Frugality’s bad reputation
In her post “You Won’t Get Hit by A Comet” this week, Abigail from I Pick Up Pennies laments the poor reputation that frugality suffers in our culture. In reference to reality TV shows about frugal people, like Extreme Couponers, she says, “These shows are hurting the frugal cause more than helping it . . . And they also reinforce the idea that you have to be rabid to be money-conscious.”
I liked her use of the word “rabid”. It did the trick in summing up the way I used to feel about money-conscious people, and it gave me pause for thought: Why did I think so negatively of frugal types? There were two parts to my answer, and I shared one of them in the comments section after Abigail’s post:
Part I: “I don’t want to be this person I’ve become!”
“When people who aren’t frugal first start trying to be frugal,” I wrote, “there’s an awkward learning curve. We do think about money too much; we do sweat the small stuff – all of the time; we’re not as relaxed as we used to be (when we were spending freely) because we’re in constant, intentional decision-making mode. And if we don’t recognize this state of being as the temporary pain of transition, we say, ‘I don’t want to be this person I’ve become!’ and we revert back to our happily-spending selves – even more convinced that frugal types are ‘rabid’.”
We’re a culture that worships comfort, and one of the things that is of great value to many of us is to be comfortable with the way we present ourselves to the world. We want to like our persona, and we want others to like it too. People who try to become more frugal in an effort to get their finances in order generally think it’s all about controlling the money. Track income and expenditures, make a budget and stick to it – and there you go!
What we often don’t realize is that it’s far more about coming face-to-face with our personal faults. For instance, I used to feel really uncomfortable saying “No” to people who asked for support for good causes. I wanted to be that person who said “Sure!” and gave generously. Why? Because I’m so virtuous? I would have liked to think so, but although I might truly have felt strongly about the fundraiser, my biggest discomfort was in the thought that They’re going to think I’m stingy. Fault #1: I cared too much about what people thought.
I’ve also felt the discomfort of delayed gratification. I REALLY want to buy that thing NOW! Fault #2: impatience.
And then there’s been the discomfort of coveting what the Joneses have. I want to go on a European trip too! Fault #3: envy.
And the discomfort of feeling embarrassed by our old, worn stuff. If we have them over for dinner, they’re going to see how threadbare our furniture is. Fault #4: Shallow materialism.
And that uncomfortable feeling that I’m failing my children because I don’t offer them the gifts or opportunities that I would like to. What kind of a mother am I? Fault #5: Adopting the widely marketed idea that love for children is best expressed through spending.
This is getting mortifying, so I’ll stop. But you get the picture. In my own shift to frugality, managing the money was a challenge, but managing myself was WAY more difficult. The discomfort was temporary though, and it diminished as I transitioned to my new way of being. The result?
- I don’t care so much about what people think. I’m more confident.
- I’ve become more patient and willing to wait.
- When I feel a longing for what others have, my default is the outlook, Not now. But maybe some day.
- I’ve developed a reverse pride in our old stuff.
- I know that love for my children can be expressed without spending. Even more pointedly, it can be expressed by teaching them about financial boundaries.
Conclusion for Part I
I would encourage anyone who, in an initial effort to become more frugal finds that “I don’t want to be this person I’ve become!” – to expect and accept that discomfort. Continue to practice your new habits in spite of it. Allow yourself to go through the pain of transition, and you’ll find that you’re glad you are the person you’ve become.
Part II: “I don’t want to be like him/her!”
A second reason why I used to consider frugal people as “rabid” was because of my impressions of the money-conscious people I knew. One was SO tightly wound about any purchase she made. It looked like control, and it was. She was being controlled by a powerful compulsion, not only not to spend, but also not to eat. She had an eating disorder as well as a spending disorder, and although she saved a lot of money, it was not anything I wanted for myself.
Another person I knew was disdainful of others who weren’t as frugal as he was. He paid off his mortgage impressively early, and I remember when I congratulated him about it – long before I had any inclination towards debt-freedom/financial freedom – he basically said that there was no excuse for anyone not to do the same. Again, I did not want that for myself.
And while I have come to value and respect the frugality of my parents, my impression when I was young was that it was dull. There was a quiet sense that “This is good enough,” and it was bad to think otherwise. I associated frugality with stifled passion – because it was a sign of ingratitude or shallow values or false pride to really want anything that we didn’t already have. There was a guilt associated with frugality. I didn’t want to feel stifled or guilty.
Let me just say here that each of the above people changed over time. The compulsion, the arrogance, the guilty self-denial all gave way to better qualities as these people grew through life. And they all remained excellent in their money management.
In a comment on my most recent post at Prudence Debtfree, Janeen from Loving Little$ said, “I tend to be incredibly disciplined though. The downside is that I don’t tend to be the most compassionate or caring. That seems to be the flip-side to disciplined personalities.” I LOVE the kind of honesty and insight that can come out of the comments sections to blog posts! EVERY personality has its disposition towards faults and weaknesses. Whether we’re disciplined or careless; frugal or spendthrift. And we are all able to change for the better.
If I had opened my eyes earlier on in life, I would have seen that, although some money-conscious people did have the faults I’ve mentioned, not all of them did. Some were extremely giving. Some were humble, gracious and wise. Some led such interesting lives. But I didn’t associate frugality with these good qualities. And somehow, I didn’t see the faults of those who were careless with money as being as bad as the faults of those who were frugal. Was it media influence that skewed my perceptions so much? Maybe.
Conclusion for Part II
If you find that you’re discouraged from adopting frugal habits because of a negative stereotype of frugal people, look a little more closely. Is it really fair to say that all of the money-conscious people in the world are compulsive, cold, or dull? If you consider people who are super generous or who lead really compelling lives, you might be surprised to discover that they have a strong foundation of wise money management – and it is precisely what allows them to live out these good qualities. And look more closely at those who aren’t so money-conscious. The easy going charm that they might exude could just be a mask that covers up faults like people-pleasing or materialism. Don’t buy into the stereotypes against frugality, and don’t judge the faults of the frugal more harshly than the faults of spendthrifts.
The negative image of “rabid” frugality in our society can be overcome if we stare it in the face and recognize it as unfair and false. We can be frugal and generous. We can be frugal and wise. We can be frugal and fascinating. Here’s to the emerging vision of fabulous frugality that we are going to inspire!
Have you ever had a negative attitude towards frugality or frugal people? What do you think caused it? Your comments are welcome.