The Culture of Frugality Can Help Employees Save for Retirement

Plan Sponsors can take a page from Kondo's approach, or even one of her books, and use her Spark Joy theory to encourage employees to embrace minimalism and frugality to acquire freedom in retirement readiness.

Marie Kondo's empire expanded in 2019 into a television show on Netflix. That trend now has more American's asking if their "stuff" brings them joy. The pain of our "stuff" has been a source of comedy and drama for years. George Carlin brilliantly riffed on how attached we are to our stuff in 1981. And in 2009 cable television began new series on hoarding, storage troubles and other details of how much stuff we have.

Marie Kondo may be playing to a final exhaustion not just on dealing with the "stuff" but on acquiring it. As we wrote about in Minimalism and the New Frugality in February of 2018, millennials are adopting minimalism as an offset, partially, to the rising cost of goods yet stagnant wage growth. What is minimalism? It’s the idea of intentionally bringing into your life only the things that you find valuable and use often. GenXers, on the other hand, embrace frugality - coupon clipping and taking making things from scratch to a zenith, including making your own tallow. Marie Kondo's approach may span both generations and that might explain her popularity.

As a refresher, Kondo's books emphasize first getting rid of all the “stuff” by determining what evokes true feeling in the owner. She calls this "sparking joy". Once a home has been decluttered, or in Kondo's terms, "tidied up" then it can stay that way by only bringing in objects that bring joy. That concept of "sparking joy" easily equates to the minimalist idea of only acquiring things you find valuable and use often. Some minimalists will make clear that Marie Kondo's sparking joy places emphasis on material goods as bringing happiness to the home, which to them differs from minimalist's emphasis on how not having thingsbrings more joy.

Regardless of the source of joy, this popularity of Marie Kondo's approach may signal that the culture of frugality and minimalism that was rising in 2018 is continuing to grow. While much of the impulse to become more frugal usually stems from the need to spend less money, the impact on savings can be significant.

By buying less, most of those engaging in frugality and minimalism obviously spend less. But minimalists or those following Kondo may continue to spend less money because when they do spend money, it is on higher quality clothes, shoes and other goods. And while Kondo is known for asking if an item sparks joy, a deeper read of her book and other writings shows that she urges her readers to spend time focusing on their identities, their own passions and interests over the pressures from families and cultures. She gives examples of younger sisters who have held onto hand me downs from older siblings due to a belief by the younger sibling that she should be more like the successful one. She also gives examples of homeowners who never feel at peace at home because they hold onto furniture or other goods that they think they are supposed to have to properly entertain, or in popular culture be capable of “adulting”. Deep diving into that sense of only holding onto what sparks joy you can grab hold of the same root that underlies minimalism. That is, only bring in things that you need and that will be appropriate for your specific life. Minimalists find that when they begin to pare down they have linen closets full of sheets for the guest bedroom that are never used as they dislike having visitors. So too they may be holding onto dishes and pots and pans because they are supposed to host dinner parties. Both Kondo and the minimalists distain buying or holding onto goods for freedom from the "should" factor: you should entertain, you should act like a grown up.

And a similar deep dive into the frugality culture might bare the same root too: many of the extreme frugalists are couples that wanted a different life. While they may claim they want a "simpler life" they spend a lot of their free time on making things from scratch, like tallow or their own cheesy poofs. But where they don't spend a lot of time is the key: they aren't locked in corporate cubicles or in suburban apartments. The freedom frugalists get is from the “should” factor of holding a traditional job.

So if there is so much freedom, both financially or emotionally, available through frugality and minimalism, why aren't more folks taking up these habits? This may be why Kondo's focus on joy has attracted more attention than minimalism or frugality. And this is exactly where Plan Sponsors can help direct employees that could benefit from help finding ways to save for retirement.

The criticisms of frugality include that it is a fad that people will abandon as quickly as cauliflower rice. Other negative reactions include those in Generation X employees may feel like frugality brings up images of their parents who pinched pennies relentlessly as a habit from their depression era childhoods. To Generation X, pinching pennies may feel like buying cheaper less quality goods that either don't work as well or won't last as long.

Kondo's focus on what brings joy shifts from not spending to spending only on what matters. In that way, employees would be encouraged or empowered to spend on what matters to them. For many minimalists, that means the freedom to travel or to work non-traditional jobs. For employees, the idea of having a retirement where the employee is not dependent on their children for care or housing may feel like freedom. Kondo-ing your life may give you the freedom from being a burden in your retirement.

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