most sustainable choice, or the choice that provides a living wage for those involved in its production. And so the question arises: should consumer responsibility be a part of the personal finance and frugal living equation?

I ask this question of others because I’ve been asking it of myself. As I poke around in our monthly budget, looking for ways to save, this question comes up again and again. Sure I could save some money here and there buying a cheaper option, but that option would almost certainly be more harmful to the environment, or bypass attempts at fair trade. We like to buy organic, not just because we want to avoid ingesting pesticides ourselves, but because we know they wreak havoc to the ecosystems where they are used, leaching into ground water and contaminating the soil for miles around. We want the animals who provide our dairy and meat to be treated well, raised on the foods there bodies were designed to digest, and not treated with unnecessary hormones. We want to do this not only for our own health, but for ethical reasons as well. These products cost more, sometimes significantly more. Do we stop buying them to save money?

I know there are A LOT of other places in my budget where I can cut costs without making these hard decisions (especially when it comes to groceries), and I’m making baby steps in the right direction. But eventually, I will have to make choices that either save money, or prioritize my values. It seems that ultimately, in most cases*, the choice is “either/or” (am I wrong about this?), but never “and,” when it comes to saving money and consumer responsibility.

I recognize that minimalism and frugal living can make it easier to prioritize values. When you buy fewer clothes you can have a greater inclination to spend more on a garment that wasn’t produced in a sweatshop, or purchase something from a small, local vendor instead of from a giant internet retailer (with horrible employment practices). When you have more money, you can be more intentional with how you spend. And the most important: when you consume less, you create less waste. But honestly, I haven’t seen those ideas included in any conversations about frugal living. Of course I’ve only just started reading many of these blogs, and I’m horrible at configuring a productive string of words in a search bar, but upon closer inspection, it doesn’t seem like they happened before I started following along. (If anyone can point me towards post about this, I’d be much obliged.)

I am only just starting out on this personal finance journey; I still have to learn ALL THE THINGS. And I’m sure I’ll eventually find a balance between saving and all my other priorities, but I’m kind of incredulous that this isn’t a bigger part of the conversation, especially since most of the people achieving early financial independence seem to be well educated, conscientious individuals. For many people, the goal is to make ends meet, and consumer responsibility is a luxury they can’t afford. For those of us who have a choice, I hope we are making it wisely.

How does consumer responsibility factor into your budget?

* I know there are some cases where this is not the case, but they seem rare and subject to regional availability.

8 Comments

  1. As I read this you are looking at frugality versus consumer environmental responsibility and finding blogs not addressing this issue as part of saving money. At some underlying level they do meet up, for example: not ‘going shopping’ translating to using less gasoline or perhaps not owning two cars in a 2 adult household. But to me the broader perspective on frugality is not about the two ways of living but mention but wrapping frugality into governmental policies … which also does not happen in the ‘finances’ blogs I find and read. Perhaps because that becomes so fraught with partisan politics today that it blows up the blog and is a siren call to all trolls sniffing for a trace of troll-able fodder.
    VOTE.

    1. You’re absolutely right that frugal living and minimalism are inherently consumer-responsible, because consuming less is the most sustainable route. I had not thought of frugal living or minimalism in terms of governmental policies, but the possibilities are intriguing.

  2. Most of the frugal living blogs I’ve read DO address this, I’m pretty sure FrugalWoods, MrMoneyMustache and The Frugal Girl have all tackled this. I think a lot of them find that their frugal values align really well with ethics/responsibility. I don’t think any of the frugal blogs I’ve read advocated buying the cheapest possible thing; the focus is more on buying less overall–what can you stop buying altogether? In terms of groceries, there is a lot of focus on finding the right place to buy things; the bloggers LOVE stores like Aldi that have cheap organic produce, for example, or Costco, so they can buy fair-trade coffee in bulk.
    In the simplest sense, yes, buying less stuff altogether=less waste & reliance of unfair labor practices/environmental impact of production. Buying used is another big one; you aren’t adding to the footprint of production & you are saving it from a landfill. Not driving (and certainly not having a huge gas-guzzling car), a big frugal practice, is obvious. But overall, I’ve seen it discussed (and think of it in my life) as a matter of prioritizing. When you are really struggling financially, you think through your priorities and, while you may stick with your principles for some items, for others you may settle for the cheapest (or better yet, forgo it altogether, like meat, for example). Once you’re out of that phase, you can use your improved financial situation to support the products you believe in—since you are overall buying a lot less, you can focus on high quality, ethical products for a lot of things.
    There are multiple ways to cut costs. You can lower your grocery bill by buying less prepared foods, or less meat, so that you can still buy organic. Or you can stop the organic and keep buying the others. Or you can find a cheaper grocery store, grow some things in a garden, find a farm share, trade your friend for eggs, Etc…

    1. Oh good! I’m glad it’s being discussed. I thought it must be, but when I went searching I couldn’t find anything (but I am notoriously bad at using search terms effectively). I absolutely agree that buying less is always the best option, and I think that is one of the best aspects of both these ideals (frugality and minimalism), as reduced consumption is always the most effective form of sustainability. I just hadn’t seen much written about it yet (I’m still new to this). I’m so glad it’s being discussed, as it’s really important.

  3. Consumer responsibility is a big part of our shift from buying cheap things to buying quality things that last a long time. We make a single trip to the city every month or two to buy in bulk some things (and often have an adventure too) and everything else we try to buy locally or high quality online if totally unavailable here in the boonies. Food is simpler because we have so many local and organic/sustainable options here. Living close enough to walk to work sometimes saves us oodles of money so we spend that on fancier food right now. I think this is something that just doesn’t get discussed much because it gets old rehashing it. Bargain hunting for the things you buy regularly strikes me as useful because then you can save lots over time. We need to bargain hunt our local grocery options better rather than just getting groceries delivered. Delivery for groceries is my luxury of the moment right now.

  4. I do think it’s very important and I do try to take it into consideration especially considering food. I mean, that’s obviously the case because we are vegan and we try hard to buy only cruelty free things for example we don’t buy a leather wool or silk or anything like that. (not to be a downer but in my opinion there is no such thing as food animals that treated well at least those on factory farms…maybe there are animals somewhere that are treated somewhat humanely before they slaughtered but really I don’t think that’s the case…) And generally some vegan foods do cost more. Probably not as much as some people think. But a lot of that has to do with the subsidies given to the meat and dairy industries that obviously aren’t given to vegan food producers.

    I’ve recently been recently heard some things about how apparently most chocolate is harvested are processed or something using essentially like slave labor or something so it looks like I’ll be spending more on chocolate…

    I find this topic interesting in the context of the political debate regarding undocumented persons. I don’t think that people who are such haters and want everyone deported realize how expensive produce would be without these people. And I’m not saying it’s a good thing that we get such good produce considering that we are getting cheap produce on the backs of very poor people working very long hard hours for very little money.

  5. Consumer Responsibility should be factored in, regardless of income. I feel that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your values on things that you deem important. For instance, we buy “made in the USA” products. It’s hard. It’s more expensive but they last longer. My New Balance tennis shoes that cost me $160, a year ago, are still holding up. It pained me to spend that amount but I know it’s going towards something meaningful.
    I do think there are other ways to trim the budget. I stopped, just this month, buying paper towels and just using cotton hand towels (in the kitchen). This is going to save us about $25 a month and we’re helping the environment.

    In regards of groceries, I tend to ask the grocer when they start selling their organic veggies/fruit half off (here, it’s Tuesdays as they are getting ready for their Wednesday shipment)…same can be done for meat and bread (day old stores).

  6. I think this is such an important post and topic. It’s true, the cheapest thing is often the worst thing from a waste and consumerism perspective. I like the framework in the comments of buying better and buying less – well made things that will last a long time. It’s true though that when it comes to food, you do have to pay more to be more ethical – unfortunately. It’s so f*ed up that that is the case. Or any product that has a questionable origin – cheap clothing, cheap chocolate, cheap coffee.

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