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Frugal Chic

May 14th, 2009


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.”


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What is it about those Italian women? You know the ones I’m talking about: beautiful, sexy, dressed to the nines just to take the kids to the park. They have a certain something that is indefinable. It is in the way they dress, the way they prepare their meals, the way they spend their leisure time.

It is because they know the importance of la bella figura. Roughly translated from Italian, it means putting you best foot forward in everything you do. It means cutting a beautiful figura. The opposite of la bella figura is la brutta figura, which is what someone might say about the falling down drunken guy at the party or the super tackily dressed woman at church. It means ugly figure.

La bella figura is much more than your appearance. It goes much deeper than that. It is about how you act. It is about how you treat others. It is about how you care for yourself, your home and your family. Living a life in line with la bella figura doesn’t take money. In fact, it is more about how to have class without a lot of money.

Someone who exudes la bella figura will have clean, pressed clothes and be well groomed. They will not be rude or sloppy. Their fingernails will be impeccably groomed. Their hair shiny and clean and their shoes will be polished. They will not have stray threads hanging from their suit hems. They will not be driving a car in need of the car wash.

La bella figura means driving that 15 year old car and meticulously cleaning it and caring for it. It means keeping your belongings in good repair. It means taking time to clean your house and not cluttering it up with meaningless objects.

When you focus all your spare energy, time and money on the things that bring you the most amount of pleasure, then you are truly living a life in line with la bella figura. The best part about it is that you don’t have to be Italian to do so. You just have to think like an Italian.

Italian children are raised to present la bella figura in whatever they do. From the time they are small and are groomed perfectly to attend church or school, they know that appearances count. They count because it is the first thing people judge about you. That first impression does matter. Appearances are also important because when you take the time to look nice, you are showing that you care about yourself. When you care enough to look good, it shows you have good healthy self esteem. Nothing is more attractive than self confidence.

In addition, dressing nice also shows respect for others. If you invite people over for dinner and greet them in flip flops, baggy sweats and a stained shirt, it is really disrespectful to them. The same if you dress sloppy to go to church or even to the market. By dressing nicely and being well groomed, you show respect for everyone in your world.

Having la bella figura means presenting yourself in the best light possible in all your interactions.