Frugal Chic


I touched on this subject last year, but it seems even more timely now.

 Here are a few ideas to live frugally but chicly. I know there are many, many more:


Value experiences over “things


Living a frugal chic lifestyle means spending your leisure time with friends lingering over a cafe au lait at the neighborhood coffeeshop instead of meeting that same friend for a shopping excursion at the mall.



It seems many Europeans — especially French and Italians in particular — agree.


“Our next vacation means much more to us than a new car and we would never sacrifice the former for the latter except in case of dire necessity. Give us being and feeling over having any day,” — Mireille Guiliano of French Women Don’t Get Fat.


Many Europeans have had to be frugal — credit is not as easily obtained there and people are unable to spend money they don’t have. It is very eurochic to only spend what you can afford and to save up for something special. Having less access to credit, encourages Europeans to prioritize their spending for maximum satisfaction.


In C’est La Vie, the author writes, “People in France made less money than those in the Unites States but still lived better — partly because of this slower pace of life, partly because of the cultural importance of a good meal (with good wine, bien sur) and partly because with less discretionary income, priorities were better defined. If a French peson had to choose between new clothes or a concert ticket, the ticket usually won out.”


Choose quality over quanity

This applies to everything you own: kitchen accoutrements, knicknacks, bed linens, dishes, art objects and especially clothes! American women tend to go overboard clothes shopping. Conversely, European women do not. They also do not feel the need to  wear a new outfit for each day of the week. I actually have more than one relative who keeps a chart of what they wear each day so they don’t duplicate outfits. I’m afraid I must disappoint them greatly. Europeans, instead, invest in quality and wear their “good clothes” over and over again. In his book Freakin’ Fabulous, Clinton Kelly observed how the French did this shamelessly.


“… by the time Friday rolled around people were wearing the same outfits they wore on Monday! … they cared more about quality than quantity … they actually paid more for clothes that fit them well and wore them more often.”


If you notice, in most French or Italian movies, the characters will be dressed in the same outfit in different scenes. In “Happily Ever After” the stylish Charlotte Gainsbourg wore the same tweed slacks, silk blouse and dark cardigan in several scenes over several days. Observation of my European friends has shown this is true to life. Europeans wear outfits repeatedly with style and flair.


I’ve mentioned this on my blog before, but it bears repeating:


In the book “Simple Isn’t Easy” the authors quote a French architect saying “American closets shock me. So much, too much. No one can dress well with so many clothes.”


In the same book, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik says, “It is a question of selection, to choose less. That is something that Americans do not understand. They think that more is better.”


clothesitaly.jpgclotheslinevenice1.jpg  Living Green is Frugal Chic

 Frugality dovetails nicely with taking care of the earth. Many habits that will save you money are also good for the environment.

— Cloth napkins. It is chic to use cloth napkins, but it also saves you money you would spend on paper towels or napkins.

— Using canvas totes or baskets when marketing is chic and earth friendly. One of my local grocers actually gives shoppers a 5 cent credit for each bag they bring from home. And what feels chicer than strolling the Farmer’s Market with a French market basket slung over your shoulder filled with locally grown produce, flowers and artisan cheeses.

 — Line-drying your clothes can save you money and prolong the life of your clothing and linens.

 — Walking and bicycling as often as possible is good for you body, spirit and pocketbook. I love to walk or bike to the market, the library, the cafe and to buy wine.

 — Grow your own vegetables and herbs. Tres chic and very European. Frugality at its best, in my book.

 — Avoiding waste. Recycle. We get a credit on our utility bill for doing so. Buy in bulk to cut down on packaging while saving money. Shop your own kitchen cabinets and refrigerator before marketing. Find creative ways to use every bit of a food item that you can.

In a 2003 Washington Post article, Marcia M. Mitchell writes about being “French and Frugal” and how the French housewife “squeezes every tasty bite, every nourishing drop, every last crumb of sustenance from the carefully considered contents of her market basket.

“Nothing — I repeat nothing — will be wasted.  When she puts out the family trash at the end of the week, it could fit into a coffee can.”

Mitchell’s article mentions using chicken carcasses for soup and turning overripe fruit into dessert toppings.

While living in France, Mitchell said her own kitchen habits were transformed:

“Now I find myself giving serious attention to stuff I used to throw away with aristocratic nonchalance. It’s not just a matter of having to pinch my Euro-pennies in tight times, it’s also about being resourceful and adventuresome.”


French Cafe


I have fallen in love with many restaurants, cafes and bars during my annual trips to NYC, but this restaurant has become my favorite. It’s a few doors down from Katz Deli. You can see why. The ambience is fabulous. Dripping candles onto rough-hewn plank tables that could seat a dozen, a shrine on a buffet in the corner. The lighting! The mood! The staff! I loved it. For coffee, my favorite cafe is Robert Arbor (of Joie de Vivre)’s Le Gamin on Houston Street.





Living in the Moment

I can’t remember the name of the book now, it might have been Full of Grace, but this book really stuck with me. It was mainly because of how one of the characters, Isabel, was so graceful in the way she handled a recurrence of her breast cancer, but was so afraid to love again after a messy divorce. After she decides to take the plunge and opens her heart to the man in love with her, she wakes the next morning and realizes that something is missing in her life: the constant feeling of dread.


I think one of the keys to creating a la bella figura and living la dolce vita is to attempt to appreciate every moment of every day. I know this is impossible to do EVERY MINUTE, but it is something to strive toward. I think Italians have learned to savor the beautiful moments in life and that all of us should try to emulate that.

One way the Italians do this is to take time in their day to stop and enjoy a cup of coffee and good conversation. To them it is an important part of their life — these moments where they slow down — where they engage all their senses. Today I am going to try to do this more.

My book club is reading an old book, The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney, and I was inspired by a passage toward the end.


This is what the character says about her revelation:

“Ultimately, in the very grand scheme of things, it’s irrelevant whether my life lasts fifty more years, or five. Or two. The point is to live it, not wait through it. And I’m alive now — I can pick flowers, pet the dog, eat cinnamon toast. How foolish I would be to let my mortality, which has been there all along, since the second of my birth, spoil my love of these things. So I won’t. I’ll have to remind myself constant, but starting now, I intend to live until I die.”

So, today, I will take a minute to fully be in the moment and appreciate the warmth of the sun on my daughter’s silky hair as I snuggle with her and read her a book on the couch. I will savor every bite of the cookie I dip into my hot coffee. I will smile as I listen to the sweet sound of the birds chirping in my backyard. I will hug more and love more. Today.

Please do the same.

Are Italians naturally frugal?


“All the energy Americans devote to the accumulation and management of money, the hours spent thinking about how to amass it, organize it, invest it, will it, spend it, keep it, share it or not share it. Romans instead devote their energy to other things — to looking well, eating well, loving well and spending time with their families.” — Alan Epstein, As the Romans Do 

What is frugal? It’s not being cheap. It’s not being stingy. It’s not being greedy.

It is a question of selection. It is a question of spending money wisely.

As Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner  writes in Living La Dolce Vita, Italians believe in respecting and taking care of the things they have and not wasting things. They believe it is very important to save money, as well.

Of her Italian grandmother she writes, “She disdained extravagances and buying possessions as status symbols. If something was still in working order, it was unthinkable to replace it just to have a newer model. When we ate at her house and didn’t use our paper napkins, those napkins would be folded and saved for the next time . . . Nonna Angela taught me that buying too many things is like taking your money and throwing it in the wastebasket. ‘Cluttering your house with possessions only clutters your mind,’ she would say.”

 In Simple Living by Jose Hobday, the author describes frugality in this way:

“Frugality doesn’t mean not spending. Frugality means a thoughtful economy. We’re frugal if we use our time well. We’re frugal if we cook with healthy materials. Frugality and simplicty or poverty of spirit all say limit, don’t waste.

“Stinginess is just greed and usually clutters our lives. Frugality is a careful examination of the complexities of buying and selling and deciding how to remain free in this complex transaction . . .

She also speaks about living simply to enjoy small, everyday pleasures.

“Freedom comes to both body and mind in the form of time. When we eat, how much we eat, the time we devote to eating and preparing food becomes important … I guarantee you, if you eat a little less and a little less often, you will eat with more relish both for your soul and body. Mild hunger awakens taste buds and our appreciation grows.”

Bringing Italy home

Somewhere along the line, after moving constantly in search of the perfect large American city to live in, I realized that it didn’t matter where I lived. What mattered was the environment and lifestyle I created wherever I was. So, although I would love to live in Europe someday, specifically Italy, I know I can embrace much of the Italian lifestyle wherever I live.

I recently re-read Frances Mayes Bringing Tuscany Home and here are some inspiring passages I copied. (I have a journal I use to record words, sentences, pages, of inspiration from what I read. I’ve read that Sophia Loren does the same).

 Here’s Mayes:

“From the beginning, we began to bring Tuscany home. Pillows. Parmigiano … Wine. Duvet covers . . . Then we began to bring home something more lasting — a mind-set, a way of being in the world.”

“We have a tribe of Italian friends … who show us by example, the pleasure of living everyday life in this bellissimo landscape. The first revelation from these friends — and the most influential — center on home and friends and the table, the focus of celebration.

“Tuscans passionately love whatever plot of terra they live on and cultivate every inch with flowers and vegetables. They thrive on their local markets … Food, in Italy, is not cult but culture.

 “In all my years in Italy, I’ve never once heard food connected to guilt. The pleasure of eating and drinking are never tortured into pyschological struggles.”

 “We have always been astonished at how easily friends in Italy seem to produce a dinner for 10. Partly that’s because Italian food is simple. Few ingredients comprise each dish and the ingredients are top quality.”

In pursuit of la bella figura

“Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful.” 

— Sophia Loren

I knew a girl once who was stunning, just gorgeous, but did not know it. And even though her features were worthy of a magazine cover, her poor posture, her sloppy clothes and her slacker attitude detracted from her beauty, so that after awhile of being around her, you didn’t really think she was beautiful anymore. I used to say, if she thought she was half as beautiful as she is, she would be twice as beautiful as she is.

 Confidence is alluring.

 In my lifelong pursuit of la bella figura, I am inspired by words of wisdom from others. Here’s a few tidbits, taken from Nina Garcia’s book “The Little Black Book of Style.”:

“. . . But when a confident woman walks into a room, it is entrancing. I’ll watch as she moves with poise and self-possession. She is not usually the one in the plain black dress. She is the one in the interesting shirt and the vintage skirt, and I immediately want to know where she got them. And she may not be the most stunningly gorgeous woman I’ve ever seen, but she has a way about her that can make her one of the most intriguing. Confidence is captivating, it is powerful, and it does not fade — and that is endlessly more interesting than beauty.”

 Intelligence is alluring.

“I’ve always found that the women with amazing personal style are powerful, intriguing, and yes, even intelligent. Very intelligent. They know who they are and what they want to project upon the world. These women undertand that what they put on in the morning is the first thing people notice about them. It tells the world a bit of their story. And, more important, their clothes affect how they feel about themselves throughout the day.”

Uniqueness is alluring.

“A stylish woman makes me want to walk up to her and say “Where did you get that?” It is not in any magazine or on any runway I have seen, and I just have to find out where it is from. A flea market, her grandmother’s closet, wherever. I just know that I have not seen it before, which is the most intriguing thing in the world. All of the great style icons achieved this aura of intrigue.”

Garcia says that a style icon knows:

  • How to edit. She only buys what she likes and what looks good on her.  (Garcia says your closet should only contain amazing choices)
  •  To invest in “the bones” . . . and builds from there. (Garcia’s 10 staples: the LBD, a classic men’s white shirt, cashmere cardigan or turtleneck, a trench coat, denim, a man’s classic watch, diamonds, ballet flats, a classic high-heel pump and a great bag)
  • To buy with drama. She goes for that over-the-top, decadent item. If she falls in love, she takes it home.  (“Buy what is truly fantastic. The leopard-print coat, the knock-them-dead dress, the decadent piece of jewelry … you know one when you see one. You fall in love with it immediately … you know you look good in it, everyone else knows you look good in it, and it is going to make you feel amazing … but buy timeless items … make sure you can see yourself wearing it a few seasons later … also consider if it reflects your personal style. It’s like falling in love and going on that first date. You just know.”) Other examples she gives, a cuff, they are always chic and sophisticated; killer shoes (high-heeled strappy sandals in metallic gold or silver); a stand-out coat; a knock-em-dead evening or cocktail dress (you just need one. invest the money in something truly amazing. A hand-beaded dress, a vintage forties dress, a dress that fits you perfectly. It may take you years to comb through sample sales, but find that dress.”
  • The utmost importance of shoes. Lots of shoes. (Garcia says invest in a good pair of shoes. “Even if it’s only one pair .. spend wisely here, because it really matters.” She recommends Manolo Blahnik as the sexiest and safest investment (a sure thing); Christian Louboutin, Roger Vivier, Jimmy Choo or Azzedine Alai. She also says only show two cracks of toe cleavage, no more.)
  • And the power of accessories. Done just the right way  (“Jackie O and her sunglasses. Audrey Hepburn and her scarf. Elizabeth Taylor and her diamonds … should choose her accessories as she chooses her friends, seeking out the ones that complement who she is, let her have fun, make her feel confident when she walks down the street, and stick by her through her ups and downs, her men, and her extra pounds. Because your accessories, like your friends, tell the world who you are. The key to accessorizing is to keep it personal and to keep it tasteful. To make it personal, wear something that means something to you: Grandmother’s old cross pendant or an antique watch or a bracelet from Mexico. “)
  • A good tail0r(“A good tailor is like a good pair of shoes — necessary, worth every penny and capable of making you look ten pounds thinner… a good tailor can make any piece of clothing look expensive … fit clothes to your body without changing the look or shape … make anything you want .. if you have an amazing imagination and an amazing tailor, you can have him make that one perfect item that you want.”)
  • How not to be the fashion victim. She never buys into the trends and she never carries the “it” bag.  (self explanatory, I think)
  • It is not about the money. She wears her flea market Mexican earrings the same way she would wear her diamonds.(Fashion is expensive. Style is not. Some of the most stylish girls I know are certainly not the wealthiest. Ironically, it is often the girls with less money who seem to understand style the best … Garcia recommends: White Hanes t-shirts; L.L. Bean tote; a white button-up; khaki pants, flea-market finds; anything H&M, Target, Uniqlo and vintage steals (cheapest when taken from your mother’s closet).
  • How to mix it up. (self explanatory, for instance, mixing couture and Target clothes)
  • How to be imperfect. She understands that every day is not a photo shoot. (Garcia calls this the Kate Moss factor, something a bit off, hair messy, accessories not matching, shirt rumpled, but looking amazing.)

And that is style.

What is La Bella Figura?


“Their suits, their shirts, their ties, their shoes, their haircuts, even their fingernails were all beyond perfection … bella figura … no American businessman without Italian blood would lavish the time, money and attention that were necessary to look the way they did. To present a bella figura to the world, no matter what was going on inside, was an Italian tradition that reached from the nobility to the peasants.” — Judith Krantz writing in The Lovers. 

La bella figura roughly translated means cutting a beautiful figure, an Italian philosophy that means putting careful thought into the face you present to the world by taking pride in one’s appearance from shiny, clean hair to real jewelry and freshly polished shoes.

To Italians, “presenting yourself well in thought, word and deed is a matter of personal dignity,” writes Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner in “Living La Dolce Vita.”

The foreign visitor to Italy is typically amazed to observe how polished the men and women of the bel paese look, how good they appear to feel about themselves, and how graciously they interact with one another. Italian life is undeniable lived with a constant eye toward aesthetic beauty, dignity and civility. Learning to enhance the body and mind one is born with is more important than having been endowed with genetic perfection,” she writes.

To me, the Italian philosophy of La Bella Figura essentially boils down to always putting your best foot forward, not only physically but in everyway you present yourself to the world.

Stylewise,  it doesn’t mean spending thousands of dollars on clothing, makeup and jewelry. What it does mean to me is being selective, purchasing timeless, classic styles and choosing quality over quantity.It is philosophy that “less is more” – a belief not very common in the American consumer society. But in some European countries that we admire for the pleasure they take in creating a quality life, it is par for the course.

In the style bible, Simple Isn’t Easy, by Olivia Goldsmith and Amy Fine Collins, a famous French architect is quoted saying “American closets shock me. So much, too much. No one can dress well with so many clothes.”

In the same book, shoe designer Manolo Blahnik is quoted saying “It is a question of selection, to choose less. That is something Americans do not understand. They think that more is better.”

 So, yes, I may own a gorgeous purse, but it’s one of only two purses in my closet.Again: it’s a question of choosing less not more. For me less is more means I would rather scrimp and save my money to buy a beautifully cut pairs of jeans that flatter me and will give me years of wear.And sure living this way most likely means delaying instant gratification.

Saving money to buy what you want is not something we are used to in these days of instant credit, mass mailing of credit card approvals and the ability to purchase almost anything we might desire online in the privacy of our own home.What it will mean is an increased satisfaction and appreciation for the things we do own and the desire to care for them so they will last and give us as much pleasure for as long as possible.

La Bella Figura