What Is a Frugalista?

Frugalista is a neologism first recognized in 2008 by the Oxford New American Dictionary and defined as "a person who lives a frugal lifestyle but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying secondhand, growing own produce, etc." The word gained popularity as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded, and it was discussed by New York Times columnist William Saffire in his On Language column on Nov. 28 of that year.

Key Takeaways

  • The term "frugalista" first came to broad public use in 2008 during the unfolding of the financial crisis that led to the Great Recession.
  • More than a decade later, frugalista has not retained its popular currency, but its ethos has spawned several broad cultural movements centered around good living on a budget.
  • Social movements in the same vein as "frugalista" are the Financial Independence, Retire Early (FIRE) movement and #vanlife.

Award-winning journalist and blogger, Natalie McNeal, wrote extensively on how to live a fashionable, yet frugal lifestyle in 2008, when she launched the Frugalista Files. Her popular blog became a book and launched a series of similar blogs and books around living a glamorous lifestyle on a shoestring budget.

In brief, a frugalista is someone who keeps with fashion and style trends without spending a lot of money. Frugalistas stay fashionable by shopping through alternative outlets, such as online auctions, secondhand stores, and online forums. They also reduce the amount of money they spend in other areas of their lives by growing their own food and reducing entertainment expenses.

After the term was coined at the beginning of the Great Recession, according to Google Trends, it reached its peak of popularity in 2009, after which it decreased in popularity until 2013, where it has remained at 5% to 7% percent of its peak usage to date. But the ethos it evokes has developed and been carried into lifestyle movements of the teens and 20s.

Current lifestyle movements that are the heirs of "frugalista" include financial minimalists, FIRE devotees, and personal finance bloggers like Jen Smith, author of Modern Frugality and Kyle Taylor, founder of The Penny Hoarder.

The rise of lifestyle blogging around the same time as the financial crisis created the ground for minimalist lifestyle bloggers who put an aesthetic spin on living cheaply. In the words of Kyle Taylor, "Our goal [at The Penny Hoarder] is to improve the lives of everyday folks by helping them spend less time worrying about their finances and more time enjoying their lives."

Understanding the Frugalista

Originally, frugalistas were defined as women (in part because of the feminine-sounding word ending and partly because of the similarity to the word "fashionista") who maintained an expensive-looking appearance on a budget.

This definition retained traces of the Sex in the City ethos of the early aughts, and since then the frugal movement has expanded to include both genders and has lost its cosmopolitan edge. (The "a" at the end of frugalista isn't gendered, and there is no such thing as a "frugalisto" or "frugalistx.")

Current frugalistas are as likely to live in a van and work remotely while projecting their lifestyle onto the Internet via the Instagram hashtag #vanlife, which has over six million posts as the first fifth of the 21st century draws to a close.

They embrace voluntary simplicity as a philosophy and are heirs to the back-to-the-land movements that are a recurring feature of American social life. The difference is they now use the wisdom of lived frugality as a marketing tool to pay for their peripatetic adventures.