Frugality’s Bad Image: Re-Image It

DH = Dear Husband

Readers share their irrational fears of debt-freedom

Laurie and I have been running with a bit of a theme lately: Fear of debt-freedom. Weird phenomenon, right? But as we’ve explored the discomfort and even panic that have reared their unexpected heads in our own experiences of growing financial fitness, others have recognized and shared similar fears:

  • “It’s weird, but I think I’m afraid to make money,” said Amanda.
  • “We had a bit of fear thinking to ourselves, ‘How could we ever live without credit cards?’ They were our safety net for years,” said Brian.
  • “Didn’t realize I’ve always had this fear, about loss of something familiar…Wow. Wow. Wow,” said Helen.
  • “When debt has become so ingrained in our life it does create a bit of apprehension to think about what life will be like when there is no more debt,” said Nancy.

Money management and identity

DH said a strange thing as we were about to pay off the last of our consumer debt 4 years ago. In a bizarre state of agitation, he said, “‘People in my class don’t have money to buy things. They borrow money to buy things.” Never before or since has he ever used the words “my class”.  Last week, I  asked DH more about the idea of finances and identity.

I asked him about his big spending days in the years after he’d started his career in engineering. His money at that time went to such things as a new car (monthly payments of $750), clothing from Harry Rosen (an upscale men’s store), winter trips to Florida, nice furniture, windsurfing, wilderness camping, and lots of restaurants and bars.

“When I started to earn a real salary,” he said, “I felt a freedom in being that guy that banks wanted to lend money to. When you’re too poor, nobody wants to lend to you.”

“What about people who didn’t need to borrow to buy the things you had?” I asked. “What did you think of them?”

“They were rich. And they also had the option of using credit to buy things that were out of my league.”

“And what about people who weren’t richer than you? People who just didn’t buy on credit?”

“That’s a way of being that I’ve only been exploring recently.”

“But didn’t you know people who did that when you were younger.”

“Yeah,” he said. “To me, they were weird.”

Frugality’s negative image

The Frugalwoods have made “frugal weirdos” a very positive concept, but DH started working long before they coined that term. The two people he remembers from his peer group who were unusually frugal also came across to him as unusually unappealing. One was really quirky, and DH says he has become obsessed with money in the years since. The other was really stingy, doing things like keeping his house at uncomfortably low temperatures through the winter, and telling his girlfriend, during a “romantic” dinner at his place, not to have seconds on the chicken because he wanted left-overs for his lunches.

For me too, the concept of “frugality” had negative connotations early on. I considered the frugality of my parents to be dull. And in my own age group, I knew two people who besides being exceptionally frugal were also exceptionally controlling. For each, I saw this control as unhealthy as it  spilled over to an eating disorder. I knew two other frugal types who showed an obvious contempt for people’s over-spending (which looked a lot like “normal” spending to me). Like DH, I had no desire to follow the examples of frugality set before me.

Paradigm shift: frugality’s positive image

In her post this week, Laurie wrote, “For many people, their decision to become debt free happens when they can’t deal with ‘it’ anymore. ‘It’ being paycheck to paycheck living, not having any money for unexpected expenses, stifling debt payments and the stress that comes with dealing with it all . . . For many of us, it’s only when the pain gets too great and we cry ‘Uncle!’ that we start looking for help in learning how to manage our money.”

Like Laurie and her husband, DH and I started on the road to debt-freedom only after we’d cried “Uncle!” Frugality became a major part of the solution to the problem that we had been creating for years through our spending patterns. Our concept of “frugality” changed:

  • from “weird” to  “sane”

  • from “dull” to “serene”

  • from “stingy” to “mindful”

  • from “controlling” to “powerful”

  • from “judgmental” to “humble”

Fear of becoming “that horrible frugal type”

I remember, a couple of years ago, telling a colleague about Mr. Money Mustache. “He and his wife started working at 21, saved hand over fist, and retired at 30,” I told him. Immediately, I could see that my friend wasn’t impressed. “People like that don’t know how to live,” he said.

Clearly, frugality still has a negative image for many people. And every once in a while, I feel a sense of dread: “Oh no! I’m becoming that horrible frugal type!” Maybe I catch myself feeling judgmental about somebody’s spending. Or I feel stingy for not replacing a worn carpet or piece of furniture. Sometimes I feel I’m missing out when I don’t accept invitations to join people at pubs and restaurants.

Re-imaging “frugal”

But just as Laurie got a hold of her panic when she actually put money aside in savings, and just as DH pushed through the agitation that came with paying off our consumer debt, I can take hold of the dread I sometimes feel about that negative image of frugal.

Mackenzie wrote a post about meditation last week, and as I read it, I recognized how important it is to be honest about our less-than-admirable thought patterns. If I’m thinking in a judgmental way about someone for mismanaging money, I can catch it and change that attitude to one of humble respect, or  in some cases, compassion. And if I’m feeling stingy or like I’m missing out on something, I can remind myself of our goal of debt-freedom and gain a sense of patient purpose. When I dread the negative image, I can intentionally re-image frugality: sane, serene, mindful, powerful, humble. What’s not to love?


Did you ever – or do you still – have a negative image of frugality? Your comments are welcome.


*Image courtesy of flickr

29 comments on “Frugality’s Bad Image: Re-Image It

  1. There are times when I get a twinge of negative feelings about frugality. My children have a habit of making me feel guilty if I use a coupon for something. They seem to equate being frugal with being cheap, despite the fact that I’ve tried to teach them smart money management.

    1. Thanks, Gary. It can be tough to get negative feedback from your children. (I don’t see how using a coupon is “cheap”.) I can’t help but think that time and experience will cure your children of their negative view of frugality. They certainly did for me.

  2. I think a lot of the problem here lies in the need to keep a balance between being a good steward of money and letting money become a god. Money should never come above people, and we should always work to be good stewards of our money so that it can be used to bless people and to avoid having to depend too heavily on others for our own needs. It’s an ongoing process to put that mantra into action, but we’re getting there. 🙂

    1. “I think a lot of the problem here lies in the need to keep a balance between being a good steward of money and letting money become a god.” Perfect! Thank you, Laurie.

  3. Frugality or frugal was never a word I used when I was younger. Cheap was the word instead. Cheap was the way I described someone who was trying to save money. I certainly think differently of this word now. If judgmental feelings creep in about someone else I catch it and remind myself that I have no idea of their financial big picture and need to let these thoughts fade away.

    1. I also used the word “cheap” instead of frugal – and it only had negative connotations. And you are right, Brian – we never can know what someone else is dealing with. We aren’t qualified to judge.

  4. I was reading an article on Facebook about Justin over at Root of Good. It was excellent, and really showed his life, his happiness, and how he got there. Then I started reading the hundred or so comments on the FB post. People didn’t want to believe his success and his happiness in FI, they wanted to discount it. The ideas (frugality and a high savings rate) just weren’t things they could put their minds around.

    And, a few years ago, maybe I would have been one of them. It took a while to get my values in line with frugality and freedom. And, I’ve got family members who still don’t understand what Jon and I are trying to do. To them, careful with money is more about maintaining cash flow (often with debt) than building wealth.

    1. “And, a few years ago, maybe I would have been one of them.” Thanks for that, Emily. I’ve undergone the same paradigm shift, and it’s strange to see the negative reactions in others that I used to have to “cheap” people. I’m amazed, in this time of record breaking debt, how in resistant to frugality many people are.

  5. Frugality is such a part of my lifestyle, I guess I don’t think about it too much anymore. We still spend on the things that are important to us, but we’re frugal weirdos in other ways so we can afford a lifestyle we love. Even if I didn’t need to, I would lead the same lifestyle – I am happy and have a blessed life.

    I also think it’s important to keep money and life in balance. Hoarding money at all costs is unhealthy. I agree with Laurie – “money should never come above people”. One key point I think some people miss is that money is a tool. But money has so many symbolic meanings attached to it, it can be hard to separate it out.

    1. That’s worthy of a whole post, Amanda! “money has so many symbolic meanings” – It IS hard to separate out the practical and the symbolically loaded aspects of money. And for different cultural and family backgrounds, not to mention individual experiences, that symbolic value will be different. It’s something for each of us to become aware of.

  6. I get that – I used to equate frugality with “cheap” even though there’s a clear difference. When Mrs. SSC first introduced me to MMM’s blog my response was, “I’ve lived off $25k before, it sucks! It’s not fun or cool!” I still stand by that, however, we live way below our means and I’m sure if I revealed to some of my coworkers that we lived off of one salary, and plan to live off of 1/4 of our previous salaries, they’d have the same reaction I did. “Frugal weirdo – not living life, no thanks!”

    It’s all relative and the focus shouldn’t be on a number, rather what spending do you require for comfortable living without just wasting money on frivolous stuff. And everyone’s frivolous stuff is definitely different. Finding tht balance is key to living happy and not being too extreme in one way or the other.

    That to me is the difference between frugality and being cheap – putting money towards things you care about and avoiding wasting it on the things you don’t. If you can save some money while doing that, that’s even better. I still see cheap as negative because I see it as putting money before brains.

    1. Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Mr. SSC. I too still see “cheap” as negative – though I stop myself from judging where the line is for someone else with regards to the difference between cheap and frugal. As Laurie said in her comment, “Money should never come above people” – and I think that points to the difference. Maybe some of your co-workers would think you were “cheap” for living as far below your means as you do, but I think you are wise – living comfortably now with the hope of financial freedom so early and so soon!

  7. I’ve never seen the word “frugal” as being a bad thing. I spent quite a bit of my childhood with my grandmother who lived through the Great Depression and her everyday habits and other such things, just seemed normal to me. There were things that we did in our household that were normal as well; it was only as I became older that I realized that these were frugal things that we did. My grandma taught my dad who taught me 🙂 The circle of life is complete, lol…

    Thanks for mentioning my post Ruth!

    1. My parents were raised in the Depression, and like you, I didn’t realize that what we did was frugal until I became older. I think that by age 12 I realized we were different. But unlike you, I didn’t like it. I’ve come to understand that part of my youthful crazy money chaos was a rebellion against what I considered to be “cheap” in my upbringing. Now, I admire so much of what my parents did. Interesting how you had a similar experience but didn’t rebel. I wonder what accounts for the difference?

  8. I’ve experienced the extreme frugal types and the extreme spendy types and I think of the two, I prefer neither. It’s called extreme for a reason. Extreme is just “too much” for most people. I’ve always tended toward the frugal side of the spectrum, probably because of my minimalist nature. But I try not to get extreme about it. I’m not going to keep my heat down or count toilet paper squares, I like my comforts. However, I’m not going to fork out $100 for a restaurant meal. That makes me cringe. Now having said all that, if someone is actually happy being extreme on either end, then good for them! Long as they’re not hurting anyone, vive la difference! 🙂

    1. I’m with you on “vive la différence!” But I find it funny to see you say you’re not into extremes. I saw your photos of your minimalist Florida home. It was pretty minimal! But did it hurt anyone? No. So vive la différence!

      1. HA! Good point Ruth! I forgot about that. I think that was more about staying transient because I knew we wouldn’t be staying there, but for sure, that was indeed extreme! 🙂

  9. I remember the first friend I told about Mr. MMM…I know exactly the look they gave you…

    I’m glad you didn’t give in to the peer pressure and kept on the frugal path.

    I agree with Amanda in the sense that finding that right balance is the way to go. If I know I’m going to be around people who absolutely don’t want to hear about the FIRE/frugal path. I don’t talk about it. If they ask, I tell. If they don’t ask, I won’t.

    1. Thank you for your comment, IH. I’m long past giving into peer pressure – and glad of it. You are wise not to talk about the FIRE/frugal path with everyone. I sometimes did that when I was new to it and seeing results – and feeling enthusiastic. But it was a mistake. I use more discernment now in deciding whether or not to broach the subject, but when the other person is receptive, it makes for great conversation:)

  10. I love the list of negative words that were replaced by positive words in the article. My favorite is the last set: judgmental to humble. Having been both the “judger” and the “judged” I try to keep my default setting as close to humble as possible. Realizing that as long as contentment reigns in my heart and my home, I don’t have to “please” or “judge” other financial lifestyles. I know the pain of undisciplined spending and I have come to enjoy the power of self discipline. I choose to be content.

    1. “as contentment reigns in my heart and my home, I don’t have to “please” or “judge” other financial lifestyles” – beautifully said, Anne! Thank you : )

  11. Love your description of frugal as being sane, serene, mindful, powerful and humble. I agree that I sometimes feel otherwise, as you describe, when I’m choosing not to spend in a certain way and maybe worry about how others will perceive that. Perhaps my bigger concern now is that “frugal” is used way too liberally to apply to any lifestyle that’s not completely decadent. It’s all relative.

    1. Very good point, Kalie! “Frugality” IS relative. I know that when I say we’ve been on a frugal path for the last 4.5 years, I mean relative to our past spending – which was often exorbitant and mindless. Relative to many pf bloggers, we are still far from frugal. I’m sure that some people do perceive your frugality negatively – but I hope that never impacts your choices! You put people first and you don’t put an undue value on money. You’ve got it right : )

  12. I still have a bit of a hard time shaking off the negative stereotypes when it comes to being frugal. Many like to consider me “cheap” because I try to save a few bucks. I find it funny that people think being financially smart means that you don’t know “how to live” but you are actually able to enjoy yourself more due to the lack of debt.

    1. I hope that you aren’t feeling any pressure from these people, Dyana. I can tell you from experience that in part, they have this negative view out of frustration with there own lack of discipline – of which they are in denial. Keep on showing them “how to live” : )

  13. Where I currently live I usually find that I don’t at all fit in with many of my peers, and especially my coworkers. But this is great! Because I don’t feel any pressure to be like them. My friends back ‘home’ – everyone is a better artist or writer than I was, has way better decorating sense and got it all for free, and can cook a meal for 20 with foraged foods 🙂

    So now, surrounded by spendypants that spend half of Monday talking about the new bar/restaurant they tried over the weekend and which warm destination vacation they’re taking next, I’m the weird hippie that brings my lunch, and that’s just dandy!

    I don’t know that I want to discover why I find it easier to be frugal when I’m not living with a bunch of amazing frugal artistes 😉

    1. You are more of an amazing artiste than you give yourself credit for (since writing is also an art). You can certainly hold your head high in that crowd. There is great freedom in not needing to fit in. I’m glad you’re happy to be the “weird hipppie” who brings a bag lunch : ) Some of your colleagues might learn from you.

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