Obstacle to Frugality: “Rabid” Stereotype

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?

  1. I don’t care so much about what people think. I’m more confident.
  2. I’ve become more patient and willing to wait.
  3. When I feel a longing for what others have, my default is the outlook, Not now. But maybe some day.
  4. I’ve developed a reverse pride in our old stuff.
  5. 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.


24 comments on “Obstacle to Frugality: “Rabid” Stereotype

  1. I have certainly used the term cheap or tightwad to describe someone in the past and in a negative light, when they were trying to save money. I’m not sure why either. I guess I just didn’t know any better. Today personally I don’t give much weight to what other people think of me, and am much more open to what others are trying to accomplish. I can’t think of the last time I’ve used either of those terms to describe anyone.

    1. I think that you had that negative view of frugal people simply because it was a widespread view for some reason. Most of us had it. Perhaps the ad machine created it? Definitely time to change that perception! Thanks, Brian.

  2. The thing that I’ve still failed to embrace about frugality is mindful spending. I don’t mind doing without or adjusting my lifestyle for big wins, but trying to get a good deal is pretty much always the furthest thing from my mind. I know some people get super stoked when they save $50 on something they were going to do anyhow, but my thought is always, “Thank goodness that frugality thing is over!”

    1. I think that if you are consciously spending, you’re way ahead of the curve. Getting a good deal on those things you’ve decided to buy is the next level up. No stress to reach it, but I’m sure you will : )

  3. I’ve watched some of those cheapskate shows and they do really pick out the cheapest of the cheap and give frugality a bad name. We try very hard to be frugal, yet we balance it with being generous toward others when we give to others, as long as it’s not to our detriment or in order to gain acceptance from peers. I think most frugal people are this way, but shows that document the “rabid” makes frugality in general seem terrible.

    1. True, Laurie – they really do! Time to create a new reality TV show about frugality with grace. But who would sponsor it? Which companies out there would benefit from it and fund it?

  4. I used to have a real reverse snobbery about people with money. I literally shunned them. I wouldn’t go out with a guy if he was from a wealthy background or had a white collar career. Where did this come from? I’m guessing, as you say, media mainly. I grew up on “All In The Family”, “Chico and The Man”, “Laverne & Shirley”, “Good Times”, “Sanford and Son”. These shows were all about how wonderful the poor guy was and how shallow and obnoxious anyone with means was. It took YEARS to undo that indoctrination. I think, seriously, only within the past five. Love this post, Ruth. You really are in self examination mode. When self examination stops, so does growth.

    1. Interesting about the reverse snobbery! And how recently you had it. Any kind of stereotype is bound to be unfair. What do you think it was that led you to overcome this one?

      1. I’m not sure. I think it was when retirement started looming for the hubby. He turned 60 this year and it was quite a wake up call. Fortunately, although we haven’t prepared for it worldly-wise, we have been preparing for it spiritually for a very long time. I believe we’ll be well off and I don’t think we have to turn into jerks when we’re rolling in the dough. At least not any jerkier than before anyway. 🙂

  5. What a great and insightful post! 🙂 I know for me, sometimes I felt like I was a let-down or not good enough when I read blogs where people were extremely frugal and saving boatloads of money. I’m over here thinking, well what’s wrong with me, am I not doing the best that I can? I’ve come to realize that frugality is totally awesome in its own way and that we all measure our frugality different. No way is the absolute right way. We all just have to keep on singing to our tune of frugality, and know that it’ll all wash out in the end 🙂

    1. That is EXACTLY what Fruclassity is all about, Mackenzie! Each one of us has a different starting point, different motivations, different learning curves, and different points of balance. We’re all heading in the same direction – away from waste and towards greater financial freedom – but also, as you say, “singing our own tune.”

  6. i still think there is a difference between frugal and cheap. I mean my wife and her brother still talk about how their dad raised them to be “frugal” and now if they want to buy something, let’s say socks for instance, they’ll get the cheapest socks because it’s “saving money” even though they know if they spent a dollar more now those socks May last longer. Anyway, it is interesting how frugality gets a bad rap,, but I think it is because of all the George Costanza’s out there trying to claim frugality while being cheap. And he is the perfect example of cheap, not frugal, lol.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there, Mr. SSC. “Frugal” and “cheap” have become synonymous. I sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the two myself. I hope you wife now feels free to buy good quality socks!

  7. Great article!! You’re so right to say that frugality has more to do with dealing with one’s own personality than about actual money. I also think there is this impression amongst my friends that somehow frugality = boredom + unhappiness. When the truth is at least I’m searching for more MEANING with my spending, which makes me happier, not miserable. There are always a couple brief moments where I wish I could spend more freely, but mostly that just has to do with mind-dicipline. Controlling my “twitch.” I also think you need to get to a place where you don’t care what people think about your frugality, as long as you don’t cross the line of being a cheap a-hole, like going out to eat and expecting a friend to pay or something. But if I pass on going out to see a movie, that is being frugal. If you care too much about what people think, it’s way to easy to follow what the masses are doing and spend too much money.

    1. You are right to point out the difference between frugal and cheap (like Mr. SSC did). Part of the financial freedom that I already enjoy is the freedom from worrying about what others will think if I, to borrow from your example, choose not to go out to a movie with them. I think there’s a pretty clear line between that and, say, agreeing to go to the movie and then expecting someone to pay for my ticket. All the best with that “twitch”, Tonya. I can certainly relate!

  8. Great discussion of the difficulty in transitioning from one set of behaviors and actions to others. Whether it be changing a diet (not dieting), improving physical fitness or living more frugally, there will temptations, particularly early in the process, of slipping back into old, harmful habits.

    1. That is the truth! It’s important, when you’re in the midst of any kind of learning curve pain, to recognize it as temporary. Gradually, it gets easier – because the good news is that we can change : )

  9. Great points! I think the biggest obstacle in changing our habits with money is our (and others) perception of frugality. Per usual, we take things to the extreme: You can either not care and live paycheck-to-paycheck OR you can be a miserable, cheap, penny pinching Scrooge. Maybe being responsbile lies somewhere in the middle?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Luke. I think that “being responsible” covers a broad range of possibilities, all of which include not spending as much as you earn (that’s the frugal part) and not leeching off of other people (that’s the not-being-cheap part). Perceptions of frugality are extreme, as you say. So we’ve all got to change that, and make frugality extreme in its appeal : )

  10. Thanks for the mention!

    And I agree that frugality can become a compulsion. I remember on Extreme Couponers when one set of coupons wasn’t ringing up correctly. It was maybe 5-10 items out of three shopping carts’ worth of stuff, but the woman looked close to tears.

    On a more personal note, I’ve put off purchases trying to be frugal and it’s come back to bite me in the ass. But I was so sure that I could get it cheaper that I literally couldn’t make myself buy it right then and there.

    Meanwhile, I definitely abhor the disdainful frugal. They have no idea what goes on in other people’s lives, so they fail to realize that not everyone has whatever advantages they picked up along the way — whether that’s race, socioeconomic class, health, talent for a higher paying job, etc.

    I find myself gritting my teeth (not exaggerating) when I hear/see the phrase “If I can do it, anyone can.” No, they can’t. Tim and I paid off a fair amount of student/medical debt despite everything, but even we had invaluable help and resources that plenty of people don’t. Ugh. /rant

    1. “Disdainful” frugality just is not effective in promoting the cause. Many people don’t have an innate sense of frugality, and many weren’t born into households where frugality was valued or practiced – or if it was, it wasn’t talked about. I don’t think that disdain has won over any converts. It sure didn’t work for me!

    2. Agreed times a million, Abigail! Also, this entire post is great. One way to avoid the compulsion is to just get it routine. Sort out your values. Get to know how much stuff costs. Some heavy lifting in the beginning, but then you can start to put that frugality on autopilot. I don’t know that I’ve ever judged someone for being frugal, but I have been shocked by it before. It’s how I discovered HOW the best off people were so well off… They were frugal when I wasn’t expecting it out of them because in my mind they could afford anything. When in reality that’s how they afforded anything.

      1. Interesting that you’ve never imposed a negative stereotype of frugality upon anyone. I think you must be the exception there – and that’s a good thing! Like you, I’ve been surprised at the frugality of people I’ve considered to be wealthy. But it makes sense. I look forward to the day when frugality is my autopilot.

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